September 11, 2013

Nine Eleven twenty-thirteen

Flag ceremony for 9/11 in Brazil 2013 

I still remember how I felt on 9/11/2001, but it seems a long time ago now.  I don't think we should forget big events like this, but how much should we privilege them? 9/11 was certainly a big event that changed the course of our country and the world.   

It is important, however, not to see such big events as sui generis.  When we declare that something is unique, we give up the ability to learn from it.  We can learn from events only when they can be put into a system or a recognizable pattern.

After a while, the memorials become perfunctory. I mean no disrespect by saying this.  As I said up top, I still remember and during the memorial at the flagpole some of the feelings came back. I did indeed think about the ebb and flow of history during the minute of silence and during the next hours and days.  I think this is what should happen. This is more useful than simply bring back emotions, as deep or real as they may be.


May 28, 2013

One day

No littering sign 

I got to walk through St. Louis in the morning and evening. It was different.  The morning was great weather, sunny and 70.  I noticed the sign above. I wondered if I would have to toss something on the ground in order to avoid the penalty.


The way home was less pleasant.  It poured.  But it lasted only about as long as it took me to walk home.  Chrissy & I went to Denny's for supper and by the time we were done eating it was clear and pleasant again. Tomorrow I go back to Brasilia and Chrissy goes back to Virginia. Time together was too short. 

Indian mounds at Cahokia

Cahokia is the biggest native settlement north of Mexico.   The inhabitants built mounds for temples, burials and platforms. Nobody is really sure what they used them for, since the civilization had no discovered writing and it completely disappeared before any European exporters showed up to write anything down for them.Cahokia was the biggest of the mound building societies.  Since mostly they lived in the Mississippi drainage basin, we call them Mississippian culture.

View of St Louis from Monk's Mound

Archeology indicates that 10-20,000 people lived at Cahokia during the height, around 900 years ago. That was a big deal for the time and available technology.  The concentration was made possible by the rich river soils that allowed surplus of corn.  It seems to have been a highly structured society with rigid castes.

Nobody can be sure why the civilization disappeared. The leading candidate is ecological degradation. Cahokians probably just outran their resource base, exhausted their soils and killed off local game. We also don't know where the people went. Since their civilization collapsed before the introduction of the horse to the plains, they could not have suffered the fate of so many other farming tribes, i.e. being wiped out by plains Indians mounted on horses. The horse changed the balance of power on the plains, allowing previously backward tribes to kick ass. Tribes like to Comanche, Sioux and the Cheyenne more or less wiped out the farming tribes. These genocides were mostly per-historic, in that there are few historic records, but it changed the ethnic mix of middle of America.

View of St Louis from Monk's Mound 

The museum was really nice, but I did not particularly like the juxtaposition of the archeologist versus the storyteller, implying an equality of myth and science.  Oral history can inform science and real history, but it is always seriously flawed. It cannot be properly evaluated until somebody writes it down and then it stops being oral history.  In other words, oral history is a raw material for historical analysis.  It is even worse in this case, since there is no oral history.  The Cahokians are gone.  There was no oral history, so all the "wisdom" is conjecture.


Cahokia is worth seeing if you are in the St. Louis area, although I doubt I would drive very far to see it. I drove out of my way to visit Chillicothe, Ohio a couple years ago. It was similar. Cahokia is a little bigger. I visited Aztalan in Wisconsin too, but that was a long time ago and I don't recall much.


Above is "Wood henge." It is the ancient American answer to Stonehenge.  Looks a lot like telephone pole henge, but I suppose it was the thought that counted.

My first visit to an Indian mound was Lizard Mound in Wisconsin. I went as a child and I still remember the exhibit with a skeleton. Scared me for days and I still remember it.

May 27, 2013

The Gay '90s feel & old trees

Oak Prominade 

Tower Grove Park was founded in 1867. There are lots of nice old homes around and it has the feel that I associate with the turn of the last century.  There are bandstands and picnic areas.  The trees are big and old, some of them probably planted more than a century ago.

Grand Avenue 

I wouldn't want to go back to any period in history except as a tourist.  Even in the best of times, old times were not good, given the technology of medicine etc.  But the time around 1900 had a lot of promise.  IMO, urban living reached a plateau with the "garden city movement" that integrated living into park like settings.  People like these neighborhoods. Above is Grand Boulevard, a renewed commercial district near the park.

Bald cypress grove 

I loved the big trees.  There was a grove of bald cypress in one of the low lying places.  You can see in the picture above.  Bald cypress look a lot like dawn redwoods. Below is a mix.  In the front are cypress and the back are dawn redwoods or Metasequoia glyptostroboides.  None of them are very old, since they were only rediscovered in 1944 in China.  They have been planted a lot in America. They grow fast. Nobody is sure how big they will get, since none of them are more than around sixty years old.  You can tell them from bald cypress by their trunks and general shape. The dawn redwoods are more conical and their trunks are more twisted.

Bald cypress and dawn redwood 

The gingko trees are also exotic. They are from the time of the dinosaurs and are very resistant to pests, presumably they outlived most of the threats.  They are also fairly impervious to pollution, salt and bad soil. They are also called maidenhair trees because the leaves remind of combs. 

gingko leaves 

My picture doesn't show it, but they are not really leaves in the ordinary sense. They are actually needles like pines but meshed together into a leaf.  The gingko trees in the park were very big.  You rarely see such big gingko trees.

Old gingko trees  

May 26, 2013

St. Louis Blues Week

Blues Week stage 

We were lucky enough to have our hotel a short walk from the St. Louis Blues week. It was sponsored by Jack Daniels, so they were selling Jack with various combinations.  They had Jack Daniels and Diet Coke. It is very good. I just had the straight stuff followed by beer and lots of pulled pork. Lucky we could walk back the hotel. It wore off some of the food and avoided a drunk driving experience.

Making the pulled pork 

Making good barbeque is a real art.  People work on it. They have special recipes and techniques. I am not a connoisseur of pulled pork but I do like to try the different types.  I ate too much and went back the next day. I can admire the artists of pork.

Picturesque customers 

I love the variety of America.  Above are perhaps not "typical" but they are picturesque.

Schiller statue 

I was vaguely aware of St. Louis, but didn't really think much or know much about it. It is a really nice city.  It is much like Milwaukee, probably because of the German influence on civic pride, but (excuse my hometown) a little nicer in many ways.  If it had Lake Michigan it would beat Milwaukee.  Speaking of German heritage in St Louis, above is a statue of the great German poet & philosopher Frederich Schiller.  Below is the great German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt.  Germans made great contributions to America and our country. Our universities are based on German models; much of our civic culture was cultured by German immigrants; of course we eat hamburgers and frankfurters (hot dogs) and drive on highways inspired by the autobahns.  The experience of two terrible wars has made us forget how much our country was affected positively by Germans. It is useful to recall, even in this, that our American armies and navies in those wars had lots of German Americans, including leaders such as Eisenhower, Chester Nimitz and John J Pershing. On the 2000 census 58 million Americans claimed to be primarily of German ancestry.  It is still our largest ethnic heritage.

Alexander von Humboldt 

May 25, 2013

St. Louis Arch and Market Street

St Louis Court House and Arch 

St. Louis is a pleasant city and I was lucky to get a nice day. I walked down Market Street down to the St. Louis Arch. It is a pleasant walk.  There was evidently some urban renewal done here to make all the green space. There are lots of offices and government buildings but I don't think many people actually live down here. Above is the Courthouse against the Arch. This is the courthouse where the Dred Scott case was first decided. That decision helped lead to the Civil War. The man most responsible for ending it is below.

Ulysses S Grant 

Below is the St Louis Arch. It is much bigger than it seems in pictures and pictures don't do it justice.

St Louis Arch

You can see some people near the arch that shows the scale. 

Scale for St Louis Arch 

I have some other pictures that are interesting but you can click on them separately. 

Statue of Dred Scott

Union Station

Scale of the St. Louis Arch

Don't climb on the bears

St. Louis buildings


December 07, 2012

Museums for the 21st Century

A delegation from State and the Smithsonian were in Brazil to look at the Casa Thomas Jefferson as a “Model American Space” While in town, they also visited other important cultural spaces like Museu da Republica, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil and SESC Ceilândia among others and Myles Gordon, the Smithsonian consultant gave a talk about how museums were changing.

Milwaukee Museum 

Museums used to be about collecting & preserving stuff.  They were like temples of knowledge, where experts spoke to each other and decided what should be shown to the larger public.  They still collect and preserve stuff, but now they are much more outward oriented.  They have moved from preservation to study, from defined to interactive, and in many ways from emphasis on tangible things to a more intangible experience. 

You can see an example of the old version in my picture above.  You can almost smell the formaldehyde. Of course, not all museums are like this and not all parts of museums are equally affected.  Parts of the old model remain very useful.  You still need stuff and you still need to protect it. 

There has also been a change in how museums are managed and funded. In the classic model, museums were financed by some kind of patron.  It usually was some sort of institution like a government or a university, but it could be a private person or organization.   The key was that the patron paid. Today’s museums get their funding from a wider variety of sources. Many still have a patron that pays a lot of the bills, but they supplement with things like memberships, diverse donations, shops, merchandise etc.  They are much more entrepreneurial than they used to be.  This goes with the changes mentioned above, but the trends are part tied to the same changes in society; one does not cause the other.

The Smithsonian has had a mixed system from the beginning.  It is the only museum (actually museum complex) run by the Federal government, but it began with private money. James Smithson, a British subject, left his fortune "to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge ...." Smithson was an amateur scientist. He has never been to the United States.  We are not exactly sure what Smithson had in mind.  Some people think he intended a university. Congress argued about what to do with the money but finally decided to create the kind of museum cum research and knowledge disseminating organization we have today.  It has been a good model. 

Today the Smithsonian consists of nineteen museums, nine research centers, twenty libraries and the National Zoo.   It is affiliated with 170 institutions in a national network.  Most of the buildings are along or near the Capitol Mall in Washington.  About 65% of the funding comes from the Federal government, with private sources, NGOs etc. coming up with the rest.  The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is the Chairman of the Smithsonian board; the Vice President is the Vice Chairman.  They have 6000 employees and an equal number of volunteers.   The museums are free and each year they get 30 million in person visits and 188 million unique visitors on their websites.  Only 2% of the collection is on display at any time, which is one reason they are digitizing the collections, so that scholars and ordinary viewers can use and enjoy more than can be put in display cases.

I have been enjoying Smithsonian for nearly thirty years.  Because it is free and accessible, you can wander in and out w/o feeling that you have to spend the whole day and see everything there is to see in each of the venues.  The only problem since 2001 has been that there are security lines and not all the doors are open.  I used to just cut through some of the buildings and look at whatever I came across.   That is no longer possible.   It is still nice to wander around.  The Mall is nice in general.  They hold lots of events there and you get Smithsonian Folk Life Festivals every summer.

I wrote a few posts about similar topics.  Milwaukee MuseumSmithsonian goes south & Science changes

November 11, 2012

New Orleans walk-about

Jackson Square 

It is always interesting to take a kind of journey and I like to walk so I walked from the French Quarter to my Marriott Hotel near the Causeway.  I am so far from downtown because of the football game, BTW.  I could not get a hotel nearer the center within government rate because so many people are coming in for the game.  No matter. The walk was good and I had no other pressing business on Saturday. Took me a long time and according to Google maps, it was nine miles, but I cut off a few miles by catching the streetcar.  I took pictures along the way, so I have my illustrated journey. Up top is the start at Jackson Square at the bottom of the French Quarter.

Voodoo bone lady 

Above is just outside Jackson square. There are lots of street performers and fortune tellers. The most interesting was the Voodoo Bone Lady, above. I don't know what she does with Voodoo bones.  Didn't want to get too close, lest I be turned into a zombie. Below is Bourbon Street. The word to describe the French Quarter is raucous.  People were loudly partying, drinking and carrying on.  People walk the streets with big cups of beer and other drinks. And this was just after noon.


Below are little houses on the way out of the French sector. 

Little New Orleans Houses 

Below is Louis Armstrong park. Top is just the pond.  Below that is a statue of Louis himself.  Louis Armstrong was a great trumped player. I still remember him. He sang with a distinctive gravel voice.

Louis Armstrong Park, New Orleans 

Louis Armstrong statue 

After passing out of the park, you enter the 9th Ward, made famous by the flooding of Katrina. There were lots of people just hanging around, but there were also lots of empty lots that probably had homes before the hurricane. I talked to some people about the lost community.  It was interesting and sad. The talked about a community of small homes, homeowners who passed their property to their kids and how the hurricane literally swept it away. They said that some people were returning, but it won't be the same.  One guy told me that he had set up a kind of phone tree and the old 9th Ward people keep in touch. They have a big picnic in the City Park every year. Meanwhile, services have not returned but wildlife has.  There are deer, rabbits and even wild boar, I was told.  Brad Pitt is running an organization building flood resistant housing in the area.  People were generally happy about that, but that is just one point of light. Rebuilding it taking a while.   Below is ... I don't know what. But the photo is interesting.

Stop signs 

I was getting a little worried that it was taking me too long to get back to the hotel. Fortunately, I could catch the streetcar.  I rode from Broad Street to the end of the line.  It cost $1.25.

Streetcar in New Orleans 

The line ends in a big cemetery. Evidently, the water table is so high in New Orleans that they cannot bury bodies underground.  They would float up.  So the tombs are above ground, creating a true city of the dead.

Cemetary in New Orleans

It was starting to get dark, so I didn't take more pictures. At the end of the graveyard was a nice neighborhood in the Jefferson Parish. Legally I was out of New Orleans into a place called Metairie.  It was truly a long walk. I would have taken a taxi, but I found none, so I trudged on, now enjoying the walk somewhat less.  One interesting thing was that the many streets had classic names.  We had Homer, Hesiod, Demosthenes, Claudius & even Nero. The bottom picture I took the next day. This is the causeway that crosses Lake Pontchartrain. It is almost twenty-four miles long.  It looks even stranger at night, with headlights crossing pitch black darkness. Lake Pontchartrain is brackish. Near the north end it is almost completely freshwater. The other end is half seawater. It was flooding from this side that drown so much of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Causeway over Lake Pontchartrain 

BTW - I almost made a very bad decision to get a hotel on the other end of that bridge. It was a little cheaper.  I figured, just across the bridge. How far could that be?  Fortunately, I am on the near side. Crossing that thing would be a long and monotonous walks, if you were even allowed to do that.   

October 22, 2012

Tufts, Harvard & Boston


I am up in Cambridge for a meeting on graduate education and Brazil.  I did not really want to come up because I was travelling a total of around thirty hours to spend about twenty waking hours on the ground here. But I thought the seminar would be worth it given our commitment to help our Brazilian friends.  It has also been worth it for the glorious fall day I got to experience today.

Cambridge Street 

I walked up to Harvard Square and then up to Tufts.  It gave me a lot of time to think and enjoy the weather. I walked to the top of the hill at Tufts and just sat there facing the warm autumn sun.  This is the same place I sat nine years ago when I was assigned to Fletcher as State Department Fellow.  I wrote in my diary that I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have a job that put me in a place like this. Same thing goes today. I closed my eyes and felt the cool but still pleasant breeze carrying the subtle smells of fall.


This place feels like home.  It even smells like home. I did not live here very long, but the environment is much like Wisconsin. The smells are familiar.  Sense of smell is a persistent memory. I mentioned the fall smell that comes from the falling leaves.  Another familiar smell comes from the white pines.  There is a “pine smell” but species are different.  The white pine is distinctive from the loblolly I enjoy in Virginia.  My favorite pine smell remains the Ponderosa pine.  If you were blindfolded and dropped down in a pine forest, I believe you could tell which kind of pine forest you were in just by the smell.  Actually, I don’t think I could identify other sorts of pines, only those three.

Foo beer 

Anyway, tomorrow I am busy.  I have a talk at Fletcher School and then the Laspau Harvard meeting.   I plan to walk from my hotel up to Tufts and then back to Harvard.  It is a long walk; I figure about an hour and a half, but a joy the whole way.

yeching Chinese 

My pictures show Harvard and Tufts and environs.  The last two are just funny names. The top is just the result of age. We have "Foo beer".  The bottom, IMO, is an unfortunate name for food: Yenching just doesn't sound good. 

September 11, 2012


flag at half mastWe did only a private commemoration of 9/11 this year. It has been eleven years.  The 10th anniversary was much bigger. We did some social media outreach and made announcements, but the public part of our commemoration was not large. 

We did have a sympathetic groups of Brazilian Federal Police show up to support. They had the other motivation to call attention to what they said was inadequate security preparations in Brazil for big events like the World Cup and the Olympics.





Never forget 

June 02, 2012

MD Anderson Cancer Center

MD Anderson Center in Houston 

Some building complexes in Houston are like little cities, self-contained and extensive.  One such is the MD Anderson Cancer Center, where we held our meetings of Latin American educators.  This is one of the best cancer research hospitals in the world.  They try to create a pleasant environment for people in such unpleasant circumstances and they largely succeed.  The complex includes a hotel run by Marriott for families and outpatients.  It looks like a luxury hotel but it has capacity to help people who need it. The restaurants and cafeterias can provide specialized diets with food that looks and tastes good.  It is helpful for people in stressful situations not to have stress added by things like food and surroundings.

Houston skyline from MD Anderson Center 

The multi-building complex is connected by a network of skyways.  They told me how many miles they covered, but I forgot.  It is a lot of space.  Patients can get their exercise just by walking around the buildings, w/o having to go outside.  Houston can be very hot and humid and outside exercise might be difficult for some patients.


The slogan of MD Anderson is “Making Cancer History”, using both connotations of the word.  There has been a lot of progress in the fight against cancer.  Survival rates are rising and cancer rates have been falling since the the 1990s.  Most people are unaware of this good news. There is some concern that rising rates of obesity will stop or even reverse this positive trends and they told us that 60% of us will get some form of cancer in our lifetimes.  It is one of the ironies of curing other diseases that as we live longer and do not die of other things, cancer becomes more likely. 

live oaks in Houston 

Cancer is a difficult adversary because it is not a single disease and in some ways is not a disease at all.  It can be a kind of misfire of cell growth that could be good in other conditions.  I cannot say I know very much about it however.  As I listened to the talk and occasionally saw patients and their families wandering the building, I just felt sad and sort of stopped listening. 

Star Trek folks going to fair 

The very word cancer is anxiety provoking. It dragged up old memories of my mother’s cancer.  It is funny how some things stick in your memory. I recall my mother talking to my great aunt Margret. Margaret said something like “Cancer. How can you face the word?”  My mother replied, as close as I can recall, “It is what I have and it’s not the word that scares me.”  That happened more than forty years ago, but I can picture the event.  Of course, I wonder how good my memory is. I regret that I don’t remember more about my mother.  She died young from that cancer. I wonder if more modern therapies could have saved her long enough for me to get to know her as an adult.  

George R Brown statue in Houston 

My top picture shows the MD Anderson Center. Notice all the skyways. The next pictures are Houston in general.  Next shows live oaks. One of the things that is nice about Houston is that they plant trees. There are lots of live oaks and bald cypress along streets.  Bottom pictures are Trekies.  There was some kind of comic book convention at the George R Brown Center. You see a picture of George Brown just above.  George R Brown ran Brown and Root, one of America's great construction companies. He also was a philanthropist, which is I suppose why they named the center after him.

May 26, 2012

Across the Plains of Texas

I-10 in Texas 

It was a pleasant drive from Houston to San Antonio. I followed I-10 most of the way and could just leave it on cruise control. One thing is a little surprising. Traffic moves a little slower in Texas, at least on I-10 on when I was driving, than it does on I-95 in Virginia. You can actually cruise at something near the speed limit and not be passed too often like you were standing still. It is a more open road too. The thing I love about Virginia is the thick forests that are all along the highway. You are generally looking at trees all the way from Washington to the Carolinas. This highway in Texas has a lot more grass and open vistas. This is also beautiful, but different.

Alamo college HQ 

One thing you also notice in Texas are the flags. Texans love their state flag, which is prominent along most of the roads and on building tops. It is a pretty flag. Above is the headquarters of Alamo College.  I like the really big live-oak. Below is the street new Alamo College HQ. The place is gentrifying. It seemed familiar. I figured out why. The area was former light industry, which reminds me of Milwaukee were I grew up, and they have a cream colored brick, also like Milwaukee.

Cream city brick in San Antonia 

San Antonio just seems a pleasant city. I got to my appointment at Alamo way early, so I had a chance to walk around the neighborhood.  I spent about an hour.  It was a little hot, but worth the walk. Below is the Mexican restaurant where I had a good meal for $8.

Freddy's San Antonia 

The road from San Antonio to Austin, I-35 was not as nice.  There was traffic the whole way and along the road were strip malls and car dealers.  It seemed like a continuous semi-urban corridor. The only entertainment was a woman in front of me. She was ripping something up and throwing it out the window. Then we she passed some state buildings, she gave it the finger for a long time. I couldn't figure out what was going on and couldn't take my eyes off traffic long enough to see. She had Oklahoma plates. Maybe she bears some grudge against Texas. I didn't take any pictures along the actual highway because I didn't stop, but I took the one below from near my hotel in Austin, which gives the idea.

Highway in Austin Texas 

The hotel is nice, as Courtyards always are, but I was disappointed.  It is called Courtyard-Austin-Arboretum. I thought it would be within walking distance to some trees.  I learned that nothing is within walking distance of much of anything around here.  The "arboretum" nearby is a shopping area called that and some condos called that.  Below is where I had supper. I could walk there from the hotel, although you have to be careful crossing the road.  I thought Marie Callender just made frozen pies. Who knew it was a restaurant? Seems like mostly old people frequent the place.  I suppose that is now my demographic too.

Marie Collander  

March 11, 2012

Belly Dancing, Changing Baltimore & Unchanging Maryland

Mariza Dancing at Baltimore Aquarium 

Mariza’s uncommon hobby is belly dancing. Actually it isn’t so uncommon. Belly dancing has become fairly popular among women as a fun form of exercise. Mariza hopes to take advantage of that trend to build a successful fitness business around the exercise associated with belly dancing. For now, however, she mostly just gets to dance herself and just about breaks even. Chrissy and I went to see her do it at the Baltimore Aquarium.

Mariza, Chrissy and me 

Belly dancing really is good for fitness, BTW, and it also does wonders for posture.  Mariza actually measures and inch taller because of it. I am reasonably certain that it is the cause, since she grew this inch when she was already twenty-four. The extra inch is not much advantage in Mariza’s case, since she is already six-feet tall.  But I think that the posture and height improvement could be an important consideration for many.  There is a mismatch. Men generally would be more interested in height enhancement, while women are more interested in belly dancing (at least as participants).  

Little Italy in Baltimore 

Baltimore is much improved, at least in many neighborhoods. I still remember when you had to fear crime if you walked even a few blocks away from places like the Inner Harbor, but the area of security has widened. We walked to “Little Italy,” which has become (or become again) a thriving restaurant district. It has a sad side, however. Many of the restaurants and loft apartments are located in old warehouses and factories. These used to be places where working men made the things that made America great. It was a grittier and less pleasant world than that of restaurants and luxury apartments, but its loss is regrettable.

Our old house in Forest Glen in Maryland 

I had to work on Friday, so in order to get to Baltimore in time to see Mariza’s performance; I caught the Metro up to Forest Glen, which is near the Beltway in Maryland. Chrissy picked me up there. I got there a little early and had a chance to see the neighborhood where we lived when I was studying Polish back in 1992. I was surprised how little the area had changed. Given the proximity to the Metro (it takes less than five minutes to walk), I thought for sure that it was a neighborhood in transition. 

Road near Forest Glen Metro in Maryland 

I thought that the low density and comfortably shabby settlement patterns would soon be replaced by higher-rises.  But twenty years later I had no trouble recognizing the place. It seems that little has changed.  The old house we lived in was still there, w/o obvious changes. 

Our Lady Queen of Poland church in Forest Glen Maryland 

One of the interesting things about the neighborhood when I was studying Polish was the presence of the Our Lady Queen of Poland church. We did not choose to live there because of the church, but it was interesting to have it close by. They did mass in Polish and had Polish day care classes, fortuitous for a Polish student.

March 05, 2012

DIfferent Times

Winston_Churchhill at British Embassy 

Monuments from earlier ages often contain symbolism that makes less sense in latter day times. This I noticed with a couple of statues: one a person famous worldwide, the other a local celebrity.

Up top is Winston Churchill, known to all. There are a few little known things about the man and the statue.  Churchill’s mother was American, something Winston himself liked to bring it up with American friends and allies. Most of the statue stands on the grounds of the British Embassy, which according to international law & custom means he has his feet planted on British territory. Well, not both feet. He has one foot thrust forward. This foot is on American soil, symbolizing the unity of our two peoples both in the person of Churchill himself and the broad sense.

You also may notice that Churchill is flashing the V for victory sign. Some people who came of age in the 1960s might think of that as the peace sign. That would not have been in Churchill's nature.

Jame Buchanan Duke at Duke University in Durham, NC

The statue along side is James Buchanan Duke, who endowed Trinity College, later named Duke University where the statue now stands. The basis of Duke’s wealth and the basis of much of the local wealth was tobacco, now a noxious weed despised in polite company.  

If you look at the statue closely, you notice that Mr. Duke is smoking a cigar. I suspect that was his characteristic pose. In the past even cartoon characters were shown smoking. It was ubiquitous.  

My father smoked two packs a day, Pall Mall unfiltered. It was a nasty habit and I am glad that is has so generally disappeared, but it is a mistake to project our current values onto people of the past. A postage stamp depicting the artist Jackson Pollock airbrushed out his cigarette, even though it was clearly present in the photograph on which the stamp was based. Trying to understand the past doesn’t mean imposing today’s morality ex-post-facto.

February 26, 2012

New York: America's Perpetual Gatway

Times Square in New York 

My impressions of New York are almost completely based on movies and television and it gets worse. The movies and television that provide my points of reference are limited & out of date. I have at least three “my” New Yorks, mostly chronological. There is the New York of Little Italy and the Jewish lower East Side. This I learned mostly from movies, often comedies or musicals. The second New York is a violent, dangerous bankrupt city of the 1970s. The one portrayed in movies like “Death Wish.” The last one is closer to modern, the one in “Friends” or “Seinfeld.” When I went to the real New York, it seemed familiar and different. Landmarks are familiar; people are different.

Jogging track in Central Park 

New York has long been the door to America and a place of immigration and immigrants, but they are different and the communities are ephemeral. The Italians and the Jews of song and story are mostly gone, assimilated into the larger Americans community. The current groups are Chinese, Russians & Chinese.  Within a generation they will also be assimilated.  

Columbus statue in New York 

Many of my attitudes are ex-post-facto. I think of the immigrant waves of the early 20th Century as ordinary Americans because I knew that they and their children became ordinary Americans. People at the time probably thought of them as foreign.

Winter garden in New York 

The violent and dangerous New York lasted a generation. The city was seriously mismanaged and for a time seemed unredeemable. Crime is a terrible form of oppression. If you cannot feel safe at home or on the streets you are not free and all the great attributes of a city mean nothing if you crime prevents crime prevents you from taking advantage of them. There are lots of explanations for the drop in crime. Any explanation must take into account better policing and an attitude change. During the1960s and 1970s, authorities tried to attack the “roots of crime”. This worked not at all. A direct approach to attacking crime did better.The direction of causality goes in this direction. Disorder is both a large contributor to both crime & poverty. Crime is also a cause of disorder, so if you attack crime directly you also attack disorder and hence poverty. The best anti-poverty program may be attacking crime, not the other way around. No matter what happened, it worked. The violent and disorderly New York disappeared in the 1990s. The picture below is related to a single act of violence, BTW. It is where John Lennon was killed in 1980.

John Lennon death spot 

The Seinfeld/Friends New York is also gone, but at least the current version is recognizable. 

One of the big successes has been the area around Central Park and the park itself. During the 1960s the place was falling into wreck and ruin. Crime was a problem, but so was simple deterioration. Central Park was designed to look natural, but it is not. It requires lots of upkeep.  In recent decades, management of Central Park has been taken over by a private organization of local people. They raise most of the money to keep the park up and they manage the process. It is a good example of getting people involved in their communities and it works. 

It is likely that today’s New York is a better place to live than in any time in its history. It is easy to be nostalgic for one or the other of the mythical cities of the past, but the modern one is cleaner, with better maintained buildings and less crime than ever before. The only problem is that it is getting harder to afford living in New York, especially Manhattan. It is becoming more a city of the rich. As we look back on the sweep of history, we understand that this too will pass. We should enjoy it while we can.

February 23, 2012

Historically Black Colleges & Universities

Morgan State University 

We visited two historically black colleges, Howard University in Washington and Morgan State in Baltimore.  These universities at one time were designed for blacks, who were often excluded from other universities.  Today they have enrollment of all races; hence the name “historically” instead of currently, but they still enroll relatively more African-American students on average.

Morgan State library 

The Dean at Morgan State explained some of the history. The Morrill Act in 1862 funded educational institutions by giving the states federal land to establish and endow "land-grant" colleges. These universities were supposed to concentrate on practical subjects such as agriculture, science and engineering. Many of our great public state universities are land grant colleges. Wisconsin and Minnesota are among them, but some private institutions such Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also started life as land grant institutions. While these institutions were not “white” few blacks could take advantage.  A second Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1890 specified that states using federal land-grant funds must either make their schools open to both blacks and whites or allocate money for black colleges.  Sixteen exclusively black institutions received 1890 land-grant funds, among them Morgan State. Howard is different. It is funded by the Federal government, one of only three institutions that get direct funds from the Feds.

Howard University 

Today these institutions maintain their commitment to sciences and practical arts, making them potentially good partners for the Science w/o Borders program.

The top two pictures show Morgan State University. The bottom is Howard. 

February 03, 2012

Rolling on the River Amazon

Amazon bank 

I spent two days and two nights sailing up the Amazon with the Semester at Sea. Most of my waking time was spent talking to students. They kept me fully scheduled, which is how I like it. It was lots of fun to interact with the clever students and professors. They also have a group called “lifelong learners,” who are retired people who want to cruise in a learning environment.

My balcony 

But I did have some time to myself and I spent lots of that free time just looking at the river and thinking about how interesting it was just to be on the Amazon. You can see my balcony in the picture above. It was nice to sit out there. It is humid, but fresh on the river. The Amazon - the word conjures up all sorts of feelings and images. It was interesting and a little scary to look out over the river in the midnight darkness. It is so empty out there, as I mentioned in an earlier post. The picture up top shows a beautiful scene. Beautiful from a distance. That green in the front is not grass. It is a type of reed. You could not walk through it.

Me and the Captain  

During the day you can see that the water is the color of coffee with cream.  The silt does not sink out.  There is a lot of other stuff floating. It is mostly branches and floating weeds, but I also saw whole trees and what looked like a dead cow. The dead cow made me feel more confident about the water. I figured that if a dead cow could float unvexed down the river there could not be that many piranha.

I was told that the water was low, even though it looked like the forest came right to the shore and was only a few feet above the water. Evidently in the high water time the river goes into the forest and you can see the tops of the trees reaching out of the water. That would be interesting.  It is hard to believe that the river could be much wider, but it can.

As far as famous rivers go, however, the Amazon is a little monotonous. The land along-side is almost uniformly flat. You get a lot more variety on the Rhine. The Nile has cataracts. I don't know the Mississippi except in Minnesota & Wisconsin, but it also has more bluffs and variety. The interesting thing about the Amazon is the water itself not only the sheer amount of it but also its composition.

Manaus from the Rio Negro harbor 

The Amazon is formed when the Rio Solimões meets the Rio Negro outside Manaus. The Solimões is cloudy and coffee & creme colored, as is the Amazon downstream. The Rio Negro, as its name implies, is black. Above is Manaus from the Rio Negro. Below is a ferry stop on the Rio Solimões.You can see the difference. The waters meet but don’t immediately mix, instead running side by side for several miles. I did not see this, since the ship crossed this at night while it was still dark. I woke up to see that the color of the water was black, as we were heading up the Rio Negro toward the Port of Manaus. It was also dark when we passed Santarém the night before. This is where the Rio Tapajos meets the Amazon. The Tapajos is supposed to be turquoise colored. I will have to wait to see that some other time.

Rio Solimoes 

We did cross the new bridge in Manaus across the Rio Negro. I will write a little more about that later. Suffice to say now that on the other side we caught up with the Solimões.  The Amazon takes its look from this river. The Rio Negro & the Tapajos just give their water and soon lose themselves.

Our boat parked in Manaus

September 29, 2011

Things Fall Apart

Washington Monument 

The Recent earthquake did little damage to the general community, but it did crack the Washington Monument. If you look at it, you can see how this structure is very susceptible to damage. It is essentially a giant masonry pillar.

Reporters at Washington Monument 

They closed the monument.  I noticed lots of news crews hanging around and when I looked up to see what they were looking at, I saw men at work. They were rappelling down the monument, checking for cracks, as I learned. 

Workers on Washington Monument 

The Washington Monument is one of the favorites. Some people like to go up to the top. You have to get a reserved ticket. They are free, but you need to get a time. But mostly people just like to stand around near the bottom, among the flags. That is what I do. You can do neither now. You have to keep your distance, lest a piece of masonry fall from on high and crush you like a bug. 

Arthur Treachers 

Monkey Mental flossThe other pictures are from the Atlanta airport. I used to like Arthur Treachers, so I was happy to see one. It wasn't really Treachers, except in name.  It was a TINO - Treachers in name only.  It was part of the Nathan's hotdog chain and it shared characteristics. The "chips" for example, were just fries and the fish was just like you would get anywhere out of the frozen foods aisle.

I would have been better off just getting a Nathan hot dog. They are very good and no doubt authentic there. 

The other picture is from a book shop. There are two things I liked, both dumb, I admit. I think the title "Mental Floss" is funny and monkeys are inherently funny, so the two combined deserved a photo.





August 07, 2011

The Grand Majesty of the Law

Court room in Sao Paulo State Appeal Court 

One of the challenges we have when talking about law with experts in most other countries is that the American system is fundamentally different. A big part of our system is common law. Among our 50 states, only Louisiana has a code law heritage, based on the Napoleonic Code, in force in Louisiana when Thomas Jefferson bought the place from France in 1803. 

Justice in Sao PauloCommon law has the disadvantage of being unclear, since it relies on experience. This flexibility is also its strength. Common law can be pragmatic; it relies on experience and judgment of generations working with real world problems. Most other countries, including Brazil, base their law on codes. There is convergence, as our system comes to rely more on legislation.

But we still value precedents in deciding cases, judges usually have discretion in applying the law and juries can and do bring their own interpretation of the cases to bear. As some of the judges at the São Paulo State Appeals Court explained to me, this is not how it works in Brazil. In Brazil, as in other code law countries, the law is supposed to anticipate all eventualities and the job of the judges is to apply the law.  Of course, this is not as easy as looking in the books, but the big difference is application versus interpretation.  

Another big differences is juries. Brazil uses Juries only in homicide cases. In other cases, lawyers represent clients, but they argue before trained judges & are considered more as servants of the state or the law than of individual clients.

Although Brazil has states, like the U.S., the states do not have the independence in law as they do in the U.S.  In Brazil, laws apply across the country and lawyers are regulated on the federal, not the state level. One of my interlocutors explained the difference. In the United States, the states preceded the federal government and they created the Union. The Union, in its inception at least, was a servant of the states and American states retain much of their autonomy. Brazil was an empire. Provinces existed, but not states. With the establishment of the Republic, states were created and they have characters of their own, but the Brazilian government preceded the Brazilian states and the central government created them.

It is often hard for Americans to understand what the centralization means in Brazil as it is hard for Brazilians to understand what our greater decentralization means in the U.S.

We often use the same terms and symbols (look at the courtroom and the depiction of Justice and you see the same things as you would in the U.S.); we don't perceive that they mean different things. As I wrote in a previous post, our Brazilian friends sometimes misunderstand the fact that our states and their universities are not managed by the federal government, so they cannot make an agreement with the federal authorities that will hold true in all the states.

In the case of an appeals court, where I visited, however, the differences are not as significant, since an American appeals court also has the duty of applying the relevant law. Still, there is not a court that corresponds to a state supreme court in the U.S. 

I understand, BTW, that I am in over my head on this, since I have no legal background. I am giving an interpretation of what they told me. I welcome any comments that might clarify or correct my work. 

