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hart-island

Do you know about Hart Island?  It is a small island, approximately 100-130 acres in size, which lies just off the coast of the Bronx (or actually just off the coast of the larger City Island, which is just off of the coast of Pelham Bay Park).  Since the late 1860s, New York City has utilized Hart Island as a potter’s field (and sometime plague burial site). There are (probably) more than a million people buried on the island, most of them nameless and forgotten indigents whose pursuit of New York dreams ultimately led them to this place of oblivion.  Comprehensive burial records were destroyed by arson in 1977, so the exact number of bodies on the island is now beyond human ken.

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As you might imagine, the history of Hart Island is a cold, sad mirror of the history of New York City (although there are some strange diversions–for example there were underground silos of surface-to-air missiles there during the early Cold War).  The public cemetery started out as a small part of the island but, during times of particular crisis or illness, the grave-trenches grew and the other functions receded til ultimately the whole island became a cemetery.  At present the island is jointly managed by some unfathomable partnership between the Department of Corrections (whose inmates conduct burials and tend the island) and the Department of Parks which was saddled with administrative control of Hart Island by recent legislation (but which lacks the funds & inclination to make it a proper “park”).

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In the island’s recent history, it was utilized as a cemetery for AIDS victims during the first phases of that crisis. In the early eighties, people were afraid and unsure of HIV’s nature and so these AIDS graves are said to be twice as deep as normal.

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The inmates who tend Hart Island are solicitous of their solemn charge (a friend of mine who works as a mouthpiece for the Department of Corrections told me that only the most dependable and responsible prisoners are chosen–and they are actually paid for gravedigging and site maintenance).  To mark the AIDS cemetery the inmates erected a tiny albeit touchingly earnest peace monument, however they have opined that something more fitting should go there.

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That was meant to be the  introduction to my idea, however it took me longer to describe New York’s secret “borough of the dead” than I expected (and I never even got to the part about how the island is slowly eroding away leaving a coastline of human bones).  Thus, come back next time for part two, where we talk about Hart Island’s future.

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mona_islandThe weather in New York has turned distinctively wintery, so Ferrebeekeeper is going to compensate by featuring a little known tropical island! Isla de la Mona (“Island of the Bow?” Mona Island?” help me out here, Spanish speakers) is a small island which lies in the strait between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The island measures 11 km by 7 km (7 miles by 4 miles) about the same size as Manhattan. But while 1.7 million people live on Manhattan, Isla de Mona has only a ranger station and no true permanent residents.

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Indeed, Isla de la Mona is something of an anomaly in the world: becoming less inhabited over time. In ancient times the Arawak Indians dwelled there. Archaeological evidence establishes their presence on the island by at least 3000 BC. However after Columbus (who officially “discovered” the island), the murky affairs of the colonial era caused the island to gradually depopulate. At one point, the island was controlled by Francisco de Barrionuevo, a Spanish grandee who fell afoul of Alonso Manso, the rapacious bishop of Puerto Rico. Bishop Manso was fond of proscribing wealthy enemies and seizing their possessions and retainers. To escape this fate, de Barrionuevo escaped to mainland South America, and he took most of the island’s remaining inhabitants with him. Thereafter, remaining natives were generally impressed (enslaved?) by French corsairs. The emptied island became a haunt of pirates including the infamous Captain Kidd. It passed to American control in the Spanish American War and remains an administrative part of Puerto Rico (although it is actually closer to the Dominican Republic).

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Abandoned lighthouse in the middle of a cactus forest on Mona Island

In the modern era, Mona Island, was mined for guano. During World War II, it was attacked by a German u-boat in what must have been a thrilling “Hellboy” or “Indiana Jones” type adventure (or maybe the submarine was trying to disrupt the Allies’ nitrogen supply). Today the island is entirely a nature preserve, and no more than 100 people can be on it at a given time.

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Because of this enforced isolation, the island has a pristine ecosystem of dry scrublands and tropical forests. There are extensive sea-caves and coral reefs around the island. As you can imagine, it is a refuge to wildlife such as sea turtles (which are displaced by beach development everywhere else). Unfortunately feral pigs, goats, and cats have invaded the island and messed up the unspoiled ecosystem, but they are kept somewhat in check by annual hunts and by the efforts of the Park Service. I think it is thrilling to imagine this empty island out there. It pleases me no end that there are still such places.

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Ilha de Queimada Grande

Ilha de Queimada Grande

Off the coast of Sao Paolo State, the main industrial and financial province of Brazil, lies Ilha de Queimada Grande, a tiny tropical paradise of 106 acres (approximately half the size of the Bronx Zoo). The island is uninhabited by humans, but it is the sole home of the Golden Lancehead pit viper (Bothrops insularis), a toxic yellow and brown viper which lives on small birds and lizards. Adult snakes are usually around 70 cm (28 inches) in length, although large specimens can grow to 118 cm (46 inches). The vipers are mostly arboreal although they can also live on the cliffs and scrubland of their rugged little island. The Brazilian navy forbids all but authorized personnel and invitees from setting foot on the island, so the little spit of rock and forest mostly belongs to the snakes.

