Archives for posts with tag: natural beauty

A perfect specimen?

As noted on their license plates, the State of Maine is known as Vacationland. And now I know why.

Rachel and I have driven up to Rockport for the weekend (we’re mixing Rachel’s business and our vacation) and have discovered that the Maine coast is just one big family resort. The woods and forests are pristine, the coastline long and scraggly, and the air is clear and fresh. There are also some good restaurants here (lobster, anyone?).

But, most of all, the climate is perfect. Here we are in the middle of August—the summer’s peak, really—and the midday temperature is in the mid-70s. That’s warm enough to wear shorts and a tee shirt with no worry of overheating. It might be as humid as it is at home (that would be due to the proximity of the ocean) but it’s so moderate in temperature that it feels comfortable.

In short, the weather is perfect for spending the entire day outdoors. Anything that can be done outside is at its best when done here: Hiking, boating, swimming, cycling…

…and gardening.

It turns out that there are many lush gardens in Maine. Most of the houses we’ve seen have a plot of vegetables or flowers—or both—in their yards. And a garden center near our hotel is one of the biggest I’ve seen anywhere, with an astonishingly diverse assortment of growing things. Who would have expected it?

Not me. I always thought that with its short growing season and cold, icy winters that Maine would not be ideal for gardening. The climate (I figured) might be suitable for evergreens and chrysanthemums but not tomatoes.

What I failed to consider is that although the growing season may be short, the growing day is long. Sixteen hours of sunlight per day, it appears, more than makes up for the loss of May and September.

When I was growing up in the Central Valley of California, I often eschewed the agricultural aspects of life there. My hometown of Davis is relatively large (if not the largest) compared to other towns in Yolo County and, more significantly, is host to a campus of the University of California, for which both of my parents worked. Yes, UCD is an ag school—it was originally known as the Farm—but for us it represented the intellectual side of life and it was in this direction that I was aligned.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to better appreciate the valley’s agricultural heritage. And since starting a backyard vegetable garden three years ago, my understanding of and appreciation for farming and the industry as a whole has been steadily increasing. So, while visiting my family this weekend (we were long overdue; see October 19, 2012; October 21, 2012; and October 24, 2012 for tales of our last trip), I decided to embrace my inner farm boy and take in a couple of the agrarian attractions that the valley has to offer.

Our first stop this morning—with my brother along—was the Heidrick Ag History Center in Woodland, the seat of Yolo County. Housed in two large warehouse buildings and connected by corridors at each end which create a central courtyard, the agricultural museum tells the story of farming in the valley through an expansive collection of farm equipment and associated lore.

The artifacts span more than a hundred years in age and include manual implements, horse- and mule-drawn plows and wagons as well as tractors and harvesters powered by steam or diesel engines. The steam-driven tractors are particularly impressive. One example has drive-wheels that are eight feet in diameter; its boiler is the size of a small shed and its chimney reaches almost to the ceiling. It must have been a wonder to behold when new.

The east building was chock-full of equipment, all impeccably restored and painted in bright colors. (The tractors would have been fun to climb on, had it been allowed.) The west building had previously housed a collection of antique trucks but its owners (who rented space from the History Center) recently moved it to another facility. Sadly (and inexplicably), I did not take any pictures.

Our second foray took us into the heart of the valley itself. The Yolo Bypass is a narrow but huge (hundreds of thousands of acres) strip of land running north-south between the cities of Davis and Sacramento. Parallel to the Sacramento River and surrounded by levees, the bypass acts as a detention pond for excess river flow that would otherwise flood the valley and its cities. After filling with water, the bypass slowly drains into the river downstream and thence into the delta.

Within the bypass is the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, almost 18,000 acres of protected wetlands which are home to a variety of aquatic and avian species. Wet is the operative word here because even during drought years (of which California is in its third straight), the bypass is periodically flooded, either to support the rice crops that are grown there or, in periodic fallow seasons, to support the wildlife.

In my memories of childhood, the bypass quickly filled and remained full—an inland sea, complete with waves and breakers—every winter. In more recent years (and, given the unreliability of my memory, probably most years), the water levels have been relatively low and the flooded areas distributed among the patchwork of rice fields that make up the bypass.

