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.