I also visited the school for prosecutors at the Tribunal de Justiça do Estado de São Paulo. This was a fairly big operation. Speaking of applicable law, the school is working on a conference to study American law concerning fraud and asked our support to bring American experts. The result of this conference is supposed to be a proposal for a law to be put before the Brazilian Congress to make frauds in securities more difficult to perpetrate and easier to prosecute, a worthy goal. 

Law is complicated and we have to let the experts do the thinking about the details, but is important to a free people that law is simple enough for the average guy to know whether he is doing right or wrong. The thing I always liked about having a strong dose of common law included in our rules was that it is a check on the otherwise uncontrolled rule of experts. When law becomes too complicated for the people to understand, at least in a general way, it has just become too complicated. I think we can all share that experience.

I mentioned the impact of the various permutations of the "Law & Order" franchise. Whether or not they always get everything exactly right, it is a good educational show for Americans and many Americans ... and Brazilians understand law through this simplified prism. There is a "Law & Order UK" which highlights some of the differences between U.S. and UK procedures, even thought UK is also a common law country.  "Law & Order" as well as the LA and Special Victims are available on Brazilian TV and my lawyer friends said they liked the shows. I need a "Law & Order - Brazil". 

August 02, 2011


Rio beaches at night 

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff wants to send 100,000 Brazilian students to study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in other countries by the end of her term and we want to help. It is the classic win/win. American universities are coming to Brazil to get their share of the new students. We have an opportunity rich environment. Great.

Grafitti artists at Complexo Alemao 

Americans and Brazilians have been working together on this for a long time. We have the venerable Fulbright program, which was established in Brazil in 1957. U.S. universities have been active in Brazil and Brazilians have looked to the U.S. for more than a hundred years. American universities are acknowledged to be the best in the world.  It is an embarrassment of riches. We have all the networks in place and they have been working well for a long time, but now we are going to push more through the network than ever before.

Kennedy Wing at PUC 

Among our best assets is a regional educational advising center (REAC), headquartered in Rio at PUC University. I visited there during my recent visit to Rio. PUC, our Brazilian partner institution, gives us the space, which is at a premium on their crowded campus. Their students also provide volunteer support in marketing and advertising the services. In addition, we have advisers at twenty-three other centers, such as BNCs, around Brazil and three offices at private universities. State Department’s Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) office trains the advisers, but they are paid and otherwise supported by their local Brazilian institutions. Such is the demand for this service that our partners are happy to cooperate. The centers can defray some of their expenses by offering translation services and consultation on writing in English, but they do not charge prospective students for educational advising.  

One of their big activities is sponsoring Education USA fairs. American universities come to Brazil to recruit students.  The advising centers can and do charge U.S. institution to defray costs.  Interest in Brazil is growing and the fair in Rio scheduled for this fall is already booked up with fifty U.S. universities. Other centers also hold fairs.  The BNC Casa Thomas Jefferson will hold a fair later this month in Brasilia, for example. 

Nobody really knows how many Brazilian students there are currently in the U.S.  Our deceptively precise number is 8786, but we get this figure by a survey of answers supplied voluntarily by U.S. universities. Our educational advisers think this number is lower than the real one. They mentioned anecdotal evidence of universities where they know there are Brazilian students that reported none, but the real number in not much more. If Dilma’s aspiration becomes a reality, there would be more than four times as many coming to the U.S. in the next four years. This is a big bump and you get an idea of the challenge. 

One thing we have to explain to Brazilians is that America’s higher education system is extremely decentralized. The Federal government cannot order state or private universities to admit Brazilian students or offer them tuition discounts. This must be done on a individual basis. The good news is that we have hundreds of excellent universities in the U.S. and many want to get Brazilian students to diversity their student body and build a future alumni network in what will be a much more important country in the future. One of our (Embassy & REAC) goals is to spread the students out over the U.S. Brazilians tend to know only a few American universities.  Everybody wants to go to Harvard, MIT or University of California and who can blame them. But dropping thousands of Brazilians into a few institutions would not be desirable, even if it were possible. Our task is to explain the diversity of American education. We have many excellent choices and sometimes the best programs for a particular student might be at an American university that few in Brazil (maybe few Americans too) know exists.

Our centers are reaching out to Brazilians to explain things like that and to help with applications.  Their motto is that studying in America is “mais fácil do que você pensa” easier than you think. We have to remind students that there is essentially no waiting line for a student visa to the U.S. and that it is indeed, easier than they think. 

This is a great opportunity to shape the future of Brazilian-American relations through education.  It is truly a win-win. We just have to do it.

My pictures - at top is Rio from my hotel window. You see the symmetry of the reflection in the glass. I didn't get perfect symmetry because I could hang only so far out the window w/o falling 21 floors. Might have been a cool picture on the way down, however. Below that you see graffiti artists at the Complexo de Alemao, a favela that the Rio authorities recently took back from gangs and drug dealers. Third down is the Kennedy Wing at PUC. It is dedicated to the U.S. and JFK. Bobby Kennedy came down for the commemoration of the bust in the picture. 

June 18, 2011

Bloodiest Day in American History

Rider at Antietam battlefield 

Antietam was the battle that gave Abraham Lincoln the cover to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Without at a significant victory in the field, he reasoned, such a bold proclamation would just seem hollow. The Proclamation changed the character of the war. After it became a struggle to end slavery, the threat of British or French intervention on the side of the Confederacy was removed.  

Antietam Battlefield 

Historians have argued about who did what right and wrong. Some believe that Union commander George McClellan could have destroyed Robert E. Lee’s army had he acted more aggressively. The battle at Antietam was really not much of a victory. Both sides got badly mauled. But at the end of the day, the Army of the Potomac still held the ground, Robert E. Lee was limping back to Virginia and 23,000 Americans were casualties in the bloodiest day in American history.

Bloody lane at Antietam 

The Civil War is the American Iliad. It features heroes with strong characters and personal stories. Many of the participants knew each other and they faced off repeatedly on different battlefields. I think that it is the personalization that has so fascinated Americans for nearly a century and a half. Historians can study diaries and journals; re-enactors can find enough information to “become” individuals.

Re-enactors at Antietam battlefield 

The re-enactors are important to history. They maintain a living link past and their attention to detail gives historians a treasury of data. The re-enactors actually wear the clothes, use the gear and carry the weapons.  They can help explain the capacities and challenges of those who struggled.


Espen & I made the trip today. I wanted to spend some individual time with him before I go to Brazil next week.  We had a good chance to talk on the drive and during the walk around the battlefield. I have been to Antietam many times, starting before Espen was born, but it is better with him along.  It was a humid and a hazy day, as you can see from the pictures.

Burnside Bridge at Antietam Creek 

Some battlefields, such as Manassas, have suffered from suburban encroachment. Antietam has not changed since I first came here in 1985.  It is still rural in all directions. The Park Service tries to maintain the landscape more-or-less as it was in 1862. They plant corn in the corn fields of the time and try to keep the woods in woods.  Nevertheless, it is hard to visualize the battle both because it happened over a fairly large space but also because the battle itself was confusing.  Both sides fed more troops in to support their advancing or defending positions w/o much coherence.  At the very end of the day, just when it looked like Robert E. Lee’s line was breaking, AP Hill showed up from Harpers Ferry making the battle inconclusive.


The pictures: Up top is a re-enactor riding past a monument to New York troops. Recall that the states fought as separate units, so there is no U.S. monument. Next is the path to bloody lane, where 2200 Rebs held off 10,000 Union troops, until their position collapsed.  It is called bloody lane because the bodies were literally piled up there. The picture after that shows the lane. The pictures after that show a re-enactor camp, corn field and the Burnside bridge respectively.  Just above is me on the bridge.  There are lots of big sycamores near the creek. And below is Espen with a re-enactor playing a Confederate captain from Virginia. The re-enactors wear the same wool uniforms that the real guys did in 1862. On that hot and humid day, it was more uncomfortable than usual.  The blue at his sleeve shows that he is infantry.  Artillery had red and cavalry yellow.

Espen and the Confederate captain

Below is me buying a watermelon and some sweet corn from a farmer stand. 

June 15, 2011

Science Changes


State Department, in its wisdom & generosity, is allowing me to take a two week course on environment.  I am learning lots of new things, reviewing even more and updating my outdated conceptions.  The last of these things may be the most useful.  As Mark Twain said, “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”    Anyway, it is fun and I believe it will be useful to my work in Brazil, where environment is a big part of our bilateral engagement.

ivory billed woodpecker and passenger pigeons

Today we got an afternoon field trip to the Smithsonian.  I have been there many times before, but never in the back room.   Less than 1% of the Smithsonian’s collections are on display.  The rest are filed away, available for study.  The Smithsonian’s mission is to increase and disseminate knowledge.   The museum part is only a part of a much bigger whole.


One of the curators explained the importance of the physical specimen.  Of course, we could take pictures and all the measurements and we would have everything we need … today.   But what about the future?  One of the most powerful tools for understanding nature today is DNA analysis.  When many of these birds were collected, nobody has any idea about DNA.  It would not  - could not – have been recorded.  That information would have been unavailable.   We don’t know what sorts of tests will be available in the future.  We should not bind the future to our backward techniques any more than we would want to be tied to the techniques of the Victorian Era. We should give the future the same sorts of opportunities our predecessors gave us.

Science is dynamic.  Many of the things I learned as a kid are just plain wrong.  DNA is redrawing family trees and making us think about evolution in very different ways.  Some relationships were not clear from looking birds or animals. Other things that seemed related were not.

Of course, we should be humbled by this.  If “their” science, i.e. the science of the recent past, could be so wrong, how do we know ours is going to stand up any better?   Maybe future scientists will discover something as revolutionary as DNA and as mysterious to us as DNA would have been in Darwin’s day.  We are not stupid and neither were our ancestors.  But we all are always ignorant in many ways.  

We can never give up.  Mark Twain was right about knowing.  But maybe we should also quote TS Eliot, from “The Wasteland” I think it applies to science.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

It is getting harder to collect and advance science.  Many countries now object to collecting and some fear that genetic material will be misused or they will somehow be cheated. This is anti-science.  When you get knowledge, the total available knowledge expands. Nobody loses.  Everybody wins, unless we cease from exploration.


June 09, 2011

Summer Time

Kids playing in fountain in Washington 

The water jets outside Safeway near the Waterfront Metro are a good idea. When I first saw them, I didn’t really understand their probable use. Today was a hot day and the local kids figured it out.  The neighborhood really has improved.  It is lively but still nice.

Lightning in Baltimore 

Below are pictures of Baltimore that Mariza took from her window.  We bought her a Cannon camera for her birthday. It works well.  I got one for my birthday too. 

lightning in Baltimore

May 29, 2011

Life was Less Tasty

This is another late posting. 

Eagle Tavern at Greenfield Village 

Life in the past was simpler and they depended much more on local produce.Everybody was a locavore. You ate local products in season or you didn’t eat much at all. Americans in the 19th Century tended to eat a lot of animal protein and drink prodigious amounts of alcohol. It wasn't really a good diet by our standards, but it was hardy, which you needed because life was hard. We literally got a taste of that when we had lunch at the Eagle Tavern in Greenfield Village. They try to supply the table with local produce and they stick to whatever is in season, which means that the menu is a little different if you come in a different season.

Building at Greenfield Village 

When I started writing this post, I will still cold from the rain we had all day on our Village visit and I was thinking of the hardships of the past. This is not inaccurate, but it is incomplete. People in the past definitely had fewer choices. But the first fruits of summer must have seemed more tasty after a long winter without. We can buy produce from all over the world, but most of us do not take full advantage of the variety and we never get to feel that joy of true seasonality. You can look at it in both ways. You can emphasize the joy of finally getting the fresh fruit, or you can look at it like the guy who hits himself in the head with a hammer because it feels so good when he stops.

Old car on rainy road at Greenfield Village 

It is nice to visit the past as a tourist, but you really would not want to live there. The Eagle Tavern recreates many aspects of the past, but not all.  If it did, nobody would come. It has modern bathrooms, for example. This was a big improvement. They also do not feature all the smells of smoke, horse manure and human body odor. If you rented a room at the Tavern, you probably had to share a bed with strangers and there was a good chance you would be sharing lice and bed bugs, not to mention various diseases we hardly remember. Things are better now.

Greenfield Village 

Things started to get charming for many people around 1910. I still wouldn't want to return to those times, but it was only then that average people started to live lives we would consider acceptable. It must have been exciting with innovations such as Ford, Edison etc. Innovation comes faster now than it did then, but it SEEMED faster then. The practical difference between no light bulb, no automobile or no refrigerator and the basic models of these things is enormous. The perceived difference between the new improved model and the older one is not so much. I just bought an LED light bulb. It will supposedly last longer and use less energy, but it does pretty much the same thing as the older one.


I am getting old. Life seems to be familiar starting in the 1930s. It well before I was born, but a lot of the old stuff was still around when I was a kid.  For example, I think I fit in well in that living room below. They were playing a recording of the Orson Wells radio drama, "War of the Worlds". Chrissy and I in the old roadster above is a little too much before my time.

John Listening to War of the Worlds 

Left Over Pictures & Stray Thoughts

Below is the tree version of the sword of Damocles. I suppose it will fall in the first strong wind and it is not over a walking trail, so it probably is not a real danger to anybody. Natural places need not be made antiseptically safe.

Sword of Damocles 

Below shows why forests in foggy places are different than those w/o so much fog. The tree leaves sort of comb out the moisture and it drops to the ground, as you can see in the picture with the water under the silver maple in Warinmont Park. 

Drip line 

Below is the fog bank hanging out over Lake Michigan on the other side of the Milwaukee breakwater. I thought it looked like a distant mountain that could move. 

Fog bank at breakwater 

Below are lichens on a white birch tree. This is a European white birch planted by the park authorities, not the native paper birch. Of course, neither is native to Milwaukee, but the paper birch range is much closer. 

White birch

Below are gargoyles on my old Bay View HS. The building was constructed around 1920. I heard it was designed to look like a castle in Germany, but I don't know for sure. My mother went to Bay View and it used to have strong local support and traditions. This was mostly lost in the 1980s, when the city did busing to achieve integration. The goal was good, but the method was bad.  IMO, it was an experiment that failed. It didn't quicken integration; it cost a lot of money; it delivered kids more tired to school; it contributed to the ruin of a once decent school system and it wrecked the idea of neighborhood schools. A quarter of a century later, we have nothing good to show for the suffering.

Bay View HS 

I used to go in the door below the gargoyles at Bay View. From that spot, my home, grade school and junior HS were all within a ten minute walk. It was a better time to be a student in Milwaukee than it is today. We didn't need to be bussed. We didn't spend a lot of time commuting. We got some exercise and we got to know the neighbors. It was something that should not have been thrown away.

May 28, 2011

Age of Discovery

Nina & Pinta at Potomac branch 

Replicas of Columbus’ ships the Niña and the Pinta were anchored in the Potomac branch in DC. I didn’t go aboard, since I didn’t have much time and it cost $8. I could see everything I wanted to see anyway. The ships were built in Salvador in Brazil. They sail around for exhibitions and, according to the notes, they were featured in the movie “1492”.

Nina and Pinta on Potomac 

These boats are small. I would not want to cross a big lake in one of these things. You can see some modern boats nearby for size comparison.


A statue of Columbus stands in front of Union Station and Washington is in the District of Columbia.  Columbus used to be a hero. We sang songs about him in grade school. Lately, however, he is reviled by some and considered un-PC, since his voyages led to the “conquest” of the Americas. I think it was probably a good thing overall.  I don’t buy into that Rousseau noble savage stuff. Life was nasty, brutish and short in those days for just about everybody. 

Linden blooms 

This area of town is changing. They just rebuilt the area around Waterfront Metro stop and it has gone from being seedy and dangerous to being nice and pleasant. Above and below are linden trees in bloom. I really love the scent.  It reminds me of Germany and Poland. I comment on them every year because every year it is nice. The linden is the European relative of the American basswood, sometimes even called American linden. The Euro variety is smaller, but has showier and more fragrant flowers. Bees are fond of the flowers and there is even a variety of honey called basswood honey. They only flower for about ten days. The lindens flower in Europe in late June and July, about the same time as they do in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Here we are a month ahead.

Linden trees at Potomac branch

Notice the flag. There was a very strong south wind that brought in rain (see the last picture below)

Potomac flooding 

The Potomac is fresh water, but it is affected by tides in the Chesapeake Bay. The tidal basin at the Jefferson Monument is meant to control for some of that. You can see the water flooding over the banks in the pictures above and below. It reaches about five yards farther in at times. At low tide, the place where you see the fence is 3-4 feet above the water surface. 

Potomac flooding 

Below are storm clouds racing in at Dunn Loring. I snapped the picture and rode for home. I arrived just as the rain was starting. Literally seconds after I got in the safety of the garage, we had a cloudburst. A couple hours later, it knocked out the power for a while all over. Urban dwellers like us are unaccustomed to the sold wall of darkness. 

Storm clouds at Dunn Loring, Merrifield VA 

May 22, 2011

New/Old Milwaukee

Pedal Tavern riding past Maders in Milwaukee 

Some things, place & people become trendy about the time they stop being used by ordinary people.  This is what has happened in some parts of Milwaukee and some old habits. I mentioned the decline or disappearance of Milwaukee industry. The old industrial park is now becoming trendy. All those old industrial buildings make wonderful, sun-filled loft condos. Old bars that used to serve beer and whiskey, now serve drinks with cute names along with an impressive array of beers … with cute names.  I thought the "pedal tavern" above was cool. The drinkers have to propel themselves. Everybody seems to be having a good time.

Three Brothers Restaurant 

Milwaukee was livelier than it used to be, even if it is more of an afterglow than the commerce we used to have. People with money actually live near and in the downtown, in all those condos. We didn’t see what downtown looks like in the evening, but I understand that nightlife is improved. A lot of these places used to be scary during the day and no-go zones at night.

Wisconsin Cheese  

So I am not sure how I should react. As I wrote in my previous post, the old Milwaukee had jobs and texture that the new one does not. On the other hand, the new Milwaukee is cleaner and more pleasant.  

"downtown" Bay View 

The industry will never return. Industry in general has changed. It takes a lot fewer workers to produce industrial products, so even if industry returned, jobs would not.  Beyond that, no intelligent large manufacturer will ever locate in a old city when they can more easily build a new operation in a new place. An old industrial center like Milwaukee has too much baggage.  Think about a place like the old Grede foundry site. You can see from the picture I took yesterday, that there is now an eight acre site all flattened out and ready to go. But what about the roads? There are narrow, urban streets. A truck would waste hours navigating those streets. And what is below that ground? Industrial processes used to be dirtier than they are today. Many old industrial sites have toxic waste issues. 

Usinger gnomes 

Milwaukee is a pleasant place with a beautiful lakefront and one of the best system of county parks in the world.  But it is not a crossroads place.  It is not a prime industrial location.  I grew up during Milwaukee’s industrial heyday and thought it was natural, as did many others. But it was really the end of an era, the last flash, the last hurrah, glorious but ephemeral. Those trendy places represent the future. People will live in the buildings where our fathers and grandfathers worked. Milwaukee can be a great, medium-sized city. But it never again be the industrial city it was. Those times are gone and will never return.


The new people will like the cleaner, more trendy city better and the old people are mostly gone.  Below is our old house. They are putting on a new roof. My father had the roof put on in the late 1970s. The trees are interesting. The crimson Norway maple was planted in 1972. The silver maple was planted in 1967. The horse chestnut in the front I grew from a chestnut in 1966.

New roof on the old house 


May 21, 2011

Disrespecting the Wishes of the Artist

Milwaukee Art Center 

The Milwaukee Art Museum building is itself a work of art, perched on a wonderful location up against Lake Michigan.  Chrissy & I saw it shrouded in the lake mists.   I am sure that the designers anticipated such meteorological events as part of the presentation.

Fountain at Art Museum 

How much does art belong to the artist?  This is a difficult question.  IMO, we revere artists too much.  Artists express themselves through their art.  But it only becomes meaningful when interpreted by other people.   I don’t really think very much of individual expression. Art is a social activity.  Below is a good example. It is the infinity room. The artist evidently thought it represented outer space. Do you think it does? And I think that Chrissy standing there greatly improves the artist's vision. It is a human showing wonder at the otherwise soul-less light show. So the art was not complete until we stepped into it. And it will not be complete until others do too.

CJ in infinity room 

I wrote a couple of posts on this general subject here & here and won’t repeat it here.  I guess the general idea is that art is like a general idea.  You put it out there and other people add to it, change it and maybe perfect it. Below is the infinity room again with my feet improving the art.

Art center feet 

I think it was a good thing when artists had patron who could help call the shots. A lot of great art resulted from the tensions between the creator and his patron.  When artists are left to their own, they too often drift into a kind of self-indulgence.  Art usually improves when it ages because it gets modified or reinterpreted.   Most art is incomplete when the artist gets done with his part.  Below is a "sunburst" sculpture.  It is made our of girders. It is interesting, but the city paid too much for it, since any competent steelworkers could make the same thing. In fact, when the city bought the thing, I recall that some old guy on the South Side made his own smaller version out of scrap steel.  Some art is like the "Emperor's New Clothes".


May 20, 2011

Milwauke De-Industrialization

Former Medusa Cement co Milwaukee 

My father's (and my erstwhile) employer at Medusa Cement seems to have left Milwaukee. There is a company still using the facilities called St. Mary’s. It looks almost the same, which is not surprising since there is not much you can change. The view that you see in the picture above could have been taken when I was worked there more than thirty years ago, except back then there was a big sign saying “Medusa Cement”. They evidently no longer get any cement via rail. I used to work on the hopper cars next to the river. Today the tracks are gone or at least overgrown with grass, as you can see below. The grass is very nice. They must have done something. Strange that you would cultivate such a nice lawn next to a parking lots in back of a rusty chain link fence where nobody goes.

former hopper car tracks on KK river near former Medusa Cement 

Milwaukee is a very different from the place where I grew up. Milwaukee was an industrial city, characterized by its job-shops & quality tool and die makers. There were also a great variety industries. Many were not particularly clean, but they did provide lots of jobs and good middle class lives.

Former location of Grede Foundry 

Milwaukee’s industry was written on the wind. I used to ride my bike from my house on the South Side all the way up to Mellows lock-washer Company on Keefe Street on the North Side, where I had my first job.  This gave me a tour of industrial stinks. I started off with the steel-coal smell from Pelton and Nordburg if the wind was out of the west. East wind would bring the smell of the sewage plant, where they processed our flushes into Milorganite. Up the street on First Street, you came into the coke-coal plant.  It had an eternal flame, where it flared off gas. Then you hit the metal smell from Grede Foundry (the location of the foundry is above.) A short distance farther was some kind of tannery. It was the worst stink. Crossing the river, you got a sweet smell from the Ambrosia Chocolate Factory, but this was quickly replaced by the yeasty smell of the breweries.

Milwaukee skyline 

I didn’t really know that these smells were strange until I went away to college in Stephens Point. When I came back for a visit, I was surprised as the stink.

Water Street Brewery 

All the smells are gone now. Some is attributable to better pollution control, but more of it has to do with the industries just going away. The sewage plant doesn’t really smell at all anymore. I didn't detect any smell from the tannery. I don’t know if it is gone or not. The Foundry is now just eight acres of flattened rubble for sale. Pabst, Schlitz and the other Brewers except Miller are gone. Their former buildings are now high priced condos. You can still buy Schlitz & Pabst. I don’t know where they make it but the smell is gone. Milwaukee now has a few craft brewers (you can see a picture of one above) but the baseball team name – the Brewers – is the only tangible remnant of what was once America’s greatest beer city. The coke-coal plant closed down years ago. It couldn’t meet pollution rules and the inefficient plant couldn’t compete economically. I don’t know what happened to Ambrosia Chocolate, but there is no sign of it.

Upstate condos at Milwaukee River 

The rivers are also cleaner. The Kinnickinnic River used to come in a variety of colors, since there was some kind of paint factory up stream. The Milwaukee River just stunk. It picked up all the industrial waste of the Menominee River than lots of its own. I didn't believe my aunt Florence, who told me that she learned to swim in the Milwaukee River. I didn't want to even get splashed by that water. Today there are upscale condos along the river and a river walk that attracts people. The condos come with their own yacht slips. I suppose you could swim if you wanted to. I still wouldn't, unless somebody pushed me in.

Everything is cleaner now and more pleasant. I even read that Milwaukee is "cool" and the our old blue collar Pabst Blue Ribbon has become kind of a trendy drink, but I still sometimes miss old Milwaukee. 

May 19, 2011

Fog Season & the Woods of Home

Lake Michigan shore line

For two days, the fog & the sun fought over a half mile of shoreline w/o conclusion. It never pushed more than a quarter mile inland and didn’t hang more than a quarter mile out in the lake.   It was a funny kind of fog, very bright. It could make you squint.

Runner at Lake Michigan 

I was down at the Lake four separate times, so I saw the variety.  Chrissy (sister) and I got down to South Shore under sun and blue sky. By the time we walked to Bay View beech, it was so foggy that you couldn’t see clearly even ten meters ahead, as you can see in the picture above, with the runner coming toward us out of the fog.  It was just a little like a soft focus picture by time we got back along Superior Street, where we saw the deer wandering the roads, as you see below.

Deer crossing Superior Ave in Milwaukee, Wisconsin 

Chrissy J and I went down to Grant Park.  Actually, I ran from Warnimont to Grant ravines and met Chrissy there.  We walked done the Seven Bridges trail, built by the CCC many years ago.  Unfortunately, one of the bridges has collapsed.  I don’t think they are going to fix it, since they just removed the debris w/o doing much of anything else.  I have a theory.  I think they cannot repair the bridge because if they did they would have to upgrade it and the whole trail to make it ADA compatible, which would cost big bucks and ruin the ravine by putting up a wide, sloping paved path.  Nothing can be done inexpensively anymore.

Wildflowers on the forest floor at Grant Park 


Grant Park is a unique part of southern Wisconsin in that it is covered in beech-maple-basswood forests.  You don’t find beech trees growing naturally even a few miles inland.   The Lakeside in Milwaukee County is the eastern edge of the natural range.  It is evidently the result of a subtle difference in climate and humidity.   We have beech trees in Virginia. They tend to grow on north facing slopes or in ravines, places with more moisture laden air.  Virginia is hotter than Wisconsin, but also more humid.  Near Lake Michigan, there is lots of fog.  As I wrote above, the fog pushes in and lingers only about a half mile inland.  In Grant Park area, it is about up to Lake Drive, more or less where the beech trees leave off.

Jack in the pulpit at Grant Park 


I grew up with the eastern forests, so they are what I think of as home and I have seen the seasons of its changing face.  In spring-time, just before the leaves come out, the wildflowers on the ground have their chance. They have to finish their generation before the canopy closes and the leaves put deep shadows on the ground. The flowers you see above are Jack-in-the-pulpit. If you look at the flower, you can see the pulpit and Jack is in it.  Below are trilliums. Their seeds are spread by ants.  The northern broadleaf deciduous beech-maple-basswood forest is too shady in summer to support much understory vegetation. In Virginia on our tree farms, the basswoods are replaced by tulip poplars and there are red maples instead of sugar maples.  The understory vegetation is also much thicker.  It took me a while to get used to Virginia.  Now it seems strange to see the more open woods of Wisconsin. There is also a big difference in color schemes. Virginia forest soils are reddish-orange. Wisconsin soils are brown or black.

Trilliums in mixed forest in Grant Park, South Milwaukee

May 18, 2011

Stephens Point & Madison

Deer at Schmeekle Reserve at UWSP 

The Schmeeckle Reserve was not here when I went to school at UWSP, but I used to spend a lot of time up here. My friends and I would camp out in this wet woods north of campus. Of course, camp out usually just meant drink beer and sleep outside. Back in those days, the trails were not very good. We had to trudge in through the water and muck. Today there are nice trails and boardwalks over the bogs and marshes.  They also made a nice lake and restored the prairies and wetlands. 

I don’t remember very much about the events leading up to the establishment of the reserve, but I recall that we (my friends and I) were against it.  We thought it was some kind of corporate land grab, since Sentry Insurance was getting a road through the woods to their headquarters.  We were stupid kids and we understood pretty much nothing.   I actually understood less than nothing, since I was working on wrong understanding.  Student leaders told me it was a corporate greed and I believed them w/o knowing what it meant. 

What the university officials and corporate sponsors did was to take 280 acres of failed and abandoned farm fields and made it into a restored wildlife area, a place that can sustainably regulate water flow and provide beauty and recreation for students and visitors alike.  In addition, they improved the road, which was really dangerous for students walking or on bikes. It was a win for all around. 

We drove from Stephens Point to Madison along US 51.  It is a lot easier drive now than it used to be.  I enjoyed going to school in both Madison and UWSP.  Madison has a very beautiful campus and there was a lot to do, academically and socially.   I get mixed up now. When I think of coming to Madison for graduate school in Madison, I don’t think of myself; I think of Alex, who is now studying history as I was. It was a magical time for me and I hope he is enjoying the same thrill from finding things out. 

The pictures:  I have a bunch below that I will comment on separately. As you can see in the photos, spring comes more slowly to Central Wisconsin. In Virginia, it is already summer. The pictures show the Schmeeckle Reserve.  There are lots of deer and other wildlife and lots of wetland. The bigger trees are oaks in the middle picture. The lower picture is mostly aspen. 

Above is a geographic anomaly. Look closely.  The top arrow purports to point west and the bottom one east. I always thought that east and west were opposites, but maybe not in the reserve. In fairness, there used to be some kind of sign next to the arrows. Maybe that explained. Below is the Wisconsin State Capitol from Bascom Hill at UW. 

Below show the lake shore in back of the UW student union. In the middle distance is the Red Gym. It used to be the armory.  When I went to UW, there was a small pool and a kind of dumpy gym. I used to go there in between studying. The library was across the street.  The workouts woke me up.

Below show the lake shore in back of the UW student union. In the middle distance is the Red Gym. It used to be the armory.  When I went to UW, there was a small pool and a kind of dumpy gym. I used to go there in between studying. The library was across the street.  The workouts woke me up.  

Below is the new business school at UW

New business school at U of Wisconsin 

Below is my old running trail. It goes out to the point of a peninsula in Lake Mendota. I used to be able to run out there and back in less than 40 minutes. I cannot do that now.  It is a wonderful running trail. It goes through a variety of landscapes; lots of students use it, but not too many; and the surface is good for running.

Below is my old running trail. It goes out to the point of a peninsula in Lake Mendota. I used to be able to run out there and back in less than 40 minutes. I cannot do that now.  It is a wonderful running trail. It goes through a variety of landscapes; lots of students use it, but not too many; and the surface is good for running.  

Below are UW dorms along the running trail mentioned above.

Below is a plaque - you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. Sometimes people downplay such things and call them corny.  But I passed this thing most days and it make an impression on me.

Below is a plaque - you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. Sometimes people downplay such things and call them corny.  But I passed this thing most days and it make an impression on me.

Below used to be a McDonald's where I worked during my first year a Madison. Now it is a post office. At McDonald's, I mostly did the counter staff. We used to have to remember the orders and do the math in our heads.  Now machines do the counting and the remembering. One of the techniques was to start the shake machine, grab the fries and then pick up the shake on the way back. I was quick. But I quit after 9 months because they refused to give me a 5 cent raise. The manager said that he didn't like my carefree attitude toward the products.  When I complained that I was a fast and good worker, he told me that if I didn't like it, I could quit. So I did. He was surprised and - incongruously - accused me of leaving him  w/o warning. I actually had another job, delivering mail at the history department. Working two jobs that added up to around 40 hours and doing full time grad work was killing me, so I was happy to have a reason to get rid of one of them. I missed the free lunch I used to get and I did not get that much more effective. When I had an extra 20 hours a week, I found that I often just wasted more time.

Below used to be a McDonald's where I worked during my first year a Madison. Now it is a post office. At McDonald's, I mostly did the counter staff. We used to have to remember the orders and do the math in our heads.  Now machines do the counting and the remembering. One of the techniques was to start the shake machine, grab the fries and then pick up the shake on the way back. I was quick. But I quit after 9 months because they refused to give me a 5 cent raise. The manager said that he didn't like my carefree attitude toward the products.  When I complained that I was a fast and good worker, he told me that if I didn't like it, I could quit. So I did. He was surprised and - incongruously - accused me of leaving him  w/o warning. I actually had another job, delivering mail at the history department. Working two jobs that added up to around 40 hours and doing full time grad work was killing me, so I was happy to have a reason to get rid of one of them.   

May 17, 2011

Pasties & Packers

This part of the Great Lakes has some distinct traits. Some of it is based on the shared challenges of the harsh climate.  The soil is not rich, but there have been booms. The UP once supplied much of the country’s copper & lots of iron. You can still see it in the place names. There is Iron Mountain, Iron River etc.  But most of this was mined out. And the timber was also extracted in what was a lot like a mining operation. After the timber boom, the cut over land was sold to immigrant farmers. But the soil could not support farming in most places, so they left it.  Much of it reverted to state ownership for none payment of taxes and then it reverted to forest. Today large swath of the UP’s territory is National Forest.Tourists and summer residents love the place.Not so many people stay year round. 

We had a little bit of the local flavor for breakfast and lunch. Breakfast included whitefish. It comes from the Great Lakes.  It has a mild flavor, so it makes a good breakfast addition. I had eggs, hash browns and whitefish for breakfast. For lunch we had pasties. Pasties, according to the guy selling them, were brought to the UP by Cornish miners. They are a pastry filled with meat, potatoes and rutabagas, among other things.  They are very filling and convenient. You can see why they were popular among workers. Above is where we ate pasties.
We got into Wisconsin on U.S. 41.   U.S. 41 was second only to U.S. Route 66 as a famous American highway.   It used to go from Canada to Key West.  I suppose it still does, but now it is overtaken by Interstates in most places.  Anyway, we took U.S. 41 down to Green Bay with a stop in Peshtigo.  


Peshtigo was the site the biggest forest fire in the 19th Century. Unfortunately, the “Fire Museum” was not open.  We could see the fire cemetery nearby. There is not much there either, except for a marker.  More than 300 people were buried in a mass grave after the fire destroyed most of the city. The Peshtigo fire was disastrous, but because it happened at the same time as the Great Chicago fire, which got all media attention, it was largely ignored at the time and forgotten after. 

Our next stop was Green Bay. Green Bay would be an unremarkable city except that it is the home of the Green Bay Packers.  I wrote a post about this before and won’t repeat it here. We went to Lambeau Field, so now I have pictures. Above is Vince Lombardy. Below is the team's founder Curly Lambeau.

By the Shining Big-Sea-Water

Mackinac Bridge linking the two Michigans 

The Mackinac Bridge was the world’s longest suspension bridge until a couple of years ago. Now it is #3, behind one in Sweden and one in Japan. But Mackinac hung onto the title for almost fifty years, which is a good run.  The bridge connects the lower and the upper peninsulas of Michigan and spans the straights where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron. The picture above shows the bridge; below is the lighthouse that used to protect shipping. It looks like my camera lens is dirty, but that is not where those spots come from. There were millions of little bugs all over the place.  A woman at a local restaurant assured me that they are only a problem for a little while during spring. But they made life very uncomfortable.

Lighthouse at Mackinac 

You can tell how cold it gets around here by the vegetation. First of all, you find natural spruces. This means it gets cold. But the other tip-off is the lateness of the season. As you see in the pictures, most of the deciduous trees have not yet fully leafed out by the middle of May. Wet forests, with tamaracks, white spruce & white cedar, occupy on the lower places; hardwoods and white pine grow where it is a bit higher. 

We got phenomenal mileage – a little more than 52 miles per gallon for more than 150 miles. Never before have I got such good mileage over any significant distance. Conditions were perfect. We could drive comfortably w/o air conditioning as we followed U.S. Highway 2 along the north shore of Lake Michigan. The road was smooth and flat with almost no traffic, so I kept it at 56 MPH, which I think is optimal from the Civic Hybrid. It was a pleasure to drive, which is not something you get to experience every day.

Lake Michigan 

The UP is very beautiful and it seems familiar. When I was in college, I had lots of friends from the Michigan-Wisconsin border and I spent a fair amount of time in these mixed forests. I was also primed for it by my mother reading me the “Song of Hiawatha” when I was a little boy. It was set in forests like this.

