Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Solstice Sunset with Snow

The wintertime view from my office window just before I go home on the shortest days of the year just doesn't get any better. Last night, just after 5:00 p.m., this was the view.

Just a few minutes earlier, with a bit more light, the sycamore outside my office looked like this, still cloaked in snow from the weekend storm.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Snowy Splendor

View of my front yard with a (dying) sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboreum)
in front of two Canada hemlocks (Tsuga candadensis).

Saturday's snowfall on the Mid-Atlantic seaboard set records. In our metropolitan area, the "official" gauge recorded the second-largest snowfall on record (23.2 inches) and the largest December snowfall ever. In our immediate area, we got about 16 inches of the white stuff. The trails in the natural area were too deep to explore without snowshoes or cross-country skis (neither of which I own), so here are a few images taken from an accessible spot around my house as I was shoveling--and shoveling--yesterday.

Snow on the roof of the house

A Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) and picnic table festooned with snow

Snowy filagree

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Appalachian Trail Trek

The Pinnacle Overlook along the Appalachian Trail in Berks County, Pennsylvania

The Sunday after Thanksgiving this year (November 29, 2009) in the Mid-Atlantic was spectacular--temperatures in the low 60s with cloudless skies. The day just begged for a hike, and we were happy to oblige. We tackled one of our favorite circuits--a 7-mile loop along the Appalachian Trail near Reading, Pennsylvania, that includes the best viewpoint in Pennsylvania, the Pinnacle. This portion of the AT is located just south of Hawk Mountain and shares many of the same physical characteristics with its more famous neighbor to the north: expansive views, challenging rocks, and soaring raptors.

One of the rare, relatively stone-free sections of the Appalachian Trail atop Blue Mountain

This circuit involves three separate trail segments. First, there's a quick, steep climb ascending 600 feet over a distance of about a half-mile. Whew! Then there's a long, flat, but extremely rocky section along the ridgeline of Blue Mountain. Finally, a side-trail returns the hiker to the starting point along a steep, downhill trail on an old logging road running beside a beautiful mountain stream called Furnace Creek, so named because it provided water for the nearby Windsor Iron Furnace in 19th century.

A tight squeeze for backbackers
Many Appalachian Trail through hikers consider the Pennsylvania portion of the trail the most challenging of all because it is so rocky. The image below shows one of the most--but by no means the only--challenging section of this circuit hike.

An especially challenging portion of the Appalachian Trail. This jumble of rocks is the trail.

The crest of the Appalachian Ridges is cloaked with a Mixed Oak Forest. This forest used to be called the Oak-Chestnut Forest, but the accidental introduction of the chestnut blight fungus in the 1920s all but wiped-out the American chestnut. It's niche was filled by chestnut oak (Quercus montana). The ridges are windy and cold, and the soil is acidic, well-drained and nutrient poor. Most of the trees are chestnut oaks, but there's a smattering of red and black oaks, black cherries, and birches in the woods, too. Labor Day usually offers a plethora of blueberries.

Chestnut oak (Quercus montana) replaced American chestnuts (Castanea dentata) in the Mixed Oak forests after the onslaught of the chestnut blight in the 1920s. Note the thick bark and the faded white AT blaze.

The Pinnacle Overlook--best view from the AT in PA
Most people hike this circuit to enjoy The Pinnacle Overlook, widely acknowledged to be the best view from the AT in Pennsylvania. At the peak of fall color, it can be hard to find a place to sit to have lunch here. This is the only place I have ever seen a rattlesnake in Pennsylvania; it was curled up under a ledge. There are lots of slump caves and narrow crevices to explore below the cliff face, too.

Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) soaring on thermals along the cliff edge

After three hours of hiking uphill and or crossing treacherous rocks, the third portion of the hike on the old logging road is a real treat.