It rained all day yesterday (not great for visiting but a relief to everyone who lives here) and consequently, the ground was muddy and slippery. We could have parked the car and walked but, feeling lazy on a sunny Sunday morning, decided to drive the auto tour which winds its way along intermediate levees. It was dicey in spots and we could feel the car floating on a layer of muck. But had we chosen to walk, we would have sunk to our ankles, if not deeper.

It was calm and serene despite the fact that Interstate 80 crosses the north edge of the Wildlife Area on an elevated causeway. And lest we think that we were truly in the wilderness, the Sacramento skyline loomed to the east. Both the freeway and the city are good reminders of how California’s population is linked to the agriculture on which its success is largely based.

Leaves, leaves, leaves.

In an ideal world, they would all turn bright shades of orange, yellow and pink before falling.  Then, they would take a week or two to gradually flitter down from the trees in whimsical patterns across the sky, presenting a dynamic autumn tableau outside my window, before settling—just so—onto the landscape.  Somehow, the leaves would manage to avoid pathways, cars and rain gutters.

Once nestled artistically on the ground, there they would lie snugly, like an especially beautiful blanket over the hillsides, increasing the aesthetic value of the view as I walk from my house to the mailbox.

Then, in late October or early November, the leaves would gradually and magically dissipate, slowly fading from view, possibly in conjunction with the year’s first snowfall (an ideal version of which might be the subject of a future post).  Their disappearance would coincide nicely with the appearance of new mounds of fresh compost in the previously depleted bins (which, in this ideal world, have already been constructed).

In reality, there is a lot of raking and blowing to be done this time of year (and I still need to build those compost bins).

Trees are a treasure, a joy to have around.  They provide a habitat for birds, insects and other critters; act as a buffer against wind, rain and snow; and are the main generator of atmospheric oxygen and consumer of carbon dioxide.  Plus, they are beautiful to behold.  If they are not the focus of a picturesque view, they are probably framing it.

But sometimes they get in the way.  Usually, this is merely an annoyance, such as when they block the view (see, for example, August 12, 2013).  Other times, though, trees can block solar exposure, often to detrimental effect.  I’ve become painfully aware of this phenomenon in the garden as the summer has wound down.

I noticed this morning, for instance, that the garden is still in the shade long after 8:00 am, the hour at which it came into full sun at summer’s peak.  Two months after the summer solstice, however, the sun is already quite a bit lower in the sky and as a result, the tall trees to the east of us are obstructing its direct rays.  It is light in the early morning but it is not exactly sunny.

Similarly, this afternoon, the tips of the fir trees on our neighbor’s property, just to the southern side of our pool fence, are casting a shadow on the south wall of the planters.  The inclination of the sun will only get lower as the days pass while the trees will only get taller with each passing year.  Soon, the shadows will pass across the vegetables shortly after midday, further shortening the growing day.

This is in spite of the fact that we removed two large trees in the spring (see May 17, 2013 and May 17, 2013, part 3).  Their absence has made a huge difference in the garden’s afternoon sun exposure but as it turns out, the impact’s duration is limited to the period starting a month before the solstice until a month afterwards.  Outside of that two-month range, we will feel the effects of the changes in solar exposure in the house more than in the garden.

Which brings us around to the beneficial aspects of solar shielding (to end on a positive note, lest anyone think that I am hostile to trees).  In warm climates, properly placed trees prevent solar gain within buildings and reduce their cooling load.  Where the weather is warm the year round, evergreen trees maintain a constant screen.  Alternately, where winters are cold, deciduous trees conveniently drop their leaves, allowing solar radiation to pass and provide natural heating.

There is always so much to be done—my to-do list is lengthy—but only so many hours in which to do it.  On any given day, I have to make several decisions about what I can accomplish before the sun goes down.  To a few things, I say “Yes”; everything else gets an implicit “No”.

The choice can be difficult, especially when the garden is on the receiving end of one of those nos.  When that happens, I sometimes feel like I’m neglecting the vegetables and that something critical may occur while my attention is elsewhere.  Perhaps hornworms will appear on the tomatoes (Yikes!) or a first eggplant will form (Rejoice!) and I won’t be there to witness it and take appropriate action (removing the offending insects for the former and photographing the blessed fruit for the latter).

