October 2009

Posted by Ellen

Those amongst us who are not artists nonetheless feel we know a thing or two about art and artists. We "know" that artistic vision and style are intensely personal, that "art by committee" is doomed to fail. But see here, "Morning in a Pine Forest," painted in 1886 by Russian artists Ivan Shishkin and Konstantin Savitsky.

Shishkin and Savitsky were both accomplished painters and well-regarded at the time. Shishkin was known for sweeping landscapes that portrayed the Russian countryside in loving detail. Savitsky painted sentimental tableaux, often of historical scenes. They both signed this painting, and for years it was assumed that the forest was by Shishkin and the bears by Savitsky.

But archivists eventually discovered preliminary sketches for the work done by both men, and it became clear that each of them contributed to both the background and the bears. Meanwhile, for unknown reasons, the first owner of the painting ordered that Savitsky's signature be removed from the canvas.

Whatever. It's a nice picture.

Posted by Ellen

This now quiet flooded hole in the ground was once part of the world's largest open pit iron mine, near Bob Dylan's boyhood home in Hibbing, Minnesota. One-fourth of all the steel ever made in the United States used iron ore from this one mine. The ore sat here for two billion years unmolested, waiting for oxygen to appear in the atmosphere, for life to appear on the surface of earth, and for that life to evolve sufficiently to dig all the iron out of the earth. The digging took about 50 years.

They don't make these big iron deposits any more. Now that the air has oxygen in it, iron will rust away instead of piling up like grains of sand. There are natural processes nowadays that manage to accumulate some iron despite the atmosphere, but they operate on a much, much smaller scale.

Minnesota's Iron Range is what's called a Banded Iron Formation, a BIF. There are fewer than a dozen large BIFs around the world, in Minnesota, Africa, Russia, Australia, Venezuela, Brazil, and Labrador. They are all at least a billion years old; the biggest ones are around two billion years old.

Two billion years is also the age of some of the oldest life forms preserved in the fossil record, organisms called cyanobacteria, ancestors of modern algae. Vast "mats" of cyanobacteria fossils have been found near Hibbing and near many of the world's other banded iron formations.

Coincidence?

Here's one theory: cyanobacteria, sometimes called blue-green algae, were capable of photosynthesis. Like modern plants, they gave off oxygen, which accumulated in the atmosphere and the ocean. The cyanobacteria lived in the ocean, probably near the surface, and the ocean water contained high concentrations of iron, probably leached from early volcanic rocks. Photosynthesis added oxygen to the ocean, which made the iron precipitate out of solution, sinking to the bottom. The iron sediment piled up, and we got our BIFs.

But there's a catch: cyanobacteria are anoxic organisms, which evolved and apparently thrived in a world without oxygen in the air. Their own behavior--photosynthesis--may have contributed to atmospheric changes that literally poisoned them. In other words, they may have caused their own extinction. It may have been a mass extinction, which could explain the huge mats of fossilized cyanobacteria associated with BIFs.

It's hard to imagine how the cyanobacteria could have avoided their fate; they are single-celled organisms with little more brainpower than some of our contemporary politicians. A few varieties did evolve to survive in anoxic niche environments, such as hot mineral springs, but overall their way of life was unsustainable.

Which raises the obvious question: can we humans do any better? As our way of life leads to changes in the atmosphere, can we evolve to survive on an overheated planet? And/or are we smart enough to control the atmosphere to make it more favorable to survival of our species?

Posted by Ellen

After some of you fussed yesterday about the lack of a story to go with the picture, I've got a story for today--the beginning of a two-part story, in fact. It could be classified as another entry in an irregular series dealing with places I've never been to and probably have no business writing about.

The picture looks down on the harbor of Duluth, Minnesota, in 1905, from a vantage point near the top of the city's new inclined railway. The railway may look like part of the town's extensive industrial infrastructure, but it was actually a people-mover, built by the city in the late ninteenth century at the instigation of real-estate developers who wanted to sell houses high up the hill above downtown. "The Incline" operated for about 50 years, powered by an electric motor at the top and working a little like an elevator, with a dummy-car counterweight on the left track that moved downhill when the passenger car on the right track was pulled uphill.

What I didn't know about Duluth could fill several hard drives. Here's what little I did know: it's Bob Dylan's hometown, and the winters are ridiculously cold. The Dylan factoid is only partly true--yes, he was born in Duluth, but he really grew up a hundred miles north in Hibbing, Minnesota, a mining town that had to relocate itself because the mine got too big. As for the factoid about Duluth winters: yes, of course, they really are brutal, with a spell of forty below or worse most years. But "the Incline" was so steep that snow never piled up too deeply on the tracks, not even during blizzards.

As for the things I  didn't know about Duluth: Number one, around the time of this photo, it was among the wealthiest towns in America, claiming more millionaires per capita than anyplace else. It thrived because of a confluence of geology, geography, and the highest technology of the era.

In the 1870s, northern Minnesota had a gold rush; no commercially significant gold was ever found, but the prospectors did stumble on high-grade iron ore in the hills north of Duluth. They'd discovered Minnesota's Iron Range, one of the largest iron deposits on earth and the subject of tomorrow's part of the story.

