Jan 14, 2018
Hole in the Clouds
Jan 13, 2018
In 1907, Ernest Shackleton led his first expedition aimed at reaching the South Pole. He'd already spent years in Antarctica, serving under Robert Scott, failing to reach the Pole but learning much about survival and leadership. Shackleton's 1907 trip would make it closer to the Pole by far than earlier explorers, though he and his men still fell short by 87 miles.
They first landed in Antarctica at a place called Cape Royd on McMurdo Sound, where Shackleton oversaw the building of his hut for wintering over in Antarctica. He and his men huddled there through the winter of 1908, and when they left that spring to attempt their sprint to the Pole, the hut was equipped with food and fuel to last 15 men for one year.
They left a note with details about provisions and the coal store and then locked the door and nailed the key to the door.
They never returned to the hut, though they did make it back safely to England in 1909, where Shackleton immediately began planning his next trip to the South Pole.
Almost a century later, in 2006, the hut was dug out of the ice and snow and reopened. Much of the food was described as "perfectly preserved," though some meat was said to be quite rancid. Several cases of McKinlay & Co. scotch whisky were retrieved from the cellar and found to be delicious; based on a chemical analysis of this whisky, the distillery is again producing the old single-malt scotch.
The hut has now been restored through the World Monuments Fund, and the land surrounding it has been designated an Antarctic Specially Protected Area.
Shackleton did succeed in raising money for another expedition, which set sail on the Endurance in 1914 but never reached the Antarctic mainland; he Endurance was crushed by ice near the coast, initiating years of fear and suffering, out on the sea ice. Shackleton's renown as a leader dates from this disastrous voyage, when he was able to sustain morale and eventually get the men to safety 700 miles away at a whaling station in the South Georgia Islands. They made it back to England in 1917.
His fully provisioned little hut, meanwhile, complete with a coal-burning stove and crates of scotch, sat on the opposite edge of the Antarctic continent, closer to New Zealand than to South America. It might as well have been on the moon.
Jan 12, 2018
It's dark, chilly midwinter here in the Pacific Northwest, but the supermarket shelves are piled high with sweet summer raspberries and blueberries and blackberries. All those berries can't be coming from around here–blackberries are notorious weeds hereabouts and other berries grow readily, but the plants are dormant in the winter and yield fruit only in the summer.
Parts of Chile are climatically similar, though of course with the seasons reversed, and so Chilean berry-growers started loading their fruit on big cargo planes and flying it all the way up here in the wintertime, to be sold at very high prices reflecting the cost of air transport.
Nowadays, however, Chilean berries are all used for juice; the air-shipping premium was just too costly to make them competitive in the fresh-berry market. The huge North American market for fresh berries–which is booming at the moment, thanks to crazes for antioxidants and smoothies–depends on locally grown fruit in the summertime and then, for literally every other month of the year, on berries grown in greenhouse-like plastic tunnels high in the mountains of the Mexican state of Jalisco.
If chilled immediately, fresh berries can have a shelf life of more than a month, which is plenty of time for refrigerated trucks to carry them from their greenhouse tunnels–tuneles–in central Mexico to virtually any grocery store in the U.S.
The high-altitude berry farms, a mile or more above sea level and cooled a bit by Pacific breezes, don't get as searingly hot in the summertime as the rest of Mexico. The semi-shade in the plastic tunnels further blunts the subtropical sun and also slows evaporation, saving water.
But even with all these adaptations, berry bushes and canes in Mexico don't behave the same way they do in, say, Oregon or New Jersey. In Jalisco, the plants rest in the summertime and produce fruit in cooler months–which is just when the North American market has particular call for them.
The tunnels do yield less fruit per acre, but Mexican growers are okay with that; their overall costs are still low. In fact, in the last ten years they have converted so much land to blueberries and raspberries and blackberries that Mexican fresh-berry-production has become a billion-dollar industry.
Mexicans, however, still don't really care for the taste.
Jan 11, 2018
Jan 10, 2018
Jan 9, 2018
Near the southern extreme of Puget Sound, around Olympia, Washington, are hundreds of acres of bumpy grassland, the Mima Mounds. The picture above–aerial imagery produced by a radar-sensitive LIDAR camera–shows what the Mima landscape looks like without all the grass and shrubs that soften the lumpy appearance. the picture below shows what it looks like to the human eye.
