A Sea of Glass: Searching for the Blaschkas' Fragile Legacy in an Ocean at Risk

A Sea of Glass: Searching for the Blaschkas' Fragile Legacy in an Ocean at Risk

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A Sea of Glass: Searching for the Blaschkas' Fragile Legacy in an Ocean at Risk by Drew Harvell

"The author makes an eloquent plea for marine biodiversity conservation."—Library Journal

"Harvell seems to channel the devotion that motivated the Blaschkas."—The Guardian 
Winner of the 2016 National Outdoor Book Award, Environment Category

It started with a glass octopus. Dusty, broken, and all but forgotten, it caught Drew Harvell’s eye. Fashioned in intricate detail by the father-son glassmaking team of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, the octopus belonged to a menagerie of unusual marine creatures that had been packed away for decades in a storage unit. More than 150 years earlier, the Blaschkas had been captivated by marine invertebrates and spun their likenesses into glass, documenting the life of oceans untouched by climate change and human impacts. Inspired by the Blaschkas’ uncanny replicas, Harvell set out in search of their living counterparts. In A Sea of Glass, she recounts this journey of a lifetime, taking readers along as she dives beneath the ocean's surface to a rarely seen world, revealing the surprising and unusual biology of some of the most ancient animals on the tree of life. On the way, we glimpse a century of change in our ocean ecosystems and learn which of the living matches for the Blaschkas’ creations are, indeed, as fragile as glass.

Drew Harvell and the Blaschka menagerie are the subjects of the documentary Fragile Legacy, which won the Best Short Film award at the 2015 Blue Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Summit. Learn more about the film and check out the trailer here.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520285682
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/17/2016
Series: Organisms and Environments , #13
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 238,662
Product dimensions: 7.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Drew Harvell is Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University and Curator of the Blaschka Marine Invertebrate Collection. Her research on the sustainability of marine ecosystems has taken her from the reefs of Mexico, Indonesia, and Hawaii to the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest. She is a Fellow of the Ecological Society of America and the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, a winner of the Society of American Naturalist Jasper Loftus-Hills Award, and a lead author of the oceans chapter in the recent U.S. Climate Change Assessment. She has published over 120 articles in journals such as ScienceNature, and Ecology and is coeditor of The Ecology and Evolution of Inducible Defenses.

Read an Excerpt

A Sea of Glass

Searching for the Blaschkas' Fragile Legacy in an Ocean at Risk

By Drew Harvell


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96111-1



The Quest for the Living Blaschka Animals

WHEN I FIRST MET the level gaze of two periscoped eyes and felt suckered tentacles on my arm, I did not imagine that I would soon be holding an ink-spewing Houdini. It was otherworldly to be communing underwater with an eight-armed alien with roughly the intelligence of a cat — maybe more. For what cat can figure out how to open a child-proof bottle of Tylenol? This even eludes some people. Not surprisingly, octopus intelligence is complemented by emotions and distinct personalities. Each animal is an individual being — smart, aware, and curious. But here's where these alchemists trump us humans: not only are they masters of shape and color, changing their appearance at will, but they have unusual powers and can taste with their tentacles and see with their light-sensitive skin. I am entranced, pulled further into this curious being's world during one of my first dives on a quest to find the living counterparts of the glass animals created by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka more than 150 years ago.

The octopus we found in Hawaii is similar to my favorite glass piece (opposite) in the historic collection of glass sea animals housed at Cornell University, where I teach. I first saw it twenty-seven years ago, broken and dusty, its knowing eye cocked up at me, suckered tentacle stretched across the bottom of its box. I was discouraged to see the octopus so damaged, with shattered tentacles and a gaping hole above the eye; it looked to be beyond repair. That broken glass masterpiece is a metaphor for how some of these animals are faring in the oceans of today: like their glass counterparts, some of the living representatives are in decline. This inspired my quest to use our glass collection as a time capsule and to see how many of the living representatives we could find in today's oceans, a quest chronicled here in A Sea of Glass. It is a continuing global journey that has taken videographer David Brown and me from the shores of Maine and Washington to far-flung locales like Indonesia, in the most diverse waters of the Coral Triangle, and the Ligurian coast of the Mediterranean. It is also a quest to bring the glass to life and show the brilliance and unusual biology of the inhabitants of the Blaschkas' tree of life.

