Diversion #5: Animals, apple pies, pale blue dots & desert road guides
This is a DIVERSION edition of Desire Paths—an every-other-weekend roundup of good stuff, things on my radar, brands and people I like, links and recommendations and a whole lot more.
In this edition…
Collecting tiny turtles & wooden pigs
Making an apple pie from scratch
Who’s behind Mojave Road Guide?
Links on… Cambodian doughnut kids, fishing flies like streetwear drops, a Taiwanese chili researcher, a rediscovered novelist, and a Swiss photographer of the NYC subway.
Plus stuff to buy
I’m Danny Giacopelli, an editor, photographer, traveller and small business fan. By day I’m Editor-at-Large for Courier magazine. This is my personal newsletter, Desire Paths.
Desire Paths is based on the idea that the most fulfilled, fascinating people in the world chase after risky dreams, change careers, make unconventional decisions, and cross oceans to start something new. I go deep with them—small business owners, designers, shopkeepers, farmers, billionaires, hermits, maybe even you—and share everything I learn.
1. Little animals
You’ve got too many little animals, Kim said the other day.
She was gently dissuading me from buying yet another one. Not real, furry, breathing things. Wooden and stone. For me, they’re meaningful tokens, talismans, memories of adventures. I collect them on the road or when discovering a new place. Some are just for fun. Others I’d save from a burning building. I definitely have too many. But I probably won’t stop anytime soon.
Here are some of my little animals, shot in their natural environment, as California’s golden hour light poured through the windows.
Above: Here is my terracotta monkey holding a rice ball, made by a Japanese craftsman named Reizo—the 7th generation of a clay doll making family—and handpainted by his daughter Sae. Raizo says the monkey’s message is for people not to suffer from hunger and to have a happy life. I bought this little guy (girl?)—and the racoon below it—from Sachiyo Itabashi, the incredible LA-based owner of YOKA. Yoka means “good” in Sachiyo's local Kumamoto dialact. Her brand is Sachiyo’s way of sharing the work of Kumamoto artisans with the world.
Above: This wooden bird comes from London, via a store in Stoke Newington called FOLKA, via a small village in the Beskid Mountains, where an artist named Bogumila carves them by hand from real birds she can spot around her house.
Below: And this little bird was carved by Kenyan artists. I found it at a small store near the old port area in Nice, France.
I bought this cute turtle from an antique store in LA’s Chinatown. It’s made by cloisonné—a technique where golden/metal strips are filled in with colored material. The shell pops off and it turns into a tiny vessel.
Here’s my hand-carved alebrijes wooden bear from Oaxaca. Anyone who’s been to Oaxaca knows these magical, whimsical, beautiful figurines are literally everywhere. Some are mass-market tourist junk, others are special and made by well-regarded artists. I wanted to take home a special one and took my time finding this.
Above: This horse was living in a cavernous vintage store in San Luis Obispo.
Below: And Kim and I can’t agree on where this Chinese horse came from…
Here’s a fat, happy pig head. It was waiting for me at a market in Hoi An, Vietnam.
I’ve always loved the turquoise-y blue of these tiny sculptures. This little cat isn’t “real”—in that I got it at the gift shop of the British Museum. But it’s real enough.
More monkeys. Above is another one from YOKA. This ceramic guy is holding a plate. I put my jewellery and wristwatch in it every night for safe-keeping.
And below, a tiny fake jade one I got for super cheap ($8, I think) in LA’s Chinatown.
A small cast iron pig from a Mexican homewares store in San Diego. This thing is heavy.
And a swallow I picked up in Lisbon—an iconic souvenir from the local craft and lifestyle store A Vida Portuguesa, which is always well worth the trip. You can pick up one yourself, in various sizes. A small swallow costs €10.90 while an extra large one is only €21. A bargain.
2. Making a pie from scratch
Every now and then I think of Carl Sagan.
Sagan was an astrophysicist, cosmologist, humanist and science educator—a true throwback to those ancient days when society celebrated science, scientists and critical thinking. (Alright, grandpa, let’s get you to bed…). Sagan was a legend. As prolific as they come. Just read the first few paragraphs of his Wikipedia bio. He was also a philosopher, in the sense that all people who search for the truth are sort of philosophers. And he had a way with words.
“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
Man, I’ve always loved that.
And, of course, there was Pale Blue Dot.
The spacecraft Voyager 1 was launched by NASA in 1977 to explore the outer Solar System and interstellar space. By 1990, Voyager was hurtling into space and was 4 billion miles from home. (It’s now 14 billion miles away).
At Sagan’s suggestion, NASA instructed Voyager to take a snapshot of Earth. Which it did. And if you squint below, you can see us. We’re that tiny speck in the ray of sunlight. Earth is, as Sagan described it, a pale blue dot.
In 1994, Sagan wrote a book inspired by the photograph. He was trying to put our existence within a broader perspective. Everyone that has ever lived did so on that ‘mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam’. We are, Sagan explains, both insignificant in the grander scheme of the universe, but also highly significant given that we haven’t found life elsewhere. The lesson? Be kind. Have perspective. And cherish life’s fragility.
