The Deadliest Garden in the World: Visit Alnwick’s Poison Garden in Northumberland, England

The mind reels to think of all the early humans who sacrificed themselves, unwittingly, in the prehistoric quest to learn which plants were safe to eat, which were suitable for healing, and which would maim or kill whoever who touched them. Even now, of course, the great majority of us rely on experts to make these distinctions for us. Unless we’re steeped in field training and/or folk knowledge, it’s safe to say most of us wouldn’t have a clue how to avoid poisoning ourselves in the wild.

This need not overly concern us on a visit to The Poison Garden, however. Nestled in manicured lanes at Alnwick Garden, “one of north England’s most beautiful attractions,” Natasha Geiling writes at Smithsonian, the Poison Garden includes such infamous killers as hemlock, Atropa belladonna (a.k.a. Deadly Nightshade), and Strychnos nux-vomica, the source of strychnine, in its collections. Just don’t touch the plants and you should be fine. Oh, and also, guides tell visitors, “don’t even smell them.” It should go without saying that tasting is out.

The Poison Garden is hardly the main attraction at Alnwick, in Northumberland. The castle itself was used as the setting for Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films. The 14 acres of controversial modern landscape gardens–designed by the flamboyant Jane Percy, Duchess of Northumberland–have become famous in their own right, in part for violating “England’s architectural patrimony,” a scandal you can read about here. (One garden designer and critic called it a “popular entertainment, the dream of a girl who looks like Posh and lives at Hogwarts.”)

The duchess responds to criticism of her extravagant designs with a shrug. “A lot of my ideas come from Las Vegas and Euro Disney,” she admits. The Poison Garden has a much more venerable source, the Orto Botanico in Padua, the oldest extant academic botanical garden, founded in 1545, with its own poison garden that dates to the time of the Medicis. After a visit, Percy “became enthralled with the idea of creating a garden of plants that could kill instead of heal,” writes Geiling. She thought of it, specifically, as “a way to interest children.” As the duchess says:

Children don’t care that aspirin comes from the bark of a tree. What’s really interesting is to know how a plant kills you, and how the patient dies, and what you feel like before you die.

What child doesn’t wonder about such things? And if we teach kids how to avoid poisonous plants, they can keep the rest of us alive should we have to retreat into the woods and become foragers again. The Poison Garden also grows plants from which common recreational drugs derive, like cannabis and cocaine, “as a jumping-off point for drug education,” Geiling points out.

Provided visitors follow the rules, the garden is safe, “although some people still occasionally faint from inhaling toxic fumes,” Alnwick Garden’s website warns. And while it’s designed to attract and educate kids, there’s a little something for everyone. Percy’s favorite poisonous plant, for example, Brugmansia, or angel’s trumpet, acts as a powerful aphrodisiac before it kills. She explains with glee that “Victorian ladies would often keep a flower from the plant on their card tables and add small amounts of its pollen to their tea to incite an LSD-like trip.” You can learn many other fascinating facts about plants that kill, and do other things, at Alnwick’s Poison Garden when the world opens up again.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Tune Into An Online Radio Station That Streams the Soothing Sounds of Forests from Around the World

Image by Snežana Trifunović, via Wikimedia Commons

Walk into a forest. Stand perfectly still. Close your eyes. What do you hear? The sounds of birds, the rustling leaves, yes, yes…. But what’s that? And that? The forest is full of sounds you can’t identify! Curious sounds, far-away sounds, soothing sounds, sounds that are not the churning anxious wheels inside your head when you try to relax….

Experiencing ourselves around trees has several demonstrable benefits, as the science of forest bathing has taught us. Many of these have to do with visual, olfactory, and tactile pleasures. But we must not neglect the natural acoustic system all around us: an immersive experience in full 360-degree sound. Trees’ “vibratory energies reveal humanity’s many connections with forests,” writes David George Haskell at Scientific American.

Forests “are full of song.”

