Sunday, August 27, 2017

In praise of ducks

No, not our fine feathered floating friends, praiseworthy though they be... I mean those little piles of rocks (cairns to many) that mark your way along a trail. Most ducks are humble things, a couple of flat stones stacked in a visible spot. Of course, we know from Andy Goldsworthy and countless anonymous predecessors that a cairn can be a lovely, deliberate thing, but the typical trail duck is a utilitarian object, and it seems that the most haphazard, ungainly, and precarious are often the most visually pleasing. Placement is everything with a duck... the whole point is to guide you in the right direction from an ambiguous fork or a boulder-strewn section of trail, so the duck must be fairly obvious just past the point of confusion. Ducks are also a nice example of spontaneous, anonymous human cooperation.

Carson Pass ramblings

I was happy to squeeze in a couple nights up near Carson Pass before the end of summer. Tropical moisture up from somewhere brought rollicking afternoon thunderstorms, the biggest hail I've ever experienced (from the car), glorious sunsets, and gratitude that my old REI tent fly still repels water. Where a wet winter's snow retreats from the higher spots, it's barely spring, with shorter cooler days not far behind.

Lupines and paintbrush on the trail up to Lake Winnemucca, with Round Top in the background...

Elephant's head...

Fireweed lines the west shore of Round Top Lake...

Marsh marigold is often the first plant to get its toes wet when a snowfield retreats...

A lily near Woods Lake...

Sierra Nevada elements in black and white...

Friday, August 25, 2017

Sci-fi wanderings

The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula K. Le Guin
I'd never read it before this summer. The first two-thirds are a well-crafted gender-bending political fable. The remainder is a well-crafted gender-bending buddy adventure story. The gender-bending must have been revolutionary when it was published... less so now, but the story-telling and character development hold up just fine.

Too Like the Lightning
Ada Palmer
I read this before I read The Left Hand of Darkness, and I now see that it is a longer, convoluted homage to Le Guin's classic. The excellent Crooked Timber blog devoted an entire "seminar" to this book and its sequel. It is high-high-sci-fi. I admired the author's ability to drop the reader into a recognizably human but quite odd social milieu. There are lots of characters involved in a complex web of political and sexual alliances. But the story-telling is not up to Le Guin's standard... and I'm not sure I have the attention span for this sort of thing.

Critter corner...

The Children of the Sky
Vernor Vinge
A Fire Upon the Deep introduced readers to the Tines, the most interesting aliens in any book I've read. Doglike creatures, "individual" Tines actually consist of small packs, which communicate using a kind of sonic mindspeak. Vinge explored the complications and limitations of this mode of existence in fascinating detail, embedding it in a sprawling space opera featuring, as so many such books do, the arrival of human refugees on the Tines' distant planet. This sequel, actually published after a prequel, is not nearly as eye-opening as the original, but the politics and even economics of the novel will keep your attention. Along with those complicated, fascinating, not-human Tines.

Children of Time
Adrian Tchaikovsky
What happens when spiders get bigger and a whole lot smarter? The writing is merely functional, and the humans who occupy half the chapters are not terribly interesting. But the spiders are pretty cool, from their matriarchal, atavistically man-eating social structure to their deployment of ant colonies as computing machines. And the book may inspire you to learn a little more about the genus Portia of jumping spiders, whose descendants are the heroes of the book. If you are like me, you are very fond of jumping spiders, with their funny eight-eyed faces and extraordinary leaping ability. But you may not want to be around when they make that evolutionary jump.

Reading roundup

Oh boy, am I behind on my book reports! From best to worst...

The Beginning of Spring
Penelope Fitzgerald
This little novel is full of little mysteries, and bits of wisdom. You'll learn a little about the art of printing, circa 1913, and a little about Russian politics of the same era. Mostly you'll learn a good bit about the beating human heart of Frank Reid, the English printer whose story this is. Not a single letter of type is wasted in this exquisite book.

The Moonstone

Wilkie Collins
The first (1868) and best detective novel ever? Some have said so. I wouldn't know, but I can report that it's very funny, socially astute (for its time), cleverly composed, and highly entertaining from start to finish.


Paul Beatty
Beatty's latest novel The Sellout won the Man Booker Prize, but it was checked out at the library, so I settled for Slumberland. The narrator-protagonist is an African-American DJ in Berlin in search of the perfect beat, around the time of the fall of the Wall. The writing is virtuosic and smart-ass and full of inside jokes and references that would appeal to an American music fan of a certain age. A mysterious, reclusive Ornette Coleman or Sun Ra-type plays a central role. As a meditation on race and racism, the book's conceits sometimes get the better of it, but it's still a good read.

The Idiot
Elif Batuman
This coming-of-age tale of a Turkish-American Harvard first-year garnered much praise from some critics. I found the plot soporific, the characters annoying, the attempts at humor largely unfunny, and the writing pedestrian. Then again, it's quite possible that the deeper Dostoyevskian allusions flew right over my head.

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.