By the 1880s, Duluth and the Iron Range were connected by railroad. Ore from the mines was off-loaded from the trains at Duluth onto large ships. The ships would have been stuck forever in Lake Superior, unable to exit, had not construction been completed around that time on the mechanized locks at Sault Ste. Marie, which helped ships to descend the 21 feet between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. The ore ships from Duluth sailed a thousand miles across the Great Lakes to the newly constructed steel mills in Indiana and Pennsylvania and Ohio and New York, where newly invented Hulett machines automatically unloaded the ore from the ships and dumped it into blast furnaces. As soon as the new steel cooled, it was snapped up by new factories assembling cars and tractors and locomotives and wringer washing machines and everything else that used to be made in America.

All cities that boom must implode. (I don't know if that's true, but it sounds about right.) What happened to Duluth was World War II, with its extreme demand for iron ore to build tanks and planes and ships to replace the ones that were being consumed in battle.  The Iron Range couldn't keep up; huge wartime scrap-metal drives were needed to supplement the mines.The track of the inclined railway was itself torn up and sold for scrap. By about 1950, all the good ore in the entire Iron Range had been clawed out of the earth and shipped away through Duluth. The city languished.

Fortunately, scientists at the University of Minnesota had seen this coming and were hard at work on a work-around.  Within a few years they came up with a way of using the Iron Range's low-grade ore, called taconite, Taconite isn't as valuable as the old stuff, and it has to be compete with cheap ore now coming in from places like Brazil, and anyway, most of the old steel mills and factories are no longer operating, but Duluth remains a fairly active port to this day. Last year, it handled 500,000 railroad carloads of taconite. The railroad also brings grain to Duluth from all across the northern Plains, which also gets loaded there onto ships.

But nowadays, more valuable than wheat or taconite to Duluth's economy are tourists. Now that the smoke is gone from the old ore processing works, the city's scenic lakeside setting attracts vacationers interested in all the outdoor activities of the north country: boating, fishing, hunting, snowmobiling, and so on. Along the top of the hill is a string of popular state parks. Even the sand bar that protects the harbor, seen in the distance in the photo, is now a park, and also a seaplane base. Visitors are buying up the old houses on the side of the hill to use as vacation homes.

Somewhere in the city, I can't figure out where, is a trail they've named the Bob Dylan Walking Path. Must be near Highway 61.

 

Posted by Ellen

Deep in the middle of the forest, far, far away from all the houses in the village, there was a tiny little farm with a big red barn.

Posted by Ellen

Portland photographer Corey Templeton took this picture last summer. He says the staircase is somewhere in the West End.

Posted by Ellen

With apologies to those among you who have been on this list since 2007, I am repeating here one of my favorite baby pictures, taken almost 30 years ago. As you can see, John got distracted, and Ted made his move.

The prize clutched in John's little fist must have been something really special, so tasty and/or entertaining that it would be coveted even by a six-month-old baby. Such as a nice little pebble or twig or clod of dirt.

I like this picture because it suggests something of the tone of brotherly, um, love among the boys as the family grew.  Even much, much later, whenever one of the boys would come home from college, odds were high he'd take a few minutes to go through his brothers' stuff and perhaps make off with a little something that wasn't being actively protected. Always, there was a stupid rationale--for example: "But it fits me better than it fits him."
 

Posted by Ellen

A wedding guest raises high his cellphone camera to snap a picture of a tiny red hot air balloon.

Inside the balloon is a scrap of paper bearing the bride's maiden name; since she is now acquiring a new name, her old name is set free to blow in the wind. Perhaps someone else can use it.

This scene is from a wedding last June in Estonia, where weddings and marriage are not as common as they are here in the U.S. I'm not sure if the balloon is an old tradition or a new one, but I am told it is an actual hot air balloon, heated above a small flame till it wafts away.

 

Posted by Ellen

After October 1 each year, admission to Maine's state parks is free. On October 2, several classes from Helena Dyer Elementary School in South Portland took a field trip to Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal.

The children and teachers spread across the sunny bald at the top of the mountain to eat lunch, listen to stories, enjoy the view, and of course complete worksheets.. These boys claimed a rock of their own at the edge of the mountaintop; one of them insisted that his last year's teacher had said it was okay to sit there. Before this year's teacher could say no, two of them were up on the rock and the third had pulled out a camera to record their moment of boldness.

This year's teacher did eventually approve their place on the rock. Let's hear it for teachers with steady nerves who take children up to the top of a mountain in October!

Posted by Ellen

Several of you asked to see more work by our Romanian Northern Irish West Texas friend Avram Dimitrescu. He calls this acrylic painting "Longhorn and Mountains."

For many more images, see Avram's blog and his portfolio website. He doesn't just paint chickens and cows, though I might be satisfied if he did; he's also got  paintings and drawings of landscapes, buildings, vehicles, food, and the digging arm of an excavating machine.
 

Posted by Ellen

The Atlantic coast of Senegal near the mouth of the Gambia River, as perceived by the sensors of the Landsat 7 satellite.