That’s all very well for people who can go outside. But if you’re locked down in a major city, say, or the office, or an ill-advised holiday gathering, and you feel cortisol levels rising, we’ve got you covered. Back in September, we featured Sounds of the Forest, a crowdsourced audio archive gathering sounds from forests all over the world. Now, these clips are streaming at, an online radio station for tree songs in stereo. 

Streams rill, frogs hoot, birds caw and squawk in chorus. And then there are the trees, each species possessed of its own voice, Haskell writes:

Gusts of wind sonify plant diversity. Oak’s voice is coarse-grained, throaty; maple’s is sandy and light. These differences have their origins in plant evolution and adaptation. Drought-resistant oak leaves are thicker, tougher than the water-hungry maple. The different sounds of trees on a dry mountain ridge and in a moist forested hollow speak to the particularities of the ecology of each place. Ponderosa pine sings sweetly in the winds of California, its long needles were, John Muir wrote, “finest music” and a “free, wing-like hum”. But in Colorado, pines have evolved shorter, stiffer needles to cope with heavy loads of snow and ice. There, the trees wail as their wiry needles harrow the wind. “is a tool that gives you instant access to the sounds of the world’s forests,” Beth Skwarecki writes at Lifehacker. Many of those sounds, like the forests that produced them, are endangered, not only from the usual suspects but also the noise pollution of highways and housing developments. Listen to forest songs on repeat or hit “listen to a random forest” and be “transported to Madagascar to listen to some lemurs, or to Ghana to hear some peacefully rushing water, or to Russia, where a bird I’ve never heard of puts on a vocal performance.” This is good medicine. Discover the forest songs that best soothe your nervous system or delight ears at

via Kottke

Related Content: 

Sounds of the Forest: A Free Audio Archive Gathers the Sounds of Forests from All Over the World

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Marina Abramović’s Method for Overcoming Trauma: Go to a Park, Hug a Tree Tight, and Tell It Your Complaints for 15 Minutes

One of the most renowned of Chinese poets, Du Fu, survived the devastating An Lushan rebellion that nearly brought down the Tang Dynasty and resulted in an incredible loss of life around the country. His poems are full of grief, as translator David Hinton notes. The opening of “Spring Landscape” contains “possibly the most famous line in Chinese poetry,” and a painful comment on humanity’s place in the natural world.

The country in ruins, rivers and mountains
continue. The city grows lush with spring.

Blossoms scatter tears for us, and all these
separations in a bird’s cry startle the heart.

The poem presents a tragic irony. Nature invites us in, seems to promise comfort and refuge. “Du Fu tells us that birds seem to cry for us, and blossoms weep,” writes Madeleine Thien at The New York Review of Books. But “of course, this is a fairy-tale view, and ‘in the knowledge of its falsity, heartbreaking.’”

Is nature indifferent to human suffering? It would seem so to the broken-hearted Confucian poet. But nature is not devoid of fellow feeling. Trees talk to each other, create social worlds and families, and communicate with the other plants and animals around them. Japanese researchers have shown that the oils trees secrete can measurably lower stress levels, reduce hostility and depression, and boost immunity. Trees may not weep, but they care.

Trees are also, says performance artist Marina Abramović in the short video above, “perfectly silent listeners”—a rare and valuable quality in times of stress. “They have intelligence. They have feelings.” And for this reason, a tree is the ideal companion when we need an ear.

You can complain to them. And I started this a long time ago when I was in the Amazon with the native Indians. You know, they will go to the Sequoia tree, which is one of the oldest on the planet. And they will make a dance for the tree. These dances for the tree are so incredibly moving an emotional. So I thought, Wow! Why don’t I create an exercise that really works for me?

Abramović’s tree therapy is one part of her “Abramović Method,” notes Paper, “a set of techniques that enables artists to get to higher states of consciousness.” She recommends it for anyone who’s reeling from the traumas of this year. In our own age of devastation and isolation, it certainly couldn’t hurt, and perhaps we know more than Du Fu did about how nature supports our emotional lives.

