History from
the Bottom Up

The Green Fairy

 The Green Fairy

Van Gogh, Still Life with Absinthe

Fans of Ernest Hemingway know that a lot of absinthe gets drunk in his novels. Absinthe was a strong alcoholic drink made from an aromatic, bitter-tasting herb called Artemisia absinthium, or wormwood. Its characteristic licorice flavor was derived from fennel and anise, and it smelled like a Christmas tree. In its pure form it was a clear liquid, but became milky when diluted with water or wine.

The Absinthe Drinker by Viktor Oliva The Green Fairy

The Absinthe Drinker by Viktor Oliva, 1901

This article in the New York Times explains why the drink turns milky when diluted: “[T]he key constituent of wormwood is a chemical called thujone, which gives it — and absinthe — a penetrating evergreen aroma. . . . The aromatics are more soluble in alcohol than in water, so when the concentrated spirit is cut with wine or water, they cluster together in tiny droplets that reflect light from their surfaces. Instantly, what was a clear liquid clouds over.”

Nineteenth and early twentieth century paintings and novels show that absinthe played a huge role in the artistic world. References to and renditions of the drink appear constantly in paintings and poetry and novels.

Edgar Degas   In a Café   Google Art Project The Green Fairy

Edgar Degas, In a Cafe–that glassy-eyed stare.

Five o’clock was known as the “green hour,” and the drink was called the “green fairy.” Absinthe, and particularly thujone, was blamed for causing hallucinations, mental problems, and crime, and was banned in 1915.

Albert Maignan   La muse verte The Green Fairy

Albert Maignan: The Green Muse, 1895

Manet Den Absinthdrénker The Green Fairy

Manet, The Absinthe Drinker 1859

Nowadays scientists are leaning toward the theory that the negative effects the drink had on people were caused more by its super-high alcohol content or toxic additives than by the trace amounts of thujone it contained. It was later reformulated by Jules Pernod, without the wormwood.



Pleased to Eat You


In my new book, I have a section on entomophagy, which is a big word that means eating insects. And entomophagy is a prominent part of my book trailer, if you haven’t had the joy (or stomach) to watch that yet. When I was researching the book, I requested a small stack of insect cookery books from my local library, which caused quite a stir behind the desk.

Now there’s a new book out called The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet, and it’s a book … Read more

Author Visit, The Country School


Yesterday I visited The Country School in Madison, CT, where I spoke to kids from preschool through seventh grade in celebration of their S.T.E.A.M. Theme Day: (Bugs, Biomes, and Beyond). First I spoke to the older kids about my new book, Bugged. After that, I spoke with the younger kids, where we read The Dragon’s Scales, and they acted out the story by helping with weighing and measuring.

It was such a fun day, and open to everyone in the community, so there were lots of guests in attendance. Here are some pictures, taken by the amazing Liz Lightfoot, Director of Communications, … Read more

Today is my BUGGED Book Birthday!


Today is the official pub date of my new book, Bugged: How Insects Changed History. It’s been a long road to publication. But I’m pretty proud of how it turned out.

To my loyal readers: I apologize for posting less frequently recently. It’s been a pretty frenzied time–but a good frenzied–with the launch of my book and all the stuff we authors need to do to publicize it. Lots of traveling, book fairs, guest posting, skyping, and school visits. But I hope to resume my regularly-scheduled blogging soon.

I hope you like the book, … Read more

Cape Elizabeth Author Fest Starts Tomorrow!


I’m heading to Portland, Maine today and will be signing books at the Cape Elizabeth Author Fest tomorrow at the Cape Elizabeth High School from 10 – 2.

This will be the first time my brand-new book, Bugged: How Insects Changed History will be available. It’s always scary-yet-exciting to release a new book into the world, and I can’t think of a better place to launch it. I love the Portland area. I have lots of dear friends and family who live there, and my son, who goes to college about an hour … Read more

Shady Characters


You know those drops they put into your eyes at the eye doctor, the ones that dilate your pupils? The dilating stuff is called atropine sulfate, and it’s extracted from the Atropa belladonna plant (known as deadly nightshade). I don’t know about you, but I hate the sensation it causes. My eyes water like crazy when I go out in the sun, and I can’t read for hours afterwards.
But many Italian women of the Renaissance willingly used a derivative of the belladonna plant as eye drops to dilate their pupils, … Read more

Thanks, Bradley Elementary School!


On Wednesday I visited the Bradley School in Derby, Connecticut and spoke to three groups of kids, aged kindergarten through fifth grade. The kids were fantastic listeners and participants.
Here are some kindergarteners and first graders helping to demonstrate weights and measures as I read the book Dragon’s Scales.
And here’s me talking to the second and third graders about chamber pots.
During the presentation to the fourth and fifth graders, I asked for a teacher to volunteer to … Read more

Size Matters


When I was in college I had the amazing fortune to take a course with paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and science historian Stephen Jay Gould. His lectures were entertaining, fascinating, fact-filled, and completely accessible to non-science majors. He instilled in me a lifelong love of quirky science, and especially the history of science. I remember one of his lectures opened with this image:The subject of the class was about size and shape, and the relationship of surface to volume. All animals, from a tiny gnat to a giant seismosaurus, … Read more

Thanks for the Skype, Ms. MacMillan’s Grades 2-3!

Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 12.29.39 PM

On Friday I had a Skype session with a lively and engaged group of second and third graders from Halifax, Canada. They were just coming off a two-day snow holiday. You have to think they’re accustomed to snow, so that must have been some storm.

We talked about writing, and bugs, and sanitation, and where ideas come from. And they even sent me a follow-up suggestion for what to name my current book project–I’d tell you what it is, but I still have to write the book so … Read more

Thanks for the Skype, Cape Elizabeth Middle Schoolers!


Yesterday I had a really fun Skype visit with fifth graders from Cape Elizabeth, Maine. They were so fun and enthusiastic, and I loved the way they sat right up close to ask questions. It felt like they were sitting in my office with me. We talked about writing, and revising, and new books, and favorite books. Thanks to Ms. Karlonas for arranging the visit.

And the best part is, I will get a chance to meet some of them in person, as I’ll be attending the Cape Elizabeth Author Festival on April … Read more

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