landscape

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

That's me with the chisel in my mouth, some summers ago, during geologic field work in the North Cascades, in the state of Washington. I'm climbing a hill called Lincoln Rock that rears up about twelve hundred feet above the apple orchards along the banks of the Columbia River. We'd been told there were some good garnet coronas up there--garnets with white rings around them---the metamorphic feature I was trying to interpret for my thesis project.

We'd also been told that Lincoln Rock was the one place in the North Cascades where a geologist named Bob Miller--a man who climbed cliffs for fun when he couldn't think of an excuse to climb them for research--fell badly and almost cracked his head open. This was my last day in the field that summer, and though I'd had wonderful fun, I was beginning to shift gears mentally, to look forward to getting back home so I could stop worrying about slipping and falling and leaving five children motherless.

Perhaps because of Bob's misadventure, but surely also because I was old and out of shape, I was by far the slowest climber. While I toiled upward inch by inch in the August sun, the rest of the gang was already lolling about in the shade of an overhang at the top of the hill, eating lunch and making fun of me. As I finally approached the scene of this snapshot, a Ph.D. student named Carlos Zuluaga asked if I wanted my picture taken. Then he suggested I put the chisel in my mouth. It seemed like a good idea at the time, it really did.

Anyway, there were indeed nice-looking garnet coronas all over the hilltop, and Carlos and the others kindly helped me smash them out of the outcroppings. We all made it down safely, with rocks in our backpacks. When I got a look at my Lincoln Rock samples under the microscope, however, I discovered that the garnets were rotten; they'd cooled too slowly after their metamorphic odyssey, and a mineral named chlorite had replaced much of the garnet. My thermodynamic models wouldn't work on rock with rotten garnet, so I put the Lincoln Rock samples in a drawer in the basement of the geology building, and maybe they are still there today.

Fortunately, I had plenty of other samples. And I'd love to be back up there again.....

Posted by Ellen

Sail due north from the island of Crete, and you'll get to Athens. If Daedalus and his son Icarus had only had a boat, that is what they might have done. But King Minos was holding them prisoner in Crete--he was enraged because Daedalus had helped Theseus slay the Minotaur and run off with the princess. And King Minos controlled the waters all around Crete, so escape by sea was out of the question.

Daedalus, a native of Athens, had been banished from the city for murdering his apprentice/nephew, a twelve-year-old boy who was so clever that Daedalus was afraid of being overshadowed. He fled to Crete with his son, where he built the labyrinth that Minos eventually used to imprison the two of them. Of course having built the maze, Daedalus knew how to escape it. But escaping the island was a whole nother ball of wax.

He built wings for himself and Icarus from feathers and wax. They flew northeast, toward Troy. We all know what happened next: despite his father's warning, Icarus flew too high, too close to the hot sun, and the wax holding the wings to his arms melted in the heat. He fell to his death in the blue waters now bearing his name, the Ikarian Sea.

His body was retrieved from the sea by Hercules, and he was buried on a hillside overlooking the Ikarian Sea, on the Greek island now known as Ikaria.

This satellite image shows the Ikarian Sea and a hillside on Ikaria, a terraced olive grove. Not much in this scene has obviously changed in the thousands of years since Icarus got too uppity. Although the island is beautiful and the people there are known for their longevity, they have not prospered. Many of the children of Ikaria have fled to far corners of the globe, in a twentieth-century diaspora. They publish a newsletter to keep up with one another, and in the 1960s they held a reunion back home, on the island. There was no place to house all the returnees, so they rented a cruise ship to use as a hotel and parked it just offshore.

Posted by Ellen

The boy in Winslow Homer's "The Hound and the Hunter" never saw the movie "Bambi," of course, so his relationship to forest and fauna was nothing like that of my generation.. This boy didn't grow up with that single gunshot trumping all other cinematic memories: What just happened? The hunters killed Bambi's mother? His mother?

Homer's boy, unburdened with Disney-fication, just went hunting. That's what you could do this time of year if you were a fortunate American boy. His dog hounded the deer into the water, forcing it to swim rather than run. Deer swim slowly enough that the boy was able to pick it off with the gun that is now in the bottom of the boat. He'll soon have the deer tied up, ready to drag home. Problem is: the dog is now swimming straight for the boat, and if it jumps in, they'll capsize. What should the boy do? What happens next?

Homer was particularly proud of this painting; he felt he got all the details just right--for example, the transition between the boy's pale forearms and suntanned wrists. But even back then in the late 19th century, deer hunting was becoming culturally problematic among a portion of the population; when this painting was first displayed, there were complaints that the deer was still alive, that the boy was trying to drown it. This interpretation is obviously wrong--a desperate deer, thrashing in the water, would swamp the boat, if the boy could hold it at all. No, the deer is not struggling, and the boy's attention has shifted to the dog.

To be continued, sort of.

Posted by Ellen

The Outdoors Club from Deering High School spent Columbus Day weekend camping at Acadia National Park and climbing the cliffs on Mount Desert Island. Here, Hank inches his way up a crack.

Posted by Ellen

The Atlantic coast of Senegal near the mouth of the Gambia River, as perceived by the sensors of the Landsat 7 satellite.

Posted by Ellen

You know how it goes: one person slips in the marsh mud, and then the other person tries to help her up and loses her balance and slips in herself, and then the first one reaches out to grab the other one's arm and falls in even deeper. And soon enough, they and everybody else on the marsh that day have laughed till they couldn't laugh any more, till tears were spilling down their cheeks.

All this fun happened last fall to Schuyler Rowe and Addie Nammoun, in the salt marsh on Chewonki Neck, in midcoast Maine. Even today, just thinking about those girls in that marsh brings tears to the eyes of  everyone fortunate enough to have been a witness. Schuyler keeps this photo as the desktop image on her laptop.

Posted by Ellen

A couple of nights ago, the season's first snow blanketed this meadow high on the shoulder of Mt. Washington, shown here in its August colors. But heavy rain forecast for today should wash away any lingering taste of winter. For now.

Posted by Ellen

I'm not a New York person, but this view of the Savoy Plaza and other Midtown towers has got to be one of the most gorgeous cityscapes anywhere, ever. It was shot in Central Park in 1933 by architectural photographer Samuel Gottscho. Today, the view from the same spot would be dominated by tall glass office boxes; the Savoy and many of the other old towers have been demolished.

Gottscho worked as a traveling lace and fabric salesman for 23 years before he could work with his camera full time. He specialized in pictures of houses and gardens, but also branched out into nature photography.

A new novel by E.L. Doctorow uses a heavily photoshopped version of this picture on the cover.

Posted by Ellen

While hiking near the top of Mount Washington on an unusually warm September afternoon, we met this Hungarian couple eating their lunch after climbing for hours up Huntington Ravine. Carol Stack caught this image of the couple studying the map to plan their descent.