November 2009

Posted by Ellen

Old-school deadheads are logs that sank to the bottom of a river or lake during the logging drives of the last century or the century before that or even the century before that. Before the railroads reached the northwoods, loggers went out in the forests every winter, cut down the trees with axes or cross-cut saws, and dragged the logs down to the banks of the nearest river. Come spring, they would drive the logs downriver to saw mills or later paper mills.

The log drives were operated every spring in Maine from the 1770s until the mid-twentieth century, especially on the Penobscot River, which became the most important logging river in the world, transporting hundreds of millions of board feet of lumber every year to the mills in Bangor.  When the Penobscot was high and water was running fast,, logs piled up in dangerous logjams. When water was low, the logs slowed and beached themselves on the rocks. Either way, inevitably, some logs became waterlogged and sank.

Down at the bottom, logs eventually lose their bark and become slimy, but the wood is perfectly preserved in cold water and can be dried out and used for anything. While millions of logs are streaming by on top of the water, it is not economical to salvage the deadheads at the bottom. Today, the economics are different.

If you want to cut standing timber on state-owned land, you have to pay the state about 40% of the estimated value of the lumber you will sell. If you want to salvage deadheads from a lake or river in Maine, you'll have to pay 20% of the lumber value. This year, two underwater logging operations tried to make a go of it in the state.

They use pontoon boats equipped with fish-finders, which have no trouble locating the logs. The guy working Moosehead Lake irigged up a mechanical deadhead retrieval system with grappling hooks and winches. The guy working the Penobscot River dives with scuba equipment to snag the logs for his winch. Either way, on a good day, they might bring up six or eight logs, lash them to the pontoons, and haul them to shore, where they'll eventually be carried by truck to a sawmill. The process is time-consuming, and it's not cheap, but the wood is of a quality that is no longer available in standing forests--old-growth lumber, sometimes two or three feet in diameter, with the close-packed growth rings reflecting slow centuries of maturation.

The ecological issues are tough. On the one  hand, after decades or centuries underwater, the deadheads have developed a niche of their own in the riparian ecosystem, feeding insects with their bark and sheltering baby fish.. Also, the logs cannot be removed without stirring up a lot of sediment and disrupting all the critters in the water. On the other hand, the more salvaged lumber we use, the fewer new trees we'll have to cut.

This picture is a still from a newsreel about diving for logs in the Penobscot.

Posted by Ellen

Wearing headgear is always wise, but challenging your big brother to a wrestling match?

Posted by Ellen

Since the 1950s, the city of Detroit has lost half its population, which now stands at about 900,000. Entire inner-city neighborhoods have been abandoned, often burned out, and eventually bulldozed; Google Earth shows the downtown ringed by hundreds of blocks of grass and trees.

The blight has spread now to neighborhoods far from the city center. First one family, then another, leaves town in hope of finding work. They cannot sell their homes, but they leave anyway. Soon, their neighbors are leaving also, because semi-abandoned neighborhoods are dangerous and unpleasant places to live. Here is a picture from last summer of a Detroit neighborhood with just a few homes still occupied. By next summer, there will be fewer still.
 

Posted by Ellen

Winter is sneaking up on us fast--in fact, these last couple of days here have left the impression that it's done snuck up already, and snagged us in its clutches. Anyway, here are a last couple of fall pictures, from last month. The first one is of Rye Beach, New Hampshire, by Tanja Baker. The other one shows a hydrangea bush on my street in Portland.

Posted by Ellen

During last year's Republican convention, when Sarah Palin was first introduced to the world outside Alaska, many Americans in the lower forty-eight or forty-nine began to google her name obsessively, desperate to find out who on earth she was. Political bloggers in Alaska rose to the challenge, and some of them developed loyal followings from far outside Alaska, even after Sarah Palin stepped offstage and went off tiptoeing through the tulips.

Among the best and most successful of the Alaska bloggers is a woman who calls herself Mudflats. Grateful readers of her work--Mudpuppies--recently presented her with a handmade quilt celebrating the world she has written about online. Each quilt square is centered on a pair of boots, the better for traipsing through the muck of politics. This "I can see Russia from my airspace!" square memorializes one of Palin's more notorious stupidities from the 2008 campaign.

