The Amazing Tree Shapers of India

I stumbled upon an ancient but fairly obscure practice that sounds right out of fantasy: “living bridges” created from the carefully directed roots of rubber trees. I credit this discovery and the following photos and details to the blog Root Bridges.

First, here is an example of what I am talking about:

Living Bridges of Cherrapunji, India I

Again, it looks like something out of a folktale or fantasy novel — very Tolkienesque. It is hard to believe that multiple bridges like this are done by hand without killing the trees involved.

This practice is not documented to occur anywhere outside of the town of Cherrapunji, which is located in the remote Meghalaya region of northeastern India. That is because this is the wettest place on Earth, which makes the building of bridges and other infrastructure extremely difficult. So to get across the many rivers of the region, the indigenous War-Khasis tribe turned to the native ficus elastica, also known as the rubber fig, which thrives in this humid environment.

The tribe long ago noticed the flexible yet sturdy nature of the tree, especially its secondary roots, which grow from higher up the trunk. But rather than harvest its wood, the tribe “shapes” these appendages roots into a makeshift bridge, using an ingenious but simple method.

First they obtain the thin but sturdy trunk of the plentiful areca palm, slicing it down the middle and hollowing it out like a pipe. Then they slide the roots of the rubber fig through it, creating a guidance system that prevents the root from fanning out, making it grow straight instead. Gradually, over a period of ten to fifteen years depending on the length, the roots will reach the other side of the river and be allowed to anchor in the soil.

Time is given to allow the roots to get sturdier and more secure, but once that happens, they remain incredibly resilient: some can reportedly support the weight of dozens of people at a time. And since they remain alive and growing, these living bridges continue to gain strength over time, with some bridges said to be five centuries old.

The one bridge featured prominently in this photo set is the Umshiang Double-Decker Root Bridge, the only known bridge of its kind. So even by the incredible standards of root bridges, it is unusual.

More photos below (click to enlarge).

This fascinating practice has actually spurred me to write a short fantasy story about mythical tree shapers. I love it when the beauty of the real world both captivates and inspires.

A Great Indie Game For Writer’s Block

Over at Big Think, Teodora Zareva looks at an interesting new game that puts a unique spin on storytelling — by making you tell your own narrative as you go!

Elegy for a Dead World … leaves the players with “no game to play,” but to explore three long-dead civilizations, observe, and make notes… or stories — or poems — or songs.

The three lost worlds feature beautiful scenery, moving music, and are inspired by Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias, Lord Byron’s Darkness, and John Keats’ When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be. They create a strong, moody atmosphere that becomes the breeding ground for feelings and ideas.

Talk about a neat way to relate great literature to the average gamer. Of course, you do not have to be a fan of these poets, or be especially literary yourself, to appreciate the strange settings or enjoy the unique power to tell your own story.

The game eases you into the writing process with challenges, prompts, and fill-in-the-blank sentences. It has 27 writing challenges that might ask you to write a short story about an individual’s final days, a song about resignation, or a poem about war. In one challenge, you’re an archaeologist uncovering clues; in another, you’re a thief. In the more advanced levels, you’ll sometimes get new information halfway through the story, which casts a new light on things and forces you to explain or justify past actions. Once the game stirs your creativity, you can delete the prompts and use all the creative freedom in your writing you want.

When you’re done with the game, you can share your story with other players, read their works, post comments, and participate in discussions. You can also reproduce your writings in digital and print media.

Here is a trailer of the game, which has only piqued my interest further:

As Zareva notes, Elegy for the Dead presents an excellent way to get around writer’s block, teach people how to write, or to simply cultivate your creative side. As a writer by both trade and personal interest, I can definitely see the potential in this one.

 

Film of Interest: Taxi

I am very intrigued by the premise of the film, in which director Jafar Panahi poses as a taxi driver in Iran’s capital and largest city, Tehran, candidly recording the conversations his has with various passengers; the entire strata of Iranian society is represented, from the religious to secular, the modernizers and the traditionalists, and so on.

The is the third film to be done by Panahi since the Iranian government banned him from directing, screenwriting, giving interviews, and travelling abroad; his niece collected the Golden Bear Award it recently won at the Berlin International Film Festival. Unlike the previous two films, this one was fearlessly shot out in the open; Panahi has stated that he plans to continue his work despite the ban.

His first film since being placed under house arrest This Is Not a Film, was defiantly shot during his court appeal of the sentence, portraying his struggles and frustrations with expressing his creativity in an oppressive environment. It was smuggled to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival through a flash drive hidden in a cake.

The Most Expensive Artwork Ever Sold

When Will You Marry?, an 1892 oil painting by French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin, was recently sold for an estimated $300 million, the highest price ever paid for an artwork.

When Will You Marry (Paul Gaugin)

On loan to the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland for nearly five decades, the painting was sold privately by the family of Rudolf Staechelin to an unknown buyer, possibly Qatar Museums, the Qatari government’s main cultural body (and the buyer of the previous record-holder, Paul Cezanne’s “The Card Players”, which was purchased in 2011 for around $260 million).

The sale is all the more remarkable considering that Gauguin, like van Gogh, received little attention or acclaim for his artwork during his lifetime. His talent remained unrecognized until after his death, which came in 1903 at the age of 54 from a morphine overdose.

Gauguin’s legacy lives on not only through this valuable piece, but through his influence on great 20th century artists like Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Henri Matisse.

The Making of a Japanese Kokeshi Doll

This is one of the most interesting and relaxing videos I have seen in some time: an artisan named Yasuo Okazak creates a wooden kokeshi doll by hand, using tools and methods that have remained largely unchanged for centuries.

The amount of precision and skill required is captivating — he makes the wood look as malleable as clay, and the whole process looks so easy (the result of literally a lifetime of apprenticeship in the art). You can visit his official website here.

Hat tip to InspireMore.com.

A Comic Series Taking Place in Mughal India? Yes Please!

If you like your stories full of magic, mythology, and intrigue — all beautifully drawn and set in an exotic and vibrant locale — then consider joining me in supporting this fascinating new Kickstarter project: Zindan Comic Series. It combines my love of comic books with my even greater passion for history, world culture, and fresh new settings.

But you do not have to share such preferences to appreciate the uniqueness and artistry of this project.

Written and created by Omar Mirza and Khurram Mehtabdin, Zindan draws on the extravagance, mythology and beauty of the Mughal Empire. By combining a historically accurate time period with a fictionalized story involving magic and mysticism, the creators hope to propel the audience into an entirely new dimension of comic excellence. The story takes place in the 17th century, through the eyes of orphan brothers Zain and Timur, who belong to a secret order known as The Ansaars. The Ansaars are the protectors of world’s worst prison known as ZindanWith the Mughal Empire crumbling in the background as an emperor is betrayed by his own son, Zindan falls and Issue #0 begins.

Apparently, Issue #0 debuted this past October at New York Comic Con to considerable praise. Although I have yet to read it, the sample work and narrative details seem pretty interesting, with a lot of neat concepts drawing from the rich but largely untapped (in the West at least) history and mythos of India.

Zain and Timur are the protagonist orphan brothers of this story. Like many orphans of this time, they grew up as captives within various bandit tribes. By sheer chance, they are rescued and taken in by the Ansaars, an ancient secret order, who have sworn an oath of stewardship over Zindan. Zindan is the continent’s most majestic and secretive prison, which holds some of the worst criminals, as well as the land’s most sought after riches. Zain and Timur spend much of their lives knowing Zindan as their home.

The Ansaars and Zindan were originally created in response to a powerful threat to humanity posed by Wayl. Also known as The Immortal, Wayl serves as a central villain in the series. In his quest to release his evil ancestors from their mountain tombs, he finds a way to utilize the power of Jinns. By tapping into the great magical power of Jinns, Wayl has caused a significant imbalance in the fabric of mankind. Compelled by the threat of Wayl’s evil obsession, three empires rise up to defeat and imprison him within Zindan.

The series begins as Zindan falls to a greedy king after a battle between his army and The Ansaars. This event releases The Immortal, along with countless other villains who have accumulated in Zindan’s cells over the years. With everything lost once again, Zain and Timur are thrust back into a big world. This time, however, they are driven by vengeance and a special purpose to recapture the evils that the fall of Zindan has unleashed. The series captures their journey across empires and exotic locations throughout the Middle East, Persia and India as they attempt to recapture and defeat the world’s worst villains that had escaped Zindan. Through their odyssey, Zain and Timur will make allies, even more enemies, all whilst learning about their own past, while they carry on as The Last Ansaars of Zindan.

The team’s makeup is as appropriately multicultural as its series, with seven members across three continents.

Creative start-ups of any kind are tough, especially in a market as competitive and difficult to break into as comics. I imagine it will be all the more challenging for a series like Zindan, given its rather unique premises and settings (to my knowledge, few prominent comic series published in America take place in such foreign settings).

This may explain why such an otherwise interesting project has gained so little funding so far: as of this post, it has only a little over a week to raise around $6,400. Thankfully, I have seen a lot of Kickstarter projects remain docile until the last few days before getting a rush of donations to get fully funded. But I am not going to leave it to chance, hence why I ask you to give what you can or at least spread the word (if you are interested of course).

Best of like to the creative minds behind Zindan. I hope you find success.

Sunrise at Bolivia’s Famous Salt Flats

The Salar de Uyuni of Bolivia is famous not only for being the world’s largest salt flat — at 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi) — but for the incredibly surreal landscape it offers, especially after it rains.

This is vividly seen in the photo “Salar De Uyuni Sunrise” by Hideki Mizuta, which was National Geographic‘s Photo of the Day for December 18th.

Salar De Uyuni Sunrise (Hideki Mizuta - National Geographic)

The photographer’s account to Nat Geo:

“No wind, no sound—it was a very calm morning,” writes Hideki Mizuta, a member of our Your Shot community who captured this image at Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni. “I joined a sunrise tour at 2 a.m., first seeing a star-filled sky, and then early in the morning, around 5 a.m., this scene appeared through the window of the car. I ran out in a hurry. It was an amazing view that I couldn’t put into words. I thought, I want this scene all to myself, and walked away from people and took this photo in absolute silence.”

Here are some other captivating shots (courtesy of Wikipedia except when otherwise stated):

Salar de Uyuni (Night), Bolivia II

Salar de Uyuni (Night), Bolivia

This otherwise unknown salt flat tucked away in Bolivia’s southwest mountains is something from another world. See more unusual photos of it here, or do a quick Google search: unsurprisingly, a lot of enterprising photographers, travellers, and artists have taken advantage of this great opportunity for a memorable photograph.

Music of the Ancients

Raw Story reports on an interesting effort to faithfully recreate the music of the millennia-old Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations. Combining musical talent with meticulous archaeological research, this unique endeavor is delightful on both an anthropological and sensory level. You can hear haunting and elegant samples through the hyperlink or here.

More about the team behind this one-of-a-kind project:

…After completing a degree in music composition [singer and composer Stef Conner] got deeply interested in Babylonian literature and poetry—which was originally recorded in cuneiform, wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets.

But the words on the paper, the modern incarnations of these mineral etchings, were not enough for Conner. She wanted to know what these languages sounded like, to summon life from stone. Many of these poems and snatches of writings were sung and chanted, according to historians. The tunes played an important part in rituals in Mesopotamian societies, from funerals to lullabies, Conner says.

So she teamed up with Andy Lowings, who reconstructs ancient instruments and plays a mean lyre, a musical instrument with strings that resembles a harp. The two set out to create music that brings ancient Babylonian poetry to life, and The Flood is the result. It was produced by sound engineer Mark Harmer and can be found on Conner’s website; it will also come out on iTunes next month.

I strongly recommend giving their work a listen. It has been captivating me for the past two days now, especially during my busier working hours. Very soothing stuff.

Here is more about the music from the original website, from which you can pre-order the album:

Out in December 2014, ‘The Flood’ is a creative collaboration between Stef Conner, Andy Lowings (instrument-builder, harpist and creator of the Gold Lyre of Ur Project) and Mark Harmer (sound engineer, producer and harpist). Based on Mesopotamian texts from as early as the 4th millennium BC and composed for voice and the Lyre of Ur (a reconstructed 4500-year-old instrument excavated in the early 20th century from the Royal Graves at Ur), the album is the first ever CD of new music sung entirely in Sumerian and Babylonian. The incredible texts have inspired some of the strangest, rawest and most gripping, otherworldly songs you will ever hear, as well as some fun, amusing and often downright bizarre little excursions into the ancient Mesopotamian world, which reveal that in many ways, people in that remotest of times were actually a lot like us!

As the Raw Story articles notes, neither Conner nor her collaborators claim that these songs are a totally faithful recreation — after all, no human voice has uttered these compositions in thousands of years. But it definitely comes as close as one ever could. Conner studied the Babylonian and Sumerian languages deeply to determine the likely stresses and innotations, while Lowings built his lyre to be as similar to the ancient designs as possible. They even got help from Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, who recreated the 4,000-year-old Hurrian hymn to Nikkal, considered the oldest song in the world.

Given all that, I think it is safe to say that this is accurate as the piece comes given all the time that has past. It is amazing that anyone even made the effort! And whatever its authenticity, this labor of love is a beautiful listen. It almost transports you back to the mysterious city-states that made comprised these cradles of human civilization.

Portrait of An Artist: Wassily Kandinsky

Today’s Google Doodle honors the148th birthday of Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, who is credited with being the first painter to produce purely abstract works. (Despite this pioneering role, he appears to be virtually unknown in the West, at least among non-artists; I only learned of him through Google!)

Kandinsky’s fifty-year career spanned such major movements as Impressionism, Fauvism, Pointillism, Bauhaus architecture and abstract expressionism. His vast collection of works thus reflect a wide variety of styles and influences, as well as the particular moods and thoughts put into each individual piece.

Kandinsky used shapes and colors as expression of emotion, and often likened the painting process to composing music. According to Wikipedia, he harbored a deep fascination with colors since childhood, which intensified during the course of his college studies:

In 1889, he was part of an ethnographic research group which travelled to the Vologda region north of Moscow. In Looks on the Past, he relates that the houses and churches were decorated with such shimmering colours that upon entering them, he felt that he was moving into a painting. This experience, and his study of the region’s folk art (particularly the use of bright colours on a dark background), was reflected in much of his early work. A few years later he first likened painting to composing music in the manner for which he would become noted, writing, “Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul”.

By 1896, at the age of thirty, Kandinsky gave up a promising career as a teacher to enroll in art school in Munich. An encounter with the works of Monet at a Moscow art exhibit prior to leaving only further solidified this path — and the rest is beautiful and colorful history.

Wassily Kandinsky (Photo)