Tag Archives: atlas obscura

In China, Searching for Mysterious Gaps in the Family Tree

Imogene Lim's family: Grandmother Chan with seven of her eight children in Vancouver. Lim's mother, Lillian, is next to her mother, second from right. Mary is on the far left. Lillian and Mary fled Hong Kong during World War II. IMOGENE LIM

Veronique Greenwood | Atlas Obscura | December 2016 | 19 minutes (4,867 words)

Atlas ObscuraOur latest Exclusive is a new story by Veronique Greenwood, co-funded by Longreads Members and published by Atlas Obscura.

In southern China, not far from where the rice paddies fade into the urban sprawl of the Pearl River Delta, there is a place that used to be called the Four Counties. It’s farming country still, even in this age when everyone seems to be heading to make their fortunes in the cities. Small villages of low, tile-roofed houses speckle the landscape. People carry bamboo baskets full of root vegetables on their backs. Stray dogs trot purposefully through the village lanes, eyes alert for kitchen scraps. In the summer, the subtropical sun is like a hammer; in the winter, cold rain sweeps the fields.

It was to this place that Imogene Lim came in 2009. She had just a little bit of information to go on. But Lim, a Canadian anthropologist whose fieldwork has taken her to Tanzania to observe tribes of former hunter-gatherers, was on a voyage of discovery. And with the help of local authorities, she soon reached the object of her quest. She returned this year for a visit. In a Guangzhou hotel room this fall, having recently arrived from the Four Counties (now five, after a redrawing of borders), she took out a photocopied booklet. The cover showed a calligraphic title, proclaiming it to be a genealogy, and inside were page after page of branching diagrams. It had been given to her by a cousin in the village.

“This is my father,” she said, pointing to a name deep into the pages. Underneath it, in a language she cannot read or speak, it says, “Went to Canada, communication lost. Number of children: Unknown.”

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Catholic Churches Built Secret Astronomical Features Into Churches to Help Save Souls

High above the heads of church visitors, almost invisible in the arches of the cathedral, a tiny hole lets in a beam of sunlight. This beam is what allows the meridian line to function. Photo: GEOFF MANAUGH

Geoff Manaugh | Atlas Obscura | November 2016 | 14 minutes (3,658 words)

Atlas ObscuraOur latest Exclusive is a new story by Geoff Manaugh, co-funded by Longreads Members and published by Atlas Obscura.

A disc of light moves across the cathedral floor. The marble in its path lights up, revealing deeply colored swirls, rich with hues of burgundy, plum, caramel, and ochre. It is ancient rock, stained by terrestrial chemistry and by the infernal pressures of the inner Earth. Its surface is smooth and nearly reflective, testament to extraordinary craftsmanship but also to the effects of hundreds of years’ worth of penitent feet processing through the looming shadows of the church interior. The air smells of smoke and candle wax, and the occasional perfume of a passing tourist.

The source of this light is a hole punched through the roof of the church high above, elaborately accentuated by a brilliant halo of golden rays, painted to resemble the sun. The hole acts like a film projector. Daylight streams through, creating a narrow beam of illumination visible only in the presence of smoke or dust, as if something otherworldly has been forced into material form.

Seconds pass, minutes, an hour. Outside, the sun appears to arc slowly across the daytime sky; here, in response, the projected disc creeps inch by inch across the marble floor. At solar noon, when the sun has reached its highest point in the sky, the circle of light touches a long, straight line made of inlaid brass and copper, nearly 220 feet from end to end, or two-thirds the length of an American football field. Although this line extends more than half the length of the cathedral floor, it seems to follow its own geometric logic: it is a long diagonal slash cutting between two columns, against the building’s floor plan, as if at odds with the structure that houses it.

Stranger still, on either side of this brass line, words and celestial images have been carved directly into the rock. There are the 12 signs of the zodiac interspersed amongst Roman numerals and references to solstices. There is Aquarius, the water bearer; Capricorn, with its confusing mix of shaggy horns and the coiled tail of a sea creature; Sagittarius, preparing to fire a magnificent bow and arrow; and the pouting fish of Pisces. At first glance, these symbols seem pagan, even sacrilegious, as if the astral remnants of an older belief system have somehow survived beneath the feet—and beyond the gaze—of daily worshippers.

Yet these symbols are not there to cast horoscopes, let alone spells. They are there for purposes of church administration and astronomical science. This cathedral, the Basilica di San Petronio in Bologna, Italy, also doubles as a solar observatory—at one point, one of the most accurate in the world—and these signs of the zodiac are part of an instrument for measuring solstices.

