Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “June, 2015”

Freeway Free in New Mexico: The Town that Wasn’t There

The view from the road to Nowhere

The view from the road to Nowhere

The road to Los Alamos is paved now, and there are comforting stone barriers separating the driver from the precipitous drops edging the switchbacks as you climb from the valley of the Santa Fe River.  There are even scenic viewpoints provided so that you can look out over the valley of the Rio Grande as it carves its way toward El Paso.  It’s a long way from those days in the early 1940’s when the town was as isolated and exotic as Narnia, its only entrance through an inconspicuous door of an old adobe on the Plaza in Santa Fe.

In those days the inhabitants of Los Alamos were divided, like Narnia, into two very different groups, but unlike Narnia, they were putatively on the same side.  The town had been created by the US Military, and its routine labor and its decidedly non-routine security were provided by the Army.  But its purpose was to probe areas of science that had never been explored – to create the weapon that would end World War II, killing hundred of thousands of people, but by doing so save a million other lives which would have been lost through hand-to-hand combat, disease, ritual suicide, and other causes in a drawn-out battle for Japan.

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Dwarf meets Elf, with Man in the middle

Perhaps the uneasy alliance was more like that of Elves and Dwarves in the battle against the Dark Lord of Mordor. Certainly there was an elfin quality about Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the scientists, and a foursquare dwarvish solidity about his military counterpart, General Leslie Groves.   And there were ordinary people at Los Alamos, too; there were cleaning women and secretaries and nurses and teachers, who played their roles without ever quite knowing what was going on.

Now the town looks quite ordinary.  There is a struggling downtown area with some small shops and restaurants, and a new shopping mall.  There is an excellent sandwich shop, Daniel’s Café (sharing space with Mary’s Gelato) .  I recommend the Tuna Melt.

If you want room for gelato, split the sandwich!

If you want room for gelato, split the sandwich!

There is a high school which had been originally funded by the Atomic Energy Commission and still gets 22% of its funding from the FEderal Government.  Since the principal employer in Los Alamos is still the Laboratory, it is not surprising that the sons and daughters of physicists have gained national recognition for their school’s academic program.

And there is a wonderful museum, the Bradbury Science Museum, which tells the story of the Manhattan Project from the point of view of all three groups who worked there, as well as revealing as much as can be told about the lab’s current activities

For more about Los Alamos and the Mahattan Project, you can’t go wrong reading Day of Trinity by Lansing Lamont, and then watching “The Day After Trinity”, a  fine documentary about Robert Oppenheimer.  And when you walk the sidewalks of  the Town that Wasn’t There, you’ll hear history echoing in your footsteps.

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Freeway Free in New Mexico – Willa Cather Country

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On our first day in New Mexico we arrived in Albuquerque and drove north to wherewe would rendezvous with friends.  I was grateful that I had prepared for our trip by re-reading Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop.  She gave me the words to describe what I was seeing:  “In other places the sky is the roof of the world.  Here the earth is somply the floor of the sky.” As we drove through the austere landscape that sky stretched over and around us in an immense blue expanse, shrinking the distant mountains and mesas to the size of doll furniture.

The countryside was austere, but not barren.  There were pinon pines twisting along the ridges, cottonwood tries lining the dry washes where water had flowed and would flow again.  The six-lane highway was punctuated by over-crossings decorated with southwestern motifs: thunderbirds, stampeding mustangs, desert tortoises, road runners.  The roads themselves led off to a couple of barns, or a boarded up gas station, or a billboard advertising Native American Jewelry – 5 miles west.

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We arrived at our hotel just the other side of nowhere (that is, fourteen miles north of Santa Fe), a comfortable and bland Homewood Suites just next to the Buffalo Thunder Resort Hotel and Casino, where we had dinner on the outside patio as the sun went down, the moon rose, and the artificial luminarias lit up the pseudo-adobe battlements.

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Drought Intolerance (Los Altos Town Crier, June 4, 2015)

P1020796webDrought intolerance

Four years into it, almost everyone but the Santa Clara Valley Water District is admitting that our drought is a reality that won’t go away. (Hello, SCVWD? Still insist on building those catch basins in San Antonio Preserve and McKelvey for flood protection?) Walking, jogging, and biking around my Los Altos neighborhood, you can see a number of different landscape solutions our neighbors have reached in order to cope with water scarcity . These include:

Total Denial: The lawn is green and trimmed, shrubs are pruned, flowers are blooming. “This is my lawn and my flowers and I’m jolly well going to keep them going – it’s bound to rain someday!”

Good Citizen: the lawn is trimmed but browning, flowers are going to seed instead of being pruned. “Brown is the new Green!”

Cottage Gardener: the yard has no lawn instead flagstone paths lead to a bench or wrought iron table and chairs, surrounded by, lots of roses, hydrangeas, and other blooming flowers and shrubs. “It’s all on drip irrigation, get off my case!”

P1020804webPractical Productivity: The lawn has been replaced by raised beds sowed with vegetables, herbs, snail-repelling marigolds, and cutting flowers,   surrounded by gravel paths and bark mulch. “If I can’t eat it, smell it, or put it in a vase, I’m not watering it!”

Concrete and Conifer (good for corner lots): A large tree in front of the house (usually evergreen, but sometime oak) with a layer of weed-stifling leaves or needles underneath, provides the focal point of the landscaping. A circular driveway takes up the rest of what would be lawn. Some shrubs fill in the corners. “High function, low maintenance – what’s not to like?”

Maybe Sleeping Beauty is in there?

Maybe Sleeping Beauty is in there?

Concealment: A new picket fence bordered with shrubs conceals the yard. Is there lawn behind it, or dried ground? “Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies.”

Desert shrubs, bubbling fountain, recycled water?

Desert shrubs, bubbling fountain, recycled water?

Smugness: (prevalent with newer houses with either Mission-style or Modern architecture) Instead of lawn, lots of gravel in geometric designs, bark mulch, feather grass, sage, California natives and usually a “water feature” (with recycled water, of course) just to rub it in how much water they are saving on the rest of the landscaping. “We saw it coming and you didn’t! Nyah nyah nyah!”

Anachronistic: The traditional Los Altos ranchhouse, but the lawn has been replaced with bark mulch and gravel as with the Mission/Modern landscape. “So it doesn’t match the ranch-suburban look, it’s not going to be featured in Sunset, but it keeps the water bill down.”

50’s Los Altos throwback: a wide border of overgrown juniper shrubs, with a spread of English Ivy instead of lawn. “Everything old is new again!”

Is it real?

Is it real?

Embracing the inevitable (Suburban traditional): It looks like a luxuriant lawn, but a closer look reveals artificial turf. “I can have my cake and eat it too!”

Weeds, schmeeds! It's ornamental grass!

Weeds, schmeeds! It’s ornamental grass!

Embracing the inevitable (Pioneer traditional): A border around the former lawn has been mowed, but the central portion has been allowed to revert to waist-high horsetail grass and star thistle. “Weeds, shmeeds, I say it’s ornamental grass, and I say the heck with it!”

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