So “please, go to the park near you,” the artist implores. “Pick the tree you like. Hold the tree tight. Really tight. And just pour your heart into it. Complain to the tree for a minimum of 15 minutes. It’s the best healing that you can do.” Included in the video is a testimonial from an ex-rugby player, who found the Complaining to Trees method transformative. “There is something in it,” he says. “It’s almost like you become part of the tree as well.” Trees are not people. They don’t dispense advice. They listen and console in their own mysteriously ancient, silent way.

Related Content:  

The Secret Language of Trees: A Charming Animated Lesson Explains How Trees Share Information with Each Other

The Social Lives of Trees: Science Reveals How Trees Mysteriously Talk to Each Other, Work Together & Form Nurturing Families

How the Japanese Practice of “Forest Bathing”—Or Just Hanging Out in the Woods—Can Lower Stress Levels and Fight Disease

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Humans Are Obsessed with Cats

A house cat is not really a fur baby, but it is something rather more remarkable: a tiny conquistador with the whole planet at its feet —Abigail Tucker

As part of its Annals of Obsession video series, The New Yorker invited science journalist Abigail Tucker, author of The Lion in the Living Room, to reflect on “how felines took over the Internet, our homes, and our lives.”

It goes without saying that cats and humans have co-existed for a very long time.

Most of us are acquainted with the high regard in which Ancient Egyptians held Felis catus.

And we may know something of their seafaring history, beginning with the Vikings and continuing on through Unsinkable Sam and other celebrated ship’s cats.

An overwhelming majority of us have spent the last decade or so glued to online examples of their antics—riding robot vacuumsreacting with terror to cucumbers, and pouncing on humans, some of whom have had the temerity to write and record voiceovers that suggest they have insight as to what goes on inside a cat’s hat. (As if!)

It’s gratifying to hear Tucker echo what cat lovers have long suspected (and emblazoned on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and decorative pillows)—the cats, not the owners, are the ones running the show.

Forgive us. Dogs have owners. Cats have staff.

Cats took a commensal path to domestication, motivated, then as now, by the food they knew to be stored in our settlements.

Tucker describes it as a series of cat controlled takeovers—a process of artificial selection, undertaken on the cats’ own initiative:

House cats are supremely adaptable. They can live anywhere and, while they must have plenty of protein, they eat practically anything that moves, from pelicans to crickets, and many things that don’t, like hot dogs. (Some of their imperiled feline relatives, by contrast, are adapted to hunt only a rare species of chinchilla.) House cats can tweak their sleeping schedules and social lives. They can breed like crazy.

In certain ways the house cat’s rise is tragic, for the same forces that favor them have destroyed many other creatures. House cats are carpetbaggers, arrivistes, and they’re among the most transformative invaders the world has ever seen—except for Homo sapiens, of course. It’s no coincidence that when they show up in ecosystems, lions and other megafauna are usually on their way out.

Aloof as many of their number may be, cats have engineered things in such a way as to be physically irresistible to most humans:

Their big heads and big eyes are so cute!

Their fur is so soft!

We can carry them around!

Dress them in doll clothes (sometimes)!

Their cries mimic the cries of hungry human babies, and elicit a similar response from their human caregivers.

We may not love litter box duty, but with 1 in 3 humans infected by Toxoplasma gondii, we’ll likely be tethered to them for all eternity.

For better or worse, we love them. And so do dog lovers. They just don’t know it yet.

But do not ever imagine that the feeling is reciprocal.

They’re archcarnivores who cannot open their own cans. As Tucker wryly observes:

I think it’s fair to say that we are obsessed and they are not.

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How Humans Domesticated Cats (Twice)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She loves cats, but most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Meticulous, Elegant Illustrations of the Nature Observed in England’s Countryside

If you happen to have grown up in the English countryside, you probably retain a certain sensitivity to and affinity for nature. This can express itself in any number of ways, most often by a compulsion to garden, no matter how urban the setting in which you now live. But Jo Brown has shown how to base a career on it: an artist and illustrator — and “birder wildlifer mushroomer,” according to her Twitter bio — she has long kept a “nature journal” documenting the flora and fauna encountered in the countryside around her home in Devon.

