Tag Archives: Eliza Scidmore

In St. Louis, Intrepid Women on the Frontier

St. Louis. I’d never been there until my husband’s recent business gave me a chance to check it out. Funny I should have missed it over the years, as I attended the journalism grad school at the University of Missouri in Columbia. I remember piling into into a car to go eat catfish at a tin-ceiling hotel in Booneville, and traveling to Kansas City for barbeque at Arthur Bryant’s, which Calvin Trillin made famous in a 1972 piece for Playboy.

Even though I would have driven through St. Louis coming and going to Columbia from parts East, I don’t remember stopping in.

This time, I went with a mission in mind. I was looking for traces of Eliza Scidmore. Early in her career, she wrote frequently for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, then one of the most influential papers west of the Mississippi.

“A sense of place.” Like master biographer Robert Caro, I think it’s crucial to understanding the influences that shape an individual.

Scidmore wrote for the paper from Washington. But did she spend much time in St. Louis? That’s what I hoped to find out. Continue reading

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Japan’s Koyasan, a Century After Eliza Scidmore Saw It

Shingon monks at Mount Koya (Source: Jim Harper, on Wikipedia)

Koyasan, a mountainous area of temples in southeastern Japan, is a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists. The New York Times ran an article about it in the Oct. 22 travel section. Eliza Scidmore wrote about the site in 1907 for National Geographic Magazine. It’s interesting to see the different takes on the same place a century apart.

A monk known as Kobo-Daishi chose the site 1,200 years ago to serve as the center of an esoteric Shingon sect of Buddhism. Buddhism supports various paths by which someone can reach the elevated state of being freed from suffering and its repetition through continuous rebirth. The Shingon sect emphasizes the practice of daily ritual as a means to reach that enlightenment.

In her article, Eliza Scidmore wrote, with the note of irreverence she includes in many of her travel writings:

“One meets memorials and traditions of Kobo Daishi in every part of Japan, but at Koyasan he is naturally all-pervading and extreme. That forceful person could have known no rest during his brief span of sixty years, for ten men could hardly have built all the temples and shrines, carved the statues, painted the pictures, planted the pine and camphor trees, climbed the mountains, lighted the lanterns, started the sacred flames, or performed all the miracles attributed to him.”

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My Book Proposal on Eliza Scidmore Wins Biography Prize

In Boston with Gayle Feldman, awards committee chairman, who presented me with BIO’s Hazel Rowley Award for my book proposal for a biography of Eliza Scidmore (Photo: James McGrath Morris)

My book project on Eliza Scidmore was awarded the 2017 Hazel Rowley Prize, given by the International Biographers Organization (BIO) for the best proposal for a first biography. I received the award May 20 at BIO’s conference in Boston.

BIO was born around the time I started my book project, and the organization has been a terrific resource for a novice biographer like me. The members, ranging from Pulitzer Prize winners to beginners, offer a wonderfully democratic network of encouragement and support.

The prize is named in memory of Hazel Rowley (1951-2011), born in London, educated in England and Australia, and a long-time resident of the United States.

Hazel Rowley was an enthusiast of BIO from its inception, understanding the need for biographers to help each other.

Before her untimely death, she wrote four distinguished books: Christina Stead: A Biography, a New York Times “Notable Book”; Richard Wright: The Life and Times, a Washington Post “Best Book”; Tȇte-à-Tȇte: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, translated into 12 languages; and Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage, an NPR pick.

 

 

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‘On the Hunt’ for Cherry Blossoms With a Japanese Film Crew

Japan’s TBS network aired an hour-long program March 18 in its  “Mystery Hunter” series in which I discussed Eliza Scidmore’s role in bringing cherry trees to Washington. I was interviewed for the show last month.

From left, reporter Nakada Asumi, assistant director Hoshuyama Aki, me, production coordinator Keiji Jinn Nishimura (in glasses, center), director Suzuki Yohei, audio man Sakuma Toshimi and camera man Fukumoto Noriyuki.

