While researching the weird world of demonyms—words used to describe a person from or property of a place, like New Yorker or Indonesian—I came across one that was so weird, so baffling, that I kept it out of the original piece. The word “Hoosier,” which today is the demonym used to describe people from the state of Indiana, is a mystery nearing its second century. It is one of the best-known irregular demonyms for American states, along with “Yankee,” referring to someone from New York (and sometimes expanded from that into the entire Northeast), and “Buckeye,” which refers to someone from Ohio. But if you ask a Hoosier where that word comes from, you’re likely to come away with any number of apocryphal stories. Ask an expert, and they’ll tell you the truth: nobody knows what the word means, or where it came from.
Most irregular demonyms—that is, words that aren’t derived from the actual place name, adding a suffix to turn, say, California into Californian—started out as insults. A scornful name for the residents of a place will often be reclaimed by those people as a source of pride. “Yankee,” for example, comes, most linguists agree, from New York’s Dutch roots; while New York was called New Amsterdam, many residents had names like Jan and Kees. After repeatedly being called a bunch of JanKees, New Yorkers eventually took ownership over the word. Today “Yankee” is hardly a negative term—at least, not in New York.
Hoosier followed a similar path, with the added twist that nobody quite knows where it came from. “It definitely is not settled,” says Kristi Palmer. Along with her colleagues at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Ted Polley and Caitlin Pollock, Palmer used text analysis on hundreds of years of newspapers to create Chronicling Hoosier, a project aimed at documenting and investigating the word.
But the Chronicling Hoosier team concluded that the use of the word Hoosier lies in oral tradition, which means it’s unlikely to show up in print around the time of its conception. (Anyone trying to study profanity runs into the same problem.) “If anybody was to find it, I think it’d be buried in a diary somewhere,” says Palmer.
The earliest confirmed printing of the word was in a column in the Indianapolis Journal, published on January 1, 1833, but that wasn’t the first time the word was used. Both in that article and in other uses around that time, writers did not explain the word, which implies that it was a term that would be understood by the majority of readers. But it gets even weirder: “Really early on, even into the 1840s, you're already seeing people writing in newspapers trying to track down the origin of Hoosier,” says Palmer.
Even earlier than that, in October of 1833, an article originally published by the Cincinnati Republican posed the question. As dug up by Jeffrey Graf at Indiana University:
The appellation of Hooshier has been used in many of the Western States, for several years, to designate, in a good natural way, an inhabitant of our sister state of Indiana. Ex- Governor Ray has lately started a newspaper in Indiana, which he names "The Hoshier". Many of our ingenious native philologists have attempted, though very unsatisfactorily, to explain this somewhat singular term.
At that point, the spelling hadn’t been nailed down (sometimes changing even in the span of two sentences!) As far back as we can see evidence of the word, the question remained: Where does it come from? What is this word?
Indiana bills itself as the “Crossroads of America,” thanks to its junction of several major highways. It’s also one of the 13 states to fall within multiple time zones, and maintains several distinct regions. You can see this pretty easily in its linguistics, which are surprisingly split. Its central and northern reaches boast a typical Great Lakes accent, not dissimilar from neighboring Illinois or Ohio, but in its southern stretches, near the Kentucky border, you’re more likely to find a Southern accent.
In comparison to its Midwestern neighbors, Indiana maintained a frontier attitude even after becoming a state in 1816. Indianapolis, the capital and largest city, was essentially bare land into the 1820s. But by the 1830s, the state’s strategic trade location began to attract attention. Thanks to its extensive border with the Ohio River, Indiana easily connects to the Mississippi River and down through to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico; a series of canals and, later, railroads connected it through the Great Lakes to the East Coast.
The word Hoosier is connected around this time to riverboat culture, men working on boats to move products and equipment around the country. “We absolutely saw this in the data visualization,” says Palmer. “You can see along the rivers the use of the word Hoosier is pretty heavy.” The riverboat men, says Palmer, “were rough, they were uncouth.” Many of the folk tales of the origin of Hoosier come back to a sort of rural toughness and grit—at least, that’s the positive view. The more negative view would be that Hoosier is often explained as coming from some scornful cousin of words like redneck or hillbilly.
The Dictionary of American Regionalism, in 1965, said that Hoosier is regularly used to mean “a countryfied person.” Around this time, the word sometimes referred specifically to those from Indiana, but not always; often, especially for Southerners, it was simply a derogatory word for someone from the country. A hick.
Most of the stories proposing to explain the origin of Hoosier make sense from this point of view. One story, which Palmer, a Hoosier herself, said she heard growing up, was about backwoodsmen squatting in cabins in the country. When surveyors came around, the person in the cabin, not wanting to explain the illegal living situation, would shout out the front door: “Who’s ‘ere?”
