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Aaron Gilbreath
Aaron Gilbreath has written essays and articles for Harper's, The New York Times, Paris Review, Tin House, Kenyon Review, Vice, and The Morning News. Curbside Splendor published his essay collection, "Everything We Don't Know," in 2016. @AaronGilbreath

Arizona’s Aquifers Are a Laboratory of Our Dry Future

AP Photo/Matt York,File

You might not have heard of the Sulphur Springs Valley, but in this remote cover of southeastern Arizona, the entire world’s pending water crisis is being played out.

For The New York Times Magazine, Noah Gallagher Shannon reports on how lax water regulations and under-utilized land have created a gold-rush mentality that is draining the desert valley’s ancient aquifer. Big corporate farmers moved in to capitalize on the nut-growing craze. There are no streams or reservoirs here. Life depends on the aquifer, and as the big farms drain it, homeowners’ wells and smaller farms’ wells have gone dry. Although huge farms can afford to drill deeper for water, residents who need the water to bathe and drink can’t afford to drill deeper. And smaller farmers can’t compete either. But in the end, everyone loses when the aquifer goes dry. And it will. For a sense of scale, Shannon writes that “In 2017 alone, one farm pumped 22 billion gallons, nearly double the volume of bottled water sold in the United States annually.”

Arizona was particularly attractive to Middle Eastern farmers. A policy of unregulated pumping on the Arabian Peninsula had, in 40 years, drained aquifers that had taken 20,000 years to form, leaving thousands of acres fallow and forcing Saudi Arabia and others to outsource much of their agricultural production. In 2014, a Saudi Arabian-owned company, the Almarai Corporation, bought 10,000 acres in the town of Vicksburg, northwest of Sulphur Springs Valley, planting alfalfa to ship halfway around the world to feed Saudi cattle. Then, a United Arab Emirates farming corporation, Al Dahra, bought several thousand-acre farms along both sides of the Arizona-California border. These purchases were perfectly legal, but many residents felt these newcomers were essentially “exporting water.” At least once, the Sheriff’s Department in Vicksburg deployed five deputies to stand guard at a town-hall meeting.

With less rain and snow reaching the desert floor, overpumping has rendered a semi-renewable resource finite, touching off the kind of resource war perhaps more familiar to coal camps and oil boomtowns. Hydrogeologists use the phrase “groundwater mining” to describe situations in which the rate of water withdrawal exceeds the rate of replenishment. For some, the metaphor offers a stark lesson. “If we know we’re mining the water, let’s just say it,” said Richard Searle, when I visited at his ranch outside Willcox. At 63, Searle still cuts a frontiersman’s profile; a cutting-horse competitor and former bank manager, he is descended from a prominent ranching family and formerly served as county supervisor. Part of the reason groundwater mining in the valley hadn’t forced a reckoning earlier, he said, was that water was ubiquitous to the point of being invisible. Local farmers were never required to put meters on their wells, he pointed out, which meant that nobody knew exactly how much water was being pumped, much less how much was left. “Long term, people say we should search for a solution,” he said, “but they don’t want to be the ones to suffer.”

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Why Is Australia Deporting So Many Maori and Pacific Islanders?

Photo by: Christoph Hardt/Geisler-Fotopres/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

For The New York Times, New Zealand-bsed journalist Sylvia Varnham O’Regan examines Australia’s new aggressive deportation policy. Since Australia modified its immigration law in December 2014, visas have been cancelled and deportations have increased dramatically. Many deportees are native New Zealanders who moved to Australia to work and have little to no connection to the New Zealand they’re sent “back” to. Some have lived in Australia most of their lives and are now separated from their children in there. Based vaguely on “character” or criminal activity, 60% of deportees are Maori or Pacific Islanders, suggesting a racist motivation. New Zealand wants to know what this is all about.

Those returned also include a former soldier with no criminal record and a quadriplegic man who  lived in Australia for 36 years, while in March a 17-year-old boy was placed in an adult detention center 12 hours away from his family — the youngest New Zealander yet to be detained.

Australian officials defend the approach. In an emailed statement, a government spokesman said the deportation measures had been introduced to “protect Australia and its citizens.”

But New Zealand officials say Australia is undermining the two countries’ historical bonds of “mateship,” with free movement across their borders dating to the 1920s.

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The Castration Heard Around the World

AP Photo/File

In 1993, Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband John Wayne Bobbit’s penis and threw it out her car window. After police retrieved the penis, surgeons stitched it back on, though some argue that the cops should have left it on the ground by the 7-11. Lorena claimed John raped and repeatedly abused her. John claimed Lorena was lying and married him for a green card. The jury found neither of them guilty of sexual assault or malicious wounding. By then, the couple had already entered the court of public opinion, which is where their story continues to live twenty-five years later.

At Vanity Fair, Lili Anolik revisits this enduring story, retelling it for a new generation, and examining its relevance in 2018, a time of #MeToo, a sexist president and ongoing assaults to women’s rights.

Legally, the case was a draw. By acquitting both John and Lorena, the judicial system was basically throwing up its hands, admitting it didn’t know who to blame. The public, however, was neither so confused nor so equivocal. Complexity and ambiguity be damned. They wanted a villain—John, an under-employed former Marine barfly with barbells for brains. And a heroine—Lorena, a young woman tipping the scales at 92 pounds who could hardly speak except to weep. This wasn’t life, it was TV. In fact, it was reality TV, or would have been were such a term yet coined.

The case was emblematic of the times: In the early 90s, the gender wars were especially bloody, casualties running high on both sides. Thelma & Louise, the inciting incident of which was a thwarted rape, was the big movie of 1991. That same year, Anita Hill testified about Coke cans and pubic hairs at the confirmation hearing of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Camille Paglia declared Lorena’s deed a “revolutionary act.” Feminists supporting Lorena flashed the V-for-victory sign, then turned it on its side so it became a pair of scissors: snip snip.

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Some Like It Hot

Imaginechina via AP Images

How did the chili pepper become so entrenched in China’s Sichuan and Hunan provinces? Was it the climate? The plant’s biochemistry? Human biology? Or the Sichuanese peoples’ fiery disposition? For Nautilus, writer Andrew Leonard looks for answers in chili science and the ways the pepper may have traveled from the New World to Europe to China. Many studies have tried to understand why people willingly eat something as painful as a chili, and why some cultures embrace this heat more than others. Some theories have to do with risk-taking and “sensation-seeking” activities, which might explain the way China’s Maoist revolutionaries embraced the pepper so fervently.

Eating chili pepper is like riding a roller coaster, he notes. “In both cases, the body senses danger and behavior normally follows which would terminate the stimulus. In both cases, initial discomfort becomes pleasure after a number of exposures.”

Linguistically and anecdotally, the association of “spice” with “excitement” rings true, but proof of Rozin’s theory did not arrive until decades after he formulated his original thesis. The missing link appeared in 2013, when two Penn State researchers, John Hayes and Nadia Byrnes, published “Personality Factors Predict Spicy Food Liking and Intake” in the journal Food Quality and Preference.

Hayes is an associate professor of food science at Penn State who received an NIH grant in 2011 to investigate the genetics of the TRPV1 receptor. Nadia Byrnes was one of his graduate students. In experiments conducted on 97 test subjects, Byrnes found a significant correlation between people who scored high on a “sensation seeking” scale and people who liked the burn. (Examples of questions that determined “sensation seeking” included “I would have enjoyed being one of the first explorers of an unknown land” and “I like a movie where there are a lot of explosions and car chases.”)

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Why Some Protected Natural Areas Should Remain Off-Limits

AP Photo/The Oregonian, Jamie Francis

Anyone who’s visited Yosemite National Park knows the effect its popularity has had on the park’s ecological quality: roads, cars, air pollution, noise pollution, forest fires, crowds, and trash. To say we can love something to death is a cliché because it’s true. For the San Francisco Chronicle, California native Robert Earle Howells sees this same dynamic at work on the world’s tallest, oldest coastal redwoods, and shows why it’s better to conceal champion trees’ locations than to publicize them.

Record-sized trees become so-called “trophy trees” to eager visitors, but the more people visit trees like Hyperion, the more they damage the trees and forest. Park policies have shifted in response. The fact is, people can’t visit everything in our own public lands, because even though parks serve the public by allowing us to see rare natural areas and experience wilderness, parks also need to ensure that those resources endure.

“The Grove of Titans is a classic example of that,” Litten adds. “We can look at photos of the grove from the 1990s and today, after social media. We see human detritus and trampled vegetation.” People have even cut vegetation to get the photo angles they want, says park ranger Mike Poole.

Another ranger, Brett Silver, put it more bluntly: “It’s supposed to look like virgin forest passed down from prehistory,” he told the Statesman Journal newspaper last year. “But instead, it’s starting to look like the Los Angeles freeway system.”

Nearby Stout Tree has been similarly degraded. “When I started hiking the redwoods 15 years ago, there was no visible track leading [there],” says David Baselt, who runs a trail guide website called Redwood Hikes. “Now, every visitor automatically goes off-trail to take their picture standing next to the tree.” In the process, visitors have almost completely worn away the bark from the tree’s base.

Not all of these issues can be ascribed to the naming of these unique trees, but it’s noteworthy that Redwood National Park has never officially engaged in the practice. “We never name the trees,” Poole says. “By not naming a tree, you stand a chance of saving it.”

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How Brooklyn Lost Itself

AP Photo/David Boe

For New Yorker Robert Sullivan, the act of giving directions functions as a barometer of a city’s health, because at the heart of all urban environments, both ones that thrive and ones that fail, is something very basic: human interactions.

At Places JournalSullivan looks at the way his post-industrial Brooklyn has become a lucrative real estate commodity and brand after its post-millennium revival, and he shows how the fabric of urban life has not necessarily strengthed along with the property values. He uses this idea of directions to direct readers’ attention to ways that the booming, “revitalized” Brooklyn has used post-industrial space and history for the benefit of business and real estate interests, and made public space a private commodity. Touring new and old Brooklyn, he shows how revitalized post-industrial spaces, like Brooklyn Bridge Park, depend, as he puts it, “upon the conception of the old city as being not only dead but also valueless: a wasteland.” This narrative erases people of color in many Brooklyn neighborhoods. It erases the contributions of blue collar workers. It downplays the city’s industrial past and historic vibrancy, suggesting that industry is the enemy of urbanity, and that true vibrant urban life began after industry died. This isn’t just happening in Brooklyn. It’s a problem for many urban neighborhoods, and “the more I give directions,” he says, “the more I worry that we are somehow terribly lost.”