I spent several hours with the film crew on the weekend of February 4. What a hard-working bunch they were. They arrived at our house in Falls Church, Va., just a few hours after flying in from Japan–then did four hours of taping, including translations! Our yellow sun room felt cozy. Birds at the feeder outside the picture window made a nice touch in the film.

The group was thrilled I had a first-edition copy of Scidmore’s 1892 book Jinrikisha Days in Japan.” I found it on eBay a few years ago for fifty bucks, and though it’s fragile and crumbly, it’s wonderful to see in the original form.

For the TV program — a mix of game show and field adventure — I discussed Eliza Scidmore’s vision of creating a “Mukojima on the Potomac,” inspired by a mile-long avenue of cherry trees in Tokyo a century ago. I visited Mukojima in 2013.

We met again on a chilly Sunday in Potomac Park, where the original cherry trees donated from Japan were planted in March 1912.

Potomac Park in mid-winter was bleak. And the weather was especially cold for Washington. Fortunately, as production coordinator Keiji “Jinn” Nishimura (back center) told me, they also filmed the cherry trees in bloom last spring, so they have footage of the peak blooming season.

It was a joy to meet and work with such talented professionals.

After leaving me at mid-afternoon on Sunday, they headed off across town to film … the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl!

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When Will the Cherry Blossoms Open?

Our weirdly warm winter in Washington means the cherry blossoms could bloom much earlier than expected. The National Park Service initially gave April 4 as the expected peak date. Now, we could see them well before that. There are many varieties, however, so the blooming dates will vary somewhat.

The Washington Post produced a clever video showing how to follow the progress of the buds to estimate the blooming time.

 

 

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Japanese POW Treatment and Eliza Scidmore’s Last Book

My husband and I recently watched a powerful film called “The Railway Man,” starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. It was interesting in light of my biography of Eliza Scidmore.

Her last book was As the Hague Ordains, a novel about POW conditions in Japan in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War. “The Railway Man” is based on a true story of Japanese treatment of a British Army officer captured in Singapore during World War II. Together, they present a sharp contrast. Continue reading

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‘She Persisted’ Was True of Eliza Scidmore

From website of “Eliza’s Cherry Trees,” by Andrea Zimmerman (Pelican, 2011)

Thanks, Andrea Zimmerman, for adding Eliza Scidmore to the Internet meme of “women who persisted.”

On the floor of Congress this month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren opposed Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination as U.S. attorney by attempting to read a letter written by the late widow of Martin Luther King, Jr. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell cut off Warren, saying:

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

“She persisted” quickly became a bumper-sticker slogan on social media, prompting references to trailblazing women of the past. Women like Eliza Scidmore.

Andrea Zimmerman, in Washington for a book reading

In a Facebook posting, Andrea Zimmerman, author of the children’s book “Eliza’s Cherry Trees,” added Scidmore to the list of history’s defiantly successful women. As Andrea noted, it took Eliza 24 years to win support for her idea of planting Japanese cherry trees in the Potomac Park.

Eliza Scidmore was a young woman with a crazy idea, and the male park supervisors she approached with her suggestion brushed her off. Several times.

But she persisted. Eventually, she got her way by securing as an ally another gutsy woman of her day: First Lady Helen Taft. The cherry blossoms we enjoy every spring in Washington show how things turned out.

 

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‘Drain the Swamp’ Gave Us Potomac Park

Donald Trump rode a populist wave to the White House vowing to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Earlier, President Ronald Reagan made it a catchphrase of his vow to reduce the federal bureaucracy.

In Eliza Scidmore’s day, residents complained about the “pestilential swamp” along the Potomac riverbank, near the Washington Monument. Everyone called the marshy area the Potomac flats.