Another, similar one: A group of riverboat men are out at a bar. There’s a fight, and somebody bites someone else’s ear off. This was such a common occurrence that the next day, someone might walk into the bar, nudge the ear with a toe, and casually inquire: “Whose ear?”
Or there’s the one that says Indiana men were so tough that if there was a bar fight, they’d be the ones to call to “hush” the problem. They were the “hushers.” Hoosier was often spelled “hoosher” in the early days, to add some verisimilitude.
Other explanations are more etymological in nature. Perhaps it comes from the Cumbrian word “hoozer,” meaning something unusually large (and often a hill). The fact that Indiana’s average elevation is 760 feet above sea level, and that its tallest peak is 1,257 feet above sea level, makes it seem unlikely that anyone would think of hills in Indiana.
One columnist recently proposed that the word is a mangled form of the French word “rougeur.” It does sound sort of similar! That proposal suggested that the word, which signifies redness, might be some sort of sister word to “redneck.” The French were the first European settlers in what would become Indiana, though by 1763, when France handed over Indiana to the British in the Treaty of Paris, few French settlers remained, and the French presence in Indiana is not especially strong.
In 1995, history professor William Piersen suggested that the name might come from the Reverend Harry Hosier, alternately spelled as Hossier or Hoosier. The Reverend was a traveling preacher, praised as one of the great orators of the late 1700s, and moved throughout the Northeast and Midwest. Piersen suggests that Harry Hosier’s influence on the word Hoosier is largely unknown and undocumented as the Reverend was black, and thus his history on the 90 percent white state of Indiana hushed. The Chronicling Hoosier researchers say there’s not much evidence for this theory, but that the lack of evidence also sort of reinforces the entire theory. If evidence was swept under the rug, the fact that you can’t find it is hardly surprising.
By the mid-19th century, there’s evidence that the word was already being reclaimed by Hoosiers. Local politicians would identify as “proud Hoosiers.” Around the turn of the century, an Indiana furniture maker began marketing “Hoosier cabinets,” a distinctive three-part cabinet with a table surface and a hutch. They were extremely popular all around the country, which probably helped remove the earlier, negative connotations of the word to people who knew it. For people who’d never heard the word, in the major cities of the East and West, it might have been their first introduction to Hoosier culture: a handsome, sturdy, useful piece of furniture.
The Indiana University sports teams named themselves the Hoosiers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and went on to become some of the most successful college sports franchises nationwide. Basketball, in particular, has become the state’s calling card; despite the fact that cities disproportionately produce basketball players, when adjusted for population, Indiana has one of the highest rates of NBA players per million of any state, and all without a city ranking in the top 10 in population. That brings us to 1986, and the movie Hoosiers. The story of a small-town Indiana high school basketball team was a huge hit, regularly ranked among the best sports movies ever made. It was even selected for preservation, as an essential American movie, by the Library of Congress.
That movie, and the success of proud Hoosier Larry Bird around the same time, gave the U.S. yet another association for the word Hoosier. Small town, sure. Rural, white, with everything that came with it. But proud, too, and tough. And weirdly good at basketball.
In May of 2012, as they do every spring, thousands of people flocked to the village of Tissington, to ooh and aah what is widely considered to be the best set of well-dressings that Central England has to offer. The craft, which is unique to the Derbyshire region, sees artists spending weeks pressing flower petals, leaves, and other natural materials onto boards that have been caked with clay, forming intricate illustrations that are then propped up on top of the village's water sources. The creations only last about a week before they fall apart.
That year, tourists walked between Hands Well—an illustration of the Old Testament verse in which the prophet Samuel anoints King Saul with a flask of olive oil—and Yew Tree Well, which showed Jesus, clothed in purple robes, cradling a lamb. Then they headed over to Town Well, where some of them were in for a surprise. Instead of a Biblical figure, Town Well's artwork centered on the Gruffalo, the fuzzy, toothy star of the popular children's book of the same name. Where other well-dressings were captioned with "The Lord's My Shepherd" or "Samuel Anoints Saul," the legend arcing over this one read "Oh help! Oh no! It's a Gruffalo!"
"There was some controversy" over this particular well-dressing, says Rosemary Shirley, a senior lecturer in art theory and practice at Manchester Metropolitan University. "It was done by a young designer, and there was a certain amount of hemming and hawing. But it was also this amazing moment—a bit of a break with the past."
Shirley has been fascinated by well-dressing for most of her life, ever since she first encountered it on a primary school trip, where it struck her as surreal and somewhat outside of time. "It always felt as if it was something strange that I had imagined—like, 'What was that? Did I make it up?'" she says. As this initial fascination has grown into a more scholarly interest, she has watched the art form change in turn, its traditional themes making room for more modern concerns, even as much of the methodology stays the same.
