August 2011

Posted by Ellen

Well, I didn't know there really was such a thing as the Big Rock Candy Mountain, but here it is, rising above a resort with the same name along Highway 89 near Marysvale, Utah.

Volcanic explosions, followed by magmatic intrusions, followed by twenty-odd-million years of erosion and hot-springs-type chemical interactions have streaked the mountain with colorful mineral deposits. The reddish rocks contain iron-based minerals, including hematite and pyrite, while the whitish rocks contain potassium-based minerals, notably including kaolinite, a valuable white clay used to make paper glossy for magazines or photos.

The mineralization of Big Rock Candy Mountain acidifies runoff water, leaving the soil here relatively inhospitable to vegetation. Nonetheless, ponderosa pine are hanging on, especially near the ridgetop.

It's hard to imagine that in the 1930s there would have been anything about this part of the world that was hospitable to hoboes, either. No lemonade springs, no lakes of stew and whiskey too, no cigarette trees, nothing but more of the longing and aching that inspired Harry McClintock's song.

Posted by Ellen

He is "Le Grand Van Gogh," cast in bronze by sculptor Bruno Catalano.

Posted by Ellen

A fruit picker falls asleep on the tangerines in Lahore, Pakistan.

For more images of people settling down for naps "surrounded by stuff" from all over the world, look here.

Posted by Ellen

Sadly, this is a "before" picture: the big American Elm tree in the courtyard of Shiloh Baptist Church in our neighborhood has been diagnosed with Dutch Elm Disease and is about to be cut down.

I'm told this tree made a cameo appearance in The Sixth Sense, a Bruce Willis movie shot in the neighborhood, but I can't confirm or deny. There's a pivotal scene near the end of the movie in which the boy and his mother sit talking in the car, which is stopped near the scene of an accident; there's a tree outside the car window on the boy's side, but all the camera shows of this tree is its lower trunk, which is not sufficient for a positive ID.

Anyway, the church building and probably also the tree date back to the 1860s, when the Church of the Holy Apostles was built to serve a neighborhood rapidly filling with immigrants from Ireland. Numerous annexes and additions were required, as the parish exceeded 10,000 by 1910. But by 1940, descendants of the Irish immigrants were leaving the neighborhood, and descendants of African slaves from the American South were pouring in. The church complex was sold to a Baptist congregation and renamed Shiloh.

Today, Shiloh's congregants have mostly left the neighborhood, replaced this time by newcomers who mostly grew up in middle-class suburbs; one long-time resident described the new neighbors to a newspaper reporter as "white people with big dogs." Churchgoers who've moved away return to Shiloh on Sunday mornings, causing traffic jams and parking conflicts. There is no church parking lot; for the church's first hundred-plus years, people got there by walking.

The congregation is shrinking fast and is already far too small to maintain the huge church complex. The elm will come down in the next few weeks; the building, designed by the iconic Philadelphia architect Frank Furness, may not be far behind.

Posted by Ellen

Area of Refuge is a technical term associated with the Americans for Disabilities Act, identifying places where people in wheelchairs can wait for extra assistance during an emergency.

For example, say there's a fire in a multi-story elevator building. In response to the fire alarm, the  elevators stop operating normally, and able-bodied people have to exit via stairwells or outside fire escapes. People in wheelchairs are supposed to follow illuminated signs to an Area of Refuge on each floor, usually near the elevator or stairwell, where extra fire resistance has been built into the walls and extra communication equipment is available. Once comunication is established, first responders can locate people in the refuge and rescue them, by overriding the elevator stoppage if possible or by carrying people down the stairs if necessary.

It makes sense, but for reasons unknown to me, Area of Refuge signs are seen very rarely; they're either not there at all in most buildings, or they're so inconspicuous I never notice them.

In fact, this sign in the Double T Diner in Annapolis, Maryland, is the first I've ever seen, which is why I took the picture. I had no idea what it meant and speculated that the worried look on the face of the guy in this picture might suggest he is desperately seeking his own personal place of refuge.

Now that I've studied up on this stuff, I'm still a little confused. The Double T Diner is a one-story, ground-level-only restaurant. What's the need for a Disability-Act area of refuge in a one-story building?

Posted by Ellen

One evening in 1910, this man got off the train at the station in Ann Arbor, Michigan, picked up his coat and his briefcase, put on his hat, and headed up the hill toward home. It is possible, of course that what I referred to as the man's briefcase may actually be a salesman's sample case or a traveler's overnight case–but overall, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Posted by Ellen

One of the masterworks of early American art, Asher B. Durand's massive 1853 oil painting "Progress (The Advance of Civilization)," has been sold privately to an unknown buyer, perhaps Bill Gates, and has disappeared from public view after almost half a century on display in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The sale price may have been in the range of $50 million.

The details of the painting, which are very difficult to make out in this digital reproduction, utilize landscape to represent time. There is wilderness in the foreground, where Indians stand on the rocks looking way off into the distance. The middle distance is pastoral: fields of grain, country roads, a horse-drawn wagon. Far off in the background is a new railroad trestle and a train, its engine belching smoke. The Indians are still standing in the forest primeval, but already, they and their paradise are so last week.