So my goal is to avoid missing the garden for more than one day.  Frankly, not much happens in the garden in any particular 24-hour period and often the garden will go for several days with no discernable changes, good or bad.  (Those dreaded hornworms, which can chomp their way through entire tomato plants in a very short time, might be an exception.)  If I have to be away longer, I get someone to look after things.

Ironically, blogging about the garden can be counter-conducive to the actual gardening activities themselves.  Noting the progress (or lack thereof) of the vegetables, taking photographs, writing about it (probably the largest demand on my time), and posting; these things take time.  That’s time that could be spent doing the things that eventually I will be blogging about.  It could easily become a Catch-22:  I can’t write the blog if I don’t do any gardening but if I spend too much time gardening, I can’t write a blog about it.

And, sometimes, it feels preferable to blog about something rather than do it, a la Andy Rooney.  For instance (nasally, whiny voice):  Don’t you just hate it when you have to remove sod?  It has to be the most difficult part of constructing a garden.  And what do you do with all of that sod, anyway?  It’s not like you can sell it or exchange it for other plants.  (With no disrespect to Andy Rooney, who wisely—or luckily—made a long, successful career out of such rants.)

While I’m on the topic of ironies, here’s another one.  At times, I feel reluctant to harvest vegetables when they are at a near-perfect state of ripeness and aesthetic beauty.  They look so nice, the well-formed squash, blossom still attached, or pristine white turnip, peeking out of the ground with a symmetrical plume of succulent greens on top.  It would be a shame to spoil the tableau.  And once harvested, a void remains, a barrenness, an absence of beauty.

But, hey, this is dinner!  I snap a few photos, grab the vegetables and head for the kitchen.

Anybody keeping track of what’s going on in our garden (and everybody’s keeping track, right?) may have noticed:  No herbs!  (Not counting the basil, of course.)

Why?  Well, for one thing we got a late start with our indoor growing.  Herbs like thyme, oregano and sage, which take a long time to germinate and slowly develop to transplantable size, are best started in early January.  We didn’t plant our first seeds until the end of March (see March 24, 2013).  At that time, we were more concerned about tomatoes, cucumbers and squash than additional herbs.

Since then, with everything else we have been doing—planting, watering, nurturing, potting up, setting out; oh, and removing sod and placing cedar mulch—there just hasn’t been time.  Whenever we stopped to consider planting the herbs, we always concluded that there was something else more pressing that needed to be attended to first.

And there is also the question of where to plant them.  The adjunct herb garden of last year (on the concrete stoop outside one of our house’s doors) is no longer easily accessible.  My office is located just inside the door and my desk blocks it from opening.

The corner of the back porch, where we grew herbs two years ago, is now occupied by a bright yellow hibiscus plant in an intensely deep-blue ceramic pot (a gift from a friend; thank you!).  We tried placing a pot or two of basil beside the hibiscus but decided that it looked too busy and detracted from the flowers’—and the pot’s—simple beauty.

Meanwhile, at the other side of the house, several existing herbs from years gone by are staging a modest comeback.  Two of them—chives and oregano—we planted several years ago and left for dead after their first season; they’ve returned every year since.  Another three—thyme, tarragon and sage—we transplanted from the pots they grew in last year.  This spot, in partial shade all day, is not ideal for herbs but apparently it is good enough.

So, that’s where we’ll grow our herbs this year.  To fill out the space, we added spearmint and rosemary, the only plants we’ve purchased so far this season.  We would have transplanted our spearmint and peppermint from last year, but neither of them survived (which is odd because I consider mint an aggressive and invasive herb).  Finally, we nestled two pots of basil (ones we couldn’t give away) in among the other herbs.

This herb garden makes a pretty picture and, if it is successful, will be much more convenient to the kitchen.

Often when I am planning a trip to a new destination (or one with which I am not very familiar), I will make a virtual visit using Google Maps.  I am a visual thinker and have found that by looking at the satellite/aerial views—often combined with Street View—of a location, I can form a preliminary mental map that will help me navigate and become comfortable in a strange environment.  Call it pre-familiarization.