No one is quite sure when well-dressing began. As Shirley writes in a recent article, the first recorded mention of it comes from 1818, when a scenery enthusiast named Ebeneezer Rhodes wrote of "an ancient custom" in Tissington involving "boards… covered in moist clay into which the stems of flowers are inserted… to form a beautiful mosaic work, often tasteful in design, and vivid in colouring." The village itself cites two possible years of origin: 1348, when an outbreak of plague skipped the village due to their pristine water supply, and 1615, when that same water supply saved everyone from a drought.
Over the intervening centuries, the custom has spread to villages across Derbyshire. According to welldressing.com, which features an exhaustive calendar, there's a display going on at one village or another from early May straight through until the end of August. But most people agree that Tissington still sets the gold standard. "They've always been very elaborate, and very detailed," says Shirley.
To uphold this reputation, designers in Tissington plan their well-dressings all year. "If someone buys [a designer] a bunch of flowers, she's thinking 'Ooh, could I dry these? What color would they turn?'" Shirley says.
The process begins in earnest in late April or early May, a week before Ascension Day, when the artworks first go on display. The artists start by floating large, variously shaped timber boards in the village pond until the wood swells with water. They then dig up clay from a seam under a nearby field, stomp on it until it's pliable, and then spread it over each board "until it resembles a wax tablet," writes Shirley.
Then comes three days of pedal-to-the-metal, petal-to-the-board decorating. Teams of villagers crowd around the boards, "painting" their designated picture with materials they've gathered and prepared over the course of the year. First come either coffee beans or alder cones, to form solid black outlines that correspond to a drawing the designer has made.
These are then filled in by flower petals, leaves, catkins, and other bits from nature, all chosen for their color and texture. (Over the years, Shirley writes, some more traditional elements have been swapped out for less natural ones: where well-dressers once made clouds out of a shiny white local stone called fluorspar, it has become expensive and hard to find, and they now often substitute white fishtank gravel from China.) The petals are overlapped like roof tiles, so that if rainstorms come, the water slides right off.
Throughout, the decorators share news and gossip, breaking occasionally for homemade tea and cakes. "It's a really addictive process," says Shirley, who helped build a well-dressing in 2016, as part of her research. "It's slighty meditative—there's a rhythm to it. And when you've finished, it's very satisfying." Perhaps because of this, Tissington's well-dressers tend to take up the task again and again, passing on knowledge and techniques to their children and other newcomers. "The format they use has not changed for about 200 years," says Shirley.
Their subject matter, however, is slowly shifting. "Traditionally in Tissington, there's a Biblical centerpiece," says Shirley, but over the past couple of decades, the designs have begun branching out. In the year 2000, every well in Tissington was dressed religiously: wishing Jesus a happy second millennium, or celebrating St. Francis's "Circle of Days." Fast forward 12 years, and you've got details themed around the Olympics and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, not to mention that full-sized ode to the Gruffalo.
Often, designers will meet in the middle, as with one beloved 2016 specimen that combined Adam's Naming of the Animals with illustrations of Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-Duck, to honor the 150th anniversary of Beatrice Potter's birth. (This year, there were dressings themed around zoo animals, World War I, and another popular children's book, A Squash and a Squeeze.)
Though they may stray from strict tradition, most of these more modern themes don't lose sight of a broader goal: to "project the idea of an English village," says Shirley. War history, royalty, and even children's book monsters are, within this framework, "safe and cozy things that people want to see when they're engaging in a day out in the countryside." This bounded flexibility is helping the art form thrive: about 35,000 tourists visited Tissington this past well-dressing season. "There's more well-dressing in 2017 than there was in 1950," says Shirley.
At least a little of that burgeoning interest might be attributed to the Gruffalo. "It turned out to be the most popular [that year]," says Shirley. "It has gone down in well-dressing myth."
Check in with your current level, recent medals/badges, exciting catches, and anything else you'd like to share!
Against a backdrop of pastel mountain peaks and the setting sun, dirt chunks circle one another to form a shape. Their quick, coordinated movements form a spiral, a monument to an ancient symbol that can be found carved into millennia-old petroglyphs at nearby Grimes Point. Then, as quickly as they’ve come together, the rocky sentinels disperse, settling back into the stationary shapes that existed long before the artist Paul Johnson arrived to film them.
"Coiled" above, is the first stop-motion animation in a series of works created for Atlas Obscura as part of The Fellowship of the Loneliest Road. The fellowship, created in partnership with TravelNevada, sent a single artist on a five-day journey across Nevada’s Highway 50.