I remember writing a paper on this kind of symbolism in college, as did a million other students. It all has something to do with a new American way of looking at nature: Old World artists painted romantic landscapes in which the ruined stones of ancient buildings were being reclaimed by the forest, whereas in American landscapes, fresh civilization was intruding into nature. Either way, the story was somehow sad.

The story of what happened to the Durand painting this year is also sad, and the lesson it illustrates could be taken to implicate both nature and civilization: i.e., human nature.

About fifty years ago, Jonathan "Jack" Warner, the wealthy owner of Gulf States Paper Company in Alabama, started collecting art, mostly American art. He bought original Audubon prints and put them up in the company cafeteria. He bought paintings by Winslow Homer, Georgia O'Keefe, Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, Mary Cassatt, James Whistler, Edward Bierstadt, Gilbert Stuart, and dozens of others; he kept many of the paintings at home but decorated the walls of corporate headquarters with many others. Eventually, he built a museum for the collection.

The museum was open to the public, but it was still a private collection, funded in large measure with corporate money. Warner had a good eye for art and also apparently a good nose for a bargain, and eventually the art collection came to represent many tens of millions of dollars of corporate assets. He set up a foundation to manage the collection, but ownership remained substantially with the company.

And he turned over corporate leadership to his son. "That was a huge mistake," he said recently. "I think about that every day."

Warner's son, Jonathan "Jon" Warner, remade the family business, changing its name to Westervelt Company, selling off its paper mill and focusing on forest management and renewable energy. Early this year, plans were announced to build a plant in west Alabama to manufacture wood pellets for export to Germany.

Building the wood-pellet plant will cost about $50 million. The Durand painting may have fetched that much, even in the somewhat depressed art market that has lingered since the financial crisis and recession.

In fact, the recession has made the painting much more valuable to a corporate entity like Westervelt. One of the provisions of the 2010 Stimulus Act provided for a one-year capital-gains tax break for companies selling assets not related to their core business.

The Warner collection curators say they came in to the museum one Monday morning and found blank spots on the wall where many of the paintings had been. Westervelt's board of directors had voted to sell the art.

Jack Warner did manage to keep a large part of his collection intact, and he has created an organization called the Tuscaloosa Museum of Art to eventually display it. In the meantime, several dozen of the paintings make up a traveling show that has been exhibited in London and is now at the University of Pennsylvania's Ross Gallery in Philadelphia.

Speculation as to the buyer of "Progress" has focused on two deep-pocket collectors who are known to be interested in American art: Alice Walton, of the Wal-Mart fortune, and Bill Gates. Jack Warner's wife personally called Ms. Walton and was told that no, she did not buy the picture. It has also been reported that Gates has denied the purchase, but some sources say that he always issues denials and that it is exactly the kind of painting he would want.

Gone with the wind, our Progress is.

Posted by Ellen

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from 30,000 feet.

Posted by Ellen

Natsumi Hayashi calls herself the Yowayowa Camera Woman, yowayowa being a Japanese word for weak or feeble. "Since I'm yowayowa," she says, "it's really heavy to carry SLR cameras around."

She lives in Tokyo with two cats and is devoted to her art: photography, "mainly levitating self-portraits." Levitating self-portraits done the way Hayashi does them are not easy to pull off. The levitation part is straightforward enough: she jumps. But catching herself on camera mid-jump, in a pose that looks levitation-like, floaty and non-jumpy, requires a little technique and a lot of patience.

Hayashi says she puts her camera on a tripod and composes the shot, setting the focus for where she plans to do her jumping. Her shutter speed is very fast, to freeze motion. Her camera can be set for a ten-second delay, allowing her ten seconds to run from the tripod to the jump location; at precisely the right fraction of a second, just before the shutter clicks, she leaps into the air.

Then she goes back to the camera and does it again till she gets it right. Her internal clock must be pretty damn good by now, after working on levitating self-portraits for more than a year, but even so, it is hard to predict exactly which part of a jump the shutter will happen to record, and perhaps hard to anticipate what that part of a jump will look like, composition-wise.

Also, after all that jumping, if her legs were once a bit yowayowa, they are surely yowayowa no more.

Posted by Ellen

History has not recorded the name of the first person to light a fire in the little grotto behind the waterfall in Shale Creek gorge, now part of Chestnut Ridge Park recreation area in Erie County, New York, near Buffalo.

Despite the name of the place–Eternal Flame Falls–neither the flame nor the waterflow is perennial. Shale Creek is an intermittent stream, drying up to a trickle except during snowmelt and days of very heavy rain. The methane gas that fuels the flame is always present–it is produced by rotting vegetation trapped in the shale, and it bubbles up through fissures at several places along the creek, notably into a natural alcove large enough to keep the flame dry behind the watery curtain of the falls. But the flame does go out sometimes, if the wind is gusty or the waterflow especially drenching.

The greenish-gray rocks here are part of a formation called Hanover Shale, roughly 380 million years old. Where this shale is at or near the surface, as here, any gas it contains will simply ooze out into the atmosphere, making it economically worthless; in places where the Hanover Shale is buried deep underneath other rocks, however, its gas is trapped under great pressure and may be worth drilling for.