“By the shores of Gitche Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water, Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis. Dark behind it rose the forest, Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees, Rose the firs with cones upon them; Bright before it beat the water, Beat the clear and sunny water, Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.”

Gitche Gumee is actually Lake Superior, not Michigan, but Longfellow could have been talking about the north shore of Lake Michigan. And the Big-Sea-Water was shining today. 

Going onto the Mackinac Bridge

May 16, 2011

Other Side of the Lake

Sunset on Lake Michigan 

I looked east over Lake Michigan for more than fifty years before I got to look the other way when  I took the car ferry to Muskegon, Michigan in 2008.  Today I get to do it again, this time from Bay Harbor near Charlevoix, Michigan.  It gets more interesting.

Window of Inn at Bay Harbor looking out at Lake Michigan 

We are staying at the Marriott at Bay Harbor, which is built on an old limestone quarry and Portland cement plant.  This has special meaning to me, since my father worked for 36 years at Medusa Cement & I loaded the stuff during four summers 1973-77.  Our cement didn’t usually come from this quarry, which was owned by a competing firm, Penn Dixie. But Medusa used a nearby quarry in Charlevoix.  The rock is pretty much the same. My father got lots of overtime when the ship came in from Michigan.  The rock from Michigan built the freeways in Wisconsin.

Lake Michigan water 

You wouldn’t know this was an old industrial site if nobody told you.  The old dock is now just a little concrete jetty.  The deepest part of the quarry is now “Bay Harbor.” They removed the rock separating the quarry from Lake Michigan.  It looks good.  The old walls of the operation look like bluffs.  If you look close, they do not seem perfectly natural, but I suppose a few more years of weathering will take care of it.

Boat at sunset on Lake Michigan 

The top picture is sunset from our porch at the hotel. Next is the porch from the window.Third is a boat on the lake at a minute after the sun has dropped below the horizon. And below us is the hotel.

Inn at Bay Harbor   

Civilian Conservation Corps

Statue of CCC worker at Higgins Lake, Michigan 

We saw a sign for a CCC memorial just off I-75, so we stopped to see. As an out-of-state car, it cost us $8 for the short visit, but it was worth going to see. My father was in the CCC and they planted trees so I feel a special connection in two ways. The monument is in a quiet place with lots of trees. The day was beautiful, cool and sunny. I feel comfortable but a little sad in such places. Bittersweet is the word. They remind me of good things past and gone.

Fire tower 

The CCC boys, my father among them, planted trees and did other conservation chores. It was important work for them and for the country. The early part of the 20th Century was the time when our American forests were in their worst shape ever. Lots of people feared we would run out of wood and that our soils and water would be forever lost.  The CCC was not the only reason we have had such great success in turning the situation around, but it was important. 

My father used to tell me about the CCC. When I think back on it, it was remarkable for him. He told me little in general about his life as a young man. I don't know much about his years in the Army Air Corps & I don't know anything for sure about his childhood, but I know a lot about the CCC from him. He enjoyed being in the woods and was proud of the work he had done. Whenever I saw a row of trees that I thought was planted by the CCC, I thought of him. It was one of the things we shared over the years.

When my father first told me about these things, it had less than thirty years since they did their work. Now it is more almost seventy. The trees they planted are fully mature and in some places they are in the second generation. They accomplished their mission, but youth has matured to age. I still think of the old man when i think of the CCC; I still feel proud of what he did and I still miss him. As I said, it is bittersweet.

CCC memorial to CCC

Generations pass quickly and memory passes with them. I suppose that most young people know little and care even less about the CCC. I don’t suppose many people come to places like this, at least not voluntarily.

The CCC took young men like my father and gave them some productive work to do. It kept lots of unemployed kids out of trouble and helped prepare our country for the challenge it would soon face in WWII.  My father told me that it was very much like a military operation, including revelry and assembly. He said that when he went into the army in 1942, the instructors favored the men with CCC experience.

CCC baracks 

We have some similar unemployment problems today, but this solution wouldn’t work. I fear we have become too wimpified as a nation. The CCC boys built the barracks you see in the picture above. Forty of them lived in it in Spartan conditions. It was hot in summer, cold in winter and probably leaky when it rained. Before they built the barracks, they lived in tents. Imagine “subjecting” poor kids to that sort of thing today. Of course, I am sure there would be accusations of “bullying”, not to mention myriad violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And how would public employee unions react to thousands of kids making low wages taking jobs in public parks?  Finally, the CCC boys (I think they were all boys) had to send much of their money home to their mothers. How would today's kids feel about that?

The Pictures:

On top is a statue of a CCC boy.  Next is a mini fire tower, followed by a plaque talking about the CCC. The last picture is the CCC barracks. 

Thomas Edison 

Thomas Edison invented lots of things, but his most important invention was the invention of invention.  He originated the concept of the research lab, where lots of experts came up with ideas and then made ideas into reality for the purpose of making an end product. 

Before that time, people who came up with ideas just tried to make them or maybe get somebody else to do it.  Inventors might try to peddle an idea.  But never before did idea generation and implementation have this kind of scientific aspect. 

The light bulb was Edison’s most famous invention.  He did not originate the idea or most of the concepts that went into it.  What he and his team did was to make a light bulb that worked.  The two important parts of the last statement are “and his team” and “that worked”. 

Ideas are easy; making them work is hard.  We often underestimate accomplishments of others because it is an idea that we think we had a long time ago.  Anybody could have done that, we think.  But it is not true.  Working through the idea is the hard part.  The other part is that great things are usually accomplished by more than one person.  Single individuals almost never have the complete competence to get things done.  On the other hand, leadership is important.  Edison was obviously a genius, who made others productive and contributed greatly himself.

So we have another paradox.  We should honor the accomplishments of great individuals.  There ARE indispensable people.  On the other hand, nobody can do it alone.  Many things are just “ready to happen” and the person doing it is just the natural following. 

It is EER season and so many people are thinking of promotions and accomplishments.  I think the thing that helps explain the paradox is that there are many more people who COULD do great things than there are those who actually accomplish great things.  And all accomplishments are done in some sort of social context, even if they are influenced by people who they have never met.  The genius who cannot work with others is usually just nuts.   They also need to come at the right time and place.  If recent geniuses like Mark Zukerburg or Bill Gates had shown up on the scene a few years earlier or later, they would just be run of the mill nerds.   Who knows if Edison, with his mechanical skills, would have done well in the electronic age? had all the attributes of the person who accomplishes great things and he came at the right time and place to do it.

The pictures show the Edison part of Greenfield Village.  Henry Ford brought the whole complex from Menlo Park, NJ.

The top picture shows Edison himself as a young man.  The chair in the next picture is Edison's thinking chair. He sat in the middle of his lab and spewed ideas. Ford brought it to Greenfield Village and restored the lab around it.  He invited Edison, then an old man in 1929 to visit. Edison sat in it one last time. Ford ordered the chair nailed to the floor and, according to the staff, nobody has even sat in it since.  Notice the floor is different under the chair. They had to change the floor, but they kept the original under the chair. 

The next picture is Edison's foreman's office. This is the guy who managed the production of ideas. 

The old guy is yelling into the phonograph Edison created.  It is an original and still works. The sound is graphed on tin foil. It is not great sound quality, but it is sound.

the bottom is a replica of the light bulb. It doesn't throw much light. You notice from the other pictures that they still need a lot of natural light.             

May 15, 2011

Henry Ford

Henry Ford statue at Ford Museum 

Henry Ford has a mixed legacy. He was a great innovator and philanthropist. He perfected the assembly line which created the productivity that allowed him to pay his workers enough that they could have good lives and actually buy the products they made. In this way, he contributed mightily to creating the American middle class. 

Fords go by 

On the other hand, his paternalism annoyed some of his workers. He did what he thought was best for them; not all them agreed. Henry Ford believed in the old virtues of the America he imagined existed in his youth. This didn't include lots of the aspects of modern society, especially things like labor unions. But his innovations, both mechanical and sociological, were instrumental in making that America obsolete. He provided for his workers, but set up puritanical rules to keep them in line, including differential salaries. All greatness is based on paradox. 

He was both ahead of his times and behind them. Ford had a vision of a countryside integrated with the industries usually associated with urban areas. It was reflected in quarters he built for his workers in places are distant as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Fordlandia in Brazil. They were designed to get products from the local countryside and the workers houses often included gardens, where they were encouraged to grow their own vegetables. This kind of distributed production was impractical in the old industrial model, but may become possible with the dispersed integration allowed by Internet. 

In his later life, Ford tried to preserve some of the old America in an open-air museum. In Greenfield Village, he brought  artifacts and whole houses together. You can find Noah Webster’s house next door to Robert Frost’s.  He also brought Thomas Edison’s complex all the way from Menlo Park, NJ (more on that in the next post.)
It is a pleasant place. It would be nice to live in place like this.

The Pictures: Up top is Henry Ford himself. The others are street scenes at Greenfield village. I would call your attention to the middle picture with the houses and the lilacs. The far house belonged to Noah Webster. Robert Frost lived in the nearer one. Of course, the individuals did not live next to each other and the houses were not next to each other under Henry Ford moved them to Greenfield Village. 

BTW - you notice the wet. We had that same cold drizzle I described in the earlier post. 

BTW2 - The most interesting book to read about the auto industry, Ford included, is "The Reckoning" by David Halberstam.  I recently read another book called "Fordlandia", ostensibly about Ford's investment in Brazil, but lots about Ford in general.


Cold Rain on Lake Erie

Lake Erie from Monroe, Michigan

The drive from Virginia to Michigan took us back to early April in terms of weather & leafing out of the trees. I wonder how different my impressions would be if the weather was warmer. Highway 75 goes near Lake Erie, but never in sight. So we went down to get a fast look at the lake, which I don’t ever recall actually seeing.  We came to the water near a place called Monroe, Michigan. There was not much to see. I suppose there are lots of prettier places and I understand that my view could be pretty much any lakeside, but I walked through a half foot of water & drizzly rain to get to the pier to see the lake, so I am sharing it with you.

Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes. Some scientists said that it was dead back in the 1960s, but the reports of its death were exaggerated.  Because it was shallow, it got polluted faster than the other Great Lakes, but it also could flush out and clean up faster. It is now an ongoing environmental management challenge, but not dead. Many of the sources of pollution have been addressed, but not all. And the problem of species composition and invasives remains.

May 14, 2011

The Road to Ohio

Cypress swamp at Dawes Arboretum.  

I have been on that road many times before, but I have never seen so many dead deer. We saw twelve dead deer by the roadsides. The population is really high. Besides that, even with that, the drive from Virginia to Columbus, Ohio was uneventful.

Roy Rogers 

We made only a few stops.  We stopped at a Roy Rogers for lunch. We don’t have them anymore in Virginia, so we wanted to go in for old times’ sake. We stopped for gas at Pilot and at a Pennsylvania rest stop that featured a miner memorial.  The only long stop we made was at the Dawes Arboretum. That was a chance encounter. We saw a sign and stopped in. I took some pictures that are included. I will explain them at the bottom.

Miners' memorial  

We have been to Columbus many times before because it is about a day’s relatively easy drive from Washington.  But Columbus was always just an overnight stop. We got here a little earlier this time, so we stopped at Columbus’ “German village.”   As the name implies, this is the part of town built by German immigrants. According to the brochures, the place thrived from around 1840 to the end of World War I. It seemed very familiar. It has some characteristics of Milwaukee, not surprisingly. There were more brick buildings and the neighborhood is more intact than comparable ones in Milwaukee.

Beech tree at Dawes Arborteum  

We ate supper at the Schmidt Haus. They had German sausage & potato salad, very good. The restaurant also featured a duo (an accordion player and a tuba player).  I had a good time. Chrissy liked it too, but maybe less.


The picture up top is the cypress swamp at Dawes Arboretum. Of course, it is not natural. Bald cypress will grow as far north as Minnesota, but they do not naturally reproduce outside the south. The northern boundary of their natural range is just about the southern line of Virginia. Next picture is Roy Rogers.  The one below that is the Miners' Memorial. It commemorates a mining accident that took place under the rest stop and killed 37 workers. The man portrayed is John L Lewis, the famous leader of the Mine Workers. Next is a big beech tree at the Dawes Arboretum, one of the biggest I have seen.

The pictures below are from the German Village.  The first is a couple of houses on the same lot. The German village is pleasant and upscale, judging by the cars parked outside the houses. I suppose that the people who lived here originally were not so rich.

German village

Below is the Schmidt Haus restaurant.  It used to be a livery stable.

Above shows the amusing use of mixed languages.  They use the German "haus" plus English fudge and gift.  Fudge doesn't mean much but "gift" in German means poison.


February 06, 2011

Green Bay Packers


I am a perfidious sports fan. The only time I watched regularly was when I was kid. I broke my leg when I was eleven-years-old at the start of the 1966 season. I was in the hospital in traction for six weeks, so it was enforced watching. My father and sometimes my uncles would come to visit me every Sunday and we would watch the game. They must have allowed them to bring in beer.  

I became a very dedicated Packer Fan that season and the next. It kind of spoiled me. It is a colossal understatement to say the Packers were good in 1966-7, with Vince Lombardi, Bart Star & my personal favorite Ray Nitschke (he seemed like an ordinary good guy). At eleven years old, I really couldn’t remember a time when the Packers were not a great team. In my kid sort of way, I just assumed that it was an order in the universe that the Packers would win most of the time. After the 1967 season, the universe was out of order.

As I said, I am not a great sports fan, but the Packers always remained my favorite for nostalgic and emotional reasons as well as a few others.  The Packers are the only team in the league that is not located in some big city. Green Bay only has around 100, 000 people and it is not near any large commercial or population center.  This is because of the unique ownership. The Packers are a non-profit, community-owned franchise, the only one in Americans sports.  There are 112,015 shareholders. Nobody is allowed to own a large percentage of shares. The shares pay no dividends and it is stipulated that if the franchise is ever sold, all the profits go to charity. This removes the financial incentive for moving the team. It also means that the Packers are essentially owned by the Fans & the people of Wisconsin. I like that. 

I am watching the Super bowl today and writing this during the halftime show. The Packers are ahead and I have confidence that they will win.  If the Steelers come back, I will have had the pleasure of celebrating an interim victory.  Chrissy & I have been watching the playoff games and it is great to see the green & gold in the Super Bowl.  It brings back lots of memories and feeling that I had forgotten.

I bought the cake at Safeway today. I couldn’t say for sure if it was supposed to be a Packer cake or a Steelers cake, but the chocolate football kind of looked like a cow pie sitting on a green pasture, so I figured it must be Wisconsin.

January 30, 2011

Making it Right

Mudslides in Brazil have killed around 900 people in the last few months. These are not natural disasters. Although the proximate cause is heavy rain, it is the deforestation and the uncontrolled building on steep hillsides that turned weather events into deadly disasters.  Brazilians understand this and have been looking around to other countries that have done better.  The most current example is Australia, which suffered the worst floods in decades with significantly less loss of life.  But Brazilian TV has also gone to New Orleans to assess the successful American response to Hurricane Katrina.

One of the hopeful aspects of the recent Brazilian disasters was the response of Brazilian society.  There were more volunteers to NGOs than could be used and people were lined up to donate blood for the victims. This may seem unremarkable from the American point of view, but this is an evolution in Brazil.

Until recently, Brazilian civil society was relatively weak with a centralizing government taking the predominant lead in most situations. The fact that the government by itself was often not up to the job did not discourage the belief that it should do it all. Like most developing countries, Brazil was thick with laws and rules, but there was often little enthusiasm for following or enforcing many of them.  There was the tacit agreement that the network of rules could not work and finding a way around them (Jeitinho Brasileiro) became a fine art. This had the beneficial effect of keeping things working, but also contributed to lots of trouble.  The uncontrolled building and deforestation that caused the recent disasters, for example, was almost all illegal, but laws could not be enforced.  In some ways, the laws were “too good.”  Their provisions were not executable by actual people in real situations.

What impressed the Brazilian television reporters about New Orleans was not the government’s response, which remains inadequate in many ways. The success in New Orleans is Make it Right, a non-governmental organization spearheaded by actor Brad Pitt.  Make it Right is doing innovative things quicker than any government bureaucracy could manage. Rather than building cookie cutter projects or maybe not really building much of anything at all, as is often the government response, Make it Right is constructing homes that different and unique. They are adapted to the environment, so that when the next flood comes, these homes will survive.   

The lower 9th Ward of New Orleans is becoming a place where homeowners can experiment in new ways of building environmentally sustainable communities, not just individual homes, but whole communities with local vegetable production, rain gardens and open space. The unique thing about all this is that it is not top-down, nor really bottom up. Rather it is a partnership with ideas moving both ways. This is a development to watch.It might seem that I am critical of government because government has “failed” to do what Make it Right is doing. On the contrary, the beauty of the system is a government that allows, enhances and encourages  the efforts of private individuals and groups. The government cannot do these sorts of things and a wise government recognizes that it does not have to. The total society response is what counts; government is only one part of total, sometimes the most important part, often not.

Government contributes in a particularly American way based the choices of the people and on our tax code. For example, I decided to contribute money to Make it Right, and because of the nature of our tax system – i.e. the tax exempt status - government essentially matched part of my contribution. After granting tax-exempt status, no bureaucrat needs decide which charity is worthy. The individual Americans decide with their preference, knowledge and with their own money. This distributed decision-making is a total society response with a role for business, government and individual Americans. Balance is important.

Government doesn't have to and should not try to do it all. We fallible human beings don't know what a perfect society would look like, so we can't empower government to create one. We can create a government that contributes to conditions that help citizens prosper. A good society doesn't solve all problems; it enables citizens to do the right things & make their own choices. 

November 12, 2010

A Veteran's Day Walk Around

Arlington Cemetery on Veteran's Day 

I went down to Arlington Cemetery for Veteran's Day, as has become my custom. It is a good day to think about the ones who have sacrificed and died to protect our liberty. I remember in particular a young man named Aaron Ward, who was killed by a sniper in Hit, Iraq on May 6, 2008. I wrote about him previously. He was only nineteen when he came to Iraq. His story made a particular impression on me because it was close and he reminded me of Alex. I can never again think of young soldiers, marines, sailors or airmen in the same way as I did before. It brings the pity of war closer whenever I think of him.  I understand that my determination to remember Aaron Ward's sacrifice does nothing to help him. A couple years later, I understand that I have to thank him not only for his service and sacrifice, but also for helping make me a more thoughtful and, I hope, a better man.

I walked from Roslyn to Arlington Cemetery, going past the Marine Memorial, with the Iwo Jima statue. I have posted pictures before. Above is a closer detail.  

I walked from Roslyn to Arlington Cemetery, going past the Marine Memorial, with the Iwo Jima statue. I have posted pictures before. Above is a closer detail.  The complete picture is here. Below is Memorial Bridge that connects Washington, near the Lincoln Memorial, with Arlington Cemetery.

Memorial Bridge that connects Washington, near the Lincoln Memorial, with Arlington Cemetery.  

Below is one of the statues near Memorial Bridge. They were a gift from the people of Italy to the people of the United States. 

one of the statues near Memorial Bridge. They were a gift from the people of Italy to the people of the United States. 

Below is the memorial to the 101 Airborne, the "Screaming Eagles."  Maybe appropriately, I saw a bald eagle flying over the Potomac.  I got a good look at it, so I am sure it was an eagle. Unfortunately, by the time I got my camera out and ready, it was too far out of sight to get a picture.  Eagles are becoming fairly common again. They are primarily fish eaters, so you see them along rivers like the Potomac or Mississippi.

memorial to the 101 Airborne, the "Screaming Eagles."  Maybe appropriately, I saw a bald eagle flying over the Potomac.  I got a good look at it, so I am sure it was an eagle. Unfortunately, by the time I got my camera out and ready, it was too far out of sight to get a picture.  Eagles are becoming fairly common again. They are primarily fish eaters, so you see them along rivers like the Potomac or Mississippi.  

Farther up the river is Theodore Roosevelt Island. It is literally an island of nature in the largely urban area. It used to be cultivated, but went back to nature  around 100 years ago. They claim that it is an "island of tranquility" but that is not really true. You may be able to pretend that the persistent traffic noise is the sound of the ocean, but the airplanes going over every couple of minutes from Reagan National Airport are harder to rationalize. The only time I really found tranquility there was when I was stranded in Washington after 9/11/2001. They stopped the flights and there was not so much traffic, so it was quiet, but in a sort of eerie way. Below is the Roosevelt Memorial, with old Teddy talking to the trees. I have a couple more detailed pictures here and here.

Farther up the river is Theodore Roosevelt Island. It is literally an island of nature in the largely urban area. It used to be cultivated, but went back to nature  around 100 years ago. They claim that it is an "island of tranquility" but that is not really true. You may be able to pretend that the persistent traffic noise is the sound of the ocean, but the airplanes going over every couple of minutes from Reagan National Airport are harder to rationalize. The only time I really found tranquility there was when I was stranded in Washington after 9/11/2001. They stopped the flights and there was no so much traffic, so it was really quiet, but in a sort of eerie way. Below is the Roosevelt Memorial, with old Teddy talking to the trees.  

Below is the George Washington Parkway, which follows the Potomac from Mount Vernon, one of the sources of traffic noise on Theodore Roosevelt Island. It is a bit classier than some other highways, with its beautiful natural stone walls separating the lanes of traffic. They just just don't build things like that anymore.

George Washington Parkway, which follows the Potomac from Mt Vernon, one of the sources of traffic noise. It is a bit classier than some other highways with its beautiful natural stone walls separating the lanes of traffic. They just just don't build things like that anymore.    

October 27, 2010

The Lasts

an informal football game on the fields in front of the Washington Monument.   

Fall is always the season of finishing. Another growing season is done. Days are getting shorter and cooler; the last flowers are blooming; the last leaves are falling. It is both a sad time and one of contentment of harvest and jobs completed. This fall has more of these characteristics for me than usual. I won’t be here next year. This is the last time I will be seeing some parts of Washington for maybe some years, maybe forever. 

Main State Department - Harry Truman Building 

Of course I will be back at the Main State, but my visits will be episodic and not the continuous presence I have now. I probably won’t be going over to Gold’s Gym, for example. I expect to be in Brazil for three years.  Who knows after that? I like to live in Washington, but the work here is not as interesting as what I can do overseas. There just aren’t many good jobs at my level. Many of the lower-ranking positions are more fun, if less ostensibly prestigious. I don’t like the political interface or the endless meetings. That doesn’t bode well for a triumphant return sometime in the medium term future. 

I am not a big coffee drinker, but the next picture shows them that do.  The little wagon is owned by a guy from someplace in the Middle East. It is good coffee, I guess. People wait for him to show up in the morning.  

I have never had much of a long-term career plan and I don’t have one now. I have always relied on serendipity and opportunistically taking advantage of what comes. You don’t have to be smart if you are lucky and I have been lucky. Brazil, Norway, Poland and even Iraq were places that I wanted to o and places where I was content to be. There is not much time left anyway and I suppose I should be thinking about career transition.

Horse cops patrolling the Mall on Clydesdales 

The story I recall, the one I tell myself and others is that I learned about the FS randomly. I remember waking up from a nap at the student union in at UW-Madison and finding a booklet about careers in the FS left on the table in front of me. I was only vaguely aware of the FS before that time. The booklet had a practice test that didn’t look too hard, so I decided to try for it. For me that has become a kind of creation myth. I really no longer know how much is certainly true and how much is embellishment borne of the retelling. But I think the story has colored how I view the job. I guess I still see it as more of a gift than something I worked hard to get. And it has usually been fun. A sort of career plan that I did have was to work in the FS for around seven years and then leverage my experience a well-paying executive job. It never happened because there has never been a significant amount of time when I wasn’t either having too much fun at my current assignment, too excited about the next one or both. 

Jefferson Memorial with fall color maples 

It was more like a hound-dog following the next scent than a step-by-step progress.


Anyway, I think about these things as I walk around in the still warm fall days and evenings. I came into the FS in October and got to know Washington for the first time during this time of the year. That was twenty-six years ago, but the area around the Mall has not changed much. I remember walking around the first time. It was like in that movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” I was so excited to see the monuments: Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson and so many other things. It is no longer a new experience, but it is still exciting. What a privilege to be able to be among them all the time. That is something I will miss. So this fall has a special poignancy for me.

African Art Museum 

Let me tell you about the pictures. They are simple things taken around Washington. First is an informal football game on the fields in front of the Washington Monument.  Next is the Main State, the Harry Truman building. It is not one of Washington's most attractive. I am not a big coffee drinker, but the next picture shows them that do.  The little wagon is owned by a guy from someplace in the Middle East. It is good coffee, I guess. People wait for him to show up in the morning. Horse cops patrolling the Mall on Clydesdales in the next picture. Jefferson Memorial with fall color maples. Another of my Capitol pictures. The African Art museum is just above and below is the statue of Casimir Pulaski on Freedom Plaza.

Statue of Pulaski 

Below is the Washington Memorial and the last is just the moon.

The moon 

October 24, 2010

Getting to Know a Few Things More

Main Street in Roanoak, NC 

Mariza’s boyfriend wanted to attend mass, so we went down to Roanoke Rapids, which was the closest Catholic church with a Saturday service. The priest at St. John the Baptist was out, so they had a temporary priest who has done a lot of work with local forestry in Kenya. You can read more about it here.

Cotton warehouse sign in Roanoke Rapids, NC.  The town is near the fall line, where the piedmont meets the tidewater and the rapids were the original reason for the town.  It was as far up as barges could go and the water power was used in the textile industry. There are still lots of cotton fields around the area, but today the big industry in town is a paper mill called Kapstone. 

After church, we went to a nice Italian, simple Italian restaurant on the main street in Roanoke Rapids. It is a pleasant little down, but not really exciting. This is probably the place where my thinned trees will end up.Below you can see the trees on the Freeman place, planted in 1996 and ready to be thinned.

trees on the Freeman place, planted in 1996 and ready to be thinned.  

We were down in the southern part of the state so that Mariza and Chris could see the forests.  Mariza had never seen the Freeman place and had not seen the CP property recently. Things have changed a lot. It was good to be able to show them the trees and explain a little about forestry.  Some of these trees will belong to Mariza someday. It is good if she gets to know the land and can become a good steward of the nature on it.

Wildlife clearing on CP in front of six year old pines 

I got to ride down and back with Mariza, which was good. We had a chance to talk a little.  I don’t see Mariza that much anymore. We used to take walks and talk when she was a little girl, but since then not so much. It gets harder to keep in touch when they move away. She has become a wonderful young woman and I want to get to know her better. Above shows Mariza and Chris in one of our wildlife clearings in front of the CP pines, planted in 2004. The picture below is Mariza and me (I think she is just a little taller than I am). Right underneath is a picture from around the same place in 2006. I always like to show the contrast, which each year gets more pronounced. It was not that long ago, but already the difference is remarkable. Below that are Mariza and Chris walking among the mature pines at the edge of the property.

Loblolly pines planted in 2004 

Two year old loblolly pines in 2006 

There was a lot of activity on the farms. On both places, guys from the hunt clubs were exercising and training their hunting dogs. The guy on the Freeman property was going to run down some coyotes. I don’t think he was hunting the coyotes when we saw him, just training the dogs. You can hunt coyotes all year around on private land in Virginia. I have no problem with coyotes either way, but if somebody from the hunt club wants to chase them on my land, I don’t have a problem with that either. Coyotes are not native to Virginia and they are a nuisance to local farmers. 

Mature pines 

The guys on CP were training their dogs for rabbit hunting, which starts next week.

We are getting more and more bear in the area and I am not enthusiastic about that. I know bears are mostly harmless, but the “mostly” part worries me a little. I bring my lunch with me when I work on the land and I am often there alone.  I really don’t want to have to think about attracting bears or not. Southside Virginia was not "bear country for more than a century, but now they are back. We sometimes see bear signs and people have taken pictures with those motion activated cameras.

Of course, absolute proof of bears is that a local guy killed one with a bow and arrow.  I would be a little nervous going after a bear with a bow and arrow.  It just doesn’t seem like that is “loaded for bear,” but I guess that some of those new bows are really effective. I am glad that the hunters go after the bear.  I want them to retain their fear of humans. In different seasons, it is legal to hunt bear with bow, black powder and ordinary firearms.  Dogs can be used to hunt bear in some situations.  Brunswick County has a bear hound training season, where hunter can train their dogs to chase bear, but cannot kill them if they chase them down.

Hunting and trapping regulations are available at this link.Below is Genito Creek. I like to go down there, since it is quiet and ever changing. I explained to Mariza and Chris how the creek keeps on moving as it undercuts one bank and then the other.  It floods an area of at least fifty yards on both sides. This is the kind of place that someone would like to have a house or a cabin because it is pretty and pleasant. Of course, this is also the kind of place where nobody should build a house, since it will regularly flood.

Genito creek keeps on moving as it undercuts one bank and then the other.  It floods an area of at least fifty yards on both sides. This is the kind of place that someone would like to have a house or a cabin because it is pretty and pleasant. Of course, this is also the kind of place where nobody should build a house, since it will regularly flood. 

October 03, 2010

Crossing the American Nation


I wanted to take a trip across the U.S. – again – to remind myself about the America outside what I see in and around Washington.  It is easy to forget that there is a lot of America far away from Washington when you live around here.


Driving is different than flying to particular cities because you see the places you cross close up. It is impressive how long it takes to get from place to place. You quickly understand that it is a big country, with pretty good roads.  I tried to get off the Interstate when I could. The Interstate is faster, but you see less and you never get the feeling of the open road that you do when you are the only one on a county road. You also cannot usually stop on the Interstate, so if you do see something interesting all you can do is race past it at 70mph. 


I enjoyed driving most on the old U.S. Highways. They are usually smooth and fairly straight. They were designed for more traffic than they get now in most of the rural areas, as the Interstates have drained the traffic, so it is often a comfortable and almost traffic free experience. I like the diversion when I slow down through towns. The Interstate bypasses them or hurries you through them on ramps above, artificial valleys below or man-made canyons of noise control walls if you stay at ground level. You miss a lot of history.


I drove through sixteen states, including the State of Missouri. I mention Missouri specifically because Missouri was the only one of the continental states I had not visited before. Missouri is just about right in the center of the U.S., so it is strange that I missed it so many times. I really didn’t see it too much this time either. All I did was stop at a rest stop and put my feet on the ground for a few minutes.But I got a picture.


I noticed the changes in the physical landscape. Once you cross the thickly forested eastern mountains, you get into relatively flat formerly-forested landscapes until you get to about fifty miles out into Kansas.  Rainfall drops off below the amount (about 30 inches a year) needed to support natural forests at about the 98th meridian. This divides prairies from forests. Historically, the prairies extended farther east because the Native Americans used to set fires to maintain the grassland. Today, our own civilization has brought trees into the grasslands and grasslands into the trees, but you can still clearly discern the differences as you pass over. The mountains in the West have all sorts of variations of climate. That is the attraction of the West. You can drive 100 miles in the East w/o noticing big changes. In parts of New Mexico I crossed dozens of biomes in that same distance.


I am not sure if it was Texas or New Mexico that were most surprising. I had been to both before, but not really through them. New Mexico, as I mentioned in one of my posts, is truly a land of enchantment, with a great variety of environments in very close proximity because of the mountains. Texas was also very surprising. I wrote several posts about that. Texas is such a big state that I should not have been as surprised by the variety, but I was.


The geography and topography was very different, but I found that Americans were very similar everywhere I went. I am in a good position now. I am old enough that I both am not too shy to approach and talk to strangers and I seem harmless enough that they are willing to talk to me. Actually, I am repeated surprised at how friendly people are and how much they like to tell you about themselves and their home towns.  The pride is palpable and everybody thinks his/her place in unique. And they are all right. But what is not unique is the feeling of unique pride in being different. It is a kind of a paradox.


It makes me a little sad that the regional differences are weakening. As each part of the U.S. becomes more diverse the country is becoming less so. You find the same restaurants, stores and outlets wherever you go. And it is not only the well-known chains. You can find the same sorts of independent Chinese, Mexican, or Japanese restaurants in San Antonio or Dodge City as you do in Milwaukee or Nashville. Everyplace is diverse now. All these places were less diverse internally a generation ago, but they were more different from each other. The whole country has been blended. It is great that you can get all the same things almost anywhere, but maybe also not so great.  You can tell this by what you CANNOT bring back home that you can't already get back home.


What is becoming more important is what you might call the back story. We are becoming a lot more concerned with the origins and the “stories” of the things we eat, drink, wear and enjoy. We can get to know these stories when we travel. As our country blends, we all look for the special things and we are reviving or recreating traditions, especially on the high end. This is how we connect in a world that doesn't tie us to our roots. For example, the Bourbon makers we visited have been working harder to make “craft” products and people are willing to pay more. Farmers are developing or rediscovering heirloom fruits and vegetables. I saw longhorn cattle like those that were essentially eliminated a century ago. Somebody is reviving the herds. I think this is healthy. It is usually not mere antiquarianism.  People are respecting traditions but also working and applying their innovation and intelligence to make them better. New traditions are being evolved from the old ones all over our country, so while we are becoming more homogeneous we are also developing new diversity.


I have a few miscellaneous pictures from the tip that I have included. The top picture is art work in the grassy hills above a Missouri rest stop. They are flat steel cutouts of Indians hunting bison.  Next is a water town in Franklin, Wisconsin.  A ranch in Kansas is below followed by a replica of the Bonnie & Clyde "death car." In the middle of the page the Polish-American Center in Franklin and then the Bay View "Redcat" football team in early season practice. The rocks in the next picture is off I-10 near the place where the Apache leader Cochise hid out.  Next is a gas station in New Mexico with the railroad in the background. The next two show an old school house in Mead, Kansas and then an oil pump on the Permian basin in New Mexico. Below is a mural in Fort Worth, Texas honoring the Chisholm Trail


October 02, 2010

The Best Thing that ever Happened to Corn

Jim Beam distillery 

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail connects six Bourbon makers in Northern Kentucky. It is a very pretty drive and you get the added benefit of visiting distilleries and tasting their whiskey. We stopped only at Jim Beam and Wild Turkey. I think you might need a couple of days to do the whole thing, not least because you probably could not drive if you visited all the distillers in one day, even with the very small samples you get. Below is the center of the district, Bardstown, Kentucky the "Bourbon capital of the world."

Bardstown, KY 

Bourbon is a true American product. The Congress declared Bourbon to be America’s native spirit and there are specific requirements for making it. For example, it must be at least 51% corn. In early American times, distilling bulky corn and other grains into whiskey was the best and sometimes the only way farmers on the distant frontier could get their products profitably to markets across wilderness with no or bad roads. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S., but around 95% is made in the State of Kentucky, near where this sort of whiskey originated. Northern Kentucky has good water for making whiskey because of its limestone and limestone soils that filter water and make it “sweet.” 

Bourbon in barrels at Jim Beam 

All Bourbon must be aged in new white oak barrels. The barrels can be used only once, after which they are sold to Scotch whiskey producers and makers of other alcohol products. They are charred inside. The raw whiskey – called white dog, this is as far as they get when they make moonshine or white lightning - is clear and essentially flavorless. No artificial colors or flavors may be added to the finished whiskey. During the seasons of the aging process (the aging barns are not heated or air conditioned) the whiskey expands and contracts soaking up woody flavors and color from the wood and charcoal of the barrels. When you take a drink of Kentucky Bourbon, you taste the forests, creeks and at least four and maybe ten years' worth of Kentucky seasons. Below shows Kentucky along I -64.

I64 in Kentucky 

We bought a couple of bottles of whiskey at Jim Beam. I got a bottle of Jim Beam Black. It is older than the white label and has a noticeably smoother feel. If you want to drink Bourbon, this is the one I recommend.  I keep around a bottle of “Old Forester” because I like the name, but the Beam Black is better. We also got a bottle of a new product called “Red Stag”. It is not officially Bourbon because it has some cherry flavor added.  At the Wild Turkey distillery, we got a bottle of rye whiskey. This also was technically not Bourbon. It tastes a little more like Scotch. You can see below the distribution of grain in two Jim Beam products, Basil Hayden and Knob Hill. I don't like the Basil Hayden. It is a little too harsh. Knob Hill is good, but a little too pricey, IMO.