Stretching coast-to-coast in a line that neatly crosses 12 states and divides the country in two, Highway 50 was once a major thoroughfare that served America’s burgeoning car culture. But when the interstate system was established in the 1950s, many Americans chose multi-lane efficiency over the sights and romanticism of the older routes. In Nevada, Highway 50 fell out of use as drivers rerouted to nearby I-80.
By 1986, the sight of travelers had become rare on Highway 50. One exception was a photographer from Life Magazine, who snapped a picture of the road that year and captioned it "America’s Loneliest Road." Sensing an opportunity, Nevada officials embraced the name. Since then, Highway 50 has evolved into a pilgrimage site for adventurers looking for quiet, solitude, and a feeling of traveling back in time.
“I’ve always enjoyed solo travel and the unique opportunities it presents for discovery, exploration, and creative output,” Johnson wrote in his application for the Fellowship of the Loneliest Road. “I generally feel the most creatively inspired when I’m doing things solo.”
In his submission, Johnson proposed to use the fellowship to expand an ongoing series of stop-motion animations he'd been developing, loosely titled Landthropologic. The natural world has captivated Johnson since he was a child growing up on a wheat farm in rural North Dakota.
“When I was 9 years old I picked up a stick and started drawing in the sand on a family camping trip,” he writes in his artist statement. “I spent hours on it. Something about the deliberate movements, repetition of shapes and the feel of the sand was meditative.”
He began to experiment with art-making using natural materials, unaware that his practice was part of a school that had first come to prominence in the 1960s. During an art class in college, he watched “Rivers and Tides,” a documentary on the contemporary land artist Andy Goldsworthy.
“I just loved it because I thought, ‘This guy is doing this work as a career artist,’ and I was just messing around with it.’” Goldsworthy uses sticks, stones, and other natural materials to create intricately balanced sculptures. Once completed, he leaves them to the elements to be blown or washed away, restoring the environment to its natural state.
Though Johnson counts Goldsworthy as an influence, his first work on Highway 50 owes a greater debt to another land artist: Robert Smithson. Smithson’s "Spiral Jetty," a 1,500-foot long, 15-foot wide coil built of mud, basalt rocks, and salt crystals situated on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake, is one of the best-known works of land art in the U.S.
When Johnson arrived in Carson City, Nevada, on July 9, he had several spirals on his mind. In his research on Highway 50, he'd come across photographs of petroglyphs at the Grimes Point archaeological site. On one of the boulders, he spotted a spiral.
Johnson left Carson City to begin his journey on Highway 50 the next morning. “As the outskirts gave way to sagebrush desert, I got my first taste of the expansiveness of the Great Basin,” he wrote in the trip’s travelogue.
By the time Johnson set to work on "Coiled" an earlier attempt to create a piece with sticks had been foiled by the wind, and the sun was beginning to set. One reason he chose to create a spiral was practical: the animation would be simple to execute. Forming the shape with dirt chunks, he stepped into the frame between each shutter and simply threw a chunk out of the frame. The finished composition is a reversal of this process.
He also chose the spiral shape for its connection to both the land art movement and local prehistory.
For the rest of the week, @paul_johnstone will be sharing photos from his journey across Nevada’s Highway 50, famed for its remoteness. He’ll be documenting the experience as part of The Fellowship of the Loneliest Road sponsored by @TravelNevada. Today’s stop is the Grimes Point Archeological Site outside of Fallon. From Paul: After a windy day, complete calm and total silence settles in as my headlight caught these 500 to 2,500-year-old petroglyphs covering hundreds of basalt boulders.
After the sun had set, Johnson drove to Grimes Point to see the petroglyphs in person. The headlights of his vehicle cast a modern light on the millennia-old carvings. His day came to a close with one last spiral: the ancient symbol he’d seen in the photographs that inspired his first piece.
At first glance, Stokes Castle evokes the ruins of a Roman villa. Located on the outskirts of Austin, Nevada, a town with a population of just under 200, the structure appears wildly out of place, like a mirage at the base of the Toiyabe Mountain Range. But thanks to its construction from native granite by a wealthy prospector at the height of the state’s mining boom, the “castle” is actually as endemic to its environment as it could possibly be.
Austin boasts several structures whose design boggles the brain’s sense of time and geography. When silver was discovered there under a single stone in 1862 (allegedly unearthed by the galloping hooves of a Pony Express horse), the population exploded. Development descended on the newly minted city, and examples of Gothic and Greek revival can still be seen in the town’s well-preserved historic district, a time-capsule of Austin’s cosmopolitan ambitions.
The artist Paul Johnson spent the morning of his third day on Nevada's Highway 50, as the winner of Atlas Obscura’s and TravelNevada’s The Fellowship of the Loneliest Road, exploring Austin. “I love these old mining towns,” he wrote in his travelogue that evening.