It was a tidal wetlands that for many years served as a place of run-off for sewage and refuse carried by the Washington City CanalThe canal, which ran parallel to the northern edge of the National Mall, had been built as a major commercial waterway to carry goods into the city. But it fell into disuse and became an eyesore in the middle of the capital. During the blitz of city improvements under “Boss” Shepherd in the 1870s, the canal was paved over and is now Constitution Avenue.   

As a longtime Washington resident, Eliza Scidmore followed the efforts to clean up the flats and fill in the land. The work began in the 1880s and continued beyond the turn of the century.

In this 1863 photo, the stump of the Washington Monument in the far distance is surrounded by the swampy Potomac flats, which were filled in beginning in 1882. (Photo by Titan Peale, U. of Rochester Rare Books Collection)

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‘Mukojima,’ the Tokyo Park Behind D.C.’s Cherry Trees

Hand-colored photo of cherry-blossom viewing at Mukojima (Takashima, 1897)

Hand-colored photo of cherry-blossom viewing at Mukojima (Takashima, 1897)

“No other flower in all the world is so beloved, so exalted, so worshipped, as sakura-no-hana, the cherry-blossom of Japan.”
— Eliza Scidmore, The Century Magazine, May 1910

It’s now blooming season in Washington. That means cherry tree fever along the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park. It’s our own “Mukojima on the Potomac,” as Eliza Scidmore envisioned it more than a century ago, inspired by a popular cherry tree park in Tokyo.

Bruce and I made our annual pilgrimage to see the cherry blossoms on Saturday morning, under a clear but very chilly sky. We’ve learned over the years it’s best to go at early daybreak, when the huge crowds of tourists are just waking up or at breakfast. We can usually zip into town and find off-street parking not too far from the National Mall.

Today is the official birthday of the trees. The first ones, from a shipment of 3,000 donated by Japan, were planted on March 27, 1912.

Eliza Scidmore started pushing the idea of cherry trees in Potomac Park during her extensive travels to Japan beginning in the 1880s. She loved the ancient ritual known as hanami, or cherry-tree viewing, when all the Japanese people turned out to admire the blossoms and mingle beneath the branches.

One of her biggest inspirations was Mukojima, where cherry trees stretched for a mile along the east bank of the Sumida River in Tokyo.

Below are some photos of what Mukojima looked like around the time Eliza went there. See more wonderful images at this website featuring vintage postcards of old Tokyo.

Ramble under the cherry trees, around the time when Eliza Scidmore traveled in Japan (Takashima, 1897)

Ramble under the trees at Mukojima (Takashima, 1897)

 

Hand-colored postard of Mukojima

Hand-colored postcard of Mukojima

 

Hand-colored photo from Frank Brinkley’s Mukojima, from Frank Brinkley's 10-volume “Japan”

Hand-colored photo from Frank Brinkley’s 10-volume illustrated book “Japan”

Mukojima was originally a royal hunting grounds during Japan’s Tokugawa era. The area was a short ferry ride across the river from a temple district, and after one of the shoguns planted an orchard of flowering cherries, common folk went every spring to admire the trees in bloom.

The country’s literati visited Mukojima for inspiration, and the wealthy elite built retreats nearby. But the site also remained popular with the public.

Early in the 20th century, Scidmore described Mukojima as something of a “people’s park” that drew hordes of Japanese from all walks of life. They picnicked under the trees and drank saké; pinned poems to the branches and let the tissue-thin strips of paper blow away in the wind. Entertainers and vendors gave it a carnival-like atmosphere. Eliza loved the joviality and spirit of goodwill that hanami seemed to bring out in people.

I had a chance to visit Mukojima during a research trip to Japan in 2013. The setting is certainly more modern, but the spirit apparently hasn’t changed.

Today, the crowds that circle the Tidal Basin in Washington photographing the blossoms and taking selfies in front of the trees — the Washington Monument or Jefferson Memorial looming in the background — are enacting that same ritual of hanami.

