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Denise Larson ’19: Experiencing Edinburgh as a UNESCO City of Literature

By Akshara Ramaseshan ’22 on April 20, 2019
This post was contributed by AMS senior Denise Larson ’19 (depicted above enjoying tea in a book nook of the Signet Library), who spent a portion of her AMS grant to travel to Edinburgh and explore the city that earned the designation of UNESCO City of Literature.

Victoria Street, the inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter

Over Spring Break, I travelled to Edinburgh because in 2004 it was named the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature. This means that Edinburgh essentially pledged to make a commitment to promoting the past, present, and future of literature. As an aspiring creative writer, taking Advanced Fiction Writing Workshop this semester at Colgate, I was particularly interested in how Edinburgh’s palpable literary culture fosters literary creation. Thus, I frequented literary spaces that were either well-advertised or that I discovered through my own exploration, and engaged in some experimental writing of my own in many of those spaces.


Before the trip, I read Crowded With Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind, to parse out the history of literary culture in Scotland. There were many authors and projects discussed in the book, and I was inspired by one of the examples to do my experimental writing as a tale of a quest. Having read about the many famous writers to hail from Edinburgh, I imagined that there must be some secret to literary success hidden in among its streets. My quest was to discover the (totally cliché!) literary grail. In other words, I was aiming to discover how Edinburgh could help me take my writing to the next level. My quest began in The Elephant House.

Thomas Riddell’s grave in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, the inspiration for Tom Marvelo Riddle aka Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter.

Upon my arrival, travel backpack in tow, sleepless, and needing to escape the rain, I went to The Elephant House. This is the incredibly touristy, “birthplace of Harry Potter,” where J.K. Rowling wrote sections of the series. Her table is located in the back, with a view out the window of Greyfriar’s Kirkyard and the Edinburgh Castle, which allegedly inspired character names and Hogwarts, respectively. I had a lovely view of the cash register, but I endeavored to write all the same. After, I went to Greyfriar’s Kirkyard and found the grave of Thomas Riddell, the inspiration for Tom Riddle, aka Lord Voldemort. I also walked on Victoria Street, the alleged inspiration for Diagon Alley.

A plaque commemorating the early writing of Harry Potter, approved by J.K Rowling and outside the former Nicolson’s cafe—now Spoon cafe.

Then, I went on The Edinburgh Book Lovers Tour. Hosted by a local author, this tour took us beyond the touristy Royal Mile and to significant literary sites that I wouldn’t have known were literary sites otherwise. For example, we went to the medical school where the doctor who inspired Sherlock Holmes worked, and to a café that is genuinely the one where J.K. Rowling wrote the first chapters of Harry Potter, as affirmed by J.K. Rowling herself. It used to be called Nicolson’s, and is now called Spoon, and there is no acknowledgement of Harry Potter inside the café at all.

That night, I went on a literary pub tour, which was essentially a walking theatrical production of two men debating whether the literary history of Edinburgh was one of debauchery or one of esteemed academia. The ultimate conclusion was that it was a mix of both. However, my main takeaway, in line with the tour I had taken earlier, was that any space could become a literary space, and that Edinburgh abounded with them.

Looking up at the Walter Scott Monument, the largest monument to a writer in the world.

The next day, my intended literary destinations were the Walter Scott Monument, the Scottish Storytelling Centre, the Scottish Poetry Library, the Museum of Edinburgh, and the Burns Monument. The Walter Scott Monument is the tallest monument to a writer in the world, and I was disappointed that it was closed to visitors so I couldn’t go to the top. The Scottish Storytelling Centre was a quiet place but it had ample space to write and had I been on a different week there may have been storytelling-related programming. The poetry library was very similar. Both of those two places were fairly modern, and explicit about literary creation. I found myself more intrigued by the places that were more historical and that had an opaqueness to their literary connections. The Museum of Edinburgh was an eclectic house of Scottish trinkets, and the whole museum was framed as a narrative of Scotland. Additionally, each object had a label that told its story, and I was again enthralled by the degree to which ordinary objects could take on literary heritage for the sake of how they were used, or even how they were seen.

