Thursday, June 15, 2017

Report from the Digital Data in Biodiversity Research Conference, University of Michigan

University of Michigan
The Digital Data in Biodiversity Research Conference was sponsored by iDigBio, the University of Michigan Herbarium, the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology, and the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. The conference was attended by about 185 people from a variety of institutions. I attended to participate in the GBIF North American Nodes Workshop and was joined by Alicia Esquivel (BHL NDSR Resident based at the Chicago Botanic Garden).

After a welcome from Dean Andrew D. Martin of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, the opening series of plenary talks began with Stephen Smith (University of Michigan) speaking on "The Utility of Large-scale Phylogenetic Analyses for Understanding the Evolution of Biodiversity." The detailed talk covered the promise of a comprehensive view of the tree of life, whether for a particular clade or the entire tree of life which has been a major motivation of the systematics community for decades. Smith described new efforts and new ways for combining the resources from the Open Tree of Life with other phylogenetic analyses to construct a dated and comprehensive tree and discussed construction of a comprehensive tree for seed plants containing 80,037 taxa from GenBank and 356,807 total taxa.

Maureen Kearney
Maureen Kearney, Associate Director for Science, National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution) spoke next. Kearney's talk, "Expanding the Power of Natural History Knowledge: Frontiers in Research and Collections at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History," was an inspiring overview of the role of natural history museums in this era of rapid global change to mobilize collections data and natural history knowledge for science and society.

Kearney spoke of how Natural history scientists help us comprehend the fundamental nature of the planet, of organisms (including humans), and of evolutionary and ecological interactions throughout the history of life on Earth. The enormous potential exists for natural history museums in the 21st century if they highlight their unique niche as irreplaceable research and data centers for the study of global change. Kearney also noted that this can only be realized, though, if museums build large-scale pipelines and open-source, dynamic platforms to digitize, structure, link, and share our natural history data and knowledge. She spoke of key partners inside the National Museum of Natural History (such as the Global Genomics Initiative and the Encyclopedia of Life) and other partners at the Smithsonian, including the Biodiversity Heritage Library and the Smithsonian's Digitization Program Office and its 3D imaging team.

Donald Hobern
Donald Hobern, GBIF Executive Secretary, spoke on "Preserving Evidence of Biodiversity Patterns: GBIF and Persistent Biodiversity Data Management." Hobern gave an overview of GBIF as well as the goals of the GBIF implementation plan include simplifying and supporting data publishing and assisting with delivery of the most detailed version possible for each data source.

Other plenary talks included:
  • Linking Heterogeneous Data in Biodiversity Research by Pam Soltis, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida
  • Using “Digital Specimens” to explore the behavioral phenotype by Mike Webster, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology
Dan Fisher
Full abstracts and details at of the Concurrent Sessions is online here. Sessions attended were:
  • 3D Surface Models in Paleontology and Archaeology by Dan Fisher, University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology. Used the Buesching mastodon (now at University of Michigan) as a case study for the talk. Walked through the excavation and the 3D imaging process. Digital data on the external form of specimens are central to many paleontological and archaeological analyses. Digital models minimize handling of fragile and/or heavy specimens, facilitate access and collaboration, allow complex measurements, enhance visualization of surface topography, and simplify inspection of multi-object assemblies. 
  • Paleobiology Database: A Community Based Data Service for Research, Education, and Museums by Mark Uhen, George Mason University
  • MorphoSource: A Virtual Museum and Digital Repository for 3D Specimen Data by Doug Boyer, Duke University
  • ePANDDA: enhancing Paleontological and Neontological Data Discovery API by Susan Butts, Yale University; Seth Kaufman, Whirligig Inc.
  • The Importance and Challenges of Database Integration: MorphoBank, MorphoSource, and the Paleobiology Database by Julie Winchester, Duke University

Macklin, Hanner, Bruneau
In the afternoon, the meeting offered focused workshops. The Biodiversity Heritage Library was invited to participate in the Digital Data and the North American Nodes of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility session led by Bob Hanner, Stinger Guala, and James Macklin. A goal of the workshop was to discuss the current status of the GBIF North American Nodes, current activities and collaborations.

