Friday, August 18, 2017

Thursday, August 3, 2017


I consider myself reasonably tech-adept for a dude pushing 60, but I have never found a good way to keep track of random notes to myself: web sites, lists of books or places to visit, etc. I tried Evernote, and it just seemed like overkill. NY Times Upshot reporter Claire Cain Miller says she is using Google Keep. I put it on my phone. Hmm... super simple, kind of like Google Docs. With respect to Google, I am already Kept, so why not keep Keep?

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Pygmy forests of Mendocino

Along the Mendocino coast one finds examples of so-called ecological staircases: terraced land structures that originated under the ocean along the California shore but have been uplifted and exposed over the past few hundred thousand years. Some of these terraces have developed poor drainage and soil types that are highly inhospitable to most plants, leading to unusual pygmy or elfin forests:
Drainage is poor at best on these stairs and plants sit in a bath of their own tannins and acids for much of the wet season. Plant communities on this terrace have reacted to limited root mobility and acidic soil by evolving stunted forms. 
There are a couple of nice examples of pygmy forests near the town of Mendocino. For a great introduction to the landscape that gives rise to these things, the Ecological Staircase Trail in Jug Handle State Natural Reserve is a must. This beautiful trail starts on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, crosses Highway 1, and descends into the lush riparian habitat of the Jughandle Creek bed. From there one ascends a series of the ecological staircases through beautiful coniferous forests, finally arriving at the pygmy forest, where a short boardwalk takes you through the thicket of stunted trees and shrubs. (Another, short stroll through a pygmy forest can be found at the Van Damme State Park. The forest is easily accessible from Airport Road.)

Some of the trees in these "forests" might be only an inch in diameter and little taller than head height, yet a century old. Bizarre and remarkable places, they were for me strangely reminiscent of the Alakai Swamp on Kauai, as well as some scrubby areas of central Florida, both otherworldly plantscapes.

Pygmy forests do not lend themselves to photography: Context is everything. But here are a few shots, including an example of the beautiful Fort Bragg Manzanita (Arctostaphylos nummularia) and the reindeer lichen (Cladonia portentosa ssp. pacifica) one finds growing on the ground under the scrub.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The best fast food item in the world

Nobody I know believes me, but that's because they refuse to try the McDonald's filet-o-fish sandwich. It is a perfect little meal in a cardboard box: the fresh lightly breaded rectangle of sustainably sourced fish, the square of yellow American cheese firmly but gently gluing the fish to the bottom half of the bun, the dollop of properly bland tartar sauce, and the top of the bun, unnaturally soft, smooth, and rounded. Every bite features a pleasant crunch before it sticks to the roof of your mouth and then melts into a flavorful bolus. An aesthetic and culinary masterpiece.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017


Released in 2010, now on Netflix, it features an enormous wall along the Mexican border to keep out the aliens. No, not those aliens, although the wall seems to serve that purpose as well. I mean the enormous shambling octopus-shaped aliens that now inhabit much of Mexico, the infected zone. Their little egg sacs are placed on trees and resemble translucent bracket fungi, a touch I really appreciated. The Latin Americans who live in and south of the zone are not so sure which is worse, the aliens or the American bombing raids against them. This Trumpian scenario is balanced by a sweetly naive Obamian optimism and good will (though let's not forget about Barack's real-world drone attacks). The lead couple are charming and have real chemistry. The special effects are used sparingly and with humility. Children appear throughout and are portrayed naturalistically and lovingly.

A sweet little indie alien invasion love story.

Monday, July 24, 2017


On my black oak. One of many varieties found in our great state.
California’s 22 species of oaks... are known to support over 200 species of cynipid gall wasps, more recorded species than North Africa, Europe, and Asia combined.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Friday, July 7, 2017

Golden Hill

Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York is being touted as Francis Spufford's first novel. I'll call it his second, because Red Plenty is clearly historical fiction in my book. Golden Hill is set in New York City in late 1746. It's a vibrant small city on the make, with plenty of wheeler dealers and political tensions... the kind of place where an outsider with ambitious plans should be plenty wary of sticking his nose where it doesn't belong.

Enter our hero, Richard Smith, newly arrived from London with a check for a thousand pounds sterling (quite a small fortune) that he needs to cash in order to conduct some unknown business in town. Unknown, that is, until nearly the end of the novel, when we learn of Smith's mission. In the meantime, there is friendship, theatre, imprisonment, love, death, sex, and scandal. Oh, and currency, in multitudes of denominations and discounts.

Golden Hill is definitely a good yarn, if not in the same league as the genre-busting minor masterpiece Red Plenty. Spufford is an ambitious, clever writer; here he seeks to replicate some of the style of 18th-century literature... with mixed success. The rococo opening sentence, run-on and crammed with interjections, reads just about right to my ear. But Spufford can't always keep it up. The lengthy letter from jail in the book's middle didn't quite work for me. Some plot contrivances are a little pat. And the story seems to rush to its conclusion.

All that said, it's mostly a very good tale well told. The book imagines a quite believable pre-revolutionary Manhattan, with political, religious, and ethnic divisions lurking just beneath the surface; the main characters are well drawn and appealing. A chilly Christmas in Old New York may be just what you need for beach reading this summer.