Whiskey grains 

We should all drink responsibly, of course, but I think we should all drink a little. Beers, wines and whiskeys are deeply embedded in so many of our traditions, both in the creation and in the consumption of the products.  There is just much more than the schluck going on. I suppose you could have specific health or religious concerns, but besides that, it is a silly person who refuses a drink when offered.

Booker Noe 

Above is Booker Noe, the grandson of the eponymous Jim Beam. Booker created the modern Jim Beam distillery.  His son, Fred is the 7th generation of the Beam family to run the business. If you look in back of Booker and below at the ginkgo tree in the front yard, you notice the black bark. This is caused by a fungus that grows on the surfaces around distilleries because of the evaporation from the whiskeys. The lost alcohol is called the "angel's share" and in humid climates it feeds the fungus. It makes it look like there has been a fire, but it is evidently harmless to the trees.

Gingko tree at Jim Beam 

Below is a truck moving the barrels. 


October 01, 2010



The State Department has a good, but generally underused, program that lets us to volunteer to speak to people around the country when we travel. I often give them my schedule when I am traveling and sometimes they can arrange meetings in my free time.  I find I get more out of travel when I get to talk to interesting people and this is a good – official - opportunity for that. I learned a few things about Nashville at a meeting arranged by State public affairs.


I think of Nashville as the capital of country music and that is still true. The Grand Old Opry is here and musicians come to Nashville from all over the country.   But I learned that Nashville is much more, with a diverse economic base. The biggest industries are education, health care & tourism.  


The most famous local university is Vanderbilt, but there are many others.  The guy at the mayor’s office told me that around 60% of the students who come to the area to study stay after graduation, enriching Nashville with their “human capital”.   He pointed out that young people today often choose where they want to live and AFTER that look for the schools and the jobs that will get them there.   Young people today, especially those with the most marketable skills – the kind of people cities are trying to attract – are more mobile than we were.  On the other hand, they are a little less likely to move once established.  This may be because they choose the place in the first place and like it and/or because relationships hold them in place.  

Nashville competes with – and “benchmarks” – cities like Austin and Charlotte, NC. They are around the same size and have similar compositions.  Austin also has a strong music scene.

Chrissy and I had lunch at a bar and grill called Piranha’s.  They had a truly odd sandwich made of roast beef with the French fries jammed in.  It tasted okay and was very filling, but I don’t think I would order it again.  You see in the picture above that they have some kind of contest going about eating a 10lb cheese steak.   Nobody has won, so far, and I am not surprised.   I think the whole thing might just be a bridge too far even for the biggest eaters.   I recall that the “Big Texan” in Amarillo has a 72 oz steak challenge.  If you can eat it, you get it free.  Some people succeed in that and a solid meat meal would be a bit harder – maybe – that something including bread, but I just cannot figure out how eating 10lbs of anything would be possible. Maybe I misunderstood the challenge.  Across the street from Piranha's was the Charlie Daniels Museum, actually just more of a shop, pictured above.

The other pictures are the cheese steak challenge, some interesting buildings and a music festival being set up in front of the courthouse. I understand they have live music most weekends. 

September 30, 2010

Local Heroes in Western Tennessee

Cotton field in Eastern Tennessee 

We spent last night at the Holiday Inn in Forrest City, Arkansas.  The town was named for Nathan Bedford Forrest.  As we drove through western Tennessee, we came across Forrest a few more times. He was very much the famous home town boy.  I read that there are thirty-two monuments associated with him in Tennessee. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Confederate cavalry officer and a true military genius.  On the other hand, he trafficked in slaves, was accused of war crimes and was associated with the KKK, although he denied both of the latter. On the other hand, in later life Forrest advocated re-consolidation between North and South and between the races.   


The man was a fighter and good at his job.  He famously said that war means fighting and fighting means killing.  What you can say for sure about Nathan Bedford Forrest is that he was a man of significant contradictions and that he was well-thought-of at least by some people around Western Tennessee, Western Arkansas & Northern Mississippi.

Casey Jones 

A less controversial local hero is Casey Jones.  He was an engineer on the Illinois Central Railroad.  His passenger train, the Cannonball Express, ran into a stalled freight train near Vaughan, MS.  Jones stayed with the train, pulling on the brakes. He managed to reduce the speed of his train from around 75mph to 35mph. His bravery undoubtedly saved the lives of passengers, none of whom were killed, but Casey Jones died in the wreck.

Casey Jones bathroom 

Casey Jones’ experience was immortalized in a song, much like the Wreck of the Old 97, in Virginia. Train wrecks made an impression on those around to see them. We visited the Casey Jones museum in Jackson, Tennessee and saw his house, some railroad artifacts & an engine much like his. It is one of those places that is worth seeing if you are already driving past, but probably not worth going to see if you are not.

The lyrics to the song are at this link.

The top picture is a cotton field in Western Tennessee. Cotton is very hard on the soil & the crop exhausts the nutrients quickly. This was wasteful but it also provided incentive for westward expansion, as new lands were constantly needed. Next is the pyramid of Memphis. I guess it is an arena.  Chrissy took the picture of the pyramid, as we drove over the bridge and she demanded I give her credit. This was indeed a good picture, but the others she took on the fly look like they were taken by a drunken monkey.  We have to take the sweet with the bitter. BTW - there are no pyramids in the original Memphis. The next picture is an engine like the machine that Casey Jones would have driven, but this one is smaller. The bottom picture is the bathroom in Casey Jones' house. He was fairly well off for the time. I would like to visit the past, but I wouldn't want to live there. Besides all the exotic diseases, poor dentistry and interesting smells, we had bathrooms like this for those lucky enough to have such luxurious accommodations.

September 29, 2010

Waiting at the Bat Cave


We went to an old railroad tunnel near Fredericksburg to see the bats emerge. You can see from the picture above that bat viewing is a minor local attraction. We didn’t actually see the bats emerge. They did it too much after dark. They come out around dark every night. If they come out around dark before it gets too dark, you can see them, otherwise we just take their word that they came out.

The bats in the tunnel are Mexican free tail bats. They are small bats that eat insects, mostly moths.  They are useful because they devour prodigious numbers of corn moths. 


We were told, but I didn’t actually see, that the bats take off in a spiral to get enough lift to get into the air.  The experienced bats do it well.  When there are lots of new bats, the show is evidently more chaotic, presuming you can see it.  The bats never come out on schedule and nobody is sure why they come out when they do. One theory is that they just come out when they get hungry, so it depends on how much they ate the night before.  Another theory is that there is not theory. One or more of them wanders out and others follow.

A couple people run the “bat watch”. Bat people are special and they are very enthusiastic about bats.  They showed pictures and explained the importance of bats in the environment.  As I wrote above, the most useful thing they do is eat lots of flying bugs. Bat guano makes very good fertilizer and the bat woman explained guano used to be one of Texas’ biggest exports.

Bats are threatened by a fungus disease called white nose.  It can wipe out whole bat colonies.  Nobody knows what causes it, but it is probably helped to spread by people coming around from cave to cave, so many bat caves are now closed off to casual visitors. At out bat viewing area, we were told not to go down to the opening.  I would not have done so anyway. I appreciate the importance of bats and understand that these little bats are harmless, but I still  think it would be a little creepy to be standing right among them.  Besides, they probably crap when they fly.

The top picture is the crowd waiting for the bats. Below that picture is one of my friend Dennis Neffendorf's sheep just before sun up. Dennis owns a peach farm near Fredericksburg. If you want some great peaches, let me know and I will put you in touch. You met Dennis in earlier posts. He worked with me in Iraq.  The sheep are unrelated to the bats, but I needed a place to put the nice picture. 

President Johnson & his ranch

We also visited the LBJ ranch. Unfortunately, I deleted the pictures by mistake. My only text would be that LBJ actually cared about his ranch. He had a great herd of cattle and he took good care of the land. No matter what you think of him as a politician or a human being, he was a good steward of the land.  For me, that means a lot. 

Dennis, mentioned above, grew up near the Johnson ranch and as a kid got to do odd jobs around the ranch. He know a lot about the Johnson's and the people around them. He said Johnson was a bigger than life type guy. He could be a bully and an A-hole, but he remembered his roots and took an interest in everyone he met.  Like all great men, he was complex and contradictory, so biographers can find what they want.  Lady-Bird Johnson was universally a lady in all the positive senses of the word and she stood by Lyndon. I took a good picture of the tombstones of Lydon and Lady-Bird. Hers is a little bigger.  On his tombstone is the presidential seal.  Hers features a Texas bluebell. Mrs. Johnson did a good job with wild flowers.

Deutschland uber Texas


You can see the physical German influence in the buildings and the people in Fredericksburg and all around the Texas hill country. I knew that lots of Germans colonized Texas, but I was surprised by how much this resembled Wisconsin in terms of heritage and appearance. My picture doesn't really show it. I made a mistake and erased fifteen of my pictures, so I have to use what I have left.  Along this street there are mostly German names. We had breakfast in a nice German bakery. 

Germans were hard-working and frugal, which meant that they adapted fairly well almost wherever they went.   We visited one of their neat farms – the Sauer-Beckmann farm - near the LBJ ranch.  They have living history, with period costumes, appropriate livestock etc.  The original colonists, the Sauer family, made a “modified” log cabin.  I say modified because logs were relatively rare in this part of Texas centuries ago.  (It is a little misleading to look around today because there are more trees today, since the wild fires started by lightning and Indians have been controlled.) To save on wood, the logs were interspersed with stones, which were common. Making a wall entirely of stone takes longer than making this kind of hybrid.  When they had the time, they made the buildings out of limestone and so later additions were often stone.

The pictures above and below are from the Sauer-Beckmann farm, part of the LBJ park complex.  One good thing about both is that they have actual livestock. Livestock were a big part of rural life and when they do the recreations w/o them it is not realistic.  Johnson himself left some of his land to the park system with the stipulation that they maintain the place as a working ranch with cattle. 


The Germans fit uneasily into the pre-Civil War Texas because they set themselves apart to some extent and had a superior attitude at times.  More importantly, they were strongly and loudly against slavery.  When Texas voted to succeed from the Union in 1861, the counties with heavy German populations voted to remain in the Union.  Texas Confederates declared the hill country in rebellion – against the confederates.  There were open battles between pro-union and Confederate forces.  Scores of Germans were killed in the fighting, others were shot and hung.  Lynching of Germans was practiced. These episodes of Civil War history are not well known.   Germans being lynched, beaten and murdered because of their stand against slavery doesn’t seem to fit in well with subsequent narratives.

I have written before about Germans in the U.S. and recently about the Amana Colonies. We now have forgetting the contributions of America’s largest ethnic group because Germans and their contributions have become as American as hamburgers, hot dogs and good beer.

September 28, 2010

Ragnarok of the Big Trees

Hill Country 

The Texas hill country is extraordinarily pleasant and we got a very green period because of lots of rain in the last couple of weeks. But my joy at encountering this beautiful landscape was tempered by oak wilt that has been killing the wonderful live oaks that give the hills their dominant feel. Oak wilt was identified in Wisconsin in the 1940s and has gradually been spreading.  It is s fungal disease spread both by a beetle and through natural root grafts among the oak trees.  So if one oak tree get the disease, it usually spreads to the neighbors.  I knew about oak wilt before, but seeing it in action here made me profoundly sad.  It seems to have had a bigger effect here in the Texas hill country than elsewhere, maybe because the live oaks form pure stands giving the beetles and the root grafts an easy way to go. 

Heakthy Live Oak 

You manage oak wilt, but it can be trouble. You have to be sure that the oaks have not sustained injuries that can attract the beetles or give the fungus spores an opening. The danger time for this is in the spring, until about July when summer heat kills exposed spores. This means that spring pruning of oaks is out.  You also have to be careful not to smack into the oaks with lawnmowers or other equipment.  If you have an infected oak, you have to get rid of it quick AND made sure the roots are not passing the fungus.  This means trenching between the infected oak and any others nearby.

When planting trees, it is a good idea not to create pure stands.  If oak trees are separated by other sorts of trees, the beetles and spores will spread more slowly or not at all.

The USDA page on oak wilt is here.

As long as I am feeling bad about the ragnarok of beloved big trees, I am also very upset by the emerald ash borerThis rotten little bug is a native of Asia, first identified in Michigan in 2002.  Since then it has killed millions of ash trees and spread as south as Virginia, east to the Atlantic Ocean and west to the Great Plains.  The insect gets under the bark and quickly kills ash trees.

Emerald ash borers are not very mobile and left on their own they would probably remain a local problem.  Unfortunately, they hitch rides with us when we drive and especially when we transport infected firewood.   Never move fresh firewood any farther than you can walk.

The other one that bothers me is the hemlock wooly agelgid. This is another Asian import that was first reported in America in 1924.  This bug threatens the continued existence of hemlocks in the U.S. outside protected gardens.  Treatments are available but many of our nicest hemlock forests are gone already.  Hemlocks occupied a particular ecological niche in that they can grow in very deep shade. They used to fill an important role as understory trees and in shading little streams and keeping water temperatures lower.  Their ghost forests cannot do this.

On the plus side, we have developed American elms that are resistant to blight. We have better science available all the time. Maybe we can stay ahead of the bugs, but it will be a lot of work.

The top picture is a Texas hill country landscape.  You can see the dead trees in the foreground. Below that is what a healthy Texas live oak looks like. 

PS - I am informed that my reference to Ragnarok is too obscure and that some people might confuse it with some kind of video game. Ragnarok is from Norse mythology. It is the final struggle where the gods, such as Odin and Thor, are doomed. In German it is (also obscure) Gotterdamerung. A Wagner opera has that title and goes into the subject. The English "Twilight of the Gods" doesn't really cover it, IMO. I understood when I wrote that it was hyperbole, but it seems that hyperbole is not really out of place if you risk losing species of trees that have dominated our landscapes since the end of the last ice age. 

September 27, 2010

San Antonio & the River Walk

RIverwalk San Antonio 

The thing I liked most about San Antonio’s Riverwalk was that it seemed very natural because of the very large trees, mostly bald cypress and Montezuma cypress, and the lush plants along the route. Chrissy & I walked along the paths and then took the boat ride. The boat ride is worth it. The city is named after the San Antonio River, not the other way around.


Part of the river is natural, i.e. it has a mud bottom and part is created with a concrete channel. The river was a center of city life since the founding of the city, but the River Walk has been developing in something recognizable as predecessor of today’s version since the 1940s. In order to make that possible, the river needed to be controlled. San Antonio can get heavy rains and the river used to flood. Today the big investments along the river walk are protected by a flood gate system, which shunts flood waters into holding basins and an underground channel.

Live oak in San Antonio 

Montezuma CypressThe climate and vegetation surprised me. It is more southern and Gulf shore-like than I thought. I always pictured the place as a more Western place, in the sense of drier or more of a prairie ecosystem. But there were palm trees, live oak, tropical looking rubber trees and the cypress I mentioned above all growing in enthusiastic profusion.  

I suppose that most people are less passionate about environment & trees and more about the many nice restaurants. It is very much alive with people, probably mostly tourists. We had lunch at a place called “Dick’s” where the waiters are encouraged to be wiseasses. That gives the place a special character. The food is just okay. In the evening we had some good steaks at the Texas Land & Steak restaurant.

Another surprising aspect of San Antonio is its Middle American feel. I expected the city to be a lot more Hispanic than it is. Maybe I was just in a particular part of town, but besides the sub-tropical plants and the Alamo, this place could have been in Ohio or Illinois.  In fact, what I have been noticing generally in my drive across America has been how American the country is. We talk a lot about our differences, but they pale before the things we have in common.

Texas pancake 

People have local pride, of course, and Texas has more local pride than any other place I went.  From my hotel window I saw Texas flags on top of many buildings. There are lots of other signs of Texas pride.  Even the waffle at our hotel was shaped like the State of Texas.


The top picture is the San Antonio River Walk. They put food coloring in to give it that green color. The next shows one of the many foot bridges over the river. The trees that are shaped like elm trees are actually Montezuma cypresses. There is an individual picture of one along side. Between that is a live oak. And at the bottom are the Texas waffle and flags.  Below is the Buckhorn Saloon, full of stuffed animals of the kind PETA doesn't approve. There are even more in the rooms above.

Buckhorn saloon 

September 26, 2010

Remembering the Alamo

Alamo in moonlight 

We all know the stories of the Alamo. I say stories,plural, since there are lots of legends. Ever since I watched Davy Crockett when I was a little kid, I have enjoyed movies about the Alamo.The most elaborate was the one made by John Wayne, but I also recall a made for TV version with James Arness that was pretty good. The most recent one featured Billy-Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett. I have also seen dozens of documentaries and related programs. It is a big part of our historical memory. The legend has changed to accommodate changing sensibilities.  

Live Oak on Alamo 

No matter how you interpret or reinterpret it, however, the Alamo remains a story of heroism, sacrifice and bravery. The fewer than 200 volunteers who held the Alamo against more than the more than 3000 soldiers of the tyrant Santa Anna knew that they were facing steep odds & would have little or no chance of surviving the encounter.


Santa Anna seized power in Mexico City, abolished the constitution of 1824 and set about centralizing power in his own hands. Several states rebelled and Santa Anna put them down. The most distant was the rebellion in Texas. Santa Anna was a megalomaniac and he didn’t think he would have too much trouble dealing with the ragged and disorganized Texans. He came north himself with his and was impatient with the defenders of the Alamo, which helped build the legend. Instead of waiting for his big artillery to arrive, which could have reduced the Alamo to rubble w/o much loss of life among his own troops, Santa Anna ordered a frontal assault.  When some of his subordinates objected to the unnecessary loss of life, he reportedly compared his soldiers to chickens. It was their duty to die for him and he didn’t think the cost in their lives was not too much to pay for his glory. By giving the Texans a fighting chance he ensured a fight to be remembered.

Japanese monument at AlamoIt is interesting to think about how different history could have been with a few different decisions, and with a few people present or not. In this respect I am not thinking so much about the heroes of the Alamo but about Santa Anna. The Mexican constitution of 1824 was a good one.  It provided for more liberty and a more decentralized system. Santa Anna seized power and centralized the state in the same way that created problems in Latin societies throughout the 19th & 20th Centuries. Retaining the constitution of 1824 may or may not have prevented the succession of Texas, but imagine a century and a half of Mexican history with a more stable and liberal society and constitution. How different could have been the history of all North America.

The Alamo is smaller than it seems in the movies, which is no surprise since much of the battlefield is now occupied by various San Antonio buildings, including the hotel where we are staying.  It is also true that we just expect things that were important in history to be big.  The battle of the Alamo was not physically big compared with fights we saw in later history and not too much later in our own Civil War.  But the relatively small number of participants is one of the things that makes the Alamo so memorable.  We can know the participants as individuals. I am no expert on this and yet I can name several of the defenders and I know their stories, at least their legends. I suspect this is fairly common knowledge. I looked at the wall listing all their names. I could quickly read through the list from A-Z, along with where they came from.  This makes the history personal.

The pictures show the Alamo at night and the grounds.  The middle picture is a very nice live oak. The bottom picture is a Japanese monument to the heroes of the Alamo.  It goes to show the fame of the place and I thought it was a very good example of public diplomacy on the part of the Japanese to associate themselves with such a Texan and American symbol. 

750 Feet Under Ground

I knew Carlsbad Caverns well from looking at the old View Masters, as I wrote yesterday.  Their photos were/are better than mine.  They made the place look familiar.  The same was true when I first saw the Grand Canyon and Yosemite.  The good thing about the View Master was that we didn’t have very many slides and there was not as much competition from other things to watch or do.  I watched them over and over so I got to know all the pictures very well.


Nothing has changed in the Caverns since the View Master took the pictures fifty years ago.   Nothing much has changed for thousands or maybe millions of years.  Change is slow down here, 750 feet below the surface.  Water drips slowly and makes the rock formations you see in the pictures.  The little lumps on the formations are called “popcorn.”  They are formed by moisture from the air, which carries enough mineral that – with the many millennia - rock forms.  The rock down here is mostly limestone, the remains of the ancient sea I talked about in the previous post.


Unlike most caves, Carlsbad Caverns was not formed by flowing water like a stream.   Instead, water drained slowly from the caverns when the climate was wetter.  The “decorations” were created by the slow dripping.  The water carries carbonic acid, the same stuff in Coca-Cola.  It is a very weak acid, but it is enough to dissolve stone over long time.


The ranger explained all the above.  Carlsbad is not the biggest cavern in the U.S. but it is among the most interesting because of its unique characteristics or not being formed by flowing streams. This gives it lots of big and little rooms.  Caves formed by flowing streams usually are smoother and more uniform in the size of the rooms or chambers.  


They turned off all the lights during the program to show what a cave looks like in its normal state.  There is no way your eyes can adjust to zero light and all the wonders in stone are invisible.  In a very obvious way the cave we see is created by light we bring.  Someone asked about using color lights.  That may seen a little Disney-like, but the whole thing is a artistic creation of the light. The placement of the lights creates the reality.   The “natural” condition is pitch blackness.


There is no way I can get my brain around those millions of years and minute changes that lead to big things.  I noticed drops of water on the ends of some of the stalactites.  They weren’t dripping off and I don’t think they were going to drip off any time soon.  It will set there forming new rock formations.

Above is one of the formations. Chrissy said it looked like Gaudi architecture in Barcelona.  Below is the "lake" in the cave.  It is about the size of a jacuzzi.  It took thousands of years to fill to that depth.This is the place I remember best from the View Master. Something about the clear water stuck in my memory. The stone waterfall also makes an impression.


September 25, 2010

The Bottom of an Ancient Sea

We went down to Carlsbad Caverns.  This is another familar place I visited for the first time.  I really saw a lot of the world - in 3D - with View Master.


I will post some actual cave pictures in the next entry.  I was also interested in the geography up top. There has been a fair amount of rain, so the landscape is unusually green. But this is generally a high and dry landscape with an interesting geology.  This used to sit at the bottom of a shallow ocean during the Permian Period. It was something like the Persian Gulf is today, very hot and dry on the land, but the undersea environment was very diverse.  This was a reef that supported all sorts of life.  Some, like sponges and algae, are familiar today.  Then there were the trilobites, my personal favorite. 


Lots of the animals, whole families of them, are extinct, since the Permian Period ended with the greatest mass-extinction of all time, wiping out the majority of earth’s species.  The Permian Period was the last period of the Paleozoic Era.  What followed was the Mesozoic, the age of dinosaurs.

The first two pictures are up top of Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The bottom picture is alone I-10 in Texas.  Notice the rainbow. 

September 24, 2010

Deserts & High Chaparel

We drove south to Tucson and then east through the Sonora Desert.  The Sonora is the desert we all think of as THE desert.  It is the hottest of our American deserts, the one with all the cactuses that we know so well from the western movies.  We visited my cousin Elise and her husband Carl who live near Tucson.  I wrote re that last year here and here. The Tucson area is higher, greener and cooler than Phoenix, although both are in the same biome.

On the side is me with my new hat (purchased in Texas) in the desert. The hat is made of palm leaf and it really does keep the sun off and the head cool.  I like it.  

Just outside Tucson is the Saguaro National Park, where I took the pictures of the Sonora Desert vistas.  The saguaro cactus is the one with the arms that looks like a man flexing his muscles.  It takes many years for them to grow big enough to get arms.  You can tell you are in the Sonora when you see the saguaro, which grow naturally nowhere else.

Above and below are Sonora landscapes

Below - the flat area behind the sign is - believe it or not - the continental divide.  At some point out in that field, if you peed some would go toward the Pacific and some toward the Atlantic. We are actually at a fairly high elevation.  It is just a flat plateau.  I don't know how exactly they can tell which way the water would flow. I always thought of the continental divide as a sort of ridge. 


North and west of the Sonora is the Mojave Desert, which I wrote about last April, with its characteristic brush and Joshua Trees.   You hit the Chihuahua Desert as you go east.  It is not true that the Taco Bell dog’s wild ancestors roamed this region.  The Chihuahua desert is theoretically less harsh, but it seems to have a little less interesting life.  I guess that the Sonora is very harsh, but fairly consistent, which allows varied life forms to develop.

September 23, 2010

Ancient Hunters, Modern Controversy


Between Clovis and Portales, New Mexico is the Blackwater Draw archeological site and museum.  It was closed, but the old guy running the place let me in anyway and we talked about archeology.  This is the place where they found the “Clovis Points,” a particular type of spear point used by the people who lived around here 13000 years ago.  They didn’t have bows and arrows.  Those came only around 3000 years ago.  Instead they used spear throwing sticks – an atlatl.  The stick essentially extends the arm and gives a man leverage to throw harder and farther than he could with just his muscle alone.

It gave our prehistoric ancestors enough firepower to drive the North American megafauna - mammoths, giant sloths, cave bears, saber tooth tigers etc - into extinction.

There is a lot of controversy about the Clovis people.  Nobody knows what they were like, since no human remains have been found.  Scientists used to just assume that they were ancestors of today’s Native Americans, but recent archeological discoveries, such as the Kennewick man (who looked a lot like Jean-Luc Picard), have called some of that into question.   

What happened in America 13000 years ago - before anybody around today was here - is a bigger issue today than you might think.  Some Native American creation myths hold that their people were original to the area or even sprung from the earth. Scientific evidence to the contrary bothers some people. Some have even gone so far as to essentially try to destroy evidence, or at least prevent its study. It is really a species of racism.

It strains credulity to believe that they particular native people inhabiting this place a hundred years ago were the same ones living here 12000 years ago. Linguistic and historical evidence alone would preclude that.  But evidently creationism dies hard no matter where it is rooted. And sometimes political correctness demands that we pretend to believe the believers.

I have a simple view of history. After around a century, when events have passed from living memory, ALL human achievement becomes the common heritage of all humans. In other words, we cannot take special credit or blame for anything that nobody alive actually remembers. I studied and appreciated ancient Greeks and Romans, despite probably being more related genetically to the barbarians that destroyed their civilization. It is great when someone from China can claim inspiration from Thomas Jefferson as I may from Lao Tzu. The Clovis people were our human ancestors. It really doesn’t matter who can or cannot make a silly claim to being genetically more similar.

Land of Enchantment - Too


More pictures and comments. The geography becomes more pretty and varied as you climb out of the high plains into the foothills and mountains. Below are more pictures from the plateaus and coming down the other side in the Salt River Canyon of Arizona. Some of the pictures are fairly high resolution, so if you want to see details, click on them and enlarge.

Hondo, NM 

Above is Hondo, NM. There is not much besides a gas station, but it seems very pleasant. Below is probably somebody's hobby: part of a herd of longhorn cattle.


Below is the place were the original Smokey Bear was rescued from a forest fire. They have a marker and a bigger Smokey to show the place. 

Smokey the Bear 

Below is heavy traffic on US 60

Below are views of the Salt River Canyon, as you come off the mountains into the Sonora Desert.  Building the road must have been a heroic venture.

salt River 

From the other side.



US 60 in Salt River

Land of Enchantment

The New Mexico board of tourism calls their state the “Land of Enchantment” and they are right.  As you drive across the middle of the state, you encounter a wide variety of beautiful ecosystems, lots of cute towns and great vistas.  I drove along US Highways 70 and 60 and avoided the Interstate. Below are some pictures and comments.

Ponderosa pines 

Above and below are examples of the changing biomes  that sometimes sit within a few minutes drive of each other.  Above are ponderosa pine.  The open park-like terrains is naturally kept that way by frequent small fires. The ponderosa pines are fire-dependent.  The young trees have black bark; as they get older -at around 100 years - the bark turns reddish.  Ponderosa pines have a distinctive smell and you could tell you were near them with your eyes closed. I stopped at the roadside where I took the picture to experience that. Below is a mixed juniper and pinyon pine landscape.  It is a bit drier than the ponderosa places.  Pinyon pines produce "pine nut" consumed by local people and wildlife.

pinyon pines and juniper 

Below - as you get into drier places, the trees disappear and you get various types of grassland.  I am less familiar with the specifics of those biomes. 


Below is almost entirely grass. The modern things you see are the "very large array," a series of radio telescopes used to explore the far reaches of the cosmos, from the far reaches of New Mexico.  I guess that the elevation and clear air make that easier.

Very large array 

Below are lava bed. According to what I read, the lava oozed out around 800 years ago.  Some plants have since colonized.  It must have been nearly impassible on foot or in a wagon when people first found them. 

Lava beds 

Dirt is the Basis of Civilization

On US 60S 

I needed to get maximize my daylight so I left Portales just before the sun came up and for about an hour and a half I drove through some of the most monotonous landscape possible, sometimes made less appealing by the early morning gloom, I suppose. Sometimes there was little evidence of active human occupation.   At other times you could see where people had moved away. 

US Highway 60 runs through what was the edge of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.  The countryside had a denser population back then than it does now. This is a good thing.  The land here gets irregular rainfall.  In some years there is enough to temp people to plow up the sod and plant row crops. That is what happened right after World War I, when this area was booming with high war-time prices for wheat and other crops.   A vicious cycle set in when prices came down off their highs.  Farmers needed to plow up more grassland and grow more crops to make the same money, which they often needed to pay off their mortgages and the equipment they invested in during the boom time.

New Mexico grassland 

An agricultural method had been developed in the humid Eastern U.S., where rain is more consistent and where the wind doesn’t blow so hard or steadily.   Something you notice even on a short trip is that the wind is persistent as a toothache out here.  

The grass and prairie vegetation had protected the soils from the wind for around ten thousand years, ever since the warming following the last ice age.  Prairie vegetation is adapted to the wet-dry cycles of nature and to the wind and fire that is endemic to the high plains.  Most of the plants are perennial. They send down deep and interwoven roots.  When the dry weather comes, these roots sustain the plants and hold the dirt. 

Pecos Valley 

The grassland ecosystem had created deep and rich soil over the course of literally thousands of years.  During the wet decade following World War I, farmers essentially mined and used up this soil in an unsustainable way.  They didn’t understand it and some thought the rain was natural or permanent.   Many were probably surprised that nobody had discovered the bounty of the land before.  The hotter-drier cycle set in again in the 1930s.  Soil, exposed to the wind by plowing and harvesting just blew away, leaving some farms almost bare of topsoil and other buried in the stuff.  This was the environment when thousands of refugees headed out.  You read about that in John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” or in a more recent non-fiction book called “The Worst Hard Time.” (I studied the dust bowl years when I was going to Iraq, since the dust storms there are also partially man-made catastrophes.  It formed the basis of some of my slow-moving but grandious dreams)

We take better care of the soil today.  During the 1930s farmers and government folks (like the CCC) planted windbreaks of trees. FDR had a special fondness for tree-planting. Of all his great and not so great traits, that is the one I find personally most appealing.  Farmers now use low-till or no-till methods that leave the soils more intact and leave cover vegetation on the surface during the off-seasons.  Years of experience has taught us that there are some grasslands that just cannot be made to produce any crops besides maybe hay and some that cannot-should not even do that.

An old farmer told me that this year was a good and a wet year on the high plains. He said that the crops, like the milo/giant sorghum were growing well and that the harvests were good.  But today we know that this wet year will sooner or later – probably sooner – be followed by some dry ones.  And we know that we need to keep and protect the environment for those times.  Dirt is the basis of civilization and if you don’t care for the soil, there really is nothing left for you.

The picture up top in along US 60 in Western NM.  The one below is up the hills a bit in the more central part of the state. The bottom picture explains itself. 

September 22, 2010

The Second Biggest Canyon in America


Palo Duro Canyon was sort of on my way, so I went a little out of the way to look at it.  I only spent a couple of hours there, since I needed to get to a hotel and prepare a PowerPoint presentation for my talk at Arizona State University on Thursday.  I still owe some work to the State Department, even here.


I did manage about an hour’s trail walk. The ground is hard and baked red, but the vistas were surprisingly green.   I could tell from the still fresh mud around the waterways that they had a fair amount of rain this season. In fact, the road was closed in one place because of the water, as you can see below.

Road closed

Palo Duro used to be home to the Comanche.   They used to herd buffalo into the box canyons to make it easier to slaughter them.   Later Charlie Goodnight, who I wrote about in the previous post, used the canyon in similar ways to herd cattle.   Today it is a Texas State Park. 


I enjoyed the vistas and the silence during my walk. I realize how much good it does me to get away into these sorts of natural places. I just feel good mentally and physically when I can hope around on rocks with the varieties of nature all around. I have a different appreciation of arid lands since I was in Iraq.  Most places are less barren than Anbar, so everywhere is a step or more up.  This land isn’t really arid anyway, just semi-arid. There is a lot of life in the canyon and on the prairies above and even the erosion is beautiful here.

The CCC and the WPA built many of the roads and walls during the 1930s.   There was an exhibit re in the museum.  It is very nice for me to walk around today on a developed trail in the relative cool and comfort of a nice late September day. It must have been something else for those young guys to live in tents and actually build the trails I enjoy.  My father was a CCC boy, so I always feel a little bit of a connection to whatever they do.  I always feel grateful for the work they did what is getting to be a very long time ago.

September 21, 2010

Getting Those Trucks off the Road

It seems like I was constantly passing trains, as I drove along US 60 from Canyon, Texas to Clovis, New Mexico.   Trains came by in both directions every few minutes on the tracks parallel to the road.  Many of them were loaded with containers or with actual truck loads.  I kept on thinking how good it was that all those trucks were on the tracks and not with me on the road.

We have the world’s best freight rail system, as I wrote in a posts a few weeks ago.  Seeing it in actions, over and over and over again, reminded me.  Above is one of the trains passing one of the trucks. How many trucks would it take to move the stuff on that train?  Below is the feedlot, but look closely behind. What looks like crenelations is another passing container train.


Getting to Know Charlie Goodnight

Charlie Goodnight cabin 

I am getting to know Charlie Goodnight by his work, which is the truest way to know someone. As I drive through the Texas Panhandle, it is impossible not to. I saw the historical markers for his “drift fence” to keep the cattle from drifting south in winter. There is a reconstruction of his dugout house in Palo Duro Canyon, where he ran cattle.  The man is a real western hero. He was a Texas Ranger, fought the Comanche & later helped make a treaty with their last great war Chief Quanah Parker, pioneered cattle trails, the biggest, the Goodnight-Loving trail, went from Texas through Colorado and all the way to Wyoming, and built a ranch and an industry in Texas cattle. When he was all done with that, he helped save the Bison from extinction. The Bison in Yellowstone, on Ted Turner’s ranch and around the West are to some extent descended from the herd that Charlie Goodnight protected on his ranch.

Cottonwood stream in Palo Duro 

I recognized Goodnight.  I knew him from western movies and my research showed that this was the case.  He was the inspiration for a raft of movie cowboys.   One of the ones l like the best is “Lonesome Dove.”  The character of Captain Woodrow Call, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is loosely based on Goodnight and the Gus character, played by Robert Duvall, is based on his friend Oliver Loving.   Loving and Goodnight ran cattle as in the book/movie.  Like Gus, Loving was fatally injured in an Indian attack (Comanche) and died of gangrene.  Like Woodrow Call, Charlie Goodnight brought his friend back to Texas to be buried. You can also see the Goodnight character in a movie like “Red River” with John Wayne.  In fact, Charlie Goodnight was one of the characters that I knew best, although I don’t recall actually hearing of him until recently.


There is so much to this man, I suggest you look him up and read more. Suffice to say that few men have had such an eventful and exciting life. His real life is like a fictional western, actually a series of them. We shall not soon see his like again.

The picture up top is a reconstruction of the dugout cabin where he lived while settling the area.  Below that is a nearby stream, typical with its cottonwood and willow, probably his water source, certainly a watering place for cattle.  Access to water was the key to success. They had an saying, "Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over." The last picture is a feedlot. There are lots of lots around here. The old round up and cattle drive has changed a bit. BTW - Goodnight also helped improve the herds.  Among his other contributions was introducing Hereford bulls into the gene pool. The Longhorns were picturesque, but there is better beef.  Beef - it's what's for dinner, to some extent thanks to old Charlie.

September 20, 2010

High Plains Drifting

Pronghorn Antelope 

I had more time today, so I could do a leisurely drive through Kansas and the Texas panhandle.  I took the little roads and sometimes I was the only one on them. The day was perfect, cool, but with a warm sun. The panhandle is high, sometimes as much as 3500 feet.  One reason I was enthusiastic about visiting the Texas high plains was that they are similar to the planalto – the South American high plains where Brasilia is located. Above are pronghorn antelope.  There were dozens of them just standing around. They are supposed to be the fastest animal alive over more than a short sprint. I don't know. They weren't running.I thought of running out there after them, but what if they didn't run?