Attended by about 50 participants, the presentations at the workshop included:
  • National and Regional Coordination Roles within GBIF (Donald Hobern)
  • Biodiversity Information Serving Our Nation (BISON): Connections and Cooperation (Stinger Guala)
  • The Canadian Biodiversity Information Facility (CBIF) (James Macklin)
  • Canadensys: revealing the biodiversity of Canada (Anne Bruneau)
  • Overview of the Biodiversity Heritage Library Recent Activities (Martin Kalfatovic)
  • The Catalogue of Life: Infrastructure for Science (Tom Orrell)
  • Global Genome Biodiversity Network – Infrastructure for Genomic Research (Jon Coddington)
  • iDigBio, National Coordinating Center for NSF's ADBC Program (Larry Page)
The BHL talk, "Overview of the Biodiversity Heritage Library: Recent Activities" covered:
As the world’s largest open access digital library for biodiversity literature, the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) is an unparalleled resource that has forever changed the way researchers around the globe understand, describe, and conserve life on Earth. BHL has become not only a model for digital libraries but also a fundamental resource for taxonomic literature aggregation, discovery, and presentation by engaging the taxonomic community and responding to user needs. To achieve this, BHL relies on many standards and tools, such as Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs), Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), and Global Names Architecture (GNA). These standards and tools help ensure that data in and about the literature matches the needs and expectations of the scientific community and is readily available for widespread reuse. To meet the evolving needs and expectations of researchers, we must continually innovate and adapt to the changing technological landscape.  BHL is in the process of organizing widespread user needs analysis and an environmental scan of information resources to define requirements for a next generation digital library. 
The presentations were followed by a panel discussion and a conversation with the audience.

After the day's meetings, attendees were bused to the Research Museums Center, located about 7.5 kilometers from the center of the University of Michigan campus. Participants were given the opportunity of guided tours of the University of Michigan Herbarium, collections areas of the Museum of Paleontology, and the wet and dry collections of the Museum of Zoology.





Adam Summers
The second day again opened with plenary talks which included:
  • Big Data, Museum Specimens, Access and Archiving - Lessons from #scanAllFish by Adam Summers, University of Washington. Amazing high energy talk about Summers' project #scanAllFish, over 1,991 species, 3,094 specimens from 109 collections. Expects to store over half a petabyte of data for 30,000 vertebrates. Storing and backing these data up is an issue. It is also interesting to consider what collections plan to do when these data are returned to them with the specimens. 
  • Video Data and Motion Analysis in Comparative Biomechanics Research by Beth Brainerd, Brown University. "Film or video recordings have long been important primary data for research in comparative biomechanics. Innovations have included the use of two or more cameras to capture 3D motion, and the use of two X-ray video cameras (fluoroscopes) to capture 3D motion of bones in vivo. Over the past decade we have developed X-ray Reconstruction of Moving Morphology (XROMM), which combines  dual-fluoroscopy with bone models from CT scans to produce accurate animations of 3D bones moving in 3D space."
  • The PREDICTS Project: Projecting Responses of Ecological Diversity In Changing Terrestrial Systems by Adriana De Palma, Natural History Museum, London. "PREDICTS is a collaborative project that aims to produce global models of how local biodiversity responds to land use and related human impacts, in order to make projections under possible future scenarios."
  • Field Collections to Digital Data: A Workflow for Fossils and the Use of Digital Data for Reconstructing Ancient Forests by Dori Contreras, University of California Museum of Paleontology. "The integration of curation and digitization with project-focused data collection is a key component to performing time-efficient studies from new fossil collections. Standard workflows for processing fossil specimens starting from initial field collection and continuing through digital analysis/measurement are not widely established. Here I present my workflow for reconstruction of a diverse Late Cretaceous flora from plant macrofossils preserved in an extensive recrystallized volcanic ashfall deposit."
  • Natural History Data Pipelines: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly by Andy Bentley, University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute. "Collections, aggregators, data re-packagers, publishers, researchers, and external user groups form a complex web of data connections and pipelines that form the natural history knowledge base essential for collections use by an ever increasing and diverse external user community.  We have made great strides in developing the individual parts of this knowledge base and we are now well poised to integrate these capabilities to address big picture questions.  Although we need to continue work on the individual pieces, the focus now needs to be on integration of these disparate sources of data that create the pipeline."
Sessions attended included:
  • Using Statistical Analysis to Calculate the Size of Biodiversity Literature by Alicia Esquivel, Chicago Botanic Garden
  • Illustrating Value Added in Databasing Historical Collections: Entered, Proofed, and Done (or Not!) by Tony Reznicek, University of Michigan Herbarium
  • The Encyclopedia of Life v3: constructing a linked data model by Jennifer Hammock, National Museum of Natural History, Encyclopedia of Life, Smithsonian Institution
  • Encyclopedia of Life Version 3: New Tools for the Exploration of Biodiversity Knowledge by Katja Schulz, National Museum of Natural History, Encyclopedia of Life, Smithsonian Institution
  • How do People see Biodiversity? Using a Digital Identification Key in a Citizen Science Program by Mathilde Delaunay, Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, Paris, France
  • Taxonomic Data Quality in GBIF: A Case Study of Aquatic Macroinvertebrate Groups by Joan Damerow, Field Museum of Natural History
  • Hole-y Plant Databases! Understanding and Preventing Biases in Botanical Big Data by Katelin D. Pearson, Florida State University
Alicia Esquivel's talk was an excellent overview of the BHL NDSR Resident program and the important work being done by the group as BHL looks forward to BHL Version 2. Esquivel's work focuses on looking for gaps in the BHL collections and other collections analysis. In addition to her talk, she also presented a poster (co-authored by Constance Rinaldo, BHL Chair / Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University).