It’s the very experience Eliza Scidmore wanted to re-create in Washington.

Surviving Japanese cherry tree planted in 1912 on the grounds of the Library of Congress, between the Jefferson and Adams buildings (Photo: D. Parsell)

It took three decades for her to see her dream become a reality, thanks to the support of First Lady Helen Taft. Scidmore — then in her 50s — was one of only three special guests at the small private ceremony by the Tidal Basin when Mrs. Taft planted the first cherry tree by the Tidal Basin, and the Japanese ambassador’s wife, Madame Iwa Chinda, planted the second one.

Remarkably, those first two trees are still standing. They are west of the John Paul Jones statue, just south of a Japanese lantern donated later  by Japan. A plaque marks the historic event.

The life of cherry trees is typically about 40 years, so these two are real survivors. Gnarled and misshapen from lost limbs, but gallantly hanging on, thanks to the loving attention of the National Park Service. Many of the original 3,000 trees have had to be replaced over the years.

There’s another hardy survivor on the grounds of the Library of Congress on Capitol Hill, where I go often to do research for my biography of Eliza Scidmore. The tree is so old and unbalanced it’s heavy surviving limb is propped up by a crutch.

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‘Downton Abbey,’ An American Heiress and Eliza Scidmore

ElizMcGovern_LadyGrantham_TabletMag

Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Grantham in “Downton Abbey”

OK, fellow “Downtown Abbey” addicts, I managed to find a connection between the TV series and the subject of my biography in progress, the 19th-century American travel writer Eliza Scidmore. The line runs through Cora Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), the American-born mistress of Downton Abbey.

Julian Fellowes, the show’s writer, has said Cora was meant to represent the many rich American heiresses of the late 19th century who married into the British aristocracy. The press dubbed them “dollar princesses.”

The most famous of them was Mary Leiter, who led a glamorous life as Lady Curzon. Her father was a wealthy dry goods merchant from Chicago who made a fortune in partnership with the department store mogul Marshall Field.

Fellowes stressed that he didn’t model Cora specifically on Mary Leiter. But there are many parallels in their lives. Eliza Scidmore knew Mary Leiter as a young debutante in Washington.

LadyCurzon_MaryLeiter_MagPortrait

American heiress Mary Leiter, who became Lady Curzon

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Eliza Scidmore and Other Women in WWI

Eliza Scidmore appears in a new book by Elizabeth Foxwell, an author who has spent much of her career immersed in mystery and crime fiction. Foxwell is a scholar of the genre, has won an Agatha Award for her stories, reviews mysteries for Publisher’s Weekly, and is managing editor of Clues: A Journal of Detection.

Elizabeth Foxwell reads from her book at One More Page Books in Arlington, Va. (Photo: D. Parsell)

Elizabeth Foxwell reads at One More Page Books in Arlington, Va. (Photo: Diana Parsell)

She took a very different turn in her latest project: an anthology of writings by American women who served in World War I. Titled In Their Own Words , it uses letters, journal entries, and articles to present a cross-section of women’s experiences in the war.

Eliza Scidmore is included in the book among half a dozen female correspondents.

Eliza was in Japan in the summer of 1914 when Japan declared war on Germany. She published an article in The Outlook magazine describing Japan’s entry into the war as an ally of France and Russia. Foxwell read an excerpt from it during an author’s talk last night at One More Page Books in Arlington, Va.

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LibriVox Features Eliza Scidmore, on Alaska

Eliza Scidmore has made her debut appearance on LibriVox.

I discoverNGcovered LibriVox a couple of years ago and am now a big fan. It’s a free online service of audio books recorded from titles in the public domain. The concept is especially wonderful because all the books are recorded by volunteers. The readers are people from around the world. A big, beautiful universe of book lovers.

LibriVox is great for easing my resistance to gym workouts on the treadmill. I’ve found it’s also a nice, soothing way to “read” in bed on a winter night before falling asleep.

