Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Peaceful Sea

Named Mare Pacificum, "Peaceful Sea", by Ferdinand Magellan in 1519, we now call it the Pacific Ocean. It is so large, it covers 32% of the Earth's surface, more than all the Earth's land combined. Stretching from the Arctic in the north to Antarctica in the south, it is ringed by volcanos and can produce typhoons, tidal waves and serious storm systems no sailor would ever call "pacific". The equator divides it into the North and South Pacific, and it is home to 25,000 islands, mostly in the South. In the western North Pacific, the Mariana Trench is the deepest point on Earth - 6.8 miles. Because of the size of its fetch (the length of water over which a given wind is blown), it is capable of creating massive waves, like those so avidly surfed in Hawaii.

The map above, drawn by Abraham Ortelius in 1589, is the first ever printed of the Pacific Ocean.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Long Ago And Far Away

This is Great-Grandmother Clara's village in Switzerland. She left as a child in the 1870s and travelled to Canada, as her father was attached to the Swiss Embassy there. We don't know how she met Great-Grandpa Otto, also from Switzerland, but they were married and travelled with his parents on the train from Chicago and they all settled here together in 1881. They farmed just over the hill, mostly almonds and peaches, and lived in a small house they built, with a barn and windmill. She must have thought back to her childhood in the little village in the Alps, so different from a pioneer's life in southern California in the 1800s, perhaps so far removed it seemed like someone else's life.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

An Unseen Hand

An unseen Hand paints rippling textures on the sand.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Beauty And The Beach

In a town where five miles of coastline is the defining characteristic, it's to be expected that we'd have our share of lifelong surfers. This young woman is one of them, a third generation surfer. Eventually, sand castles and boogie boards gave way to no stroke takeoffs and nose rides, and she's chased waves in both hemispheres and half way around the world. She's confident and skilled and surfs for all the right reasons: personal satisfaction, love of the great outdoors, exercise and fun. The way she combines passion with poise, and substance with style makes her mother proud.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Early Morning Low Tide

It was unseasonably cold the whole holiday weekend, especially crisp down on the beach. A nippy wind kicked up sporadically and clouds moved swiftly across the sky. The tide was outgong, so the clouds were mirrored on the still wet sand and it was clear enough to see all the way south to La Jolla. The photo has not been retouched - the sky really was a Maxfield Parrish blue.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Someone We All Should Know

Politicians and newspapers don't protect our freedoms, soldiers and sailors do. Heartfelt thanks to those willing to serve, and to their families who wait at home. Unending gratitude and prayers for those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and to their families for the tremendous loss of their loved ones.

This is the story of one man, Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy, Navy Seal. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his extraordinary leadership and bravery in the War in Afghanistan. God bless Lieutenant Murphy and his family.

For service as set forth in the following CITATION:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life and above and beyond the call of duty as the leader of a special reconnaissance element with Naval Special Warfare task unit Afghanistan on 27 and 28 June 2005. While leading a mission to locate a high-level anti-coalition militia leader, Lieutenant Murphy demonstrated extraordinary heroism in the face of grave danger in the vicinity of Asadabad, Konar Province, Afghanistan. On 28 June 2005, operating in an extremely rugged enemy-controlled area, Lieutenant Murphy's team was discovered by anti-coalition militia sympathizers, who revealed their position to Taliban fighters. As a result, between 30 and 40 enemy fighters besieged his four member team. Demonstrating exceptional resolve, Lieutenant Murphy valiantly led his men in engaging the large enemy force. The ensuing fierce firefight resulted in numerous enemy casualties, as well as the wounding of all four members of the team. Ignoring his own wounds and demonstrating exceptional composure, Lieutenant Murphy continued to lead and encourage his men. When the primary communicator fell mortally wounded, Lieutenant Murphy repeatedly attempted to call for assistance for his beleaguered teammates. Realizing the impossibility of communicating in the extreme terrain, and in the face of almost certain death, he fought his way into open terrain to gain a better position to transmit a call. This deliberate, heroic act deprived him of cover, exposing him to direct enemy fire. Finally achieving contact with his headquarters, Lieutenant Murphy maintained his exposed position while he provided his location and requested immediate support for his team. In his final act of bravery, he continued to engage the enemy until he was mortally wounded, gallantly giving his life for his country and for the cause of freedom. By his selfless leadership, Lieutenant Murphy reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
Signed George W. Bush

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Mission San Juan Capistrano ~ 1939

Business took us down the block from Mission San Juan Capistrano last week, so the timely resurfacing of this old photo was a delight. It dates back to 1939 ~ America, pre World War II and still in the grips of the Great Depression. You wouldn't know that from the photo.

The mission was the seventh built in the chain of 21, and construction began in 1776. The most ornate of the missions, an 1812 earthquake collapsed the main church and only a few walls and a single dome remain. The swallows return from Argentina each spring and faithfully build their mud nests in the ruins. The original bell wall, tower, gardens, fountain and colonnade are largely intact.

The photo is No. 65 in the Union Oil Company's Natural Color Photographic Scenes of the West, 1939.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Happy Birthday, Bob Dylan

Today is Bob Dylan's 67th birthday. He is, inarguably, one of the all time greatest American songwriters, with an impact on American culture far beyond most.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A Venerable Icon Turns 125

The Brooklyn Bridge turns 125 years old this weekend. Begun in 1870, spanning 5,989 feet across the East River between the New York boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, it was the first steel wire bridge and the longest suspension bridge in the world. Completed in 1883, it's solid granite towers were the tallest structures in the Western Hemisphere. Built in the Gothic style, it was designed by John Roebling, who was also the inventor of wire cable. He designed the bridge to be six times stronger than was required, with three separate support sytems: suspension, stiffening, and diagonal stability. On opening day, 150,000 people paid one cent each to walk across. P.T. Barnum soon after demonstarted its safety by walking across with 21 elephants. At the time, it was used mainly by horse-drawn and trolley traffic and eventually an elevated train. Today it serves 6 lanes of car traffic. with a pedestrian/bicycle lane down the center, with no commericial traffic or busses allowed. It remains one of the oldest suspension bridges in the United States, an architectural icon of New York City, and a shining example of 19th century American spirit.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Dala Horse

Beginning in 1623, some Swedish fathers passed long winter nights carving small horses from scraps of leftover wood from the clock making shops in the Dalarna region. By 1716, the Dala horse had become the national toy. Production flourished in the 1800s, and Dala horses became an important item of barter, traded for household goods and services. For many, carving them kept food on the table and skills were passed from one generation to the next. They were generally flat carved with just a knife.

Today, the tradition continues, with Nusnas the center of Dala production. Wood from slow growing pine trees is marked out while the trees are still standing, and only the best timber is selected to carve. All sawing and carving is still done by hand, so no two horses are ever alike. The painting is also traditional, with two colors on one brush. What began as a father's gift for his child has become a symbol for an entire nation.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Our Friend The Dandelion

Dandelions have been used as a food and herbal remedy for much of recorded history. The leaves can be eaten raw in salads or cooked in soups, are high in vitamins C and A and are higher in calcium and iron than spinach. Dandelion root coffee is said to aid digestion and serve as a liver tonic and the milky sap can be used to get rid of warts and repel mosquitos. The praises of dandelion wine have been sung for ages.

Considered by most gardeners to be an intractable weed, the tenacious dandelion that was native to Europe, Africa and Asia is now well established in temperate climates the world over, thanks in part to the incredible design of its seeds. What seems to be a flower is really a collection of flowers, and the yellow rays, which look like petals, each belong to individual florets crowded together around the center disk. After blossoming, the inner circle of bracts around the flower cluster closes and raises up the seed down. Then the bracts turn back and form a round, downy seed ball. The wind easily broadcasts the seeds which sprout in dry fields, open woods, sandy soils and suburban lawns.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Most Benign Of Birds

You'd be resting, too, if you'd been beating your wings 50 times per second and consuming more than your weight every day in nectar. Native only to the Americas, hummingbirds are the only birds able to fly backwards and sustain hovering. They're also able, like bees, to gauge sugar percentages in nectar and routinely reject flowers that fall below 12%. They spend less than a fifth of their time feeding and mostly perch and watch the world.

The Anna is one of the few types of hummingbirds that does not migrate. Although capable of crossing 500 miles of open sea across the Gulf of Mexico nonstop, they prefer to stay put in Southern California and the local deserts year round. They lay their eggs two at a time, sometimes in nests no larger than a walnut shell. These gem colored iridescent beauties have been known to live as long as 17 years. They'll visit your garden faithfully if your plant salvias, penstemons and trumpet flowers.

The picture of a male Anna's hummingbird, taken locally this spring, is by California wildlife photographer Chris Mayne.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Old World Birds Of A Feather

Early settlers from Europe brought some species of sparrows with them, which quickly naturalized and are now found throughout the Americas. Ours are small and plump, well fed on seeds and small insects. They flock together by the score and mix casually with the doves and mockingbirds. The ravens, not so much. The sparrows spend most of their days, when not foraging, occupied with song, or hopping from branch to branch in the massive carrotwood tree next door. It's just a glide from there to the bird bath outside the living room window, and up to a dozen will splash together at one time. Yesterday, in the golden glow of a hot Sunday afternoon, these three House Sparrows waited their turn to get wet.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Gentleman Pirate

Although he had no sailing experience and no knowledge of shipboard life, the widowed Stede Bonnet abandoned his four children and vast plantation in his native Barbados and became a pirate. In the summer of 1717, at he age of 29, he bought a sixty ton sloop, which he named "Revenge" and equipped with 10 guns and his library of books. He hired a crew of 70 and relied on his quartermaster and officer for their sailing skills. Rather than the usual sharing of plunder, Bonnet paid his crew wages to gain their loyalty. Known as "The Gentleman Pirate", he attacked and plundered ships from the Chesapeake Bay to Honduras. He partnered for a short time with Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard, who double-crossed him and left the majority of the crew stranded on a sandbar. Bonnet eventually holed up on the Cape Fear River to retrofit his ship and wait out the hurricane season. The North Carolina governor got wind of his location and sent a posse. A great battle ensued, and Bonnet was captured. He managed to escape, was recaptured, tried, found guilty, and 18 months after becoming a pirate, hanged by the neck on Dec. 10th, 1718, in Charles Town (Charleston), South Carolina, at the age of 30.

The illustration is an 18th century engraving of Stede Bonnet.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A Man For All Seasons

The man in the buckskins with the Tiffany knife tucked into his ammunition belt may look vaguely familiar to you. That's Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States, born 150 years ago. He was a professional historian, author of 35 books, naturalist, lawyer, Medal of Honor recipiant, first American awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and post-presidency, explorer of the Amazon Basin. When he was 26, his wife, 2 days after giving birth to their daughter, and his mother both died suddenly and unexpectedly on the same day, in the same house. He left the care of his baby girl to relatives and moved to the Badlands in the Dakota Territories, where he learned to hunt, ride, rope, and rebuild his life. The photo above was taken during those years. He became lifelong friends with Seth Bullock, sheriff of Deadwood.

He returned to New York after several years, married his childhood sweetheart and fathered 5 more children. He went on to have many remarkable careers: Police Commissioner of New York, Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, soldier and leader of the charge up the hill at the Battle of Bull Run in Cuba, leader of the Republican Party and President of the United States, the youngest ever to serve. He was the first president to ride in a car, ride in an airplane, travel outside the U.S., ride in a submarine, and study jiu jitsu. He had a toy, the teddy bear, named after him and inadvertently coined the advertising phrase "Good to the last drop" while a guest of the Maxwell House Hotel... He was known to the public as "Teddy" but to friends and associates he was always "T.R." He had a photographic memory and was known as a brilliant conversationalist with a charming and robust personality beyond anyone's experience.

His visage is carved on Mt. Rushmore with Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and his personal hero, Abraham Lincoln. Theodore Roosevelt is justfiably considered one of our greatest presidents.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Flowers On Our Walk

So many flowers and so few bees. Honey bees have been in short supply these days and no one really knows why. Let's hope they come back from wherever they've gone, and soon. Pictured are ice plant, poppy, hibiscus and geraniums.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Incredible, Edible Nasturtium

A native of South America, the nasturtium was first introduced to Europe when conquistadors brought it along on their return to Spain in the 1500s. Being high in Vitamin C, Indians in Peru make a tea of the leaves to treat coughs, colds and flu. The flowers are slightly peppery and the leaves can be used as greens in salads. During World War II, when black pepper was in short supply, the dried seeds were ground as a substitute. It is an easily grown plant that self sows, with lily pad leaves and intensely bright, abundant flowers. It thrives in full sun or dappled shade and all parts of the plant are edible. Once established, this carefree annual will return season after season.

The oil painting of nasturtiums is by Adelaide Coburne Palmer, circa 1907.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Great Unknown Americans #1

Born in Scotland in 1766, Alexander Wilson spent his years there as an itinerate peddler. He came to America in 1794, looking to better his prospects. Eventually, he developed a keen fascination of birds and took vast walking expeditions to watch and draw them. He walked "all towns within 100 miles of the Atlantic, from Maine to Georgia", and eventually drew 268 species, 26 of which had never been identified. In 1806 he got wind of the impending Lewis and Clark expedition and petitioned President Thomas Jefferson to be included. Alas, the letter went astray and was never delivered, although he and Jefferson did later become friends. Considered the father of American ornithology, his drawings were eventually gathered into 8 volumes of hand colored copper engravings, one of which, circa 1810, is pictured.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Clinging Vine

The trumpet vine that grows across the front porch is bursting with color now. This native of the southeast United States thrives as far north as New Engand, and once the warm weather sets in, blooms almost nonstop. It puts out long curving tendrils that can attach to almost anything and the rapid growth requires constant containment, but its bright blossoms beckon hummingbirds galore and small birds nest in its dense foliage. It usually keeps flowering right up to Christmas and stays green all year.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The King Of The Missions

Founded in 1793, the largest of the 21 Californian missions is San Luis Rey, named for Louis IX of France (1215-1270). At the height of its prosperity in 1818, it controlled 6 mission ranches with livestock herds numbering 50,000 cattle and over 2,000 horses. The mission is built around a 500' x 500' quadrangle, where the first pepper trees in the state still grow. Made of handmade adobe and burnt bricks, the 6 foot thick walls and tiled columns still stand strong. Mexico ended the mission system in 1834, after it had won independence from Spain and could no longer afford the expense. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed a declaration returning the missions to the Catholic Church. With its extensive wall decorations painted by native artists, Mission San Luis Rey is one of the finest remaining examples of early mission architecture.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Painter Of Mothers

Mary Cassatt was born in Pennsylvania in 1844, but spent most of her life in Paris. She was a contemporary and friend of Degas, Monet, Renoir and Pissaro and the only American invited to join their outsider, independent artists' group that came to be known as the Impressionists. In 1891, inspired by the printmaking of Japanese masters, she produced dry point and aquatints, of which a Smithsonian curator says "...technically, as color prints, they have never been surpassed". Although she remained unmarried and childless, her most famous paintings are of children and their mothers.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Walking The Neighborhood

An evening walk through the neighborhood follows a timeworn path and the route rarely varies. Up the steep hill behind our house, there are panoramic ocean views, all the way to Catalina Island when it's clear enough. Commercial greenhouses used to abound, but they've been replaced by new, showy homes. The older homes are actually the most interesting, with their dirt driveways and old style garages out back. One driveway is particularly intriquing. You can't see around the curve from the street, and the lushness of the palms and ferns leads one to imagine a tropical retreat. There aren't any gates or "No Trespassing" signs, but we don't venture down there, leaving whatever is around the bend to the imagination.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Ingenuity Meets Inspiration

Tiger Woods is one of the greatest golfers of all time, but he doesn't make any of his own equipment. The same is true of most athletes - the enthusiasts generally use specialized but mass produced gear off the shelf of a store. My neighbor Kevin is an exception. A dedicated surfer, he builds his boards from start to finish. Be it foam, carbon fiber, expoxy, long board, short board, egg, or fish... He brings an artist's eye to every process, with color work that a Gucci or Missoni would give a closer look. The pictures show one of his boards where he keeps it in his kitchen, and the other, taking one of his creations out for a ride.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Sweetness And Light

Jonathan, looking into a tidepool, painted by his sister.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Monterey in 1846

This is an entry from a family journal. The author, photographed later in life, was 24 when he visited Monterey in 1846.

"The inhabitants of Monterey appeared to be either Spaniards of pure descent, Indians, or half-breeds. The former were a graceful, good-looking race, and carried themselves in a stately manner. The men were inclined to be dark, with curly hair and heavy beards. The senoras and senoritas of Monterey were extremely attractive; many were beautiful with a healthful, ruddy glow in their cheeks, and with dark tresses. They seemed lively, graceful, natural, and unaffected, and those I watched dancing were adept at this art, being vivacious and merry without violating the rules of decorum.

While I was staying at Monterey, the American officers gave a dance in one of the large rooms where we were quartered; ten of these dashing senoritas attended. In addition to cotillons and quadrilles, several waltzes were played. From the sidelines I watched the senoritas who were having endless trouble managing their partners. Many of the soldiers had never waltzed before and were about as agile as bears."

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Room With A View

This is the view from the computer corner, looking through the living room and out to the front yard. There's a birdbath just beyond the windows that draws scores of chirpping birds, and consequently, Thomas the cat. When the sun shines, the palms throw dappled shadows into the living room, as their frons rustle in the breeze. The sun was scarce today and a marine layer settled in for now. It may just be cool enough for one last fire this evening.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Lily Of The Incas

One of the most reliable year round bloomers is the alstroemeria, named for the Swedish baron who first collected its seeds in South America in 1753. Also known as the Peruvian Lily, or Lily Of The Incas, this is a favorite for bouquets, as it has a vase life of over two weeks. This is one flower you don't pick, rather, it should be grasped down stem and the entire cane pulled out of the ground, to encourage the clump to produce new growth. Here along the coast, it grows easily in sun or semi-shade and once planted, prefers to stay put. One plant can put up 80 canes a sesaon and each cane can produce up to 10 flowers. This plant is unique in that its leaves swirl up from the base in such a way that what shows on top is actually the underside of the leaf. If your garden has room for a few of these hardy plants, they'll keep you in beatiful, jewel-toned, fresh cut flowers all year long.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Rear View Mirror

Town looks a lot different now than it did in 1928. My great-grandparents' boarding house was one block south on this same road, now Highway 101. Otto and Clara served passengers of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, who stopped by for a bite to eat or a layover on the long dusty journey between Los Angeles and San Diego. Now a self serve car wash stands where they used to grow their food and raise their livestock. My dad remembers his grandpa always farmed in a suit coat, as he was a gentleman and very old school. We'll be putting in our own vegetables later this week, not far up the road from where this photo was taken 80 years ago. It's good to know that no matter how much things change, much remains the same.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

A Living Fossil

When the sun comes up over the hill, the first thing that lights up is the ginkgo tree. In autumn, it is bright yellow, of course, but currently, a chartreuse green that really pops against the blue sky. The striking fan shaped leaves are unique among seed plants and their design has inspired artists over thousands of years. Birds love it in all seasons, leaves or not, and it's branches beckon hummingbirds, sparrows, mockingbirds, and doves. This species was first seen by Westerners in 1690 and has been cultivated in North America for 200 years. In China, some individual trees are said to be 2,500 years old. The ginkgo biloba is known as a "living fossil" and is believed to have survived in the Northern Hemisphere unchanged for 270 million years.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Along The Shore

Most of the local seashore has sandstone bluffs that jut in and out along the coastline. They're weathered by the prevaling onshore winds and vary in color considerably, mostly brown, yellow, red, gray, white and tan. Sand and cobblestones are constantly shifting on the beach, depending on the size of the waves, the strength of the tides and the swiftness of the ocean currents. Hence, it can look totally different one day to the next. That reef you jumped up onto yesterday to keep your cuffs dry from the incoming tidal surge may be covered with sand today. There are constants, though. The sound of the waves is one of them, as is the bracing salt air and feeling better just being there.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Passive Drifters And Their Cousins

The temperature dropped yesterday a good 20 degrees and a strong, misty wind from the south churned up the ocean. It's early to see jellyfish washed up along the shore. Mostly, they prefer warmer water. These creatures free float and wait for the current to bring prey to their tenacles. They are 94-98% water and have no brain. Interestingly, they're known as "medusa" in 6 languages - Hungarian, Spanish, Russian, Italian, Hebrew and Bulgarian. Their more stationary cousins, the sea anemones, anchor themselves to rocks or reefs with a foot that burrows in. They have a toxin in their hairy tenacles that stuns their prey and it is this toxin that makes them sticky to the touch. They prefer to stay put, but if a predator thins their ranks, they'll seek a safer spot.