Out Now: Great Trees of New York Map!

Great Trees of New York Map

I’m thrilled to share that the Great Trees of New York Map that I authored and edited for Blue Crow Media is now available. It includes 50 of the oldest, rarest, strangest, and most historic trees across New York City’s five boroughs, from beloved street trees to over 300-year-old giants. I’ve been researching New York trees since 2015 when I started The Greatest Trees of NYC project to visit some of the city’s most magnificent examples. (You can read about my journey in my 2017 “One Writer’s Quest to Find NYC’s Greatest Trees” for CityLab.) As a fan of maps, New York history, and trees, it’s a dream to bring those three passions together.

This is my third map to collaborate on with Blue Crow Media, following the Concrete New York Map and Art Deco New York Map (you can now collect them all as a set). I hope they encourage exploration of local nature and design no matter where you are in the world.

Pet Cemetery Expert in New York Times

While I’ve spent a lot of time writing about cemeteries and interviewing other people about them, I don’t get interviewed too much myself so it was fun to share my pet cemetery expertise with the New York Times for “The Most Popular Pet Name of the Century (Maybe).” I find the places where people memorialize their pets to be fascinating. (I shared some favorite epitaph sightings at Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in 2014 on Atlas Obscura.) It’s a choice to bury your pet in a pet cemetery and each grave is designed with such emotion and care:

According to Allison C. Meier, a writer and licensed New York City sightseeing guide who gives tours of the city’s cemeteries, including Hartsdale, pet cemeteries provide a historical record of wider cultural shifts around our relationship to pets.

“The way that people refer to their pets changes,” Ms. Meier said in an interview. “On a lot of old dog graves, they call them a gentleman — like, ‘He’s a great gentleman. He lived like a gentleman.’”

The Mystical Drawings of George M. Silsbee (1840 – 1900)

The Mystical Drawings of George M. Silsbee (1840 - 1900)

I had the opportunity to write an essay on the really extraordinary charts by 19th-century Masonic artist George M. Silsbee for their first public exhibition at Ricco/Maresca in Chelsea. They are dense with symbolism and ciphers and were likely intended for some Masonic rite or ritual. There’s not much known about Silsbee except that he was an  artist, miner, engineer, and organ builder, and very little of his work is known, so it was a challenge but rewarding to examine this handful of facts against the incredibly elaborate charts:

Even without understanding the exact intentions behind each element of these works, it is easy to get pulled in by the repeating of phrases and characters that Silsbee used to build these pathways to knowledge of something ancient and spiritual. Moving through the scripts of “Explanatory Marks of Jehovah’s Private Teacher’s,” where black curls of ink and ciphers add to its aura of deep meaning, the phrase “I am” emerges again and again like a mantra: “Christ Jesus Son Of God Three In One I Am That I Am I Am I Am I Am I God Jehovah … I Am God I Am I Am One Of Three 3 In One.” It goes on and on, letters interrupted by numbers, symbols, and combinations that resemble equations. A textural pattern of tiny dots joins it all so you can almost hear the meditative tap of Silsbee’s hand reverberating through each line, trying to find a way to communicate sublime mysteries whose complexity could not be expressed by terrestrial images.
Read more…

The Public Domain Review: Selected Essays

My essay on the 19th-century photographs taken by Félix Nadar in the Paris photographs is included in The Public Domain Review: Selected Essays, Vol. VII! The new book features 12 essays (including one by Philip Pullman!) along with over 100 illustrations. Read all about how the catacombs were a solution to burial overcrowding, became an unexpected tourist attraction, and were captured in startling images—with innovative techniques—by the eccentric photographer Nadar:

Nadar succeeded in creating the first photographic documentation of this realm of the dead. The geometry of the walls of skulls is revealed in stark contrasts; long shots down tunnels give the viewer a sense of claustrophobic unease, with their framing of the low ceilings and seemingly endless bones. There are even photographs that highlight the grim labor of hauling and stacking the skeletal remains in this space. Because the exposure time could be as long as eighteen minutes, Nadar used a mannequin instead of a live worker.

Odd Salon Fellowship

I joined the virtual October Odd Salon, themed on “Shock & Art,” to share the story of Georgiana Houghton and her spirt-guided artwork. (You can read all about her enigmatic art in my 2019 story for the data visualization publication Nightingale.) As this was my third talk with Odd Salon, following ones on the Paris catacombs and the magician Adelaide Hermann for two of their New York events, I was honored to be named an Odd Salon Fellow. You can watch my “Shock & Art” talk on YouTube and find a playlist of the whole evening of lecture shorts.

JSTOR Daily: How Cremation Lost Its Stigma

In a short history post for JSTOR Daily, I wrote about how the 19th-century pro-cremation movement battled religious tradition as well as the specter of mass graves during epidemics:

The cost and simplicity of cremation led to its rise in popularity through the twentieth century, supported in large part by its cultural acceptability. Now, as epidemics and pandemics continue to challenge our funerary systems, the history of cremation and its relationship to our understanding of disease show how every health crisis has required a rethinking of our infrastructures for death.

Nightmare Delivery Service

With the pandemic disrupting Halloween this year, I decided to create a “nightmare delivery service” to write short flash fiction horror stories for my friends. I hand typed them all on a typewriter and compiled each one here online with the password “nightmare.” They range from tales of apocalyptic horror (although no 2020 metaphors allowed) and haunted apartments to great old ones rising up from the earth and botanical monsters.

Green-Wood Cemetery Talk

For the Halloween season I led another virtual talk for Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery on the language of flowers as it appears on tombstones, such as snapped roses for a life cut short, lotus flowers for rebirth, and poppies for sleep. I explored the Victorian-era rise of “floriography” and what these sometimes obscure symbols can reveal about the past. I’m planning to develop some of the material into a zine, stay tuned!

Cooking with the Dead Zine

In a fun project, I created the Cooking with the Dead zine with two friends to try out recipes left on tombstones around the world. Carved and etched on granite gravestones, they dictate—sometimes hazily—the instructions for delicious fare such as cookies, cobblers, and bread. Scouring cemeteries and the internet, we collected and attempted seven of these kitchen formulas, found in burial grounds from Alaska to Israel.