I made such a flyover before coming to Hawaii.  I was looking for the condo where we stayed on our last trip and where we are staying again this time (in the same room, coincidentally), the name or location of which I could not remember (it was more than 10 years ago).  I had only a general idea of where it was—across the road from the resorts of Napili and Kapalua—and a recollection that it was near a large hotel (where we sipped cocktails at sunset one evening).

It wasn’t much to go on but by cruising (digitally) up and down Lower Honoapiilani Road a few times, I was able to home in on a potential location.  There was no adjacent hotel (I learned from our friends yesterday that it had been demolished and replaced by luxury residences in the intervening years) but by zooming down, I was able to recognize the distinctive swimming pool, memorable for its azure blue tiles.  Rachel later confirmed the location, having found its website online.

A fringe benefit of my virtual touring is that I sometimes discover places of interest that I might not otherwise have encountered.  In this case, I happened upon the Dragon’s Teeth Labyrinth on a spit of volcanic rock north of our condo.  From the air, it would appear to be a full-sized Chartres labyrinth and to occupy a potentially sacred spot where land and water meet.  This morning, we set out to see it for ourselves.  The prospect was exciting as we have always enjoyed walking labyrinths and developed one on our property (see July 10, 2011).

Public access to the coast cannot be restricted in Hawaii (even though much of the oceanfront property is privately owned) and there are many trails that follow the shore.  One such trail heads north from Kapalua Beach and winds through the luxury residences (which seem strangely vacant).  As we passed by, a rainbow appeared to the west between us and Molokai, an auspicious beginning to our journey.  When the trail reached the north end of the housing complex, it led out onto a jagged outcropping of the solidified lava that forms most of Hawaii’s coastline.

From there, the trail turns eastward, first passing through a shore bird nesting habitat and then onto a boardwalk just above the beach at Oneloa Bay.  At the far end of the beach, the trail turns back inland to follow Lower Honoapiilani Road (although access to the coast cannot be restricted, much of it remains physically inaccessible).  A short walk along the road brought us to the fourth tee of the Kapalua Bay Golf Course.

Here we paused for a moment.  Getting out to the Dragon’s Teeth would involve walking along the edge of the fairway.  We knew that we had the right to pass but many golf courses are private and off limits to non-members or players.  When we saw a sign warning of proximity to the course—and not commanding us to keep out—we started down along the hedge that forms the fairway’s border.  At one point we held up to allow a foursome of golfers to play through.  It was not the reverent approach we were expecting to make (even if the more devout golfers around us would have considered this fine course a place of worship).

When we reached the outcropping it was evident how it got its name.  The eastern edge of the spit was lined with spiky vertical projections of lava (aa, presumably) that were upturned by wave action while still molten (or so I later read).  The waves are still quite strong here and wash against the Dragon’s Teeth obliquely resulting in a fountain of water that slides along the shoreline dramatically.

Just beyond the teeth, where the jetty levels out, we found the labyrinth.  Circular in plan, its 11 concentric paths are divided from each other by stones that have been smoothed by wave action and are anchored in place by succulents growing around them.  The labyrinth clearly sees many visitors as the paths have been worn down into ruts by heavy foot traffic.  Even so, we were fortunate to have it to ourselves.

We slowly and solemnly made our pilgrimage to the center of the labyrinth and once there, performed our version of the Medicine Wheel Prayer.  We first faced east and raised our arms in salute to spring and rebirth.  We next turned to the south and paid homage to summer and growth.  Then, we faced west, acknowledging fall and the natural endings in life and to complete the circle, we looked to the north in respect of winter and introspection.  Finally, we raised our heads to greet Father Sky and bowed to show our love for Mother Earth (perhaps a sphere would be a better symbol).

It wasn’t as mystical or woo-woo as it might sound (especially with golfers putting nearby).  It was, however, a simple ritual that left us feeling centered—literally and figuratively—and fully appreciative of this world we live in and the particular paradise in which we found ourselves today.