In the 1980s, I heard from Paul Feeny, then chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell, that the university had a stunning collection of glass invertebrates packed away in offsite storage. The collection had been made by the famed glass flower artists Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. It was Paul's idea that we should go look at the collection and think about bringing it back to campus. Paul asked Carol Yoon, then a PhD student and aspiring journalist, to come along and write up a piece about the collection for the Cornell paper. Together we made the forty-minute drive to a storage warehouse outside of Corning, New York. As we walked in the door of the huge old warehouse, I wondered why I was even there, since all we could see were boxes and boxes stacked on metal shelves that stretched endlessly across a concrete floor. As a young assistant professor trying to establish a research career studying living marine ecosystems, I really had other things to do. But once I opened the boxes, there was no turning back. I was astounded at the perfection with which so many of the invertebrate species I knew and loved had been rendered in glass. There before me were glass models of many species I knew well and, equally enthralling, countless ones I had never seen before: anemones, jellyfish, boxes and boxes of sea slugs — and the octopus. They were all in cardboard cartons, many wired onto their original shipping cards, with Blaschka numbers and their former taxonomic names. Some were as perfect as the day they had been made, shiny and bright; others were shattered beyond repair. I couldn't stop looking; each box held some new wonder. In many cases it was like greeting old friends that I had once seen on some shore, long-forgotten Latin names filtering up out of the past. It was almost too much to take in at one time. Paul and Carol shared in the moment of unearthing this essentially lost treasure.

Beginning with that single octopus, so perfectly made and so easily broken, I searched through all the boxes and found 569 glass animal models, acquired in 1885 by Cornell University, with the help of its first president, Andrew Dixon White, as a teaching collection (Reiling 1998). Each is an exact replica of an animal that once lived in our oceans and might still. I was enchanted that anyone could have produced such exquisite masterpieces, nearly indistinguishable from their living counterparts. That one glass octopus inspired me to begin restoration of this rare and valuable collection. When I saw its living double on a reef in Hawaii twenty-five years later, it would propel me on a worldwide quest to find more living Blaschka biodiversity.

Our 150-year-old Blaschka collection is a time capsule, pulling us back to explore the biodiversity of a bygone era. This was not only a time of plentiful seas, before the Industrial Revolution, but also the age of natural history. The Blaschkas were profoundly influenced by, and initially copied, many of the spectacular anemone, jellyfish, and squid watercolors of the great naturalists Ernst Haeckel and Philip Gosse, eventually producing over 800 perfect glass sea creatures inhabiting many branches of the tree of life. These are the most ancient of animals on earth, animals without backbones, and they represent the fundamental body plans on our planet. Not dogs, cats, dolphins, turtles, or even fish, but rather anemones, corals, sea stars, octopuses, sea slugs, and sea squirts, animals less well known than the more common back-boned creatures and yet with big roles to play in the economy of our oceans. Some are alive and thriving to this day; others have not fared well. Some are classified as endangered in today's oceans, and still others have been impossible to find and may even be extinct.

Interestingly, the Blaschkas are not best known for their sea creatures. Historically, they are famous for their glass flowers, a major collection of which is currently housed at Harvard University. It includes over 3,000 sculptures, encompassing all major orders within the kingdom of plants. Most people don't know that the Blaschkas created the glass menagerie of rare and mysterious sea animals first. Cornell's collection of sea animals, acquired in 1885, may have been one of the last invertebrate collections made before they shifted to making the flowers in 1886 (Reiling 2007). The circle of Blaschka influence is vastly wider than the Harvard flower collection and the Cornell sea animal collection; Blaschka glass sea animals are shown by over fifty museums and universities across the globe and include large exhibitions in Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, Austria, the United States (at Cornell, Harvard, Tufts, and the Boston Museum of Science), Belgium, Canada, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, and Sweden (Callaghan et al. 2013). More than 3,500 models of 800 different animals are estimated to exist. Like Cornell's, some collections are dusty and in need of repair (Reiling 1998). Part of my work as a professor at Cornell and curator of its collection has been to sleuth out current scientific names and to restore the damaged models for exhibition. (An online gallery of most of Cornell's glass invertebrates can be found at www.library.cornell.edu/blaschka-gallery. Many of the Blaschka watercolors housed in the Rakow Library at the Corning Museum of Glass are available at www.cmog.org/research/library-search/%22Blaschka%20design%20drawings%20Marine%20invertebrates%22.)