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A Reading List About Utopias

I recently finished an advance reader’s copy of Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson, which debuts in January 2017. Perfect Little World is the story of Isabelle Poole, a fierce but desperate single mom who applies, with success, to be a part of a utopian parenting project in which children will be raised communally by their parents and a team of educators and scientists in near seclusion. I was expecting Perfect Little World to transform from a utopia to a dystopia by its end—and there were certainly disturbing, sad moments throughout the novel—but Wilson resisted sensationalism and apocalyptic tropes. Instead, he’s written something quite genuine and powerful. Unexpectedly, I was moved. I realized my recent exposure to planned societies has been books like The Heart Goes Last and Children of the New World—stories devoted to satire, technology and dark prophesy. In other words, more dystopian than utopian.

Maybe that’s why Perfect Little World moved me. There’s so much evil in the world—racism meets unchecked authority meets gun, say, or a dangerous, dangerous man running for president of the United States—that any degree of optimism feels hard-won. At this point, hopelessness feels easy, logical, intelligent, but I am finding more and more power in a well-crafted happy ending, a redemptive final note. With that in mind, here are five stories about utopian societies. Read more…

Space Art Propelled Scientific Exploration of the Cosmos—But Its Star is Fading Fast

The methane river delta on Titan, one of Saturn's moons, as depicted by space artist Ron Miller. (Photo: Ron Miller)

George Pendle | Atlas Obscura | September 2016 | 17 minutes (4,425 words)

Atlas ObscuraOur latest Exclusive is a new story by George Pendle, co-funded by Longreads Members and published by Atlas Obscura.

In a serpentine building that snakes through the Connecticut countryside, a strange meeting took place this past July. A group of four scientists from NASA, including an astronaut, a robotics expert, and the agency’s deputy administrator, conferred with some 30 painters, sculptors and poets. Adding an extra layer of mystery to proceedings was the fact that the meeting was hosted by Grace Farms, a faith-based think-tank created by an evangelical hedge-fund billionaire.

Tea was served. Thomas Pynchon may or may not have been present.

The aim of this odd confluence was to engage an “artistic response” to NASA’s journey to Mars, the space agency’s ambitious goal of putting a human on the red planet’s surface sometime in the 2030s. To help set the mood, NASA brought some zappy toys to share—a Hololens headset that offered an augmented reality view of Mars, as well as surreal images of winds carving the Martian surface. According to those present, scientists spoke of the necessity of having “an outpost” on Mars to help solve the many riddles of the galaxy. The question they were asking the assembled artists was whether they could help communicate this vision to the public as part of a new program entitled “Arts + Mars”.

Some of the artists were left scratching their heads. Many of them, schooled in the ambiguities and anti-authoritarian verities of contemporary art, saw NASA’s open call for guileless propaganda as being entirely at odds with the art they practice. “The conversation about art was at such a naïve level,” said one attendee, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of rousing the space agency’s ire. “It just didn’t seem like NASA was that interested in what we had to say.” What’s more the overtly commercial and exploitative language of the Mars boosters—their mentions of partnerships with private industry and “putting tracks on Mars”—did not play well with their youngish, liberal audience. Read more…

The Miseducation of John Muir

Muir, pictured later in life, seated on a rock. Photo: Library of Congress

Justin Nobel | Atlas Obscura | July 2016 | 14 minutes (3,431 words)

Atlas ObscuraOur latest Exclusive is a new story by Justin Nobel, co-funded by Longreads Members and published by Atlas Obscura.

It’s quite possible that America’s future was changed on the evening of March 6, 1867, in a factory that manufactured carriage parts in the booming railroad city of Indianapolis.

The large workroom, typically smoky and bustling with workers, was near empty. Factory manager John Muir’s task was simple: The machine’s drive belts, which looped around the vast room like the unspooled guts of a primordial beast, needed to be retightened so the following morning they’d run more efficiently. Muir had already made a name for himself as an impressive backwoods inventor. His “early rising machine” was an intricate alarm clock that tipped the sleeper onto the floor. His “wood kindling starting machine” used an alarm clock to trigger the release of a drop sulfuric acid onto a spoonful of chemicals, generating a flame, igniting the kindling. For the carriage factory, this unique mind was a boon. Muir had already improved wheel design and cut fuel costs.

In the darkening workroom he grasped a file and grinded it between the tightly-woven threads of the leather belt. The file slipped, sprang up pointy end first, and sank deep into the white of Muir’s right eye. Out dripped about a third of a teaspoon of ocular fluid. “My right eye is gone!” he howled back at his boarding house, “closed forever on God’s beauty.” In fact, thanks to a mysterious immune response known as sympathetic blindness, his left eye was gone too. The promising young machinist was blind. Read more…

How Rival Gardens of Eden in Iraq Survived ISIS, Dwindling Tourists, And Each Other

A bird flies out of Lalish temple which features a stone black snake on its wall. Photo by: Erin Trieb

Jennifer Percy | Atlas Obscura | May 2016 | 17 minutes (4,132 words)


Atlas ObscuraOur latest Exclusive is a new story by Jennifer Percy, author of the book Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism, co-funded by Longreads Members and published by Atlas Obscura.

Thirty-five miles north of Mosul, Iraq, about an hour’s drive from Islamic State territory, was the Garden of Eden. I stood with my interpreter, Salar, a local Iraqi journalist. “See that smoke between the mountains,” Salar said, pointing in the distance. “It’s an oil fire.” The thick plume of smoke marked the entrance to the site. Flames burst from a pipe stuck deep in the earth beneath which lay 25 billion barrels of crude oil worth more than $1 trillion. “These oil explorers think about holy places,” he said. “The more oil, the holier the land.”

But this isn’t the only Garden of Eden. It’s not even the only Garden of Eden in Iraq’s Nineveh plains, the war-torn province through which I was traveling. According to coordinates rather confusingly supplied by the Book of Genesis, the garden was at the spot where one river split into four. Here’s Genesis 2.8-2.14:

Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed…A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

The thinking was, if you can pinpoint the four rivers—Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates—you can pinpoint paradise. The Tigris and Euphrates run from northern Iraq the length of the country before meeting in the south. No one knows for sure the location of the Pishon or Gihon rivers, except that they are in Havilah, and no one knows where Havilah is either. These are the two unknown rivers of paradise. Genesis refers to the land of Cush, thought to be Ethiopia, but the known rivers are not near Ethiopia. Others believe the rivers are in Azerbaijan, or point out that Jerusalem is home to the ancient Gihon Spring. Read more…

Can an Outsider Ever Truly Become Amish?

Two sisters in their traditional, everyday, Lancaster County Amish attire. Photo: Tessa Smucker

Kelsey Osgood | Atlas Obscura | March 2016 | 28 minutes (7,014 words)


Atlas ObscuraOur latest Exclusive is a new story by Kelsey Osgood, and is co-funded by Longreads Members and published by Atlas Obscura.

Author’s Note: “Alex” and “Rebecca” are not the real names of two people interviewed. They felt strongly that they should not be identified by name out of respect for their faith’s general belief in the body above the individual.

The road that runs through the main village of Berlin, Ohio, only about 90 minutes south of Cleveland, is called “Amish Country Byway” for its unusual number of non-automotive travelers and it’s true that driving down it, you’ll have to slow down for the horse-drawn buggies that clog up the right lane. But those seeking the “real” Amish experience in downtown Berlin might be disappointed. It’s more Disney than devout: a playground for tourists full of ersatz Amish “schnuck” (Pennsylvania Dutch for “cute”) stores selling woven baskets and postcards of bucolic farm scenes.

You only see the true Holmes County, which is home to the largest population of Amish-Mennonites in the world, when you turn off Route 62 and venture into the rolling green hills interrupted periodically by tiny towns with names like Charm and Big Prairie. You’ll likely lose service on your cell phone just as the manure smell starts to permeate the air. On my visit this past summer, I saw Amish people–groups of children sporting round straw hats, the young women in their distinctive long dresses–spilling out of family barns, where church services are held, in the distance. The Amish don’t have any spiritual attachment to a geographical location, the way Jews have to Jerusalem or Mormons to Salt Lake City; this spot, along with Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is probably the closest they come to an idea of God’s Country. Read more…

Rebel Virgins and Desert Mothers

The rebels of early Christianity
The rebels of early Christianity, like Melania, Paula, Susan and Jerome. (All Illustrations: Matt Lubchansky)

Alex Mar | Atlas Obscura | January 2016 | 16 minutes (3,902 words)


Atlas ObscuraOur latest Exclusive is a new story by Alex Mar, author of the book Witches of America, co-funded by Longreads Members and published by Atlas Obscura.

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What It’s Like to Fly Into a Thunderstorm

Flying near a fast-forming storm in North Dakota.
Flying near a fast-forming storm in North Dakota. (Photo by Shawn,flickr)

Justin Nobel | Atlas Obscura | November 2015 | 14 minutes (3,498 words)


Atlas ObscuraOur latest Exclusive is a new story by Justin Nobel, co-funded by Longreads Members and published by Atlas Obscura.

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The Most Haunted Road in America

Greetings from Clinton Road, N.J.
Illustrations by Matt Lubchansky

Taffy Brodesser-Akner | Atlas Obscura | October 2015 | 20 minutes (4,944 words)

Atlas ObscuraOur latest Exclusive is a new story by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, co-funded by Longreads Members and published by Atlas Obscura.


In a part of New Jersey where snakes slither slowly across a road, still coiled and yet somehow still moving; in a part of New Jersey where an insect that looks like a miniaturized bat sits on your windshield, menacing you while you make a sound that doesn’t sound quite like you from inside your car; in a part of New Jersey with a disproportionate amount of road kill in an already highly populated-by-road kill state; in a part of New Jersey where your phone cannot, will not pick up any kind of signal; here, in West Milford, in the county of Passaic, lies Clinton Road, a 10-mile stretch of haunted highway. Read more…