Mudflats continue to blog, bringing humor and enthusiasm to discussions of life in Alaska and politics in Washington or wherever. She speaks up especially for the downtrodden, for people we tend to overlook or shove aside, perhaps because they live in villages at the furthest extremes of the Alaskan bush, where nobody but Mudflats bothers to see the tough times in their airspace.

Posted by Ellen

Sarah Stack, age 8, shoots and scores to lead her team to the Nashville city championship. 

Posted by Ellen

Photographer Trey Ratcliff is known for his high-dynamic-range techniques, which pump up the drama in his pictures, producing weirdly wonderful, or just plain weird, results.

The idea is that when shooting a scene that is partly bright and partly shadowed, a camera can properly expose the picture to show color and detail in the bright areas or in the dark areas, but not both at the same time. Ratcliff shoots the same scene over and over with different exposure settings; he then uses fancy software to blend together parts of the image from all the different shots.

Our eyes naturally have a much wider dynamic range than any camera, so in theory Ratcliff's pictures should be more natural-looking than regular photos. In practice, they look less natural--often interesting, sometimes beautiful, but almost always somehow artificial and extreme. I have mixed feelings about his work; here, for example, the sky looks spooky or fake to me, but overall, it's really, really pretty.

Posted by Ellen

Tsingys. Which means: the kind of place where you don't want to walk barefoot.

We use the German word, karst, as a general term for tsingys and other less extreme landscapes carved by the chemical interaction of limestone and rainwater. Limestone is oceanic in origin, formed at the bottom of the sea from the shells of dead sea creatures. When tectonic forces thrust the seafloor up onto dry land, rainwater immediately begins chewing away at it, in a chemical reaction something like the vinegar-and-baking-soda volcano of an elementary school science project.

Monsoon rains have been attacking the Jurassic limestone bedrock of western Madagascar for millions of years, dissolving channels in the surface and opening up caverns underground. Eventually, as the caverns expand, the rock above tthem collapses, forming sinkholes. The sinkholes enlarge along fissues and underground drainage channels, eventually forming steep-sided  "solution valleys." The rains continue to eat away at the rock between the valleys, until all that is left is raggedy spikes. Tsingys.

It's so hard to get around in this landscape that the flora and fauna have yet to be catalogued. Even animals and plants have a hard time traveling here; they live in micro-ecosystems that have evolved in isolation from one another as well as from the rest of the world.

Ten percent of the earth's surface is karst, but most of it is too young or too arid to develop the extreme features of the tsingys. But all karst is evolving slowly or rapidly toward the kind of landscape seen here. It will be kind of a shame in a few million years when Florida gets to looking like this; who's going to want to visit beaches where you can no longer walk barefoot?

Posted by Ellen

Ivan Shishkin painted this field of ripened rye in 1878. The grain is so tall it almost hides a couple of people way in the distance, on the road near the middle of the picture. I'm pretty sure that they are hunters; there are two dead birds at the edge of the field in the foreground, and a big flock of birds still in the sky.

I love this painting. I might not have fallen for it so completely if I'd noticed the dead birds first, but it's too late now. I love how simple it is: field, trees, road--something we might see any time we go out into the country. Not a specially scenic spot. But the trees are super trees, bigger and more dramatic than ordinary trees. The crop in the field is golden, bursting-ripe. The road reels us in, winding mysteriously. They say Shishkin painted this way to celebrate the bounty of Russian nature. He knew what he was doing.

Posted by Ellen

Every day had a theme during Spirit Week at Deering High School. There was '80s Day, Mainer Day, and then Toga Day. But the school administration had second thoughts about Toga Day--What if those stupid kids didn't wear enough clothes underneath their "togas"? At the last minute, Toga Day was called off, to be replaced by Backwards Day. Most students chose to not get the message about the late change in plans, and they came to school dressed pretty much as the administrators had feared. Our own Hank Stein, however, chose to observe Backwards Day, all decked out in his Senate page uniform.

The seniors who were eventually elected 2009 Homecoming Queen and King are both in the toga picture. The queen, Mohdis, already has a crown, and the king, Jacob, is wearing a t-shirt labeled "toga."

At the end of Spirit Week, the homecoming football game on Friday night could have gone better; Deering got trounced by Cheverus. But I am told that the dance on Saturday night was just fine. In the picture here from a pre-dance party and photo session, Hank is once again right in the middle of everything, but this time in a black shirt and white tie.