Ella Morton: To Explore. To Dream. To Discover.
By Peter Stamelman
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Two days before Christmas I conducted the longest, coldest and most physically demanding interview of 2016. Not that I’m complaining; on the contrary: the interview left me both exhausted and exhilarated. Exhausted as after a particularly strenuous workout at the gym and exhilarated as in returning from a fascinating voyage of discovery. Only in this case it was a voyage of discovery to a wastewater treatment plant, roughly five miles from my apartment.
Reader, let me explain:
Last November, while browsing the shelves at WORD, an excellent independent bookstore in Greenpoint, I came across “Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders,” published by Workman in September 2016. Opening the book to a random page, I read the entry about “Lyon’s Secret Alleyways” in the Vieux-Lyon and Croix-Rousse neighborhoods. Now I had been to the gastronomical capital of France on several occasions and thought that I knew the city fairly well. But these traboules — alleyways and staircases — were a revelation. Then I flipped to the “New World” section and discovered the Oasis Bordello Museum in Wallace, Idaho (mildly titillating). After that, it was the Kyaiktiyo Balancing Pagoda in Myanmar (truly amazing).
After finishing the entry on Forestiere Underground Gardens, north of downtown Fresno, I looked at my watch and realized I’d been reading the “Atlas Obscura” (hereafter referred to as AO) for almost 45 minutes. So, I bought the 480-page tome and left. That night I continued my peregrinations from the comfort of my favorite reading chair. Just after midnight, as I was starting to fade, the AO website revealed its most astonishing secret: its headquarters is in Greenpoint, in the Pencil Building, in fact just down the street from WORD.
Before I knew it, with the inestimable assistance of the book’s industrious publicist Rebecca Carlisle, I was at AO’s 6th floor offices interviewing Ella Morton, who co-authored the book along with AO’s founders Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras. Ms. Morton is also the associate editor at the website atlasobscura.com. There could not be a more apropos keeper of the AO flame than the singular Ms. Morton, whose pre-Raphaelite red hair, impeccable vintage fashion sense, hint of a Kiwi/Aussie accent and savant’s knowledge of the strange and wondrous, give her an aura of a 21st-century Gertrude Bell.
Recently, at the AO Greenpoint offices and just before departing on an excursion to the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant Nature Walk (I know, weird to see “wastewater treatment plant” and “nature walk” in the same sentence), I asked Ms. Morton about her personal odyssey from New Zealand to Australia to Brooklyn.
The following are edited excerpts from that conversation:
Eagle: Tell me about your own voyage — how did you eventually land at AO in Brooklyn?
Ella Morton: I was born in Wellington to a New Zealand father and an American mother, so I had a head start in that regard in having dual citizenship. After I went to college in Australia, I started working in Sydney as a tech writer. I also had a “thing” going with acting and performing. I had been thinking about moving to New York for a long time, especially after my mother and sister moved here in mid-2001, shortly before Sept. 11.
Eagle: Interesting timing…
EM: Yes. Equally “interesting” is that in 2008, I decided to join them and look for a job - right in the midst of the recession! My hosting on Rocketboom was my first job in New York. [Rocketboom.com is a website with a fresh and unorthodox take on the news.] Because I was interviewing people in New York about strange and wondrous things they were doing, in some ways that gig prepared me for AO.
Eagle: Would I be correct in guessing that when you were a child, you had an insatiable curiosity?
EM: Yes, absolutely. When I was a kid I used to take a desk-top encyclopedia to bed and just flip open a page and read it and think, “Whoa, what’s going on out there?!” So, when I interviewed with Josh and Dylan for the atlasobscura.com associate editor position I thought, “This is just right.”
Eagle: “Wonder” is a fairly broad category. How do you decide what merits inclusion in AO?
EM: For me it’s two elements, one is the hidden and the other is the surprising. A lot of people consider AO a travel guide — and it is sort of that — but there is more emphasis on the unusual. For example, we do not include the Eiffel Tower per se, but we do include the hidden apartment near the very top of the tower that Gustave Eiffel built for himself, with plush carpeting and a grand piano, to entertain special guests. The vast majority of the Eiffel Tower’s visitors don’t know that apartment is there. I mean it’s hard to have a strict checklist of criteria for what we call “atlas-y” stuff, but for us, it’s “you know it when you see it.”
Eagle: Josh and Dylan describe you as “indefatigable.” What is your job description?
EM: A big part of my job is curating and evaluating the contributions from our community and tracking down the little details that can take the entries to that next level, that make them that much more surprising and wondrous.
Eagle: What about fact-checking? Just in case somebody tries to slip something by you?
EM: (laughing) Yes, that was definitely an initial concern, that people would submit things that were self-serving or would try to prank us. But we found that the entries that we thought were just too strange to be true were, in fact, the best-documented. I am such a research nerd, I adore going through archives and sifting through dusty card catalogs. So very little that’s suspect gets by me.