Johnson’s work generally tends to eschew impressions of humanity. “I try as hard as possible to keep any of my presence out of the scene,” he writes. “I really want it to look like these works are assembling themselves.” But midway through his journey, he chose to deviate from this pattern.
Despite its designation as "The Loneliest Road in America," humans have left an indelible mark on Highway 50. Johnson’s work on the third day of his trip explores the relationship between Highway 50 and its denizens.
“Stokes Castle" is Johnson’s only work to date to feature a manmade structure as its backdrop. It’s easy to imagine Johnson’s reasons for choosing the site. Built at the peak of Austin’s bustle, it’s emblematic of the town’s erstwhile grandeur.
At a nearby hillside, Johnson spotted a dead branch hanging from a tree. After adjusting his tripod to capture Stokes Castle on the horizon, he set to work pruning the tree. In the finished video, the decrepit branch is brought back to life as its shearing is set in reverse. Growth returns to an Austin landmark, just as the town has found new life as a road trip destination.
While photographing “Stokes Castle" Johnson spoke with an Australian motorcyclist also traveling Highway 50. Earlier that day, he’d conversed with some mountain bikers exploring the region.
“I’ve found that people approach you a lot more when you’re traveling by yourself,” Johnson says. Ironically, it’s one of the things that appeals to him about solo journeys. He counts a long conversation with the elderly proprietor of Kingston’s General Store among the trip’s highlights.
Another highlight was the Stargazer Inn, a motel outside of Baker where he spent his fourth night on Highway 50.
More than a century and a half after the Gold Rush, people are still coming to Nevada in search of opportunity.
Years ago, Jon and Susan Brewster built a house, complete with a home observatory, on a hilltop in Oregon. They chose the site for its dark skies and view of the horizon—and because it was right in the path of totality for the August 21, 2017 eclipse.
On Monday, Jon set his computer-controlled telescope and cameras to document the eclipse while they hosted a party outside. Everything worked just as he planned, and shots like this one are the result. Taken during totality, the image clearly shows the Sun's corona—the outer layer of the star—and several massive solar prominences arcing through it. The gauntlet has been thrown down on home eclipse photographs with this beauty. You have seven years (before the next total eclipse rolls through the United States) to come up with a plan to beat this one. Good luck.
On a stretch of Nevada’s Highway 50 just outside of Fallon, an enormous salt plain intersects with the asphalt. Just over 600 feet tall, Sand Mountain is one of only 30 or so desert locations worldwide classified as a “singing sand dune.” These natural phenomena occur as a result of the sand’s composition, moisture level, and kernel size, and they produce a low-pitched, ambient roar.
Paul Johnson set forth on the second day of his five-day journey across Nevada's Highway 50, thanks to Atlas Obscura's and TravelNevada's The Fellowship of the Loneliest Road, intending to create an earthwork at Sand Mountain. On his way out of Fallon, he caught his first sight of the sand heaps that tower over Highway 50 like a massive roadblock funneled from the sky.
Another stunning photo from @paul_johnstone’s journey across the loneliest road in America, sponsored by #TravelNevada. This is the stretch of road leading to the Sand Mountain Recreation Area. From Paul: "12,000 years of prevailing winds have blown sand from an ancient ice age lakebed into the enormous dunes of Sand Mountain. The climb to the top took much longer than anticipated, but the view was incredible!"
“I pulled off and walked a ways onto it and imagined being under 300 feet of water a few thousand short years ago during the last ice age,” he recounted in his travelogue from the day (the sand comes from Lake Lahontan, an ancient body of water that dried up nearly 9,000 years ago). “I’d learned the massive lake left visible shorelines on the mountainsides. I turned around and sure enough, there they were, like rings on a bathtub.”
When Johnson arrived at Sand Mountain, the usually sonorous sand dunes were relatively quiet. It was a windless day, and the temperature crept over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. As with every composition Johnson creates, the day’s conditions influenced its making and, ultimately, its final form.
As anyone who’s ever watched the making-of featurette of a stop-motion animation film knows, this particular type of photography demands a meticulously controlled environment. An unsteady hand can render dozens of frames unusable with the slightest brush. Unsurprisingly, Johnson has seen plenty of projects fall victim to wind, rain, or even an errant cloud suddenly blocking the sun.
Undisturbed by breeze, the sands seemed to be an opportune canvas for the day’s work. But as Johnson began work on an arrangement of large sticks, he found that the stillness of the salt plains was also a curse: the midday sun was creating a griddle of the earth, and Johnson was becoming overheated. Defeated by the temperature, he was forced to abandon the project.
Taking a much-needed break, he hiked to the nearby ruins of the Sand Springs Pony Express station.
In the mid-19th century, prospectors flocked west in search of precious metals and California was a brand new state with a rapidly growing population. The Civil War nearing, the United States was in dire need of a faster way to communicate with its westernmost territories.
