Hole in the Clouds

March 2010

Not that chocolate factory

Mar 1, 2010


At Wilbur's Chocolate Factory in Freeport, Maine, there are no oompa loompas, and thus a need for some serious antique confectionary equipment. This machine carries melted chocolate straight up on a vertical conveyor belt with little hooks to snag the stickiness. At the top, the chocolate spills down a chute. At the bottom of the chute, some of it collects in a cup, where it cools a bit and thickens to a suitable consistency for hand-decorating the tops of candies with little squiggles; the rest spills between tiny rollers carrying a parade of naked candy centers in need of chocolate coating.

After they get their chocolate coats, the candies roll along into a little air conditioner, which chills them to room temperature in exactly seven minutes.

Maine   Wilbur's Chocolate Factory   Freeport  

The wrong winter

Mar 2, 2010


The first step in making sense of this image is distinguishing the two kinds of white stuff, clouds and snow. There's a big area of clouds over the Atlantic Ocean at the right edge of the picture, especially in the lower right, and another batch of clouds near the top of the image, streaming southeastward from Lake Ontario. The two cloud regions are connected in the upper right corner by a puffy little cloud bridge over . . . Portland, Maine. But that's irrelevant to the main point.

The edge of the snow line is obvious, running almost straight westward from Long Island and New York City, and it's completely upside down and backwards. North of the snow line, bare ground and leafless brown trees are clearly visible to the sensors of a satellite hundreds of miles out in space. South of the line, the satellite registers bright white ground, buried deep in snow. 

This is not how winter is supposed to be in the eastern United States, but in 2010, this is the pattern that held steady through most of January and February. It is just now breaking up, though there's still something of an upside-down snow line in northern New England.

What went wrong? Part of the blame lies with Greenland. Normally, a dome of dry, cold, heavy air sits over Greenland all winter long, known as the Greenland High. Storms in the Atlantic can't punch through this high pressure, so they steer around it, generally tracking up the coast alongside New England and into the Canadian Maritime provinces. This year, the Greenland High was diffuse and deformed and further south than usual, with a well-developed ridge near the North American mainland, far from its usual core. Storms crawling up the mid-Atlantic coast slammed into the high-pressure ridge and couldn't go any further; they wore themselves out dumping snow on Virginia and Maryland and New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

To compound the trouble, this was an El Nino year, meaning there were lots of storms with lots of moisture. 

Does this have anything to do with global warming? Of course it does, but it will be years or maybe decades before the details of the relationship become clear. When a winter is snowier than average, or less snowy than average, or a high pressure feature is shifted out of its typical position--that's weather, not necessarily climate. There's always weather, blips and static that obscure the deeper patterns arising from long-term trends in climate. Only over time can the climatic signal be recognized amidst the weather-related noise.

Meanwhile, the snow in this picture highlights a completely unrelated geological phenomenon. Notice the snowy folds of the Appalachian Mountains, ridge upon ridge, all trending northeast-southwest. The Appalachians are hundreds of millions of years old, dating back to the tectonic processes that created Pangaea and then ripped it apart. If you click on the picture to get a larger version, you should be able to see three black snakey lines, rivers that cut right across all the mountains--the Potomac, the Susquehanna, and the Delaware. Does that make sense? Wouldn't it be more logical for big rivers to follow the valleys instead of ignoring the valleys and flowing across the mountains?

This unusual river behavior has been talked about for centuries; Thomas Jefferson wrote that the place where the Potomac cuts through mountains near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, was worth crossing the ocean to see. The place where the Delaware River splits a mountain range--the Delaware Water Gap--has been declared a national park. 

How does it happen? It's a complicated story. The Appalachians are basically several mountain chains jammed together side by side. The westernmost chain is among the oldest, now quite eroded, but it was once high and steep, like the Alps. Big rivers formed to drain the high country. Later, as tectonic rifting opened the Atlantic basin, new mountains gradually emerged east of the original range. The big, powerful rivers draining the old mountains were strong enough to cut through the rising land, and so they held onto their river beds even as the mountains rose around them.


winter   satellite imagery   East Coast   (Image credit: NOAA)  

A botanical inquiry

Mar 3, 2010


Back when this bloom was at its peak of perfection--a few days before Hank took its picture--he spotted it in a greenhouse and decided it was the finest flower ever. He doesn't know what kind of flower it is, and neither do I.

Do you? Please help us out here.

flowers   (Image credit: Hank Stein)  

The envelope, please

Mar 4, 2010


We have a winner in yesterday's G'mornin' name-that-flower competition. Also, three runners-up, and of course an honorable mention.

Honorable mention goes to Anna S. of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who like most of us had no earthly idea what kind of flower it was but who knew just how to find out: Anna suggested that we ask Mary Jo Modica, who runs the greenhouse and arboretum at the University of Alabama. This was an excellent suggestion and would have surely worked, had not the answer dropped so magically from cyberspace into our inbox.

Two of the runners-up are tied for third place: Sandy H of Bethesda, Maryland, and Miss Tina of Tuscaloosa, both of whom correctly identified the flower as a member of the Bromeliad family. Today's Good Morning picture shows the most famous of the Bromeliads, the symbol of southern hospitality and economic linchpin of the Hawaiian islands.

Our first runner-up is Aunt A of the Lower Hutt valley, near Wellington, New Zealand. Aunt A knew we were dealing with a Bromeliad and forwarded some online photos of likely species within the family--including the correct species, which bears the Latin name aechmea fasciata.

And the winner is Tanja B, of Yarmouth, Maine, who recognized not only the genus and species but also the particular variety: Silver Vase. "My mom [in Germany] had them all over the place," writes Tanja, "but to get them blooming is rather an act of patience."

Tanja should contact me sometime next week about collecting her grand prize: a Bromeliad upside-down cake.

bromeliad   flower   pineapple   Silver Vase  

Penultimate winter scene

Mar 12, 2010


With this picture and tomorrow's, Good Morning is turning the page on winter. The groundhog and the calendar and even the weather may say differently, but the groundhog and the calendar and even the weather do not control this here Good Morning thing, so . . . Goodbye, winter.

Last month, when the depth of the snow in Reading, Pennsylvania, could be measure in cubits or furlongs or some such, many people dug their cars out and then tried to reserve the parking spots they'd dug by setting chairs in them. This is probably an inherited cultural practice; if you are born into a family that believes in claiming parking spaces with chairs, then that's what you will grow up to do. It makes good sense to you, practical sense and also moral sense. You did the work of digging the spot clear; why should somebody else who didn't shovel a single flake get to take advantage of your hard work and park their car there?

But there are also people who believe that parking spaces on a public street are public and can't be claimed by any one person. No matter what the weather, it's first come, first served at the curbside. These people may be in the minority, but they also believe their approach is rational and morally superior--and often, as in this picture, they have the city government on their side. In Reading and many other places, the city came along and took all the chairs away. This practice has the effect of inspiring people, grudgingly, to shovel out additional parking spaces as needed.

In Portland, we don't have this kind of problem. The city bans parking the night after a big snowfall, and the plows quickly scrape almost all the streets clean, curb to curb. This solution would never work in places like Reading, where there may not be enough driveways to hold cars during a street parking ban and where there surely aren't enough plows to clear the streets promptly.

So next winter, a lot of people will feel strongly that they need to do that chair thing again. But meanwhile, I'm calling it spring. Goodbye, chairs.

Pennsylvania   winter   Reading   street scene  

Our Romanian-Irishman does Texas

Mar 14, 2010


We've seen the work of Avram Dumitrescu before--his tiny chicken, his staring steer--but this painting is different. Here, in "Front Street Books," he shows a scene that is arguably unremarkable: a woman is settled into an armchair in a bookstore, with a cat curled up on a rug near the magazine shelves. What I like about this painting is that the bookstore is in Texas--rural west Texas, in fact, in the tiny town of Alpine. Paintings of Texas are supposed to show cowboy boots and pickup trucks and longhorn skulls in the sun, next to broken-down oil derricks. Avram's painted a little of that, and seeing as how he's a foreigner transplanted into west Texas, we might forgive him for painting a lot of that.

But here he's showing us a mild-mannered bookstore scene in Texas, and it's every bit as real, as true, as all the redneck stuff. I'm thinking that Republicans would fume: This scene doesn't show the real Texas. But what can I say? Texas is a big, messy, complicated place, and those Republicans are just wrong, as always. 