  • Prospects for the Use of Digitized Specimens in Studies of Plant Diversity and Evolution by Michael Donoghue, Yale University
  • A Vision for a National Cyberinfrastructure for Biodiversity Research and what NSF can do Enable it by Peter McCartney, National Science Foundation
Research Museums Center, University of Michigan

Friday, June 09, 2017

BHL Presentation and demo at the Library of Congress

Kalfatovic, Steen, Sheffield
On 1 June 2017, Martin R. Kalfatovic and Carolyn A. Sheffield visited the Library of Congress at the invitation of Tomoko Steen (Senior Research Specialist at Science and Technology Division) to give an overview and demonstration of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) portal. Dr. Steen is also the Member representative for the Library of Congress.

The two hour long program included a presentation that gave an organizational overview of the BHL and recent activities. Sheffield's demonstration showed different methods of accessing, using, and downloading BHL content.

Many in the audience, approximately fifteen were reference librarians and familiar with the BHL but happy to learn new tips and tricks on using the website. There were additional staff from the science policy unit of the Congressional Research Service.

My presentation is online here.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Promoting Scholarly Communications and the BHL at the Mpala Research Centre

Under the auspices of Scott Miller, Deputy Under Secretary for Collections and Interdisciplinary Support (DUSCIS) and Vice-Chair of the Mpala Research Centre, I spent three days at the Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia County, Kenya with Carolyn A. Sheffield (BHL Program Manager) to learn more about the activities and research at Mpala and to explore partnerships around the Biodiversity Heritage Library and scholarly communications.

Library this way!
Dr. Dino Martins, Executive Director of the Mpala Research Centre, met Kalfatovic and Sheffield outside of Nanyuki just north of the equator and in the shadow of Mt. Kenya, about 240 kilometers north of Nairobi. We made a short stop at the equator marker before picking up a few supplies for the trip back to Mpala. On the ninety minute drive from Nanyuki to Mpala, Dr. Martins gave a fascinating and useful overview of the history of Mpala, the complex interactions of wildlife and human agricultural activities around livestock and farming. Increasing pressure on the environment from the subdivision of land for residential development and challenges presented by climate change on the area are a daily concern for Martins as he manages the important living laboratory that is the Mpala Research Centre.

Mt Kenya
As noted on the Mpala website:
Mpala stretches over 48,000 acres of semi-arid savanna, acacia bushland, wooded grassland, rocky escarpments and riverine habitats along the Ewaso Nyiro and Ewaso Narok rivers. The Mpala Research Centre (MRC) receives hundreds of students, educators, and scientists from around the globe each year, conducting research on everything from parasites to elephants. The unique set up of Mpala allows for researchers to use the land as a ‘living laboratory’ in which to conduct experiments and answer pressing questions on conservation and wildlife.
With Dr. Martins
In touring the grounds of the Centre, Dr. Martins also spoke of the opportunities presented by the ongoing collaborative work done by the Conservancies, such as Mpala, Kenyan local and national governmental agencies, and private landowners to balance wildlife and nature conservation, sustainable economic development, and farming/ranching activities.

"Most research organizations in Kenya (including Mpala), as well as agencies who regulate research, are struggling with the challenges of tracking and making available the results of research. The tools that Smithsonian Research Online have used could be readily adapted for use by some of these organizations" said the Smithsonian's Scott Miller.

At the equator with Dr. Martins
To help better understand the work done at Mpala and the research needs, Dr. Martins personally took us on two evening game drives throughout the Mpala grounds. The visits were nothing short of spectacular. Sightings of various wildlife were numerous (see fuller list below), including many listed as vulnerable or endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It was wonderful to see large groups of the endangered Grévy's zebra (Equus grevyi) with young foals. Three species of vulnerable animals, Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius), Reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata), and Elephant (Loxodonta africana) were present in large numbers. Among the other Artiodactyla sighted, the groups of Greater Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) were spectacular. Mpala also maintains herds of domestic cattle. At the end of the game drive, we stopped by one of the cattle enclosures as Dr. Martins consulted with the Mpala herdsmen on the status of the cattle.

Greater Kudu  (Tragelaphus strepsiceros)

Elephant (Loxodonta africana)

Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius)

Grévy's zebra (Equus grevyi)
The next morning, during a visit to the research facilities, we spent time in the N.S.F. and McCormack Research Labs at Mpala, where we were shown the ongoing work of visiting and longer term researchers, including experiments being down with caterpillars. On our first full morning at the Centre, we were taken on a bird watching walk of the grounds with ornithologist Sylvester Karimi.

Research labs
On the final day of the visit, presentations on scholarly communications management and the Biodiversity Heritage Library were given to an audience of about twenty people. Included in the audience were representatives from ten institutions, in addition to Mpala Research Centre staff. Institutions represented included were: Space for Giants,  Laikipia Wildlife ForumKenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), Olpejeta ConservancyLewa ConservancyUniversity of Bayreuth, Daraja Academy,  Lekiji Primary School, Oljogi Primary School, and the Mpala Academy.