That night, as I climbed Calton Hill by the Burns Monument, I turned to look at Arthur’s Seat, evidence of Edinburgh as a volcanic landscape. There, taking in the view, I decided that I’d found my literary grail. From what I’d seen and learned about Edinburgh’s literary culture, I understood what made its writers successful, how Edinburgh’s approach to commemorating those writers matched that ethos, and how Edinburgh could provide fodder for future writers.

Edinburgh street lights…

Edinburgh’s writers wrote about Edinburgh, but they wrote about it in the unique way that they saw it. They wrote about Edinburgh’s buildings, gravestones, alleyways, winding streets, walls, and streetlights, but they imagined them as more—as magical schools, complex characters, and passageways to other worlds. Then, through vivid descriptions, they effectively conveyed the unique way they saw those things to the rest of the world. Edinburgh’s writers were exceptionally creative in their visions, but everyone sees the world in their own unique way, and anyone can craft a story based on their own vision.

Since literary culture in Edinburgh is largely unlabeled, or at least not overtly advertised, the way I necessarily explored Edinburgh allowed me to practice the skill of intentionally and uniquely seeing. As I did my own writing, I focused in on describing the way I saw Edinburgh as I ran and walked many miles through its streets and closes. And finally, this all reinforced something I’d learned in my Fiction class, which is that your descriptions don’t just describe the story’s world, they describe the way your character sees the world.

…and Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous quote about them!

I rounded out my explorations of Edinburgh by writing in Spoon Café, reflecting during tea in the Signet Library, listening to live Scottish music in the Sandy Bells pub, and studying in The Writers Museum. Overall, I found no shortage of literary locations, and I had fun finding them, particularly those off the beaten path. I also found my journey to be a more genuine and rewarding way to travel as I oriented my days around a goal that was tied to my passion for writing as opposed to sticking to more classic itineraries for Scottish tourism. I also came to identify myself as a writer, and am both inspired and equipped for future writing endeavors.

Erin Hoffman ’19: Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference

By Akshara Ramaseshan ’22 on April 4, 2019
This post was contributed by AMS Senior Erin Hoffman ’19 , who used her AMS grant to attend the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Portland, Oregon in March, 2019.

The Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference and Bookfair marks the center of every professional writer’s calendar year. As listed on the AWP homepage, this annual conference boasts over 12,000 attendees, 2,000 presenters, and 550 readings, panels, and craft lectures, thereby making it the largest literary conference in North America. This year, it was hosted in Portland, Oregon, and I, like Charlie Bucket receiving his golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, was awarded an AMS grant to attend it.

Writers of all genres, ages, genders, ethnicities, and professional levels crowded the Oregon Convention Center, all toting haphazard combinations of books, notebooks, laptops, and other writerly accoutrements. The whole center smelled of vintage clothing and used book stores, and I couldn’t help but to stare wide-eyed at the people who Iacco strived to someday become. As an English creative writing major currently in the process of writing her creative writing honors thesis, I could not have asked for an opportunity better suited to my studies or post-graduate plans.

The Oregon Convention Center, located just to the east of the Willamette River, boasted over 12,000 attendees over the span of the AWP Conference and over 550 events.

The conference itself spanned four days, each of which was packed with back-to-back sessions about everything from Pacific Northwest female writers’ speculative fiction to crossing genre boundaries in memoir—two sessions that I attended during my time there. I watched famous writers discuss topics integral to the study of creative nonfiction, such as the ethics of publishing stories about co-owned experiences, how to craft an engaging writing persona, and the difference between fact and truth in the expression of personal experience. Since I primarily write creative nonfiction, these discussions forced me to critically analyze my own work, making me more aware of the power a writer holds over both the subjects of her writing and reality itself.

Though most of the lectures I attended focused on nonfiction, I also used this conference to cross genre lines and broaden my creative skill base. For example, I attended craft lectures about playwriting, delivered by such eminent playwrights as Deborah Jordan and Craig Thornton. In these, I learned craft terminology that I had never heard before, like a “Passover question,” “iceberg characters,” and dramatic structure.

