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D'forest for d'trees

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One of our favorite blogs, Treehugger.com, has a fascinating post on eco-smart Chinese, who are now carrying their own chopsticks to their favorite restaurants when they eat out, doing what they can to help fight deforestation in a country that throws away 45 billion disposable pairs every year.

Elsewhere, Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Prize in 2004 for the 30 million trees she planted in Africa to help counter forest loss, is busy working with Spain's Basque Government in an effort to plant 232,000 trees to neutralize carbon monoxide emissions in what they're calling a re-afforestation project.

It seems people all over the globe are finally waking up to the serious threat deforestation presents. In 6000 BC, when humans couldn't do much harm to the world ecosystem, trees covered two-fifths of the land. Since then, about half of the original forestland has disappeared.

But many people, such as British historian, Clive Ponting, point out that the problem is actually thousands of years old and are surprised we haven't learned our lesson yet, considering how many previous civilizations have collapsed as they've abused their natural resources.

As Ponting describes in his book, A Green History of the World, when populations expand and settlements grow, more and more trees are cut down to provide clearings for agriculture, fire for heating and cooking, and construction materials for homes and household goods. As a result, a series of ecological breakdowns occur as animals overgrazed, topsoil erodes and flooding becomes common in a cyclical pattern that has affected even the most formidable civilizations. Follow the jump and check out the details of a few "for instances" that affected biggies like the Greeks, the Romans, and the natives of Easter Island.

plato.jpgFor instance #1: in Greece, around 650 BC, hillsides once covered with vegetation and rich olive trees became barren, seriously affecting the Greek's economy and political power. Plato would write about the deforestation problem in one of his late dialogues, Critias:

What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man"¦ there are some mountains which now have nothing but food for bees, but they had trees not very long ago"¦

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For instance #2: Similar problems cropped up, if you'll excuse the pun, during the 4th and 5th centuries in Italy. Ponting argues that, along with the well-documented Roman political decay, serious deforestation and the abuse of other natural resources greatly contributed to the fall of the empire, as well. But the seeds were already being sewn during Caesar's rule. When the Gauls or Britains would escape his mighty legions and take to the forests, many Roman generals simply burned them to the ground.

moai_trees.jpg For instance #3: The Easter Islanders, famous for their moai statues, not only felled their forests for all the usual reasons, but used up enormous quantities of tree trunks to roll and erect their giant stone statues. As a result, by 1600, the island was almost completely deforested, with many moai left stranded at the quarry. Stranded, too, were the inhabitants, who couldn't build canoes and venture of the island. As a result, the population, like the trees, fell into near extinction.

Jared Diamond, the evolutionary biologist, adds this extreme-factoid, which I found on Wiki to support Ponting's theories:

The fact that oral traditions of the islanders are obsessed with cannibalism is evidence supporting a rapid collapse. For example, to severely insult an enemy one would say: "The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth." This suggests that the food supply of the people ultimately ran out.

Yes, it's the classic "your mother" insult, something as universal as the tree itself. Here's hoping the two never disappear completely.

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Space
Google Street View Now Lets You Explore the International Space Station

Google Street View covers some amazing locations (Antarctica, the Grand Canyon, and Stonehenge, to name a few), but it’s taken until now for the tool to venture into the final frontier. As TechCrunch reports, you can now use Street View to explore the inside of the International Space Station.

The scenes, photographed by astronauts living on the ISS, include all 15 modules of the massive satellite. Viewers will be treated to true 360-degree views of the rooms and equipment onboard. Through the windows, you can see Earth from an astronaut's perspective and a SpaceX Dragon craft delivering supplies to the crew.

Because the imagery was captured in zero gravity, it’s easy to lose sense of your bearings. Get a taste of what ISS residents experience on a daily basis here.

[h/t TechCrunch]

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6 East Coast Castles to Visit for a Fairy Tale Road Trip
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Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

Once the stuff of fairy tales and legends, a variety of former castles have been repurposed today as museums and event spaces. Enough of them dot the East Coast that you can plan a summer road trip to visit half a dozen in a week or two, starting in or near New York City. See our turrent-rich itinerary below.