I spoke on "Managing Scholarly Research Output: The Smithsonian Institution Experience: An Introduction to Smithsonian Research Online" and BHL Program Manager Carolyn A. Sheffield presented on "Inspiring Discovery Through Free Access to Biodiversity Knowledge: The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL)."

Mpala library volunteer Naomi Wanjiru Chege
At the conclusion of the presentations, we met with Mpala library volunteer Naomi Wanjiru Chege and Anchal Padukone (Princeton in Africa Fellow) to discuss the library facility at Mpala and possible areas of collaboration between the Centre and Smithsonian Libraries as well as the Biodiversity Heritage Library. We also had an opportunity to visit the studio facilities of Mpala Live!:
Mpala Live! gives you a round-the-clock look at the lives of elephants, lions, zebras, giraffes, hippos, birds, and other animals in a fascinating swath of African landscape. Our webcams let you visually enter this realm. The Hippo Pool cameras, for instance, take you to a watering hole that attracts hippos, monkeys, zebras, giraffe, scores of bird species, and the occasional crocodile. 
Mpala Live!, with viewership in the millions, provides both educational and research activities with its active citizen science engagement.

With Naomi Wanjiru Chege
Our work at the Centre ended, we shared yet another wonderful meal with the guests, researchers, and Mpala staff. The lunch provided additional opportunities to learn about the work done in the Kenyan wildlife conservancies and at Mpala. The luncheon concluded, we met our transportation for the five hour ride back to Nairobi and our departing flight at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

On this visit to Kenya, we were treated to some wonderful sightings of the local flora and fauna. In Mpala and the nearby areas, the following were some of the highlights of the local fauna. For lists of the flora and fauna of Mpala, please see the following Mpala website page.

  • Vervet Monkey (Cercopithecus aethiops)
  • Black-and-white colobus monkey (Colobus) [sighted outside the Mpala Research Centre]
  • Olive Baboon (Papio anubis) [sighted outside the Mpala Research Centre]
  • Bat-eared Fox (Otocyon megalotis)
  • Slender Mongoose (Galerella sanguinea)
Reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata)
  • Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius)
  • Common Warthog (Phacochoerus africanus)
  • Reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata)
  • Impala (Aepyeros melampus)
  • Guenther's Dikdik (Madoqua guentheri)
  • Steenbok (Raphicerus campestris)
  • Greater Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros)
  • Bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus)
  • Elephant (Loxodonta africana)
Spider plant (Cleome gynandra)
  • Grévy's zebra (Equus grevyi)
  • Scrub hare (Lepus saxatilis)
  • Bush Hyrax (Heterohyrax brucei)
Cow (Bos taurus/indicus)
  • Cow (Bos taurus/indicus)
  • Sheep (Ovis aries) [sighted outside the Mpala Research Centre]
  • Goat (Capra hircus) [sighted outside the Mpala Research Centre]
  • Donkey (Equus africanus) [sighted outside the Mpala Research Centre]
  • Camel (Camelus dromedaryus)
  • Domestic Dog (Canis familiaris)
  • Domestic Cat (Felis sylvestris)
AVES (Selected)
  • Vulturine Guineafowl (Acryllium vulturinum)
  • Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus)
  • Gabar Goshawk (Micronisus gabar)
  • Martial Eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus)
  • Red-chested Cuckoo (Cuculus solitarius)
  • Red-billed Hornbill (Tockus erythrorhynchus)
  • Rock Martin (Hirundo fuligula)
  • Common Bulbul (Pycnonotus barbatus)
  • Superb Starling (Lamprotornis superbus)
A lone Grévy's zebra (Equus grevyi)

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Promoting Scholarly Publication Data and the Biodiversity Heritage Library in Kenya with a Special Presentation at the U.S. Embassy, Nairobi

In May 2017, while attending the XXI Congress of the Association for the Taxonomic Study of the Flora of Tropical Africa (AETFAT), Smithsonian Libraries' (SIL) staff Martin R. Kalfatovic and Carolyn A. Sheffield received a speaking invitation from the Embassy of the United States of America, Nairobi, Kenya from Tatum Albertine (Environment, Science, Technology & Health Officer).

The Embassy is located in Gigiri, north of the Nairobi central business district, about a two hour drive in Nairobi traffic from the Karen neighborhood where the AETFAT Congress was being held. The program was held in the American Reference Center (ARC) on the Embassy campus. The ARC serves students, teachers, researchers, journalists, business professionals and individuals simply interested in broadening their horizons on any topic.

The purpose of the talk was to provide a wider Kenyan community with information about the Biodiversity Heritage Library and services provided by Smithsonian Libraries to Smithsonian researchers that could serve as a model or inspiration for similar services to the broader research community in Kenya. There were invited guests from National Museums of Kenya, the Kenya Wildlife Service, Nature Kenya: The East African Natural History Society, and the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI). In addition, Albertine worked with ARC Deputy Director Nashon Akello to publicize the program widely with the university community and faculty and students from both Kenyatta University and the Technical University of Kenya.