To describe the park, and how in fact it does feel, it is necessary to borrow the terminology of the real estate industry and to refer to it as an amenity. Brooklyn Bridge Park is an amenity underwritten by the costly residences that overlook the recreational spaces, by the Pierhouse penthouse that cost more than $10 million and by the $1,000 per-night Liberty Suite with the “curated seating area” at the 1 Hotel. But when you spend time in the park, you begin to feel that the public has come up short in the partnership; that in return for the underwriting, the park has become an extension of the condos and the hotel. Which is completely understandable: the owners of multimillion-dollar condos might well want to feel that the expansive green spaces visible from their floor-to-ceiling windows somehow belong to them. But for the public, the community, the concept feels flawed. It’s as if the purpose of the park were to sell the condos, which would be like creating the Grand Canyon only after you have developed the lodge with the scenic views.

But what feels most disturbing to me is that in Brooklyn Bridge Park, history too has become an amenity. Here I would direct you to the signage, which is itself intended to direct you towards the history of the site — towards the narrative of decline and death, reclamation and revival. The park is filled with markers along the walkways and in front of buildings, markers that underscore the before and after of the narrative. If you read them casually, you might think they are genuine historic markers. But if you read them more closely, you recognize that they operate not as communal notes on local history but rather as points of brand awareness. And, crucially, the brand is not so much the park but rather the transformation of the old industrial wasteland into the new recreational amenity.

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The Wheel, the Woman, and the Human Body

CTK via AP Images

Margaret Guroff | The Mechanical Horse | University of Texas Press | April 2016 | 35 minutes (4,915 words)

Angeline Allen must have been pleased. On October 28, 1893, the 20-something divorcée, an aspiring model, made the cover of the country’s most popular men’s magazine, a titillating journal of crime, sport, and cheesecake called the National Police Gazette. Granted, the reason wasn’t Allen’s “wealth of golden hair” or “strikingly pretty face,” though the magazine mentioned both. Rather, the cover story was about Allen’s attire during a recent bicycle ride near her Newark, New Jersey, home. The “eccentric” young woman had ridden through town in “a costume that caused hundreds to turn and gaze in astonishment,” the Gazette reported.

The story’s headline summed up the cause of fascination: “She Wore Trousers” — dark blue corduroy bloomers, to be exact, snug around the calves and puffy above the knees. “She rode her wheel through the principal streets in a leisurely manner and appeared to be utterly oblivious of the sensation she was causing,” according to the reporter.

It is unlikely Allen was truly oblivious, having already shown an exhibitionistic streak over the summer when she appeared on an Asbury Park, New Jersey, beach in a bathing skirt that “did not reach within many inches of her knees,” according to a disapproving newspaper report. (“Her stockings or tights were of light blue silk,” the report added.) Allen didn’t mind people noticing her revealing outfits — “that’s what I wear them for,” she told one reporter — and she kept cycling around Newark in pants despite the journalistic scolding. As another paper reported that November, “The natives watch for her with bated breath, and her appearance is the signal for a rush to all the front windows along the street.”

For a grown woman to reveal so much leg in public was a staggeringly brazen act. What was noticeably unnoteworthy by then was Allen’s choice of vehicle. Ten years earlier, all bicycles had been high-wheelers, and riding one had been largely the province of daring, athletic men. The women who had attempted it were seen as acrobats, hussies, or freaks; one female performer who rode a high-wheeler in the early 1880s was perceived as “a sort of semi-monster,” another woman reported. But by the early 1890s, the bike had undergone a transformation. Allen’s machine — a so-called safety bicycle — had two thigh-high wheels; air-filled rubber tires; and rear-wheel drive, with a chain to transmit power from the pedals. In fact, it looked a lot like a 21st-century commuter bike, and it had become nearly as acceptable as one. Even the fashion police who scorned Allen’s riding outfit didn’t object to her riding.

What had happened to the bicycle in the interim? Market expansion. In the 1880s, when bicycle makers had begun to saturate the limited market for high-wheelers, they sought products to entice other would-be riders, particularly men who had aged out of the strenuous high-wheel lifestyle. In the United States, where bad roads made tricycle ridership impractical, the sales potential for an easy-to-ride bicycle looked stronger than in Europe. In response, manufacturers on both sides of the Atlantic created a profusion of high-tech two-wheelers, including models with foot levers instead of pedals; “geared up” bikes with chains and sprockets that spun the driving wheel more than once for each rotation of the cycle’s cranks; and a supposedly header-proof version with the small wheel in the front and the big wheel in the rear. Riders and makers started calling the standard high-wheeler an “Ordinary” to distinguish it from experimental models.

Several of the new bikes used geared-up rear-wheel drive as a way to bring the rider closer to the ground. The most influential of these was the English Rover, with a rear driving wheel only thirty inches tall that had as much force as a 50-inch Ordinary wheel. (Even today, American bicycle gears are measured in “gear inches,” which indicate how tall an Ordinary wheel of equivalent force would be.) At 36 inches, the Rover’s front wheel was slightly bigger than its rear one, but apart from that, the machine looked as streamlined as some models of fifty or a hundred years later.

Introduced in England in 1885, the Rover Safety Bicycle delivered the speed of an Ordinary, but with a greatly diminished risk of skull fracture from flying over the handlebars. The Rover’s manufacturer made some quick refinements, and a model with same-sized wheels caught on in Britain and inspired a fleet of imitators: low-mount, rear-wheel-drive bikes also called “safeties.”