I’ve been working my way through some of the classics I missed. So far: Middlemarch (tough to absorb in audio of mixed narrators, so I followed along in a paperback), several Edith Wharton novels and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (the reader was brilliant, quite theatrical in his reading). A recent listen was one of my all-time favorite books, Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Also have on my download list some works by John Muir and the British travel writer Isabella Bird. Continue reading

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A ‘Pen Pal’ History Buff in Japan

Ichiro Fudai at home in Hanamaki, Japan

This is Ichiro Fudai. We’ve never met. But Ichiro and I have corresponded online since he learned about my book project on Eliza Scidmore through a TV program that aired during my research trip to Japan in 2013. Ichiro contacted me about a connection in his hometown of Hanamaki.

Ichiro, who has visited the United States and has excellent command of English, lives in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture. A close friend of Eliza Scidmore late in life, Dr. Inazo Nitobe, hailed from there.

Trained as an agronomist, Dr. Nitobe became a statesman and worked for the League of Nations in Geneva. That’s where Eliza spent her final years. She socialized with Nitobe and his American-born wife, Mary. Continue reading

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Robert Caro and a Sense of Place in Biography

caro

Robert Caro at 2011 BIO conference in Washington

I’m grateful to Steve Weinberg, a journalist and biographer (and one of my former journalism school profs at the U. of Missouri), for flagging this article in The Daily Beast. It describes the evolution of legendary biographer Robert Caro’s first book: ‘The Power Broker’ Turns 40: How Robert Caro Wrote a Masterpiece.

The book is huge—1,200 pages. Intimidating. But based on this article, I’m inspired to track it down and study Caro’s style.

Caro’s keynote speech on the craft of biography impressed me at a Biographers International Organization conference in Washington a few years ago. He talked about the importance of place and setting.

[I]f the place, the setting, played a crucial role in shaping the character’s feelings, drives, motivations, insecurities, then by describing the place well enough, the author will have succeeded in bringing the reader closer to an understanding of the character  …

The message resonated with me because I’ve focused a lot on conveying a sense of place in my biography of Eliza Scidmore.

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In Boston, Biographers and a Letter by Eliza Scidmore

Whether novice or experienced, biographers have a great resource in Biographers International Organization. It was founded five years ago by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer James McGrath Morris and others to provide collegiality and support.

I’ve attended three of BIO’s annual conferences. This year’s, held in Boston in May, was the best yet. Three colleagues from my book-writing group were also there. And on a research jaunt to the Boston Public Library I found a letter that helped me resolve a question that turned up when I was doing research in Japan.

Happy campers at the 2014 BIO conference in Boston, all of us members of a book-writing group in Washington. From left, Bonny Miller, Sonja Williams, me and Cheryl LaRoche.

At the 2014 BIO conference in Boston, with Washington book-writing colleagues, from left, Bonny Miller, Sonja Williams, me and Cheryl LaRoche.

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At America’s First World’s Fair, Eliza Scidmore and … Irish Oatmeal!

When you’re working on a book involving U.S. history, you see connections everywhere.

The latest for me is steel-cut oats, which I love for their chewy nuttiness. Oatmeal really fuels you to start the day, without the hunger pangs I usually get around 11:00 when I have my other standard breakfast: Greek yogurt with berries and meusli. The only drawback is that old-fashioned oatmeal takes 30 minutes to cook.

While waiting for the pot to boil a few days ago, I noticed an intriguing link to a chapter I’m working on for my biography of Eliza Scidmore.

The steel-cut oats I bought are imported from Ireland under the company name “John McCann.” The arty label — if it’s not just a fake marketing ploy — features a “Certificate of Award” for the product from the 1876 International Exhibition in Philadelphia. That was America’s first World’s Fair, held for the 100th anniversary of U.S. independence.