Smithsonian Libraries Associate Director Martin R. Kalfatovic presentation, "Managing Scholarly Research Output: The Smithsonian Institution Experience: An Introduction to Smithsonian Research Online (SRO)" covered key components of the Smithsonian Libraries' SRO program of bibliographic data collection, data analysis for metrics and reporting, and communications to administrators, researchers, and the public. The presentation, based on previous presentations of SIL staff Alvin Hutchinson and Richard Naples and with input from Suzanne C. Pilsk. A representative of NACOSTI in attendance commented:
Information management and data analysis towards scholarly publications is very important indicator of a nation's development and reflects the potential of a nation to harness its human resource in solving problems of mankind. It also broadens the horizons of policy thinking and in addressing many critical issues the government faces. As a policy making institutions, scholarly publications will be very important in advising the government accurately. Therefore, your invitation of our institution was timely because this is one of the areas needed to be harnessed in advising the government by policy directions using real data.
As Scott Miller, Deputy Under Secretary for Collections and Interdisciplinary Support, who facilitated the planning for the program, noted:
Most research organizations in Kenya, as well as agencies who regulate research, are struggling with the challenges of tracking and making available the results of research.  The tools that Smithsonian Research Online have used could be readily adapted for use by some of these organizations.
Given the overlap of interests of many organizations in biodiversity research in Kenya, I also hope these presentations catalyze discussion of the possibility of a multi-organization collaboration to create a centralized data archive that has multiple portals to serve different users.
Carolyn A. Sheffield, BHL Program Manager, presented on "Inspiring Discovery Through Free Access to Biodiversity Knowledge: The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL)." Sheffield covered a general introduction of the BHL as well as recent accomplishments and metrics related to Kenya and Africa. BHL Africa colleagues, Asha Owono and Ben Nakitare were in attendance and provided additional support in relation to Kenyan participation in the BHL during the question and answer period. A participant from the Kenya Wildlife Service noted: "The lecture and demonstration were very encouraging and I have the feeling that this if pursued  more vigorously can enhance information sharing within the conservation field in this country and the world at large."

Kalfatovic, Albertine, Sheffield
Again, as Dr. Miller commented during the planning for this presentation, "This program is important for several reasons beyond helping users understand how to use the Biodiversity Heritage Library (which is important in itself). Kenya is poised to make significant additions to the BHL.  As was discussed at the Laikipia landscape workshop in February, there is a rich history of 'grey literature' in East Africa on agriculture, wildlife, public health, etc., that is not available to most people today."

The ARC was filled to capacity with sixty attendees. The Embassy social media team led by Amos Rono also presented the program as a Facebook Live broadcast as well as live streaming it to other U.S. Embassies in East Africa (see link below). Smithsonian Libraries and Biodiversity Heritage Library social media team also promoted the event.

Thanks to ARC Director George Kamau and ARC Deputy Director Nashon Akello for hosting the program in their space and Dan Travis (Public Affairs Officer), Megan Larson-Kone (Cultural Affairs Officer), Alka Bhatnagar (Information Resource Specialist), and Pushpinder Dhillon (Economic Section Chief) on the U.S. Embassy staff who worked to make this program a success.

View the Facebook Live presentation: 

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Passage to Portbou, Seeking Walter Benjamin in Cataluyna

The Passage to Portbou, Seeking Walter Benjamin in Cataluyna

In a situation with no way out, I have no other choice. My life will end in a little village in the Pyrenees where nobody knows me. I ask you to pass on my thoughts to my friend Adorno and to explain the position I found myself in. I do not have enough time to write all the letters I would liked to have written. Walter Benjamin, Letter to Henny Gurland & Theodor W. Adorno (1940)
I traveled to Barcelona for a business meeting. When the meetings were through, I still had nearly three days before being joined by my family for holiday. Some said  to visit Madrid, but was that too far for too short a time? Scanning the map, I saw that Portbou was just a short three or so hour train trip from Barcelona. Portbou. Hmmm. That would be a perfect spot to make a pilgrimage. And what is in Portbou many ask? It was in that small town, just over the French border, that the German philosopher and critic, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), saw  his final hours.

What better way to spend a few days on the Costa Brava, in a small seaside town, and search for the ghost of owl-glassed flâneur, chronicler of the Parisian Arcades, and tragically reluctant refugee from Nazi (and Stalinist) Totalitarianism, Walter Benjamin.