The major US manufacturers weren’t impressed by this new low profile, though; they dismissed the safety style as a mistake. In 1886, after a two-month tour of England’s bicycle factories, the US industry titan Albert Pope expressed confidence in his high-wheeler: “I looked at nearly all the principal [English] makes and I could not find a point that was in any way an improvement over our own.” Echoed his lieutenant, George H. Day, who also made the trip, “Every innovation is regarded as a trap.”

But when imported safeties hit the US market in the spring of 1887, the machines found eager buyers; Pope and other American cycle makers scrambled to put out their own versions of the header-resistant contraptions. By November, the safety bicycle was established in the United States as the modern option for men, even though its low wheels evoked the comically old-timey velocipede of 20 years prior, as one bard made clear in the accented voice of an immigrant child:

In days of old, full many a time
You’ve heard it told, in prose and rhyme,
How down the street a wheelman came,
And chanced to meet his beauteous flame
Just where a pup in ambush lay,
To tip him up upon the way,
And make him wish that he was dead,
While gyrating upon his head.
In days of old
You’ve heard it told.
But nowadays, it’s otherwise.
The safety craze new joy supplies;
The boulders lose their terrors grim,
Stray cans and shoes are naught to him;
He laughs at rocks, he kicks the pup,
But, in the end, things even up;
For, as his maid he gayly greets,
Some unwashed urchin always bleats —
“Hi, look at der big man on der melosipetes!”

For a short time, Ordinaries and safeties coexisted like Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, with the bigger, older species continuing to inhabit its traditional niche while the smaller, nimbler creature carved out a new one. “I do not think that [the safety] will hurt the sale of the Ordinary bicycle,” predicted one US industry watcher in late 1887. “It will open the pleasures of cycling to a great many who have been afraid to venture upon a high machine.” The writer was thinking of physicians and other “professional men” for whom an Ordinary was too dangerous, but some enthusiasts suspected that the safety would also appeal to female riders. Offering women “a clumsy wheelbarrow of a tricycle” to ride while men zip around on slender bikes, wrote one sympathetic man, “is offering a woman a stone to eat while men have soft biscuit.”

And the safety bicycle’s low profile did intrigue many American women, especially after the spring of 1888, when makers offered a drop-frame version, in which the bike’s top bar scooped downward to make room for a lady rider’s long skirts. As one woman reported that year, “A sudden desire began to awake in the feminine mind to ascertain for itself by personal experience, what were those joys of the two-wheeler which they had so often heard boastfully vaunted as superior, a thousand times, to the more sober delights of the staid tricycle.”

With the safety’s smaller wheels, its ride was bumpier than the Ordinary’s at first. But then came the pneumatic tire. Devised in Ireland in 1888 by a veterinarian named John Boyd Dunlop, who was seeking a faster ride for his son’s trike, the air-filled rubber tube cushioned the road’s ruts and bulges in a way that springs and other early shock-absorbing devices never could. This marvel arrived in the United States by 1890 and became standard equipment on American safeties within a few years. “It permitted travel on streets and roads previously thought unrideable,” recalled an American journalist of the time, “and added to cycling a degree of ease and comfort never dreamed of.”

In the 1890s, bikes got lighter as well as more comfortable. The average weight of a bicycle dropped by more than half during the decade’s first five years, falling from 50 pounds to 23. And since new gearings were able to mimic wheels larger than those of the largest Ordinary, speed records fell too. In 1894, while riding a pneumatic-tired safety around a track in Buffalo, New York, the racer John S. Johnson went a mile in just over one minute and thirty-five seconds, a rate of nearly thirty-eight miles an hour. He beat the previous mile record for a safety by fourteen seconds, and the record for an Ordinary by nearly a minute–and the record for a running horse by one-tenth of a second.

The Ordinary — which had by then acquired the derisive nickname of “penny-farthing,” after the old British penny and much smaller farthing (quarter-penny) coins ─ became obsolete. High-wheelers that had sold for $150 to $300 just a year or two earlier were going for as little as $10.

The first safeties, meanwhile, cost an average of $150 during a time when the average worker earned something like $12 a week. At such prices, the new bikes targeted the same upscale demographic as the tricycle. But a strong market for safeties among well-to-do women goosed production, and competition among manufacturers reduced prices, making the bikes affordable to more would-be riders — and further fueling demand. In 1895, America’s 300 bicycle companies produced 500,000 safeties at an average price of $75, according to one encyclopedia’s yearbook. Even manufacturers were surprised at the demand among women, who thrilled to the new machine’s exhilarating ride. As one female journalist wrote, “If a pitying Providence should suddenly fit light, strong wings to the back of a toiling tortoise, that patient cumberer of the ground could hardly feel a more astonishing sense of exhilaration than a woman experiences when first she becomes a mistress of her wheel.”

It wasn’t just that women enjoyed the physical sensation of riding — the rush of balancing and cruising. What made the bicycle truly liberating was its fundamental incompatibility with many of the limits placed on women. Take clothing, for example. Starting at puberty, women were expected to wear heavy floor-length skirts, rigid corsets, and tight, pointy-toed shoes. These garments made any sort of physical exertion difficult, as young girls sadly discovered. “I ‘ran wild’ until my 16th birthday, when the hampering long skirts were brought, with their accompanying corset and high heels,” recalled the temperance activist Frances Willard in an 1895 memoir. “I remember writing in my journal, in the first heartbreak of a young human colt taken from its pleasant pasture, ‘Altogether, I recognize that my occupation is gone.’” Reformers had been calling for more sensible clothing for women since the 1850s, when the newspaper editor Amelia Bloomer wore the baggy trousers that critics named after her, but rational arguments hadn’t made much headway.

