Saturday, May 30, 2009

Useful Work Revisited

As I near the end of my second month post-op, I've begun to exercise in earnest. I opted out of formal cardiac rehab at the Spa/Hospital where I had my surgery, because it would have meant something of a bureaucratic hassle with the disability insurance folks (I'd have had to extend my leave and work part time) and because it's just too far away--too many petrochemicals involved. I'd have had to let another portion of my yard go wild just to make up the difference.

So I'm back at work full time, though not teaching, and trying to establish some habits that will 1) make me healthier and 2) make it possible to better practice what I preach. Many times on this very blog I have waxed arrogant about how we should be living our lives, and yet I've undergone two surgeries that have, in part at least, been necessitated by bad choices about the way I live.

In an e-mail to a former student (and fellow snark) about my recovery, I happened to coin a new acronym: OffAss, short for Order of Former Fat American Slobs. Since I've already logged a full week's worth of increasingly strenuous exercise (in the last week and a half; I'm averaging about four days a week and need to work up to five or six minimum) on a stationary recumbent bike, I'm counting myself as an active member. I've kept off the ten pounds I lost after surgery, and need to drop another twenty or so more, but since I'm being fairly successful at watching my food intake, this should all happen anon.

One of the problems I've always had with exercise machines, though, is that they take the place of authentic activities we used to perform as a matter of course: plowing the fields, gathering the grapes, herding and milking the cows, cleaning the house (without "labor saving" devices like vacuum cleaners), mowing the lawn (with a push reel), chasing the kids around the yard. Even riding bikes and playing driveway basketball are perfectly authentic ways to use one's body, as are more formal sports (Beloved Spouse, after all, has his tennis). I actually love to swim, and when I was initially trying to postpone valve surgery, I started going down to the Senior center to do laps. But that only lasted three or four months before I got tired of smelling chlorine all the time (it doesn't seem to dissipate even after a shower, and it's really bad for the atmosphere).

Gardening is good work, too, but you have to get pretty energetic about it, and I only did so infrequently--usually paying for it with back pain and sore muscles as a result. I'm getting back into the garden now, but am hampered by the congregations of mozzies buzzing around thanks to all the rain, and it still takes effort to make pulling weeds a regular part of being well. I hope that during my all too brief summer break I'll be able to spend a couple of hours every morning re-establishing the habit, and get some meaningful work done out of doors. I'm certainly committed to not spending all of my garden time sitting in a chair reading about other people's gardens.

One of the advantages to keeping a tidy house (one not awash with dog fur and other artifacts of dog-ownership) is that it takes real energy to keep it ready for company. I was reminded of this last week, when I spent a couple of days cleaning areas that hadn't been touched for the last several months. I got a better workout scrubbing, hoovering, and polishing than I would have on the bike, so "house" went down on the exercise log to remind me of how much I'd put into it.

What I truly lament is the view that seems to have developed since I was a child: that necessary work for its own sake is less desirable than technologically enhanced "working out." People around here will drive to a gym to walk on a treadmill, rather than walking around the neighborhood, or lift weights rather than put some muscle into taking care of their own yards. Several of my neighbors have lawn services, even though these are perfectly healthy people living in houses that have perfectly manageable lawns. And since they don't have to go out and buy all the chemicals the services dump on the grass, they don't even have a chance to read the labels that might make them think twice about using the stuff in the first place.

I've also had more than one conversation lately about "cleaning ladies." Now, I know that folks have to make a living some way, and that housemaids have been part of Western culture forever, but I cannot ever see myself hiring someone else to take care of my house. This is the job of the people who live in it; it's part of basic home economics. It's my responsibility to care for my own space, to make it comfortable for its inhabitants, and to make it welcoming to guests. Perhaps the scorn heaped on "housewives" early in modern feminism is responsible. During my time as a stay-at-home mom, after all, I got used to the "you don't work" attitude--even though caring for my house and children was far more labor-intensive than anything I've done since.

If one truly doesn't want to be bothered with the "drudgery" of keeping one's home, then surely it should be worth decent money to turn the job over to the person who does do the work. But maids or cleaning ladies or charwomen or whatever you want to call them (and they almost always are women) get little recompense. According to PayScale, a maid with twenty years of experience can expect an average hourly wage of under $15 an hour, but I doubt seriously if many of the immigrant workers in this town make anywhere near that. It would seem that these folks, who are saving people from "wasting" their valuable time should be worth a substantial wage, but like much of the work done by "unskilled" workers in this country, it's not considered anywhere near as valuable as what "skilled" workers "earn" sitting behind a desk and messing about with a computer.

I know I'm probably overstating my case, and perhaps I'm being unfair to many degreed job-holders who actually do necessary and important work. But I'm back to William Morris's notion about "useful work vs. useless toil." As long as housework and real, natural exercise are considered beneath us, we'll continue having to manufacture ways to keep from getting fat and sick and burdening the country's health care system. And the people who do the work for us will keep earning painfully low wages with few benefits of any kind.

In the "Exercise and Fitness" section of his website, Dr. Andrew Weil (who combines the best of conventional and alternative ideas about medicine) points out that our bodies are "meant for movement. A wide variety of modern epidemics, from heart disease to diabetes to osteoporosis, are rooted in our sedentary lifestyles. Lifelong physical activity is crucial to optimum health, but running marathons is not required." Even though I owe my shiny new valve to a surgeon who does run marathons (good training, I think, for spending eight ours on one's feet saving two peoples' lives in one day), I have already found that it doesn't take a huge amount of effort to become a great deal more fit.

I wonder if the economic downturn will drive more people to do their own housework, rather than hiring it out, or get out in the yard instead of paying a gym for the privilege of using its latest fancy gadgets. I know this might mean fewer jobs for people with a restricted number of skills, but it just might begin to make us into a healthier population.

Image credit: Since I'm riffing on Morris again, I thought it appropriate to use the Pre-raphaelite painter (and chum of Morris himself) Ford Madox Brown's Work, one of my favorites. Brown painted it during the period from 1852-63, and it now hangs in the Manchester City Art Galleries. The link is to Wikimedia Commons, which seems to have pinched it from Mark Harden's Artchive.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Skywatch Friday: If You Don't Like Texas Weather, Wait A Minute

The old saw about weather in this region is that if you don't like what you're going through, wait a spell . . . it'll change.

And so it did on Tuesday of this week. Storms rumbled through, and I went out in the rain to record them. The shot that opens the post was taken in the back yard, looking southwest. The next shot was 180 degrees in back of me, looking northeast, about thirty seconds after the first.

The storms moved through, and the rest of the day was clear. My reward in the evening, when clouds moved in and the weather turned stormy again, was lovely colors, looking northwest. All of these photos were taken from about the same spot.

Happy Skywatch Friday everyone, and thanks again to the team for making it all possible.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Cadillac Ranch

A few years ago, on a trip back to Texas from California, Beloved Spouse and I finally stopped along Interstate 40 near Amarillo to see the famous Cadillac Ranch.

This monument to human silliness and invention was put together by a group called Ant Farm and opened in 1974. When we saw it in 2004, the installation had already been moved two miles west from its original site, but it was still silly.

I had planned to paint "Art & Design Since 1945" on the cars, photograph the results, and use the image as the splash page for my course, but the wind was blowing about 70 mph, so there went that plan. I did, however, get several nice shots from various vantage points.

This particular photo is actually taken at the wrong angle for a good view of the cars themselves, since it shows the undercarriages; but the real focus of the shot is the West Texas sky that goes on forever--and provides a nice horizontal contrast to the more or less vertical position of the autos.

Like Heraclitus's river, you can't "step into" the same Cadillac Ranch twice. Abandoned cans of spray paint attest to the constant revision of the work, and the continuing fun folks have enjoying one of the best examples of early large-scale conceptual art in the United States.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Nature and/as Nurture

One reason I don't like watching much television is not just because of advertisements, but because an increasingly large number of these ads seem to concern drugs. It seems that every other male (particularly the ones who watch evening news programs and sports events) in the country suffers from "ED." Cholesterol medications even start messing with language (according the the Crestor people, "athero" is an acceptable alternative to "atherosclerosis." Never mind that "athero" by itself only refers to half the equation: the fatty deposits alone, not the hardening thereof). The assumption that people are becoming too stupid or lazy to pronounce the disease properly may not be far off the mark, but should advertisers be pandering to them? An unnerving number of ads refer to sleep inducers or antidepressants, suggesting that things are getting to be just too much for us, to the extent that we're willing (or should be, according to the ads) to put up with all manner of horrific-sounding side effects in order to regain our equanimity.

