Gunpowder, Treason and Plot!

Guy fawkes henry perronet briggs

Many schoolchildren and townspeople alike in the British Commonweal are observing “Guy Fawkes Day” today. Americans might recognize Fawkes, both from the film “V for Vendetta” as well as the use of his visage by those lefties engaged in “Occupy” movements around the time of the stock market crash of 2008.


The story of Fawkes is the story of success and failure. Whereas the US founding fathers were successful in their endeavor to end oppressive rule over them, poor Guy Fawkes was not so lucky. History remembers him as a terrorist. Ben Franklin knew as much when he quipped “We’ll all hang together, or all hang separately.”

Guy Fawkes was a disgruntled Catholic, who lived during the times of the English Reformation. His Catholic church persecuted by the newly-formed Church of England, Fawkes and a few conspirators decided to take matters into their own hands by plotting to blow up the House of Lords. On November 5, 1605, Fawkes put his plan into action, sneaking around the basement of the Houses of Parliament, but was foiled by the king’s yeoman before he struck the match.

Fawkes was summarily hanged, drawn and quartered. Parliament passed the “Observance of the 5th of November Act” in 1605 as a feast day giving thanks for King James’s survival. Over the years, the tradition took on anti-Catholic sentiment, and was celebrated as “Pope Day” in the US until the American Revolution (source: Wikipedia). My wife, educated in British and Australian schools, learned this rhyme well, and often joined her schoolmates in hanging an effigy of the poor freedom fighter or terrorist (depending on your stripes):

    Remember, remember!
    The fifth of November,
    The Gunpowder treason and plot;
    I know of no reason
    Why the Gunpowder treason
    Should ever be forgot!

    Guy Fawkes and his companions
    Did the scheme contrive,
    To blow the King and Parliament
    All up alive.

    Threescore barrels, laid below,
    To prove old England’s overthrow.
    But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
    With a dark lantern, lighting a match!

    A stick and a stake
    For King James’s sake!
    If you won’t give me one,
    I’ll take two,
    The better for me,
    And the worse for you.

    A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
    A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,
    A pint of beer to wash it down,
    And a jolly good fire to burn him.

    Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
    Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
    Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

Guy Fawkes

Variations of this poem have existed since the time of Fawkes and King James, with many a poet adding or deleting a verse. In parts of the UK and abroad this evening, the tradition of burning an effigy of Fawkes persists. However, many festival goers simply know of tonight’s events as “Bonfire Night”–the modern “holiday” devoid of the violence and lynching, akin to the rather sanitized “Trick or Treat” in the US.

Fortunately, the burning an effigy of the Pope has fallen off a bit. Intriguingly, other public demons have served as stand-in’s for Guy–including Lance Armstrong. The “holiday” seems to have morphed into less of a holiday celebrating the spoiling of a terrorist (or freedom fighter’s) plot, and more of an excuse to burn an effigy at night, in the fall, with beer in hand.

Getting ready for 5th November

Painting Photo credit: Henry Peronett Briggs / / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Guy Fawkes Mask Photo credit: gato-gato-gato / / CC BY-NC-ND

Guy Fawkes Night Effigy Photo credit: wwarby / / CC BY

Schoolkids on November 5 Photo credit: theirhistory / / CC BY-NC-SA


About the Penny-farthing

canstockphoto7401825Author’s Note–Henry’s Eclectic has reached 36 followers! That is 35 more than I ever thought I’d have. Thank you for your patronage. No endeavor starts off without hiccups, and every small victory is cherished. Thank you for your time and readership.

On occasion, I will offer a modest supplement to my usual Tuesday travel recollections. I had great ambitions for the scope of this blog, a sort of internet attic full of odds-and-ends in a steamer trunk. I thought of channeling J.Peterman and Lewis Lapham in design, perhaps even a little Charles Kuralt and Garrison Keillor for nostalgia and Anthony Bourdain when it comes to food. I also channeled the British factotum Ben Schott and the Idler’s Tom Hodgkinson. I would take my reader on a brief essay ride to revel in the little things, especially the obsolete things—like card catalogs, rotary phones and the Game Boy. I will get to those things certainly.

And today, I start with the Penny-farthing—the big-wheeled bicycle that I have made the logo of the Eclectic—a true contraption that may get you where you need to go, conspicuously, and with whimsy. This particular iteration comes from Harper’s Weekly—the old newspaper and magazine dating back to the Civil War.