Mosses and ferns set aglow by low-angle afternoon sunlight

Eastern hemlocks and rhododendrons line Furnace Creek

Furnace Creek is beautiful along its entire length. Here, I discovered a small falls about two feet high. Just below this point, Furnace Creek is impounded behind a dam to provide drinking water for the borough of Hamburg, Pennsylvania.

Because of the depauperate soil and relatively harsh conditions in the Appalachian ridges, wildlife is not common--especially in November. We only saw one Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), one Black-capped Chickadee (Poecila atricapillus), and one White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) in addition to the Black Vultures. Oh, and a small Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) that startled us by crawling across the trail--in November!

Yours truly at the Pulpit Overlook (elev. 1,582')

Monday, November 23, 2009



We had a fine autumn weekend (for a change) here in the Mid-Atlantic--temperatures in the upper 50s and sunny skies both days. On Saturday, we went to an Orvis trunk show and I bought one pair of poplin slacks, two pairs of shorts and seven new shirts. Whoo-whoo! I cleaned up. Then we went for a six-mile walk along a river in a park in the western suburbs.

On Sunday morning, we went for a four-mile walk in the county park downstream of my usual natural area. This park has a new rail-to-trail path paralleling the same creek that flows through "my" natural area. The light of the late morning sun glinting on the creek from the path made the stream look like it was quicksilver.

Along the opposite side of the trail, a small tributary draining a beech and tuliptree forest poured over a tiny falls created by leaves caught in the roots of a streamside tree.
Further downstream, we came across a runner enjoying the park's hilly terrain. I liked this image because there's a hint of mossy green to enliven the sere November landscape.
At its southern end, the rail-to-trail path runs within a deep rock cut excavated into the schist bedrock of the valley. The locals call this cut "the gorge." I like it because the excavation intercepted the groundwater and produced a long series of weeping springs emerging from the uphill side (left side in the image) of the rock cut. Unfortunately, the rocks are covered with non-native vegetation--especially English ivy (Hedera helix) and Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica).
Novertheless, clusters of ferns manage to cling to the stony walls in places. If the invasive vegetation weren't there, imagine what kinds of native gems might gain a footlold in this unusual niche.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Fantastic Arts Weekend

Doug Elkins and Friends performing Fraulein Maria

Choreographer Doug Elkins assembled a group of 13 dancers and re-imagined The Sound of Music as the spectacular Fraulein Maria, a 70-minute movement extravaganza that we attended Saturday evening. Excerpting the best music from the film, he developed dance set pieces to complement the music. The show verged on vaudeville, and it could very easily have stepped over that threshold. But in Elkins's skilled hands, it never took that fatal trip. Instead, most of the dances were humorous (but not slapstick) takes on the film music--truly inspired and very well performed by the "friends." A tall brunette female dancer and a well-built black male dancer (who was one of three Fraulein Marias in the show) were particularly skilled and masterful (they appear on the right and left, respectively, in the image above). Though an absolutely frenetic--nearly spastic--hip-hop version of "Climb Every Mountain" was the show stopper at the performance that I attended, I actually thought that the dance conceived for "Do, Re, Mi" was far more powerful, interesting and entertaining; it built and built in intensity until reaching its near-orgasmic finale. Bravo!

Fraulein Maria has been preformed fairly frequently in New York since it was created in 2006, and will be preformed there again this winter. I can understand why it keeps getting reprised. It's fun, engaging, and will surely become a milestone in the contemporary dance repertoire.
Also this weekend, we attended the 33rd-annual Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in central Philadelphia. This is a high-end show (i.e., expensive [admission was $15 per person to benefit the art Museum] ) with 193 top-notch artisans. Of course, the pieces were all highest quality, and priced accordingly. We really didn't expect to buy anything; attending the show is equivalent to visiting a fine museum. Nevertheless, my wife did purchase a maroon cashmere scarf ($148) to keep her neck warm during the upcoming cold weather.

In evaluating the show afterward, both of us agreed that we enjoy the huge but slightly more accessible American Craft Council show in Baltimore held at the end of February each year.