But all this makes me wonder how much our modern ailments depend on our technologically mediated lives. The human species evolved with much simpler tools that required active participation to manipulate, so I suspect that we weren't particularly fat 100,000 years ago. A certain girth, in fact, probably indicated fertility in women, since we now know that when body fat falls below 10% ovulation and menses can cease. The earliest portable artworks, such as the Woman from Willendorf and the recently discovered ivory carving from Hohle Fels cave in Germany, may well have been fertility talismans (instead of Paleolithic porn as the news wonks seem to prefer. For anyone interested on my take regarding persistent sexism in art interpretation, I'm working on a related post for The Owl of Athena).

Of course, our distant ancestors were always in danger of being offed by some preditor, or by other mishaps, but people didn't settle into habitats without a reliable supply of food sources, so unless climates shifted too quickly, early hunter-gatherers might have well have been lean, and they almost certainly weren't plagued by the scourges of obesity. Women who successfully bear children, however, tend to have large breasts, stomachs, and thighs, so it shouldn't be surprising that evidence of fertility should prove to be an admirable quality. And after a hard day of gathering and felling game, people probably didn't have much trouble getting to sleep--even if they might have been a bit anxious about the size of that mammoth herd down the valley.

I'm not saying that lives in the past were necessarily healthier than those we live now, but it's hard not to come to the conclusion that certain aspects of those lives might indeed have generated fewer of the lifestyle illnesses to which we are now prey. Although genes for high cholesterol and diabetes were undoubtedly floating around, if you don't have the luxury of getting fat from inactivity and indulge in a diet heavy on the Big Macs and soda pop, those genes may not have a chance to kill off the carriers. Other perils may have contributed to shorter life spans (things like new strains of flu and plague, not to mention infections and the like), but these would have been accidents of nature rather than the consequences of excess.

Some of us, because of peculiar combinations of nature and nurture, are doomed to require life-long medication with potentially dangerous drugs in order to live out our artificially lengthened lifespans. I for one am immeasurably grateful to the folks who invented statins and especially to those who discovered that a substance originally used as rat poison could actually help keep people with certain heart conditions manage the clotting rate of their blood. I'm also really glad that human beings are smart enough be able to replace defective body parts or functions with mechanical substitutes. I'm on my second round of not being dead because of advances (not miracles, mind you, because they were invented by brilliant people who know exactly why they work) made in medical science that, if I start behaving more like our distant ancestors, may well extend my life significantly.

The bottom line is that we have choices, and we should be making better ones. No one is forcing us to eat fatty hamburgers or guzzle high-fructose corn syrup or pull carcinogen-laden smoke into our lungs. If we have functioning arms and legs and half a brain, we can get our butts moving, get a lot more exercise, learn to eat more healthfully, and obviate the need for most of the drugs that are causing me to wear out the mute button on my remote control.

Come to think of it, I kind of miss the exercise I used to get from getting up off the couch to turn down the volume. So maybe the real answer is, like the song goes, to blow up the TV. Spend all that time out in the garden, growing our own food, taking care of our own land, calming our own anxieties, relieving our own stress, building useful muscle mass and reducing our body mass indices without the need of pills or the advertising designed to sell them. Who knows. Maybe watching all those birds going at the business of making baby birds might inspire solutions to other problems as well. (The illustration is of the cunning birdhouse my daughter bought me for Mother's Day; it's roughly fashioned after the Shasta Airflyte trailer I dream of securing to use as a guest house in the back of my garden.)