Where reason failed, though, recreation succeeded. The drop-frame safety did allow women to ride in dresses, but not in the swagged, voluminous frocks of the Victorian parlor. Female cyclists had to don simple, “short” (that is, ankle-length) skirts in order to avoid getting them caught under the bicycle’s rear wheel. And to keep them from flying up, some women had tailors put weights in their hems or line their skirt fronts with leather. Other women, like Angeline Allen, shucked their dresses altogether and wore bloomers. The display that reporters had deemed shocking in 1893 became commonplace just a few years later as more and more women started riding. “The eye of the spectator has long since become accustomed to costumes once conspicuous,” wrote an American journalist in 1895. “Bloomer and tailor-made alike ride on unchallenged.” (For her part, Allen may well have given up riding, but not scandal; she progressed to posing onstage in scanty attire for re-creations of famous paintings, a risqué popular amusement.)

Bicyclists’ corsets changed too, though less publicly. The corset of the 1880s was an armpit-to-hip garment stiffened with whalebone stays, which helped the hips support heavy skirts that hung from the waist. But while corsets braced women’s torsos, they also weakened their wearers, squeezing women’s lungs and displacing other internal organs, making deep breaths impossible. Out of necessity, female cyclists looked for alternatives, and many chose another garment that had been advocated by dress reformers decades earlier: a sturdy, waist-length cotton camisole with shoulder straps. When introduced in the 1870s, this garment was called an “emancipation waist,” and it featured a horizontal band of buttons at the hem, to which drawers or a skirt could be attached. Later versions were named “health waist” or, finally, “bicycle waist.” One 1896 model included elastic insets; its maker promised the wearer “perfect comfort — a sound pair of lungs — a graceful figure and rosy cheeks.” All for $1, postpaid.

If women’s clothing constrained them, so did their role in society. More Americans than ever worked outside the home; by 1880, farmers made up a little less than half of the country’s labor force. But even among the urban working class, married women typically stayed home during the day to cook, clean, tend to children, and often manufacture homemade goods for sale. Meanwhile, their husbands, sons, and unmarried daughters toiled in factories, shops, offices, and other people’s houses. Many Americans came to believe that men and women naturally inhabited two separate spheres: men held sway in business, politics, and other public arenas, and women took charge of the home. For most middle-class women, respectability meant appearing in public only under certain circumstances ─ such as while shopping ─ and making as small an impression as possible. “A true lady walks the streets unostentatiously and with becoming reserve,” instructed an 1889 etiquette manual. “She appears unconscious of all sights and sounds which a lady ought not to perceive.”

In addition, an unmarried young woman didn’t go out without a chaperone, usually an older female relative. Being seen on an unchaperoned date, even at a restaurant or other public place, could be cause for social ruin. An 1887 etiquette guide warned against sailing excursions, for example, lest the boat be becalmed overnight: “A single careless act of this sort may be remembered spitefully against a girl for many years.”

The bicycle challenged all that. Wives who had stayed close to home — venturing out only on foot, by trolley, or, if wealthy, with a driver and horse-drawn carriage — were suddenly able to travel miles on their own. Being so mobile, and so visible, was a revelation to many. “The world is a new and another sphere under the bicyclist’s observation,” wrote one female journalist. “Here is a process of locomotion that is absolutely at her command.” If a woman’s sphere begins to feel too small, wrote another, “the sufferer can do no better than to flatten her sphere to a circle, mount it, and take to the road.”

As for unmarried women, manners mavens urged them to cycle only with chaperones, but the rule didn’t take. “New social laws have been enacted to meet the requirements of the new order,” reported one newspaper editor in 1896. “Parents who will not allow their daughters to accompany young men to the theatre without chaperonage allow them to go bicycle-riding alone with young men. This is considered perfectly proper.” According to the editor, the reason for this difference was the “good comradeship” of the bicycling set. Fellow enthusiasts looked out for one another on the road, he wrote ─ so in a way, every ride was supervised. The historian Ellen Gruber Garvey suggests a second possible reason: propriety already allowed unmarried women to ride horses unchaperoned. Bicycles, as a less costly equivalent, may simply have extended this freedom down the economic scale.

But the same things that made the bicycle liberating also made it threatening. Moralists warned that skimpy costumes and unsupervised travel would lead to wanton behavior. “Immodest bicycling by young women is to be deplored,” declared Charlotte Smith, founder of the Women’s Rescue League, a group that lobbied Congress on behalf of “fallen women.” “Bicycling by young women has helped to swell the ranks of reckless girls, who finally drift into the standing army of outcast women.” Smith reported that her tours of brothels and interviews with prostitutes confirmed this.

Physicians — who at the time shouldered responsibility for patients’ moral as well as physical well-being — had their own concerns. One visited New York’s Coney Island and saw a 16-year-old cyclist get drunk on wine provided by a beautiful but nefarious older woman. “She looked like an innocent child, but was away from home influence,” the doctor reported. Many physicians fretted that pressure from the bicycle seat would teach girls how to masturbate, a practice thought to lead to spiritual and psychological decline. Climbing hills on a bike could excite “feelings hitherto unknown to, and unrealized by, the young girl,” wrote one doctor in 1898. (Boys faced the same danger: pressure on the perineum would call their attention to the area, warned one doctor, “and so lead to a great increase in masturbation in the timid [and] to early sexual indulgence in the more venturous.”)