What is a penny-farthing? Well, it was a precursor to the modern bicycle. It takes it name from two British coins of unequal size—a penny and a farthing. The odd shape of the thing did have practicality—the very large wheel allowed the rider to pick up speed more quickly. The down side was that if you do a face plant off a penny-farthing, you’d have a long distance to go before gravity would force feed you a salad of dirt and grass. Some Victorians actually died from “taking a header” off the top of a penny-farthing.

While odd looking to the 21st century cycling enthusiast, all bicycles had mismatched wheels until the invention of the “safety bicycle” with its two, equal wheels in the 1890’s. By then, the penny-farthing had its day.


My choice of the penny-farthing as a logo has little to do with the bicycle. (What an obsolete wonder though! Someday I will try a penny-farthing, and will post photos for you. ) When I was in my undergraduate years, I had a good friend who was in journalism school. Back in the “web 2.0” days of myspace and email, she made a passing reference to wanting a penny-farthing on her own blog, perhaps as she might have though it the only conveyance that would accommodate her long legs.

Being a bit of a suburban Pollyanna at this time in my life (as that last sentence clearly extolls, given my interest in the bike over the legs!), I had no idea what she was talking about (ever, really. Not for some fault of her own. She was brilliant.) And so in a wikirage, I did find out what this penny-farthing thing was. She went on to become an editor of online magazines of record, and I went on to keep a modest blog as an avocation. In some ways, the blog is already the penny-farthing of social communication, as most attention spans have been whittled to the length of a tweet, or you tube clip. A shame, as the essay remains the most useful tool for conveying a cogent thought with exposition and persuasion that no infographic can topple.

Who would have thought such a passing reference to a clunky, Victorian albatross of a bicycle would linger in the attic space of this author’s mind? It did though and thus a logo and a modest tribute were born.

Penny Farthings Forbidden

Pennyfarthing Logo under license from All Rights Reserved (c) 2013

Taking a Header Photo credit: Foxtongue / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

No Pennyfarthings Allowed Photo credit: The Puzzler / Foter / CC BY

Voice from the Past: John Adams


When most people are asked for whom their favorite founding father might be, many Americans lurch for George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. Ben Franklin, for all of his wit, is my close second. As for moral consistency, I have always liked the cantankerous John Adams, a man who knew he was the smartest guy in the room and had a time of keeping it to himself. Adams walked the walk when it came to freedom. He didn’t own slaves. He was a master organizer, bringing Washington to the Army and Jefferson to pen the Declaration. Adams also knew a thing or two about how well his foot tasted, squarely placed in his mouth.

Americans celebrate July 4th as the founding of the nation. Adams thought differently, as expressed to his wife, Abigail (my favorite founding mother):

“Philadelphia July 3d. 1776

… The Hopes of Reconciliation, which were fondly entertained by Multitudes of honest and well meaning tho weak and mistaken People, have been gradually and at last totally extinguished. — Time has been given for the whole People, maturely to consider the great Question of Independence and to ripen their judgments, dissipate their Fears, and allure their Hopes, by discussing it in News Papers and Pamphletts, by debating it, in Assemblies, Conventions, Committees of Safety and Inspection, in Town and County Meetings, as well as in private Conversations, so that the whole People in every Colony of the 13, have now adopted it, as their own Act. — This will cement the Union, and avoid those Heats and perhaps Convulsions which might have been occasioned, by such a Declaration Six Months ago. But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.” [emphasis added]
Call me a purist, but I fondly look to July 2nd to tipple a toast to American Independency. Firstly, because I am pedantic. Secondly, because I can have the monuments and fireworks all to myself.

Happy belated birthday, you old coot.

Uncle Sam I Want You - Poster Illustration

John Adams Photo credit: John Trumbull / / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Uncle Sam Photo credit: DonkeyHotey / / CC BY

Gettysburg Lost

something sacred and holy in the warfare

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. No American gets through a public education without at least once learning of this watershed event. Immortalized by Lincoln’s words, Romaticised by Michael Shaara’s pen, embalmed by the National Park Service, and commercialized by tourist traps, this small Pennsylvania valley town thrives in a region of America that isn’t nearly as lucky—the Appalachian Piedmont.

The linguist me in savors the unintended double entendre of the word “civil” in the phrase “American Civil War.” That title is even deceiving—most of the Civil War was waged in Virginia, most of the South’s command was from the Old Dominion. Burial sites are not called tombs but shrines—a powerful word sentimentalizing the loss of Dixie; relics to a lost culture. There was nothing civil about this war. It was either genocide of a culture, waged in the Deep South, or the righteous emancipation of the enslaved. It was also the nail in the agrarian coffin, and the triumph of the industrial revolution. The Civil War lives large in our culture because through it, our modern culture was born.

Stonewall Jackson Shrine - Virginia

“Never can true reconcilement grow where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep…”–Paradise Lost, Milton

To this day, the scars on America from this conflict are still oddly visible, in places where the poor who fought this war on behalf of the philosopher kings of the US Senate, House of Representatives, Governorships and White House passed down their bile for one another. When I moved south of the Mason-Dixon, into the Confederacy, I found that the scars of war remain all over.  Battlefield signs litter every rural town. The war was common place here. People know who their ancestors were that fought in the war.


“Who overcomes, by force, hath overcome but half his foe.”–Paradise Lost, Milton

Gettysburg is unique among the battles for its location, victors, and bloodshed. Sons of Pennsylvania in particular know the story of Gettysburg well. In 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee made a push into the Union, taking the war to the Union, to turn her soil into battlefields. For the first three years of the war, Lee was the victor in every major conflict. The north suffered from clumsy and arrogant leadership in the Army. Lincoln replaced generals constantly. Lee was perhaps the greatest tactician to have graduated West Point, and he wasn’t on the Union’s side. Lee’s plan was to rally in the North, then invade Washington, DC from the top of the map. His hope was to force northern politicians to abandon the bloodshed and begin to negotiate with the South as an equal nation. Had he been successful, the path to DC from Gettysburg would be unimpeded. The maneuver was audacious in vision.

The Federal Advance

“Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell. ”–Paradise Lost, Milton

Yet, by accident, the northern army’s Calvary intercepted Lee’s divisions outside of Gettysburg. The Northern army had the enviable “high ground,” so necessary in field combat. The southern army would have to march over open farmland and up the Pennsylvania foothills to dislodge the army from the hilltops. Lee knew he could not win here, yet that odd chivalry captured so well in Shaara’s “The Killer Angles” compelled these generals to send their infantry into the great maw of battle.

...Through the Valley of Death...\

“Be strong, live happy and love, but first of all
Him whom to love is to obey, and keep
His great command!”–Paradise Lost, Milton

What do people seek when the come to these Pennsylvanian fields of war? Or any old American battlefield for that matter? America is still largely rural, and every battlefield of every conflict remains consecrated ground. In old Europe, many battlefronts are obscured by development as there is no room for such preservation. And among those hallowed park lands, Gettysburg lives largest among battlefield sites. The tourist industry keeps the little town afloat. The latest generation of tourists seem to seek some sort of wholesome entertainments for their families–soft serve ice-cream, souvenirs, and ghost hunting. Previous generations littered the battlefield with Roadside Americana neon and kitch. And before them, the survivors of the conflict in the height of late 19th century Romanticism encrusted the farmlands with countless monuments to the fallen men, regiments, divisions and corps.

When the Sun Shone

“What though the field be lost?
All is not Lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And the courage never to submit or yield.”–Paradise Lost, Milton

Historians differ on whether Gettysburg is worth the fuss. The northerners, yellow journalists and victors declared Gettysburg the “high water mark” of the Confederacy. Lee’s first major defeat would linger–he would never win decisively again. The South’s only hope after Gettysburg was for stalemate. Disregarded at the time, Lincoln made a rather pithy speech compared to the two-hour oration of Everett, yet the Gettysburg Address is one of the great sentiments of American Oratory, etched on every schoolboys heart. Yet the battle was not decisive, as the war would continue, more lives would be lost elsewhere.

The 500 Kepis of Private Bartholomew Cubbins

Gettysburg is a destination that is a mirror–it shows the admirer what he want to see. Civil War re-enactors display a living tribute to that age on those fields as a sign of respect. Or perhaps they are the original fanboys. Ghost hunters wander Elysium at night, seeing shadows and mist, in the believe that the carnage of a century and a half ago is indelible on this landscape. Of that notion, I too am romantic, but know full well that many tourist who know nothing of the events of the day see just farmland and soft-serve ice cream.

Distelfink - Gettysburg Pa - 2005

“Solitude is sometimes the best company”–Paradise Lost, Milton

However, the austere beauty of the place, high up over the battlefields from Little Roundtop, can allow for contemplation if you are there at the right time of day. Truly summer is the season for Gettysburg, with its throngs of tourists marching through the fields, riding the tram along major sites, and even driving along roadways–much like a cemetery’s row. My last visit to Gettysburg was in summer. I was staying in nearby Emmitsburg, Maryland for a business meeting, and I knew that travel adventure awaited me a mere 10 miles up the road. I benefited from the early morning sun waking me at 5 AM. And before the tourists’ wake, I took to the fields early, to walk in solitude (with the occasional local morning jogger doing his routine) among the fields. I thought of my own ancestors–some of which fought here–and the stories passed down to me. Of my ancestral grandfather whose horse doctoring made him good enough to wield a field “surgeons” bone saw. Or how many lead bullets caused amputation–including his own.

02-07-09 017

Gettysburg National Military Park - Pic 39

I saw the remnants of the modernist Richard Neutra cyclorama building, which used to house a 360 degree painting of “Pickett’s Charge.” The building, despised by re-enactors and historians and now demolished, was replaced with a derivative historicist barn that looks just as awful. I loved that contrast–the stark white building behind the copse of trees, but I suppose I was in the minority. But that struggle typifies the new Battle of Gettysburg. Nearly half of the battlefields are preserved–the rest have been developed with ticky-tack homes, economotels, and neon signs. Sometimes the historians win, as in the defeat of a casino developer. Sometimes they lose. In those loses, I see Gettysburg as lost. Others may see Gettysburg found.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

And still others see none of it. When I saw families wander down West Middle Street with dad agog in boyhood nostalgia, mom window shopping among the old Victorian storefronts, boys in union caps and daughters with the soft-serve, I noticed that perhaps Gettysburg offers something for every personality in a rather organic way. Gettysburg’s industry is not commanded by some Miltonian despot governing an Epcot Center conglomerate that has burnished the entire town under one brand. Rather, each small, independent enterprise adds to the whole. And seeing this sacred place in total, rather than its component parts relieves that discord, that in this paradise a war once happened.

Town of Gettysburg from Culp\'s Hill

“They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand, the gate
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide;
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.”–Paradise Lost, Milton

Gettysburg sunrise Photo credit: thelearnedfoot_ / / CC BY-NC-ND

Soldier Photo credit: Soaptree / / CC BY

Monuments Photo credit: fauxto_digit / / CC BY

General Lee Photo credit: Mathew Brady / / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Skyline Photo credit: thelearnedfoot_ / / CC BY-NC-ND

Ice Cream Photo credit: cam_rich345 / / CC BY-SA

Shrine Photo credit: / / CC BY-NC-ND

Tourist Trap Hats Photo credit: crowolf / / CC BY-NC-SA

Reenactors Photo credit: Rob Shenk / / CC BY-SA

Neutra Photo credit: thelearnedfoot_ / / CC BY-NC-ND

Downtown Gettysburg Photo credit: Dougtone / / CC BY-SA

Voice from the Past: Walt Whitman


During the announcements from the bench of the US Supreme Court yesterday, my thoughts turned to a lesser-known poem by Walt Whitman, written around 1870. Found among his papers after his death, the poem was suppressed from the canon because of its subject, but was well enough known to academics and artists. Bernstein set it to music in 1976.

To what you said, passionately clasping my hand, this is my answer:
Though you have strayed hither, for my sake, you can never belong to me,
nor I to you,
Behold the customary loves and friendships – the cold guards
I am that rough and simple person
I am he who kisses his comrade lightly on the lips at parting,
and I am one who is kissed in return,
I introduce that new American salute
Behold love choked, correct, polite, always suspicious
Behold the received models of the parlors – What are they to me?
What to these young men that travel with me?

One hundred forty three years later, Whitman might be surprised to not only find that he could belong to his beloved, but the “received models of the parlors” have also changed. And for my friends, family and peers who were denied equal justice under the law for so long, I am happy that our constitution has caught up with the body politic, albeit embarrassed that it took so long and sorrowful that such personal expressions  should ever be the subject of public debate.