Below is a recording of Sagan reading one profoundly moving excerpt from the book, along with the transcript. It gets me every. single. time.
That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
—Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot (1994)
3. Mojave Road Guide
Desert theme, gold embossed title, green leather cover, odd cartoon mouse? What is this thing? Five dollars later it was mine, and I started digging in.
Mojave Road Guide (1986) was written by the adventurer and historian Dennis Casebier, who lived a very Desire Paths-y life.
The Kansas-born ex-Marine fell in love with the Mojave Desert back when he was stationed at Twentynine Palms in 1954. Love became an obsession, and years later Dennis made it his life’s mission to restore, promote and conserve a 150-year-old desert wagon trail that had been almost completely forgotten: The Mojave Road.
Mojave Road Guide was Dennis’s attempt to share the road’s wonders with hikers and others—explaining what to see along the way, who to meet, and how to treat the land with respect. It’s fun, very DIY and slightly bonkers. I would have loved to interview Dennis about his adventures, but he died in 2021 at the age of 87.
4. Readings & links
People carving their own path.
1. The Doughnut Kids Are All Right (Eater)
Meet the “doughnut kids,” second-generation Cambodian Americans who grew up bathing in commercial kitchen sinks as babies, selling lottery tickets after school, and folding endless stacks of pink boxes during summer breaks. This new class of doughnut entrepreneurs witnessed their parents working early mornings and late nights, seven days a week — and internalized both the struggles and successes of running a small family business.
2. Fishermen Queue Up to Drop $100 on Ben Whalley’s Saltwater Flies (Bloomberg)
Ben Whalley makes fly-fishing flies and operates a business model like streetwear drops: Ben’s flies go for as much as $100 each, a price that’s virtually unheard of. Fans don’t seem to mind; his latest monthly drop of 70 flies sold out in less than four minutes.
3. Taking a Late-in-Life Victory Lap, Thanks to His Novel’s ‘Lunatic Energy’ (NYT)
Robert Plunket was living in a trailer park in Englewood, Fla., with his pug, Meatball, when an email interrupted his life of quiet retirement. An editor in New York wanted to publish his debut novel. The message struck Plunket as odd: The novel, first published in 1983, had long been out of print, and Plunket, after a brief moment in the spotlight, had fallen off the literary map. “I did feel like an obscure has-been,” Plunket said, “because that’s what I was, technically.”
It’s rare for a long-forgotten writer into his eighth decade to get rediscovered. What’s even more unusual about Plunket, and his unlikely return, is how stealthily influential his fiction has been over the decades.
4. The Quest to Save Chili Peppers (The New Yorker)
In 1999, Susan Lin, a bespectacled plant researcher at the World Vegetable Center, in Taiwan, pulled on a pair of latex gloves and got to work cross-pollinating some chili peppers. She collected tiny white flowers from a cayenne-pepper plant, shook their pollen into a tiny test tube, and walked over to an aji-chili plant. Using tweezers, she removed the petals and anthers from its flower buds, exposing the thread-like stigmas that serve as the plant’s female reproductive organs. Then she dipped the stigmas into the pollen, hoping that they would eventually form peppers.
Lin was trying to breed a plant that was resistant to anthracnose, a fungal infection that blisters mature chili peppers with sunken patches that look like cigarette burns. The disease afflicts farms from New Jersey to New Delhi; in India alone, anthracnose was estimated to inflict losses of around four hundred and ninety-one million dollars a year…
5. Hell on Wheels: Photographing the MTA at the Dawn of the 1980s (Brooklyn)
In May of 1977, a 30-year-old Swiss photographer named Willy Spiller, newly arrived in New York City and recovering from the one-two punch of jetlag and a night in the notorious Chelsea Hotel, descended the steps of the city’s subway for the first time. What he saw was terrifying. And electrifying. And, truth be told, addicting.
Stuff I’m loving.
Mondo Mascots. In Japan, seemingly every town, company and organization has a mascot. This Twitter account documents that amazing, often unhinged, universe.
Paynter’s new shirt. You can now pre-order Paynter’s new Indigo Sashiko Camp Collar Shirt, which dropped today. It’s beautiful. They rarely miss a beat.
Fuji X100V. This has been my main camera since it came out a few years ago. And for many reasons it’s one of the best value cameras you can buy, full-stop. But when the new Leica Q3 was released a few weeks ago to endless fanfare, I had a brief flirtation of insanity and thought about entering the red dot world. But I’ve reconsidered. Why change something that’s not broken? X100V for life. (Well, until Fuji releases a Z or something…)
The Why Files. This guy breaks down mysteries and myths and conspiracy theories on YouTube. He’s a skeptic and a fantastic storyteller. It’s fun and weird. There’s a talking goldfish involved. I’ve been binging for days now. Watch this one on the simulation hypothesis. Mind-blowing.
Layla’s Bagels. And my local bagel shop in Santa Monica is really giving NYC a run for its money. I know, fighting words.
UNTIL NEXT TIME,
Desire Paths is about the wild, winding, lesson-filled lives of fascinating people. I’d love if you’d subscribe or share with a friend.