For the record, I spent a couple of hours this morning pulling weeds, transplanting escaped violets, cat mint, and chamomile, sweeping pecan catkins off the patio and onto the compost heap, and admiring the nasturtiums I've finally been able to grow, thanks to all the wet, dank weather. Now, having probably over-reached my capabilities (I'm just six weeks post-op), I'll retire to a lawn chair with a good book and work on the inside of my skull for a while. The day is lovely, and this weather won't last for long, so I'll let nature nurture me while I can.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Life, the Universe--and Hubble

I won't be submitting a Skywatch Friday post today, because the best sky news of all is going on above us for the next few days, and I want to focus on the final mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. This single instrument, during its fifteen year active lifetime, has been responsible for the most incredible space photos ever made.

As I type this post, Astronauts John Grunsfeld and Andrew Feustel are well into the first of five EVAs whose sole purpose is to repair the aging telescope so that we can all enjoy another five or more years of even more spectacular photos of our universe.

I've been following this mission like a junkie, unable to get enough of it. Thanks to NASA, there's a live feed so we earthbound voyeurs can enjoy vicariously all the hard work these guys are doing. I lament that I no longer have NASA TV live on my fancy HD setup (which, at the moment is showing the Sunrise Earth segment filmed at Haleakala Crater on Maui--this is as close as I get to multitasking, but I'm also a Sunrise Earth junkie). Listening to two guys talk about spanners and bolts (one of them restores antique cars as a hobby) whilst hurtling across the sky is about as good as it gets for me, so I'm happy just to see what's going on.

Surely I've mentioned before that in 1957 (the year Sputnik was launched and the Space Age really began) I was watching a Science Fiction Theater program with my father. I have no idea what the show was about, but there were satellites involved, and he casually mentioned that one day the sky would be full of those things. Years later, I spent many a night sitting on the front porch of my grandmother's house, watching for satellites in the night sky over the Owens Valley, where you can still see the Milky Way spread out diagonally like a canopy of stars across the valley. A couple of years after I saw the program, I discovered literary science fiction, in the form of Robert Heinlein's Red Planet and Wilmar Shiras's Children of the Atom, which I checked out of the base library where my father worked in Taiwan. Only recently I found an antique copy of the Heinlein book, complete with the illustrations I remembered, at Half Price Books, and reread it enthusiastically.

Ever since my first encounters with "outer space" as we used to call it, I've been fascinated by what's out there. I'd have loved to have been an astronaut, but girls of my generation were still being discouraged from taking maths and science in school, and it would be quite a while before Sally Ride would make her way into space. I took astronomy and geology courses in college and grad school so I could better understand things like planet formation and stellar systems. Even in my teens and twenties I wanted to understand as much as I could about where we live, and how it got to be the way it is. As my academic interests shifted toward archaeology, I became fascinated with how previous cultures had understood their place in the universe.

What disturbs me now is how little interest there seems to be in what's going on right over our heads, right this minute. Comments on a science fiction focused forum I frequent (try saying that fast three times!) tend to reflect not wonder or excitement, but rather "meh." It's as if the real thing isn't exciting enough, and the forum members prefer fantasy over reality. I do wonder how they think all those future space travelers would have gotten out there in the first place, however.

Perhaps Hubble has done its job too well. Years ago I bought a set of 35 mm slides called "The Universe" which included shots of planets, moons, and galaxies, in resolutions that seem dismal by today's standards. The difference is like that between Daguerreotypes and modern digital photography, or between old black and white television and Blu-ray HD. Hubble's images have made us gasp with their clarity and detail, and have expanded our understanding of what's out there immeasurably. One can only imagine what the new camera being installed during STS 125's repair and upgrade mission will provide. Will the new images help boost the interest of a visually spoiled generation?

As I listen to the comments and conversations going on during the EVA, it's clear that the astronauts themselves haven't lost their sense of wonder. They always seem to be aware of how singular their experience is, and frequently voice their appreciation of it. Even mundane remarks like "this is lighter than it was in the pool" give us some insight into what it might be like to be up there, doing that, after years of simulation training.

Galileo and other early astronomers helped us understand just how small our little corner of the universe is; some of them suffered mightily for having forced us to change our view of humanity's importance in the big picture. Hubble, in taking its brilliant images of the outer reaches of our universe, somehow manages not to make our place seem even smaller, but to remind us of just how remarkable our little home is: one special speck in a vast panorama of stars, galaxies--and it seems increasingly probable--other planets not so different from ours, perhaps inhabited with heretofore unimaginable forms of life. If the newly configured Hubble helps spark some appreciation in new generations of youngsters, perhaps we'll eventually travel to some of these places. It's a dream many of us have held for a long time, and it's an idea that spawned the entire science fiction industry as we've come to know it.

