Friday, June 26, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Game Distractions

Of the over two hundred shots we took of June 17th's Rangers interleague game against the Dodgers, several are of the sky.

We had great seats, ten rows up in the section just behind home plate. I was so close to the "special people" boxes that I even sneaked a couple of pictures of Nolan Ryan (got a great shot of his bald spot, which out of respect for one of the game's greatest pitchers, I will not share with you).

But I kept getting distracted by what was above the game (which the Rangers actually won), and here are the results. The opening image is of a bank of lights in center field, which I kept trying to frame so that I got the league flags in the picture as well. They were a little limp at the moment but the wind picked up shortly thereafter.

I'm too lazy to look up the score, but there were home runs, and these two shots show the fireworks and their aftermath against that blue, blue sky:

During a lull in the game I played around with the camera by looking up and leaning backwards, toward the nosebleed section behind us. I got both vertical and horizontal versions of the cirrus clouds that offered the only interruption in the field of blue, blue, blue--which translated later in the week to hot, hot hot. The high today will be 103 F. Summer has indeed arrived.

Happy Fiftieth Skywatch Friday, People. Hope it's cooler where you are!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Blue to Gold and Beyond

Last Friday, after I'd already posted about the storm situation, I took the shots featured in this Skywatch Friday effort. The best of the sequence (I think) opens the post, and the rest follow.

For those who really love clouds, however, a rather nice coincidence presented itself in my e-mailbox this morning from New Scientist: a gallery of nine highly interesting cloud formations, and two new books about clouds: The Cloud Collector's Handbook by Gavin Pretor-Pinney (London: Sceptre, 2009) and Extraordinary Clouds by Richard Hamblyn (London, David & Charles, 2009); they're both available from Amazon UK--dunno about here in the States.

And then there's the Cloud Appreciation Society, about which I heard during a kerfuffle on the news about a "new" cloud formation caught by someone who apparently hadn't done a lot of cloud-watching. The formation may come to be called altocumulus undulatus asperatus--but it's common enough to have been noticed all over the world, as this cool video from shows. Someone pointed out that Jane Wiggins (the photographer who made the news) took her rather lovely photo from the sixth floor of a building--which usually gives one a somewhat different perspective than simply viewing from the ground.

At any rate, here are my entries for the week. No grey skies here!

This is how it all started, with the front beginning to move in:

Later in the evening, the colors began to change:

The last shot above was taken at about the same time as the opening photo. And then things were back to normal--the final image is not unlike others I see regularly:

The weather settled down after all this, and we escaped another night of drama. It's almost a relief to be settling into hot, dry, meteorologically "boring" days. Have a great weekend, Folks, and be sure to check out the rest of the Skywatch entries.

All photographs taken with a Nikon D80 on landscape autofocus.

Monday, June 15, 2009

I've Always Wanted to be a Lumberjack . . .

Well, maybe not. But while I was trying to think of a title for this post, I kept thinking of Monty Python and, well, one thing led to another.

I've been so caught up in skywatching and spouting about nekkid wimmen on The Owl of Athena that I've neglected my focus on home, hearth, and sustainability. Not that I've let up on the reading and research or anything--I just haven't been writing about it, which tends to lead to rather disorganized thinking about it.

I was reminded of this last Saturday, when Beloved Spouse and I were out working on the branch that fell during our first big scary storm of the season. I've seen several tree companies in the area sawing off scraggly bits and hauling away logs that could be used for firewood (and many of the houses being serviced do have fireplaces--but I guess they're the gas variety and don't burn wood). These tree people use big smelly chainsaws that make more noise than Armageddon, and pollute the bejeezis out of the nearby air.

So it was with a large measure of smugness that I watched my dear husband going at this large limb with a smallish electric chain saw half as loud as its "professional" counterparts and not the least bit smelly. And we have added significantly to our supply of winter firewood. We still need to tidy up around the mess the branch made when it fell (squashed drinks-tables and a demolished plastic Adirondack knock-off), but that's easy compared to the hacking up that had to be done before anything could be moved. Were we younger, more agile, and had better backs, we'd probably have one of those two-handed saws that lumberjacks used to use. The electric saw is a compromise that allows us to do the work despite our physical shortcomings. People are constantly making fun of our wimpy power tools, but we rather like the fact that they do the job and they don't stink.