The exposition is where Eliza Scidmore made her reporting debut, at the age of 19, writing for a Washington newspaper.

http://www.lcpimages.org/centennial/img/Am1876UniStaCen-52009-O-6.jpg

Official Catalogue from 1876 International Exhibition

Many people know about the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 (technically the World Colombian Exhibition), thanks to books like Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City.

Eliza Scidmore was there too. The Centennial Exhibition in 1876 was the first big event of its kind in the United States, and most Americans had never seen anything like it. During the six-month run, from May to November 1876, it drew about 9 million visitors. The admission fee was 50 cents.  Continue reading

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Eliza Scidmore, Jokichi Takamine and ‘Homecoming Trees’

Plaque describing the role of Jokichi Takamine and Eliza Scidmore in Japan’s cherry tree gift to Washington (Photo: D. Parsell)

Eliza Scidmore is popping up all over the place here in Japan. Her cameo appears on plaques marking the presence of cherry trees grafted from trees in Potomac Park — scions of the 3,000 trees Japan sent to Washington a hundred years ago. A couple hundred saplings of these “homecoming cherry trees” are being planted around Japan.

It’s one of many U.S.-Japanese projects celebrating last year’s centennial of Washington’s cherry trees. Japan is also planting 3,000 dogwood trees that were a gift from the United States.

On the plaques, Eliza Scidmore is paired with a famous Japanese chemist named Jokichi Takamine. It recognizes their dual effort in bringing flowering cherry trees to Washington. Eliza had come up with the idea many years earlier but failed to win the support of park supervisors. Dr. Takamine had similarly tried in vain to have cherry trees planted in a park in New York City, where he lived.

Jokichi Takamine

A fortuitous moment came when Eliza encountered Dr. Takamine and his travel companion, the Japanese consul in New York, at social events in Washington in the spring of 1909. When she informed them of Mrs. Taft’s plans to have some flowering cherry trees planted in Potomac Park — a move Mrs. Taft took up at Eliza’s suggestion — Dr. Takamine offered to personally buy a couple thousand trees for the project. Continue reading

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Cherry Blossom Viewing at ‘Mukojima’ in Tokyo

On Saturday I literally walked in Eliza Scidmore’s footsteps when I went to Tokyo to see the cherry tree viewing (hanami) at Mukojima. The original mile-long stretch of cherry trees lining the Sumida River was the chief inspiration for Scidmore’s idea of planting Japanese cherry trees in Washington. She envisioned, she wrote many times, a “Mukojima on the Potomac.”

Picnicking and cherry tree viewing at Mukojima in Tokyo, an inspiration for Eliza Scidmore in the late 19th century (Photos: Diana Parsell)

It wasn’t just the blossoms that Scidmore wanted to import. She loved the celebrations when the Japanese turned out in droves to see the trees in peak bloom.

The most festive place was Mukojima. It was like the “people’s park,” where Japanese from all walks of life mingled in a carnival atmosphere. There were jugglers, acrobats, orators and vendors. And lots of saké drinking and picnicking.

The place is much changed today, of course. Most of the original trees were destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and had to be replanted. The Sumida River today is wider. Tall buildings tower above one side of the riverbank, and the other has a raised freeway running parallel to a stretch of cherry trees. But the display is still glorious, and the spirit of hanami remains the same.

It was a joy to be there and experience it. The trees bloomed about two weeks earlier than expected here in Japan, so my timing was perfect!

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Guest Blog Post on Eliza Scidmore

Ken Ackerman, the author of books on J. Edgar Hoover, “Boss” Tweed and other larger-than-life characters, writes a blog on people, politics and the world, Viral History. He offered me space today to write about Eliza Scidmore while the cherry trees are in bloom. Visit his blog and check out my post.

Hand-colored photo of geishas at a tea ceremony, from the early 1900s, in National Geographic’s Eliza Scidmore collection of photos. The high quality and studio setting suggests the photo may have been by a professional and acquired by Eliza. (Source: National Geographic)

 

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