After we left the show, we went to Philadelphia's famous Reading Terminal Market, a huge space filled with butchers, bakers, and produce vendors, plus a lot of small restaurants. We had dinner at a creperie there--an interesting and out of the ordinary meal, for a change.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Hidden Rill and a Bicycle Challenge

I dearly love to bicycle. In fact, I think that I like to bicycle more than just about anything else. At one time, I even jokingly described myself as as "bike-sexual" because I spent more time on my bike than...well, you get the point.

This year, though, I have probably ridden fewer miles than I have since I started riding my bike seriously in 1974. I had a big artistic project I wanted to get finished this summer, so that was my first priority. Furthermore, many of the summer weekends were wet, which discouraged me from riding. In any case, with winter looming (we had our first killing frost on Saturday morning, November 7), I decided to make the best of a nice, warm Indian Summer afternoon yesterday (Monday, November 9). I took the last two hours off work and went for a 16-mile ride in the county and city park downstream of my usual natural area.

In the county park, the county recently took possession of a portion of an abandoned rail line and converted it to a hiking/biking/equestrian trail. I've walked and enjoyed the trail a few times since it opened in June. The rail line crosses several ravines that drain from the uplands, under the railbed, and into the major creek on the other side that parallels the rail corridor. During the summer, the ravines were largely hidden from view, but with the fall of the leaves, I got a new perspective on the gems hidden in these glens. One of the gems was this nameless rill coursing over the gneissic bedrock. I think that this watercourse is intermittent, but the rainy autumn we've experienced lately has filled the drainage and produced this elfen-scale waterfall through the oak and beech woods.
Further downstream in the county park, Harper's Run, a perennial tributary of the main creek, flows from a largely suburbanized watershed. Fortunately, its last half-mile courses within the park and is exquisite.
From the county park, I followed the bike path downstream to the city park. The bike path there parallels the main creek down to its mouth; I followed the path for eight miles. At the two-mile mark, the path ascends a 60-foot hill (the floodplain is too narrow to accommodate the path). The view from the top, while partially obscured by the forest, is my favorite vista of the creek anywhere in the entire valley.
Near the seven mile mark, I noticed this wary Great Blue Heron fishing in the creek shallows. This scene is within one of the major East Coast cities. The image is not great--dusk was coming on and the bird was perhaps 100 feet from the bike path. However, I didn't want to spook it by getting closer.
At the end of the 8-mile ride--the turnaround or half-way point--dusk was truly coming on. Suddenly, I had the realization that I had parked my vehicle in the county park's parking lot, and that the county lot is locked at dark. Despite my fatigue, I rode like the wind to get back to the parking lot. Mine was one of only three cars in the lot, and the park ranger was waiting for us all. I explained to the ranger that I'd realized almost too late that I was parked in the lot that was locked at dark. He replied, "It's a good thing you rode as fast as you did!"
That bike ride really did me in. I'm either getting old, out of shape, or worn out (or all three). Over the weekend, I raked leaves and carried at least 10 trash-can loads of packed leaves to the compost pile. I was sore on Monday morning, and then I compounded the problem by pushing myself hard on my bike. I'd better do more to try to stay in some sort of shape.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Fall Foliage Fading Fast

American beech (Fagus grandifolia) cloaked in glory

Yet another rainy weekend here in the Mid-Atlantic. It started to rain on Friday evening and continued through mid-afternoon on Sunday. Saturday was misty, foggy and remarkably warm (mid-70s) during the morning, so we went to a nearby county park with a large lake and circumnavigated the lake on foot--a six-mile walk. Canoeists had pulled their watercraft out of the water for the winter.

Out for the season

Sunday afternoon, the clouds cleared about 3:30, so we ventured to a city park downstream of the natural area I usually haunt. My local natural area was soggy, but the city park has paved bicycle and walking paths, so we opted for slippery leaves over asphalt vs. mud puddles in the woods. The park was busy, and quite a few families had come down to feed the mallards in the creek.
As the sun was going down late in the afternoon, it burnished the tops of the tuliptrees (Liriodendron tulipifera) on the ridges above the creek. This image doesn't do the scene justice. The yellow leaves fairly glowed in the warm light.