Over the past few years, in between dives inspired by the Blaschka sea animals, I have made numerous trips to the Rakow Library at the Corning Museum of Glass to explore the eight boxes of original Blaschka correspondence and watercolors in its collection. As with the glass collection, I was in turn humbled, inspired, and excited by the discovery of such a rich history; my hands shook the first time I opened those boxes. I am not by training a historian, but I felt a historian's reverence at being able to touch the past, and excitement at the volume of material. When I leaf through the Blaschkas' journals, letters, and watercolors, I slip back in time and feel their presence, each time learning some new detail of how and why they created something so inspiring to me.

Leopold Blaschka's background, recounted in Henri Reiling's article (1998), offers some clues to his passion for excellence in glass. Born in 1822, he was one of three sons in a family of glass-and metalworkers in the village of Böhmisch Aicha, in what is now the Czech Republic. Glassworking had been a family tradition for 300 years. Leopold's father, Joseph, taught him the arts of glassmaking and enameling. As a boy, Leopold enjoyed natural history and displayed a talent for drawing. He was the only one of the three brothers gifted enough to be a glassworker. In 1846 Leopold married his love, Carolina Zimmermann; sadly, she died in 1850 during a cholera epidemic. This was a crushing loss, soon to be followed by another. Leopold's beloved father died in 1852, sending him into despondence. The following year, seeking solace and escape, he traveled aboard the brig Pauline to North America. The boat was becalmed on the Atlantic, during which time Leopold observed several species of jellyfish, including the stunning and dangerous Portuguese man-of-war. His diary entry from this voyage, described in chapter 3, reveals that he was entranced by the forms of the jellyfish and their evening light shows of bioluminescence. This was the moment he first imagined creating a bioluminescent jellyfish spun from glass.

Upon his return from the sea voyage in 1854, Leopold married Carolina Riegel and took over the management of the family business of crafting glass eyes. Rudolf, Leopold and Carolina's only child, was born three years later, when Leopold was 35. During this time Leopold returned to his original fascination with natural history and began creating orchids in glass. These were noticed by Prince Camille de Rohan, a connoisseur of plants with a love of orchids. He requested more of Leopold's glass orchids, some of which were inspired by strolls in the prince's own fabulous gardens. Between 1860 and 1862, Leopold made many glass tropical plants, mostly orchids, which were mounted on artificial tree trunks. The orchids were exhibited in the prince's palace outside Prague (Sychrov Castle is now owned by the state and open for tours).

In 1863 Leopold moved to Dresden, Germany, where the prince introduced him to Heinrich Gottlieb Ludwig Reichenbach, director of the Dresden Botanical Gardens and the Dresden Natural History Museum. This was the turning point in Blaschka's career as a glassmaker. Reichenbach was exhibiting the startling tide pool anemone lithographs from naturalist Phillip Gosse's Actinologia Britannica (1860). Each lithographed tide pool is packed full of an impossible number of brightly colored, spotted, and striped anemones (page 22). As Leopold transitioned from making orchids to crafting anemones, we can see that many of his first watercolors and glass anemones are almost exact matches in posture to the Gosse lithographs. Reichenbach commissioned glass anemones and displayed them in dry aquaria as a spatial paraphrase of Gosse's lithographs, showing idealized groups of sea animals in a natural context.

Leopold's next step marked the beginning of a period of innovation in which he would explore further branches on the tree of life. The 1872 Dresden Natural History Museum catalogue documents the transition from displaying anemones only to having forty-seven Blaschka squid models on display. The anemones and squid were the beginnings of the Blaschkas' glass tree of life, from which would sprout a full spineless menagerie: jellyfish, sea slugs, octopuses, worms, brittle stars, sea cucumbers, and sea squirts.

Only five years later, the enterprise was established, with Leopold's now twenty-year-old son, Rudolf, as a full-time partner. Letters in the Rakow Museum archives, translated from the Old German by Henri Reiling, reveal that in 1877, Leopold ordered alcohol-preserved animals from the Naples Zoological Station on the Italian Mediterranean coast. Leopold's correspondence reveals that soon thereafter, tanks with seawater were installed in the Blaschkas' studio and regular shipments of living sea creatures came from suppliers in Trieste, Italy, Kiel, Germany, and Weymouth, England. In 1879, Rudolf made a field trip to upper Italy and the Adriatic (Reiling 1998). Rudolf's education would influence the direction in which their business developed. "I studied now very earnestly zoology and anatomy with teachers and with the help of the great Natural History library of the Imperial Academy Carol. Leopoldina which we had in Dresden that time," we find in Henri Reiling's translation of Rudolf's diary.

* * *

Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka shaped glass by lampworking. They heated glass in an open flame (the lamp) produced by burning paraffin that melted at a low temperature. They then transformed the glass using tweezers and tongs, bending flat plate glass into different forms. They made grooves and lines in the glass with small needles positioned in a holder. They labored at a lamp worker's table with bellows and a treadle below. High temperatures could be reached by using the bellows to supply extra oxygen to the burning process in the "lamp." The true-to-life colors on each piece were created by a combination of mixing different colors of glass or painting the glass. A stunning, technically challenging aspect of their work is the impossibly thin glass they used to craft, for example, the bell of a jellyfish. Even the expert glassworkers at the Corning Museum of Glass contend that no one today is capable of such artistry.

Some part of the deeper motivation to create these masterpieces must have resided in the relationship between father and son; they shared an obsession with their work. Everyone who spent time with Leopold appears to have been charmed by him, and an afternoon of reading his correspondence reveals a kind, courtly gentleman and passionate student of natural history. He was so connected with the science of his day that he corresponded avidly with the giant of nineteenth-century marine natural history, Ernst Haeckel.

Haeckel, who was widely known for his detailed, lifelike, and artistic drawings and paintings, inspired Leopold to first capture his animals in watercolor. Like their glass animals, Leopold and Rudolf's watercolors are mesmerizing. The Rakow Library has over 170 of them. The Blaschkas created the watercolors to get the pose, colors, and anatomy of each piece right before starting their work in glass. They range from simple pencil sketches, with parts crossed out and marked over, to finished works of art. The watercolors turn even lowly worms into objects of enchantment. Leopold's watercolor of Spirorbis, a tiny feather duster worm no bigger than a ladybug, brings all the beauty and biology of the worm to light. It shows the worm pulled from its tube, revealing more than the brilliant tentacles and tiny hooks that hold it in place within the tube, and the eyespots that cue the tentacles to flicker in and out with changes in light. He shows also the eggs and the frilled, eyed larvae that are brooded by each mother worm inside her tube. I am impressed that he knew these details of this tiniest worm, holding close her brood of squirming larvae inside delicately sculpted porcelain tubes.

Of course worms, even ones as brightly colored and diverse as these, aren't for everyone. Many people are far more likely to be inspired by a startling red octopus with fierce eyes, its undulating tentacles stretched across the page, or by the possibility of one day spotting a live version of the Blaschkas' watercolor Glaucus atlanticus, the exquisite blue-striped pelagic sea dragon (page 102), a nudibranch that feeds on the highly venomous Portuguese man-of-war. Despite the allure of these carefully crafted watercolors, you may still be unprepared for the impact of the actual glass masterpieces. To see a glass-spun jellyfish, like the Portuguese man-of-war, the prey of the sea dragon, even more vibrant in its colors and real in its form than what you could observe in nature — that is the secret of why these pieces have been cherished as art since the day they were made.


Excerpted from A Sea of Glass by Drew Harvell. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Harry W. Greene ix

1 Introduction: The Quest for the Living Blaschka Animals 1

2 Anemones and Corals: Rooted Lives of At-Risk Animals 19

3 Jellyfish: The Rise of the Medusa 43

4 Worms: Ecosystem Engineers Undercover 69

5 Sea Slugs: Fire Stealers of the Deep 89

6 Octopus and Squid: Shape-Shifters under Pressure 113

7 Sea Stars: Keystone Species in Glass 137

8 The Voyage of Our Blaschka Biodiversity 153

Acknowledgments 167

Appendix: A Primer on the Blaschka Tree of Life 171

References 191

List of Illustrations 199

Index 203

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A Sea of Glass: Searching for the Blaschkas' Fragile Legacy in an Ocean at Risk 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A wonderful, insightful book that not only educates but also intrigues! Dr. Harvell's knowledge and personal accounts will keep you reading. The lovely photographs of the glass animals are another bonus!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
“A Sea of Glass” blurs the lines between science, history, art, and conservation. Dr. Drew Harvell embarks on a journey to search for living representatives of marine invertebrates depicted in the Blaschka glass pieces, and she takes the reader with her. Through colorful vignettes, Drew shares her knowledge and passion of the diversity of creatures in our oceans in a way that is accessible and exciting to a remarkably broad-reaching audience. The writing is vivid, and the illustrations are decadent. This book was a treat and I highly recommend!