Whitman Photo credit: / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Istanbul Rising…and Falling


Turkey, by far the most western looking and peaceful country in the Muslim world, has been upended by protestors this past week. Outsiders to this part of the world may be confused by what is happening in Istanbul, thinking that this wave of protest and violent government suppression is just like the “Arab Spring” movement in Egypt or Tunisia. In fact, much of the fuss is an exact opposite–it is a group demanding a separation of religion and politics, not a Muslim Brotherhood confluence.

I have a very soft spot for Turkey. My in-laws made their careers there and my wife called Istanbul and Ankara home for much of her childhood. I have been thoroughly steeped in Turkish culture (and cuisine) ever since. And my own experiences in Turkey left me irrevocably changed, as all good travel does.

Istanbul has always been an international and cosmopolitan city, always simmering with the activity of people and ideas from all over the world, and occasionally boiling over. Its strategic location has been fought over in every century since the time of Christ. As ancient Byzantium, it was an trading town.  As “The City” or “Nova Rome,” it was the capital of the aging Roman Empire. As Constantinople, it was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, the last city of Europe and the first city of the rest of the world. Istanbul became the New York of the Muslim world with its conquest by the Ottoman Empire. And it was the launching point of the modern, nationalist state of Turkey, salvaged from the wreckage of World War I. The rather obnoxious earworm below makes for a better summary of “The City’s” history:

Turkey is a secular nation, much as America is. The separation of mosque and state is an important tenet of Turkish life. Yet, the people are religious in private life. Turkey is nationalist first–proud of its modernization. The tensions in Turkish politics are caused by the balance between secular and sacred life. Like America, Turkey has pockets of “blue states and cities” where most people live. But the “red states” make up most of the political map in Turkey. Those smaller towns and villages are more conservative, and voted into office a party that was interested in “reforming” the old secular model of the country. For ten years, the current ruling party has chipped away at social issues, while enjoying political support for an economic boom time in the country.

The latest Turkish tumult is a study in extremes. The protests began modestly enough with a group of environmentally-friendly and preservation-conscious citizens who opposed the demolition of one of the last remaining green spaces in Istanbul— a city of over 10 million people. Put another way, 1 in 7 Turks live in “The City” and there is no Central Park.  The protests began because local authorities, regional governments, and the courts had halted the planned redevelopment of the square by the national government in Ankara, the country’s capital. However, the Turkish prime minister—Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced Reh-jepp Tie-yip Air-dough-ahn) decided to redevelop the property despite the local ruling by decision makers.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan - Caricature

Erdogan is a polarizing figure in modern Turkey. Depending on your political persuasion, he is either the Ronald Reagan (or FDR) or Putin (or Ronald Reagan) of Turkey. He has brought optimism and economic vitality to Turkey while wielding an oppressive fist against opposition parties. Erdogan was a conservative mayor of Istanbul in the 1990’s, who was sentenced to prison for reading Islamist poetry in public as mayor. At the time, Turkish law had severe restrictions on freedom of expression to assure the separation of mosque and state. This separation is a legacy from the founding father of Turkey—Kemal Ataturk—who founded the country as a secular, nationalist state after World War I. Turkey has been a stable ally in the middle east because of this national secularism. While the majority of Turks are Muslim, they do not desire a theocracy like in the Ottoman days or in neighboring Iran.

From jail, Erdogan founded a political party—the “Justice and Development Party”— to oppose the secular Kemalist party, and his party won a majority in the national parliament in 2002. His friend, Abdullah Gul, became prime minister, and he stepped down in favor of Erdogan in 2003. Since then, Erdogan has won three national elections with a majority. Erdogan is the most popular elected official since the country’s founder–Ataturk. And like Ataturk, he has been as polarizing.

Erdogan’s winning coalition is based on two pillars—Turkey’s economy, and Turkey’s countryside. The Turks have enjoyed an economic boom in the past decade. Erdogan has led Turkey’s renewed interest in joining the European Union. And Erdogan has overseen vast infrastructure improvements. Erdogan has calmed the conflict between Turks and Kurds, welcomed the return of Kurdish language and culture on TV and in the streets and negotiated the self-deportation of the anarchist Kurdish Workers’ Party. However, like all politicians, he has used that political capital to cash in on social issues. He forced through constitutional revisions that helped improve freedom of expression—the sorts of laws that landed him in jail. However, he persecuted generals and military personnel loyal to the secularist party. He made pronouncements seeking a “pious generation” in Turkey, pitting the conservatives and the devout of the countryside against cosmopolitan Istanbul. He has pushed hard to severely limit alcohol sales, has been friendly with Iran, has been vocally antagonistic against Israel and held sympathy with the resurgent Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, Eqypt and Palestine.