Since SF films and television shows have depended so heavily on imagery made possible by Hubble's previous camera, the newest iteration, Wide Field Planetary Camera 3, (but for more information, primarily technical, see the Space Telescope Science Institute page on the WFPC3) should provide even better views and keep background animators busy for several years. So far, nothing artists have been able to imagine have proved any more impressive than the real thing.

The improvements put in place in 1993 were pretty remarkable and really dramatic (because WFPC2 has done such a good job, it's hard to imagine how things could get better, but we should see the results fairly soon, perhaps by September 9th. For a comparison of the original shots and the difference after repairs, here's NASA's example:

The human imagination is wondrous. It's given us several thousand years of technological innovations, and the WFPC3 is only the latest of these. As the Shuttle program winds down and new projects take its place, we can look forward to some pretty impressive NASA missions, as well as to contributions from private enterprises. Anyone looking for investment opportunities in a changing economy would do well to look toward these ventures. I can't think of a better stimulus package than one that stimulates imagination and creativity, and inspires today's kids to see science as something much more exciting than just another course to pass on the way to becoming a stock broker.

To celebrate the retirement of WFPC2, here's one of the last images distributed; it's available on the HubbleSite gallery and depicts planetary nebula Kohoutek 4-55. It's hard to imagine that things could get much better, but we'll see, come September.

Photo credits: Except for the last image, everything is, as usual, from Wikipedia. The ones I've used are linked to the appropriate articles.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Limits to Growth Revisited

Saturday's article by Catherine Rampell in the Economics section of the New York Times sounded another encouraging note for those of us who have come to realize that constant economic growth spells doom for the planet. (A segment of the article was reprinted without a byline in the Dallas Morning News this morning, on p. 13A.)

In the essay, "Shift to Saving May Be Downturn's Lasting Impact," Rampel notes that "a culture of thrift" is emerging that may well last beyond whatever Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue determine signals a recovery. I've already noted that thriftiness and a real frugality (beyond the coupon-clipping, bargain-hunting at Nieman's Last Call norm already in place) have become more and more commonplace, and practices that resemble those engendered by the Great Depression are making their way into our collective modern consumer consciousness. But the longer the recession lasts, the more likely, it seems, we are to discover that saving gives us the same rush that buying once did, and that having the money to pay for something before we actually purchase it may become a genuine all-American habit. Even pop-culture Sunday paper mainstays like Parade Magazine are printing stories by well-known writers, like Alix Kates Shulman, about "Finding Joy in Frugality"--in which the author wryly notes that what used to be called stinginess is now considered a virtue.

But the real impetus for this post comes from an article I read in Seed magazine earlier in the year (Issue 20, February 2009): Benjamin Phelan's "The Ecology of Finance," which got me to thinking back to the '70s and the Club of Rome's publication, Limits to Growth (an update of which is available in .pdf with tables that compare 1970s predictions with data from 2000. A recent article in New Scientist summarizes the results of the newer studies.) Using the principles of ecology in order to understand the market offers a useful, if limited model. At its best it can provide some real insights into how economic systems resemble natural systems; like all useful metaphors, however, it doesn't fit perfectly, but where it doesn't, it might be even more helpful.

One of guys who does this best is Herman Daly, professor of ecological economics at the University of Maryland (and former senior economist in the World Bank's environment department). His 2008 special report for New Scientist, "Economics blind spot is a disaster for the planet," made the best use of the metaphor I've seen yet:

The economy is like a hungry, growing organism. It consumes low-entropy natural resources such as trees, fish and coal, produces energy and useful goods from them, and spits out high-entropy waste such as carbon dioxide, mine slag and dirty water. Mainstream economists are mostly concerned with the organism's circulatory system, how the energy and resources can be efficiently allocated, while tending to ignore its digestive system.