He was modernity’s kabbalist. In his turgidly enchanted world there were only mysteries, locked and unlocked. His infatuation with Marxism, the most embarrassing episode of his mental wanderings, the only time that he acquiesced in the regimentation of his own mind, may be understood as merely the most desperate of his exercises in arcane reading. The text, this time, was history; but there was nothing that was not a text, for Benjamin. He was the most bookish of the agitator-intellectuals. (He looked ridiculous in the Ibiza sun.). "Preface" by Leon Wieseltier in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (1968, 2007) by Walter Benjamin. Translated by Harry Zohn and edited by Hannah Arendt.
The R11 Renfe line speeds north out of Barcelona and makes a few stops along the way, Girona (home, as all the tourist sources tell us, of the widest Gothic nave), Figueres (birthplace of Salvador Dalí), and a few more less-notable stops. Arriving in Portbou, you de-train in the immense train station (first constructed in the late 19th century and the original driver of Portbou's fame). Situated on a hill above the town, you walk down a long flight up steps to the streets. A signboard directs you immediately to a walking tour of Benjamin sites. I took a small side diversion to get a close up view of the Església de Santa Maria and then continued downhill into the town.

Walter Benjamin knew that the break in tradition and the loss of authority which occurred in his lifetime were irreparable, and he concluded that he had to discover new ways of dealing with the past. In this he became a master when he discovered that the transmissibility of the past had been replaced by its citability and that in place of its authority there had arisen a strange power to settle down, piecemeal, in the present and to deprive it of “peace of mind,” the mindless peace of complacency. “Quotations in my works are like robbers by the roadside who make an armed attack and relieve an idler of his convictions” (Schriften I, 571). "Walter Benjamin: 1892–1940" by Hannah Arendt  in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (1968, 2007) by Walter Benjamin. Translated by Harry Zohn and edited by Hannah Arendt.
A few steps down the hill, past small bars and snack shops, is the former Hotel de Francia. It was here, on the top floor on 26 September 1940, that Benjamin died. My preconceived notions of Portbou were based on black and white pictures I'd seen from the 1940's. In my mind, I pictured even further decay barren streets. I was surprised to find a lively seaside resort (a small one to be sure) with shops selling inflatables, ice cream, and the usual beach paraphernalia. The Hotel de Francia is no longer a hotel (what is it? An apartment building? Hard to say, but it was painted a bright red and squeezed between two similar buildings. The gated front reminded shuttered my whole time in Portbou, so it remained a mystery. The upper (4th floor) windows were also closed. Which, I wondered, was Benjamin's room? A plaque on the building notes:

En esta casa vivió y, murió
Walter Benjamín
Tot el coneixement humà
Pre forma d'interpretació. WB.

I wandered down from the Hotel de Francia to the waterfront beach and looked at the small bay for a while and then up to the Hostel Juventus. Loud voices are heard as I turn the corner and it's the bar of the Juventus, I head in and find the bar is also the reception. I pay my twenty something Euros in cash, get a key, and directions to go up the stairs next door. Up two flights to a tidy single room with a shared bath. I drop my bag and head back out.

A few blocks away, I find the Restaurante Andrés and have Jamón ibérico and an Estrella. Finished, it's time to look for Walter Benjamin.

Each numbered section a mere paragraph or two, a general deficiency of analysis and rigour, one describes a painting Adorno knows, Klee’s Angelus Novus. Walter owned it, paid a thousand marks for it. The angel is the figure of history, looking retrospectively at chaos and disaster: we are blown backwards into the future by a tempest. This is the painting that will later come to Adorno, rolled in a cardboard tube, just like the postcard and the essay he will not publish, an act that Arendt will publicly condemn. Already the years are filled with nowness from the end of time. Andrew Crumey, The Secret Knowledge (2013)
Scottish writer Andrew Crumey is the brilliant author of such works as Music in a Foreign Language (1994), Pfitz (1995), D'Alembert's Principle (1996), Mr. Mee (2000), Mobius Dick (2004), Sputnik Caledonia (2008), and most recently (2013), The Secret Knowledge.

The Secret Knowledge, a complex exploration of the multiverse and quantum suicide, is also a thought provoking mediation on the life (and death) of Walter Benjamin. Moving fluidly between the past, present (and future?), Crumey's depiction of Portbou and Benjamin's death (murder?) there, was with me during my visit.