 

The Golden Lancehead Viper (Bothrops insularis)

The Golden Lancehead Viper (Bothrops insularis)

Living on a forbidden island and possessing venom capable of killing a human, the vipers would seem to be invulnerable, but, of course such is not the case. The habitat for the vipers is so small that they suffer from inbreeding and cannibalism! Also, the fell hand of man is toying with the poor snakes. ABC News reported on the situation today. According to the news/entertainment site, “Rogerio Zacariotti, a researcher with the Cruzeiro Do Sul University in Brazil, travels to “Snake Island” regularly to monitor the Gloden Lancehead population. He is convinced poachers are stealing the snakes from the island and selling them on the black market.”

 

Psssst, wanna buy a dangerous snake?

Psssst, wanna buy a dangerous snake?

What sort of crazy person would want a deadly inbred endangered snake? What is wrong with people? Hopefully the Brazilian navy and the vipers themselves will teach the thieving interlopers a little lesson about victimizing a miniature ecosystem!

Isola Bella (Lake Maggiore)

Isola Bella (Lake Maggiore)

The House of Borromeo was an influential family of Lombardi aristocrats who ruled Arona, a town on Lake Maggiore (a long prealpine lake which snakes through Lombardy and up into Switzerland).   Various members of the Borromeo family played important roles in the politics of Milan and of the Catholic reformation (particularly as Archbishops), and even today they control a business empire with considerable wealth and clout.

The Gardens of Isola Bella

The Gardens of Isola Bella

More importantly, however, the Borromeo family was responsible for one of the world’s most impressive residences—an immense palazzo and exquisite formal garden which take up the entirety of Isola Bella, a small island on Lake Maggiore.  Isola Bella was once a rocky crag with a small fishing village on it (the whole island is only 320 metres long by 400 metres wide), however, in 1632 Carlo III set out to build a grand palace and garden on the tiny spot of land.  The climate of Lake Maggiore is uncommonly mild, and the Count undoubtedly was looking forward to cool summers and warm winters on his isolated retreat.  Not even rapacious aristocrats get everything they want however, and the villa’s construction was interrupted by a plague which broke out in Milan in the middle of the 17th century.

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The palazzo is just another enormous beautiful Italian palace filled with sumptuous rooms, art masterpieces, and precious treasures but the tiered baroque gardens are truly remarkable.  Exquisite Mediterranean plants thrive beneath a background of snow-topped Alpine peaks.  Magnificent stairs and formal statuary add additional splendor to the garden.

The Shell Grotto at Isola Bella

The Shell Grotto at Isola Bella

Although aesthetes might find it difficult to pin down the most remarkable feature of this remarkable place, we here at Ferrebeekeeper have an easier task.  The gardens at Isola Bella feature one of the most striking mollusk-themed rooms on Earth.  The shell grotto room connects the ten-tiered garden on one side of the island with the huge mansion on the other—it is literally the linchpin of the island.  The grotto was designed to provide a cool retreat from summer.  The walls, ceilings, floors, and doorways are all covered with intricate murals made from shells and black pebbles.  So ornate is the shell-work that it took workmen and architects a century to complete the grotto…

A different room in the grotto

A different room in the grotto

Vamlingbo Church (mid 13th century, photo by photographer Olivia Wittberg)

Gotland is the largest island in the Baltic Sea.  It is culturally and politically part of Sweden (although it has ancient ties to Denmark, Norway, Germany, Poland, Russia, and lands beyond).  Many historians believe the Goths, the tribe of invaders which sacked Rome, originated from Gotland (a story which will have to wait for another post).  The main town of Gotland is Visby, the city of roses and ruins, which was a principal port of the Hanseatic League.  Gotland is scattered with strange ancient rune stones (some of which are graven with valknuts) and ancient hidden treasure hordes, but todays post concerns the island’s 94 medieval churches.  These buildings executed in the Romanesque and Gothic architectural style are one of the Island’s top tourist draws.

Anga Church (13th Century)

The Romanesque churches of Gotland were built between  1150–1250 AD.  Then the style switched to Gothic from 1250 to 1400 AD (nearly a millennia after the original Goths began to cause unrest in the northern provinces of the Roman empire).   The era of church building was a golden age for Gotland which grew rich from Baltic trade.  Priest, sailors, merchants, bankers, fishermen, architects, monks, and all manner of other folk walked the thriving streets of Visby.   Many of the churches remain (though many have been rebuilt) and their elegant architecture provides a window to the vanished medieval world.  Here is a little gallery of some of the churches of Gotland.  If you are wildly curious about any particular building you can visit this site for a more comprehensive explanation.

Atlingbo Church

Kräklingbo Church

Fårö Church

Garde Church (built originally in the mid-1100s)

Ala Church was originally built in the 12th century

Lärbro Church (Mid 13th Century)

Slanga Church

När Church (photo by Swedish National Tourist Board)

Ruins of St. Nicolai, Visby

Väte Church (14th century)

Träkumla Church

Fröjel Church (photo by Helen Simonsson)

Aren’t they beautiful?  I am sorry that I could not find  the names of a couple of churches, but there is a “find the six differences” aspect to this group of images which I didn’t appreciate at first.  I was hoping to make this an easy Friday post, but I have been trapped at my computer comparing the slants of steeples and the shape of windows.  I’ll leave you with a little picture of the gorgeous cathedral at Visby and let you look for the rest of the churches of Gotland on your own!

Visby Cathedral

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