“At the end of April 2019, Jo posted a video of her journal so far on Twitter,” says her web site. “It went viral and her followers jumped from 9K followers to 20K followers in two days.” A glance at any given page reveals what so impressed them. “Each page of Brown’s notebook contains a pen and colored pencil drawing that begins at the pages’ edges, appearing to grow from the corner or across the paper,” writes Colossal’s Grace Ebert.

“Sometimes captured through close-ups that mimic scientific illustrations, the delicate renderings depict the detail of a buff-tailed bumblebee’s fuzzy torso and the red tendrils of a round-leaved sundew. Brown notes the common and Latin names for each species and common characteristics, in addition to where and when she spotted it.”

In other words, the nature journal showcases at once its creator’s keen eye, well-trained hand, and formidable knowledge of the natural world. It also stands as a prime example of the art of notebooking.


Using to its fullest advantage her ruled Moleskine notebook (the brand of choice for those invested in doing their jotting and sketching on the go for a couple of decades now), Brown effectively delivers a master class in the vivid, legible, and elegant — dare we say organic? — organization of both visual and textual information in the space of a small page.

You can take a closer look at how she does it on her web site as well as her feeds on both Twitter and Instagram. More recently, her journal has been published in book form as Secrets of a Devon Wood. Few nature-lovers, perhaps, can equal Jo Brown as an artist, but everyone can enjoy the gloriously varied realm of life that surrounds them just as much as she does. “All that’s required,” she says, “is a little patience and quiet observation.”

via Kottke/Colossal

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Daisugi, the 600-Year-Old Japanese Technique of Growing Trees Out of Other Trees, Creating Perfectly Straight Lumber

Image by Wrath of Gnon

We’ve all admired the elegance of Japan’s traditional styles of architecture. Their development required the kind of dedicated craftsmanship that takes generations to cultivate — but also, more practically speaking, no small amount of wood. By the 15th century, Japan already faced a shortage of seedlings, as well as land on which to properly cultivate the trees in the first place. Necessity being the mother of invention, this led to the creation of an ingenious solution: daisugi, the growing of additional trees, in effect, out of existing trees — creating, in other words, a kind of giant bonsai.

“Written as 台杉 and literally meaning platform cedar, the technique resulted in a tree that resembled an open palm with multiple trees growing out if it, perfectly vertical,” writes Spoon and Tamago’s Johnny Waldman. “Done right, the technique can prevent deforestation and result in perfectly round and straight timber known as taruki, which are used in the roofs of Japanese teahouses.”

These teahouses are still prominent in Kyoto, a city still known for its traditional cultural heritage, and not coincidentally where daisugi first developed. “It’s said that it was Kyoto’s preeminent tea master, Sen-no-rikyu, who demanded perfection in the Kitayama cedar during the 16th century,” writes My Modern Met’s Jessica Stewart.

At the time “a form of very straight and stylized sukiya-zukuri architecture was high fashion, but there simply weren’t nearly enough raw materials to build these homes for every noble or samurai who wanted one,” says a thread by Twitter account Wrath of Gnon, which includes these and other photos of daisugi in action. “Hence this clever solution of using bonsai techniques on trees.” Aesthetics aside — as far aside as they ever get in Japan, at any rate — “the lumber produced in this method is 140% as flexible as standard cedar and 200% as dense/strong,” making it “absolutely perfect for rafters and roof timber.” And not only is daisugi‘s product straight, slender, and typhoon-resistant, it’s marveled at around the world 600 years later. Of how many forestry techniques can we say the same?

via Spoon and Tamago

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

GPS Tracking Reveals the Secret Lives of Outdoor Cats

We track sharksrhino, and bears, so why not Boo Boo KittyPeanut, and Pumpkin?

The Long Island feline residents volunteered—or more accurately, were volunteered—by their human companions to participate in a domestic cat movement study as part of the international Cat Tracker project.