I should probably stress here (again; this is one of the points on which I rant frequently) that the root of both "economics" and "ecology" are the same: the Greek oikos, or "home" or "dwelling place." Economics refers to the nomos, "that which is in habitual practice, use, or possession" of the home, sometimes used in the sense of a law or convention. The logos in "ecology" is a little harder to pin down (it takes up five columns or two and a half pages in Liddell & Scott's Greek-English Lexicon), but the first examples of usage in Greek have to do with accounts or reckoning--keeping tabs on the home, in a way. But it's also the root of "logic" and of all those "ology" words that refer to sciences (geology, biology, archaeology) in the sense of "study of." Other definitions include "reason," "explanation," and "rule." (This is why we need to know where our language comes from--so we can actually understand all the nuances of what we're saying.) At any rate, both of these words involve knowing something about the world in which we live, as well as something about those who share it with us.

We are, of course--humanity itself--the perpetrators of limitless growth and the use of metaphors to describe it. The very notion of economic growth is based on an analogy with the natural processes of biological organisms. But beings have a finite existence: birth, growth, decline, death. Modern economic theory is predicated on a model of constant growth when it would better be served by analogy with steady-state systems. True sustainability requires both growth and death--not one without the other.

One thing to be said for us as a species, is that we're really good at taking over the oikos, because we do seem to like to spread ourselves around. Perhaps the most successful adaptive strategy developed by homo sapiens sapiens is our ability to fill an enormous variety of niches, and to take them over successfully, often to the detriment of existing occupants. This happens both on a biological scale, in terms of supplanting species already adapted to a given biome, but also sociologically, in terms of phenomena like the gentrification of city neighborhoods, in which original occupants are supplanted because property values rise and they can no longer afford to live there.

This latter success is frequently welcomed by city governments, especially if it results in the revivification of "blighted" communities. Sometimes inhabitants are shunted into low-income housing, but often they end up in homeless shelters or on the streets--or in jail. A better solution would involve moving into a neighborhood that needs to be revitalized and helping to improve and sustain it without tearing apart whatever might be left of the original community.

A good example of our adaptive abilities can be seen in the continuing dilemma--currently slowed by the mortgage crisis--of urban sprawl. Evidence of sociobiological "success" is apparent in the spillage of suburbs into deserts, onto mountainsides and into canyons, and onto flood plains. These at-risk habitats that owe their existence to the forces of nature (heat, fire, avalanche, seismic activity, flood, and numerous other events) are not particularly friendly to human beings, with our attachment to permanent dwellings and infrastructure, coupled with general ignorance of the processes that produce the sheer beauty that makes these places desirable in the first place.

But deserts need artificial sources of water to support golf courses. Hillsides, especially those populated with species of fire-climax vegetation (chaparral, jack pine, etc.) and the seductive banks of rivers, lakes, streams, and oceans all require constant management: fire suppression, or at least controlled burns, flood protection (dams and levees), artificial jetties, beach renewal, and myriad other engineered "solutions" to "problems" that wouldn't exist if people weren't trying to live where they really shouldn't, and if people who should know better weren't encouraging them to do so.

Unlike the effects of other "industrious" species, such as the beaver, human transformation of landscape seldom results in improvement in the ecological sense. Beavers dam streams and create meadows and feeding grounds for other species; but when we dam a river, we destroy indigenous habitats and force other species to adapt or perish. And we do it not to ensure our continued existence, but to magnify our comfort. The market for human commodities (houses, food, goods) is driven by desire, and we really need to be more conscious of how to accommodate our true needs without killing the proverbial goose. Or beaver. (Sorry, sometimes the metaphors get out of hand.)

It's not that we can't be more sensible. We're perfectly capable of figuring out how to live more harmoniously with our environment. Human populations in the past have adapted to desert living, for example, with little impact on their surroundings. But most modern, industrialized nations have failed to limit their growth in any meaningful way, resulting in precipitous extinction rates and habitat destruction, in addition to the manifold increase in the use of fossil fuels and other limited resources which further stress our poor, beleaguered planet.

It's probably ironic (the word is highly overused these days as a synonym for "coincidental") that the economic downturn may in fact kick us in our collective butts and get us to rethink traditional market capitalism. Perhaps what we really need is an ecological analysis of the world economy to help ameliorate the current situation. As Phelan points out in his Seed article, the stock market crash of 1929 forced an overhaul of the financial system; some of these changes prevented the wholesale collapse of the world economy this time around. If only we could learn to use these big brains of ours to figure out how to live within our means, both economically and ecologically, we might not have to worry so much about how our grandchildren and great grandchildren are going to survive what we have wrought.

