Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Fault, Dear Brutus . . .

I regularly scan the New York Times online edition's science section because there's seldom any science news that doesn't stir my imagination in some way. I check the food section for similar reasons. But this morning I ran across a story that perked me right up, about a new California earthquake map that outlines faults in pretty colors.

Of particular interest to me and mine is the fact that the Owens River valley is a veritable rainbow of fault activity, a great deal of which has occurred within the last 200 years. My home town, Lone Pine, lies at the confluence of more than a dozen faults that have generated displacement over the last 700,000 years, and more than half of which have been active within historic times.

The best known event occurred in 1872, about thirty years before any of my family moved into the valley. It was notorious for teaching inhabitants a little something about how to build in seismically active territory: wood-frame buildings survived, but adobe crumbled. According to W. A. Chalfant's account in the Bible of valley history, The Story of Inyo, adobe was the architectural material of choice, since appropriate wood was expensive and scarce (260). Even the fired-brick courthouse in Independence fell, and was replaced by a wooden structure which burned down in 1886.

The current edifice was completed in 1921: a lovely Neoclassical revival building with an Ionic temple-porch at the entrance. It sits right across US 395 from the Winnedumah Hotel (also built in the '20s), where we usually stay when visiting the area. The courthouse makes a fine sight for viewing with one's morning coffee.

The 1872 temblor altered the landscape significantly, but its most visible effect is Diaz Lake--the town's major recreation facility--and a scarp line that's visible (on and off) from the grave-site of the twenty six victims all the way up to Big Pine. On the last trip I made to the Auld Sod with my father, he showed me the spot where the scarp ran across the family's old property, and where the land dropped about ten feet overnight during a later earthquake. It's roughly outlined by the treeline on the photo that opens this post, which was taken from the back of the Robinson property in Big Pine, where our family reunions are held.

Were it not for earthquakes, of course, the valley itself would not exist. As part of the Basin and Range Province (eloquently described by John McPhee in his book, Basin and Range, which my husband and I have read aloud to each other on trips west), the Owens valley is one of the westernmost examples of where mountains have emerged and valleys dropped along the edge of the American plate. The mechanisms are complex and brutal, but they're responsible for producing the gold and silver and other ores that fueled the population of the west.

The more recent history of the Owens valley includes the effects of Pleistocene glaciation and the development of a drainage system that more or less ends with Owens Lake. This accounts for the concentration of heavy metal particles in the lake bed that, when it dried up, blew out of the valley and threatened the lungs of Angelenos in the south. During my entire lifetime a struggle to get water back in the lake has been waged, and only recently have wetlands been re-established, thanks to the Lower Owens River Project. The resulting increase in bird populations and variety is astounding, and when fellow blogger Martha posted pictures of pelicans flying above Lone Pine in her Skywatch Friday entry last week I was profoundly reassured by what these birds represent. (A tourist captured a similar flock in March of 2008 at Diaz Lake and posted the video on YouTube; try to ignore the commentary.)

Nothing in the valley is permanent, of course. The very convergence of faults that appears on the new map assures us that flux is the norm rather than the exception. I rather enjoy postulating a future for the valley (it's the site at which most of my fiction takes place), using all the bits and pieces from geological history that come my way. Thus, I have a feeling that the map will inspire a story or two--perhaps this afternoon when I retire to the back yard after a slog on the computer, in a place where most of the local seismic activity comes from energy companies' drilling for gas in the Barnett Shale: an indication that human beings really aren't very good at learning lessons about geological processes.

Notes: The photo of the Sierras from Big Pine (with a the Palisade Glacier peeking through) was taken during a trip to the annual Labor Day family reunion in 2002. I shot the courthouse from the Winnedumah Hotel, where my kids and I stayed while we were in the valley during the same trip. The glacier, alas, was nearly gone the last time I visited, in 2004. The reference to The Story of Inyo is to the first edition (1922), inscribed to my father by my grandmother, and punctuated with his notes. A .pdf file of the same edition is available at the link, above.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Nature Red in Beak and Claw

Sunday afternoon, which was dreary enough that we stayed indoors, both the Beloved Spouse and I were alerted to potential drama by the squawking cacophony of at least a dozen blue jays in the back yard.

