Monday, August 31, 2015

Smoke from Distant Fires

Ames, IA (August 30, 2015)

This is not the photo of a Moon eclipse. The Moon is indeed reddish, but not because it is reflecting the light of a million sunsets. The unusual color is the result of a screen of smoke bringing the news of distant  forest fires, raging in the mountain ranges of the Pacific Northwest. Brought here by the wind, across continental distances, muting the light of a pumpkin Moon in a smoky pall.

Mayli working at candlelight
The orange color of the Moon is real, and in fact the Sun earlier today was showing the same tint, well before it dived in the lower atmosphere for today's hazy sunset. For the technically inclined, the Moon photo is a crop of a shot I took with my Nikon D700, 200 mm f/4 lens, 1/160 sec exposure. No white balance correction; I left the 4000 K, neutral tint default assigned by Lightroom to the photo at import. This is the same setting as the small photo on the left, which is indeed showing normal skin tones (and a not-very-happy Mayli, being interrupted in her proposal writing activities to act as a living white balance card set). Despite the smoky skies, today's weather was better than it has been for a long time, so we used the opportunity for one of the last dinners outside on our porch, before the inexorably approaching cooling of the seasons, and the unwelcome visitation of a new winter to come. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Back Trails Among the Dunes

Crane Beach, MA (June 13, 2004)

When the main road becomes too crowded, it is time to hit the back trails. The secret ones hidden behind the last turn, narrow, uneven, full of mosquitos. The one that you don't need the map, because they are not in the map, anyway. The one where you cannot get lost, because you didn't know where you were going in the first place. Where each step is a new adventure.

Among the Dunes
Crane beach has its own back trails. They are not hidden, however, and in fact you can see them well marked on the brochure you can get at the entrance of the reservation. If you look closely at the map of the area, Crane beach is on the ocean side of a very long peninsula, with the opposite side facing the Essex Bay and the Castle Neck River. In the middle, it is an expanse of sand dunes, shrub forest and marshes. All criss-crossed by a network of trails where, while is difficult to get lost, you can easily be devoured by hordes of ferocious green flies and mosquitos. If you can survive that, however, the back trails offer a welcomed change of scenery from the crowded summer beach. It also offers the chance of seeing in action a successful project of sand dune restoration, one of the many across the world aimed to protect a unique ecosystem that is our first line of defense against the destroying force of the ocean.

Animal Footprints
Dune restoration projects are common all over the world, and consist in a number of measures aimed to recreate the coastal ecosystem that too often has been degraded by human activity. The cornerstone of these projects is the reintroduction of native grass in the remaining dunes. This is not your common lawn grass: the tall grasses that live in the dunes are hardy species capable of dealing with the salty environment, and surviving being buried under the sand, of submerged under the waves during the occasional storms. Each location has its own kind of grass, evolved to adapt to the local environment. When New Zealand started its own coastal restoration project, it planted a fast growing variety of beach grass called Marram grass. As the grass spread it trapped new sand forming steep and tall dunes that were ill suited to resist to the strong southern ocean storms. The project backfired, and the grass had to be removed, and replaced with native species (Pingao and Spinifex) that are better suited to the New Zealand coastal climate; the Marram grass is now considered a pest. On the side of Crane beach, and along the back trails carefully traced among the dunes, you can still see recently planted areas, as well as more established grasses, like the beautiful green expanse in the panoramic photo below.

Crane Beach, MA (August 25, 2007)

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Spine of the Dragon

Crane Beach, MA (March 19, 2005)

Crane Beach is good for all seasons. In summer to bask in the sun and then cool off in the Atlantic Ocean waters. In winter to seek the solitude of a deserted place, and walk in the blue twilight among drifting ice floats, looking at the horizons having the same shade as the supernaturally calm water.