The cat's name is Frisky-Sweets. Avram notes that she posed for him "very reluctantly."

Texas   painting   cat   Alpine   bookstore   (Image credit: Avram Dumitrescu)  

Mom and Pop

Mar 15, 2010


The little country store in northern Minnesota that Mom and Pop were keeping in 1937, when photographer Russell Lee happened by for the Farm Security Administration, was once a big and bustling emporium. Back in 1910, it had employed eight clerks, plus a butcher and a bookeeper. But in 1923, the nearby iron mine closed, and the Vermilion Range mining town known as Section 30 quickly became a ghost town, as weather-beaten and empty as Cripple Creek and the other more famous ghost towns out west.

When this photo was taken, the mine had been closed and the town abandoned for fifteen years. The photographer noted that the town of Section 30 was "bust." How, then, are Mom and Pop getting by? The store building is being kept up, the storekeepers are eating somehow. They look cheerful and relaxed, not at all like the haunted, haggard figures in so many Depression-era images.

I don't really know the answer. There were seasonal logging camps in the Section 30 area, but they were probably too isolated to reliably support even a little crossroads store. No new economic activity ever sprang up to replace the old mine; today, there's nothing but woods in that neck of the woods, plus some rusted old mining machinery.

Iron ore was identified in Section 30 back in the 1880s. Two groups of men tried to claim the property and mineral rights, using two different strategies to get title to the land. One group went to the nearest courthouse, in Duluth, and bought the land with "Sioux half-breed scrip"--currency issued to Indians for land transactions with the government; the men had bought the scrip from Indians who had nothing to do with the land. A second group of men filed homesteading claims on the land and built houses there to prove up their claims. The two groups sued one another, and to pay for the lawsuits, they had to bring in extra partners, including an ex-congressman. The competing claims dragged through the courts until 1902, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Indian-scrip group (which included the ex-congressman); the homesteaders' claim was invalidated because homesteaders are not allowed to sign contracts conveying partial ownership of the land until their claims are proven up, even though such contracts had been necessary in order to defend the claims in court.

The mine turned out to be even richer than anticipated; the motherlode was just eight feet below the surface. Active mining began in 1903, and the town of Section 30 filled up overnight. Twenty years later, the boom went bust, yet fifteen years into the bust, here are Mom and Pop making a living and a life, somehow, in Section 30.


Minnesota   Section 30   Vermilion Range   1937   store   (Image credit: Russell Lee, FSA)  

Gowanus #1

Mar 17, 2010


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.'"

New York   cityscape   birdseye view   Gowanus Canal   Brooklyn   superfund  

Gowanus #2

Mar 18, 2010


Unlike yesterday's picture, which was also an artist's imagining of the neighborhood surrounding the Gowanus Canal superfund site in Brooklyn, today's picture just lays it out: this may not be such a great place to live. You can't even see the canal itself here--it's just beyond the dead end of the street--but you can almost smell it.

This photo, we might say, is much more realistic, or at least is truer to the ugliness associated with Gowanus that dominates the way the place is commonly experienced. One artist somehow found bright color and lively activity there; today's photographer captured the drab unpleasantness we expect to feel near the nation's newest superfund site.

Tomorrow we'll look at the work of artists who combine both impressions, sort of. It's a complicated canal.

New York   streetscape   Gowanus Canal   Brooklyn   superfund   (Image credit: Kevin Lapp)  

Gowanus #3

Mar 19, 2010


Toxic waste can give a body of water that certain something--a sheen, a glow. Call it art. Perhaps it's not surprising, in light of what a mess we're making of this world, that there has emerged in contemporary art a movement obsessed with discovering beauty in garbage and pollution and rusting husks littering the landscape. It has been argued that the nightmarish provenance of this beauty somehow deepens it, makes it more meaningful.

When one of my children was in elementary school, his teacher assigned a paragraph about something beautiful that they'd seen with their own eyes. My child wrote about the colors shimmering in a little puddle of gasoline in the Crown Station parking lot. The teacher was very upset; she apparently thought he was mocking her and her assignment. Really, he was just showing preternatural aesthetic sensibilities.

New York   art   Gowanus Canal   Brooklyn   water pollution   (Image credit: Josh Verleun)