Matters of Time | Science | Smithsonian

Matters of Time

Everything old is news again

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

For David Roberts, who writes about why the ancient Anasazi people of the American West abandoned their cliffside dwellings some 700 years ago ("Riddles of the Anasazi"), one of the more intriguing ruins was one he failed to reach. "The only approach," he notes, "was by traversing a six-inch ledge above an 80-foot void. I chickened out, but Greg Child and Renée Globis, who were in tip-top shape, made the crossing. At the narrowest point on the ledge, they stepped in three footholds carved by the ancients. Reaching the ruin, they were astounded to find a huge kiva—an underground chamber—with a brilliantly painted interior, bins for grinding corn, and two big shield symbols painted on the wall." Says Roberts, "After they came down, Greg said, ‘I can imagine the Anasazi performing that tiptoe traverse. But how in the world did they get all that stuff up there? You wouldn’t have cjulht me dead on that six-inch ledge passing roof beams and building blocks to some dude standing three feet to my right.’"

Stephen S. Hall didn’t gasp, but he did wonder what he’d gotten himself into. Hall, who wrote our story about West Nile disease ("On the Trail of the West Nile Virus"), once profiled the late Notre Dame biologist George Craig, one of the grand old men of vector biology. "He asked me if I would join him for lunch," Hall recalls, "which of course I immediately agreed to do." Not only did Craig bring out some sandwiches, he also brought to his desk several laboratory containers covered with coarse nylon netting. These were filled with hungry mosquitoes, and while scientist and journalist ate lunch, they draped their arms over the tops of the containers so the mosquitoes could also dine. "Craig was a wonderful character," says Hall, "and if he were still alive today, he would be shaking his finger and saying, ‘I told you so,’ about the spread of West Nile. He firmly believed that more mosquito-borne diseases were destined to arrive on our shores and that we would be unprepared for them."

When Witold Rybczynski wrote A Clearing in the Distance, a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York City’s Central Park 150 years ago, Rybczynski, himself an architect, was primarily concerned with the park as a mid-19th-century artifact. But looking at photographs of it taken over the years for "Olmsted’s Triumph" reminded him that "while Central Park is a historical place, it is also always new," he says. "Each generation has embraced the park and made it its own."

About Carey Winfrey
Carey Winfrey

Carey Winfrey was Smithsonian magazine's editor in chief for ten years, from 2001 to 2011.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus