Archives for posts with tag: views

What is it about lighthouses that captures the imagination—mine, anyway—and directs it out to sea? Their silent performance of a thankless duty? Their stoic disregard of the extreme marine climate? Their stark but elegant beauty and strong but lean engineering?

Whenever I see one, I immediately start to think about how the beacon might appear to a passing ship or, more appropriately, a boat bound for whatever harbor is nearby. What does the lighthouse look like from a mile or two offshore?

Not much, probably. During the day, details of coastal structures are difficult to make out. A lighthouse may seem immense to someone standing at its base but from afar, even the tallest tower will be dwarfed by the mountains and cliffs that often loom over coastlines.

And at night, all that can be seen is a ray of light.

I can’t recall ever spotting a lighthouse beacon from a boat or ship (truthfully, I’ve spent very little time on water) but I have seen one from afar. A few years ago, we spent a delightful early summer weekend in Bermuda. Our resort was on the southwest coast of the island, facing the North Carolina shore, only a few hundred miles away.

Bermuda is small enough and sufficiently isolated from other places that its night sky is truly dark. Looking out through the sliding glass door of our room early one morning, we detected the motion of a faint beam of light as is it flashed across the horizon.

The source of the light fell well below our view (by several miles, at least), but the sweeping path the ray of light followed was immediately recognizable as that from a lighthouse beacon. It was somehow comforting to see evidence that across the lonely expanse of open ocean lay our home.

Back in the golden days of ship travel, it must have been heartwarming to those returning from a long voyage across the ocean to see a first sign that other people were preparing for the ship’s arrival, that at least one person was waiting up in anticipation.

Nowadays, that comfort is a bit cold. While visiting lighthouses here in Maine (of which there are many, given the state’s craggy shoreline), we have learned that most, if not all, of the facilities are automated. The charming cottages that were once home to lighthouse keepers (and their families, if they were lucky) are now vacant.

Fortunately, there are historical societies and preservation groups such as the American Lighthouse Foundation to tend them and offer tours. And, as we learned at Owl’s Head Lighthouse, the United States Coast Guard still sends someone around to ensure that the lights are in working order so that even if no one is home, someone has left a light on for us.

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We spent a few hours yesterday (before heading up to Stonecrop Gardens; see March 22, 2014) and again today, cleaning up the ornamental gardens. Saturday’s session was particularly enjoyable because the temperature quickly rose into the 50s. One or two dark clouds passed by, trailing a sprinkle of light rain, but otherwise it was sunny and warm.

Today was a different story as the weather returned to a more wintery state, including a chilling wind.

We cleared away the scruffy remnants of the Russian sage, penstemon (a variety of foxglove), black-eyed Susans, Siberian irises, and hostas. In the main ornamental garden beds, Rachel pruned the hibiscus (we have three) and some young lilacs. Together, we tackled the Japanese maple, a gift from the mason (and natural gardener) who constructed our stone walls and stairs.

We’ve been putting this off for a few years now and I hope that we did not wait too long. The maple had grown taller than we wanted, more upward than outward, and was threatening to obstruct the view from the patio that overlooks it. We clipped its upper branches and the skyward pointing portions of its perimeter branches. It looks a bit awkward now (most things do immediately after pruning) but its appearance should improve once the leaves sprout.

Up front in the hosta beds, we had a bit more work to do. I’m not sure when we last weeded this area (mid-summer, perhaps?) but it was in dire need of it today, especially the bed to the left of the stone staircase that leads from our front yard up to the labyrinth. The grade is steep here and the plantings a mixed bag. We’ve been slowly making a transition to flowering bulbs and groundcovers such as sedum and lily of the valley but mostly, the plants here are unwanted—weeds, by definition—and we removed many of them.

Weeding is very satisfying—the difference between before and after can be striking—but it is also back-breaking. After two hours in the bracing cold we were worn out. The ornamental beds are now clear of old growth and we were heartened by the signs of spring—snowdrops and crocuses at long last!—that are slowly emerging.

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.

I’m beginning to think that the Perseid meteor shower is nothing but a hoax, an elaborate practical joke pulled off by astronomers to keep all of us awake all night.

Based on the promise of as many as 90 shooting stars per hour, Rachel and I stayed up well past our bedtime tonight to see if we could catch a few of them.  The viewing conditions were good, for a change:  no moon and only the occasional wisp of a cloud (there was complete cloud cover during last night’s peak).  In fact, the night was unusually ideal with warm temperatures, low humidity and—blissfully—very few insects.

But there were also very few meteors.

Part of the problem for us is that we have a limited view of the night sky.  We live in the woods and there is only a small clearing where the house, pool and garden are located.  The surrounding trees are very tall and their height is accentuated by a rise in grade to the north of our house.  Consequently, lying on a hammock by the pool, we were gazing upwards almost as if at the bottom of a pit or opaque bowl.

A further complication is that we live only 60 miles or so from New York City.  It may seem like a great distance—over an hour’s travel by car—but at faster than 186,000 miles per second, the millions of lumens produced by the city’s buildings, billboards and streetlamps arrive in an instant.  There is little to obstruct the rays and a high concentration of particles in the air to diffuse them.  As a result, our southern sky is constantly aglow, even on moonless nights.

Yet another problem is that we are not night owls.  Staying up late is difficult enough but getting up in the middle of the night is next to impossible.  In previous years, I’ve set an alarm for 3:00 am or thereabouts, the time at which the constellation Perseus (from which the meteors appear to originate) is overhead.  But often it is chilly at that hour.  And even when I have roused myself and made my way outdoors, I have never really awakened sufficiently to appreciate what I was seeing.

Instead, we settle for late-night viewing, after 10:00 pm until around midnight.  At this hour, Perseus is still low in the northeastern sky, behind a high screen of maple trees.  Therefore, we miss (I presume) the bulk of the meteor shower.  I always imagine that a fireworks-like display of shooting stars is whooshing this way and that (yes, I know that meteors are actually silent) as we strain our eyes in vain, the scene obscured from our sight by the dense foliage.  Or maybe there is nothing there.

So, we didn’t get the lightshow we were hoping for; in an hour and a half of viewing, we caught sight of two satellites and a grand total of four meteors (to be fair, they followed the long, slow trajectory for which the Perseids are famous).  On the other hand, we did get a pleasant evening together outdoors, in the sweet summer air, listening to the comforting background music of the crickets and cicadas.

I’ve found that the best way to assess the impact of the removal of trees is not to do it at all, at least not consciously.

If, after a tree has been trimmed or felled, I do not notice anything different, then usually I conclude that removing it was the right thing to do.  This has happened in the past when a tree was removed while we were away.  When we returned, we did not immediately realize that the work had been done.

Alternatively, if I do become aware of the change, it becomes a question of how I become aware of it.  For example, if I get the feeling that something is missing, that there is an unnatural gap in the treescape, it can mean that the removal was too extreme or not well chosen.  Luckily, this has not happened to us very often and fortunately, when it has happened, the surrounding trees eventually grew in to fill the void.

If, however, I get a feeling of openness—sunlight or airiness where there was none before—or notice a new and exciting view, previously obscured, then we probably made the right choice.  This was the case today.

With the two trees gone, the garden remains in the sun until after 6 o’clock, an extension of the growing day of at least three hours.  As an added bonus, we can now see a vignette of the surrounding mountains, framed by the remaining trees.

In Hawaii, we are surrounded by an abundance of tropical plants.  And in this climate, everything grows exuberantly and wildly, both in size and color.  Backyard gardens are lush jungles of succulents and vines and even roadside hedges and highway dividers boast vibrant displays of year-round flowers.  For instance, the main road through Kapalua, near where we are staying, is lined with hibiscus blossoms the size of salad plates.

We’ve had a big dose of local flora but to get a more comprehensive feel for what grows in this warm and hospitable habitat, we decided to visit a formal garden.  So, having fueled ourselves at the Gazebo Restaurant (see March 1, 2013), we headed back to the Upcountry and the Kula Botanical Gardens.

Located along the route to Haleakala National Park (see February 26, 2013, part 2), the garden rises up a west-facing slope of the dormant volcano at an elevation of about 3000 feet (the views of the lowlands and west Maui from the parking lot are phenomenal).  Pathways meander through the eight acres of densely planted beds and at particularly scenic spots, benches, pavilions and gazebos provide comfortable places to sit and contemplate (or simply enjoy) the surroundings.

Although formal in its arrangements of plant families (they provide a helpful map) and carefully tended, the garden has an endearing rustic quality.  It is not overly pristine like some gardens I have toured and that makes it all the more approachable and welcoming.  Almost everything is labeled for those (unlike me) who keep track of scientific names and places of origin.

Eight acres sounds huge but in fact, the Kula Botanical Gardens are just the right size for an hour or two of relaxed strolling, chatting and photographing.  We made an entire circuit of the grounds—oohing and aahing as we came around each bend—before heading back home for an afternoon at the pool.

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.

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.

After reading about it in the paper, we tried a new trail (new to us, I mean) in Fahnestock State Park.  We’ve been hiking in the park for years and it is exciting to realize that there are still significant portions that we have yet to explore.

We checked our trusty—and well-worn—trail map and found that the trailhead for the Sunken Mine Railbed Trail is located just a short distance (about half of a mile) closer to us than a trailhead we have been using for many years.  We’ve passed by the parking area a hundred times with only a vague notion (at best) that another convenient hiking opportunity awaited us there.

As its name implies, the trail follows an old mine railroad.  This seemed apparent for the first quarter of a mile from the trailhead as the path was wide and flat.  However, the trail then traversed up and over a ridge (where several trees, toppled by Hurricane Sandy no doubt, made passage difficult) and dropped steeply down to a pond.  I don’t think even a mine railcar could manage that terrain.  While we were enjoying the view, we noticed that the night had been cold enough that a thin scrim of ice had formed over the pond’s surface.

From there, the trail widened and continued in a straight and level alignment along a raised berm; clearly, this was the former railbed.  Although not physically challenging, I enjoy flat, roomy trails because they allow two or three hikers to walk side by side with less fear of stumbling or tripping.  This, in turn, facilitates conversation making for a much more social experience; walking and talking in the wilderness.

When we’d been hiking for half an hour, we came to a sharp turn in the trail and again checked the map for potential routes back to our starting point.  A loop was possible and would have been preferable except that another quarter hour of outbound walking would have been needed.  We didn’t have the energy for what would wind up a hike of 90 minutes duration and so decided to turn around and head back the way we came.

Further study of the map revealed that the comeback point on the loop we could have taken is the same trail intersection that we passed, from a different direction, on a hike last month (about which, for a change, I did not blog; for photographs, however, see October 7, 2012).  I was reminded that everything, potentially, connects to everything else.  (And I wonder, for instance, whether this section of mine railbed connects to a similar section of the Appalachian Trail; see January 1, 2012.)  With today’s hike, I have filled in a gap in my mental map of the park.

On the walk back, the sun was in our faces and its warmth felt good (even if it was also blinding).  There is a quality to the light at this time of year that always makes it feel later in the day than it actually is.  Even at its highest inclination, the sunlight remains oblique and thus heavily filtered by the atmosphere.  In the summer, this condition only occurs near sunrise and sunset but in winter, it lasts all day.  As a result, the look of early morning quickly transforms into the appearance of late afternoon.  It is a strange sensation to completely skip a time that feels like midday.

On the other hand, the low angle of the light is great for studying textures.  The shallow rays accentuate the smallest surface irregularities so that even tiny pebbles and diminutive tree roots cast shadows that drape across the full width of the trail.

Generally, I like to get up early in the morning.  I’m not talking crazy-early which by my definition is any time earlier than 5:00 am.  That still counts as the night before.  No, for me early is in the 5:30 am to 6:30 am range.  For the last few years, my alarm clock has been set to 6:00 am.

In mid-summer, getting up at that hour is no problem.  It is already light by then and because my circadian rhythms are usually in sync with the sun, I am fully awake when the sun rises.  But as summer progresses into fall and the day shortens, it becomes increasingly difficult to haul myself out of bed for the same reason.  Rising before the sun takes considerable effort.

Luckily, it is not still dark in the early morning but that won’t last for long.  To take advantage of the light (on what looks to be a particularly sunny day), we decided to take a quick hike in Fahnestock State Park before getting to work.  One of the nice things about being so close to the park and knowing some of its trails so well is that we can complete a short loop before 9:00 am.

And one of the nice things about doing anything that early is that by the time I sit down to my desk to start the day’s work, I will have already accomplished a great deal.  In this case, my body will have gotten an hour’s worth of exercise and my mind will be fresh and clear from the meditative peace and beauty of the great outdoors.