Sure enough, the lot of them were doing their best to scare off our neighborhood punk--a sharp-shinned hawk who thinks our particular back yard is a feeding trough. His usual victims are cotton rats and small squirrels, along with specimens from our abundant supply of English sparrows. This time, though, he snagged himself a fledgling jay.

I took a couple of shots through the screen door, not wanting to interrupt his meal (although he hadn't actually killed it yet), but then tried opening the back door quietly enough to get a cleaner view. I snapped one while he was on the ground, and then he took off, jay in his claws, followed by the unsuccessful defenders. I hadn't had time to set the shutter speed, so all the pictures were blurry--but I did think the photo that serves as my Earth Day "poster" this year ended up looking almost as if I'd planned it that way.

This is, in fact, the third Earth Day on the Farm, and I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the sheer power this planet has exerted this past year, and--oddly, for curmudgeonly person like myself--to appreciate what most people will agree were pretty devastating events. Like the hawk amidst the blue jays, it's all been part of the way things work.

Perhaps we need to be reminded occasionally of who's really in charge here: Mom. Mother Earth, Gaia, Terra, or whatever we choose to call the planet on which we find ourselves living, she's one powerful babe. It seems natural to see her as a her, primarily because she does nurture life in a somewhat motherly fashion: providing us with materials for satisfying our basic needs within what many television series are showing us these days to be spectacularly beautiful, and yet infinitely fragile. If you haven't already, take a look at Planet Earth, Life, and/or Ken Burns's The National Parks. The variety and beauty of the species who share this space consistently drench me in wonder.

But Mother Nature also makes use of an equally wondrous variety of meteorological and geological events to shape and build the planet and that frequently put us in our place. Two major earthquakes and an economically expensive volcanic eruption can serve as timely announcements that human beings do not rule the universe.

Whether these events inflict damage on the undeserving poor in Haiti or Chile or Mexico, or simply disrupt the travel plans of the wealthier members of our globalizing economy, they do call our attention to the devastating power that lies beneath the feet or above the heads of every being living on and within the frail skin of earth and atmosphere we call home.

I keep hoping that disasters will make us wiser; that they will teach us to do better next time--in managing our population, building appropriate infrastructure, making sure that we understand science well enough to prevent much of the human (or even the general biotic) cost of events that shake the land, shift mountains, raise tides, and generate tumultuous winds.

Within every tiny glimmer of hope lies a realization that whatever we're doing, it's not enough. The disease metaphors keep creeping in: cancer, plague, pandemic. Only when I think of these diseases, I think of human beings as being the agents more than the victims.

Our many thoughtless follies, including our greed for things we don't need, and our sybaritic overindulgence in physical pleasure and quest for material wealth, lead us to make unsustainable choices that may not be reversible.

Over the next decade, and ten more Earth Days, we'll inevitably be visited with typhoons, hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis, tornadoes, volcanoes--everything Mom can throw at us while her internal processes are at work. How these "disasters" affect the denizens of this planet will increasingly depend on how human beings manage what's actually within our power.

Do we keep adding more and more population, using more carbon-emitting fossil fuels for power, threatening one another with war, building inappropriate structures in seismically active zones, attracting people to cities that can't sustain them, and living well beyond our environmental means?

We may not have the power to control natural processes, but we do have the power to mitigate the damage they inflict. Whether we choose to live in ways that help prevent the kind of suffering endured in Haiti, or ease the effects of drought on famine-stricken populations, or even encourage ways of traveling that don't lead to economic catastrophe when a volcano erupts, or whether we just go on as we have been--it's up to us. We can choose.

I'm just not convinced that we will.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Nature in Sub-Urbia

Skywatch Friday addendum, 16 April: If I don't cheat and use this as my SWF entry for this week I won't have time for one at all--so here's an update. The evening after I posted what appears below, the moth was still on the screen. But as soon as I switched on the porch light, he fluttered off. I guess I was sort of hoping he was dead, so I could "collect" him--but now I'm just as happy he was just resting for the day. The birds, however, seem to have moved in permanently.

A couple of days ago I was slaving away at the computer, and glanced out the window in front of me to see a gang of Cedar Waxwings frolicking in my birdbath. I say "gang" rather than "flock" because these birds are ruffians. They attack any unwary bush with anything resembling a berry on it, and completely denude it in moments. One day last week, they were busy stripping my pear trees of blossoms. No pears this year.