STOP 1: BANNERMAN CASTLE // BEACON, NEW YORK

59 miles from New York City

The crumbling exterior of Bannerman Castle
Garrett Ziegler, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Bannerman Castle can be found on its very own island in the Hudson River. Although the castle has fallen into ruins, the crumbling shell adds visual interest to the stunning Hudson Highlands views, and can be visited via walking or boat tours from May to October. The man who built the castle, Scottish immigrant Frank Bannerman, accumulated a fortune shortly after the Civil War in his Brooklyn store known as Bannerman’s. He eventually built the Scottish-style castle as both a residence and a military weapons storehouse starting in 1901. The island remained in his family until 1967, when it was given to the Taconic Park Commission; two years later it was partially destroyed by a mysterious fire, which led to its ruined appearance.

STOP 2. GILLETTE CASTLE STATE PARK // EAST HADDAM, CONNECTICUT

116 miles from Beacon, New York

William Gillette was an actor best known for playing Sherlock Holmes, which may have something to do with where he got the idea to install a series of hidden mirrors in his castle, using them to watch guests coming and going. The unusual-looking stone structure was built starting in 1914 on a chain of hills known as the Seven Sisters. Gillette designed many of the castle’s interior features (which feature a secret room), and also installed a railroad on the property so he could take his guests for rides. When he died in 1937 without designating any heirs, his will forbade the possession of his home by any "blithering sap-head who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.” The castle is now managed by the State of Connecticut as Gillette Castle State Park.

STOP 3. BELCOURT CASTLE // NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND

74 miles from East Haddam, Connecticut

The exterior of Belcourt castle
Jenna Rose Robbins, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Prominent architect Richard Morris Hunt designed Belcourt Castle for congressman and socialite Oliver Belmont in 1891. Hunt was known for his ornate style, having designed the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, but Belmont had some unusual requests. He was less interested in a building that would entertain people and more in one that would allow him to spend time with his horses—the entire first floor was designed around a carriage room and stables. Despite its grand scale, there was only one bedroom. Construction cost $3.2 million in 1894, a figure of approximately $80 million today. But around the time it was finished, Belmont was hospitalized following a mugging. It took an entire year before he saw his completed mansion.

STOP 4. HAMMOND CASTLE MUSEUM // GLOUCESTER, MASSACHUSETTS

111 miles from Newport, Rhode Island

Part of the exterior of Hammond castle
Robert Linsdell, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Inventor John Hays Hammond Jr. built his medieval-style castle between 1926 and 1929 as both his home and a showcase for his historical artifacts. But Hammond was not only interested in recreating visions of the past; he also helped shape the future. The castle was home to the Hammond Research Corporation, from which Hammond produced over 400 patents and came up with the ideas for over 800 inventions, including remote control via radio waves—which earned him the title "the Father of Remote Control." Visitors can take a self-guided tour of many of the castle’s rooms, including the great hall, indoor courtyard, Renaissance dining room, guest bedrooms, inventions exhibit room, library, and kitchens.

STOP 5. BOLDT CASTLE // ALEXANDRIA BAY, THOUSAND ISLANDS, NEW YORK

430 miles from Gloucester, Massachusetts

It's a long drive from Gloucester and only accessible by water, but it's worth it. The German-style castle on Heart Island was built in 1900 by millionaire hotel magnate George C. Boldt, who created the extravagant structure as a summer dream home for his wife Louise. Sadly, she passed away just months before the place was completed. The heartbroken Boldt stopped construction, leaving the property empty for over 70 years. It's now in the midst of an extensive renovation, but the ballroom, library, and several bedrooms have been recreated, and the gardens feature thousands of plants.

STOP 6. FONTHILL CASTLE // DOYLESTOWN, PENNSYLVANIA

327 miles from Alexandria Bay, New York

Part of the exterior of Fonthill castle

In the mood for more castles? Head south to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where Fonthill Castle was the home of the early 20th century American archeologist, anthropologist, and antiquarian Henry Chapman Mercer. Mercer was a man of many interests, including paleontology, tile-making, and architecture, and his interest in the latter led him to design Fonthill Castle as a place to display his colorful tile and print collection. The inspired home is notable for its Medieval, Gothic, and Byzantine architectural styles, and with 44 rooms, there's plenty of well-decorated nooks and crannies to explore.

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