The bicycle’s peril was medical as well as moral. In the late nineteenth century, many saw physical energy as a finite resource that had to be carefully parceled out, not a power that could be renewed through exercise. The fashionable malaise of neurasthenia was only one of the disorders thought to be caused by a depletion of energies. Overexertion could also cause tuberculosis, scoliosis, hernias, heart disease, and other maladies, doctors believed. Safely sedentary middle-class women, who frequently suffered from varicose veins and other consequences of annual pregnancies, were prone to fatigue; one Boston writer called them “a sex which is born tired,” adding that “society sometimes seems little better than a hospital for invalid women.” Particularly for women in heavy dresses and constricting corsets, any activity that raised the heart rate could seem more likely to be the cause of fainting and listlessness than their remedy. Opponents of the bicycle latched onto this perception, arguing that riding would cost women more effort than they could afford. “The exertion necessary to riding with speed … is productive of an excitation of nervous and physical energy that is anything but beneficial,” Charlotte Smith warned. “If a halt is not called soon, 75 percent of the cyclists will be an army of invalids within the next ten years.”

But even as Smith made her dire predictions, Americans’ fear of cardiovascular exercise was beginning to lift. For decades, health reformers had trumpeted the benefits of fitness, and during the 1880s, the United States saw a spike in organized physical activity. Citizens of America’s growing cities tried new sports such as baseball and football, and exercise advocates built the first public playgrounds and pushed for physical education for both boys and girls. Doctors continued to caution against overexertion, but they acknowledged that, in moderation, fresh air and exercise tended to improve patients’ health. The high-wheel bicycle of the 1880s proved the benefits of regular exercise to those who could ride it; proponents made extravagant claims for the risky machine’s ability to restore well-being. “For constipation, sleeplessness, dyspepsia, and many other ills which flesh is heir to, not to speak of melancholy,─all are curable, or certainly to be improved, by the new remedy, ‘Bicycle,'” wrote a Texas physician in 1883. “It is always an excellent prescription for the convalescents, and nearly always for chronic invalids.”

Not everyone could take the prescription, though. High-wheeled cycling and rigorous team sports were acceptable only for young men. The new games deemed suitable for mixed company, such as lawn tennis and golf, were far less taxing — and therefore far less likely to lead to noticeable improvements in fitness. As for working out on your own, the recommended options were either too costly (horseback riding) or too boring (indoor calisthenics) to gain much popularity. As a result, many more Americans of the 1880s thought they ought to exercise than actually did it. So when the safety bicycle appeared at the end of the decade and Americans began riding in large numbers — an estimated two million by 1896, out of a population of about seventy million — few were certain how such vigorous physical activity would affect them.

Doctors were wary. Most US physicians believed that each patient’s condition was based largely on his or her habits and experiences, the weather, and other environmental factors. Good health was a reflection of proper balance among bodily systems and energies. “A distracted mind could curdle the stomach, a dyspeptic stomach could agitate the mind,” writes the medical historian Charles Rosenberg. It was a doctor’s job to know each patient well enough to restore balance when something was out of whack, using laxatives, diuretics, and other purging drugs to reboot the system. Even contagious diseases could not be treated in a cookie-cutter fashion, argued an 1883 medical journal editorial: “No two instances of typhoid fever, or of any other disease, are precisely alike … No ‘rule of thumb,’ no recourse to a formula-book, will avail for proper treatment even of the typical diseases.” To many doctors, advocating a specific drug to cure a specific disease seemed the height of quackery.

And just as there were no one-size-fits-all medical treatments, many physicians believed there were no one-size-fits-all exercise routines. While cycling enthusiasts rhapsodized about the safety bicycle’s benefits for riders of both sexes and all ages, doctors fretted that many of their patients would be harmed by the new machines. Even seeming success stories were suspect. In an 1895 paper on heart disease, one doctor reported that a patient who had panted for breath after climbing one flight of stairs was now able to cycle up hills with ease. “It would be wrong to conclude from this that cycling is not injurious,” the doctor wrote: there hadn’t yet been time to observe the bicycle’s long-term effects. Moreover, as an unfamiliar activity, cycling tended to catch the blame for pretty much anything bad that happened to a new rider afterward, up to and including death.

Logically, acute injuries were a concern. Though the safety bicycle did greatly reduce the risk of head wounds, it didn’t obliterate that risk, particularly among “scorchers” — thrill-seeking youngsters who hunched over their handlebars and pedaled as fast as they could. “It might seem almost impossible to fracture a skull thick enough to permit indulgence in such practices,” reported the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, “but the bicycle fool at full speed has been able to accomplish it.” Medical journals also noted the danger of road rash and broken bones.

More insidious than crash injuries, though, were new chronic complaints attributed to cycling. The bent-over posture of the scorcher was thought to cause a permanent hunch called “kyphosis bicyclistarum,” or, familiarly, “cyclist’s stoop.” Repeated stress to the cardiovascular system — that is, regular workouts — could lead to the irregular heartbeats and poor circulation of “bicycle heart.” Gripping the handlebars too tightly might cause finger numbness, or “bicycle hand,” and a dusty ride could trigger “cyclist’s sore throat.” Practically every body part seemed to have its own cycle-related malady; at least one New York doctor devoted his entire practice to treating such ailments.