Mind you, we do own a gas-powered chipper-shredder, which will have to be powered up to deal with the huge pile of otherwise unusable bits and pieces. The only reason we don't have an electric version of this is that the one we bought when we realized we'd have to deal with a never-ending supply of fallen twigs gave out almost immediately, and the company wouldn't fix it. Not only that, but nobody around here could figure out how to repair one, so we gave in. But everything else--lawn mowers, trimmer, pruning tools, etc.,--are either electric or human-powered. Even our barbecue is a charcoal version, which we light with a chimney gadget. This avoids the inevitable kerosene smell that otherwise permeates the neighborhood during grilling season, which we notice because we usually have the windows open.

Now that the temperature is topping 100 degrees F, we've had to install our three window air conditioning units, but the rest of the house stays open. We don't have to fire up the A/C until mid-afternoon, and then we hunker down with the dogs in the baseball-watching room if we're not out of doors. Saturday, after hours of sawing and digging (I'm still trying to plant tomatoes), we went out for a late lunch, came home, and collapsed. The heat index was somewhere around 107, so we just gave up.

It does feel good, however, to be doing what little we can to opt out of the over-the-top, lawn-tractor and behemoth-power-tool culture we live in. We get a good workout, the air doesn't smell bad when we're done, and we've recycled wood that some might just send away.

I'm also reminded that there are all manner of wonderful things that can be done when trees have to be toppled, as the elm next to the house did just after we moved here nine years ago. A trailer full of migrant workers and their boss stopped by and offered to take it down for $300, so we let them. The boss wasn't happy when we insisted on paying the workers ourselves (after we asked him what they would earn), but the guys who actually did the work were tickled, and we felt better about paying so little for the job. They, by the way, only used the chain saw for the biggest bits; all the top work was done with hand saws.) At any rate, we got some great sections of elm to use as birdbath holders and such around the yard, and they're still in use today.

The most significant lesson from our recent experience, however, is that we're going to have to hire a professional arborist to come in and assess the likelihood of more branch disasters. Several of the trees on the property are at least as old as the house (built in 1922), and dead branches fall with every gust of wind. Since a couple of these trees overhang the roof, they could end up causing major damage.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, when this town was being built, transplants from the east were moving in, and they built what reminded them of home: big Queen Anne Victorians, Colonial mansions, a few Cape Cods, and even hybrids of the newest thing from California: Craftsman bungalows like ours. But some of these houses tended to be a bit fragile for the weather, so we were again fortunate that our house is pretty solid, stays relatively cool in the summer, and is situated to take the best advantage of the sun year round.

The trees help with this, but the advent of tornado season reminds us that there's almost no place to live in the world that doesn't harbor the potential for danger of some sort. We can be thankful that we don't have to worry about earthquakes (although those are happening nearby, perhaps caused by gas drilling along old faults), hurricanes, and floods (at least not in this particular neighborhood).

Were I ever to move and to build a new house, rather than recycling one, I would certainly spend time trying to maximize the appropriateness of design to environment. But for now, as I look out back on the newly tidied section of the yard, I can enjoy the tall old pecans and hackberries, and be grateful to whomever it was that decided to build this house out of solid shiplap timber rather than lathe and plaster. It's nearly noon as I write, and the house is still blessedly cool, while all around me air conditioners are cranking away, and I can hear the din of them behind the chirping of birds and the snoring of dogs.

Photos: A closeup of the split branch, atop the cheesy little table it smashed; Beloved Spouse at work; new additions to the woodpile; the birdbath atop an elm chunk--the "bird" is a metal pheasant we found in the bushes after we moved in. All shot with our trusty Nikon D80.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Weird Week of Watching Skies

I mentioned last week that we prairie dwellers are on the brink of Tornado Season, and so it is that I find myself looking out on the destruction wrought by Wednesday night's beastly weather, and contemplating This Week in the Metroplex. The opening shot is of what things looked like Thursday morning as the First Big Scary Storm of the Summer was on its way out. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Things started off calmly enough, but on Tuesday I spent two hours stuck in traffic for some still unknown reason. Two hours it took, to drive 30 miles. As I sat in the town of Allen, waiting to go south, I cursed the loss of prairie I can't help but ponder when forced to do so by lack of motion through the landscape. When I first moved to north Texas, this was all farmland. And as I crept through the sprawl (malls to the left of me, malls to the right) I lamented the absence of the cows and occasional horses or goats one could once see grazing alongside the road.

But I also realized that I would not have been sitting there at all were it not for the fact that the populace of this very town is why I was in my car and not on a train. Allen has repeatedly voted against extending light rail north from Plano (the next town south, in which I spent another hour, sitting), even though McKinney, the town I actually live in, is all for it, and I live within walking distance of where the station would be. Allen's reasons are stupid and perhaps even racist, so I won't go into them. But I sat there, waiting. I was in the center lane, and nobody would let me into the right lane so I could access an exit. I was well and truly stuck.

In Plano a half hour later, I amused myself by taking pictures of the sky with my iPhone through my buggy windscreen, getting these two shots of mixed clouds, a contrail, and one of many extremely tall light standards designed to keep us from ever seeing stars in this part of town.

On Wednesday afternoon tall billowy clouds started rolling in, and since it was hot and soupy out of doors, I knew we were in for it. The radar showed an ominous rainbow line of Weather (capital W) moving out of the west, heading straight for us. Purple tornado warning boxes started popping up on the maps, so we secured the house and sat watching the local ABC affiliate's coverage--which is always wall to wall and illustrated with film from a helicopter crew. I tried to go out for pictures, but y'all are probably tired of gray cloud shots (there seems to be a general preference for sunsets among the Skywatch Friday crowd), and that's all there was to see. This morning I did get the line of the front (see the opening photo), but by yesterday afternoon the standard non-threatening clouds were back, and the rest of the pictures show the results of Wednesday night's excitement. We missed out on the tornado fun, but at least one 80 mph gust went through and left this in its wake:

And this, conveniently superimposed on a nice, calm, blue and white sky, is where the branch came from:

As soon as it's dry enough, we have to get out our electric chainsaw and start working on the newest addition to our woodpile. The branch is from one of the pecans, a ninety year-old dowager that's been here since before the house was built. It will mean more necessary sun for my little potager, but it also means that we have got to get an arborist in here to assess the health of the others and do some preventive maintenance on the eldest. This is the second honking great huge branch to fall in this very spot (the other was from a now-removed elm tree in my neighbor's yard), and I'm just glad we weren't sitting under it. We only lost a couple of flimsy wooden tables and a plastic lawn chair--both of which were going to be replaced anyway. The final shot is of the remains of the branch, with its open wound, against the innocent-looking early afternoon sky.

Last night (Thursday) we celebrated our relative good luck by driving to west Plano to see Up! in digital projection, passing downed trees and raw wounds from fallen branches all along the way. That morning I'd been nearby and the storm was still wending its way through town, although it had pretty much blown itself out by then. The movie was great, and when we emerged, I took the final shot with the iPhone. Everything's back to normal: parking lots, pickups, too many lights, and a typical north Texas sunset.

Have a great, non-stormy weekend, Folks--and a happy Skywatch Friday.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Clouds Got In My Way

This is more or less a continuation of last week's ruminations on Texas weather. On Wednesday I took the D80 to school with me and parked on the top floor of the garage in hopes of getting some good weather shots. The clouds were building up all over, but at 10 am there wasn't anything spectacular (and the smog dulled every view anyway), so I waited until I left at about 3:30. By then things were starting to happen in Dallas, and off in the distance I could see rain falling south of the city. My view of downtown was blocked by adjacent buildings, however, so I concentrated on what was going on to the east and just above me. Nothing amazing, mind you, but interesting to someone who can't get enough clouds.

All the while Judy Collin's cover of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" was going through my head, and the post title was inevitable.

The sequence below just shows what I caught--along with a tiny speck of a jet in the photo that opens the post. Directly above me, there were still patches of blue, but the darker clouds moved in pretty fast. By the time I got home, thirty miles to the north, any threat of storms was gone, and I forgot about the camera because the Rangers were playing the Yankees.

For the last two days, the sky's been absent any of the fluffy things. No "feather canyons" or "ice cream castles." Just a faint wisp of cirrus fibratus, interrupted by a contrail. June marks the beginning of the end for north Texas: the humidity's going up, and there will be lots of mornings with few clouds and bright blue skies.

The afternoons will typically see a buildup of cumulus clouds, inevitable thunderstorms, and occasional scary moments if conditions are right for tornadoes as summer gets ready to arrive on the 21st. We'll also undoubtedly hit our first 100 degree days. For the moment, though, I'll just enjoy what's up there. Happy Skywatch Friday, everyone.