The Pony Express was founded to address the need, promising the delivery of mail from Missouri to Sacramento in as few as ten days. Mounted horseman riding at a gallop replaced cumbersome stage coaches and, crucially, the 2000-mile route was served by 184 stations, each positioned less than 20 miles apart.
Hailed as a marvel, the Pony Express was ultimately short-lived. Only 19 months after it launched, the telegraph rendered it obsolete. Johnson could relate.
“The failed attempts are pretty frustrating,” he acknowledges.
But the day’s initial failure laid the foundation for a second work. After a restorative burger and beer at Middlegate Station (itself a former Pony Express stop), Johnson headed back to the salt plains. With daylight waning, he chose to use sturdy, basalt boulders: the same type of cobblestones he’d seen at the Pony Express station earlier that day.
Worried that footprints would betray his presence in the final animation, Johnson chose to create a shape that could also function as a platform where he could perch as he composed the scene. After assembling the circle, he stood in its center and pushed the boulders away, using them as literal stepping stones when he needed to exit to trip the shutter.
In the finished work, Johnson describes the cobblestones as “sort of bumbl[ing] together haphazardly and playfully.” The formation may look like a happy accident, but its creation wasn’t easy. Complications from the elements forced him to continuously reassess his work, eventually yielding a piece influenced by factors as diverse as the temperature of the sand and the history of the Pony Express.
Before he left the dunes, Johnson spotted another lone traveler walking along the sand’s ridges. Using a telephoto lens, he captured a surreal moment of a fellow explorer taking in the vastness of the surroundings.
Paul’s own work for the day finished, he threw a fistful of sand onto the rocks to cover his tracks.
In his time on “The Loneliest Road in America,” the artist Paul Johnson, winner of Atlas Obscura’s and TravelNevada’s The Fellowship of the Loneliest Road, was drawn to locations where pre-history isn’t just a chapter in textbooks: it’s alive in the desert peaks and plains that have resisted industrialization.
“Where I live now [in Minneapolis], everything is farmed or it’s city,” Johnson says. Nevada, by contrast, holds a primordial appeal because its vistas have remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years. "You can imagine people carving away [on petrogylyphs] and almost looking at the exact same scene,” he says.
“I like to imagine how amazing it would be to be able to run the clock of geologic time backwards or forwards,” Johnson says. “Rewind fast enough and you could watch mountains grow, canyons form, deltas fan out. Fast forward and watch Central Nevada being pulled apart by the tectonic forces that are responsible for the Basin and Range landscape.”
More than history or even a human conception of chronology, Johnson’s work entertains geological measures of time. Fittingly, he shoots hundreds of frames over several hours to create his compositions. In the studio, he then compresses their movements into animations that clock in at around 30 seconds. The manipulation of time is at the core of Johnson’s practice. The principle actors in his animations—rocks or branches that have taken hundreds or even thousands of years to form—seem to engage in a playful mockery of human time scales.
On a small scale, Johnson’s work mimics the earth’s gradual movements. “The process is time consuming but taking the time to create something out in the elements forces me to closely examine and appreciate the incredible patterns and systems of the natural world,” he writes in his artist statement.
Ephemerality is a felt presence in each of Johnson’s artworks. One never knows when the wind will pick up or an errant cloud will drift into frame. For this reason, he most often chooses to work with sturdy materials such as rocks, branches, and dirt chunks.
But on the last day of his five-day journey, Johnson chose to work with a material that's even more inpermanent. At Wheeler Peak glacier in Great Basin National Park, he worked with snow.
Thanks to the effects of climate change, the glacier is endangered. It’s predicted that within 20 years, the formation will be completely thawed. Arranging handfuls of snow into formations that imitate the switchbacks Johnson encountered on his way to the site, the scene he created mimics its environs in more ways than one.
The day’s work done, Johnson spent the rest of his evening fulfilling a lifelong dream: seeing the Great Basin bristlecone pines.
“Ever since reading about these ancient trees years ago, I’ve wanted to see them,” he wrote in the day’s travelogue.
Known for their ability to thrive in harsh environments and reach astronomical ages (at over 5,000 years old, a specimen in California is one of the oldest living organisms on earth), these trees have long held a mythical allure for Johnson, he says. By the moon’s light on the last night of his journey, he carefully wound through mountain trails to photograph the pines.
“It was completely still and there was no sound whatsoever,” he wrote in the day’s travelogue. “I’ve had a number of these quiet moments of reveling in Nevada's vastness on this trip and they’ve all been incredible, but this one, at nearly 12,000 feet, among these ancient trees who’ve been quietly pushing out needles and a few pine cones up here for millennia, was probably the highlight.”