The Dragon Spine
One day in march 2005, at the end of a New England winter that didn't want to end, I was walking with Jennifer on the northern side of the beach, towards the estuary of the Ipswich river. There we found the remnants of an old wooden boat, emerging from the sand where it must have waited for a long, long time, until the storm that ultimately dug it out for us to see. I too a lot of pictures in the faint light of the vanishing day. The one I prefer is here to the left, the only print among all my photos to be exposed in a museum. A few years ago, when I was still working at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, I submitted the image for a competition reserved to Smithsonian employees, under the "amateur" category (the Smithsonian has also quite excellent professional photographers on its payroll). It won second prize and was exposed for a week in one of the Smithsonian museums in the National Mall. When they returned it to me it was framed in a museum-grade mount; it is now hanging in my office.

When I first posted the images from this photoshoot on my previous blog, I titled the series as "the dragon spine". The reason is in the photo below, which I described as follow:
I had previously been in that part of the beach only once, and I didn't remember the driftwood structure depicted in the photo posted below. At first it looked like the remains of a boat, or some kind of artistic installation . But is only looking at the structure form afat, against the blue horizon painted between the sunset western sky and the ocean, that its true nature is revealed. The dragons have long been gone, and their memories lost in the mists of time, but their remains sometimes still emerge from the cold waters of this nordic ocean, to remind us of the eras when magic was still a powerful force shaping the earth and the sea of this world.
Crane Beach, MA (March 19, 2005)

Update: +Pat Anosters identified the wreck. This is the Ada K. Damon, a shooner that wrecked on Crane Beach on December 16, 1909, during the "Great Christmas Snowstorm" that hit the region, as far south as Maryland. Fortunately the crew of the ship was not on board during the storm, and no lives were lost. See more on the Stories from Ipswich blog.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Roaminations Across Italy

Umbria, Italy (October 28, 2007)

Before I took my two suitcases on a plane to l'America, I was very much into caves. Living in Trieste, at the center of a region crisscrossed by deep caverns and tunnels as if it was a form of swiss cheese, it was just a matter of time before I would fall into one of these holes. And indeed I fell, multiple times, in fact, together with my friends in our exploration of the karstic underworld.

Sarteano, Tuscany
One could argue that the caves where, in fact, an excuse for other kinds of exploration, more attuned to the study of human nature, rather than hidden geological mysteries. Adventures typically involving good wine, food, and other forbidden pleasures that are not fit to write on a respectable blog. Yet this was all part of a journey of discovery across the landscape of Italy and its people, above as well below the surface of a land that barely exists as a country, yet is impressed in three full millennia of recorded history. And we traveled a lot, along the forgotten paths meandering across the mountains, peppered with small medieval villages still preserving the memories of multiple centuries in their walls of recycled stones, stolen from an ancient Roman road. But it is not the stones, or the marble in the monuments, that we were looking in our roaminations. It is the people we would meet on the road. The boy still carrying the face immortalized half a millennia ago by a Raffaello in some Renaissance painting. The owner of the closed bar that had run out of cheese when we were begging for food during the afternoon break, but still opened his store and made the best lard sandwich that I will ever eat in my life. Or the old lady that two of my friend helped back to her house on the top of the hill, disappearing then for hours because she insisted serving them a five course meal, in gratitude, before they could leave.

If you truly want to discover a country you may perhaps skip its muddy caves and concentrate on its surface, but please dump your Baedeker and find its living history in the people you meet.

Perugia, Italy (September 15, 2009)

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Patterns in the Sand

Crane Beach, MA (June 17, 2006)

One thing that I like of the beach environment is how water, wind and sand collude together to create infinite magical miniature worlds. Grain by grain, as in a real-life game of minecraft, the water and the wind draw intricate patterns in the sand. Valleys, mountains, dunes, a fantastic topography replicating on a tiny scale geological features etched on Earth's continents. Walking on the beach on the line where the sea meet the sand is like flying over a Martian landscape imaged by a NASA probe.

A miniature river delta
Making a sand castle
Looking at the patterns in the sand of a beach we are faced with the fractal nature of the world. Shapes repeat across scales, self-similar, in an intricate game of russian dolls. This similitude of patterns, however, betrays the actual complexity in the physics of sand. While the forces of nature act equally on a multitude of scales, their effects are scale dependent. Even objects that are made of the same substance, such as a grain of sand and a large block of sandstone, will react to external forces in different ways, because the effect of these forces will depend differently on a combination of their size, surface area and weight. This is why the slightest of breeze can blow away the tiny grains of a dry sand beach, but you won't be able to move a pebble made with the same material by blowing on it with all the strength of your lungs. At the small scales of a grain of sand, physics becomes very complicated. Sand particles are in fact subjected to forces that have no parallel in the macroscopic world, and that in some conditions make them stick together like a solid, while in others make them flow like a liquid. This is why, during earthquakes, solid ground can sometimes suddenly liquefy. Given the obliquity of granular materials in our everyday world, one would think that by now we would have figured out the peculiarities of the physics of sand. Not so; these phenomena remain among the most baffling problems in material science. Which fortunately doesn't prevent us to admire and enjoy the beautiful miniature landscapes produced in mysterious ways by the wind and the water on our favorite beach.

Crane Beach, MA (June 17, 2006)

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Los Saqueos de San Felix

Venezuela (Mar 17, 2006)

On April 11, 1817 the Second Republic of Venezuela was at a decisive point in its fight against the Spanish oppressor. Manuel Piar, the only general of mixed ancestry in the young rebel's army, was finally confronting the Spanish brigadier La Torres leading the larger loyalist army. The battle, fought in the plane of Chirica near the town of San Felix, only lasted half an hour. During that short time the outnumbered and untrained infantry of Piar managed to route the Spaniard forces, and thus secure the freedom of the province of Guyana from the colonial rule. Piar itself, however, didn't live long to reap the benefits of his hard won victory: faithful to the end to his black and indian soldiers, he demanded equal political and social rights for the colored population of Venezuela, dominated by the white oligarchy of european descent. He was accused of treason and executed by a firing squad in front of the Cathedral of Angostura (present day's Ciudad Bolivar). The libertador himself, Simon Bolivar, was behind the order to terminate Piar's life, in his mind a necessary act to prevent the feared black insurrection against the white rule. Upon hearing the shots that ended the life of his former companion, Bolivar is rumored to have said: "He derramado mi sangre" (I shed my own blood).

Venezuela
San Felix, today, is part of the larger Ciudad Guayana, the largest city of the Bolivar state in the vast virgin south of the country. It is a land rich of natural resources: primarily mines of iron and bauxite (aluminum), but also vast hydroelectric resources captured by huge dams on the Orinoco river. The area of Ciudad Guayana, a "planned city" built with the aid of architects from MIT and Harvard, is the hotspot of Venezuelan heavy industry. San Felix and Puerto Ordaz, on the two sides of the Orinoco River, are the historical and modern centers of this city with over 1 million inhabitants. A worker's city, where in better times most of the population was employed in the manufacturing industry that made Venezuela one of the most economically advanced countries in latin America.

A "buseta" in Venezuela
It is in San Felix that, on July 31st of 2015, at 5 in the morning, the most recent of Venezuelan riots happened. The occasion was the increase in the cost of a bus ticket, from the 10 Bolivars set by the government (1.6 US dollars at the official exchange rate, but less than 15 cents at the actual market value) to the 50 Bolivars charged by the driver attempting to make an actual living wage out of his job. The riot rapidly propagated to nearby stores, looted in search of precious items such as corn flour, a bathroom sink and some clothes. By the time the National Guard was called, the whole neighborhood was in a state of chaos. Firearms were shot: a 21 years-old boy met the end of his life when his chest was hit by a rogue bullet. By the end of the day eighty protesters were arrested, and four stores were looted in the Avenue named after Manuel Piar himself. In today's Venezuela the looting in San Felix would be unremarkable, if it wasn't that for the first time this kind of social unrest happened in a region that is at the core of Venezuelan working class. Despite the claims of authorities, the crowd that rebelled in San Felix has nothing to do with the right-wing opposition that had been promoting last year's revolts in the border state of Tachira. The people rioting and looting in Guyana were prompted by their own desperation for the unsustainable chronic scarcity that has been afflicting the country. The troubles in San Felix could be the first sign that the Venezuelan Government may be losing the core support it has so far enjoyed from the popular classes. Violent changes may be coming to Venezuela, and there is no guarantees that the outcome will be a peaceful and democratic society.

Venezuela (Mar 17, 2006)

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