Above is Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz in Liberal, Kansas. They evidently have some kind of pageant. The names in back of the statues are previous Dorothys.

Cows at the watering hole 

Above and below are cows at the watering hole. I thought they looked very picturesque, iconic with the old fashioned windmill pumping water. It was very quiet, so also imagine the squeaking of the windmill and the mooing of the cows on the empty and quiet plains.  I took a picture from a distance. As I walked up for a closer look, they all came to me. They were very friendly animals. The solid rust red stuff in on the little hill in the background is milo, or giant sorghum. I saw a lot of it on this trip. It ripens to that color. They use it as a feed crop on the dry plains, much like farmers use field corn in the East. I didn't know that either, but an old man explained it to me. He also said that it was a very good year in the panhandle - more rain than usual. It still seemed dry to me, but the milo was pretty.


Below is the Texas state line, just a line on a map with no geographical feature to mark the change. I suppose lots of state lines are like that, but it seems more true here where it is so flat and featureless.


Below are mammoth bones found locally. They are now in the Museum of the High Plains. Admission is free and the guy running the place is extraordinarily friendly. He told me that they use the buildings for wedding receptions and community events and that the museum survives on that income as well as from the generosity of visitors. I bought a T-shirt and made a donation. 

mammoth bones 

Below is Lake Meredith. It is seasonally bigger or smaller. My photo didn't properly catch the colors, but it was very attractive. Take my word. 


Finally, the picture below speaks for itself.  What's the country coming to if you cannot take your gun to the hotel even in Texas.  Seen from another perspective, interesting that they need a sign. 


September 19, 2010

Comanche Moon


You don’t know open space if you live on the coasts.  The middle of America has a lot of emptiness.  They called it the sea of grass and the metaphor is apt.  In many places the land here is as featureless as the sea. Above is a landscape near Perryton, Texas.

Franciso Coronado 

I am interested in the high plains.  The Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado (his statue is above in Liberal, Kansas) named it the Llano Estacado, which means palisaded plains.   There is some disagreement about what he was describing, but the most accepted explanation is that the plateau starts with escarpments that look like fortification palisades or a stockade. I didn't see this "fortified" part, since I came from the north, where it is less abrupt.

I have been listening to the audio book Empire of the Summer Moon, about the rise and fall of the Comanche.  The Comanche were primitive and not very successful Indians until horses came to the Great Plains after they escaped from the Spanish. They quickly learned to use the horse and it changed their tribe.   The mobility provided by the horse allowed them to kick other tribes, mostly Apaches, off the Llano Estacado in what would be called a genocidal war if it happened these days.  Like most horse nomads, the Comanche were violent and cruel.  Their main passion was raiding, which included lots of torture, rape and pillaging.  It was essentially a type of terrorism designed to … well terrorize opponents.   

The Comanche were a formidable fighting force.  They stopped the Spanish conquests and held back the Mexicans. One reason why the Mexicans welcomed Americans settlers in Texas was that they wanted a buffer against the Comanche.   Nobody could really cope with them until the Texas Rangers learned to fight in the mobile and flexible fashion used by the Comanche themselves.  It takes a network to defeat a network.  The revolver was a great help in fighting the plains Indians. An Indian with a bow enjoyed an advantage over a man armed with a single shot rifle or pistol.  The six-shooter evened the odds. The U.S. Cavalry finally defeated the Comanche in the 1870s, mostly by sheer persistence helped by the destruction of the buffalo herds.


Above is the marker for the battle of Adobe Walls. There were two of them here. During  the second battle the Comanche were attacking buffalo hunters holed up in an adobe inn. Although there were 700 Indians and only 29 hunters, this was a bad idea. The Indians couldn't burn the hunters out, since adobe doesn't burn and the hunters were well armed with long-range rifles. They were able to shoot the Indians at very long distance. Read about it in the book I mentioned.

Dealing with the tribes reminded me of the tribal diplomacy in Iraq and defeating the Comanche “insurgency” probably still has lessons for us today.  Anyway, it is a good book and I recommend it, especially the audio version that you can listen to in the car as you drive across the endless sea of grass where the Comanche used to ride.

I have more pictures and thoughts re the high plains and will post more.  It was a good day to look around.

Get out of Dodge


Dodge City makes a much bigger impression on American folklore than it does on American geography.  Above is Wyatt Earp, one of the town's most famous marshals. Others included Bat Masterson & Charlie Basset. There really isn’t much here anymore really of theirs. But I wanted to stop anyway. I am beguiled by the legend. Below is what is left of the "real Dodge."  The parking lot occupies the space where all the taverns and whore houses used to be. The real Dodge of the old west was probably flimsier and less permanent than the movie sets made to portray it. They were always worried about it burning down and the good citizens of the city finally got rid of what they considered an eye-sore that attracted the wrong sort.


So many of our Westerns are set in Dodge.  I grew up watching Gun smoke with James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon.  Each episode started off with Matt winning a gunfight in the streets of Dodge.  Westerns were popular when I was a kid.  You wonder why any bad guys would ever show up in Dodge with Matt Dillon around.  He gunned down a couple of them every week. I wonder what the cumulative total was.


Cumulatively, I bet there are more total hours of TV and movie time about the Wild West than there was during the actual Wild West period.  Dodge City was at the end of a branch of the old Chisholm Trail. It was where the big herds from Texas met the Railroad. You can see the rail depot and tracks above and the longhorn below.

Lomg horn cow statue in Dodge City 

Dodge was the big cattle town for about ten years.  It replaced Abilene as the railroads moved west. The cowboys didn’t want to drive the cattle any farther than necessary. It was hard on the men and on the cows. They lost weight and hence value, so they loaded them on rail cars as soon as they could. The whole period of the big cattle drives – the Wild West - was only around twenty years from around 1870-1890.  After that, rail transport became widespread enough that the days of the picturesque but dangerous and grueling cattle drives were over.

Carnegie Library in Dodge City 

When you think about it, life on the frontier was not much fun. The settlers understood this very well and fact, tried to bring civilization (such as the Carnegie Library, now an art center, pictured above) as fast as they could in order to avoid all the excitement of gunfights and Indian raids.  But if you don’t actually have to live through these those sorts of things, they capture the imagination. In the absence of danger, everybody imagines himself the hero.  It is exciting in retrospect to have built something up, wrested from hostile nature and dangerous primitive men.

Amana Colonies


I was vaguely aware of the Amana Colonies, but the name was familiar mostly because of Amana appliances.  In fact, as I write this in the Holiday Inn in Dodge City, the air condition is an Amana product.  But there is much more to the story than stoves and refrigerators.

There are seven Amana colonies in Iowa.  They were founded in the 1840s by a German sect.  They were related to Lutherans, but had a more communal point of view. It is the usual story.  They were persecuted in Europe, so they came to set up a new life in America. Below is a model of one of the farms.  There is a "barn museum".  It has models of all sorts of local buildings.  They were all made by a single local guy with a lot of time and significant model making skills.


These kinds of colonies were successful in the U.S. because the adherents believed in hard work and were well disciplined.  That is pretty much all it takes to be successful in America.  The thing I like about the German-culture sects is that they have very well organized agricultural operations and they don’t shun beer.  Beer is a integral part of central European culture.   IMO, it is an integral part of pleasant civilization, but that is another story.

The Amana colonies were integrated agricultural enterprises.  They are not like the Amish.  The Amana folks embrace technologies and machinery.  Farms were communal until 1932, when they all got shares in an Amana corporation.  They farmed, processed farm products, made crafts and later on even made appliances.   The Amana Corporation, which is still in existence, still runs a prosperous enterprise.   I was interested in that they own and manage a large – 7000 acre - forest reserve.  It produces forest products and is run sustainably.  The hardwoods from the forest supply the wood for their furniture making businesses.  A guy I talked to told me that they do TOO good a job with wildlife.  He cautioned me to be careful driving around because the deer would be jumping over the road, especially at dusk.

Beer drinking, hard working, not complaining and forest loving - I like these people.

As you drive around in the American countryside, you realize how many of these sorts of groups there were – and still are – in America.  We tend to forget about them or think they are just historical artifacts.   But they seem to have developed sustainable systems, both in the natural and the human ecology.  We talk about diversity in America.  This is actually a very important part of it.

John Wayne

John Wayne Stature 

Not too far off the highway is the birthplace of John Wayne in Winterset, Iowa.  I drove over there to look.  They said it was a modest house and that was true.  You can see by the picture that it is not much bigger than one of these little cabins you can rent at the campgrounds.  I didn’t figure it was worth it to take the tour.  John Wayne was not famous for his deeds in Winterset, Iowa.

John Wayne House 

I was talking to Jerry & Dorothy about John Wayne.  Jerry & I like him better than Dorothy.   Dorothy pointed out that John Wayne wasn’t much of an actor.  In fact, he was not an actor; he was a movie star.  The two are not the same.  A movie star needs to create and maintain a personal brand.  So no matter where you see John Wayne, you can recognize the character.  His persona transferred well in westerns and war movies.   When he tried to play Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror” it didn’t work at all.  That is why the movie is one of the ten worst of all time.

An actor can play many roles and blend into them.  This is very good for the craft of acting, but not so good for fame and fortune.  They have a name for such people.  They call them character actors.  When they die, the newspapers often call them “beloved” and when you see their picture you say, “Oh yeah, that guy.”  But you would not have been able to name him unaided.  And more than a quarter century after they die, they still won’t be famous – actually iconic – like John Wayne.

September 17, 2010

Down by the Lake

Lake Michigan from Grant Park

Sister Chrissy & I walked around the old neighborhoods and parks today. It was a beautiful early fall day, cool with enough wind to keep the bugs confused. Yesterday was not so good. It was a little damp and cool.  I went running yesterday along the bike trail in Warnimont and it was a bit too cool. But today was just right.

The parks near the lake really are pretty. My favorite is probably Grant Park. You see the Lake from there in the picture. 

We walked down to the Lake along the "Seven Bridges Trail".  I have walked and run down there hundreds of times, but I only found out today that it is called the Seven Bridges Trail. I don't know if they can still call it that, however.  One of the big bridges is gone, washed out.


The trail was put into its present form by the WPA and CCC. They built the walls and planted some of the more exotic trees.  One of the walls is pictured above. The trail endures because it is simple. The problem with projects today that they try to get too complex.  We cannot do lots of things today because we demand too much.  This simple piled rock walls and trails work as well today as they did a long lifetime ago.  Except for the bridge, of course.


After Grant Park and after I dropped Chrissy off, I wandered over to Humboldt Park. That is my "home park" and the one I know in the longest detail. The pond in the picture above used to be very tamed and mowed.  They used to rent row boats. Now it is more like a wetland. I think I like the new thing better, but I do miss the old one. 

The new pond is full of geese, which are pretty much everywhere these days anyway.bur oakThe old pond was home mostly to ducks. I think the geese have driven the ducks off.  The geese are bigger and much more aggressive.  I remember that geese used to be kind of rare. Not any more. They still are fun to watch, although it gets a little annoying always to be stepping in the ubiquitous goose crap.

Along side is an old bur oak tree.I used to like to come and look at those trees and I still do. I have no idea how old it is, except that it was already big and old when as far back as I can remember.  I noticed this particular specimen in 1972, when I was learning tree identification. I don't think it has gotten much bigger in those nearly forty years.  I guess once it gets to a certain size, it grows much more slowly. Some of the branches seem to be dying back. That would concern me more if I didn't remember that some of the branches were dying back forty years ago. I think that is just the way a mature bur oak is. Bur oaks seem to grow slow. Sometimes they get to be very big, like the one in the picture, but often they are only medium sized or even scrubby. I don't think it is genetic variation, probably has more to do with the quality and depth of the soils. In the thinner soils, they form "oak openings" with mature trees looking sort of miniature.

Milwaukee's parks are its treasure. There are lots of them and they are often tied together. It gives everybody in the city the chance to feel like he is in the country.  If you look at the pond above, you can imagine that you are in some far away marsh, of course you can hear the city sounds and see the cars if you turn around, but the feeling is still nice. 

September 16, 2010

Midwestern Landscapes

Walworth Co Wisconsin

It was surprisingly rural so close to Chicago as I continued down the country roads through Illinois & Wisconsin.  I went through Kankakee and then up State Road 47.  It was mostly corn fields and evidently home to a thriving ethanol industry. The gas stations sell E85, which I understand that some cars can use. I don't think mine can, so I didn't try.

I crossed into Wisconsin in Walworth County.  Southern Wisconsin sort of merges with Northern Illinois.  There is rich, black soil.

Rich  soils of Northern Illinois 

Not many people know it but it used to be that some of the Southern Wisconsin counties were prime tobacco country. It was the cash crop that paid for a lot of the mortgages. It was also a way that young people could make some money.  It helped to be young, since hoeing tobacco was almost literally bank breaking work. I still recall the tobacco barns in Dane County. They were long and narow and had open sides so that the crop could dry out.  I dislike cigarettes, but the smell of tobacco curing is actually kind of pleasant. Wisconsin tobacco tended to be chewing tobacco and not used for smoking. They don't grow much tobacco anymore.  Demand has largely dried up; tobacco support programs are gone and besides growing the weed is really hard work.  Young people have other options or are lazier, depending on how you want to view it. Tobacco is a finicky crop that requires significant skill and experience to cultivate and cure. 

Chrissy's father used to grow a little tobacco. 

Northern Illinois corn field 

I kept on going north and caught up with I-94 at Johnson Creek. I needed new running shoes, so I stopped at Johnson Creek outlets. They have a Nike outlet there.  This is a new development.  The area around the freeway exit is not part of the original Johnson Creek.

I used to stop in Johnson Creek or nearby Helenville when I rode my bike between Madison and Milwaukee. Jefferson County, which sits between Dane and Waukesha, was (and still mostly is) a nice mix of farms and little towns.  I used to also ride from Lacrosse to Milwaukee, which required an overnight stop. One trip, I made it as far as Johnson Creek. I was looking for a hotel, but they were all filled. I ended up at a place called "the Gobbler".  It was a funky place, sort of a 1970s dream with a kind of a purple color scheme and shag carpets. They only had one room left, which was a bridal room.  I was tired and it was getting dark so I took it. That night I slept in a water bed with a mirror on the ceiling over it. It came with a dinner as part of the package. The dinner was for two, so they saved a little money on me, although I ate a lot.     

They are out of business now.  

The pictures are a barn in Walworth county, black soil in Northern Illinois and a cornfield in Northern Illinois on state road 47. 

September 15, 2010

Tippecanoe & Windy Ridge Too

Tippecanoe battlefield park 

Just outside Lafayette is the Tippecanoe battlefield. This is where William Henry Harrison defeated the combined forces of the local woodland Indians.  Not many people were actually involved in the battle, but it was decisive.  It was the last time that the Eastern Indians stood a chance of stopping, or even slowing American settlement. 

William Henry Harrison 

Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa (the Prophet) tried to build a vast Indian confederation to push white men back.  But the Prophet moved too soon and provoked the battle of Tippecanoe before the confederation was ready. The Prophet told the Indians that his strong medicine would make it so the soldiers bullets couldn't hurt them. He was mistaken.

Big oak tree at Tippecanoe 

looking up a big oakThe site of the battlefield is very pleasant.  There are lots of big trees, mostly oaks and maples. Look at the shape of that oak tree. Lots of the older trees in the Midwest have that basic shape. I think it might be from growing up with other trees nearby, making the long trunk, and then having them cleared so that the tree is free to branch. Along side is just looking up one of the big oak trees.  I just enjoy doing that and thinking about how long they have been growing. 

Not many people visit the place anymore, so it was quiet.  I walked around a little near a creek the feeds the Wabash.  It was a beautiful early fall day with some leaves slowly drifting down.  

I heard that there was a lot of construction on I-65 near Chicago, so I took the more scenic, country road route. Between Lafayette & Remington I ran into this forest of windmills.  Most were turning.


I drove down one of the gravel roads to get the pictures. Gravel roads are still common in Indiana farm country.  I guess there really is no need to put asphalt on everything.  They make good running trails but are probably hard on the cars' paint jobs. Below is a landscape scene from Tippecanoe. They were having some kind of antique car rally, so I got the 1929 Model A Ford in the photo.

Model A Ford and country side near Tippecanoe

September 14, 2010

John Gets a Speeding Ticket


On the Road - Maryland, WVA, Ohio & Indiana

My almost cross country trip started today with the rather long drive from Virginia to Lafayette, IN.  Why Lafayette?  I lived here for a couple of weeks way long ago. I landed the job of Director of Marketing Research at Microdatabase Systems right out of B-school. Of course, there was nobody in the marketing research department except me. That is why I was director. Sort of like the guy who has 1000 people under him at work – cuts grass in the cemetery. Never trust titles.

I worked at MDBS for five weeks before I took the job in the FS. I think I made a good career move.  How different life could have been. Lafayette is a very pleasant place, but there is not much here besides Purdue University. I suppose that I would have found more to like if I had been here more than a few weeks.  Running trails were good. I used to run on the country roads through the cornfields.


It was a long drive. I got a speeding ticket. It is the first I got since 1992. I have only had two in my whole life, so it was actually more exciting and interesting than unpleasant. I thought about trying to outrun him, like in the Dukes of Hazard or Smokey & the Bandit, but the Civic-Hybrid probably was not up to the job. I was going 80 in a 70 zone. That is what the cop said, and he was right.  I know because I had the cruise control set to that, so I didn’t try to claim that I didn’t know or it was some kind of mistake. I would have had to pay up w/o complaint. He got me fair & square, but he only gave me a warning ticket, no fine attached. Nice guy. 


Always be polite to policemen, none of those rude questions or complaints. My old Milwaukee upbringing tells me that if the cops stop you, they must have a good reason. And I know they have a tough job.  I suspect a lot of the people they stop give them a hard time. I would have taken his picture for the blog, but I figured it was not a good idea to push my luck, so I just said “thank you” and drove off – chastened – at the legal speed, until I got across the state line. I did try to keep my speed lower for the rest of the trip, but it is hard. All the trucks pass you if you drive the speed limit and it is very nerve wracking. I try to stay with traffic.

Let me tell you about the pictures.  On top is a western Maryland landscape.  It is a pretty place.  The thing that looks like a canyon is the cut through Sideling Hill on I-68.  They blasted through in 1985. It must have been hard to go over the hill before that time. The mountains in the Appalachians are arrayed in long folds.  In many ways, they are tougher than the Rockies, which although they are higher often have less relief and wider passes. The picture at bottom is I-70 just passed Dayton, Ohio. It is a typical Midwestern road picture, pretty with flat fields and isolated oak trees. There were lots of trucks on the road.

August 18, 2010

Working on the Railroad

Which country has the  world’s best freight rail system,according to experts?   It is the United States, by a wide margin.  And it has gotten a lot better since 1981.  

Those of us who have traveled the comfortable and reliable passenger rail in Europe are surprised by this information.  But the key to our confusion is the word “passenger.”  American passenger rail doesn’t work as well.   And freight tends to be out of sight, so most people just don’t pay attention or even suspect what is going on in the vastness of our country and in those lonely places literally on the wrong side of the tracks.

If you look at the nearby chart, you see that rail productivity exploded and prices came down after 1980.  The Staggers Act was one of the few sustained successes that came out of the Administration of Jimmy Carter.  It rationalized regulation and eliminated some of the pricing schemes that had previously crippled the railroads.  It still working.  Some people thought that railroads were creatures of the past that couldn’t compete with trucks, but they were wrong.  

In fact, the fastest-growing part of rail freight is “intermodal” traffic: containers or truck trailers loaded on to flat railcars. The number of such shipments rose from 3m in 1980 to 12.3m in 2006.  This is something that affects all of us who drive on the highways, since one freight train can carry as much as 280 trucks. Now maybe we all appreciate freight rail a little more.

Of course, success creates its own dangers.   Bigger container cargoes and an expected doubling of the capacity of the Panama Canal by 2014 will create need for capital improvements.   Government may pony up some of the cash, but government money comes with government management.  It would be horrible if we returned to the bad old days before 1980. 

(BTW – I  worked on railroad cars in the 1970s.  I remember that each train had to have a “fireman”.  What did the fireman do?  Nothing.   A generation before, the fireman’s job  had been to shove coal in the old steam engines.  When diesel replaced steam, union rules and regulations protected this now redundant and phony baloney job.  Some of the firemen would actually do a little useful work, but others would tell us, “I ain’t gotta help you f*ers and I ain’t gonna.”   And they were right.)

The other threat to freight rail is passenger rail.   High speed passenger rail has its own tracks in a few places, but most of the time they share the tracks with freight.  Passenger trains pay only a fraction of the costs, but they tend to get right of way over freight.  Passengers complain a lot more than does a load of coal or timber, so when push comes to shove, freight is shoved aside.  This saps efficiency and greatly adds to costs. 

We have to be careful when we rush to copy Europe’s trains not to copy the downside with the good.  Freight rail is the most efficient form of terrestrial transportation and there is a good reason it so rapidly replaced canals and wagons.  It can continue to compete well in the age of trucks, as long as we don’t mess it up.

August 05, 2010

Hunting Season

Hunters are the backbone of rural society. People who live in cities and suburbs rarely appreciate that fact. I thought of this in relation to my own land and was reminded when Chrissy’s sister Diane visited a friend who lives in western Virginia. The friend owns some forest land in the Shenandoah.  Local hunters watch over it,  make improvements and generally take care of the place.  She was a little surprised at the role of local hunters. I used to be too, but not anymore.

The hunters on my land have been there for generations. Much of what I know about the land comes from them. They knew how long the roads had been in place. They remembered when the streams had flooded and when they had gone dry.  They had experience of fires and storms.  And they loved the land and understood the relationships with the animals on them.

Deer hunters are working to create better habitat for the animals they hunt and improve the herds.  They always have done this.  Much of the county’s wildlands were conserved by hunters.  Lately the equations have changed a bit.  The burgeoning wildlife and especially deer population has shifted emphasis from any deer to quality deer. Hunt clubs are actively managing the herds through selective  hunting, feed plots etc.  I get a magazine called “Quality Whitetails” from an organization by the same name that provides a place for the exchange of information and experience. It is very interesting the things hunters are doing in the conservation field, literally out in the field.

Another big factor is development and urban encroachment. A generation ago, there were a lot fewer deer and they were spread over a bigger area of undeveloped land. Today deer populations have grown to almost nuisance levels in some areas and this is exacerbated by the fragmentation of the forests.  This is another reason to emphasize quality of the herds over mere numbers.  The numbers problem is no longer a problem.

Hunting keeps people closer to the land.  One of my friends down in Southside Virginia spends most of his free time working on conservation projects on land his hunt club leases. He helps restore wetlands, makes wildlife corridors etc. He has helped a lot on my farm, at no cost to me since we work in our mutual interest. This guy doesn’t hunt very much anymore in the traditional sense.   He just really enjoys the conservation and wildlife management aspects of hunting.  Most of the hunters I know enjoy the sport more for the insights it gives them into nature than the actual shooting deer, which is only one part  of a full-year, multi-year effort.

The numbers of hunters has been declining over the past decades.  There still are enough, but if the trend continues, this will be a serious threat to the health of rural communities and the rural environment.  Somebody else – probably at taxpayer expense – will have to do what as work hunters do joyfully and for free. In fact, they actually pay to do it.

I am not a hunter myself, for the same reasons that the number of hunters has been declining.  I was a city kid, with no hunting tradition. I am also a terrible shot.  I support hunting by working with the hunt clubs  on my farms and supporting some hunting organizations, such as Quality Whitetails, that provide hunting education and advocacy.

Beyond the environmental benefits, hunting has a long tradition in American culture.  It is very different in the U.S. than it was in many parts of the world.  In Europe, hunting was a rich man’s sport.   When the ordinary people hunted, it was usually called “poaching,” especially when talking about bigger game, a crime that was severely punished by the aristocrats. Besides just wanting to keep the animals to themselves, aristocrats sensed the fundamental democratizing nature of hunting.  Besides giving the common man access to weapons and the training to use them, hunting allowed individuals a personal connection with nature, unfiltered by the hierarchy of the old world.  It also provides a means of support. One of the older hunters down near the farms told me that when he was young, hunting wasn’t just a hobby; it was needed to put meat on the table.  One of the things that impressed former-peasant immigrants to the early America was that they COULD hunt.  They were the owners of the land and didn’t have to kiss the ass of the local baron or “his” deer and elk untouched in the forest where only the fat-cats could hunt.  

So this is my paean to the pastoral pursuit of hunting in our great America, whether it is deer, turkey, geese, quail, ducks or bears (yes we have a few on the farms now).   We should appreciate what hunters and hunting have done for us.

July 03, 2010

Some Thoughts on Immigration

My grandfather was an immigrant who came to this country w/o particular skills. Back in those days there were lots of jobs that didn’t require skills and his education was about the same as that of the average American at the time. Today we can still use immigrants, but maybe not those uneducated masses like grandpa.

We should allow MORE legal immigrants,but we should choose the types of people we want and need. Literally millions of smart & skilled people would bring their skills here within days if we would let them. There is no shortage of applicants. WE should choose who gets to come to our country. Sorry, grandpa. Today you need at least a HS education or comparable tech background and you need to speak English if you want to make yourself useful.

People say that we need somebody to do the dirty work that we don’t want to do. This is only partly true. We still need some temporary farm workers, given the seasonality of that work. But there is no reason why these guys cannot go home at the end of the season. If we had a system that allowed them to come when needed and then come back again, I think many would indeed choose to do just that. Besides that, cheap labor is a mixed blessing.

Cheap unskilled labor creates its own demand. We employ lots of people doing crap jobs like blowing leaves because they work cheap. If we didn’t have cheap labor, we wouldn’t bother doing many of these jobs or we would use machines to do them. Cheap labor makes it less profitable to invest in new technologies to replace labor. We “need” cheap immigrant labor because we have cheap labor. Many jobs could be restructured or replaced by machines if we had to pay more for workers. It is a fairly simple equation.

I used to load cement bags. They had a dozen of us piling bags on pallets. Now they have one guy with a machine. We used to work twelve hour days; this guy doesn't even come in to work every day. They don’t even use the bags at all most of the time. Now they just load cement directly. Dozens of dirty jobs have been eliminated by redesign. Some smart guy’s ideas replaced our many dirty and blistered hands. But if labor had been really cheap, nobody would have bothered doing that. Cheap labor retards development in anything but they very short run.

The fact is that you don't get prosperous by hard work and there is nothing virtuous about working hard at low productivity. That is just for people who don't know any better or are doing it for the exercise. People in the past worked physically harder than we do now and people in many poor countries still do but none of us wants to trade places with them. The key to prosperity is managing the connections, understanding the exchanges and working smarter. That is why we pay so little for unskilled labor. It is not worth very much. Knowing what to do and how to do it better is almost always worth more than actually performing the task. Brains won the battle with brawn long ago, even if some still ain't heard the word.

Some jobs cannot be automated, but many of those jobs now done by immigrants used to be done by American teenagers or college students and could be again. I worked at McDonald's, Burger King and several Italian restaurants whose names I cannot recall when I was in HS and college. My kids had trouble finding work at fast food places because they were competing with immigrants who would work almost full time. I say almost full time because employers are very careful not to let them work 40 hours where they would get benefits. Employers prefer immigrants to American young people because they are more reliable and easier to exploit. These are not indispensable reasons and may not even be good ones.

I don’t want my country to be competitive in low-wage industries, so I prefer not to import low-wage workers. I like the guys who come to America and open businesses, make software or do some things that create wealth. Immigrants account for about a third of the tech workforce in Silicon Valley. These guys make the big bucks and they create jobs in America. Good. Let’s have more of them and fewer of the cheap ones.

May 28, 2010

America's Biggest Ethnic Group

Famous German-AmericansAmerica’s largest ethnic group is German.  Nearly a quarter of the American population or 58 million Americans claim German ancestry.  It used to be a big deal; as far as I know the Germans never formed a group specifically called “the race” (as in La Raza) but some clearly had separatist notions. It is a tribute to the American assimilation machine that now it matters hardly at all. You can see some famous German-Americans on the stairs to the left.  Who knew Elvis was German?

I had been meaning to go over to the German-American cultural center since I read about it in the paper.  Yesterday I went.  It is the kind of place that is worth seeing, but not worth going to see and you could easily miss it. Look at the picture below. The signs are small. Mostly, it is a permanent poster show detailing the long and varied contributions of Germans to American culture.   Since German contributions are now as American and Americanized as hamburgers, hot dogs and potato salad, it is easy to overlook them and think that now is the first time we have really had such large influx of immigrants and foreign cultures.

German-American museum in Washington 

Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it and those who remember will have to go along with them too, but it is interesting to consider the conditions that existed within living memory. So let me say a little about Germans & America.  I grew up with it in Milwaukee, so talking about German-American culture is like talking about childhood. (The picture below is the Germania building in Milwaukee. They used to joke that the towers were like the spiked Kaiser helmets.)  But I had a child’s understanding of it based on caricatures and molded by subsequent history.  It is hard to put ourselves in the mindset of a century ago but I will try. 

Germania building in Milwaukee, Wisconsin 

1910 was before the wars and before the atrocities.  Germany in those days was arguably the most advanced country in terms of science and technology.  An American who really wanted to learn science had to learn German.  It was like English is today to sciences.  This persisted.  When I was growing up, the stereotype of a scientist was a guy with a beard and a German accent.   During our space race with the Soviets, it is largely true that our German rocket scientists competed with their German rocket scientists.   We probably could not have achieved what we did in space flight w/o Germans and the Russians certainty did not have the home grown talent to compete with us.

Germans also pioneered what became the research university.   Our American universities resemble them because we specifically imported German methods, ideas and often Germans themselves to remake our system during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  

If we see Germany through the prism of the Third Reich and the World Wars, we see it in entirely a different way than our grandparents would have in 1910.  Germany under Wilhelm II was not a full democracy, but it was more democratic than most of the current UN members today and it was certainly less corrupt that most of the world’s countries now. They held regular, generally free elections. There was a strong respect for the rule of law and reasonable protection of individual rights. If you can look beyond the pomp and circumstance of the aristocracy, you see that in terms of democracy, rights, rule of law & transparency, Germany of 1890-1910 would compare favorably to most of the world’s countries a hundred years later (1990-2010) and has big modern countries such as Russia & China clearly beat. 

Although emigration to the U.S. declined after German unification and subsequent massive economic growth, there still were more opportunities in the U.S. and we continued to draw German immigrants. But it was a different sort of immigration in many ways.  As I mentioned above, Germany was one of the world’s most advanced countries, with technical and scientific skills at a par or above our own. This situation just doesn’t exist anymore. Today technically savvy immigrants are still important to us, but they usually develop their skills and/or use technologies already available in America.  A century ago, we were much more the recipients of skills and technology transfer. We all know that immigrant muscle helped build America, but we may overlook that immigrant brains also had a big role in designing it, none more so than the Germans.

Arch in Washington's Chinatown 

We made an effort to wash the German out of our national memory. During World War I, sauerkraut became liberty cabbage; dachshunds became dash hounds; frankfurters became hot dogs and hamburger was renamed Salisbury steak; many streets changed their names and so did many families. Germans assimilated much faster than they might have otherwise. Wars do things like that and we have a way of trying to fit the events of the past into our current narrative. The problem is that the German heritage just doesn’t fit well into what we think of them and ourselves today. And now we don’t think much of it at all. That is why the German American heritage museum is kind of depressing. It is now located in the middle of Washington's Chinatown. Immigrant communities come and go. 

All this is past. History happened as it did and we cannot change it. People in the past did what they did, but we have to remember that history didn’t have to happen that way. Just as our futures are not determined, neither were theirs.  W/o that unfortunate and almost random event in Sarajevo (that pathetic little loser, Gavrilo Princip, actually got lost and the Archduke’s car passed him by chance.  Terrorists only have to get lucky once) and the incompetent reactions in 1914 how different the world could have been.

May 20, 2010

Wine Tasting

Chrissy at Biltmore 

I don’t understand “good wine.”  I tend to like sweeter wines, which are considered “cheap” and less classy.  I also like the “oak” flavors.  Chrissy and I went to the wine tasting at the Biltmore.  They gave us a kind of a checklist.   I thought that three of the wines were okay: a Biltmore Estate Chardonnay, a Riesling and something called Tempranillo.  Some of the wines come from North Carolina grapes, but others are California wines according to the Biltmore recipe.  I think that means that they put it in bottles at the estate. You got a special deal on three bottles, so Chrissy bought one of each. 

I don’t know how they will be in larger quantities. Lots of things taste good in small amounts, like they give you on the tastings. But we got it now, so I guess I will see. I would have enjoyed a beer tasting.  I know I like beer in larger quantities.

When I was in Warsaw I got to take part in a bourbon tasting, sponsored by Jim Beam. The organizers told us lots of stories and legends about bourbon and the various kinds of bourbon. I think they made some of them up, but they were good stories so why mess with the legends. You really can tell the black label from the white label bourbons, but only if you drink one right after the other.  A good time was had by all.  The Jim Beam guys were smart. They had a lot of their wares for sale and offered them while everyone was in the type of exuberant moods provoked by whiskey tasting.  I bought three bottles of higher-class/higher-price bourbon than I would have normally.

I learned a little. Bourbon is aged in warmer places in North America.  It is good to go in seven years.  After that, it gets  a little harsh. Scotch can be aged up to 18 years, since it is cooler in Scotland.  But it doesn’t get any better after that. Actually it doesn’t get much better after 15 years, but paying more for anything over 18 years is a waste of money.

May 18, 2010

The Bridges of Catawba County

Covered Bridge at Catawba County 

We saw a sign for the “Bunker Hill covered bridge” and found it after driving down a couple of country roads and a gravel path. The bridge was built in the late 1800s and it is an example of a lattice construction.   There were thousands of these kinds of bridges back then in the U.S. and hundreds in North Carolina. Now this is the last one.

Covered bridge in Catawba Co NC 

The covering protects the wood.  An uncovered wooden bridge lasts around twenty years. The covered variety can last 100. The covering also made the horses feel like they were in the barn and they didn't spook because of the water.

Wooden dowls holding together covered bridge in Catawba County NC 

This bridge was build by a guy called Haupt. He literally wrote the book on building such bridges as the the note about it says, Haupt was "Chief of Military Railroads for the Union Army during the Civil War. A Philadelphia born civil and military engineer, author, professor, inventor, and industrialist, Haupt’s improved lattice truss bridge was a response to Ithiel Town’s 1820 and 1835 patents for the plank lattice timber truss. Haupt used the analytical methods he developed in the 1840s to design a more efficient lattice truss which consisted of web members positioned only at locations which required support. Redundant members were removed, resulting in the improved lattice truss as described in his book General Theory of Bridge Construction published in 1851.” It is good for a man to have a passion.

Today the bridge goes from nowhere to nowhere. It has outlived its usefulness, but I suppose that 100 years ago there was a road that people sometimes needed.  

May 17, 2010

Wreck of the Old 97 & the End of the Confederacy in Danville

Passing train in Danville, VA 

When there is a big industrial accident these days, the lawyers come out and drain any of the real emotion or truth out of the event and displace it with cash.  In the old days, at least in the southern hills, they wrote a ballad.   So it was when a train with Joseph A. ("Steve") Broadey's hand on the throttle plunged into a ravine near Danville, VA in 1903.  Nine people were killed and seven injured in what the plaque called one of the worst railroad accidents in Virginia history.  This is what they mean when they say you are heading for a train wreck.

Sign on the site of the Wreck of the Old 97 near Danville, VAI heard the song as a kid. My father’s version was sung by Boxcar Willie (I think), although there is a Hank Snow rendition and Hank was my father’s favorite singer. I thought it was just a song, not a real historical event, but it had some very precise lyrics.  “They gave him his orders in Monroe Virginia saying ‘Steve you’re way behind time’” … “It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville and a line on a three mile grade.”

So in the wonderful world of Internet, I checked it out and found out it was true, so when I drove through Lynchburg I went looking for the place.  A couple people claimed to have written the lyrics.  It was first recorded in 1924 and you can listen to the original version at this link.

