Thursday, October 28, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Stormclouds Gathering

The news has been full of storm stories, including rather stunning videos of the tornado that touched down in nearby Rice, Texas on Sunday. This week's Skywatch photos are of that same storm, but it only grazed us. As it approached, I shot both north and south/southeast, turning 180 degrees alternately: blue skies and white clouds on one side, gathering greyness on the other.

On Saturday, as I waited for the Beloved Spouse to return from east Texas with the tennis team, the tornado sirens went off here, but despite the wind, rain, and chaos, nothing much happened. By the time he got home that night, we'd suffered no more than the usual scattered pecan branches. The next afternoon I decided that the impending drama deserved documentation, and these are the results.

The shot that opens the post shows a slightly different view, toward the southwest. The rest show the contrast between what was going on to the north and south.

As the storm moved up, the sky gradually became darker, but since the sun was shining in other directions, the contrast is more apparent in some of the photos:

To the north, the front line gradually became apparent, but even when it passed through, a small patch of blue was still visible (at the bottom left of the image).

I've resurrected my project to photograph each named full moon for a year, only because I've managed to capture the last two: the Harvest moon on the equinox last month, and the full Hunter's moon last Friday night. This, of course, was the night that the Texas Rangers captured the American League Championship title and headed to the World Series for the first time in the club's history. Buzz from folks who attended the game mentioned the spectacle of fireworks over the stadium lit as much by the full moon as by the park lights. I've shot many a moon over Ranger's Ballpark, so it seemed a fitting astronomical tribute to an historic event. Here's my usual lame effort from the front porch.

The rest of the week didn't go as well. It became apparent on Sunday night that our cat Koko, who's been suffering from lymphoma for several years, was ready to meet his maker. The poor cat looked like a skinned monkey, although he was once so round and fuzzy and black that we named him after Koko the gorilla. He was so thin we could see the blood vessels in his legs when he sat in the sun. He was a pretty valiant cat, and had endured all manner of indignities over the length of his illness.

Our vets do a very sweet thing for clients when a pet is euthanized. They cast its paw print in a little clay heart and present it to the family when they come by to pick up the little cedar box containing the pet's ashes. Unfortunately, the last two years have not been good to our cats, so we now have a collection of four clay hearts--and an entire shelf of a closet devoted to pet urns. One day I'll figure out an appropriate memorial for the back yard and deposit all the remains together.

Koko's demise has produced mixed reactions. I'm glad he's not suffering (we were never sure whether he was in pain, but he certainly seemed to experience embarrassment when he couldn't make it to the cat box), and feel somewhat guilty about the relief that brings. For the past four years we've been caring for and cleaning up after a cat who's never complained and who remained cheerful throughout. Constant medication and litter-box issues have meant no holidays, so his death brings freedom from the burden (and the expense) of maintenance and the ability to take the pups on a camping trip or a family visit. We're down to one easy-to-care-for cat and the two dogs, which is probably an appropriate number of pets for a couple of geezers.

Last night's first game of the World Series didn't help our moods much, with the Rangers' being trounced by the Giants. Here's hoping things go better tonight. Have a happy Skywatch Friday, all, and a pleasant weekend.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Nature Red in Beak and Claw, Part Two

My Thursday afternoon ride on my stationary recumbent bike presented me with an interesting conundrum. I've been using the iPad to read Juliet Schor's new book, Plenitude, while I ride, but am easily distracted because the bike is on our screened-in porch, and I've got a nice view of a large pecan tree upon which all manner of activity takes place.

I guess one can tell I'm not a real photographer, or I might have slipped off the bike and tiptoed into my study to get the camera when a nearly full-grown red-tailed hawk alit on a nearly horizonal branch of said tree. I thought he was just resting, and kept an eye on him, but kept riding. By this time my dogs had settled down next to me to watch as well.

We soon discovered just why the hawk had chosen this particular perch. A young squirrel was making his way up the tree, and the hawk sat watching, patiently. The little guy got closer and closer, and turned his back on the bird for a moment. The hawk crept down his branch rather noisily, but the squirrel seemed not to notice. The next time he turned around, however, was his last, because the hawk gracefully lifted his big body up and down onto the tree rat, flew back to his perch, and then down onto the grass, prey between his claws.

The only camera handy was my iPhone, so I tried to snap him on the grass, but he was hidden by some cannas (dash those big leaves!). I got up off the bike for a better shot, but spooked him, so no picture to accompany text. I also lost .10 mile off my workout. Fortunately, Wikimedia Commons came through with a rather lovely shot of a similar event.

A better person than I might have tried to save the squirrel, but as I've mentioned, they're currently the bane of my little domestic world: plants dug up, fruit devoured, pecans wasted (this will be our third year with no yield at all). So I watched silently as nature had its way.

I'm not sure how I would have felt if the little squirrel had screamed in pain, but it didn't. The hawk did his work quietly and efficiently before he flew off to enjoy his meal.

Image credit: Hawk eating prey by Steve Jurvetson. Be sure to read his description of the event he caught on film. Even if I'd had the camera I couldn't have captured anything nearly as amazing. (The link is to his Flickr page, but I found the image on Wikimedia Commons.)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Gallimaufrey

There's no consistent theme in this week's offerings. I've been busy settling in to the new quarter and spending my two days at home during the week working on course prep instead of blogging as I'd planned. Not much time for photography, but not much to capture on the camera anyway.

Except for one rather nasty thunderstorm a few days ago, the skies have been relentlessly blue. Fall is most definitely here, but we haven't had enough of a cold snap to loosen the leaves' hold on the trees--so there isn't much color in them, either.

