Archive for February 3rd, 2010

Distinctive!

by Terry Burton, Digital Media Coordinator

Old Town Fort Collins. Photo: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Earlier this morning, Fort Collins Mayor Doug Hutchinson stood on the west steps of the Museum to announce some exciting news: Fort Collins has been chosen by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of their dozen “Distinctive Destinations” for 2010. The communities recognized by the National Trust are characterized as offering an “authentic visitor experience by combining dynamic downtowns, cultural diversity, attractive architecture, cultural landscapes and a strong commitment to historic preservation, sustainability and revitalization.” Yup, that’s us!

Fort Collins is frequently recognized for its beautifully preserved historic architecture — you’ll hear this a lot around here, and it’s true: “Main Street USA” at Disneyland was modeled on our very own Old Town. There are over 1,800 historic properties in Fort Collins that are on the national, State or local historic register. Fort Collins is not a very old community, but we’ve worked to preserve our heritage as a city, albeit a “young” one. The National Trust also gave us enthusiastic nods for our “active living” and our longstanding sustainability efforts. And our beer, too, of course.

But the phrase that popped out at me was “cultural landscapes.” To me, this is our most shining, if also least known, jewel: our literal “cultural landscape” is over 12,000 years old. Historic preservation is mostly about structures — the “built environment.” Around here, the built environment reflects less than 2% of the total time people have lived in this area. For the rest of that time, landscape and culture were deeply interwoven. The histories and traditions of the people who lived here over the millennia were encoded in the prairies, rivers, hills, plants, animals, earth and sky. If you’re familiar with the Soapstone Prairie Natural Area, you know that Ice Age peoples left ample evidence of their lives at the Lindenmeier Archaeological Site. You may not know that stone tools created by even more ancient people were discovered in a farm field in Timnath, just east of Fort Collins. This Clovis cache resides at the Museum today. Folsom tools have been found not far from where the CSU Rams play football on fall afternoons.

This story is a harder sell — no wonderful old trolley cars or sandstone buildings to point to. Lots of stone tools, yes, but so much we don’t know about them. The people who could have told us the stories written on the prairies, rivers, and hills were driven off long ago and much of that precious information has been lost forever.

But this is the essential underpinning of what makes Fort Collins a “Distinctive Destination,” this deep cultural taproot that has grown so vigorously in this amazing landscape. I hope it’s a story people will continue to be curious about as they explore this marvelous community.

And don’t miss this: you can vote for your favorite of the 12 “Distinctive Destinations.” Vote early, vote often, vote Fort Collins!

Some other links:

National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2010 Dozen Distinctive Destinations

USA Today article “National Trust names Dozen Distinctive Destinations for 2010

Speaking History: The Soapstone Prairie Oral History Project (video)

Urban planning, slime mold style

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

This post is part of our series celebrating the International Year of Biodiversity.

Physarum polycephalum (photo from http://www.genome.gov)

Slime molds are fungus-like organisms that almost defy description. Once thought to be fungi, slime molds often look like fungus, are colored like plants, can move like animals, and are none of the above. Today they fall under the broad category of Eukarya, which doesn’t help much since that category includes a lot, even the scientists who are doing the categorizing!

Simply described, slime molds are organisms that produce large, single-celled multinucleate (multiple nuclei) bodies called plasmodia. Most slime molds reproduce by spores (like fungi) that germinate and produce microscopic, amoeba-like organisms that flow on thin films of water. When several of these amoeba-like organisms meet, they fuse together and the plasmodium begins to grow. Plasmodia are the feeding and growing stages of slime mold life, and some plasmodia can reach sizes of over 2 feet in diameter while others can move as fast as 2 cm/hour (several feet in one day). No matter how big they get or fast they move, they still remain a single cell.

Slime molds are often found feeding on microorganisms in soil, logs, trees, and even telephone poles (in 1973, one such incident in Dallas, Texas, had some residents convinced that an alien life form was invading the city).They’re sometimes slimy, often use spores to reproduce, and come with such attractive names as “Bubblegum,” “Spaghetti,” “Wolf’s milk,” and “Dog vomit.” If all of that wasn’t cool enough, it’s also been demonstrated that slime molds can remember and researchers have used them as robots’ brains. And if all that isn’t enough to astound your (hopefully non-slime mold controlled) mind, they’re skilled at urban planning, too!

Interested in testing the slime mold Physarum polycephalum’s response to a complicated pattern, researchers in Japan allowed it to grow on a damp surface that they populated with oat flakes that mimicked the location of cities around Tokyo. Since P. polycephalum avoids light, the experiment used light to simulate mountains, lakes, and other landscape obstacles. P. polycephalum was placed in the center of the map (Tokyo), and researchers monitored where the plasmodia went. Because P. polycephalum sends its plasmodia out from a central location and develops optimal paths to food (in this case, the bacteria on the oat flakes), it creates efficient pathways, strengthening branches that work and removing ones that don’t. Over the next 26 hours, the slime mold sent out plasmodia and, by the end of the experiment, the organism had a series of branches that looked remarkably like the real Tokyo rail system connecting those communities. What took people years to design took the slime mold hours. Click here to watch P. polycephalum in action, and pay particular attention to the way that branches are built and discarded based on whether or not the slime mold found food.

Even though the stories of a secret subway system in Fort Collins are only tall tales, if the city ever decides that we should have one I say lets offer these slime molds the design contract.


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