A few quotes from the novel:
  • Suner can see that Walter Benjamin is not a well man. The date of birth on the passport he surrenders shows him to be forty-eight but he’s more like sixty. “You could have had a heart attack,” Suner says to him.
  • The luggage they carry is whatever they have managed to haul over the mountain, Dr Benjamin has only his briefcase; though had they been more heavily burdened, José still would not have carried anything for them.
  • Benjamin’s face is grey, his eyelids dark and pouchy, his lips strangely puckered, as if he has been kissing a ghost. He seems on the verge of collapse. “I don’t feel well,” he says. “My pulse…”
  • Love begins with the contemplation of beauty, yet contemplation is a situation produced by capitalist production. Love itself is therefore allegorical: Asja could be anybody, she is the shape of the particular emptiness.
  • I love you, he writes secretly to himself. I want to be with you, I want to leave my wife and child and live only with you. I want to be living the past that we will jointly remember, reading these words that will have become historical fact.
  • My life is not to be found in drawers, photographs, letters tied with ribbon, souvenirs without context; it lies in the future I yearn for. I will sacrifice everything for you, this is the meaning of passion, which is to say suffering and martyrdom, I shall be annihilated by your immortality, it is what I wish, though I know the desire is not a free one: that is what renders it authentic. We cannot choose whom we love; love chooses us, its emblem a skeleton wielding a scythe.
  • Everywhere is a foreign country.
  • “They met on only that single occasion. Some people say once is as good as never, but I’ve always felt that a single meeting can mean more than a thousand.” “An interesting observation. So your husband was in Portbou?” “And I was with him, at the Hotel de Francia. Louis had the visas and Benjamin had what Louis wanted in return.”
Fama, that much-coveted goddess, has many faces, and fame comes in many sorts and sizes -- from the one-week notoriety of the cover story to the splendor of an everlasting name. Posthumous fame is one of Fama’s rarer and least desired articles, although it is less arbitrary and often more solid than the other sorts, since it is only seldom bestowed upon mere merchandise. The one who stood most to profit is dead and hence it is not for sale. Such posthumous fame, uncommercial and unprofitable, has now come in Germany to the name and work of Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish writer who was known, but not famous, as contributor to magazines and literary sections of newspapers for less than ten years prior to Hitler’s seizure of power and his own emigration. There were few who still knew his name when he chose death in those early fall days of 1940 which for many of his origin and generation marked the darkest moment. "Walter Benjamin: 1892–1940" by Hannah Arendt in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (1968, 2007) by Walter Benjamin. Translated by Harry Zohn and edited by Hannah Arendt.
Just south of the main street and beachfront, you walk uphill to find a fabulous view of the bay and the crescent of the town from the perfectly placed mirador. The Mediterranean stretches off into the distance, its blue merging with the blue of the sky.

As you approach the cemetery gate, on your left is a Cor-ten steel box angled sharply into the earth with a complimentary Cor-ten path from the opposite hillside to its mouth. This is Passage, a Homage to Walter Benjamin, a sculptural installation honoring Benjamin.

The work, designed by the Israeli architect, Dani Karavan, was built 1990-94. I had the area all to myself. Entering the mouth of the memorial, you descend the metal steps through a box just wide enough for two. The tunnel is dark, but brightly lit where it opens to a view of the sea. The end is closed with glass on which the visitor sees their own reflection as they travel the minute or so downwards, steps echoing and reverberating during the journey. The glass is an abrupt and jarring end to the walk; the view through the glass is a vertiginous drop directly to the sea below and the sharp rocks that lay just offshore. Engraved in glass at the bottom of the passage is a shortened version of Benjamin's comment on commemoration:
It is more difficult to honor the memory of the anonymous than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the anonymous. Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History (1940)
Turning to ascend, the dark tunnel is now lit not by the sea, but the Costa Brava sky that must be described as azure, just as Homer's Aegean was ever wine dark.

He is buried in Port Bou, but nobody knows where, and when visitors come (Scholem tells us), the guardians of the cemetery lead them to a place that they say is his grave, respectfully accepting a tip. We have neither monument nor flower, but we have his texts, in which his elusive, vulnerable, and terribly tense mind continues to thrive. "Introduction" by Peter Demetz in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (1978) by Walter Benjamin. Edited by Peter Demetz.
Turning from the memorial, I opened the rusty gate and passed under the arch into the Portbou City Cemetery. Climbing a few steps to the second level of the cemetery and turning right, s simple stone path leads to the cemetery wall where a rough-hewn stone sits surrounded by six evergreens. The stone is adorned with flowers and remembrances (an apple, a coffee pod, a chocolate bar, a pine cone, that cascade to a pool of stones and more. A marble plaque is set in front, engraved with Benjamin's mortality and the following quote from Geschichtsphilosophische Thesen, VII (in German and Catalan):

Es is niemals ein dokument der kulture, ohne zugleich ein solcher der barberei zu sein
(There is no document of culture that is not also at the same time, a document of barbarism)

I lingered a bit and then continued on up, through the cemetery, past the closed chapel and out along the path behind the cemetery. I walked beside the road that climbed up over the cliffs to increasingly rocky cliffs. At a mirador overlook, I took a rocky path down towards the water and went down closer hoping to find a route to the beach, but it got to steep and I returned the way I came.

Back down via the back of the cemetery and find another part of the Benjamin Memorial, another Cor-Ten steel square placed in a strategic spot to overlook the Memorial below. I wandered the streets back towards the water. Stroll along the shingled and rocky beach towards Les Tres Platgetes, but the rising tide cuts off easy access and I return to the Hostel Juventus and have a vermut negre. After resting up a bit. I headed to the nearby Passatges Restaurant along the water and had the Catalan spring specialty, Calçot, a type of scallion or green onion, served braised and celebrated in annual Calçotada festival.

The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. “The truth will not run away from us”: in the historical outlook of historicism these words of Gottfried Keller mark the exact point where historical materialism cuts through historicism. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. (The good tidings which the historian of the past brings with throbbing heart may be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth.)  "Theses on the Philosophy of History: V" by Walter Benjamin in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (1968, 2007) by Walter Benjamin.  Translated by Harry Zohn and edited by Hannah Arendt.
I woke early the next day and headed out to trace back Benjamin's path out of France. Still too early for breakfast at the hotel, so I had a Café con leche at a stand open near the beach and then started my trek to Coll dels Belitres (roughly translated, "Smugglers Notch").