Of all the physical woes attributed to the bike, the one that most strained credulity was the “bicycle face.” Characterized by wide, wild eyes; a grim set to the mouth; and a migration of facial features toward the center, the disorder was said to result from the stress of incessant balancing. A German philosopher claimed that the condition drained “every vestige of intelligence” from the sufferer’s appearance and rendered children unrecognizable to their own mothers. The bicycle face hung on, too, warned a journalist: “Once fixed upon the countenance, it can never be removed.”

The doctors raising these alarms were careful to state that many of the new diseases affected only cyclists predisposed to them — which would explain why so few of their fellow physicians might have encountered the disorders. “Whilst thousands ride immune, a small percentage will suffer,” wrote one doctor. Another, who blamed cases of appendicitis, inflammatory bowel disease, and the thyroid condition Graves’ disease on excessive riding, said it didn’t matter how many people believed that cycling had improved their health: “It would not affect my argument in the least if swarms of them had been rescued from the grave.”

Nevertheless, the more Americans took to bicycling, the more tenuous these claims of danger came to seem. The machine made physical activity both practical and fun. “The bicycle is inducing multitudes of people to take regular exercise who have long been in need of such exercise, but who could never be induced to take it by any means hitherto devised,” one doctor wrote in Harper’s Weekly in 1896. And all that activity had an effect. Riders quickly noticed improved muscle tone, increased strength, better sleep, and brighter moods. Women, especially, transformed themselves, wrote the novelist Maurice Thompson in 1897: “We have already become accustomed to seeing sunbrowned faces, once sallow and languid, whisk past us at every turn of the street. The magnetism of vivid health has overcome conservative barriers that were impregnable to every other force.”

The empirical evidence of cycling’s health value began to overtake conservative doctors’ concerns, as the rhetoric scholar Sarah Overbaugh Hallenbeck argues. Though many physicians continued to raise objections to the sport, their voices were increasingly drowned out by those of more observant — and pragmatic–practitioners. “The bicycle face, elbow, back, shoulders, neck, eroticism,” wrote one military doctor in 1896, “I pass as not worthy of serious consideration.” Rather than discourage bicycle use, most physicians came to cautiously endorse it. “So long as the cyclist can breathe with the mouth shut,” wrote one such doctor in 1895, “he is certainly perfectly safe.” Some went further, citing evidence of the bike’s benefits for heart patients, migraine sufferers, diabetics, and others with chronic conditions. In Chicago, the demand for injectable morphine dropped as patients with anxiety or insomnia “discovered that a long spin in the fresh air on a cycle induces sweet sleep better than their favorite drug,” the Bulletin of Pharmacy reported.

This shift paralleled a transformation in medical thinking during the 1890s, when American physicians increasingly embraced the scientific method. Some clinics in Continental Europe had adopted this evidence-based approach early in the nineteenth century, using statistics to determine the efficacy of treatments and evaluating patients’ conditions according to universal norms, rather than trying to divine what was normal for each individual patient. In the United States, however, doctors arguing for this approach were long in the minority. According to Rosenberg, the rift between medical traditionalists and empiricists “provided an emotional fault line which marked the profession throughout the last two-thirds of the century.” Only at the very end of the nineteenth century did a research-based, objective philosophy take hold at US medical schools.

It would be folly to suggest that the bicycle alone caused this transformation. Many other factors were at play, such as improved trans-Atlantic communication; an influx of European immigrants, including scientists; and a snowballing of evidence for new medical concepts such as the germ theory of disease. For centuries, Western healers had believed that contagion could erupt spontaneously, but between 1870 and 1900, researchers disproved this theory by isolating the microscopic causes of illnesses including typhoid, tuberculosis, cholera, diphtheria, meningococcal meningitis, plague, and malaria.

But even if the bike did not independently modernize American medicine, its unprecedented impact on fitness — and the clash this revealed between what doctors said and what experience showed — may well have accelerated the shift. Much as the bicycle triggered changes in women’s dress that high-minded advocacy could not, it bolstered scientists’ then-radical argument that what is good for one human body tends to be just as good for another.

To the bicycle faithful of the 1890s, this seemed to be just the beginning of the changes that the machine would bring about. The gulf between social classes would recede under the influence of this “great leveler,” one enthusiast wrote in the Century Magazine: “It puts the poor man on a level with the rich, enabling him to ‘sing the song of the open road’ as freely as the millionaire, and to widen his knowledge by visiting the regions near to or far from his home, observing how other men live.”

And while women may not yet have had full access to higher education ─ or even the right to vote — the unchaperoned, self-propelled bloomer girl seemed to be pedaling in that direction. “In possession of her bicycle, the daughter of the 19th century feels that the declaration of her independence has been proclaimed,” wrote one female journalist, “and, in the fulness of time, all things will be added to complete her happiness and prosperity.”

The first-wave feminist Susan B. Anthony was born in 1820, the year after Charles Willson Peale built his iron draisine. By the time of the safety bicycle boom of the 1890s, she was a snowy-haired eminence, too old to risk riding, but she had an opinion of the sport. “I’ll tell you what I think of bicycling,” she said in an 1896 newspaper interview as she leaned forward to lay a hand on the reporter’s arm. “I think it has done more to emancipate woman than any one thing in the world.”


From The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life. Copyright © 2016 by Margaret Guroff. All rights reserved, with permission of the University of Texas Press.