Johnson headed back onto Highway 50 one last time, en route to Salt Lake City to catch a flight back home.
“I love the alternating landscape of Highway 50,” Johnson writes. “There is a rhythm to it, you climb a pass, crest the top, and see the road stretching out for miles through the next wide open basin before climbing the next pass on the horizon.
Johnson’s art explores the subjectivity of time. The time it takes for a tree to grow may seem interminable to a person, but compared to how long it takes for a mountain to form, it’s the duration of a blink. In his work, Johnson abbreviates hour-long processes into half-minute animations. Conversely, on Highway 50, he lengthened a day’s trip into a week-long adventure.
Johnson flew halfway across the country just to arrive at Highway 50. Once one of America’s most attractive means of arriving at one’s destination, Highway 50 has become an attraction in-and-of-itself.
Traveling at around 70 mph without stopping, the Nevada portion of Highway 50 takes about five hours to complete. But as Johnson’s journey demonstrates, cruising Highway 50 without pausing to absorb its wondrous history, geography, people, and profound ambience would be a shame.
Start like this. You need five people, arranged in a pentagon, and a roll of string or color tape. Take the tape, and pass it two people to your right, unrolling as you go, until you reach the person at the beginning.
This creates a simple star.
Now try scaling up. Instead of five people, try seven. With seven people, you can make two different types of seven-pointed stars. Pass the tape two people the right, and you get one type of star. Pass the tape three people to the right, and you create another.
But try an even number of people, and something different happens. You get back to the person you started with before reaching everyone in the circle.
In one of her videos, Vi Hart, a "mathemusician and virtual reality philosopher," explains the mathematics that underlies these stars.
What if you tried to make a star with 17, even 19 people, at the vertices? At Atlas Obscura’s Total Eclipse festival in Eastern Oregon this past weekend, we tried. “Both of these are the largest I’ve ever done,” Hart told the audience.
Four years ago, the musician Helado Negro started performing with "beings" that he now refers to as “tinsel mammals.” Initially they were a practical creation, meant to make it feel as though stage was being fully occupied by Helado Negro’s music, which Pitchfork has described both as “melodic and beautifully produced meditation” and “abstract sound sculptures.” These days the mammals are an integral part of his performances—a unique set of back-up dancers, of a species not quite our own.
“I treat them as sacred beings,” says Roberto Carlos Lange, the man behind Helado Negro.
When he came out on stage this weekend at Atlas Obscura’s Total Eclipse festival, Lange brought with him two of these creatures. They have shaggy heads and arms, and dark, stick-like legs and feet. They are somewhat helpless, and after he guides them to their places, Lange whispers to them. Helado Negro’s music can feel quite intimate, and the tinsel mammals come across like manifestations of thoughts taking shape—they are big and neither sharply defined nor formless; they attract your attention, and if it drifts away, they might have slowly shifted into a new shape by the time you look again.
The tinsel mammals are a collaboration between the musician and the visual artist Kristi Sword, who has created eight of the costumes in total. Each one begins with boxes of tinsel, at least $500 worth. Sword deconstructs the original tinsel and reconstructs them onto a poncho. Though there is a person inside the costume, on stage, the tinsel gives the mammals a presence of their own, as their silver fur shimmers and waves.
In the first year of performing with the tinsel mammals, Helado Negro found volunteers to wear the costumes. He had a rough idea of what the mammals should do one stage, and as he toured from city to city, he would find people via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, email, text messages, however he could, who were willing to “wear these crazy-ass costumes, on stage.” Sword would perform inside them, too. For more than 80 shows, the tinsel mammals were portrayed by people who were excited to get inside the costumes. “It became really powerful for people,” says Lange. “A lot of people want to perform but they don’t want people to see them. It was exciting because of the anonymity.”
In 2015, Helado Negro had a commission from the PAMM Museum in Miami that allowed Lange and Sword to develop the mammals further. Professional dancers began occupying the costumes and using their experience with movement to develop a choreography and visual vocabulary. It was the curator of that show, Emily Mello, who first wrote that the costumes were “mammalian tinsel beings.”
“I remember thinking, ‘That’s so cool, they are like mammals, because they have people in them, but they’re not supposed to symbolize or represent humans,’” says Lange.
Being inside the costumes can feel claustrophobic, says Sword; from inside, you can’t see. But Lange and Sword have found that people have meditative, even cathartic experiences when wearing them. “They’re sweating, it’s hypnotic,” says Lange. “They feel like, this is crazy, I’ve needed this in my life.”