This is the whole story from the Danville Historical Society.

All that is left now is this easily overlooked historical marker along a seedy patch of Highway 58 just to the west of Danville.  There is nothing left of the trestle or the tracks and the ravine is overgrown with brush and vines.  It must have been really big news around here in 1903, but more than 100 years later only the song abides.  The picture of the train, BTW, is just a train crossing in Danville, unrelated to the Wreck of the Old 97, except that they are both trains.

Another thing about Danville is that it was the last capital of the Confederacy. This lasted literally only a matter of days, as Jeff Davis and his cabinet fled south, with Union troops in hot pursuit, after the defeat of Southern arms. Davis took up residence in the house of a prominent local man called William Sutherlin.  Sutherlin made his money in the tobacco business and was a successful and flexible businessman both before and after the Civil War.

Davis was a great man, according to his lights, but he was misguided. Robert E Lee and Joe Johnston did the right thing and in April 1865 contributed to saving the United States and making it the country whose freedom we love today. Davis wanted to keep on fighting, even after Appomattox. At some point, hanging on stops being noble and becomes stupid, pernicious and immoral.  I admire Lee & Johnston, Davis not so much. The guide treated Davis as a hero. I don't agree. 

Sutherlin mansion in Danville VA 

Chrissy and I visited the house, an Italian style mansion. Pictures are above and below. The woman in the painting above fireplace is the Sutherlin's daughter on her wedding day. The house is restored to the period of around the Civil War. You really get the old South feeling there. The Daughters of the Confederacy use the place for their meetings. One of the rooms is deeded over to them.

Living room in Sutherlin mansion in Danville, VA 

May 16, 2010

Pluralism - Moravians in Old Salem North Carolina

Chrissy in Old Salem 

Religions, regions, firms, families, clubs and even individuals often have distinctive cultures that help determine the choices they make. You might object that these things are ephemeral, but all cultures are ephemeral. Some last a short time, some a long time, but none is forever. When we try to keep them as they are, we create either cultural museums or graveyards.  America has been home to many cultures, many that you don’t notice toady because over time they melted into the American mainstream, making their contribution by not remaining separate. It is pluralism that worked for us.

Pluralism allows a variety of different philosophies and organization types to coexist, jostle together and produces disparate results that together are usually better than from what would seem a more logical planning process. It requires an acceptance of inequality and pluralism thrives when central governments exert only generalized authority (as was the case in the U.S. through much of our history.) Pluralism creates a kind of cultural marketplace of choice, where the most adaptive ones succeed and all of them collide, collaborate, combine and constantly change into something else.

Yard in Old Salem, North Carolina 

Pluralism works because it allows the greater society to take advantage of productive arrangements and systems that might be destructive or dangerous if applied too widely or too long. The difference between a life giving medicine and a life taking poison is often in the dosage and the application. Pluralism allows us to take advantage of the positives of many systems w/o suffering the ill effects that would afflict us if they were widely applied. People can choose to live under particular rules that might be odious to others, and it works much better if one standard does not cover the whole society. We enjoy a kind of a la carte cultural menu in the U.S. We are free to copy the best and leave the rest.  None of us has to keep all the aspects of the culture we were born into, and few of us do.

I thought about this as we visited Old Salem in Winston-Salem, NC. Many people confuse this Salem with Salem, MA famous for the witch trials. Both were founded by religious groups that followed a kind of a localized theocratic socialism, but they are otherwise not very similar.

Organ player at Old Salem 

Old Salem is something like Colonial Williamsburg on smaller scale. I found it really interesting because it told the story of the Moravian settlement. I knew almost nothing about that before. It is well worth the visit.  The people who work there and play roles make products by hand using the old methods.  But they don't always remain strictly in character, which allows them to explain a little more about how things are. The gunsmith, for example,  told us that there is a good demand for his custom products. Their products go to high end collectors and museums.  The market is strong, he said.

Gunsmith at Old Salem 

The people who work there really seem to like their work. The guy in charge of the organ played us several of the pieces used in the churches and sang along.  He had a good voice. Everybody enthusiastically told us about the history of their location and of the community in general.

Moravian cemetary in Old Salem 

Salem, NC was consciously founded as a commercial and agricultural colony of the Moravian protestant sect, which traces its roots to Jan Hus, a century before Martin Luther. They seem to have been practical people who sought the elegance of simplicity.  Society was divided into groups, called choirs, based on status - young men, young women, male children, female children. married men, married women etc. When they died, they were buried according to their choir, not with their families. The graveyard, called God's Acre, has flat tombstones, so that nobody is above anybody else.  The Moravians clean the graves and scrub the stones each Easter.

The Moravians were good planners and were very well organized. They trained their people in useful trades and skills and produced simple but high quality products.  One of the reenactors told us that Moravians supplied good products at reasonable prices and that they were honest.  Having all three of those things at the same time was rare on the frontier. Their community prospered. Their location in the middle of North Carolina also contribute to their prosperity. It was right on the wagon road and had access to the growing North Carolina frontier, with its cheap land and good soils.

Street in Old Salem 

Organization was the key to success and organization and the needs of the community circumscribed personal choice. Boys were trained in trades, which were chosen for them by the church authorities, so that supply of labor met demand. Nobody could actually own land in Salem; it was all leased from the church and held on conditions of good behavior, including attending church and living a moral life. Women could marry when they were eighteen. Men could marry when they could demonstrate the ability to support a family. A man would build a shop and a home and then petition the church for permission to marry. He could submit a specific name if he had a girl in mind, but that match might not be approved. If he didn’t know any girls he especially liked, he could make a generic request and the church authorities made suggestions.

Moravian garden 

People like the Moravians made very valuable contributions to the development of North Carolina and to America, but most of us would not want to live under their strict rules, nor would those rules necessarily be adaptable to a wider society or changing conditions. In a pluralistic society, they were able to survive and prosper with the implicit conditions that they produce something useful for the wider America. W/o access to political power, they could not impose their views outside the fold. In fact, the ultimate punishment for those who consistently did not play by the rules was to be kicked out of the community. In other words, at base it was a free-choice association. You could leave if you didn’t agree and you could be forced to leave is others didn’t agree with you.

Catalpa tree in flower in Old Salem, NC 

In a pluralistic society, individuals have the right to belong to whatever group that you want provided they will take you. All the individuals involved have the choice and they have to work out the particular relationships. It has to do with freedom of assembly. You can choose your friends and associates and should not be forced into any group membership. Groups themselves have no right to exist beyond the choices of their individual members. This is an important distinction. Pluralism as we have used it empowers individuals to be members of groups of their choice. If you empower groups over individuals you have a type of corporatism or fascism.

Catalpa flowers in Old Salem, NC 

There were advantages and disadvantages to being a member. Leaving out the spiritual benefits, which believers would have considered the most important aspect of their lives, on the pragmatic side members, on average, were more prosperous than their similarly situated neighbors. Of course, they had to accept the strict rules, which included devoting large parts of your income, energy and time to the collective and one of the important reasons behind their success was their adherence to the rules. Would it be considered unfair that others couldn’t get the advantages w/o buying the whole organization?

Pluralism demands diversity and requires inequality of results. These are the things that choice will inevitably produce. We sacrifice pluralism and choice in exchange for greater equality. This may be a wise decision at times, but we should be aware of what we are doing - getting and giving up - and not hide it by misusing terms like diversity or multiculturalism. It should be about choice to the extent possible and that means picking up both ends of the stick and living with the results of our poor choices as well as our good ones.

The pictures are from around Old Salem.  They include the gun smith, the organ master and some of the buildings. The flowers and the flowering tree are catalpa.  They are also called Indian cigar trees, because of the long seed pods.  I took a picture of this tree because it was so full of flowers and unusually beautiful. 

May 15, 2010

The Biltmore Estate

Biltmore Estate near Asheville, NC on May 14, 2010 

The Biltmore is the biggest house in America, built by George Vanderbilt in the 1890s.  It is part of a enormous estate.   When Chrissy & I toured the house, the gardens and the general area, it changed our point of view a little.   An estate this size is not all about the owners and it is not really about a house as a place to live.

The first thing I noticed is how much the place resembles a hotel.  Hotels tended to copy many aspects of these mansions.  The “winter dining room” at the Biltmore is a classier version of the Holidomes I used to like so much at Holiday Inns.  Beyond that, these big houses were a lot like hotels in their functions.  They were set up to host, entertain and feed guests with a large staff devoted to doing it.

Gardens at Biltmore estate 

The second thing I noticed is how much the owners of this estate played their role. The Vanderbilts always seemed to be on stage.  They changed their clothes dozens of times a day.  There were specialty clothes for walking in the eating each of the meals, playing tennis, sitting in the library or walking in the garden. Below is the gate to the Estate.  After you pass through the gate, it still takes you around 15 minutes to drive to the actual estate buildings.

Gate at Biltmore Estate with really big tulip poplars 


My first impulse was to dislike the Vanderbilts because they had piles of money and engaged in conspicuous consumption on a grand scale.  But they did a lot of good with the money too.  This massive investment in the hills of North Carolina employed lots of people and not only maids, butlers and kitchen staff.  Building the place required a massive labor force, as did building and maintaining the gardens.  Of course those things are still a type of consumption.   But the estate also included working farms and forests.  Some of the science of forestry was invented on the estate.  Gifford Pincot, the father of American forestry worked here.  I learned how to use a “Biltmore stick” to estimate timber volume when I studied forestry in college.  I never knew were the word came from.  I guess I just figured it was named after some guy named Biltmore.  It was named after the estate because its use originate here.

Bridge over bass pond on Biltmore Estate 

Fredrick Law Olmsted designed the gardens, the same landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York.  He also designed some parks in Milwaukee, including West Park (which became Washington Park), Riverside Park and Lake Park. Olmsted was expert in the use of water in the landscape.  Above is a bridge over the bass pond he created at the end of the garden.  Below is the rose garden.

Rose garden at Biltmore Estate 

You couldn’t take pictures in the house. It was a nice place.  As I said, it reminded me of a nice hotel, so if you have been in a nice hotel, you have an idea.  It must have been really impressive 100 years ago.  Today we are accustomed to big buildings (like hotels).  At the time the Biltmore had new innovations such as electricity, indoor bathrooms and refrigeration.  Now everybody has those things.  The rich today can live a very opulent life, but the practical difference between being rich and poor is smaller because being poor is a lot less miserable than it used to be. 

Additional pictures

Bass pond at Biltmore Estate

Corner of the Biltmore Estate

North Carolina Countryside near Asheville

Courtyard food court at Biltmore Estate

May 14, 2010

Notes from the Carolina Roads

Coffee at Pilot

Pilot coffee

I don’t much like coffee, but I like cream and sugar mixed with coffee. I am especially fond of the French vanilla cream, but I put so much of it in that I need a strong coffee to stand up to it.  IMO, the best coffee for my purposes is the Sumatra coffee at Pilot. Pilot is a truck stop station, which usually has the least expensive gas on the highway. The bathrooms are clean and they are usually lively places, so I stop at Pilot whenever it is reasonably convenient.

McDonald's is okay in moderation

Asheville McDonalds

Above is the McDonald’s in Asheville, one of the fancier McDonald’s I have visited. It was hosting lots of old people while we were there. My father always complained about old people when he used to shop at Pic-n-Save.  He said they were so slow and they always just stood around in the way. And I used to make fun of him. Maybe you have to be almost old yourself to make these kinds of judgments because I am beginning to understand his point. It took ten minutes to get at the straws, napkins and catchup.  Evidently how many napkins to take and whether or not you need a straw is a decision that requires more thought than some people can give it in less time.

I have been eating at McDonald’s since HS.  They used to give you a free Big-Mac for every A you got, which was a good marketing strategy. I didn’t get many free Big-Macs, but I did get to think they were good. Some people go on about fast food being bad for you, but it doesn’t hurt in moderation. “Nothing too much” is a good life guide. I used to have a minor cholesterol problem, but then I got a low dose of Lipitor and the problem was solved. Any problem you can afford to buy off is not a problem; it is merely an expense. I call my daily dose of Lipitor my “cheeseburger tax.” Maybe someday it will kill me, but not today.

Granny's Country Kitchen

Granny's restaurant near Hickory, NC 

It isn’t always fast food. Other food can have lots of calories and cholesterol. We stopped off at Granny’s Kitchen just past Hickory, NC. Chrissy & I both had the pulled pork and French fries. Chrissy didn’t eat all of hers, so I helped out. We have been trying to go to local restaurants when we travel to get a little more of the local flavor. The trouble is that there is less & less local flavor that is worth eating unless you have inside local knowledge. Various franchises are pushing them out or at least away from the places convenient to the major highways.

Boutique hotels

Grand Bohemian Hotel in Asheville, NC

We stayed at the Grand Bohemian hotel near the Biltmore Estate. It is in the Biltmore Village, a kind of ersatz central European hamlet set the southern hills. The Grand Bohemian is part of the Marriott’s “Signature Collection” of boutique hotels, i.e. ostensibly ones with special or unique character. It is different, but I don’t know that I like the character. It is European-like and made to look like a hunting lodge. I used to visit one like it near Bielsko in Poland. That one was used by the Hapsburgs in the 19th Century. It had character and I liked it. But the one in Asheville is not a hunting lodge. Hunting lodges are set out in the forests and fields. This one is surrounded by busy roads … and the ersatz village.

These Central European style buildings are just not suited to the Carolina climate. They are designed to hold heat and support roaring fires. These are things that are not really appropriate in North Carolina. It doesn’t get very cold around here, but it is hot and humid a good part of the year. Of course, our modern society defeats the weather with air conditioning, but still it looks funny all buttoned up in a hot climate.

Weird weakness

Weight room at Grand Bohemians

The hotel has a nice health center, however. I don't use treadmills very much. I prefer just to go outside and run. But these had TVs attached, so you could just walk along and watch TV rather than couch potato it.  I lifted some of the weights. Something strange happened last week. My right arm got 1/3 weaker.  I noticed I was  bit clumsy and when I tried to use the one-hand weights, I found that my right arm couldn't do curls with 45 lbs, as usual. My left arm did okay with the 45lb (which I have been using for 30 years BTW), but with the right I could do only 30lbs. Otherwise it was normal, just a lot weaker, but really only with the curls.  I can still do chin-ups and presses. It also sometimes has that tingling feeling, like when you sleep on it. If it doesn't get better maybe I will have it checked out.  

Treadmills and TV at Grand Bohemian

May 02, 2010


Highway 81 through the Shenandoah Valley 

We are back home in Virginia and we have evidently missed spring, at least late spring. It is now summer.  The leaves are all out. Today was hot & humid, mostly humid, at least compared to the cool weather we had when I was last here a couple of weeks ago. It will get more or less cooler again. May is a pleasant month; we usually don’t get that oppressive heat until late June. 

Creek and flowering trees in James Madison Aboretum on April 17, 2010 

I went to see Alex just before I left for California. We went to the arboretum in Harrisonburg, but I never wrote a post or posted the pictures.  It was a pleasant spring day. I am posting the pictures today, but they are a couple weeks out of date.

Flowering trees in James Madison Arborteum 

The Shenandoah is one of most pleasant places on earth in the springtime. The picture on top I-81 that passes through the valley. It is a busy truck route, that carries much of the goods along the East Coast. The trucks make it a hectic drive sometimes. They are bigger than the cars and they know it. The middle pictures are flowering trees in the arboretum.

Spring forest floor at James Madison arboretum 

Pond at James Madison arboretum 

Above is the pond on the arboretum. Below is a pocket park in Arlington. It is near the place where we first lived when I joined the FS. It is just one block of green, enough to give kids a place to play and provide a nice space for the neighbors.

Pocket park on Pershing Av in Arlington VA 

Below is the lawn in the park. It is a "real" lawn with clover and some weeds. I like this better than the chemical lawns so common around malls and new developments. The Chesapeake Bay is polluted with run off. They blame farms and farms do contribute, but at least they also produce something.  But it is just wrong when we use chemicals and fertilizers to create perfect lawns. This one is better all around.

Mixed weedy lawn 

May 01, 2010

Salton Sea & Wind Blasted Rocks

Interstate 10 in the distance 

We left the Joshua Tree National Park and keep on going on a little road toward the Salton Sea. (Above is Interstate 10 in the distance.)  The area is below sea level and w/o irrigation it is a hot and desolate place.  With irrigation, it is a hot and productive place.  This is the Imperial Valley, one of the most bountiful agricultural areas in the world, where a lot of our lettuce, grapes, berries and broccoli come from.

Salton Sea looking south 

The Salton Sea is a fascinating accident related to the irrigation. In 1904 the irrigation dikes broke and almost all the water from the flow of Colorado River poured into the below-sea-level desert depression for almost three years. The escaping water had created a vast fresh-water lake.  It is so big that you cannot see across it.  Had they not fixed the dike, the Colorado River probably might have simply changed course and eventually found its way to the Gulf of California by alternate means. (This, BTW, happened periodically with the Mississippi.   If not for human intervention, the Mississippi probably now be following the route of the Atchafalaya River, bypassing New Orleans.) Geologists say that the Salton Sea has been formed and dried up many times in the past w/o the intervention of man.  You can see the Salton Sea chronology at this link. 

Grapes near Salton Sea in Imperial Valley 

At first it was great.  People put in fish and the bred fast in the warm and empty waters.  But the water in the Salton Sea didn’t stay fresh for long.  The salts and minerals from the lake bottom soon dissolved in the water and with no outlet to the ocean, it was in the same situation as the Dead Sea.  It is getting saltier and saltier.   Many of the fish are dying out.  The only ones still thriving are tilapia, which can survive almost anywhere if the water is warm enough and are now being used for cat food. 

Gas station in Imperial Valley 

The dying of the Salton Sea is a problem from several points of view. Migratory birds have become very fond of using the Salton Sea as a stopover.  If it becomes a dead sea, it cannot serve that purpose.  The State of California is trying to “save” the place, but it is hard to see what they could do, short of breaching the dikes again and sucking in the Colorado River.  It “benefits” from some irrigation discharge, but this is not water of the highest purity. The Salton Sea is essentially a big puddle, with no reliable sources of replenishment or discharge.  It is a very temporary lake and in a moment of geological time it will return to its former condition.

windmills along I 8 

We almost got to Mexico on the last leg of the day’s journey. We caught I-8 in El Centro, California.  Not too far along the road, we were stopped at an immigration checkpoint. I didn’t know they had such things except at the border.

Rock pile mountain 

The road to San Diego is very interesting.  The first set of mountains look like a pile of stones.  If you didn’t know better and they weren’t so massive, you would think that humans dumped and piled these rocks.  It just doesn’t look natural. As I wrote earlier, the wind really blows out here.  They have signs on the roads warning about the high winds.  The winds sandblast the rocks, and everything else, and knock off the rough edges.

As we got farther west, the mountains became green and beautiful.  In other seasons the grass is probably brown, or golden as the Chamber of Commerce might describe it, but the green was really nice. Below is another picture of Chrissy.  Sorry to post so many, but she looks good and really liked the car.

Chrissy driving again

We ended up at the Courtyard Marriott at Liberty Station.This used to be a Naval Training base and now it has been redeveloped into hotels, shops and restaurants.It is very pleasant if a bit too neat, see below. Chrissy has already left for Washington.My flight is a little latter so I am writing this at the airport.It has been an interesting visit to California.

Liberty Station palms in San Diego 

April 30, 2010

Joshua Trees & the High Deserts

Joshua trees 

The only place Joshua trees grow is in parts of the Mojave Desert, on elevations from 2000-6000 feet, and their highest concentration is where they are protected in the Joshua Tree National Park. This is high desert and cooler than the Sonora Deserts lower down and farther south. You pass through the transition zone between these two biomes as you drive south across the park. From the north you cross a vast expanse of Joshua tree savanna.  


Joshua trees are a type of yucca. They don’t grow like ordinary trees, with rings marking each year’s growth, so it is hard to tell how old individuals are. They don’t get very tall. They look sort of like crazy people waving at you. This seems to confirm one of the stories about how they got their names. The story goes that early Mormon settlers thought the trees looked like Joshua welcoming them to the Promised Land.  They were also sometimes called desert oranges.  This story says that land sellers wanted to entice settlers to this barren land, so they not only implied that these were productive fruit trees, but even went around and tied some oranges to the trees near the roads. It evidently didn’t fool anybody.

Joshua tree specimenThe landscape is beautiful in that harsh sort of way, a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here. We were seeing it at its best time. Spring rains have made it greener than usual.  The day was very windy, which I understand is fairly common. That is why they have all those windmills nearby.  It also explains the sculptured roundness of the rock outcroppings: natural sandblasting smooths off the rough edges.  

The Joshua trees dominate the open spaces, but in among the rock outcroppings you find pinion pine, California juniper and scrub oak. These communities are under some stress, however. The climate was wetter until the 1930s. The same hot and dry conditions that provoked the dust bowl affected the local climate. I couldn’t find out details about this, but evidently the previous relatively more verdant environment did not return. There are hot/dry and cool/moist cycles in climatic patterns and this could not have been anything new to the plant and animal communities. 

scrub oak and pinion pines at Joshua Tree NP 

The difference may have been human development. Cattle grazing took out some of the natural cover and made it less resistant to the changes.  But the bigger problem seems to be invasive species, such as cheatgrass. These things deliver a double punch.   During wetter periods, they fill in below and among the pines and oak. In drier times, they die back, but don’t quickly decompose. This makes wildfires hotter and more destructive, which kills some of the trees that would have otherwise survived. When the area regenerates, these non-native grasses form a thick layer of turf that makes it harder for the pine and oak seedlings to get a roothold. This is not a very generous environment and there are not that many second chances.  

Cactus flowers at Joshua Tree NP 

IMO, the native environment is better than what we will get if we let the invasive take over, but it will be sustainable only with a little human intervention and probably chemical warfare. BasF makes a good herbicide that can take out cheat-grass and its ilk, while leaving the oaks and pines intact.  This should probably be done periodically. I don’t know if it is. I would get more involved if I lived nearby.  This is certainly an environment worth saving. Doing nothing is not a good option.

Rock climbers at Joshua Tree NP on April 28, 2010 

Above - Joshua Tree NP is a favorite for rock climbers. Below is a lake made by ranchers for cattle by building a dam at a runoff point.

Barker Dam at Joshua Tree NP

Below is the dam holding back the water. The little lake has become a major wildlife attraction, as one of the only steady water sources in this arid place.

Barker Dam at Joshua Tree NP 

What is Art

Palm Springs Art Museum building 

I wasn’t allowed to take a picture of the most interesting part at the Palm Springs Art Museum.  The guard literally stopped me just before I pushed the button.  He claimed it was because the artist has not given permission and I can well understand why. If I produced art like that I also would not want to allow evidence.  It was a stack of black garbage bags.  I have seen such installations before, but never in a museum.  This guy evidently got paid for putting them there. Usually they only pay when somebody takes them away.

Cowboy statue at Palm Springs Art Museum 

Some of the other art was very good, like the cowboy sculpture in the picture.  These places are nice to have in a town.  It adds a certain spiritual/artistic dimension.  But sometimes we suffer from the “Emperor’s New Clothes” phenomenon.  Garbage bags are interesting, but they are not art.

Art museum in Palm Springs courtyard 

Below is a statue of a chameleon at Marriott. This is nice art, but not considered "fine" since it is inexpensive and common.

Chameleon at Marriotts 

Below is a street in Palm Springs.  Some of the stores and restaurants have some misting. In a dry climate, it really cools it down at street level. 

Misting on a Palm Spring Street 

Below is real art. This is a man-made landscape set in nature's valley. Very nice. Notice the way to clouds sit on the mountains. I think those are the Santa Rosa Mountains.  The moist air cannot make it over the summits, so on the one side it is wet, cooler and cloudy.  On the other side, it is dry, hot and clear deserts.

Marriott Resort looking at the mountains 

April 28, 2010

Parallel Lives

Carlsbad, CA on April 26, 2010 

You can share the same country, the same physical space, with people and live in completely different environments. I focus on historical or natural scenes and I find them wherever I go.  So when I go to crowded California I find the empty beaches, forests and green vistas. That is what I look for, and that is what I find.

Outdoorsman in Ventura CA 

Not everybody sees the things the way I do. I see trees.  Maybe they see buildings or cars.  I saw signs for ethnic areas of LA – Korea town, Philippine Town, Little Armenia … We drove past these things at high speed and never experienced anything other than the signs.  Well, maybe not high speed.

Los Angeles traffic 

Another thing I rarely experience is traffic.  I ride my bike or take the Metro to work, so traffic for me is sometimes a weekend choice.   I thought about this as we inched through the LA traffic – and this wasn’t even during rush hour and it was mostly moving.  This is a daily experience for many people.   The only time I got stuck in traffic regularly was when I lived in New Hampshire and commuted to Tufts University in Medford, MA.  I didn’t like it, although I listened to a lot of audio books.  I found that thoughts of traffic started to dominate my thinking.  Commuting can be an overwhelming experience,

I thought about how different life if you live in a beach community as we walked around our hotel in Ventura.  You can see Ventura just above.  The picture at the very top is Carlsbad. It is more or less a beachfront retirement community. It was founded in the 1880s as a spa and has some Euro-pretensions as a result. Ventura and Carlsbad are very different. 

Ventura CA near beach 

Many of the houses near the beach in Ventura probably started out as shacks or weekend cottages and gradually evolved into homes.  My “baby-boom” generation was probably the pioneers here and many seem to have aged in place.  We saw a couple really old looking hippies.  It was probably really cool to hang out at the beach when they were young.  Add thirty years and thirty pounds and the picture changes. Look at the second picture down and you can see one of the "outdoorsmen" in his temporary camp on the park picnic table. Notice, he has brought along his fishing gear. There was a orderliness to his possessions that implied that he was out there as much by choice as by compulsion.

Palm Springs Street 

The next day we ended up in Palm Springs and another reality.  Palm Springs is an upscale community with lots of ties to celebrities.  We drove along Frank Sinatra Avenue, past streets named for Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Gerald Ford and Gene Autry.   I have never been here before, but it was familiar because of the sixties television.   If you lived here, you could probably play golf and go to shows and galleries every day. That would be another interesting reality.

Chrissy at the Palm Springs Marriott 

Of course, last week I was on the Marine base at Camp Pendleton and we go back to Virginia on Friday.  These lives intersect only occasionally.  Usually they just run parallel. But in the meantime, Chrissy is still having fun with the rental car and I am enjoying the hot whirlpool below. Actually, it was a little too hot at first.  But this is something we haven't done since the kids were little, when it still made a difference if I got my hair wet. Life is good for now.

John in whirpool at Marriott in Palm Springs 

April 27, 2010

Pea Soup, the Wisdom of Crows & Torrey Pines

I have a few odds and ends that are not enough for a whole post, but I don’t want to lose.

Crows at San Simeon 

Wisdom of crows

Crows are among the most intelligent birds.  It is something you notice when you just walk around.  They have a sentry in the tallest trees and they caw differentially as you walk under.  If you are carrying a shotgun, they all fly off.  If you are unarmed, they just ignore you.

Crows at San Simeon 

The job of eating food scraps around people eating lunch outside is usually the job of pigeons but at San Simeon the task belongs to crows.  The crows are scarier and not only because they are shiny black and raven-like.   Unlike pigeon, which are just stupidly annoying, you can see the calculating intelligent in the crows’ black eyes. The pigeons also are little fat-boys; crows look lean and mean.  You don’t want to mess with the crows, especially if you are driving a convertible.  You know that they will forget you never more and maybe come back to retaliate. BTW, Alfred Hitchcock filmed "The Birds" up the coast.

Speaking of bird-brained intelligence, turkeys are really dumb. They used to be thought “elusive” but that was only because there were not many of them.   A couple of them wandered across the road on our farm.  They just stood there in front of the truck. I had to get out and toss stones in their general direction. I am pretty sure that I could have caught them with my bare hands. 

The turkey population has exploded over the past couple of decades and our scientific understanding of them has changed.  We used to think that turkeys needed large ranges and significant protection to survive.  Today we have learned that any decent sized clump of trees will do, whether it is next to a farm field or a suburban street.   We should probably encourage more hunting of these big birds, along with the now ubiquitous Canada geese.   Some people could probably save a lot on food bills.

Chrissy at Andersen's restaurant in Buellton, California 

Pea’s porridge hot

We stopped off at a Danish bakery and pea soup restaurant. The Andersen restaurant claimed to be selling pea soup since 1924. Pea soup was one of my father’s staple menu items (along with bean soup, polish sausage and green tomatoes) and I like pea soup. 

Andersen pea soup restaurant 

I don’t often make it because you have to make big pots of it at a time. The canned varieties just aren’t right, even Progresso, which usually produces good soups. Chrissy and I both got pea soup in a sourdough bread bowl. The bread mixed with the soup made it into pea’s porridge. It was good and worth the stop.

The world’s biggest Torrey pine

World's largest torrey pineWe stopped in Carpinteria to get gas. We didn’t, because the gas station (yes we passed only one) charged a $.45 “convenience fee” for using a credit card.  I can't believe there is still a place that doesn’t have a pay at the pump, much less charging a “convenience fee.”  It was an Arco Station, which I thought was a major company.  

But it was worth the diversion. As we stopped looking for another gas station and decided to turn back to the highway, we noticed a very large pine tree. I got out to take a look and noticed the plaque that claimed that this was the largest Torrey pine in the world.

The Torrey pine is locally endangered in the wild of its own natural range, where few of the species get as big as the one we saw and most are slow-growing and picturesquely twisted. But it is grows fast, tall and straight when used in plantations in Australia and New Zealand. It just doesn’t like it at home.

I bet that if we looked hard enough, we would find that the largest Torrey pine in the world is in Australia or New Zealand - if not now, soon. I read that the tallest California redwoods will soon be the ones planted in New Zealand during the 19th Century. I saw some really beautiful sequoia trees at the Ambassador's house in Geneva and a whole beautiful forest of redwoods growing on the hills near Sintra in Portugal. In fact, Sintra has a castle a lot like a smaller version of San Simeon.

What God Would Build ... if He had the Money

Veranda at San Simeon 

William Randolph Hearst’s   father made big bucks from silver mining in Nevada’s Comstock Lode and then used some of the money to buy thousands of acres rancho along the California coast.  The land was really isolated back then and cheap.   It still is a bit isolated, but it is a fantastically beautiful place. 

William Randolph Hearst went with his mother on the grand tour of Europe and developed an appreciation for European art and culture.  After he made the big fortune he inherited even bigger, the project of his later life was to build this castle on the hill overlooking the Pacific.  George Bernard Shaw commented the castle at San Simeon was the kind of place God would build if he had the money. 

I got my impressions of Hearst from “Citizen Kane” and his behavior during the Spanish American War.  Suffice to say that the picture is incomplete and inaccurate and I learned some history on this trip. I won’t bore you with the details, which you can easily find elsewhere.  I will contribute some pictures and comments. 

Above - you couldn't stray off the path except at the point where the guide invited people to sit in the wicker chairs and feel for a few minutes what it is like to be rich.  Below is the indoor pool.  It is ten feet deep throughout the whole pool. The gold color you see is actually gold leaf. The man had the big bucks to spend.

Indoor pool at Hearst castle 

Below is the outdoor Neptune pool. Many of the columns are actually from Roman ruins.  It is nice, but it reminds me of something you might find in Las Vegas.

Neptune pool 

San Simeon has a lot of bona-fide art. Hearst was able to buy much of it inexpensively after World War II.  You couldn't do that today, both because of the prices. There are more rich people today and they have bid up the prices.  And there are also many more restrictions on export of art. 

The practical difference between rich and poor have actually decreased, despite ostensible greater income gaps. A century ago, only the rich could experience these things. Only the rich had telephones, electricity, refrigerator etc. There is a sort of threshold, when you have enough. The difference between refrigerator and having one is much greater than having a cheap version and the top-of-the-line.  Re telephones, everybody can afford phones with more features then they know how to use. 

The castle is really cool, but it would have been a lot more impressive to people back then than it is now, at least to anybody who has visited Las Vegas.  We have seen reasonable copies, bigger pools etc.  Frankly, I liked the views and the gardens the most, as you might guess by my pictures. If I lived there, I would spend most of my time sitting outside or wandering the hills.  

April 26, 2010

El Camino Real Spanish established a road, El Camino Real or the royal road, from San Diego to San Francisco to connect and supply their missions and forts.  Today I-5 and U.S. 101 follow the route and we drove along both today on our way from San Diego to the Hearst Castle in San Simeon.

The route is marked with bells suspended from question mark shaped pipes.  These are good promotion and the reason we noticed that we were on the route. 

I originally rented a Chevy Cobalt and I used it to drive up to the botanical garden mentioned in the last post, but it was such a crappy car that I took it back to Alamo before I picked up Chrissy.   Chrissy always said that she wanted to drive a convertible, so I splurged and surprised her with one.  It was fun to drive in the convertible on the coastal highway and we look forward to more fun when we drive inland to Joshua Tree National Park. 

Below is Chrissy with the car. 

The coastal highway goes through some beautiful county.   The part I like the best is the oak savanna.  I think they call them oak woodlands out here.  The ones along the coast tend to feature California live oak.  They are similar to oak openings in the Midwest, but the California hills are more majestic, especially when set against the Pacific surf.  The park-like widely spaced oak forests make a truly pleasant environment.  They are maintained by frequent low-intensity fires and are endangered when fires are too carefully prevented by humans.

California oak savanna 

Above is an example of the oak savanna/oak woodland biome.  Below is the road ahead north of San Luis Obispo. 


April 24, 2010

El Rancho Grande 

The Spanish settled southern California with a network of missions and ranches. These ranches were self sufficient economic and political entities and were very large, the size of a county, with a wide variety of possibilities. Cattle and other livestock raising was the biggest activity, but the ranches were also industrial producers at least on a small scale. Above is the view from the rancho veranda and below show the thick adobe walls that keep temperatures constant.


The model of the rancho was the Roman latifundia. Like the rancho, the latifundia was set up as a type of colonization entity designed pacify the colonial area, produce valuable economic results and give the  rich and powerful but restive individuals something to do far away from the capital.  Spain was colonized in this way by the Romans and it made Spain one of the most important centers of Roman culture, in many ways more thoroughly imperial Roman than Italy itself. It is no surprise if the Spanish employed the system in their own colonies, even if not directly copying the system.  It was in their cultural DNA.  Besides, it fit well with their imperial needs and was well suited to the Mediterranean type environment found in California.

Central garden in ranch house on Camp Pendelton 

The ranch house immediately reminds you of a Roman villa.  It spreads out over a large area with veranda and a beautiful open garden area in the middle. It must have been a really great way of life … at least for the ranch owners.*  Large latifundia type setups in Latin America are sometimes blamed for the class structures and challenges of democracy there.

As in all empires, there was the element of oppression. The workers were not entirely volunteers.  This would include the indentured Iberian colonists and more directly the native Indians, who provided much of the labor as long as they lasted.  Native Californians were not technologically advanced and they were not numerous. California just did not support the kind of advanced societies found in Mexico and parts of the Southwest.

Southern California is an interesting natural environment. It is fantastically rich, but only when developed by human technologies. In its natural state, California provides neither the challenge nor the payoff that historians like Arnold Toynbee credits with stimulating civilization. In other words, it was fairly easy to survive at a low, generally nomadic, level of technical sophistication. But moving beyond that was difficult, requiring technologies that were a couple leaps too far to make it from low level to higher one. As the saying goes, you can't jump a chasm in two hops.

date palm 

The modern Southern California “natural environment” is largely a human creation, from the non-native crops and trees to the vast aqueduct system that brings water from many miles away. You can see the finely shaped, non-native date palm above as just one example. It goes down to the bug level.  Many of California’s most productive crops require pollination by honeybees imported from Europe or Asia. Left on its own, the place is really a semi-desert.

I will keep the rancho and the latifundia in mind when I go to Brazil. Brazil had a similar system of colonization and Portugal shared Spain’s Iberian-Roman heritage. In Brazil they were called fazenda, in much of the rest of Spanish America the system was known as hacienda.

----  -

* This ranch paradigm in the Spanish colonial version is not like what we saw on the old Westerns. This is not the Ponderosa or even the Big Valley (which is in the California setting). If you watch the Cartwrights or the Barkleys, you see that the sons do almost all the work.  It would be amazing is a couple or three young guys could run something as big and complex as the ranch and still have so much time left over for all sorts of adventures.