Most excitingly, during one of the AWP Conference sessions, I got to meet the famous writer Phillip Lopate, author of the iconic collection of essays, To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. This book is integral to any student’s creative writing education—my own included—and seeing the man behind the essays was surreal. Lopate’s witty, articulate, and wickedly funny persona came to life as he discssed how to talk about oneself in nonfiction. In this panel, Lopate and other award-winning writers, like Ana Maria Spagna and Yi Shun Lai, explored the necessity of reflection, introspection, and—surprisingly enough—speculation in nonfiction. They put into words a lesson I have been trying to learn my entire Colgate career: constant self-analysis, imagination, and critical thought are necessary to find shape and meaning in one’s experiences and, therefore, to make them worthy of being written.

Born in Brooklyn in 1943, award-winning writer, professor, and editor Phillip Lopate has written over fifteen publications, spanning from novels to memoirs to biographical monographs and beyond.

This brings me, necessarily, to what I found most impactful about my time at the AWP Conference: not only did it hone my writerly craft, but it also expanded the way I thought about writing as integral to the humanities—to humanity itself, even. In addition to sharing an eccentric and oftentimes psychedelic fashion sense, something else bonded the AWP attendees, something ineffable. We were not just a group casually interested in the same activity; instead, we were connected by a hunger to explore the human condition.

What makes a person tick? What drives human society? What connects us to the earth? How do we shape our identities, and how can we derive meaning from this process? every panel seemed to ask in one way or another.

I felt this human element of writing most keenly in a panel called “Write to Climax: Women Writers on Writing Sex and Intimacy.” In this panel, female authors discussed how they reclaimed their sexuality through their writing. Writer Luanne Smith roused a hearty cheer with her assertion, “My climax is mine. My right to a climax is mine. My right to write about my climax is mine,” while Kate Daniels probed the nature of all human relationships: “Writing about sex allows us to complete the human experience.”

Halfway through the panel, Pam Houston, who recently published her sixth book, a memoir called Deep Creek, stood up and read a piece about being repeatedly molested by her father as a child. She announced that that was the first time she had ever read the passage out loud.

In a panel on female sexuality, Western States Book Award winner Pam Houston read from her most recent memoir, Deep Creek

The entire audience leapt up from their chairs at the end of Houston’s reading. Applause ricocheted from the cavernous ceiling, compounding our already welling emotions. As I stood and clapped, I felt that I had not just learned about writing; I had learned about living. There I was, participating in a deeply human moment in which hundreds of people celebrated human endurance, the healing power of writing, and our ability to use art to support one another in a troubled world.

Though the conference was a boon to my writerly humanity, skill, and knack for literary “fangirling,” the icing on the cake was the AWP Bookfair, which contained booths for over 800 international journals, presses, MFA graduate school representatives, and literary organizations. In one giant, open-plan room, thousands of people packed in rows filled with brilliant book titles, vibrant covers, and informational pamphlets as far as the eye could see. Tin House, American Poetry Review, Hong Kong Review, The Sewanee Review and more lined my star-struck vision. It was in this room, too, that I talked with MFA graduate students from programs such as Johns Hopkins, Emerson College, and Northwestern University about their experiences studying creative writing.

Located in the center of the Oregon Convention Center, the AWP Bookfair hosted over 800 journals, presses, MFA graduate school representatives, and literary organizations from around the world.

I chatted with these fellow writers and publishers about their craft and about the publications that excited them most. A fellow undergraduate student from Michigan State University, the managing editor of her school’s publication, The Offbeat, even suggested that I take a trip to Powell’s City of Books. I took her advice without hesitation. Later that afternoon, I found myself in the world’s largest independent bookstore. Labyrinthine mazes of bookshelves, book displays, half-staircases, and coffee-catered reading nooks wound within the seemingly plain façade. As I wandered through the aisles, fingering the pages written by thousands of writers over hundreds of years, I closed my eyes and sighed. Maybe someday, my own book would appear on its shelves.

            The AWP Conference made me believe that someday it could.

Erin Hoffman grinning like a madwoman inside Powell’s City of Books, the world’s largest independent bookstore, located in the heart of downtown Portland.

Alexis Laskowski ‘19: Conservation and Tourism in America’s National Parks

By Akshara Ramaseshan ’22 on April 1, 2019
This post was contributed by Alexis Laskowski ’19, who used her AMS grant, studying conservation and tourism at American national parks.