The protests come on the heels of an economic slowdown that is leaving many Turks frustrated with the Erdogan “Economic Miracle”. Without the economy masking the social change in Turkey, Erdogan’s social conservative efforts have been exposed.

That brings us back to the little park in Istanbul. That park—Taksim Square and Gezi Park—is very symbolic to the Kemalists. The monument to the Republic, with massive statues of Kemal Ataturk—sits at the center of the square. Erdogan has proposed the demolition of the “Ataturk Cultural Center”—a western-style operahouse, theatre and museum, in favor of a “restoration project” involving the rebuilding of an Ottoman-era fortress to house a theatre, mosque and food court of a kind. The project is masked as “economic development” but is a bit more symbolic than that. As Ataturk (war hero, atheist, libertine, boozer) represents everything that Erdogan is not (politician, devout Muslim, conservative, tee-totaller), many in Turkey view this latest effort as an affront to the country’s founder, who they have been raised from birth to revere.

Atatürk in Stone


Erdogan has decided to take his lessons from Putin or more fittingly, a Sultan instead. By denouncing the student protests, and the wide variety of protesters (from Kemalists to Communists), Erdogan is representing the worst in democracy—the tyranny of the majority. Minority opinions have rights in a democracy, and compromise happens in between the two forces. Rather than allowing for peaceful protests, Erdogan has used police brutality. And in a wily manner, he apologized for that brutality, only to double down on it weeks later. He also agreed to meet with select protestors, then scrounged the square with an even more massive response. And now the protestors are expected to kiss the ring of their Sultan.

Erdogan is term-limited as PM, but it is clear he has no intention of leaving public life. He has tried for amendments to the Turkish constitution to give more power to the Presidency, held by his friend Abdullah Gul. Many expect a Putin-esque switcheroo, with Erdogan preparing for a presidency putting him in power for another five to ten years.

Each action in Taksim Square has been in extremes. The redevelopment was an extreme move, the student protests turned into an massive rebuke of the Erdogan era. Erdogan responded not as a democratically-elected ruler but as a oppressor. The narrative plays well in the countryside, but the city slickers are not taking to the heavy handed treatment. And the tensions are high, not only between secularists and the devout, the city and the country, but economic interests as well. Istanbul is in the running to host the 2020 Olympics. Istanbul has been massively and quickly redeveloping land to improve their bid. And these protests might cost Istanbul the honor of hosting the first Olympics in the Muslim world.

The Turkish question is not the same as the Arab Spring. In Turkey, the conservative majority rules. It is the secularists that are trying to claw back their republic. And with the tumult in their corner of the world, Turkish secularists fear the Muslim Brotherhood and theocracy as much as westerners do. Turks are still seeking balance in their lives. Nearly the entire population are Muslim adherents, but they also embrace modernity. They do not evangelize their faith in the ways that other citizens do in other corners of the Muslim world. Members of Erdogan’s party seek religious tolerance but also seek to impose conservative laws–such as the prohibitions on alcohol–on a cosmopolitan city. Istanbul boils over today, but it remains an eternal city, where change is measured in epochs and eras, not days and decades.

Bosphorus Photo Credit: Stéphane Gaudry / / CC BY

Taksim Square Protest Photo credit: Fotomovimiento / / CC BY-NC-ND

Ataturk Photo credit: Sr. Samolo / / CC BY-NC-ND

Erdogan Photo credit: DonkeyHotey / / CC BY-SA

Ataturks Children Photo credit: olive eyes / / CC BY-NC-ND




When I was a kid, and would go to Cleveland’s old Municipal Stadium,–a hulking cavern of old steel, wooden slat seats and lake effect snow–I would marvel at the capacity crowd of nearly 80,000 humans. Imagine 80,000 of something. To put that in perspective, a human’s average life expectancy in days is about 30,000.

That stadium could hold six times the population of my small Ohio town. Years later, attending a presidential inaugural, I got my head wrapped around what a million of something looks like–a million people filling the National Mall from Grant’s plinth in front of the Capitol to Washington’s marble obelisk.