Our Planet Still Has Secrets: Talking Tasmanian Tigers with Journalist Brooke Jarvis

AP Photo/Carrie Osgood

Americans report seeing Bigfoot with surprising frequency, yet no one has ever confirmed Bigfoot’s existence. The Tasmanian Tiger was real. Even though the last confirmed living tiger died in captivity in 1936, thousands of people have reported seeing the tiger in Tasmania and the Australian mainland. Some witnesses snap photos. Some shoot footage. Still no one has been able to confirm that the extinct animal exits. For The New Yorker, journalist Brooke Jarvis traveled to the rugged Australian island to investigate both the tiger and the culture of truth-seekers surrounding it.

All sightings bring up questions of witness reliability, the psychology of perception, and contaminated memory. Tasmanians’ insistence that they see tigers also suggests that, despite humanity’s best efforts, we haven’t ruined the entire earth, and that our overpopulated, mapped world still contains mysteries. If these tigers still exist, they also function as a form of ecological redemption, a way of absolving Tasmanians for their pillaging of the land and Aboriginal people. In the words of one Tasmanian wildlife expert, “the ongoing mystery of the thylacine isn’t really about the animal at all. It’s about us.”

Tasmania doesn’t appear regularly in the news. Photos of the island’s lush rainforests make it look like something from Out of the Silent Planet. How did you learn about this story? As a journalist, how do you find your stories in general?

I saw one of the headlines that makes the rounds occasionally — about a new sighting or new footage — and I had to know more. I didn’t think I was going to head into the bush and find a definitive answer, but that was never the point. Like everybody else I found the mystery compelling: We’re so used to thinking we have this old planet figured out that it felt like a debate left over from another era. And I wanted to explore that, why we still need and want this uncertainty in our know-it-all time, what that says about us. Read more…

Forced to Perform As Aretha Franklin

AP Photo

In movies, the music industry’s shady opportunists are often cast as overly tan white men with heavy gold chains, who wear their dyed hair teased high. In 1969, a shady opportunist with an actual six-inch pompadour fooled singer Mary Jane Jones into playing what she believed would be a string of shows opening for Aretha Franklin. Instead, this man forced her to perform as Aretha Franklin.

For Smithsonian, Jeff Maysh tells the dramatic story of this wildly talented mother of four and how she fit into the once thriving economy of celebrity impersonators and legitimate soul singers. I don’t mean impersonators hired to perform like celebrities at parties or corporate events. I mean people hired to fool large audiences by acting like the real thing. Even though Jones’ career got sidetracked slightly, her talent offered her redemption. The original scam seems too preposterous to have worked. But it did for a little while. How?

According to newspaper reports, Hardy’s “Aretha Franklin Revue” played three small towns across Florida. After every performance, “Aretha” dashed to her dressing room and hid. On the strength of these smaller shows, Hardy eyed bigger towns and talked of scoring a lucrative ten-night tour. Meanwhile, he fed Jones two hamburgers a day and kept her locked inside a grim hotel room, far from her boys, who were being cared for by her mother. Even if she’d been able to steal away to call the police, she might have felt some hesitation: In nearby Miami just a few months earlier, a “blacks only” rally had turned into a riot where police shot and killed three residents, and left a 12-year-old boy with a bullet hole in his chest.

In Fort Myers, the promoters booked the 1,400-seat High Hat Club, where the $5.50 tickets quickly sold out. Hardy’s impostor had fooled a few small-town crowds, but now she had to convince a larger audience. He dressed Jones in a yellow, floor-length gown, a wig and heavy stage makeup. In the mirror, she looked vaguely like a picture of Franklin from the pages of Jet. “I wanted to tell everybody beforehand that I was not Miss Franklin,” Jones insisted later, “but [Hardy] said the show promoters would do something awful to me if they learned who I really was.”

When Jones peered out from backstage she saw an audience ten times larger than those she’d seen at any church or nightclub. “I was scared,” Jones recalled. “I didn’t have any money, no place to go.”

Through the fog of cigarette smoke and heavy stage lighting, Hardy hoped his hoax would work.

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How Southern Cities Are Joining the Knowledge Economy

Ramil Sitdikov/Sputnik via AP

As manufacturing and agriculture declined in the South, once thriving operations have left many empty factories and and new opportunities in their wake. Now startups are taking them over and revitalizing small cities in the process.

At Bloomburg Businessweek, Craig Torres and Catarina Saraiva describe how Greenville, South Carolina has managed to attract highly skilled workers and revive its downtown by building its tech economy. Greenville has a network of investors, a culture of risk-taking, proximity to a research university, and has long made itself attractive to educated college graduates. They have to in order to compete with big tech employers in big cities on both coasts. The question other small Southern cities are asking is whether they can replicate Greenville’s success.

“We tell these communities, ‘Don’t worry: The entrepreneurs are going to put you back to work,’” says Edward Conard, who led Bain Capital’s industrial group and is now an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “But they aren’t coming.” Regional economies “are falling further off the technological frontier because companies like Google and Facebook are going to scarf that talent up.”

Greenville has managed to buck the trend. It had almost 5 young businesses per 1,000 people in 2014, the latest year for which data are available—close to the national total of 5.2, Boston’s 5.5, and Chicago’s 5.6. Danville’s total, meanwhile, was 3 per 1,000 people. (None of these cities has been immune to the overall decline in U.S. startups since the 2007-09 recession.)

While pundits focus on the importance of upgrading workforce skills, kick-starting a cycle of wealth-building by attracting and retaining new businesses is a multipronged effort.

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