National parks encompass a variety of environments and each one faces unique challenges when it comes to conserving wildlife and distinct landmarks. At the same time they are open for human recreation and some are visited by millions of tourists every year. Thus, management plans not only have to address conservation concerns but also work to maintain facilities and structures within the parks to accommodate human activities. This can give rise to some conflicts of interest. Human activity can disrupt wildlife and direct resources away from conservation management but allowing access to parks can provide a source of funding and inspire an appreciation for nature in visitors. With these ideas in mind I decided to use my AMS grant to investigate the interaction between conservation and tourism in some of the most frequently visited national parks in the United States.

I embarked on a cross country road trip with camper in tow, seeking out popular tourist attractions, hiking trails and visitor centers. I began my research in Rocky Mountain National Park and proceeded from there to Arches National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park, spending a few days at each. I was able to observe a variety of wildlife and gorgeous landscapes, a small portion of which I captured in the photos below. The trip was extremely rewarding as I was able to learn about the unique environments that shape the conservation efforts of each national park. I also went on some amazing hikes, such as Angel’s Landing and the Narrows in Zion National Park.

Rocky Mountain National Park
Alpine Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park

Camping throughout the trip allowed me to fully experience the extent to which the areas just outside each national park cater to tourists. Urban centers have emerged in response to tourism which can give rise to tensions with local wildlife, especially during certain times of the year. A group of Elk resting in a McDonald’s parking lot can be an amusing sight to see driving through town but this can lead to potentially dangerous situations during the breeding season when Elk are much more aggressive towards humans and even vehicles. Likewise, getting too close to a mother Elk and her young can have drastic consequences.

The same issues surround animals like the American Bison, which tend to appear very docile in demeanor despite their ability to fatally wound people, misleading tourists that wish to approach them. Due to this, national parks must invest in a multitude of warning signs urging visitors to maintain a certain distance from wildlife, for their own safety and for that of the animals. Despite this I saw many people viewing wildlife such as bison and elk much closer than the recommended 25 yards (a distance of 100 yards is urged for predators like bears and wolves). However, at times it is difficult to avoid being so close to wildlife as Bighorn Sheep and other animals can be found grazing alongside hiking trails, which people are discouraged from leaving, or end up wandering through towns and onto busy roads.

Many signs are put in place reminding visitors not to stray from trails, feed animals or litter, among other rules. Warnings and educational information targeting visitors appear to plaster bulletins and even transportation vehicles with messages like “Enjoy your trip. Do not get bit.”, “Keep Wildlife Wild” and “Give plants a chance. Stick to the trail!”. However, these notices can be overlooked or ignored. I observed several visitors disobeying regulations at each of the parks I visited, sometimes putting their own lives at risk. Signs are put in place for a reason, often for the safety of visitors who can potentially be severely harmed by wildlife, flash floods or thermal activity depending on the particular context of the area.

These signs are especially important for the preservation of local ecosystems. Although it may not seem like anything will be damaged if one steps off a trail, many fragile plants and other organisms can be harmed. This is an especially large issue in Arches National Park, which appears to be a barren desert environment mainly made up of rock. However, the majority of the surfaces in the park are actually covered by an important biological soil crust composed of microscopic organisms. This fragile, slow growing crust prevents erosion, promotes fertility and water retention, and prevents the establishment of invasive plants. Likewise, feeding an animal may seem harmless but can be detrimental to the animal’s survival in the wild, potentially causing them to lose the ability to feed naturally and making them dependent on humans. Losing their ‘wildness’ can also make animals more prone to vehicle collisions and result in more conflicts with humans. Bites, even from the cute squirrels that I witnessed following tourists around, can spread diseases to humans.

I also noticed that people tend to carry within them the desire to leave their mark on nature, engraving names and other designs into trees or rocks. Fortunately, this appears to be more concentrated in areas with frequent tourist traffic while more remote hiking trails tend to feature less vandalism and litter. National parks work to mitigate negative tourism impacts by closing off certain areas of the park or limiting vehicular travel on certain roads during the busier portions of the year.