Now imagine a billion things. Or a trillion things. The number is impossible for the mind’s eye to grasp, or at least it was until this week. Every so often, a sleeping brood of cicacas–a bug akin to the locust–emerge from their 17 year dormancy, climb to the surface of the earth, and take flight. In the mid-Atlantic region, the cicada Brood II (they are numbered by cicada experts to keep tabs on their habits) returned, like a comet (except less stratospheric, more abundant and frequently irritating) on schedule.

17 Year Cicadas

Living in more mountainous then coastal areas, we didn’t see much of the great cicada swarms that seem to find their way across the mid-Atlantic and Midwest, destroying countless picnics and cookouts and making life a little miserable for about two to five weeks. But when I moved to Southern Indiana in the 2000’s, I had my first encounter with the Biblical force of nature known as a cicada brood.

The cicada, for the undoctrinated, is a peculiar bug. There are over 2400 known varieties around they world. They spent most of their lives dormant, underground, for over a decade at a time. After a lengthy nap of Rip Van Winkle proportions, they wait for the ground to warm to 64 degrees, after the winter thaw, and emerge. The bugs will reemerge as a ground dwelling brown nymph–a sort of giant armored beetle–before shedding their shell and emerging as a vibrantly colored adult, ready to eat, mate and die over a two to six week week period. Once airborne, they will sing dawn to dusk in the trees at levels nearing 100 decibels. They will clumsily fly past you, with their wings beating baritone. And they will die en masse, leaving a genocide’s worth of corpses piled in the roads, sidewalks and gutters.

Cicada molting animated-2

In 2004, Brood X emerged in the Midwest after a 17-year hiatus. Brood X is particularly huge and ugly. Red eyes, black bodies, orange wings. Individually, the bugs are spooky but harmless, easy to knock off a doorway or window screen. Collectively they are awesome. The swarms are so dense that a yellowish brown haze always sits in the air. Great oaks and elms heave with a collective crescendo of “singing” from the males. There is no respite from the song–the noise makes it indoors. And the grasses and trees, the parks and the wild are teaming with the bugs, ruining the tranquility of an outdoor stroll.

Two Brood X cycles before, in 1970, the bugs upstaged Bob Dylan on the occasion of his receiving an honorary degree from Princeton in springtime. With the cicadas making their presence known, he penned this song:

Cicadas have drawn the ire of many a human. They have been seen as a sign of God’s wrath–a pestilence. And yet, the Cicadas are harmless. They do not destroy the crops like locusts. Birds benefit from engorging on them. I have even seen the plain and goodly sparrow snag a clumsy cicada from the sky and peck it to pieces.

Is this thing on?

Perhaps the haters see something in themselves in the cicada. They hate the years of dormancy followed by ceaseless prattling before they die. The same could be said of a cubicle dwelling Dilbert, who emerges from his office tomb in retirement only to natter his children incessantly before croaking I suppose. For me, I have come to see the cicadas as an avatar not of woe, but of youth. They are rock and roll. They’d be tragic front-men. Consider: They sleep all the time. They are flamboyantly colored. They wake up to eat and fornicate for two weeks straight, singing at a piercing 100 decibels all day and all night, then die.

By the end of the two to five weeks, people become slap happy from the cicadas’ Bacchanalia. While bugs have always been reliable protein for human consumption in Asia, Americans take to the chocolate covered cicada–the females prized for their toothsome mouthfeel. The United Nations is in on the act too, releasing a report on bugs as the new food. I have seen people make found art and handicrafts from their fragile wings–even earrings. Children find novel ways to exact revenge. I recall a troop of latch-key kids from a local elementary school mercilessly beating the leaves of a tree–and the cicadas attached–to submission.

Backyard Bug Party

Rather than live in fear of the cicada, I will try to enjoy their return, like an annoying college buddy crashing on your couch for a month. I wonder, that if the cicada boom was a mere three days, that humans would not mind their company and visits.

Cicada Photo credit: Roger Smith / / CC BY-NC-ND

Molting video credit: T. Nathan Mundhenk / / CC BY-SA

Cicadas on Tree Photo credit: istorija / / CC BY-NC

Cicada bug party Photo credit: Matt Niemi / / CC BY-NC-ND

Cicada Microphone Photo credit: Articulate Matter / / CC BY-NC-ND

Freddie Mercury Photo credit: / / CC BY-SA