The opening shot was taken a couple of weeks ago, before the new quarter started. Since I work from noon to 10 pm two days a week and from 5 to 10 on Friday nights, I don't get to see sunsets on my way home--although after daylight savings time ends, I should be able to catch a few on my way down to Dallas on Friday as winter nears.

Now that the sun rises behind my comfy chair in the living room, I get to see some pretty reflections of sunlight through our old wavy-glass windows projected on the opposite wall. This one's a bit fuzzy, but it shows the effect. This wall is about to be painted a sagey green (it's now a sort-of gold with glaze over it--to match the harvest gold shag carpet we pulled out of the house when we moved in; I'm only now getting serious about getting the painting done), so the next time I take a shot like this it will be substantially different.

I hope everyone has a happy Skywatch Friday and a lovely weekend--and that the weather is as pretty where you are as it is here.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Old Friends

As I prepare to enjoy my long weekend before classes start for the Fall quarter (my first is on Tuesday afternoon), I've spent the morning in my comfy chair reading about dirt.

Speaking more specifically, I've been reading about microscopic bugs and a class of bacteria (Mycobacteria vaccae) that turn out to be particularly beneficial to humankind. Since I'm planning to spend most of the day at home-keeping (especially vacuuming, doing dishes, dusting, and generally tidying up after an insanely busy month), it seemed to be a fitting way to use my morning reading time.

Among the now-old magazines piled on my coffee table (old because I've almost completely stopped buying magazines, opting now for digital versions, library holdings, or quarterly or bi-annual publications) I unearthed the April 2010 issue of Body + Soul, the "Whole Living" periodical from the Martha Stewart bunch. I had picked it up because one of the teasers included mention of natural ways to lower cholesterol--guaranteed to arouse my interest. As I thumbed through it, I noticed a couple of articles on the cleanliness/antibacterial mania engendered by the H1N1 scare. Since I'm an avowed bug-(and dirt-) worshipper, I snagged a copy and it's been on the stack ever since.

The article "Talking Dirty" by Rachel Dowd considered the down-side of antibacterial cleansers and the like, quoting one researcher's observation that the challenges bacteria present to our immune system actually teach our bodies "how to deal with germs."

Now, I'm sure I've mentioned over the years that despite my mostly genetically induced heart disease, I'm ridiculously healthy. I can't tell you when I caught my last cold. I haven't had flu since I came back to the States at age 15. Some of my doctors tell me that the large doses of statins I take to lower my astronomical cholesterol may have something to do with this, and they're probably right. But I also think it has a great deal to do with where I grew up and how much dirt I put up with in my house.

It's not that I'm innately slovenly. But I doubt that many in my acquaintance allow spiders to have their way to the extent I do, or that think tidying up a stack of magazines is more important to a well-kept home than a dusted tabletop. I actually felt sorry for the spiders that reside in many window-corners in my ancient house when I turned the hoover on them a couple of weeks ago in a fit of pre-autumnal cleaning. The usefulness of the little beasties is quite apparent when one sucks up not only the webs and the fuzzy little egg caches, but also the remains of the other bugs--particularly mosquitoes and ants--from which the spiders have protected me.

My childhood in Asia seems to have exposed me to enough influenza viruses that I've emerged completely unscathed over many a seasonal outbreak. Before my last surgery my DO talked me into getting a precautionary shot, and I'll likely get one this year to satisfy my insurance company, but I probably don't need them.

At any rate, the article reminds us that slathering ourselves with antibacterial preparations (like those found in the dispensers next to the elevators at school) isn't just unnecessary (and probably ineffectual) but potentially harmful. By rubbing out all bacteria, we risk losing the ability to fight off new species or varieties.

I was rather pleased to learn that getting down and dirty may be good for the psyche. According to an April 2007 article in Science Daily, Mycobacterium vaccae seems to activate the neurons that produce serotonin, and thus produce an anti-depressant effect. Chris Lowry (author of a study that tested the effect of M. vaccae on mice, and mentioned in the Body + Soul article) wonders, as a result, "if we shouldn't all be spending more time playing in the dirt." These bugs are referred to as "Old Friends" in the bacteria-study biz, because their ubiquity has generated health benefits throughout human evolution. For more on the "old friends" relationship between microorganisms and the increase in maladies like allergies and autoimmune diseases, see "Should auld acquaintance be forgot. . . " by Holger Breithaupt in the December 2004 issue of EMBO Reports (European Molecular Biology Organization).

I do wish more people would relax about a bit of dust and the occasional muddy footprint tracked into the house, and concentrate on really effective ways of preventing outbreaks of the bad guys like salmonella--things like tossing dishcloths or sponges into the washing machine frequently, cooking one's meat properly, and wiping the cutting board down with soap and water, or a bit of lemon juice. Overusing stronger concoctions may turn around and bite us in the backside if the bad bugs learn to resist antibiotics.

The all-time best guide I've found to cultivating a good-bug friendly house can be found in Ellen Sandbeck's book, Green Barbarians. I've touted this small compendium of very good advice a couple of times, and still plan to review it for B&N and Amazon, but for now I recommend the chapters on the Barbarian Body and the Barbarian Table. Some of my favorite people wouldn't be caught dead without a bottle of hand sanitizer, and some day it may kill them. But Sandbeck's fans may well survive bacterial Armageddon, because we can live with mother Earth--in more ways than one.

Time to go play outside.

Photo credit: Cryptobiotic Soil from Arches National Park, by Daniel Mayer via Wikimedia Commons. For more on this particular dirt, see Cryptobiotic Soils: Holding the Place in Place, by Jayne Belnap of the USGS. Cryptobiotic derives from the Greek for "hidden life"--and these soils are full of it. For more interesting information on bacteria, see this week's post in The Owls' Parliament.