birdseye view

Posted by Ellen

If you drop the first two letters of the name of the nation of Mexico, you get Xico, the name of several towns and landmarks around the country.  There is, for example, the small hill town of Xico near Veracruz, where it is said that people do very little besides growing coffee and hosting bullfights. And here we see two other Xicos: a volcanic crater and the fast-growing city that surrounds it.

Xico volcano sits at the extreme southern end of the Mexico City megalopolis. For a geologically significant chunk of time, this area was underwater, drowned by Lake Chalco. The lake began to dry out in the 1300s, and Aztec fishermen settled along its coastline hereabouts. In the nineteenth century, the government drained the lake entirely; the fishermen were awarded communal land grants and told to become farmers. 

Farming became intensive in the 1970s, when corporate agriculturists and desperate landless peasants struck illegal or quasi-legal deals with the communal organizations and wrested control of the rich volcanic soil. Thousands and thousands of families poured into the region, hoping for work. Farmers climbed over the rim of the volcano and plowed fields inside the crater. Xico the town sprawled right up to the ramparts of Xico the crater and appears likely to soon engulf it; in 2005, the population of the municipality was 330,000.

The urban fringes seen here lack the services and amenities taken for granted twenty miles away in downtown Mexico City. Xico's roads are mostly unpaved, schools are few and far between, and the people are almost all very poor. Now that NAFTA has dismantled the remains of the communal farming system, it seems to be increasingly the case that even the rich volcanic soil here in Xico is worth more as slumland than as cropland.

Posted by Ellen

 

The village of Stein-am-Rhein in Switzerland, as seen from its castle.

So far as I know, the Steins associated with this place have no connection whatsoever to the Steins in the family I married into. I like the looks of their town, though.

Posted by Ellen

 

Last week, a NASA satellite flew over South Africa so its sensors could snap this picture of the soccer stadium, known as Soccer City, where World Cup action begins today.

The stadium itself is the white rounded rectangle in the upper right corner of the image. The three big grayish things in the middle are slag heaps, the rocky refuse of more than a century of gold-mining activity in the Johannesburg district. 

At the bottom edge of the picture is part of Diepkloof, one of the neighborhoods of Soweto. When Nelson Mandela was let out of prison in 1990, he made his first public appearance in the Soccer City stadium. In this same stadium today, the South African national team challenges Mexico in the opening game of the FIFA World Cup; sadly, Mandela, once a soccer player himself and a lifelong sportsman, is said to be too frail to attend. He is 91 years old.

As this posting goes to, um, press, Mexico has just tied South Africa, 1-1, in the opening game.

Posted by Ellen

 

This birdseye view of the harbor at Camden tells the seasonal story all up and down the coast of Maine. The boats are back.

Posted by Ellen

 

The Bestiboka River reaches the sea in the Mozambique Channel, along the northwestern coast of the island of Madagascar. There at the mouth of the river, ocean tides push saltwater upstream, slowing or even halting the downstream flow of the muddy river water; wherever the river pauses, sand and silt drop to the bottom of the bay, piling up into sandbars and islands.

In Madagascar's tropical climate, new sandbars quickly acquire a fringe of bright green mangrove scrub, which stabilizes the sediment and also shelters baby shrimp and other aquatic critters. Bombetoka Bay, the estuary here, is highly productive, especially for shrimp. The rectangular pens near the top of this picture are commercial shrimp farms.

The mangrove swamps along the lower reaches of the river trap vast quantities of sediment pouring down from upstream, which keeps the water clean and free of mud as it enters the bay; without this mangrove filtering, Madagascar's huge coral reefs just offshore (off the top edge of this picture) would soon die, smothered by sand.

 

Posted by Ellen

Last week, a new condo tower opened in Philadelphia near Rittenhouse Square; its penthouse has already been sold, for $12.5 million. This picture was snapped by a glazier who was hired by the new owners to redo some of the windows.

This is only a small part of the view that $12.5 million buys. The penthouse occupies one entire floor of the new building, and its views are 360 degrees. What you see here is the view looking to the east: the art deco Medical Arts Building across the street, the vaguely Moorish Drake tower near the righthand edge of the photo, with the new glass quonset-hut-canopy of the Kimmel Center behind it.

In the distance is New Jersey, on the far side of the Delaware River.

By all accounts, the new condos are pretty nice. Each one occupies an entire floor, with elevators that are basically private for each resident. In the elevators are buttons you can push to operate the fully automated underground garage; your car will be whisked up from its underground spot and placed gently near the street-level exit, all ready for you to slide behind the wheel and venture forth into the city.

 

Posted by Ellen

 

Last week, the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn was named a Superfund site, meaning that umpteen million dollars will be poured into cleaning up its pollution. Gowanus water  has been sludged with grease and foul-smelling nastiness for a long, long time--so long, in fact, that hardly any new buildings have been constructed in the neighborhood since the nineteenth century. 

This painting was recently submitted to the New York Times by an anonymous artist, in response to a call for works remembering the canal and its neighborhood. In this scene, the neighborhood looks bright and vibrant. "The artist's eye can find something special in this unlikely place," noted one New Yorker. "But if you've been there, you know it by the smell."

"And the noise!" observed another. "Lots of old Italian men screaming words of torment and threat into the night, muttering something about busting someone’s head off with a baseball bat."

"This reminds me of the old joke," said a third. "Guy asks, 'What's the quickest way to the Gowanus?' The answer is: 'Borrow five hundred dollars from Dominic and don't pay him back.'"

Posted by Ellen

 

Looking southward down Manhattan from the top of 30 Rock, toward the Empire State Building and beyond. That's the Verrazano Narrows Bridge near the top of the photo, connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island.

Posted by Ellen

 

Fitzrovia is the London neighborhood that once surrounded the Fitzroy tavern, a long-gone, between-the-wars watering hole. Plenty of pubs remain, however, and for generations now, Fitzrovia might be best characterized as the part of town where famous writers and musicians go to drink: the long list is known to include George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, Dylan Thomas, Rimbaud, Verlaine, and more recently, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, and the fictional heroes of Saul Bellow.

 

Posted by Ellen

A few months ago, the New Zealanders among us were out touring their island--New Zealand's North Island--when they stopped for the night at the Okopako Farm Lodge in Opononi, Northland, a backpackers' hostel at the end of a primitive gravel road--a road so narrow and winding and twisty, we're told, that it can't be driven after dark. The people who run the lodge, which is off the electrical grid, offer "fresh organic produce, homemade bread & farmhouse meals," and they also promise a nice view.

This is what dawn looks like from the deck of the lodge.

"I shot photo after photo," recalls A., "as the sun rose. Unfortunately, I was so engrossed in the scenery I left bread on a burner on one of those camp toasters until it thoroughly burned, and its blackened remains released a massive amount of smoke that set off the fire alarm. The fire alarm rang for about 20 minutes, which did not thrill the few other inhabitants of that place.

"The upside was that they were awakened in time to enjoy the sunrise, too."