I grew up in the central valley of California and did not experience much snow (I think it snowed just once while I was in elementary school).  I’ve only lived in a snowy climate since moving east (about 25 years ago) and consequently, I still think of snowstorms as magical events.  The snow is peaceful as it falls—usually, without a sound—and the snow-covered landscapes that result are brilliantly beautiful and picture-postcard perfect.

But the beauty eventually fades.  First, the snow settles and compacts and in the process loses its light and fluffy appearance.  When temperatures are warm during the day but cold at night, the surface melts and then refreezes resulting in a dull, lackluster (literally) sheen.

Dust and dirt are thrown onto the snow (mostly by passing cars) and as it melts, the concentration of these materials increases.  Dogs being walked leave their marks as do the coffee and soft drinks spilled by their owners.  Litter accumulates and anything that would be absorbed into the ground in a warmer season remains on the surface.

At about this stage, many people get tired of looking at the snow.  As a visiting friend jadedly remarked during our trip to the Vanderbilt Mansion at New Year’s (see December 31, 2012), despite the spectacular view, he’s seen enough snowy landscapes already this winter.  While I was busily photographing snowdrifts and frosted trees, he was hunting for new sights to shoot.

As the snow banks melt further, they become jagged and sharp, like alpine cirques and horns.  With continued exposure to the sun, the landscape becomes less and less snow-covered and more and more unfinished-looking.  When the snow has thinned and only scattered patches remain, it starts to resemble an albino form of slime mold.  Finally, only the larger clumps of snow—the result of shoveling and plowing—remain, looking like wads of paper, littered by an uncovered garbage truck.

But then it snows again and the magic is restored.  For me, anyway.

There is nothing like a field trip to make my day, especially when it starts early, includes breakfast and takes me to another national park.  I’ve always loved the incomparable beauty of their locations (for the most part), the optimistic (some would say naïve) outlook of their educational exhibits and, most of all, the friendliness and earnestness of their park rangers (who are often the most naturally gregarious people).

So, with friends visiting for the New Year’s holiday, we decided to spend the last day of the year on the road and headed up to the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park.  It is one of the National Park Service’s more unusual properties (technically speaking, it is a National Historic Site) in that it is not directly focused on the natural environment (like Yellowstone or Yosemite) or a person or event in our government’s history (such as Gettysburg or the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt just down the street).

Instead, it highlights the lifestyles of the rich and famous—of the early 20th century.  Of course, the Vanderbilts had a huge impact on the U.S. economy and their significance in our history (along with other extremely wealthy families) cannot be discounted.  But perhaps the main reason the mansion makes sense as a national treasure is that it is a monumental example of the physical works that can be achieved by people when given sufficient motivation, resources and money (all the same thing, sometimes).  In that regard, it is more akin to, say, Hoover Dam (operated by the Bureau of Reclamation) only with more gilt.

The Vanderbilt Mansion also differs from many Park Service venues in that its main features are indoors.  Given the cold and snow left over from Saturday’s storm, an alternative to outdoor activities was desirable.  Plus, by making our visit prior to New Year’s Day (when the site will be closed), we were able to see the mansion decorated for the holidays.  On Wednesday, the staff will begin to remove the trees and wreaths that brighten almost every one of the 54 rooms.

Though large by mere-mortal standards, the Vanderbilt Mansion was considered modest by its original inhabitants and was used only in the spring and fall (summers were spent in cooler seaside locations and the only acceptable location for the winter social season was New York City).  Still, a lot of expensive architectural details and fancy furniture are packed into its 55,000 square feet of real estate.

Most of the rooms (not counting the servants quarters) are hopelessly ornate but I found it interesting that both the main kitchen and the one bathroom on view (on the second floor) are decorated in a functional style that is still popular today (open layouts; stainless steel, copper and marble fixtures; white subway tile).  The bathroom includes what is perhaps the most beautiful sink drainpipe that I have ever seen.

Outside, the views of the Hudson River were spectacular even on this wintry day.  The only downside to visiting at this time of year, however, is that we were unable to properly tour the grounds which include dense woods, expansive lawns (polo, anyone?) and formal gardens (modeled after those in Italian villas).  I do not know whether anything remains of the vegetable gardens and livestock farm that originally supplied the mansion with food but on a future visit, when the ground is not snow covered, I intend to investigate.