Each beast was outfitted with a GPS tracker-enhanced harness, which they wore for a week.

(Many cat owners will find that alone something of an achievement.)

In total, almost a thousand households in four countries took part—the United StatesNew ZealandAustralia, and the UK.

Scientists were particularly interested to learn the degree of mayhem these cherished pets were visiting on surrounding wildlife in their off hours.

Anyone who’s been left a present of a freshly murdered baby bunny, mole, or wingless bat can probably guess.

It’s a considerable amount, though by and large the domesticated participants stuck close to home, rarely traveling more than two football fields away from the comforts of their own yards. The impulse to keep the food bowl within easy range confines their hunting activities to a fairly tight area. Woe to the field mice who set up shop there.

Their movements also revealed the peril they put themselves in, crossing highways, roads, and parking lots. Researcher Heidy Kikillus, who tracked cats in New Zealand, reported that a number of her group’s subjects wound up in a fatal encounter with a vehicle.

Generally speaking, gender, age, and geography play a part in how far a cat roams, with males, younger animals, and country dwellers covering more ground. Unsurprisingly, those who have not been neutered or spayed tend to have a freer range too.

“Without the motivations of food and sex, most cats seem content to be homebodies,” zoologist Roland Kays, one of the US Project leaders, noted.

American citizen scientists who’d like to enroll their cat can find information and the necessary forms on the Cat Tracker website.

The cat-less and those with indoor cats can enjoy photos of select participants and explore their tracks here.

And what better fall craft than a DIY cat tracking GPS harness?

via National Geographic

Related Content: 

In 1183, a Chinese Poet Describes Being Domesticated by His Own Cats

An Animated History of Cats: How Over 10,000 Years the Cat Went from Wild Predator to Sofa Sidekick

How Humans Domesticated Cats (Twice)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Sounds of the Forest: A Free Audio Archive Gathers the Sounds of Forests from All Over the World

Some of my fondest memories are of hiking the Olympic National Forest in Washington State and the forests of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, seeking the kind of silence one can only find in busy ecosystems full of birds, insects, woodland creatures, rustling leaves, etc. This experience can be transformative, a full immersion in what acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton calls a “natural acoustic system,” the endless interplay of calls and responses that evolved to harmonize over millennia.

Tragically, human noise pollution encroaches on the acoustic space of such refuges, and climate change may irrevocably alter their nature. But they will be preserved, in digital recordings at least, thanks in part to the efforts of a project called Sounds of the Forest, which has been documenting the pregnant silences of forests around the world and has so far collected audio files from six continents, with western Europe most heavily represented.

The Sounds of the Forest library, accessible via its interactive map or Soundcloud page, “will form an open source library,” the project announces, “to be used by anyone to listen to and create from.”

Nature lovers can contribute their own recordings, helping to fill in the many remaining areas on the map without representation. “Visit a woodland,” the project recommends, “recharge under the canopy and record your sounds of the forest.” The site gives specific instructions for how to upload audio file submissions.

Sounds of the Forest came out of the annual Timber Festival, an international gathering in the UK’s National Forest, which is the “boldest environmentally-led regeneration project: the creation of England’s first new forest in a thousand years… an imaginative and ambitious statement of sustainable development.” When the pandemic scuttled plans for an in-person 2020 Timber Festival, organizers conceived of the sound files as a way to bring the world together in a virtual forest gathering. They are also foraging material for next year’s fest, in which “selected artists will be responding to the sounds that are gathered, creating music, audio, artwork or something else incredible.”

If you can’t make it to Timber Festival 2021 next summer, or to your forest refuge of choice this autumn, you can still immerse yourself in the restorative sounds of forests worldwide. Open the sound map, click on a file, close your eyes, and imagine yourself in Nelson Lakes National Park in New Zealand, Yasuni National Park at night in Ecuador, or Chernyaevsky Forest in Russia. Experiencing the busy silences of nature brings us back to ourselves—or to the ancient parts of ourselves that once also harmonized with the natural world.


via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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