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

From the blurb on the back of the 1992 paperback edition:
When the last honest citizen of Personville was murdered, the Continental Op stayed on to punish the guilty--even if that meant taking on the entire town. Red Harvest is more than a superb crime novel; it is a classic exploration of corruption and violence in the American grain.
I've always been a big fan of The Maltese Falcon and other noir classics, but I'd never read a Dashiell Hammett novel. When I saw Red Harvest mentioned in a magazine article, I thought, "Why not start here?"

Though Red Harvest is supposed to be set in a Western town called Personville, it feels like it's set in a big, hard-luck city. The only place big enough to fill the bill in 1929 was probably Denver. The nameless protagonist, a detective with the Continental Detective Agency in San Francisco, is called only the Continetal Op(erative). The book has a huge cast of shady characters that are a bit hard to keep track of. The strangest thing about the book, though, it that it is completely passionless--almost to the point of being ennervated. There are dozens of murders and ganglang killings throughout, but each one is described as cooly and bloodlessly as the next. Obviously, this coolness gives a really hard edge to the emotionless Continental Op, which I'm sure was Hammett's intention, but it also make it hard to feel anything for anyone.

Nevertheless, the dialog is smart, snappy and witty. That's the best reward for reading the book.

I admitted that I hadn't read any other of Hammett's novels so I wonder about his range of characterization, but if you've read (or seen) The Maltese Falcon, you've already been introduced to the main characters in Red Harvest: The Continental Op is a dead ringer for Sam Spade (actor Humphrey Bogart) in The Maltese Falcon. Likewise, Dinah Brand for Brigid O'Shaughnessy (actress Mary Astor), bootlegger Max Thaler for Joel Cairo (actor Peter Lorre), corpulent police Chief Noonan for Kaper Gutman (actor Sydney Greenstreet). They're all here--and more--and they're all part of the fun of reading Red Harvest.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Wetlands and Witch-hazel

I had occasion to explore a wet meadow this morning and took some images while I was walking around with water nearly flooding into my L.L. Beans. I liked the misty background that I got in this image; it was cloudy, but it wasn't foggy.

A different perspective: here's the wet meadow from the hillside above.

On the hillside, witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) was blooming. (Don't you just love to say that generic name?) Witch-hazel is the last woody plant to bloom each year. Can you believe that this shrub is fairly closely related to sweetgum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua)? They're in the same family. There's a bright red sweetgum in the background of the image above.

A close-up of the witch-hazel flowers. I wonder if the flowering time has anything to do with the plant's common name?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Quarry Woods

Reclaimed hard rock quarry

Yesterday, taking advantage of a glorious October afternoon, I inspected an old hard rock quarry in my neighborhood that had been filled with clean fill. The four-acre site will be donated to a local land trust to be incorporated into the 33-acre preserved forest that surrounds the quarry. The site's owner did a good job of refilling, recontouring, and reclaiming the quarry, but the fill was seeded with a non-native grass mixture to stabilize the soil. Stabilizing the soil is a good idea (especailly considering how much rain we've had lately), but it makes for poor wildlife habitat. Eventually, the land trust will reforest the site.

The land trust already has a nice one-mile trail that leads through the 33-acre woodland above the quarry.
The trail leads to a large patch of Southern arrow-wood (Viburnum dentatum). This probably should be the most common shrub in the woodlands, but it's also a favorite of the large white-tailed deer herd, so it's among the first plants to disappear from the understory and be replaced by spicebush (Lindera benzoin), which the deer don't find particularly palatable. This patch of arrow-wood was growing near the edge of the quarry, so perhaps it escaped because it was relatively inaccessible.

