A purple that comes from the sea. B. Alexandra Szerlip writes a column for The Believer called Vintage Tech that looks at the impacts of earlier technologies on our lives today. The April 16th edition is on the 3,000 year old practice of milking snails and other mollusks to make a brilliant purple dye, still practiced today by expert Mixtecs in Oaxaca, Mexico. Szerlip centers part of the story around Habacuc Avedano, a present-day Mixtec who just recently turned 78:
“He learned how to loosen a mollusk’s tenacious grip, then press on the exposed belly with his thumb. After urinating in defense against the intrusion, snails release a milky, garlic-y scum that, pressed onto the cotton thread, changes, within minutes when exposed to bright sunlight, from yellow to green to blue, and finally to vibrant purple.
A miraculously colorfast purple that requires no mordant to “develop.””
The practice, particularly in the way the Mixtecs employ it, leaves the snails unharmed.
“Perhaps most importantly, they knew that caracol purpura [the snail] could be “milked,” then re-attached, unharmed, in a damp, shady place between the rocks, and that after 28 days (one moon cycle), they would replenish themselves, have enough “ink” for their own needs, and could be milked again. That treated with kindness, the mollusks lived to the ripe old age of 25 or 30.”
It feels more like literary magic realism than reality, but it’s real. I’m fascinated by isolated, long-preserved pockets of expertise and specialized labor like this one, especially in the way these folks (dyespeople? farmers? caretakers?) get such a satisfying outcome from what seems to be such a symbiotic and gentle interaction with these other beings. There’s some kind of hope there in that these things are still around if you look hard enough.
This has odd resonance.
The voting tech of ancient Greece: Two bananas of a kind this week. This is another story about forgotten technologies from over a millenium ago, that feels like science fiction. Look at what software engineer Kate Sills uncovered. Click through to read the whole amazing thread, with pictures and rich description!
Bonus Banana: Branford Marsalis on the life-long struggle to stay unsatisfied and hungry with your creative progress. :
“By the time a child is about seven or eight the brain is like, ‘I have all the keys to the universe I need right now’, which is why learning is often a struggle. It’s human nature to not address your shortcomings. The great thing for me is, I played with my brother’s band and everybody said, ‘You’re incredible!’ And I was like, ‘Haha, not really’. And then I played with Sting and everybody was like, ‘Oh man it doesn’t get any better than that?’ And I’m like, ‘Ah, I think it does.’
“If I needed the adoration of others, I was pretty much done in 1985. But since I’m lucky enough to not need it, I said, ‘Well what else can I do to make myself better?’ One way you can do it is to double down on your strengths … but I decided I’d go out there and find out how good I can be. People routinely stay in their lanes. They lose the thrill. Know what I’m saying?”
It’s worth clicking through to read the whole piece, especially the bit about Branford’s harshest critic, his mom.
Those are the three bananas I found for you this week. I had a blast making the audio banana last week and have another one in the works. Thank you to everyone who wrote in.
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