Tourism can at times hinder or complicate some of the goals of conservation and regulations set in place to mitigate negative impacts on these protected areas. Regulations can also be difficult to maintain given the vast numbers of people that tend to visit and the inability to constantly monitor these vast spaces. However, national parks also present many opportunities to connect with the public in fruitful ways. National parks offer a variety of educational resources for those that wish to learn more about wildlife, conservation efforts and the history of the land. Each park contains multiple visitor centers aimed at education, offering fun programs and exhibits that highlight the unique aspects of each park including the significance of specific parts of local ecosystems, the geological and cultural history of the region, and more.

Arches National Park
Courthouse Towers in Arches National Park
View of Mountains

The vast majority of the people visiting these parks appreciate nature and want to do their part in preserving these lands for future generations. National parks offer the opportunity for people to contribute to conservation and the costs of maintaining the park for visitors through donations. They also inspire many people, especially artists, who manifest their respect for wildlife through various mediums. It makes sense that people who create beautiful artwork are drawn to the gorgeous landscapes and unique flora and fauna present in these national parks. In fact, many national parks offer artist-in-residency programs to promote this. I even had the opportunity to visit the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, WY, which features the work of many talented artists. My experience there made it clear that art can contribute to conservation. The featured art exhibit called Invisible Boundaries drew attention to the migrations of large herd animals and the complexities of conservation as these animals navigate the ‘invisible’ borders between public and private lands and between protected and unprotected areas.

Indeed, although national parks have boundaries, animals do not abide by the invisible lines put in place by people. Unfortunately, wildlife is not as protected outside of national parks and they can be vulnerable to many threats. This is a massive issue for the wolves residing in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park in particular as they can be killed by farmers wishing to protect their cattle when they stray from protected areas. The loss of a pack member can disrupt the structure of the pack and inhibit their ability to effectively take down prey. Another interactive portion of the museum encouraged people to consider how art can protect wildlife, resulting in many responses and drawings from visitors conveying what they learned while visiting a national park. It was uplifting to read about the care visitors have for certain animals and issues. Many of the responses were aimed at encouraging people not to litter or harm nature.

Overall, I found that there can be tensions between the goals of tourism and that of conservation. During my time in these six national parks I noticed both the positive and negative consequences of tourism. Although many people have good intentions and have respect for nature there will always be the potential for visitors to damage the environment within national parks. However, tourism can also benefit conservation efforts by spreading awareness about certain issues, fostering an appreciation for the environment and raising funds to implement management practices. It appears that effort has to be put in by the visitors themselves to maintain these remarkable ecosystems for future generations.  National parks rely on tourists to be aware of their own impact, leaving nothing but footprints and taking nothing but photos, and to support national parks.

This was an unforgettable experience for me and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to travel to these extraordinary places. I encourage others to enjoy their local parks and appreciate the beauty of nature, keeping these ideas in mind.

I am extremely grateful to Jeffrey Laskowski, who accompanied me on the trip as a driver. The trip began with a 3 day drive out west and ended with a 3 day drive back. Drives between the national parks ranged between 6 and 12 hours. Extensive driving was required within each national park as well. (Rocky Mountain National Park)

Gavin Gao ’19: Cultural Authenticity, Anti-Communist Romanticism and Perspectives on the Prague Spring

By Akshara Ramaseshan ’22 on March 30, 2019

The following post was contributed by Alumni Memorial Scholars senior Gavin Gao, who recently completed an independent research project, using his AMS grant funds, studying local perspectives on the Prague Spring of ’68 in the Czech Republic.

Czech history is filled with the number eight. The founding of Charles University in 1348; the Second Defenestration of Prague in 1618; the establishment of Czechoslovakia in 1918 and its first demise in the Sudetenland Crisis of 1938; the communist takeover in 1948; and the Prague Spring in 1968. “Any year ending in ‘8’ is a special year,” my cab driver joked on the ride from the airport. This year seems particularly special: 2018 marks both the centennial of Czech national independence, and the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring. I wanted to see for myself how these commemorations would play out in Prague itself, where the cobblestone roads of the Old Town wind amid gothic steeples and baroque theatres and recede into the mists of history.

