February 2016

Posted by Ellen

This just in: Leonardo DiCaprio has won the first and only Northeastern Siberian Academy Award for best friend of Russia and especially Russia's far northern peoples. His film The Revenant, about survival and revenge in a snowy wilderness, struck a chord with audiences in Yakutia, the Sakha Republic, "the largest and most northern region in the Russian Federation," where admirers contributed their own family silver and gold to honor DiCaprio. They want him to come to Siberia and accept their Oscar statuette in person.

The Yakutian statuette, which is two centimeters shorter than the Hollywood version, is cast of silver and gold melted down from jewelry donated by Siberian DiCaprio fans. The face of the statue has pronounced Asiatic features, in acknowledgment of Siberia's indigeous peoples; when DiCaprio accepted his 2016 Golden Globe award, he dedicated it to First Nations peoples and indigenous communities–"that is, to us, the people of the Far North of Russia," says Tatiana Egarova, who organized the campaign.

According to Egarova, more than 100 Yakutian women donated their jewelry for the statuette; some of them, she said, broke off pieces from what they donated so they could hold onto keepsakes reminding them of DiCaprio. There is a bit of evidence that the warm feelings may extend both ways: in 2010, DiCaprio met with Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg at a conference on the endangered Siberian tiger, and in 2012, he wrote an appreciation of his Russian grandmother, Yelena Smirnova, who came from the Urals city of Perm. "To me," he said, "she was the embodiment of inner strength and integrity."

The Siberian Oscar figurine is holding a gold choron, a Yakutian ritual cup signifying peace, harmony, spiritual unity, and good intentions.

Posted by Ellen

There are two good dogs here, who are paying attention and no doubt salivating over the treats in that plastic bag. But the guy in the back, a young Belgian malinois named Boulder, still needs to get with the program.

Posted by Ellen

Morning commuters on the el from West Philly to Center City speed past this mural every day; it's part of the rooftop love-letter series by graffiti artist Steve Powers.

If it looks a little odd and maybe incomplete–well, yes, it's missing its opening line; the camera lens wasn't wide enough to catch the entire block-long love letter in one snap.

The full verse is: "I want you like coffee, I need you like juice, I won't put you on the side like bacon, You can have me over easy."

Morning poetry. The coffee might help, but then again it might not.

Posted by Ellen

In the mid-eighteenth century, Ben Franklin's good friend John Bartram was a nurseryman, with a plant and seed business on a few acres across the Schuylkill River from Phladelphia. This is the view today from Bartram's estate, which is now owned by the city.

The oil tanks are part of the largest refinery complex in the northeast, recently acquired from Sunoco by an investment fund that operates it as Philadelphia Energy Solutions. This year's low oil prices don't seem to hurt the storage-and-refinery end of the oil business; PES says it has expanded its operation locally to employ more than 1,000 people and is trying to acquire a storage facility in North Dakota.

Bartram had an international reputation as a botanist, collecting seeds and plant specimens from all over the thirteen colonies and beyond, from Florida to Lake Ontario. Much of his traveling was by foot. He sent unique New World plants to London for the king's botanists there; they in turn sent him English plants that might or might not be suitable for American climes, including some trees and shrubs that survive today in Bartram's garden.

His son Bill continued the nursery business and also wrote a best-selling travelogue about plant-collecting adventures. Bill's niece Ann then took over the place and expanded it to include ten greenhouses and many acres of nursery gardens; in 1850, however, Ann and her husband Bob Carr ran out of money and had to sell the place.

Posted by Ellen

In 1775,  a Scotch-Irish gentleman named James Stuart planted about a hundred and fifty beech trees to dramatize the driveway leading up to Gracehill, his new estate in County Antrim, in the far north of Northern Ireland. 

Over the years, the trees have grown together over the road, creating the Dark Hedges, an often-photographed tree-tunnel landscape recently featured in the HBO series Game of Thrones. The eighteenth-century driveway is now a public street, Brogagh Road; what's left of the Gracehill estate is now an eighteen-hole golf course. The Stuarts mostly emigrated to Canada.

James Pion, a wedding photographer from Gainesville, Florida, caught this early-morning view.

Posted by Ellen

The inner surface of the dome of the U.S. Capitol building is a fresco titled The Apotheosis of Washington, which depicts George Washington in his army uniform, seated amongst the gods of the Roman heavens, surrounded by the entire military-industrial complex.

We'll leave the details of this cartoon to another morning. Today, we want to look just beyond the outer circle of the fresco, where it is barely possible to make out the railing of a narrow balcony running all the way around the dome. If you could get up to this balcony, you could look down 180 feet to the floor of the rotunda, or you could turn around to face the outside of the dome and look out across the city.

Here's the inside view, looking down:

And here's the outside view, looking west along the mall to the Washington Monument:

To get up to this balcony, you first have to become an important person, or at least a congressional page. Then you have to navigate steep, winding metal stairs amid the ironwork that supports the dome:

The whole dome is made of iron–8.9 million pounds of iron–painted to look like the sandstone in the rest of the building. It replaced an earlier, much smaller dome made of wood sheathed in copper. When Congress approved funding for the new dome in 1854 ($100,000), construction began by setting up a crane in the middle of the rotunda, with a steam-powered engine that was fueled by burning the wood from the old dome.

The new dome took nine years to build, and then two more years to paint. Work was finished in 1865. During the project's last few years, of course, we were seriously at war with ourselves, but for whatever reason, the dome kept on rising without interruption.

In recent years, it's gotten leaky, and in 2014 the exterior of the whole dome was covered with scaffolding for a two-year roof-patching job.

Posted by Ellen

In 2009, when Hank was a U.S. Senate page, he got up on top of the Capitol dome one day and snapped this picture, looking down across the roof of the Senate wing of the Capitol building.

It was all clear up there by 2009, but for several years after 9/11, snipers had been posted on that roof and on many other government roofs in Washington.

Posted by Ellen

One of the hangers-on at a marina near Everett, Washington, pokes his head up from the waters of Puget Sound in hopes that the incoming salmon-fishing charter boats had a good day.

Posted by Ellen

This sign is posted on a fence at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, Long Island, where Norman lived in the 1950s, when he was a little boy.

He swears there was no such sign back then, which is probably lucky for him. Of course, he was going to run away and join the circus–he did see the movie Toby Tyler. But even as a child he suspected that he wasn't the daring kind who would fly through the air with the greatest of ease–and worse, he suspected that some of his friends probably were that daring kind, and so there would be peer pressure, and he'd feel like he had to try flying through the air, with the greatest unease.

It just could be that life's gotten a bit tougher for some of the young people growing up these days in East Meadow.