April 23, 2010



This is my last night on the beach.  I enjoyed being here and I enjoyed being able to walk to the mock Embassy.   One of the things I walked past was the YAT-YAS building. It means “you ain’t tracks; you ain’t shit,” and this Quonset hut is a museum of tracked landing craft.

Inside Track museum YAT-YAS 

The landing craft are well armored and the tracks allow them to come some ways onto the beach.  Nevertheless, you would have to be very even to approach a hostile beach in one of this things, much less leap out when you got there.

April 22, 2010

Ship Visit

Harrier jet landing on the deck of the Peleliu 

We went for a ship visit to the USS Peleliu.  It is named after a World War II battle in the Pacific.  It is a kind of mini-aircraft carrier. Helicopters and Harrier Jets can land on the decks, as you can see in the picture above and below, and it supports Marine operations on shore.   You can see some pictures from the ship up and around this page.

helicopter landed on Peleliu 

This was the first time that I met Marines projecting power from ships.  This was the traditional Marine role, but in recent times they have been deployed in the deserts and mountains of Iraq and Afghanistan.  One of the Marine colonels commented that there are Marines in their second or third tours that have yet to do any real amphibious actions.  This would never happen a generation ago. Marines are supposed to be amphibious.

We were invited on board by the commander of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, the one we were doing the exercise with.  We had a really good lunch.  I sat next to the Commodore.  I remember Commodore Perry, but I didn’t think they still had commodores and they don’t when it concerns the actual rank.  Fuller is a Navy Captain doing the job of the Commodore.  He coordinates the movements of the ships and forces from the three ships involved with the exercise. 

Above is the hospital aboard the ship.

April 21, 2010

Making Water 

A good lesson is that you should never count on machines.  Luckily, it was only an exercise.   We were supposed to demonstrate how the Marines could make fresh water from sea water.  In the exercise, we were supposed to let the Minister of Health drink the water directly from the desalinization machine.  Of course, the machine didn’t work while she was there.   It evidently worked before and after.  The evidence was that we had a lot of fresh water made.  But there are always breakdowns and hiccups.

Some are just little/big things, like the tide going out farther than the intake pipes can reach.  Other things are systemic, like filters getting clogged.   The better plan is to have the water ready to go, already produced. The machine can be in the background and if it makes water at the time of the visit, we can go down there and watch it.  But the show should never depend on it working at the exact time period.

This also goes, BTW, for web-based presentations.  I have seen it dozens of times.  The person tries to load something up and all we get are those hour glasses that show something is loading, or else it has to buffer so many times that nobody can stand to watch it.  

There is an old saying that one should not watch laws or sausages being made. It is probably good advice not to watch most things being made unless you are especially interested in the process rather than the result.  Most of the time, however, we really just want the finished project. It is tempting, but a little narcissistic, for the creator to want to show the work that went into his creation, but most people don’t care, at least not into the detail the artist himself wants to inflict on his audience.

April 20, 2010

Peaceful Seas & Dark Waters

Pacific Ocean from Camp Pendelton 

I understand why so many people are fascinated by the sea.   Its moods can change in such rapid and interesting ways.  As I watched for just about a half hour, I saw it go from gray and calm to bluer and wilder.  Finally near sundown it became the wine-dark sea of Homeric description, as you can see on the pictures.

Lonely beach 

I was lucky enough to get a little cottage on the Pacific instead of staying at the hotel.  The trade off is that I have to walk up to the mock embassy.  Of course, that is also one of the things l like about being here.   So I guess there is no trade-off, unless you count not having Internet access.  This is why you are reading this post a few days after I wrote it.  This is the off season for these cottages. I would not be able to get a place here otherwise.  It is also unusual in that the beach in almost deserted.   There are not many places along the Southern California coast where you can look out over an empty beach. 

The ocean is primal and powerful.  It puts your troubles in their proper place.   I watched the sundown yesterday and today.   I guess it is good that I don’t live here.  I would probably eventually go blind from this sort of contemplation.  I have four nights down here on the shore, until I have to move back to the regular hotel.  I don’t suppose it will hurt me in that short a time.

As a Midwestern landlubber, I didn’t see the ocean until I was twenty-three years old and I am not sure that really counts.  I flew over the Atlantic Ocean from Chicago to Frankfurt, Germany, so I only saw it from very high up.   I didn’t actually touch the ocean until a year later, when we drove down to Florida.  I managed to convince some of my friends to go down.  My motivation was to pick up Chrissy, who was down there with her elderly aunt.  My first ocean touch was in the Gulf of Mexico in Bradenton, Florida.  I was surprised at how clear it was and how salty it tasted. 

My previous experience was with Lake Michigan.  It is really not that different.  Lake Michigan is too big to see across too and there are some ocean areas that look a lot like the Lakeshore.  The Baltic Sea near Gdansk, for example, reminds me a lot of home.  Maybe that is why immigrant from that area moved to the shores of the lake.  The lake doesn’t get such big waves as the ocean can, but there are lots of times when the ocean waves are no bigger.  The big difference is the lack of salt and the lack of tides.  This means that it tastes different but also that trees and plants can grow much closer to the edge of the lake.  This gives it a different aspect. 


I find the ocean attractive but a little scary.   I walked a short way into surf to get the picture up top and I was paying a lot more attention to the setting sun than to the oncoming surf.  I was surprised by a wave. It didn’t knock me down, but I did get a little wetter than I expected.  The sea has power.  My mind drifted wildly to tsunamis.  I suppose the chances that a big wave will sweep me and my cottage off this beach are very small, but … I am writing this in the middle of the night.  I just came in from looking out over the dark sea.   There was some light provided by the almost half moon and the man-made lights in the background, but mostly I could just hear and feel the ocean.  Suffice to say that I didn’t walk close enough that I could fall off some unseen edge or in range of an errant waves that could reach out and pull me down to Davy Jones’ locker.  Lots of things seem possible in the middle of the night that look really pretty dumb when seen in the light of day.  But it is dark out there for now.

April 19, 2010

Exercising Marines


HAST - The first two letter stand for humanitarian assistance.  I am not sure what the others are for, but if you just use it as a noun, it means a Marine operation that provides local populations with thinks like food, water and basic medical care.

LCAC taking off 

HAST was part of the exercise, but before the Marines could start doing good, they had to land their equipment.   The hovercraft you see in the picture is called a LCAC.  It skims across the surface of the water and then can also skim across the surface of the beach.  It is much more reliable than those landing craft we remember from John Wayne movies.  You know, the kind that are shaped like long boxes and open in the front.

LCAC approaching shore 

The problem is that the landing craft have to go back and forth to the ships to bring in the materials and that just takes a lot of time and is very dependent on the state of the sea.

One of the keys to relief is clean water. The Marines has a combination filter/desalinization machine that can make fresh water from sea water or clean water from polluted water. We went down to the landing beach to see this thing in action. Unfortunately, sea conditions slowed delivery and it was not ready to do. Maybe tomorrow.

I am playing the DCM (Deputy Chief of Mission) during this exercise. While the exercise is for the Marines and I am just a prop, I am learning some useful things by playing the role. I would like to be more helpful to the Marines, but since this is supposed to be a learning experience for them and a test of their abilities, I have to been less forthcoming. I suppose that makes it more realistic.  In real life I would indeed know more and try to be more helpful. On the other hand, in real life there would be a lot more uncertainty. In the exercise I know or have a very good idea of what the future will be. I could be “helpful” and reveal some things, but that would mess up the whole thing, ruin the game. So I have to let it happen, knowing that around the corner something will happen to ruin their well-laid plans. Of course is the real world most plans don’t work; I just don’t know in advance. It is much better that they learn the lessons here than when they are playing for keeps.

April 17, 2010

Some Miscellaneous Things about Southern California

Wild flowers in southern California

The stretch of I-5 that goes through Camp Pendleton is named after John Basilone, a hero of Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima who won both the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. One of the values of naming things after special people or events, rather than some non-committal thing like “Happy Crest Road,” is that they are remembered. John Basilone was a great hero and I am glad that driving along this road made me think of him.

Hills at Camp Pendleton 

Southern California is semi-arid and the natural vegetation would be scrub and brush.  When you see large trees, they are almost always planted and watered.  This is the best time of year to see the area around San Diego.   The hills are green and flower covered.  When I examined the ground more closely, it is clear that the vegetation is not thick.   It is, as I said, semi-arid.

looking west from my hotel at Mesa Lodge 

The Spanish tried to colonize California using missions. They were founded about a day’s journey apart and there were twenty-one of them.  The San Diego mission, built in 1769, was the first one built.

Camp Pendleton is really big. It is one of the largest de-facto natural preserves in the U.S.   If the Marines didn’t own the place, it certainly would be covered with condos, like the rest of the coast here about.

April 15, 2010

Pacific Sunset

Pacific sunset 

I watched the sun set in the Pacific.  It seems to drop so fast and be so close.  I almost thought I could hear it hiss as it hit the water.

sun set in Pacific Ocean off Camp Pendleton CA 

Below is sunrise on Lake Michigan last September.  I suppose the latitude and the time of year make a difference.  There is a much longer twilight time farther north.

Sunrise on Lake Michigan in September 2009 


April 06, 2010

Short Cuts

Magnolia flowering at Fort Meyer

Being able to cut through Fort Meyer has greatly improved my biking to work experience. I had almost forgotten that I have this blog to thank for this. One of my colleagues at State Department send me an email telling me that Fort Meyer was open again after reading this post.

Rebuilding the Herbert C Hoover Building. 

Above is an interesting sign of the stimulus. It struck me as funny for a few of reasons, first because it is the Hoover Building. Hoover’s reputation on economic recovery is not that good. Second this renovation started a long time ago. Chrissy used to work in that building and they were already renovating it when she was working there back in 2007/8. Third, this building was one of the first big government buildings in Washington. It was the biggest office building in the world when it was completed in 1932. 

New construction in Arlington, VA 

Above is new bigger home that replaced a little ones. This kind of "tear down" or "in filling" is still happening, as you can see, but has slowed down a lot because of the recession. People buy the smaller houses, like the one at the right, tear them down and rebuilt bigger, newer ones, like the one on the left, on the lot. This one is not as big as some and it seems to fit in well with the neighborhood. Sometimes people build huge houses that essentially cover the entire lot, often literally shading out their neighbors. 

April 04, 2010

Spring Forest Visit

Cloverfield at CP showing six year old loblolly pines 

It was a little early to go down to the farms. The trees haven’t quite started to grow yet and the clover is still small and not flowering. I will be back in a few weeks. But I wanted to check on flood damage now. Above are the trees near the clover field at the top of the hill. The truck gives perspective. The land was clear cut in 2003, so you can see how much the trees have grown since then. The biosolids helped them grow faster last year. Below is another truck comparison. There is an interesting detail. Look at the two trees behind the truck. The round top one is a "volunteer" i.e. natural regeneration. It was probably a little tree when the place was cut. The one next to it is a planted genetically "super tree." Because of their location at the crossroad, I have been paying attention to this place. The round top tree was twice as big as the ones around it when I first noticed. Today, you can see that the one next to it is a little bigger and I expect that after this growing season it will be significantly bigger. I will take another picture.

Comparion with truck at crossroad on April 3, 2010 

I saw clear evidence of heavy rain and lots of runoff, but no real damage. The places near the streams overflowed, but that doesn’t hurt the trees. The water is running UNDER one of the water pipes. I figure it will undercut the road, but I don't think there is much to do about it. I will put in a load of rocks and turn it into a ford when/if it collapses. I think it will be better for the water to run over instead of under. 

Wetland on CP 

One of the little streams changed course last year. It went back to its older course. When I dig down, I find sand and gravel all over, indicating that the stream has changed course a lot. It creates wetlands until the mud piles up into natural levies, and then it moves again. You can see from the picture above that there have been times when the ground was dry for a long time.  The dead trees were alive when I got the place in 2005, when the stream shifted and evidently drown the roots in wetland. I suppose that now the stream has shifted again, it will be dryer, although the whole place is spongy.

I also think that runoff will decrease over time as the trees on the slopes get bigger and their roots absorb more of the water before it hits the streams. 

I want to get the trees on the Freeman tract thinned this year or next, before I get to Brazil.   Above you can see from the comparison with the truck that the trees are big enough and thick enough. They will be fourteen years old this year, which is a little early for thinning but within the range.  Below is the power line right-of-way. They replaced the wooden pylons with steel and kind of tore up the grass. I have eight acres under those things. I am looking into establishing quail habitat, since I cannot plant trees (or allow them to grow) that would interfere with the wires.  On the plus side, it provides a long area of forest edge and wildlife plot and the utility company maintains the road. 

March 30, 2010

A Cherry Flavored Fleeting Beauty

Bread line statue at FDR Memorial on March 30The cherry trees are in full bloom. It is hard to recall that snow was on the ground just a few weeks ago. Some pictures are included with the post.  The picture at the side shows the bread line from the FDR Memorial. I went down to the cherry trees and visited Roosevelt on the way back.

Cherry blossoms are precious because they are ephemeral.  We know that they will not be there for a long time and we have to enjoy them while we can. We revel in the passing and should not wish the moment to linger beyond its time. They are beautiful precisely because they will not last.

We try to preserve too much. A report this morning on NPR talked about people worried that the world of the Mario Brothers (Donkey Kong) was disappearing. They want to preserve and protect the classic world of games. Just let it go.  We should let a lot of things go. Let them become stuff of memory and then let them slip quietly into oblivion. Nothing lasts forever.

I was reading a book called “False Economy.” The author talked about dead-end strategies and how some things just don’t make it. The example he used was the panda bear.  Besides being cute, they don't have much going for them. They eat only low nutrition bamboo, which they evidently cannot properly digest, so they have to eat a lot but don’t get much bang for the bite.  Mating is a chore they don't enjoy and on those rare occasions when they do muster up energy and the urge, there is a good chance nothing will come of it. What is amazing is not that they are endangered but that there are any of them still around at all. A less cute animal would have gone the way of the dodo a century ago.  But pandas have a constituency.  People cried a few weeks ago at the National Zoo when the Chinese took their panda back.

Cherry trees at FDR Memorial on March 30 

I remember seeing them at the zoo. Well actually, I am not sure I saw them at the zoo. They don’t  move very much. You could just put a fur there and claim it was a panda and nobody would know the difference. They are an evolutionary dead end. People have perhaps hastened their demise, but didn’t change the direction. I tried to think of why it wasn’t true, but I couldn’t. 

Jefferson Memorial and cherry trees on March 30 

BTW - The pictures are much bigger scale. If you want to see more detail, you can go to the source and look at the bigger versions. 

Magnolia blooms against darker pines near Korean War Memorial on March 30 

March 24, 2010

Various Facts About Foresty around the Shenandoah and Blue Ridge

Skid trails during forestry operation 

I drove with Frank Sherwood to the Virginia tree farm of the year and got a chance to talk to him as we walked around on the ground. Frank has been doing forestry in Virginia for thirty-five years and I got some good information on drive down from Winchester. 

This area of Virginia features a lot of mixed hardwoods and white pines. I was very familiar with white pines form Wisconsin, but I really had a lot to learn about them. For example, white pine wood is light and not as hard or strong as loblolly.  It is good for fence rails (it doesn’t twist) and it is used in log cabins, but it is not as much use as structural timber.  Frank lamented that there is not much of a market for white pine saw timber in the immediate area, besides in those two limited uses. A lot of the local white pine had not grown straight and un-branched.   The newer plantations are doing better. 

White pines have not been developed genetically as well as loblolly and it is less likely to be planted, since natural regeneration works very well.   A white pine rotation is around fifty years (15-18 years longer than loblolly) with two possible thinning. 

Pulp prices have remained steady over the years, Frank told me.   Some people are a little concerned about biofuels, which would compete with pulp and drive the prices up (good for landowners), but there currently is not a biofuels market in the Winchester region.  You can make ethanol from cellulous, but it is not worth it with today’s technologies.   That means that effective biofuels for wood is to burn it directly and for that you need local facilities that burn it.   The alternative is to make wood pellets, but that industry is also not present locally.

Landowners have a couple options for timber selling.  The one you get the most money for is saw timber.  Saw timber will yield $150-400 per 1000 board feet.  Pulp is the cheapest, maybe biofuels in the near future.  Pulp yields $5-7 a ton for pine and $2-3 for hardwood.  In between is scragwood.  These are small diameter but straight trees that can be sawed into rough boards used in crates and pallets.

Frank feeds the mill in Luke, Maryland.  He says that the mill’s catchment area is getting bigger because it is harder to find wood in local areas.  Development and forest fragmentation are the causes.  You can do forestry on small tracts, but at some point it gets to be economically unviable.  You probably need around forty acres to do decent management. Development has been taking forestry out of business. Although the recent economic downturn has stopped much of it, development will resume when the good times roll again. Too bad.

Frank doesn’t know of anybody using biosolids or animal manure on forest lands in this part of the Shenandoah valley or around.  There are several chicken operations (we drove past a Perdue operation) that produce a fair amount of chickenshit, but Frank didn’t know what they did with it.  Chickenshit is a powerful fertilizer, high in potassium, but as I understand it, chickenshit has to be left to decompose a little otherwise it can burn out the crops.  IMO forest lands would be a good place to dispose of some of these farm wastes.  There is a lot of forest and they could absorb and use the nitrogen and phosphate w/o letting it slip into the Chesapeake Bay. Of course, the problem is transportation. Manure is bulky, heavy and stinky.

The problem is concentration.  These large animal operations concentrate the crap. That changes it from a valuable fertilizer into a potential pollution problem. The difference between a life-giving medicine and a deadly poison is often the dosage.

Anyway, those are some of the things I learned from Frank.  The biggest benefit of writing the tree farm of the year article is getting to talk to people like him while actually setting foot on the forests.

March 23, 2010

2010 Virginia Tree Farm of the Year Visit

American Tree Farm system sign 

Noble Laesch, the father of the current owner Judith Gontis, bought this acreage in the late 1960s and it has been a certified tree farm for the last twenty-eight years. Laesch and Gontis did not live on the land and so for the last twenty-eight years it has been forester Frank Sherwood’s business and pleasure to look after these 927 acres of hilly mixed forest just inside the Rockingham County line.

White pine understory with mixed hardwoods on top

It is a tree farm with great diversity in terms of species composition, topography, soils and microclimates. The ridges are still dominated by mixed hardwoods, although gradually white pines are taking over, both through natural processes and forestry practices. We looked at a logging operations and examined some of the recently cut stumps during a recent visit. The partially shade tolerant white pines had seeded in naturally under an older stand of mixed hardwood, mostly scarlet oak, but were suppressed until released by the forestry operation. 

 We counted 130 rings on a scarlet oak stump. For the first sixty years of life, the tree grew slowly and crookedly. It is clear that there were too many trees here competing for sun, nutrients and water. We have no record of how the neighboring trees were thinned, but the tree started to grow much faster at around sixty until it slowed in older age. Unfortunately, although very big, this scarlet oak, like most of the others in the stand, had begun to rot in the middle. It was past time to remove them and give the white pines their time in the sun. Within a few years this will be an almost pure stand of white pine.

Cutover grown up after around five years.

Farther down the hill was a recently thinned plantation, a total of 126 acres of twenty-year-old white pine and a clear cut left to regenerate naturally in white pine. The trees were vigorous but widely spaced. The blueberries had come in very thickly and perhaps they just outran the pine seedlings.   The plantation was clearly better for timber production, but the naturally regenerated area had cost nothing to plant and the widely spaced trees were providing excellent openings for wildlife.   As with any management plan, it depends on what the landowner wants and it was interesting to see the side-by-side comparison of different choices.

The tulip-poplars that grow so profusely on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge do well here too, but only in coves or bowls that have deeper soil than the rocky and sometimes sandy slopes.   In these places you find towering tulip poplars that can be harvested at regular intervals and regenerated naturally.

The rest of the tree farm is mixed hardwoods, especially white and red oak, plus some maples, as well as white pine.  This is white pine country. Although loblolly can be grown here too, the white pines do it naturally. With Frank Sherwood’s advice, Mrs. Gontis, as her father before her, manages for pulp and saw timber mostly through selective cuttings.  

Like all well-managed tree farms, this one provides a home for wildlife, a place for recreation and protection for water resources. The farm is drained by Runion Creek, whose waters find their way into the Shenandoah and the Potomac and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. Although there is some development in the region, it looks like this tree farm and its 927 acres will continue to provide these kinds of ecological services for years to come. 

February 24, 2010

Various Things Around Washington  

The snow is melting, but more is expected tomorrow to replace it.  It is hard to believe that within a month the flowers will be blooming.   The picture above is from March 23 of last year - a month from now.   I will appreciate spring more after this especially snowy and cold winter. 

Above is a protest on 22nd St. outside the State Department. I think they are Eritreans. I was in a bit of a hurry so I just took the picture and kept on walking, so I don’t really know what was bothering them. About a hundred showed up to chant for passersby and a good time was had by all except the taxi drivers who were annoyed that the street was blocked. 

Above are broken magnolia trees outside the Archives. The snow is hard on these sorts of southern trees and there are lots of broken branches & trees around here.  The snow weighs heavy on their leathery evergreen leaves. You can see why trees from colder climates would adapt strategies other than holding onto their broad leaves all winter.

February 23, 2010

Becoming a Good American

National_Capitol3_on_February_23_2010 at about 130 

Most private and all public universities were founded in part to help educate good citizens. They really aren’t doing a great job of it, if you assess what students learn about America’s government, business, institutions and society. Take this simple test. The questions are based on our citizenship exam. Lucky for most Americans that we were born here, because 71% of us probably couldn’t pass the test to become citizens.

College graduates do better than the general population (49% to 57%) but adjusting for demographic characteristics (income, age, region etc) college students get only 3.8% better over their four-year tenure & some big name universities managed to produce “negative knowledge.” Seniors at Cornell scored 4.95% lower than freshmen. Yale, Duke, Princeton, Rutgers & Berkeley also went negative. Harvard seniors scored best at 69.56%. Maybe it will stoke Yale-Harvard rivalries. Yale freshmen beat Harvard freshmen (68.94 to 63.59%), but after Yale’s loss and Harvard’s gain, Harvard won in the end. 

Read the rest of the report here. You can see the discussion of the reports at this link

Of course, there is some debate as to how much civic knowledge a citizen really needs. Our democracy relies on the wisdom of crowds. Each person has some bits of knowledge, which are presumably aggregated to produce a good result. It is not necessary for everybody to know what the Scopes trial was about, be able to name the three parts of the Federal government or even be able to name the countries who were our enemies in World War II, as long as some people know important things and we are generally wise enough to know when when know and when we don't. The problem that I see is that sometimes the ignorant also have very high self-esteem. Recalling the lines from Yeats, "The best lack all conviction, while the worse are full of passionate intensity." Modern education may feed this.

There is an old saying that you are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts. Not everybody believes that anymore. Some people think it is important to teach critical thinking and not pay much attention to the facts. But if you don’t have any facts, what are you thinking critically about?

IMO the more you know about American history and institutions, the more you appreciate them. Thomas Jefferson believed that an educated citizenry was crucial to the working of democracy, which is why he founded the University of Virginia. Building good citizens was one of the founding justifications for the public school system.

I got one wrong on the test and I will advance the lame excuse that I wasn’t paying attention. But when I thought about the questions, a lot of what I learned I didn’t learn directly in school. Education doesn’t/shouldn’t stop when you graduate from college and college isn’t/shouldn’t be the only place you get education, especially civic education. I think we need to emphasize our heritage, for everybody in our lives every day, lest it slip away. Knowledge lives only in living people, not locked in books we never read. And the person who doesn’t read is really no better off than the person who can’t.

It is not all locked in the written word, however. One of the places I learned some of these facts is from television – yes television. Much of television is indeed crap, but there is a lot of good too. There is a very good PBS series called The American Experience. The episodes about FDR were on last week. He was an amazing man with an amazing education. He came from what is as close to an American ruling class as we can get, but it is true that we Americans don’t have a ruling class. They are us. We are our own “rulers” and so we have to train a new set of them each generation. We produced truly great generations of leadership. Let’s hope that we are not just living off and using up the capital that they created for us and let’s work to make sure that is not the case.

Maybe we should take citizenship a little more seriously.

February 20, 2010

Old Men Forget: Yet All Shall be Forgot

Above is the Vietnam Memorial.  There was a bunch of grade school kids visiting the place and I heard them talking. They have no personal connection with a war that ended a quarter century before they were born.  It is almost as remote to them as World War I was to me.  It is not their war, nor even their fathers'. Vietnam is something their grandfathers may have experienced. Funny how fast time moves and how the defining events of your life are just history now.

Above is the MIA booth.  They sell mementos, medals and patches.  Below is snow removal near the Memorials.

Below is the path along the reflecting pool going toward the Washington Memorial

February 06, 2010

Ronald Reagan's Birthday is Ronald Reagan’s birthday and I was trying to decide whether he was the greatest president of the 20th Century. I decided that FDR edged him out, but only because Roosevelt lived in more interesting times. Both presidents presided over inflection points in American history and both responded well to circumstances they faced.

After a while all presidents belong simply to the American people. That is why I can put Reagan and Roosevelt in the same category. The fact that Reagan undid many of the things Roosevelt had wrought does not affect the analysis. Roosevelt did things appropriate for the 1930s & 1940s, things that helped make American prosperous for decades. But nothing lasts forever and even the most effective solutions ossify and break apart with time. By the 1980s the appropriate thing for Reagan to do was change them. Solutions must be appropriate to the circumstances.

By the end of the 1970s, most people could see something was wrong. Stagflation was sitting on the economy like a raven. The old nostrums no longer produced desirable results. Even Jimmy Carter recognized this. It was Carter who deregulated important industries such as trucking & airlines. (Carter also did a lot to deregulate the financial industry. While we may see that as unwise now, it was appropriate for the times.)

But in 1980, Americans wanted something new and better, true change not mere adjustment. This is where Reagan came in. He was an immensely popular president, who actually won a majority in the three man race in 1980 and was reelected with nearly 59% of the popular votes when he carried every state except Minnesota. His opponents did not (and still do not) understand him. To them he was just an amiable dunce.

Recent scholarship has enhanced Reagan's reputation as an independent thinker and debunked the disinformation of the time that Reagan was fed his lines, like the actor he had been. However, Reagan himself seemed comfortable with their assessments.

Like Roosevelt, whom Oliver Wendell Holmes described at a man with "second-class intellect" but a "first-class temperament.", letting others underestimate him allowed Reagan to disarms, cajole and co-opt all those smart guys who would rather be correct than right. Now that we have access to Reagan’s hand written notes we can see that his ideas were based on his extensive reading and experience. He was a one man think tank, but he understood that there is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit.

Ronald Reagan led a remarkable life. He was no child of privilege and his lifeguard job & diploma from Eureka College hardly impressed the elites. We can see the development of his character from his time as a New Deal Democrat, to the time when faced down communists in the Screen Actors' Guild (Reagan was the only president who had been a union leader), to his getting to know the country as spokesman for GE, to his political career and election as president.

He was the right man for the times. Inflation raged at more than 13%. Unemployment reached more than 10% some months. The Soviet Union was on the march. Energy prices were spiking. The America we envision in our nightmares is what we actually experienced in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  (We still have not reached those levels of unemployment and we have essentially no inflation at all.)  Ronald Reagan's presidency marked a turning point for our country. It really was morning in America. He was a great man and a great American.

The photo, BTW, is Alex in 2003 with a life-sized statue of Ronald Reagan at the Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City. 

January 31, 2010

Snow in the Virginia Woods 

It has been cold again this year but this year we are also getting more snow. They got a lot of snow in southern Virginia & North Carolina, so I wanted to go down and look at the snow on the farm.  Well, it wasn’t a lot of snow by Wisconsin standards and it will melt in a few days, but there was more than usual and it created a different look for the place. You really wouldn't guess that you were looking at southern Virginia. 

I saw a couple cars in the ditch on the way down and I didn’t dare take the back roads, as I usually do.  Instead I went down I95 all the way down to Emporia and then went over on 58. I also didn’t dare drive down the dirt roads on the farm.  You can see that 623 was good in the spot above, but look near the bottom and you can see why I didn't want to drive up the farm road.  It is harder to walk through the snow but it is nice to feel it underfoot. There were a few animal track, but it was otherwise undisturbed. It is nice to have land. 

It was a long trip to see it and it took longer because of the adverse weather conditions. I finished almost the entire audio-book Infotopia, which I found very interesting and useful (I hope) in my job.   This was one of the three audio downloads on that Mariza gave me for Christmas.   It was a good gift.  Audio books make long drives bearable and even beneficial. I lose my NPR a few miles outside Washington.  I don’t like music radio or those silly talk shows that purport to give advice that will solve problems that I don’t have. Audio books do the job. 

Another good audio program is “the Teaching Company”.   Alex likes them too because they are around forty-five minutes long, which fits his workout schedule.

Anyway, take a look at the nice pictures. 

Complete set of photos are at this link. 

January 21, 2010

Charlottesville, Waynesboro & Harrisonburg 

I went to Charlottesville for the meeting of the Virginia Tree Farm Committee.   Unfortunately, the meeting was in Richmond.  They alternate between those two places, and I just screwed it up.   I had actually written the correct place in my calendar, but went to the wrong one.   Well, I am not crucial to the meeting and It was not a total loss.  I got to visit Alex, since Harrisonburg is not far from Charlottesville.   In fact, I think that my desire to see Alex might have figured into my mental slip. Above is the main street in Waynesboro. 

Alex had classes until 3:30.  This was good when I had planned to attend the meeting, but now I had lots of time on my hands.   I thought I might drive up along the Blue Ridge Parkway but it was closed, evidently weather related.  So I went through Waynesboro.   I  was not seeing it on the best day but they did have an A&W.  I like the hamburgers and the root beer.  A&W fries are not good, however. 

Above is the dining room. I had it to myself. Below is the outside. 

I followed a little road north.  It was a charming rural area.  I wanted to stop off at Grand Caverns, but it was closed for the season.   Again, not the best time to come around.   Since I was still too early, I walked around Harrisonburg.   You can see pictures. 

Alex likes his classes at JMU.  He has a couple of Asian history classes, symbolic logic and an anthropology class on North Americans native people.  He found the gyms and good running trails.  College life is good.  We had supper at “the Blue Nile” and Ethiopian restaurant.   Harrisonburg is well endowed with restaurants and services. 

Rain mixed with snow scared me a little when I left Harrisonburg at around 6pm.   I don’t much like driving up I-81 because of all the trucks even in good weather.  The weather cleared up not too far into the trip and there wasn’t too much traffic on 66. I got 42 miles to the gallon on this trip, which is good for going through the mountains. I usually get good mileage on the way to Charlottesville along 29.  I think it is because of the slower speeds and the hybrid does particularly well on the rolling hills. I get a significantly better mileage at 50 MPH than I do at 65. 

Below is the city hall in Harrisonburg.

December 21, 2009

Snow in Washington - Pretty Pictures

US Capitol from American Indian Museum 

Above is the U.S. Capitol from the back of the American Indian Museum.  Below is the Lincoln Memorial on the other end of the Mall.

Lincoln Memorial in the snow 

The Federal government (although the Senate was at work late into the night) was closed because of the snow, but it really wasn't hard to get down to Washington.  I just caught the Metro.  I wanted to see Washington in the snow and quiet.  There was a lot of snow, but it wasn't quiet.  Lots of people seemed to have the same idea.  I took a long walk from the White House to the Capitol.  Some pictures are included.

Washington Monument 

Above is the Washington Monument.  Below is the frozen reflecting pool at the World War II Memorial.

Reflecting pool at World War II Memorial 

Below is the Smithsonian Mall.

Smithsonian Mall 

Below is the White House from Pennsylvania Avenue.

White House from Pennsylvania Ave 


November 20, 2009

Visiting Mr. Jefferson


Thomas Jefferson was a remarkable guy.  The thought deeply about almost everything and made the world a better place.  On his tombstone he wanted to be remembered for founding the University of Virginia and authoring the statutes of religious freedom of Virginia the Declaration of Independence.  Any one of those accomplishments would make him a great man.   He didn’t even mention being president of the United States.

Alex Matel and Thomas JeffersonWe first visited here in 1985.  Chrissy was pregnant with Mariza and I remember thinking that it would be nice if our expected child could become part of this legacy by going to Thomas Jefferson’s university.  She did.   So besides his contributions to our freedom and prosperity, I have a very personal reason to thank Jefferson.

Monticello is owned and run by a private foundation that makes its money from ticket sales and donations.  The foundation supports historians, archeologists and researchers in addition to maintaining the house and grounds.  

Alex and I talked about the pros and cons of a private foundation.  It seems like a place like Monticello should be government owned, but why?  A private foundation is more flexible and can often do a better job.  Many of our best American universities are private and they are the best in the world. A foundation works out just fine for Mr. Jefferson's home.  

Jefferson always considered himself a farmer.  He grew tobacco and wheat as cash crops and produced vegetables, apples and other fruit for consumption on the farm.  Like other plantations, Monticello was self-sufficient when possible.  They made their own bricks from local clays. Carpenters from the estate made furniture from the wood of the local forests.  Jefferson owned 5000 acres, which gave him a diverse landscape to draw from.  Below is Jefferson's vegetable garden.  It is set up to take advantage of warming winter sun.

Thomas Jefferson's garden 

Jefferson was an active manager of his estate. Washington's Mt Vernon actually turned a profit, not so Jefferson's Monticello.  The difference was top management.  Washington didn't have Jefferson's intellect, but he had practical abilities.  Jefferson was an idea man.   And his house - and our country - is full of his ideas, but he was not a good businessman. He died deep in debt and his heirs had to sell Monticello.

Jefferson's marketOf course, Jefferson didn't do much of the real work. The paradox of Jefferson the hero of freedom is Jefferson the slave owner.  Slavery had existed since the beginning of history, but by Jefferson's time the Western world was beginning to see the moral contradictions of the practice.  Jefferson shared the revulsion of slavery in theory, but couldn't bring himself to take the practical and personal steps against it.  I guess he was just a true intellectual in that respect and unfortunately remained a man of his times. 

In any case, Jefferson's contributions far outweigh the negatives of his personal life. All human being are flawed.  They make their contributions based on what they do best, not what they do poorly.  

We Americans were truly blessed during our founders generation.  Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton & Madison all were greats.  But the remarkable thing is how their skills and even their personalities complemented each other, even when they fought and hated each other. Their differences created harmony and their joint efforts filled in for some serious individual flaws.

The American revolution is one of the few in world history that actually worked (i.e. didn't end in a bloodbath followed by despotism). We can thank good luck & favorable geography.  But the biggest factor was the moral authority, courage and intellect of our first leaders.  We are still living off their legacy. 

Visitors' Center at Monticello 

Above is the visitor's center that opened last year. In the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, it takes advantage of natural forces and uses appropriate technology.  This is a green building, earth sheltered, energy efficient and heated & cooled to a large extent by geotheromal energy.  The wood and natural stone construction is simple, but elegant.  I like it.

November 19, 2009

Nobility at Appomattox

We got to Appomattox too late yesterday, so we had to go this morning.  It is not the big tourist season, so we had the place largely to ourselves. 

Alex at crossroads in Appomattox 

I like these kinds of communities, with the old fashioned houses and the open spaces.  Alex thought the houses were “lame.”   But it is interesting to stand at the cross roads of history.   They have done a good job of preserving and restoring the historical area, but I think they should get some animals.   The community of the time would have featured horses, pigs, cows and chickens.  Well … probably not exactly in April 1865, when the starving soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia would have made short work of such rations on the hoof, but in normal times a community like this w/o animals would not be normal.   I bet the Park Service could get some farm hobbyists to do it for nothing. 

Robert E Lee at Appomattox 

I thought back to April 1865 and the starving ragged Confederates up against Union forces that were better off but still not properly rationed.   Both armies were exhausted.   Robert E. Lee made the horrendous decision to surrender and the enlightened decision not to keep the fighting going on by guerilla tactics, as President Jefferson Davis wanted.   The South was finished.  No reason for more men to die and the country to be torn up even more for a lost cause.   Grant and the Union made it as easy as it could be in such circumstances.  

Ulysses S Grant at Appomattox

There was generosity, nobility and honor on both sides.   April 9, 1865 was truly a day when humanity showed its better side amidst terrible suffering and hatred.    As I wrote before, this is a even unique in human history.  

Grant later wrote, "I felt… sad and depressed at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people had ever fought."

There is no such thing as destiny.  People make history. If Grant, Lee or Lincoln had been lesser men - ordinary men - blood would have continued to flow and our great nation may have never recovered.  But it could have been different.

Lincoln was there in spirit and he was a motivating force behind the generosity that Grant was able to give, but within a few days Lincoln would be dead, shot by that cowardly actor John Wilkes Booth. Had Booth struck a week earlier it is not likely that Grant could have offered such terms to Lee.  The conflict might have continued as a desperate war of extermination. 

Grant’s close friend William T Sherman would soon be similarly generous with General Joe Johnston, who would also prove as honorable as Robert E. Lee. 

We all remember Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but the Second Inaugural is my favorite.   It is not very long, so I copied it entire.  I especially like the last paragraph.


T this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.


  On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.


  One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

  With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

November 17, 2009

Trench Warfare & Ending a Great Hatred

Alex and I visited the battlefields associated with the Petersburg Campaign and Robert E. Lee’s final retreat.   Petersburg gave the world a taste of what trench warfare would be like.  You go from Federal earthworks to Confederate earthworks.   As in the World War I, the armies were racing around the flanks.  It soon became a grim slog, a war of attrition.  The South could not win this kind of war. They just didn't have enough men or materiel. 

Alex at earthworks in Petersburg 

Above is Alex in front of some of the earthworks.  Below is a reconstruction. 

Fortification reconstruction at Petersburg 

Lee was trying to escape to the west, where he could hook up with General Joe Johnston, while Union forces tried to bottle them up.   Lincoln’s fear was that the war would go on and maybe turn into a guerrilla war.  The Petersburg campaign has that endless war feeling anyway.  They were regularly taking thousands of casualties each DAY.  The soldiers were becoming more accustomed to war and much more cynical. They came to understand that the war in Virginia was ending and nobody wanted to be the last man killed.  There is a good novel about this period called "Last Full Measure" that captures some of the feeling.

Soliders' house at Petersburg 

Above is a soldiers' house.  It looks like a playhouse, but it held four men.   Below is what is left of the crater. Union miners from Pennsylvania made a tunnel under the Rebel positions and blew up Confederate fortifications.  Unfortunately, the attack didn't go well.  Union troops poured into the crater and many were trapped there. It looks bigger in real life.  You also need to remember that there has been almost 150 years of erosion and filling in.

Crater at Petersburg VA 

America’s Civil War was remarkable in its ending.   In France, terror followed revolution.  The Russians and Chinese murdered millions of people in similar situations.  In fact, protracted Civil Wars almost NEVER end without significant retribution and bloodletting.   I think that I can safely say that the ending of the American Civil War was unique in human history.   The victors were generous and the vanquished honorable.  Because it happened as it did, we think of it as inevitable, but the decisions made in April 1865 were not foreordained.

Sailor Creek battlefield 

Grant allowed Lee’s soldiers to keep their side arms and their horses.  Robert E. Lee instructed his men to go home and become good citizens.  Most did.   

Fighting at Petersburg 

I know that some scholars talk about the “myth” of reconciliation and point to the problems that persisted. Some people still hold a grudge for Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas. You have to ask the “compared to what?” question.  In most countries, more people die violently AFTER the wars.  Not in America.  Rebel leaders are usually executed.  The lucky ones are only imprisoned or exiled.  Not here. Can you imagine Cuba exiled welcomes back by the regime?  Russian exiles lured back were usually murdered.  

The Civil War was the worst war in American history.  The destruction was horrendous.  Yet after it ended … it ended.  April 1865 was probably the most remarkable month in world history.  This just doesn’t happen very often – or at all.   I think we should take time to think about this.  If others had learned from the Federal-Confederate example, we might have avoided most of the carnage of the 20th Century.   

Five Forks battlefield 

Above is a battlefield at Five Forks.  When the fight turned into a battle of attrition, most of the engagements were small, but this was a key turning point. Phil Sheridan defeated troops under the unlucky George Pickett, who was off having a fish dinner and didn't return until it was too late. The collapse of the Confederate position at Five Forks led directly to Lee's decision to abandon Richmond & Petersburg.  It was the beginning of the end for the Army of Northern Virginia and for the Southern Confederacy, and so Five Forks is sometimes called the Confederate Waterloo.  There is nothing much to see here today.  The trees and fields have grown back.  It is hard to believe that war was ever close to this peaceful, bucolic place.

November 14, 2009

Baked Potato Season

You can just about live off potatoes.  I mostly did that during my years in graduate school.   A baked potato topped with a little butter and green beans or sauerkraut is a good meal and really requires nothing else. Potatoes have an unjustly bad reputation. 

Mounument to victims of Irish Potato Famine in Boston 

They got a bad rep from the Irish Potato famine (the monuments above commemorate the refugees who fled Potato Famine and became fine citizens of Massachusetts) but more recently they have been attacked for being a high carbohydrate, high calories food.   A potato has no more calories than an apple of around the same size (potatoes tend to be bigger). The calories come from all the crap we pile on them; it’s the butter, bacon bits, sour cream, cheese and all the other things that add that fat and calories.

Despite their ubiquity central and northern European diets, Potatoes are a native American food.   It took a long time to get Europeans to eat them. Like most “ancient traditions” it is not really very old.  Many people thought they were poison.  The green tubers and sprout are indeed poisonous.   Potatoes and tomatoes are members of the nightshade family and most of the siblings are as dangerous as the ominous family name implies.  But the bigger reason was just habit.   Potatoes are strange.  They are not like other root crops such as carrots or turnips.  In fact, they are a lot more like an apple.  The French even call them pomme de terre or ground apples.

Potatoes baking 

The French Revolution and the generation of violence it provoked across Europe was the catalyst that thrust potatoes firmly into European cuisine.  The edible part of the potato plant grows below ground and so is less at risk when marauding armies trample or burn the crops.   Of course, potatoes were not as good back then.  The potatoes most of us love were developed by Luther Burbank in 1872.  Like the corn & tomatoes, potatoes as we know them are largely a man-made modern creation.   

I still eat baked potatoes seasonally.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  First is that potatoes are available and cheap in the fall.   You can get a ten pound bag of potatoes for a few dollars in November or December.  That is why I ate them as a poor graduate student.  (You can get a week’s worth of meals for around $10 even at today’s prices.)  Beyond that, I don’t like to bake during the warm weather months, but it is nice to let the oven warm up the house when the weather turns cold.   I learned to be a cheapskate long ago and I see no reason to change now, especially when my potato habits make sense and potatoes are so good.

Anyway, potatoes are easy to cook, cheap and basically good for you when you add some vegetables and not too much butter or sour cream.  I suppose that is the reason why they are an integral part of a hardy meal.

November 13, 2009

The Desert Speaks

Sonora desert landscape at Bryce Thompson arborteum near Phoenix 

We spent our last day in Arizona at the Bryce Thompson arboretum, where you can see trees and plants native to the desert southwest, the Sonora and Chihuahua regions, as well as those from deserts in South America, Africa and Australia.

Cactus flowers 

Desert landscapes are strange for someone who grew up in Eastern North America, although the Sonora vegetation is vicariously familiar because of all the cowboy movies.   Almost everything has thick skin and thorns and takes a long time to grow. 

Cactus fruit 

The exception is the gum tree or eucalyptus. It is a type of miracle tree from Australia.  It can grow very fast in dry harsh conditions.  This wonderful capacity for growth and adaption has made eucalyptus an invasive species.  It can often out-compete the native desert flora, but it provides little for wildlife to eat.  

Grove of gum trees 

Kuala bears eat the leaves, but most other animal avoid them. I suppose this is because they smell like Halls Mentholypus cough drops and probably taste like them too.  It is an acquired taste.  Like everything else, its value can be judged only in context.  Eucalyptus are great trees to provide shade, cover and erosion control.  They get big. The one pictured below was planted in 1926.  And they are attractive individually and in clumps.

Big eucalyptus tree 

Date palms were familiar from Iraq. Dates are a very productive desert tree.  I have written about them before. I cannot tell them apart, but I understand that there are dozens of varieties.

Date palms 

An arboretum is not only a pretty place. It is also a place to learn about natural communities. They say the desert speaks, but I like to have someone put up a few signs to interpret it for me.  The biggest surprise was an Australian she-oak.  It is not related to our oaks (quercus).  I had absolutely no idea what it was.  Below are Maleah, Diane & Christiana in the date palm grove.

Maleah, Dianne and Christiana 


November 11, 2009

Grateful Remembrance

Most of the fathers in my neighborhood were veterans of World War II or Korea. I remember them mostly as middle aged guys with short haircuts, strong forearms and thick necks. They were like everybody else in our working-class neighborhood because they were the neighborhood. 

Non-veterans were rare.  We kids just assumedVeteran's Day at Navy Memorial we would go into the military when we reached manhood.  But I grew up just at a turning point.  They stopped drafting young men the year before I turned 18.  The new volunteer military meant that fewer and fewer Americans had any experience with the military.  Many young people today don’t have any close friends or relatives with military experience.  They take their impressions from Hollywood, which exhibits a systemic negative bias toward the military these days. 

That is too bad.  Today’s military is extraordinarily impressive, but many of those who haven’t seen it up close lately are stuck in the old stereotypes. You hear the prejudice when people say that the military is full of poor people w/o other choices. In fact, the opposite is true.  75% of today’s young people are not qualified for military service because they are too fat, too weak, druggies, crooks or dropouts and studies show that the average soldiers or Marines are better in terms of education, health and general attitude than the average civilian Americans of their age.

Until not long ago when I thought of veterans, I still saw those old WWII guys I knew as a kid. There service was twenty years in the past by the time I knew them.  It was distant, almost legendary. Their sacrifices and those of their comrades were equally remote. The Vietnam vets were only a little older than I was, but that war got compartmentalized, with student protesters and hippies taking the starring roles leaving the military as supporting characters, portrayed as victims, villains or psychos.   (BTW – I think that is one reason why movies like “The Men Who Stare at Goats” or “Brothers” infuriate me so much.  I fear that Hollywood is doing to the heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan what they did to those of Vietnam.)  In both cases, they were isolated from my reality.

But on this Veterans’ Day I realize that my views of veterans have undergone a significant change.  It is not only because of my Iraq experience.  Some of it is generational.   I am now older than most veterans and many of the older veterans are nearly my contemporaries.   I am now seeing veterans not as fathers, but as sons.   That has made it more poignant and I have seen it closer.

The death that affected me most was that of PFC Aaron Ward. He was only nineteen and had been in Iraq less than two months when he was shot and killed on May 6, 2008 as he stretched his legs outside his vehicle in Hit (that is the city name).  I knew the place but I didn’t know him or anything about him until I attended the memorial service. His friends described him as a friendly guy who liked to lift weights and joke with friends. Like everyone in Iraq, he was a volunteer who had chosen to serve his country knowing that he would be deployed to a war zone.  He seems a great guy and at the same time an average guy who did the things nineteen year old guys do.  I thought of Espen and Alex and I thought of Ward’s parents. And so this Veteran’s Day and every Veterans Day until the day I die I will pause to remember Aaron Ward.

Brave men and women put their own lives on hold and their own lives at risk to protect ours.  We mourn the fallen, but we should think of our military as heroes, not victims. Most come back healthy and alive.  They bring with them the skills, discipline, maturity and experience from their service to our country defending our freedom. They serve in the military for some years. Then they serve as good citizens for the rest of their lives.  Like those veterans I remember from my Milwaukee childhood, first they defend the country and then they come back to build it and keep it healthy. They deserves the honor and respect we give them on Veterans’ Day and every day.

BTW - Please see my note from last Veterans' Day at this link. 

November 10, 2009

Take it Easy

Lighten up while you still can

Winslow, AZ 

We finally got down to Winslow, Az.  Winslow is world famous among fans of the 1970s pop group “The Eagles,” since one of their hits “Take it Easy” features a hitchhiking vignette when the singer is “…standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona.”   We didn’t actually see the corner, although I looked for it and evidently drove past it on the way to Highway 87.

Burning Brush

Smoke from controlled burn near Grand Canyon 

The geography changed as we climbed from the semi-arid grasslands through juniper and back up to beautiful ponderosa pine forests. I regret that it was getting a little late and we were losing the light so I couldn’t tarry longer.  This is part of the Coconino National Forest and the Forest Service was busy burning the brush.  We saw a lot of smoke and even some flames.  You can see the smoke in the distance in the picture above. I am encouraged to see the proactive use of fire to restore the landscapes.  The park-like ponderosa forest, with its interspersed meadows, is one of nature’s most beautiful communities.  Below is a well-managed ponderosa forest.  The ones with the red bark are at least 100 years old.  Younger ones have black bark.

Ponderosa pine woodland along Highway 87 south of Winslow, AZ 

Cool Air and Cooler Sunsets

Although Arizona was experiencing a heat wave, and temperatures in Phoenix were reaching into the nineties, the air in the piney woods was cool.   The thermometer in the car registered 59.  You might think you were driving through upper Michigan.  As I wrote above, we were losing the light and I didn’t want to drive the narrow, curvy roads in the dark, so we cut sideways to catch I-17.  We saw one of the most beautiful sunsets I have seen with red clouds turning purple before going dark.  I think the smoke from the prescribed fires contributed to the color.  I didn’t even bother trying to get a picture.  Beautiful sunset pictures are cliché.   Part of the beauty of a sunset lies in its ethereal & ephemeral elements.  Taking a picture is like trying to grab a handful of air.  

Meadow and forest along Hwy 87  

The picture above is taken near a gas station in Happy Jack, AZ.  Interesting name for a town.  We didn't see the actual town. 

We lost altitude as we approached I-17 and the temperature rose to 81 degrees, in spite of the coming of evening.   It was 86 by the time we got to Phoenix.  Back in the desert.  It is interesting that you can get such changes in such a short time and distance.

November 09, 2009

Navajo & Hopi Nations

Anybody can eat when he is hungry but it takes a real man to eat when he’s full.

CJ at restaurant in Cameron, AZ We went east away from the Grand Canyon into the Painted Desert and the Navajo and Hopi nations.  We stopped at a “trading post” in Cameron. 

Information about our trip through the Navajo nation in 2003 are at this link, BTW. 

They had a nice restaurant with very friendly staff and an old fashioned ambiance.  I had Navajo stew, which tasted a lot like traditional beef stew.  It came with fry bread, which is excellent, and the portions were generous.  Chrissy just had the cheese burger and fries. Usually I help Chrissy finish her lunch.  This time I failed. The fry bread is very filling.

That fry bread is really good. I enjoyed it just by itself and I tried a little with butter and honey. Then I got the great idea that it might be even better if it had some tomato sauce, melted cheese and maybe some sausages and mushrooms.  Maybe I should check to see if anybody else has had a similar idea before I open my restaurant.

Trading post restaurant in Cameron, AZ 

Space & the Eternity Highway

Arizona Open Road 

There is a lot of space out here.  Chrissy joked about those signs you sometimes see on developments, “If you lived here, you would be home already.”  These roads are near nothing. We saw a few lonely cows and horses, but not much else. Sometimes I wondered if we were really moving.  Although we were going 65, the horizon didn’t seem to change. This is the kind of landscape featured on SciFi.   The aliens could abduct you out here and nobody would see.

Proper Picture Protocols

Gas station in Arizona 

We stopped at the Hopi Museum.  I cannot show you pictures from the actual museum. (The best I can do is the cool looking gas station above, which I assume is culturally appropriate.)  A sign at the museum admonished visitors not even to take notes.  The $3 you pay for admission only goes for you.  Other signs warned that you would have your camera confiscated if you took pictures of various villages or activities. So I don’t have pictures of the Hopi stuff.  I have some Painted Desert pictures below.  There was nobody out there or much sign of life in general.

Painted Desert 

I have a good memory and could probably tell you about the things I read and saw at the museum, but they seemed unenthusiastic about this sort of sharing, so better not.   Suffice to say that there were some excellent black and white photos from around a century ago of people and places as well as a display of Kachina dolls with narratives complaining about Kachina doll knockoffs and/or imitations based on the concept. 

There was also a lot of information about a boundary dispute between the Hopi and the much larger and faster growing Navajo Nation. As per instructions, I didn't take notes, but seems that things were not going well. The Navajos and Apache arrived in the area a few hundred years ago and this is only the latest round.  According to the last census, there are almost 300,000 Navajos and fewer than 7,000 Hopi.  The numbers explain a lot.

Painted desert 

I framed an excellent picture in my mind.  Outside the museum there were a bunch of guys selling things like firewood, rugs and Kachina dolls from little stands or the backs of pickup trucks.  In the background were spaced pinon pine trees.  Very picturesque.  But business didn’t seem too good and I was intimidated by the picture prohibition.  I didn’t know if I could take a picture or not, but why chance it?  You can find out all you need to know from “National Geographic” and they have better photographers who know the proper picture protocols. I hope I didn't anger the Kachinas.

November 08, 2009

Teddy Roosevelt & the Lodges

El Tovar Lodge

Above is the hotel were we stayed. The El Tovar lodge has that rustic elegance characteristic of the early 20th Century.  It was built in 1905, financed by the Santa Fe railroad as a sort of rail destination. President Theodore Roosevelt took the first steps to preserve the canyon about that time and the lodges here reflect that muscular personality of Roosevelt and America of that era. The Canyon was declared a national monument in 1908 and a national park in 1919.

moose head 

The dark log walls are studded with actual heads of moose, deer, mountain goats and even bison.  I always wanted a moose head for my wall, but I have never had enough walls to handle something as big as a moose head.   You need a really big room with really high walls.  Actually, you probably need something a lot like the room in a big lodge. Moose are not native to Arizona, BTW, so the head came from somewhere else.

Below is Bright Angel Lodge. 

Bright Angel Lodge 

November 07, 2009

Feeble Imitations

Grand Canyon 

The pictures I took of the canyon do not do it justice.  It is hard to get my camera to adjust properly to the combination of bright light and dark shadows.   Even when the light works, the colors don’t show exactly right and it is impossible to convey the depth.  But this is the best I can do.  You will have to come here yourself.

Light spilling into the Grand Canyon 

The light seems to spill into the canyon when the sun is just over the rim.  There is still a little haze in the air.  I think it is left over from prescribed burns to manage the neighborhood forests, as described in earlier posts.

Grand Canyon panorama AM 

Above & below are canyon panoramas.  The bottom one was taken just at dusk, so there are not the shadows.   When you see the canyon in person, the shadows make it much more beautiful as you eyes can move and adjust.  But the pictures come out better w/o the sunlight.  I bet the nicest photos could be made when high clouds blocked some of the direct light. 

Grand Canyon panorama PM 

View Master

The best pictures of the Grand Canyon were the old View Masters I had as a kid.  The canyon seems very familiar to me today because of the many visits I made via View Master.  The simple technology worked great and the fact that we didn't have very many options gave me the exposure I still remember more than forty years later.  

Mules in Grand CanyonThe Real Thing Requires a Little Pain

Everything goes in and out of the Canyon on mules or people.  They don't bring machines, which makes the trails and facilities more primitive and much nicer. 

I hope it never changes. IMO, views and experiences are better when you have to earn them.  Some day I will be too old to make the journey and then I will have only memories and pictures. So sad, but so right.

I don't want it to be made easily accessible for me or anybody else. Not only would that impact nature adversely, the experience of the Canyon would be different and much shallower if you could just drive down in air conditioned comfort or take an elevator.

It is that way with most things.  A rest you earn with good hard work is different and better than when you just get to lay around.  Achievement easily given is not achievement you value. 

Most people stay on top and marvel at the beauty in a more detached way.  Good. Keep it that way. The more spiritual experience requires a little more skin in the game. The sweat and exertion are part of it.  An erzatz version would be worse than nothing, or at best a feeble imitation.  We already have too much of that in today's world. 

Grand Canyon trails 


Four Legs Good; Two Legs Bad

john matel using walking sticks at Grand Canyon 

Chrissy and I went down as far as Indian Gardens.  This is an oasis on the Bright Angel trail and it is the logical terminus of a day hike for a person in average condition.  It took us around three hours to get down but only around two and a half hours to get back up.  It doesn’t make intuitive sense.  I think it is because of all the rocks.  I walk gingerly among them going downhill.  We also had to get to the side of the path to let hikers pass who were coming up or mule trains coming down. There was less oncoming traffic on the return trip and no mule trains came past. 

Christine Johnson on Bright Angel trail 

Of course I am not counting the leisurely lunch-break we spent at Indian Gardens.  The cottonwoods and willow make very pleasant surroundings.  Both are fast-growing adaptive trees but are often unloved because of their weak wood, short lives and susceptibility to wind damage.   Of course, it depends on where they are.  As long as they are not near houses or roads, they do just fine.  Except that they grow in generations, i.e. a lot of them come up the same time and whole clumps grow, live and die together.  This is not a problem except during generational change, when the whole clump of cottonwoods begins to die back about the same time.

cottonwoods at Indian Gardens 


john Matel at top of Grand CanyonThe morning later I my complaining muscles reminded me that I am no longer in the top condition I used to imagine.   The pattern of pain was interesting, more characteristic of overdoing cross country skiing than overdoing ordinary hiking.  I suppose it is because of the poles. 

My legs hurt a lot less than I would have guessed, but my arms, chest and lats are screaming. 

I used to cross country ski a lot when we lived in Norway.  I am sure I used the poles the way the Norwegians taught me, which is to push off in back of your body instead of leaning forward on the sticks. I recognize the feelings.   The good news is the pain confirms that the poles worked.  I pulled myself out of the canyon w/o overstraining my legs or knees.  

As they say (for different reasons) in "Animal Farm", "Four legs good; too legs bad."


The link to my earlier trip down the canyon is at this link.  That time we did it in 117 degree heat and went all the way to the river and back.  That was stupid.  The bottoms of my shoes melted off on the hot rocks. Really. 

This time we had perfect weather. Cool at the top and only warm near Indian Gardens. AND we didn't go all the way down.

November 06, 2009

Route 66 & Moutain Men

Classic Cars at Route 66 Grill on the way to Williams, Az

Route 66 has been replaced by I-40 through Arizona, but the legend remains.  Among the places showing homage to the “mother road” is the Route 66 Grill.  My guess is that the clientele includes a lot of bikers and truckers. You get to (have to) grill your own lunch. I chose bratwurst, since I was reasonably sure that I couldn’t mess up with a pre-cooked sausage. I just had to blacken the outside.

Chrissy grilling at Route 66 Grill 

William Williams of Williams, AzFarther down the road is Williams.  We visited here in 2003 and you can read about that at this link.  Williams has a superb natural location with a nice cool climate in the middle of the ponderosa pine forests on the way to the Grand Canyon, but it is just a little too far out of the way.  It has always been thus.  The town is named for the mountain man (and son of plainly unimaginative parents) William Williams.  According to the plaque at the monument, Williams organized the regional mountain man rendezvous at the site of the current down and generally “did a heap of living.” 

Those rendezvous must have been something to experience, with the grizzly men coming out of the woods once a year to trade their pelts for the goods they needed, including whiskey, women & weapons.  Merchants came from all over to trade and probably rip them off.  Of course, it was dangerous to cross a man who lived by himself most of the time and whose daily life required him to kill animals & fight Indians.  Fuel that guy with rye whiskey and you had murder and mayhem waiting to happen.

Mountain men like Jeddiah Smith, Jim Bridger and William Williams went up to the mountains to get away from civilization, but their activities opened up the wilderness and allowed in what they were trying to escape. 

The mountain man epoch lasted less than a generation.  A lot of their activity was based on chasing beavers to satisfy the vagaries of fashion. The pelts were used for felt hats worn by gentlemen in Europe and the Eastern U.S. The bottom fell out of the market when fashions changed and silk hats became all the rage. Anyway, by that time settlers were moving in and the railroads were binding the nation together. There was no longer any room for the mountain men.  Their legend has endured longer than their moment in history.

The story of our 2003 trip to Williams is here.

Montezuma's Castle & Red Rocks

Montezuma's Castle 

We headed up to the Grand Canyon via Sedona, which took us through the red rock country along Oak Creek.  Our first stop was Montezuma’s Castle, misnamed after the legendary King of the Aztecs, whose people never got this far north.   Castle is also a bit of a misnomer.  It is essentially a lightly fortified cliff dwelling and it was a Pueblo type people who made the structure as a refuge against enemies.  Archeologists call them Sinaqua people.

Looking at the extent that people lived in fortified villages reminds us how precarious life was in the past.   Violent marauders or dangerous animals could appear at any time and the lookouts could only detect as far as their naked eyes could see.   Since old guys, less useful working in the fields, evidently often got the lookout job, sighting distances were cut even further by failing eyesight.

Fall colors near Montezuma's Castle 

However, as far as stone-age communities go, this was a top of the line location. It was defensible, as mentioned above. Oak Creek provides a steady supply of water, important to human life and attractive to game animals and the loose soils near the creek were easily worked with simple tools available. 

The community thrived for centuries and then just disappeared around 600 years ago. Nobody is sure what happened.  There was significant climate change at the time, with the area becoming drier. This might have changed availability of game species.  That cannot be the only explanation; since the creek did not dry up and no matter how tough conditions were near the creek, they must have been worse away from it. Below is Oak Creek near Sedona.

Oak Creek near Sedona 

I blame Rousseau and his "noble savage" myth for giving us the misconception that life before civilization was good. In fact, life for most was violent, unpredictable, generally brief and often unpleasant. A better question to ask is how people persisted for so long rather than why they disappeared. It was probably a combination of war and changing ecological conditions that drove the people away from this area. Of course, sometimes things just happen. Only around fifty people lived in this village. With a small, preliterate culture a few bad decisions, a couple of nasty neighbors or just a run of bad luck can doom a community. I suppose a bigger question is why they didn’t come back.

Red rocks near Oak Creek, Az 

I didn’t think of Arizona as a beautiful autumn location, but the sycamore trees along creek were showing off a rich golden color.  It was a beautiful fall day at Montezuma’s castle, as you can see from the nearby pictures. We moved up the road and upstream to the town of Oak Creek and the Sedona area. We stayed at the Best Western in Sedona.  Below is the view from the balcony.

View from Balcony of Best Western in Sedona 

This is the red rock canyons area with natural beauty all around.  It reminded both Chrissy and me of the Petra area of Jordan.   Sedona was a cowboy movie location during the 1940s and 1950s and there were markers with handprints of famous actors who played in the movies.  The only ones I recognized were Gene Autry and Ernest Borgnine.  More recently, it has become a center of arts and crafts and a kind of aging hippie hangout.  There is supposed to be some kind of vortex that connects to other dimensions or releases psychic energy or something like that.  This and the lyrically beautiful scenery attract various sorts of people.  There are also plenty of trails for outdoor activity.  It is a nice place generally.

Switchbacks on road from Sedona to Flagstaff 

Past Sedona you climb the mountain in a series of switchbacks.  You are still following Oak Creek, more or less.  That little creek is responsible for most of the beautiful topography.  The natural communities change as you climb with scrub, juniper and pinion pines giving way to open ponderosa forests.

Prescribed burn on ponderosa pine 

The forest service has been managing these piney woods well, at least near the roads where I could see it.  I noticed the results of prescribed burning programs and the trees were often in clumps, as they would be in healthy ponderosa forests of the past.   I saw lots of evidence of fire along the road.  I took a picture of an area that was still warm from the recent burn to show what is supposed to look like.  We saw smoke in the distance the day before, which may account for some of the haze we noticed in Sedona. 


November 04, 2009

Retire Smokey the Bear

Cactus forest on the slopes of Mt Lemon 

I know it is ecology101, but I had never actually done the road trip version of driving from the Sonora desert biome into the alpine/Canadian biome in around an hour.  To get the same sorts of changes you see as you climb Mt Lemon from the roughly 2500 ft near Tucson to around 9000 ft at the peak,  you would have to drive from southern Arizona up to just south of Hudson Bay.

Scrub forest on Mt Lemon 

You start in the scrub and cactus forest on the lower slopes.  Next is semi-arid grassland. Soon you get into junipers, some cottonwoods and oak woodland, followed by montane ponderosa pine and then the spruce of the boreal forests. The biomes mix and match in ways they would not if spread over a larger area, as subtle changes in elevation and topography create micro-climates.

Mixed forest and cactus in a draw on Mt Lemon 

It was more than twenty degrees cooler on the top than on the bottom the day I went up.

Ponderosa pine forests on Mt Lemon 

They call these “sky islands” because boreal and montane forests are islands of this sort of vegetation in a sea of desert.   As with all islands, the environments on them are fragile because of its isolation.   If species are eliminated from a relatively small area, there may be no nearby seed stocks to bring them back.   These communities have been in place since then end of the last ice age, when the cool weather systems were present all around.  We can think of the deserts like rising water as the earth warmed 10,000 year ago. 

Spruce forests on Mt Lemon 

It is important to manage these islands carefully, but sometimes good management seems counter intuitive. It seems to make sense to protect the ecosystems from destructive forces such as fire, but years of fire protection have endangered them.  Fire is a natural part of the ecology.   When it is artificially excluded by human efforts, the ecological communities change and large amounts of fuel are left standing in the forests or lying on the ground.   Instead of being a useful and healthy clearing process, fires under the man-made conditions become major disasters.  

Burned out forest on Mt Lemon 

When people see these fires they often demand even greater “protection” making things worse and worse. Above you can see the results of a fire made too big by years of fire suppression.  If we continue to "protect" this land from regular fires, the forest will grow back - again too thickly - until the next big fire.  Below is one of the reasons we exclude and fight fires.  The new cabins are named "Adam," "Hoss" & "Little Joe" after the characters on Bonanza.  Hoss is the biggest.

Village at the top of Mt Lemon 

Fire is a natural and necessary part of a healthy ecological process.  If we exclude fire, we change the environment in undesirable ways and make it less robust.  Smokey the Bear should probably be put on pension or at least modify his pitch.  He has done too good a job.  Smokey is cute, but when he hired on we didn’t understand as much about the environment. 

PS an interesting article I read after writing is a this link.

November 02, 2009

Communities in the Desert

Marana vista 

Maybe it is just that Carl knows them. (Carl is a connector. He knows lots of people and is genuinely interested in their activities.)  Maybe a place like this is just particularly attractive to people associated with the aviation and travel industries.  Maybe something draws them here.  The nearby University of Arizona evidently gets a lot of grants to do aviation related research or it could be just a case of random clustering.  Whatever the reason, there seem to be are a lot of pilots and airline employees around here.  Many are retired but others own homes here sort of as a base.  I suppose they are like FSO in that respect.  They travel around so much that they really are no longer tied to a particular place, so they choose a nice place like Marana, with its sunny climate and ample amenities.

Below is a view from a bedroom in one of the model homes,

View from model home 

Below is an "outdoor room" at the development.  The doors open completely making the living room and the patio one space.

Outdoor room 

Carl showed me around his community, which is still an expanding work in progress.   It was started around 1990 and spreads up the canyons.  The growth is extensive, but well-planned.  Distances are significant and it is a long way to grocery stores or services. In other words, it is not a place to walk, except as exercise along the trails or on the golf courses.

Home in Marana 

You could not call it a retirement community, even though many of the residents are retired or semi retired.   Carl and Elise seem to be typical of the community in that I don’t know think you could say that they are retired.  They no longer work where they did during the bulk of their working lives, but they are active in their community and pursuing a bevy of business ventures.  I mentioned Elise’s Jewelry business.   Carl works on a variety of computer related projects and produces things like custom greeting cards.   A friend of his take pictures of the local wildlife – and sometimes not local as in Australia or the Galapagos – that they use for the cards.    If this is retirement, it is the kind of active and actualized life most of us say we want in both work and leisure.

Putting on the Ritz


There is some income diversity in the community, but the scale runs from well-off to rich.   You have to pay to live in a nice place like this.  Ritz-Carlton is developing the community up the canyon.   The big resort will open in December and the residences around can take advantage of the facilities there.   The Ritz will also manage the community in terms of trash pickup and maintenance.  This is a step above the average home-owners association, however.  The residents have a concierge service. You can call and have service worker sent to your house or if you are waiting for a service worker, they can send down someone to wait for you.  No more hanging around the house all day waiting for the cable guy.

When I think of putting on the Ritz, the scene from "Young Frankenstein" comes to mind, BTW.

The climate here is hot in the summer, but very nice most of the year.  The higher elevation makes it more pleasant even in the hot months and it is around 5 degrees cooler than Phoenix.   If the mountains seem familiar it is because those of us who watched TV during the 1960s saw them a lot.  Many of the westerns were filmed around here.   Even though Bonanza was set in Nevada, much of Virginia City and the Ponderosa were actually filmed here, for example.  The diversity of scenery and almost perpetual good weather made it good for filming.

golf course in Marana 

The community builders are doing an excellent job of conserving nature.  I wrote in an earlier post how some people seem to be offended by golf courses, which they claim are ecologically wasteful. Those with that affliction probably should not come here.  But Carl pointed out how the golf courses are built around the natural drainage patterns and are irrigated only with gray water.   As a conservationist, I believe that we should use resources wisely and that is what they are doing here.  

Saguaro preservation 

Ample areas are left wild and they make a extraordinary effort to preserve the saguaro cactus. Above is a cactus nursery, where the saguaro wait for a new location.   Below is a cactus forest.

cactus forest 

CrownAreas of the cactus forests are put off limits to development and care is taken to move the safely saguaro in places where development must occur.  These symbols of the Sonora desert take many years to grow, but they have small root systems which makes them very easy to transplant.  The apparent anomaly of a shallow root system in a place w/o much water is explained by the hard-pan nature of the soils and the ability of the cactus to suck up and store immense amounts of water during the short times it is available. below and along side is a saguaro crown.  This is not something you see every day. It can take many years for a cactus to grow even one arm. This one is certainly more than a century old.

Saguaro crown 


November 01, 2009

Marana, Arizona

Moon rises in Marana, Az 

The development where Carl and Elise live in Marana near Tucson is very pleasant.  The developers were careful to leave nature intact whenever possible, so the houses blend in with their surroundings.    The area in back of their house is devoted to natural desert landscape and will not be developed.  Elise and Carl told me that they have seen or seen the signs of many sorts of animals, including bobcats, coyotes, lots of snakes, hawks and even cougars.  In fact, they worry that some of the local wildlife might make a meal of their little dog.   


Elise makes custom Jewelry, concentrating on unique styles and colors.  Some are very attractive as you can see in the nearby picture.  I got Chrissy a nice bracelet with a colorful interplay of silver and copper.  I am not a big fan of jewelry in general, but I do like it when it is unique and/or has some significant back story.   The bracelet met both of these criteria.

Elise jewelry 

Carl has a passion for genealogy and was interesting in hearing whatever I knew about my family history.  Much of it overlaps with Elise’s family, but he was also interested in my father’s side of the family.  He quickly found a record that recorded my grandfather’s arrival from Russian Poland, via the Port of Hamburg, on March 19, 1899.   He arrived with his brother, Felix.   Interestingly, the record records Matel spelled with a double l on the end – Matell.   It appears like that again in census records and then we lost the extra l sometime after 1910.  It lists his residence in Sakolle in Russia and lists his nationality as Russian.  Of course most of Poland was under Russian control in those days.

Carl working on geneology 

Elise and Carl were verMexican cokey hospitable.  Among the rare and wonderful things they had around the house was Mexican Coca-Cola.  It is evidently made with sugar-cane instead of the corn fructose we use in ours and it tastes subtly different.  My pallet for “real” coke has atrophied since I started to drink mostly Coke-Zero, but I can still taste the difference.

Carl took me around to look at the whole development.  The Ritz-Carlton is developing a whole complex.  Even though it is only a couple hours difference, I am feeling a little tired from travel and jet-lag, so I will write about that and show some pictures next time. 

BTW - the picture up top is the view from Elise and Carl's back yard.  You see Elise in the next picture and some of her creations below that.  Caril is working on his genealogy in the next picture and at the bottom is Mexican Coke.  Maybe I should restate that, Mexican Coca-Cola.

October 29, 2009

Mongomery, Alabama

Alabama Capitol 

Montgomery is on a flat site so it spreads out easily.  The central part of the city is very quiet.  It is easy to drive and