Photo credit: Earth at night, showing the spread of light-generating cities throughout the world. The image is a composite of hundreds of pictures made by U.S. Defense Meteorological Satellites Program (DMSP) compiled from October 1994 - March 1995. NASA image via Wikimedia Commons. For a better version, click here.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Skywatch Friday: 13 Ways of Looking at Spring Skies

Wallace Stevens's iconic poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" was one of the first texts I studied in a graduate course on translation. The concept that understanding involves multiple perspectives wasn't all that new to me, but this poem drew me to Stevens and his other works, and has frequently prompted visual "thought experiments" that involve looking at familiar things in different ways.

Since many of the photos I take are of my little half-acre in north Texas, I'm frequently inspired to shoot the same object(s) over and over again, at different moments throughout the year. Now, midway through a rainy spring, and before the premature summer weather sets in, I thought it would be a good time to visit and revisit some of this year's subjects.

The opening photo is one I took just after I started posting on Skywatch Friday, and just as the trees in front of the house started budding. The one that follows is of a gloomier moment, as storm clouds began to gather in a spot nearby, about two weeks later:

Just before the official entrance of Spring (phenologically, it arrives early in Texas), I accidentally caught a flock of Cedar Waxwings on film, although I didn't realize what they were until I was choosing photos for this post. I wasn't sure even when I enlarged the image, because their little cockades didn't show up; but the tails and the yellow-grey vests give them away:

And here's a closeup:

Today, as soon as the sun arrived (after several soggy, cloudy, dismal days) I went out a'shootin' and to my surprise, there they were again, this time filching the mulberries that grow next to my front door (the mulberry overlaps with the enormous pecan that grows in the southeast part of the property):

And a closer view:

Concurrent with the first Waxwing photo, I snapped a pleasant surprise--a volunteer redbud that had settled in long enough to be bud (although the buds are really pink), and not far away from that the wisteria had also started to bloom,

to be followed in another ten days by voluptuous, frowsy vines all over the fence, perfuming the entire yard:

Some of the flora aren't quite as dramatic, but still contribute to the suggestion of heavy vegetation to come, such as my well-loved Bur Oak. Its acorns are majestic, as big as hens' eggs, and its rough bark forms a nice backdrop to its large crenelated leaves--here only just budding out, dripping catkins:

Most of the photographs featured so far have shamelessly used the sky as a backdrop; but in these last three, it provides most of the content. The first is of a fairly typical evening in March, just as baby leaves have started to obscure the sky. The skeletal branches of winter have been replaced by fuzz, and clouds move in on a regular basis, but in this shot there's still a bit of blue in the corner, and darkness hasn't quite won out. Within a month there would be little sky at all to see through the canopy.

The second was taken as I was getting ready to enter the hospital, knowing that this month (April) would end my quest to capture all the full moons of the year. As it turned out, on the night of the Full Pink Moon I was still in ICU, and it was the proverbial dark and stormy night (I remember the rain beating against the big windows in my room), so I wouldn't have caught it anyway. Still, this shot of the waxing gibbous moon (although a little fuzzy; I didn't even think to get out the telephoto lens) got fairly close to the proper date.

April showers were in full force for most of the month, and on the 28th I awoke to a mist-drenched back yard. The sky had fallen into my garden, and we got a bit of a respite from the rain.

As much as I complain about being exiled from the land of my birth, there are many things to love about what's left of the prairie. My little carbon sink and my accidental garden remind me that it wouldn't take too long for signs of human habitation to disappear, at least on this small piece of land. I'm trying to strike a balance between too much "civilization" and too little, and I'm frequently rewarded by the variety and density of nature, and the role the sky plays in bringing it to my attention.

Happy Skywatch Friday, People--and many thanks to the crew that put this meme together and keeps it thriving.

All photos taken with a Nikon D80, using either Nikkor 18-135 mm or Sigma DL Macro Super 70-300 mm lenses.