Eagle: You’re sort of the “Dora the Detective” of AO. Have any potential contributors tried to punk you?
EM: That does sometimes happen on the website. But nothing gets put up straightaway; we have an entire team that looks at each submission and verify it. They are the ones who actually write the copy and they do all the vetting.
Eagle: How many employees work at AO?
EM: It’s a bit hard to quantify, because of our many freelancers and how spread around they are, but here in the office there are, I’d say, 20 employees. But you have to also factor in our “field agents” [people who host local events] in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Eagle: How many employees were there originally, when AO was founded?
Eagle: So you’ve really grown quickly.
EM: Yes, and there have been so many changes, the biggest of which occurred two years ago when David Plotz can over from Slate to become our CEO. [Plotz, who had been with Slate since its 1996 inception, was the online magazine’s editor from 2008-2014]. Before David came over, atlasobscura.com was for a long time Josh and Dylan’s “collection of strange and wondrous places” data-base. Then more editorial was added from various contributors, for example, pieces on Victorian hair art, bone churches, all things macabre and unearthly. Then Josh and Dylan decided to expand into an online magazine and then write a book. So, we now have an editorial team; these two rooms are filled with writers who publish eight [to] 12 stories every day.
Eagle: It seems like AO throws its net pretty wide; for example, on pages 392-393 of the book, there is a sidebar story on a “guide to psychotropic drugs designed to enhance religious experience.”
EM: Every sidebar story relates to a destination, so, for example, the psychotropic drug sidebar was part of our entry on the Santo Daime Ayahuasca Ceremonies in Peru.
Eagle: Do some of your wanderer-contributors become obsessed, go off the grid, like Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness,” never to be heard from again?
EM: (laughing) Well, I hope that’s not happening. We do have some contributors committed to “going out there” and seeing what they find. For example, we have an English contributor named Luke Spencer who went to Chernobyl [Note: Yes, that Chernobyl!], then went wandering about in Bulgaria and Macedonia. He’s kind of a throwback to an earlier explorer. He dresses super-vintage, which is sort of how I know him, because I’m part of the vintage community, but that’s a whole other story. Then there are the “ruin” aficionados, who seek out abandoned places or track down rumors of hidden civilizations.
Eagle: Sort of like modern-day versions of Percy Fawcett?
EM: Yes, precisely. In fact, in the book we have a sidebar about Percy called “Don’t Follow That Man.” [In 1925, Colonel Percy Fawcett ventured into the Amazon to find an ancient civilization. He is the subject of David Grann’s utterly compelling book “The Lost City of Z” and James Gray’s equally compelling film of the same name, opening in April of 2017, and released appropriately enough, by Amazon Studios].
Eagle: I adored both the book and the film. Col. Fawcett and his search for El Dorado seem right in AO’s wheelhouse. Which leads me to another question: In 1828 in London and 1829 in Boston, an encyclopedia for boys was published — the full title was “The Boy’s Own Book: A Complete Encyclopedia of all the Diversions, Athletic, Scientific, and Recreative of Boyhood and Youth.” That lead to “Boy’s Own Magazine,” which then led to 15 other franchise publications; I’m sure if the internet had existed in the early 19th century, there also would have been a website. Since you are, by your own admission, a “research nerd,” are there any other books or magazines you consider to be AO’s predecessors?
EM: As for forerunners, AO is often compared to “National Geographic,” but I reckon we’re more in line with “Monocle” and “Schott’s Miscellany” with a bit of Rick Steves’ travel guides. Mix these into a bouillabaisse and, voila, you have “Atlas Obscura.”
Eagle: Since quite a few of the AO destinations could be considered dangerous, do you always include a warning?
EM: Yes. We have a disclaimer on the website that says “Look, most of these places are not intended as tourist destinations.” For example, there’s a staircase in Hawaii called Ha’Iku Stairs. And you’re not supposed to go up there — for one thing, you have to get past a guard, for another it annoys the locals. There are also a lot of very inaccessible places in the book, like the world’s deepest borehole. Also off-limit places, like some of the super-secret databases, we list. Our aim in showing our readers these locations is not to frustrate them, but to say, “Listen, there are a lot of strange, wondrous places out there — go out and look for yourself!” The 700 places listed in the book are meant to serve as a beginning of a life-long adventure.
Eagle: Speaking of starting, let’s get started on our visit to one of Greenpoint’s contributions to atlasobscura.com — the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant Nature Walk.
EM: Yes, let’s…
For information about purchasing the “Atlas Obscura” book, go to www.workman.com or www.atlasobscura.com. For specific information about the Newtown Creek Nature Walk go to www.nyc.gov and scroll down to Parks & Nature.