The Spanish/French border near Portbou has an even darker history than the death of Benjamin. At the end of the Spanish Civil War, after Franco had effectively taken over the country, Republicans and other Franco opponents became refugees. Some say upwards of 500,000 men, women, and children swarmed across the border in 1939. Near the still standing border crossing (rendered irrelevant -- at least for the time being -- by the European Union) at Coll dels Belitres is a memorial to the Retirada (the "retreat")

The walking route from Portbou to Coll dels Belitres is a walk uphill on the city streets, then a gravel trail, then a dirt path. The area is the foothills of the Serra de l’Albera, the tip of the Pyrenees before they tumble into the Mediterranean. Lots of cactus around (invasive species). A good walk and I got to Coll dels Belitres in about 40 minutes. Walking along the crest of the hill at about 200 meters, Portbou was to the right, the French town of Cerbère on the left, and the sea ahead. The path was strew with fortifications left from the Second World War era and became increasingly tricky as I reached the sea.

I start the climb down. Going is tricky, lots of cactus and fear of leaning into them while guiding along the path. One side is now a 150-200 meter drop into the ocean (literally straight down), the other is a 100 meter rolling drop on sharp rocks and cactus. When the path becomes impassable without better equipment, I admit discretion is the better part of valor and retrace my steps back to the crest of the ridge and then all the way back into Portbou. Benjamin's route, which was much further inland away from the coast, is now a marked trail name for Lisa and Hans Fittko who guided Benjamin and many other refugees from France to Spain.

He is concrete because he is impenetrable and elusive.... What he accomplishes he accomplishes as its master. And much of the greatness of this work will remain inaccessible or undiscovered until this class has revealed its most pronounced features in the final struggle. "The Image of Proust" by Walter Benjamin in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (1968, 2007) by Walter Benjamin. Translated by Harry Zohn and edited by Hannah Arendt.
Spending the rest of the day relaxing in Portbou, I head back to the cemetery and Benjamin Memorial later in the evening. I wander the cemetery and Memorial as the sun starts to set. I take one more walk down the steps through the Memorial to look at the sea and then back up to the light.

Returning to the hotel, I encounter an elderly German gentleman searching for a light in the hallway. I help him and we go down to the street together. We talk a bit and he invites me for a drink later. After a solo dinner, I find Gerhard S. sitting at the Juventus bar and join him for an Estrella. He tells me he is 80 years old from Mannheim, an author of three books and traveling to Zaragoza to work on a film and then on to Lisbon. We talk into the evening and then say goodnight.

Up early the next morning for my train back to Barcelona, I see Gerhard leaving the hotel in full hiking gear, backpack, walking stick and hat. We walk to the station together and then after boarding the train, say our farewells to be alone to process our time in Portbou.

On September 26, 1940, Walter Benjamin, who was about to emigrate to America, took his life at the Franco-Spanish border. There were various reasons for this. The Gestapo had confiscated his Paris apartment, which contained his library (he had been able to get “the more important half” out of Germany) and many of his manuscripts, and he had reason to be concerned also about the others which, through the good offices of George Bataille, had been placed in the Bibliothèque Nationale prior to his flight from Paris to Lourdes, in unoccupied France. How was he to live without a library, how could he earn a living without the extensive collection of quotations and excerpts among his manuscripts? ... But the immediate occasion for Benjamin’s suicide was an uncommon stroke of bad luck. Through the armistice agreement between Vichy France and the Third Reich, refugees from Hitler Germany -- les refugiés provenant d’Allemagne, as they were officially referred to in France -- were in danger of being shipped back to Germany, presumably only if they were political opponents. To save this category of refugees -- which, it should be noted, never included the unpolitical mass of Jews who later turned out to be the most endangered of all -- the United States had distributed a number of emergency visas through its consulates in unoccupied France.... One day earlier Benjamin would have got through without any trouble; one day later the people in Marseilles would have known that for the time being it was impossible to pass through Spain. Only on that particular day was the catastrophe possible. "Walter Benjamin: 1892–1940" by Hannah Arendt in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (1968, 2007) by Walter Benjamin. Translated by Harry Zohn and edited by Hannah Arendt.
The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. "Theses on the Philosophy of History: IX"  by Walter Benjamin in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (1968, 2007) by Walter Benjamin. Translated by Harry Zohn and edited by Hannah Arendt.
I highly recommend that anyone interested in Benjamin's brief time in Portbou to visit the website,
Walter Benjamin au Portbou. The site also includes maps and routes of Benjamin's escape from France and a walking tour of the town (see "Routes"). There is also a site for the Walter Benjamin Hiking Trail. More photos from the visit can be found in Walter Benjamin/Portbou and Portbou. Other resources include: