She helped create Yoda and then disappeared

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

You might not recognize the name Wendy Froud (née Midener), but in the world of movie effects and puppetry, she’s practically a legend. Froud was sought out by directors like Jim Henson early in her career and created countless iconic TV and movie creatures. She played a crucial role in the birth of animatronics, providing the puppet design for groundbreaking films The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth. A Froud original can go for $4,500, and her work even earned her one of pop culture’s greatest monikers: the Mother of Yoda. But in 1988, at the height of Froud’s career, the woman who helped create some of the world’s most beloved puppets seemingly vanished.

The legend of the music tree

The tale of The Tree is shrouded in equal parts bravado and nostalgia. Few people know it, and those who do seem to have their own, very particular take. What is certain is that the story begins in 1965 deep in the Chiquibul jungle, a remote and largely uncharted broadleaf rainforest in what was then British Honduras and is now Belize. It was there that a clutch of vagabond loggers scouting for timber happened upon an ancient mahogany tree. Mahogany had for centuries been that nation’s primary export, and was a popular target of poachers and smugglers. Few large mahogany trees remained, and this one was enormous—12 feet in diameter at its base, soaring 100 feet into the canopy. If not the most massive tree in the forest, it was certainly a contender for the title.

Continue reading “She helped create Yoda and then disappeared”

The death-defying legend of cowpuncher Boots O’Neal

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

The sun is not yet up when Boots O’Neal starts his workday. As the 89-year-old cowboy readies his mount in the predawn quiet, he stuffs his hands into well-worn leather gloves. He pulls down his silverbelly hat and grunts his way onto the saddle, planting his tall-topped boots in the stirrups. The horse he’s riding today is a dark sorrel named Cool. This morning’s chore: Boots and his coworkers must round up some two dozen bulls scattered across a vast grazing pasture, drive them to a set of pens about a mile away, and load them into a livestock trailer so they can be hauled to another division of the Four Sixes, the legendary West Texas ranch that sprawls across 260,000 acres.

The curious case of the Stone Age fossil known as Nebraska man

In 1917, the year the United States entered World War I, a rancher named Harold Cook assisted paleontologists from the Denver Museum and the American Museum in digs at fossil beds along Snake Creek, some 20 miles south of his family’s ranch. Whether he picked up the tooth while scouting for those excavations, during one of them, or sometime after, he never said. But Cook believed he had found something truly special. Based on his knowledge of fossils, he suspected that the tooth belonged to a primate, and not a mere monkey—an ape perhaps. An even more tantalizing prospect was that the tooth belonged to an early human. Cook was correct about one thing: The tooth was important. But it would become part of history in a way he never imagined.

Continue reading “The death-defying legend of cowpuncher Boots O’Neal”