This was the dramatic evening sky at sundown last night.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Motion without Passion: BodyVox

Sure enough , it poured--I'm talking deluged--last Saturday night. I predicted in my last post that rain forecast for the weekend would bring down the leaves right at the peak of their color. Well, I was wrong about bringing down the leaves (at least not all of them; there's still a lot of attractive foliage on the trees), but it sure as hell rained on Saturday evening, just as we were headed to see a performance by the Portland, Oregon-based BodyVox contemporary dance company. By the time we arrived at the theater, the torrent had slackened to moderate wind-driven showers, but en route we had to ford innumerable raging creeks and pond-sized puddles in the roadways where the storm drains couldn't handle the volume of water--and all for a fairly mediocre evening of dance. Perhaps, given the weather, it was fitting that BodyVox was performing its extended work called "Water Bodies." Each dance comprising the work ostensibly had a water-related theme, though the connection was tenuous in some of the compositions.

The compositions were, without exception, clever. Many were accompanied by video projected on a screen behind the dancers. A few pieces were exclusively video footage of dances performed in a swimming pool.

Unfortunately, the performers seemed to be going through the motions mechanically rather than dancing; there was no joy--or, if the dancers were enjoying the movement, they certainly didn't communicate it very effectively to the audience. It's not that the dancers were wooden or unskilled; it was more that the choreography was at fault. Furthermore, the music was an irritant; it was too loud (don't I sound like an old guy?), cacophonous, and uninspired. It seems to me that when I first started attending contemporary dance performances, the music often was minimalist dissonant bangs and shrieks, but more recently choreographers have chosen more appealing music. BodyVox is trapped back in the Dark Ages of dissonance. In fact, one of the pieces I enjoyed the most related to doomed couples dancing on the deck of the Titanic; it was set to Jean Sibelius's Valse Triste.

Probably the best piece of the evening was performed by one of the co-artistic directors and founders, Jamey Hampton. A bathtub rolled onto stage, and Hampton (who had been hidden inside the tub) stood up in the tub. A soundtrack began that sounded like dripping water, and the dripping came faster and faster. Gradually, the dripping morphed into dance music and Hampton boogie-oogie-oogied in the tub. It was great fun, very creative, and he had some wonderful dance moves.

The overall performance lasted less than two hours. I commented to my wife that the evening was short (compared to that offered by some other damce companies). Her response? "Thank goodness." I agreed.

Daniel Kirk, sexiest of the BodyVox performers

Friday, October 23, 2009

October Sunset and Little Bluestem

A walk at dusk in my natural area produced some interesting sunset images. I especially liked the texture of the clouds.

Just a few minutes more and a few hundred feet further along the trail produced this image. Between the colors and the shapes of the clouds, they're almost menacing.

Also along the trail I came across a stand of native little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium). Though the stems have a bluish-gray tinge during the growing season (hence the name), in the fall and winter they turn a glorious russet color that's particularly impressive when the grass grows in broad swaths.

We're in for more wet weather this weekend--especially tonight into Saturday night. Yuck--another potentially beautiful autumn weekend ruined by rain. It'll probably knock the leaves off the trees just as the colors are reaching their peak.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

More Canoeing Pix (for Ray)

By (Ray's) special request, here's another post full of pictures of my October 10, 2009, canoe/kayak marsh restoration field trip on Delaware's Christina River.

About two-thirds of the way through the trip, we pulled-up under a highway overpass to get out of our watercraft and climb up to road level to get a view out over the restored marshes. Here, we've made our beachhead.

Prior to canoeing into one of the restored marshes, our guide explained the restoration process.

Paddling into one of the restored marshes.

Native Wild-rice (Zizania aquatica), a sure sign of successful restoration in the marsh.

Near the end of our excursion, the trees lining the river were weighted down with noisy passerines. Most were Brown-headed Cowbirds, with some European Starlings and Common Grackles mixed in.

Yours truly, in the bow of the canoe.