Some of Josef Koudelka’s photos of the Prague Spring, on display at the National Gallery in Prague

I arrived in Prague during a grey and chilly week in mid-November. I knew that the parades and speeches had probably finished by the time I arrived, but I was still to hoping to find out how the Czech people remembered these watershed moments in their past. As an immigrant from a communist country, I was particularly interested in examining the narratives around that period of Czech history, especially the events of the Prague Spring. In my history classes, including one at Colgate University with Professor Nemes, I had always gotten the idea that the Prague Spring was a particularly heroic period of the Cold War, a David versus Goliath struggle between the forces of liberality and freedom and Soviet oppression. I wondered what kind of pride the Czech people must feel for their brave stand during this period.

What I found surprised me. The narrative from the side of the Czechs turned out to be very different from my own impressions. Far from celebrating the Spring, Czechs seem to see the events of “68” as a national tragedy, where their country was invaded and occupied by the armies of their ostensible allies, and civilians perished in the streets of Prague. Some even consider the immediate aftermath of the Spring, when the Czech leadership was forced to renounce their own supporters and repudiate their own reforms, to be a national humiliation. Milan Kundera expresses this sentiment in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in the reflections of the main character Tereza:

It was the seventh day of the invasion. She heard the speech in the editorial offices of a newspaper that had been transformed overnight into an organ of the resistance. Everyone present hated [Czechoslovak President] Dubcek at that moment. They reproached him for compromising; they felt humiliated by his humiliation; his weakness offended them.

This translated into the very subdued remembrance for the events of “68” that I was able to personally observe. During my visit, there was a photography exhibition about the
Spring at the national gallery, and another exhibition about the fighting around the Czech Radio building during the invasion of the city at the National Memorial on Vitkov Hill. However, other discussion of the Spring was surprisingly sparse. For example, during a walking tour of the Old Town area, my guide emphasised the role of Wenceslaus Square during the struggles for Czech independence in 1918 and 1989, but never mentioned the mass demonstrations and protests that took place there in 1968. Similarly, a special exhibition on the history of the Czecho-Slovak state at the National Museum, put on for the centennial of independence, failed to make much mention of the Prague Spring. Finally, in a town filled with memorials – to kings, wars, religious leaders, generals, etc. – I could not find any dedicated to the Prague Spring.

Instead, the only “monuments” I found was a small memorial to Jan Palach and Jan Zajic, two students who committed suicide by self-immolation to protest the Soviet invasion and occupation; a plaque on the Czech Radio building that recorded the names of civilians who had been shot trying to defend it from Soviet soldiers; and the Memorial to the Victims of Communism, hidden away in a corner of Petrin Park.

In the west, there is a tendency for struggles against tyranny and oppression to be romanticized as particularly righteous or heroic events. This comes, I suspect, from the ideological struggles of the Cold War, which pitted western democracy against Soviet authoritarianism, and depicted events like the Prague Spring or the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 as movements of fearlessness or even martyrdom to inspire continued resistance against the communist threat. However, in the post-Cold War era, when western societies have begun to realize the harms of appropriating other peoples’ experiences, and when cultural authenticity has become an ideal in academic discourse and narratives, it is time to re-evaluate the narratives surrounding events like the Spring, and portray them with greater regard for the human costs and suffering that these struggles incurred. When one considers the casualties of the 1968 invasion and the subsequent crackdown, it is perhaps not so surprising that the Czechs do not share our enthusiasm for that episode of their own history.

Prague itself seems to bear very little traces of the tumult of the past century, however. Much of the city proper still retains a gothic or baroque appearance, and, for a city with some 1.3 million people, there is a conspicuous lack of tall buildings or skyscrapers in a skyline that is appears to be only punctuated by spires. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that Prague was largely undamaged during WWII, and consequently did not require much reconstruction and redevelopment during the postwar communist era. Looking over the city center from the Zizkov television tower observatory, itself perhaps the only easily visible vestige of the communist era in Prague, I noticed a distinct lack of the tell-tale markers of a communist past, such as the concrete apartment blocks ubiquitous across the former Eastern Bloc. There are incongruous vestiges of the communist past in surprising places, however, such as the Kotva Department Store building, built in a neo-Brutalist style during the 1980s and now a mall, which is nestled amongst the medieval and baroque edifices of the Old Town.

The brutalist façade of the Kotva Department Store, one of the few relics of communism in the Old Town area

The communist period has had less tangible, but no less significant, impacts on the Czech people and their society. One important example is how, after some 40 years of religious suppression, the Czech Republic is now one of the most atheistic countries in the world. This is in spite of the hundreds of churches, monasteries, cathedrals, and basilicas present in Prague, and the significance of religion in Czech history, especially the frequent clashes between the Catholic church and various reform movements such as Hussitism and Protestantism. 

Despite a mostly irreligious population of over 1.3 million, Prague’s skyline continues to be punctuated by church spires, as it has been for centuries

During the communist period, institutions such as the Catholic church were allowed to exist, but their activities were severely curtailed and monitored, while their physical assets, including lands, monasteries, and the churches themselves, were nationalized. As a result, “only the very old still practice religion,” a Prague resident told me. “The churches are mostly for the tourists now.”

Jacob Watts ’21: Graduate course on Tropical Ferns and Lycophytes in Costa Rica

By Akshara Ramaseshan ’22 on February 12, 2019
The following post was contributed by Alumni Memorial Scholars sophomore Jacob Watts, who recently completed a graduate course, using his AMS grant funds, studying tropical ferns and lycophytes in Costa Rica.

During the Tropical Ferns and Lycophytes course, I learned from experts in the field at La Selva Biological station and Las Cruces Biological station. Professor Eddie Watkins, a biology professor at Colgate University, and Weston Testo, and a Colgate alum, were helping to teach the class. The pictures below show a smattering of the amazing views and experiences that I had on the trip. I crossed skinny, winding roads and the Rio Sucio (the Dirty River). I climbed inside an ancient strangler fig tree. And I spent the majority of my waking hours thinking about and learning about ferns. We visited four different habitats with a variety of ferns at each site so as to learn nearly every genus of ferns in the American Tropics, nearing 100 genera by the end of the course. Each genus we learned to identify using their unique characteristics. Along with learning to identify tropical ferns, we learned the most effective methods for their further study, including how to study phylogenetics, physiology, hybridization networks, gametophyte morphology and breeding systems. For me, this was like being in heaven on earth, because I absolutely love thinking about this type of science.

  • The first day of class in a high elevation bog with extremely unique ferns.

Beyond the science, I went on daily hikes and took pictures of flowers and wildlife. I saw flowers that I did not even know existed and am still in awe about the diversity of the rainforest. We saw monkeys, morpho butterflies, orchids, sloths, machakas (a fruit eating fish), porcupines, caimans, frogs, toads, snakes, geckos, lizards, and every weird insect imaginable. I spoke in Spanish with the native Spanish speakers in the class every day to try to learn more of the language. Listening to the native speakers every day was a huge challenge. I didn’t understand most of what they were saying. Yet, it was an amazing experience to share cultures with them and to slowly struggle my way through a language that slipped my mind since high school. Having had that experience with those Latin American is motivating me to continue to learn Spanish at a rate that I never thought possible before. I bought my first six pack of beer, because the drinking age is 18 in Costa Rica, and at night after having discussed ferns all day, we would enjoy a beer and dance to latin music. Throughout the trip we disturbed many a scientist trying to sleep, but in the process I learned multiple latin partner dances and many latin songs and words.

The view from the bus on a rainy day of the Rio Sucio (Dirty River)

A typical day on the station included waking up at 6:00 to go to breakfast when the sun came up and going to our morning lecture shortly thereafter. Next, we would generally go out into the field and learn hands on about the ferns that we could see from the path. Because of the rich biodiversity at each station, we rarely got past the 500 meter mark on the trails. We would go in for lunch, which was almost always rice and beans, the staple of Costa Rica. And then begin our afternoon of lectures and field experiments. Following dinner, we always had a lecture on research methods or particularly interesting areas of research within ferns. To cap it off, people usually sat around discussing science or speaking mind-numbingly quickly in Spanish and eventually dancing.

I loved every minute of my experience in Costa Rica on the Tropical Ferns and Lycophytes course. Because of my memories from this trip, and the people that I met, I want to research in the tropics for the rest of my life. It is a magical place filled with fun-loving magical people. There is an enormous amount that remains unknown about the tropics from an ecological standpoint, and I am excited to continue a career in trying to figure it out. Overall, this winter break was definitely not your average winter break, rather, it was a winter break to remember forever.

The entire class from all over the world after the final quiz on the last official day of the course.