LIDAR is a radar technology used to determine elevation, and it works even when the actual ground level is hidden underneath vegetation or buildings; when a plane flies over an area of interest and sends radar signals straight down to earth, the signals will bounce back differently depending on what they hit. Of course you need a computer to sort it all out, but they've got computers.
What the computers haven't been able to figure out is what caused these mounds, which are pretty much all very round and low and flat; in the Mima prairie, most of the mounds are about 3 feet high and 30 feet across. They are gravelly dirt, just like the spaces between them.
Similar-looking mounds are found in dozens of other places, and no single mechanism has been identified that might account for them everywhere. Among the possible processes that have been researched in the Mina region: earthquakes shaking the soil, clay minerals shrinking and swelling in the soil, windblown dunes forming around vegetation, and–our favorite–burrowing by pocket grophers, perhaps with help from termites and ants.
Scientific consensus on this matter has yet to emerge.
Jan 8, 2018
Our son Joe and his Cuban sweetheart Yusleidy Perez Zanetti are getting married next month. They are planning a wedding in Havana, but meanwhile, they've got clothes to dry out on the balcony.
Jan 7, 2018
It was a thousand and one years ago yesterday that the Viking Cnut (aka Knut, Knud, or Canute) was crowned King of All England.
Cnut was a wise and good king, or so they say, but he is best remembered for something he didn't do. Briefly: it was told of him that he had his throne placed in the surf at the seaside, where he held court in his robes and crown with full royal regalia. He ordered the tide to go back out, but the tide didn't obey. "See that?" said Cnut, more or less. "I'm not the one who really runs things around here."
It never happened; the story is a bit like the legend of George Washington chopping down that cherry tree, in that it first appeared long after Cnut's death in the moralistic writings of a clergyman.
But what's the moral of the non-event? The usual interpretation, even to this day, is that Cnut was an idiot with delusions of grandeur, who badly needed a reality check with respect to the powers that be.
But the intended lesson, according to Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon, who first wrote the apocryphal story as a poem in the twelfth century, was that King Cnut knew from the start that no edict of his could turn back the tide. He was a wise and good king. His courtiers, on the other hand, were brown-nosing fools who expected way too much from him–in other words, they were getting on his nerves. He staged a little demonstration to remind them that even the King of All England was a mere mortal who had his limits.
Which brings us to tomorrow, January 8, when a pack of hounds from the realm of Georgia will attempt to turn back the Crimson Tide of Alabama in a sporting contest established to determine the collegiate football champion of all America.
Cnut couldn't do it. Can the Dawgs of Georgia? We'll find out, won't we. Roll Tide.
Jan 6, 2018
In the wintry weather currently gripping eastern North America, icy mounds of frozen spray, known as sugarloaves, are growing huge atop frozen rivers below not-quite-fully-frozen waterfalls. There's a sugarloaf at the base of Niagara Falls this year, and also one at Montmorency Falls near Québec City; the falls at Montmorency are some 98 feet higher than Niagara and are located almost a thousand kilometers to the northeast, in a climate zone where every winter is plenty cold enough to make a sugarloaf.
The painting shown above, The Ice Cone, by Robert Clow Todd, shows Montmorency Falls and its sugarloaf in the winter of 1845. The place looked pretty much the same when we visited, in the winter of 2004, minus the horses, of course.
Tall, cone-shaped things with slightly blunted tips are often called sugarloaves, especially if they are ski resorts or a mountain in Rio de Janeiro with a statue on top. That's because real, old-school sugarloaves–actual hard, solid loaves of refined sugar–were produced in molds shaped like that. Up until the end of the nineteenth century, when manufacturing processes emerged to refine sugar into a granulated product, people who could afford to buy white sugar–meaning rich people–bought it by the loaf, which might weigh as much as 30 or 35 pounds. They chipped off pieces as needed, using heavy, sharp-edged pliers known as sugar nips.
The sugarloaves pictured below are on display in the Sugar Museum in Berlin.
Jan 5, 2018
Jan 4, 2018
The streetcar platform was taken down in 2004, but all the buildings in this scene, and even the billboard around the bend, are still there today.
What was she doing there? What was she thinking? Did she know somebody was taking her picture?
Jan 3, 2018
Jan 2, 2018
Jan 1, 2018
From 1995 to 2002, Finnish photographer Tiina Itkonen chronicled life in an Inughuit village in the highlands of extreme northern Greenland. The Inughuit are our planet's northernmost residents.
