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.

Posted by Ellen

Kaido Hoovelson needed a stage name if he were going to get anywhere in the world of professional sumo wrestling; the name that stuck is Baruto, Japanese for Baltic.

Hoovelson was working as a nightclub bouncer in Estonia when his judo instructor suggested sumo as a good career move. Young men who are accepted into one of the "stables" of aspiring sumo wrestlers live and train together; they learn sumo technique and its cultural dimensions, and they get plenty to eat. Of course, newcomers--especially newcomers from foreign countries--could expect to be assigned chores, such as washing the clothes of the older wrestlers, and they would have to be tough enough to deal with hazing as well as wrestling.

But for Hoovelson to really succeed as Baruto, then first and foremost he would have to learn Japanese. His first word was "Itai": ouch. All instruction was in Japanese, as was all interaction day and night among the wrestlers in his stable. Within a couple of years, he became fluent enough to give TV interviews at tournaments, which turned out to be a good thing because he rose quickly to sumo stardom,  even gaining his own fan club among young Japanese.

Beginning in the 1990s, a few foreigners have been among the 800 professionals working their way up the sumo ranks; two Hawaiians and a Mongolian have become champions of the topmost tournament league,  Baruto, professional sumo's first Estonian athlete, is in the top league now and among the contenders for the overall championship.

In a profession of huge men, Baruto is among the tallest--6 foot 4--and as heavy as the heaviest--about 360 pounds. He has thrived on the Japanese meat stew that the wrestlers eat several times a day, but he has also sought out Western restaurants for a taste of home. In a Russian restaurant in Tokyo, he met Elena Tregubova from Vladivostok, the daughter of the proprietor. They were married last February, and Baruto insists he'd like to have five children with her.

A sumo match begins with several minutes of pacing and scowling. The actual fighting may last only a few seconds. It's all over as soon as one wrestler pushes the other out of the 15-foot circle or forces him to touch the mat with any part of his body other than his feet.

The picture shows Baruto participating in the ceremony associated with a sumo tournament. This video shows a match last month in which Baruto  (in blue) needed only about 3 seconds to win; you can discern the finer points of his technique in the slow-motion replays at the end of the clip.

Posted by Ellen

Please forgive me for writing here about Alabama football--just this once, I promise, at least till next year.

Some people don't like football. And even among those who do like football, some don't like Alabama football. All I can say is: better luck in your next life.

Nobody doesn't like Terrence Cody--Mount Cody--the unheralded defensive lineman from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College who showed up for practice in Tuscaloosa weighing 400 pounds. Off the field, they say, he's a gentle, teddy bear sort of guy, who likes cartoons on TV and sleeps on Spiderman sheets. On the field, he's not gentle; Alabama's defense is ranked number one in the nation, and on that defense Cody has participated in more than his share of tackles and sacks. Last Saturday, he saved a close game for the Tide by blocking two field goal attempts, including one in the final seconds of the game.

But Mount Cody's value to the team doesn't really show up in the formal statistics. Basically, he is so big and strong that the opposing team will need two guys to contain him. This double-teaming gives his teammates a numerical advantage; because of Cody, somebody else is wide open to make more tackles and sacks.

Last Saturday, Tennessee put two guys on Cody, the Sullins brothers, identical twins who are big, strong, experienced offensive linemen. They each weigh something like 275 pounds. Cody has trimmed down a bit; even at 400 pounds he had moves, but now at 365 he can almost run. Still, he outweighed either of the Sullins boys by a good 90 pounds. Several times during the game, double-teaming didn't work to stop him; he would swat the first guy out of the way before the second guy showed up to help--and when Cody gets moving, it might take three or four guys to stop him.

Bama has a number ofl exciting players, including defensive linebacker Rolando McClain, who seems to be a football genius, always guessing right about what the other guys are going to do with the ball. On offense, there's the ridiculously fast receiver Julio Jones and the running back Mark Ingram, a sort of zombie runner who won't stay dead.

But last week was all about Mount Cody. Here he is, number 62,  blocking a kick., Notice the Tennessee player lying down in front of him, number 69--that's one of the Sullins brothers, just trying to do his job.