Like all beings, the tinsel mammals have evolved. The first one was held together with hot glue. Now, they’re more efficiently crafted. When the first batch started wearing out, they tried to mend them. But eventually the costumes started to fall apart for good. “We made new ones, but he still has the old ones,” Kristi says. Lange and Sword have been talking about the possibility of a residency where they could work together to explore other ideas and futures for the mammals. The next generation of mammals may evolve again, with the shimmery tinsel changing from silver to a many-colored coat.
The Statue Beneath the Sea
Once upon an ocean, a statue dwelled beneath the waves. In days past the statue had been brightly painted and crowned with gilt, with jewels for eyes and jewels set in its magnificent wings. It remembered dancers crowding its plaza and lovers exchanging promise-poems beneath its benevolent gaze, parades of helmeted youths and prophetesses giving speeches in the sinuous language of time unwound.
It had never met the general whose victories it was meant to commemorate, although it knew that some statues had that privilege. But it had their smooth face and their smile, and even though the jewels of its eyes had long ago been stolen by treasure-scavengers, it had something of the general's vision. It knew the stories of the general and their honored lover the lady scholar, and how they had built the old city to a precipice of grandeur.
Those days had passed long ago, however, and the wars of weather-mages had sunk the city below the sea. No one now living remembered the city's name the way it had been spoken by its inhabitants, although it lingered in distorted whispers and siren-songs that wound through the tides. The statue remembered its people and yearned for whatever scraps of myth it could gather from the gossip of gulls and sailors.
The fish and the anemones, mindful of the statue's melancholy, spoke with it little. In truth it would have welcomed their chatter. But when it asked them for stories of war (in honor of its general), they could only share tales of cannonades and blood staining the foam, so different from the swift chariots and dust-clouds it knew of, and its melancholy only deepened.
At last an entourage of dragons, distant cousins of the Dragon King Under the Sea, visited the sunken city. One of the dragons, hardly more than an eggling as dragons reckon time, especially liked to explore vanished civilizations. She was particularly taken by the statue's eroded marble surfaces, seeing in them the litany of years gone and years to come.
The statue told the dragon of its vanished city, and its general's victories--more fable than truth by this point, not that there was anyone to correct it--and the dragon listened eagerly. She began telling the statue's stories to the sharks and the seahorses, the terns and the turtles. Soon the creatures of the sea came to listen to the statue as well, and to honor it with their tribute.
It wasn't long before the statue's old plaza was surrounded by nets woven of pirates' beards, and strands of coins marked around the rim with praises to octopus gods, and bits and pieces of filigree armor snatched from soldiers fallen overboard. The creatures of the sea, not to mention the dragons, began frequenting the statue's plaza, and carrying out their own ceremonies there.
While the statue knew that the people it had once known would never return, and that the old city was dead in truth, it found some comfort in seeing a new one arise where the old had been.
which is only because the calendar is about to do a thing
and shall wear off soon.
I'm almost sure.
Today was also Cleaner Day, and everything is indeed Cleaner, except I still need to buy a new plugboard so I haven't done the vacuum cleaning.
I did run the dishwasher and do three loads of laundry, the last one drying right now, so I reckon I'm still ahead on points.
Mum also phoned to see if I wanted to go out. Because she had forgot it was Cleaner Day. And also imagined that I would want to go out on zero notice, because that sounded me like.
I'm super bored and need to make a Plan, one with progress points and so forth. Something measurable.
I mean the plan where I make the house nicer has progressed steadily, but now I find I feel like I haven't done anything, so I need to figure out what would count and, I don't know, collect XP instead of gold, maybe.
Eh, it's a good time of year for starting things.
Shall try and get a reading list and do a studying, some bit of history maybe.
Or, just read through the half shelf I already got, but somehow that's never the most appealing.
I'll figure something out.
Because of my linguistic coprocessor, it's very easy for me to hack a pidgin if I know any of its main antecedents. So for instance, I can clock "don" as the past-tense marker: "BBC Pidgin don start today" = "BBC Pidgin started today." Take a look at the new materials and see what bits of grammar and vocabulary you can identify. \o/
Meanwhile over in Terramagne, I bet their BBC offers a whole bunch of different overlays like this. France probably does too, because they spawned a lot of colonial languages, including the Haitian French that Saraphina speaks. Hmm, I wonder how long it'll take Aidan to catch onto that resource, because he's not much of a TV junkie. But an hour of French-national Haitian French overlay would be good practice for them, and a nice change from the much scarcer pure Haitian programming.
I still have not seen the orange kitten I was warned could be an issue. It's afraid of people but likes to tussle with older cats. I expect Ibid will like this and Fig will not.
One reason I've been writing down a lot of T-American food choices and linking similar local recipes is because they're a lot farther along the path of using dietary choices to support health. That's mostly replicable here. You can see it with Shiv in particular, how much better he feels now than several months ago. That's not all due to the extra psych support he's getting; it's also because he's eating better.