Another photo from Itkonen's Inughuit Portraits series shows a smaller pair of those polar bear trousers on the legs of a young boy named Masaitsiaq. Low on the wall behind Masaitsiaq are six sharp knives mounted on a magnet. Inughuit babies and toddlers must develop caution and common sense at a much earlier age than the children we know.
May 5, 2017
Some of their migratory cousins may winter with them in Florida, but if a sandhill crane expects to fly all the way back to summer nesting grounds in the marshy tundra of northern Canada, Alaska, and Siberia–which is the way most of these birds like to live their lives–then it's going to have to get out of Florida by the end of February, early March at the very latest. A rest stop each March for more than 600,000 migrating sandhill cranes is the Platte River near Fort Kearny, Nebraska, where skies darken with what is said to be one of the great natural spectacles on earth.
Sandhill cranes dance, and they have a call that's sort of in between a dove and a turkey.
May 3, 2017
Across from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is what we're told is a typical Dutch traffic light, with separate signals for cars and bicycles.
In central Amsterdam, more than 60 percent of all trips are by bike instead of car; in the outer part of the metro area, where road conditions and population density are more like those in the United States, bicycles still account for 40 percent of trips.
This is a new version of an old phenomenon. Before World War II, bicycle travel was commonplace all over the Netherlands, but in the years after the war, transportation planning and road building practices were completely car-oriented, with the result that bike-riding had nearly disappeared by about 1970. Since then, however, heavy investment in bicycle infrastructure, such as protected lanes, as well as policy changes that disfavor automobiles, such as expensive parking, have brought bikes back pretty much everywhere.
In fact, the newest round of transportation infrastructure projects involve structures to handle the crush of bicycles that need parking space.
May 1, 2017
The house behind the fruit stand was built before 1900 by a family named Fredericks; in the 1940 census, three years before this photo was taken, the home's inhabitants were listed as a 30-year-old night-club chef named Rudolph Martinez, his wife Candalanca, son Rudolph Jr., sister Isabell Samora, and her two children, Raymond and Joe Louis.
The banana man wrote on the side of his wagon, "Jockey Cweren, Kentucky Derby."
Apr 30, 2017
Apr 27, 2017
These picnic table warriors from the late 1980s successfully repelled would-be invaders from our backyard on 5th Avenue in Tuscaloosa. That's John at left, Ted at right, and their friend Scott Cartwright in the middle.
Apr 26, 2017
Apr 25, 2017
She was one of eight children in the Schrock family in the Yakima Valley of Washington state, where they were clients of a Farm Security Administration tenant-purchase program, a New Deal effort to help migrant farm families obtain homes and farmland of their own. The program worked best, it turned out, for families that broke the rules and generated some cash income by finding work off the farm.
Johnny Cash grew up in a similar FSA project in Dyess, Arkansas.
Apr 24, 2017
Scanned image from a heat-damaged negative in the collection of the late Nick DeWolf.
Apr 23, 2017
Apr 21, 2017
This past week, the Bell Island ferry out of Newfoundland's provincial capital of Saint John's was trapped by unusually late pack ice, requiring the ice-breaking assistance of Canadian Coast Guard vessel Earl Grey.
The heavy ice around Newfoundland is actually a product of global warming. Record-breaking thaws this past winter along the west coast of Greenland–including a first-ever hurricane that drenched Greenland in January–disrupted normal patterns of ice circulation on the surface of the North Atlantic.
Greenland's fast-melting glaciers spit out icebergs four months early this year, which have clogged shipping lanes. Ocean currents and winds usually break up Newfoundland's pack ice early each spring, but the unusual flow from Greenland has kept this past winter's ice trapped in harbors and coastal waters.
Apr 20, 2017
Kevin Horan, the goat portraitist featured in this space yesterday, lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, where he's developed this thing about ferry boats.
"Every islander knows the mind space within a ferry," he writes. "In transit, you are in neither one world nor the other." He shot a series of long-exposure ferry scenes to emphasize how the vessels "track across the water like UFOs across the sky." Ferries are "magical mystery transport pods."
This is the view from Fisherman's Bay on Lopez Island of the Friday Harbor ferry at dusk. In the distance are the city lights of Vancouver, British Columbia, reflected in the clouds behind Mount Constitution on Orcas Island.