Right around equinox time they were at the holly, and I can imagine that it's only a matter of time before the pyracantha berries are ripe enough to gobble up.

After their group bathing experience (I only managed to catch three at it, and I had to shoot from inside the house), they gathered to sun themselves in a neighboring tree (see below). As I've mentioned in an earlier post, these birds once used to fly through, eat berries, and leave--after depositing the remainder of their meals on unsuspecting lawn furniture and laundry. Somehow they managed not to poop on the pillowcases drying on the line behind the pecan tree.

Nowadays they seem to treat this place like a cafeteria, especially since the establishment of the Carbon Sink on the southwest corner of the property. There's a lot of privet there, some of it probably contributed by these very birds, as well as the volunteer Chinaberry that grew from seed about six years ago and is now over twenty feet tall. This tree is, of course, thought by many to be a weed, but to me its a link to my Asian childhood, and also to Italy, where I saw it growing as well.

At any rate, when they're through feeding or bathing, they congregate for a nice long squawk, yellow breasts gleaming in the sun. I think I can put up with a bit of bird lime (the color varies with the meal) in exchange for tree ornaments and a concert every now and then. If you'd like to see what they look like in action, YouTube has a whole page of videos.

The latest oddity is the appearance of a Luna moth on the rusty screen door at the entry to the house. Beloved Spouse noticed it last night when he was shutting down the house at bedtime, and I snapped a couple of shots, assuming that the moth would be gone by morning.

But he was still there at sunrise, and so I photographed him from both inside the house and out. I love the shot with the shadow with the grids created by the screen and door muntins, but was especially pleased with the one backlit by the sunrise that opens this post.

I think this is the only time I've seen one of these beauties alive (if, in fact, he is still alive, and didn't just choose to die on my screen door; I didn't poke him for fear that he'd fly away). I knew they were in the neighborhood because I found a wing once when I was cleaning up the garden.

I'm heartened by the continued appearance of evolution's incredibly varied results, because in moments when I think we might be getting stupider and stupider as a species, something might survive our (ahem) lunacy. I guess it's just time to stop reading the op/ed pages of the Daily Poop, and certainly stop watching really bad doomsday movies (we caught the train wreck called Armageddon a couple of nights ago; very messy, stupid science, but a tear-jerker nonetheless).

Every time I drive by a manicured lawn (in the very economical and ecologically correct Vera, who has already rewarded me with four leaves for good driving) I can't help but feel slightly morally superior, knowing that my ratty, 100% organic yard has become a haven for all manner of flora and fauna. The Carbon Sink is now a jungle, full of edible goose grass, which is great in salads and cures all manner of ailments. Last year it was cow parsley, but this year the late winter rains seem to have drowned out some of that, and what the kids used to call "sticky weed" has replaced it.

The Beloved Spouse mowed on Sunday, and although back quarter-acre doesn't exactly look like Augusta National (many of the plants for which various holes on the course are named actually grow in my yard, too), it's rather more civilized now that it's been shorn; at least the clumps of assorted wild grassy stuff are all relatively the same height. I do wonder, when I'm sitting out enjoying it all, whether our lack of a chemical lawn service is going to make it more difficult for my neighbor to sell her manse (asking price is $519K). But I'm thinkin' that the kind of folk who don't like my yard will do one of two things: not buy the house, or put up a fence (saving me the trouble of repairing mine, and giving me something to hang bird feeders on). I live in hope that people will love the house (it looks rather like Morris's Kelmscott Manor), and think having scruffy, farmer-wannabe neighbors with a suburban wildlife sanctuary is a good thing.

Images: all taken with the Nikon D80, with minimal adjustments in PhotoShop.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Steamy Memories

Last Sunday's New York Times feature on the hot springs of Peitou, Taiwan's Steaming Pools of Paradise, sent me into a day-long fit of nostalgia for my childhood. It also sent me to my copy of the 1968 edition of Fodor's Guide to Japan and East Asia. My mother (Barbara Hoard) wrote the section on Taiwan, and I wanted to see what she had to say about Peitou (aka Beitou)--and Yangmingshan (Grass Mountain), where we lived most of the time we were there.

Turns out she didn't say much about the town itself, except that "The capital comes to Peitou to play, in every sense of the word, and some of the bathhouses are actually Suzie Wong style hotels" (p. 538).

Ahem. Suzie Wong, as many my age might remember, was the eponymous heroine of a novel by Richard Mason (The World of Suzie Wong) that takes place in Hong Kong, published in 1957--not long before we set off for Taiwan. It was later made into a film, which I saw at a local theater in Taipei, despite my tender age at the time (1961). Suzie was, of course, a hooker, and the hotel a brothel.

I was then quite innocent concerning the activities that went on in the bathhouses at the hot springs, although clearly my mother was not. But they seem to have cleaned up their act somewhat since, and are now Taipei's answer to a family-friendly water park.

The pictures in the Times article evoked all sorts of longing for the sulfur-laced air of the springs themselves. In every house we occupied on the mountain (three altogether) we had continuously-flowing baths of either mineral water or sulfur water fed from nearby springs. One house, next to a waterfall, was a classic Japanese-style dwelling (left over from the occupation) with tatami mats, a tokonoma, and sliding shoji doors that looked out on a Japanese garden and a view of the sulfur stream that flowed down the mountain and emptied into a small river below the property. There were also two freshwater fish ponds, one in the main garden, and another (in which my rabbit, Harry, used to love to swim) in the L-shaped junction between the living room and the rest of the house.

Since I went to an international school in Taipei (taught by Dominican nuns), I rode in a bus back and forth, and the aroma of sulfur always greeted me on my way home. To this day, I have no problem with what other folks refer to as "rotten egg smell." I actually missed it when we moved back down the mountain into the city for most of the year before I returned to the States. When I visited the mineral springs ("Dirty Sock") near my home town in California for the first time since returning Stateside, I was instantly brought to tears by the smell of the pool.

A few months ago, I spent most of a day on Google Earth trying to locate any of the places in which we had lived, but since the whole area is now part of Yangmingshan National Park, they may not even exist. But it was a great life while it lasted. We had chickens and ducks, I roamed the hills and rice paddies at will, swam in the municipal Yangmingshan pool (with President Chiang's grandsons; we became family friends with their tutor/interpreter), and wandered the mountain trails that led down to the suburb of Tien Mou where most of my classmates lived in what amounted to an American compound.

One of the finest gifts my parents gave me while I was growing up in foreign countries was the experience of living with local people. Only once did we live with Americans, and then only for a short time when I had to enter elementary school in Japan. Before that we had a tiny three-room house in a village next to a classical Japanese dancing school. In exchange for my mother's teaching her English, the dance instructor gave me free lessons--which may well account for my talent with pattern recognition.

The only friend I have left from my childhood is a fellow Dominican School grad who lives on the East Coast and found me by Googling my name a few years ago. We keep in intermittent touch, but haven't yet managed to get our families together. Still, I think it's significant that Taiwan is where I essentially grew up, and the friends I made there are lodged firmly in my memory. All it takes to revive them is a chance article, or the discovery of an old copy of the Fodor's guide.

Or the smell of sulphur.

Image credit: The photo of the sign on a road in Yangmingshan was taken by Allen Timothy Chang and available through Wikimedia Commons. It has, of course, nothing to do with the hot springs, but I found it appropriate nonetheless--and also hilarious.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Another Blustery Day

I feel rather like Winnie the Pooh these days, having been blown about quite a bit over the last few days. There's a great deal of wind, occasional sun (inevitably the sun shines when I'm holed up at work in the gerbil warren that masquerades for an office--with no windows), and dependable rain and gloom when I have time off. But the sky has been showing off, and this week's contributions are all from the end of March and this morning. The opening photograph was taken at moonrise on March 29.

Today I got shots of three layers of sky: blue (way above), fluffy white and pink (in the middle), and gray moving in. Yesterday started out much the same, but cleared up and was lovely in the afternoon, albeit windy as all get out.

Now it's just plain blustery. The sky is gray above and approaching black in the west; the forecast is for storms in the afternoon. I did get some basil and nasturtiums in pots and the potager this morning, but large-scale farming will have to wait for the weekend, which the local weatherfolk, not known for their accuracy, are currently promising will be fair.

Happy Passover to my fellow Jews, and to those who celebrate it this Sunday, happy Easter. I hope this is indeed a happy Skywatch Friday for everyone.