Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “climate”

Freeway-Free in Colorado: Boulder Beyond the Campus and the Mall

Chatauqua Hall

Chatauqua Hall

The Flat Iron Mountains loom over Boulder’s western side, and many of the hiking trails in and around these peaks begin or end at the equally picturesque Chatauqua Institute.  This is a wonderfully conceived set of Victorian-era buildings arranged around a grassy meadow with the intent of promoting adult education in a healthful and beautiful setting.  It has been in continuous operation since the late 1800’s, and continues to fulfill its mission with artists-in-residence, concerts, films, and as a bonus, delicious food available during the temperate months on a wide veranda overlooking the meadow, and in the cold season inside a cozy lounge with a huge stone fireplace. 20170817_181344web

The films and concerts take place in a huge beamed barnlike structure which has burned several times over the history of the Colorado Chatauqua , but has always been reconstsructed in the spirit of its predecessors – think of a giant barn with good acoustics and lighting.   On a recent summer evening I attended a showing of a couple of Buster Keaton silent films, with an expert live piano accompaniment providing authenticity.  The audience of about 500 only half-filled the vast space, but the gleeful giggles of the kids seeing Keaton’s acrobatic pratfalls for the first time filled the space beautifully.

 

For  a different kind experience, visit the Celestial Seasonings factory just north of Boulder.  Here you can sip samples of dozens of different teas, and take a tour of the factory where the teas are stored, processed, boxed, and prepared for shipment.  Be warned:  If you are sensitive to odors you may be in for sensory overload here;  on the other hand if you are suffering from nasal congestion a few moments in the special room where the mint tea is stored will clear you out amazingly.

If you are interested in  more modern types of architecture, the National Center for Atmospheric Research is just a bit further up the road from the Chatauqua Institue, in a fascinating building designed by I. M. Pei.  The group of rectangular forms juts out of a ledge of the Flat Irons as though created by some upheaval.  The exterior is made of red sandstone that blends perfectly with the surrounding rocks, and the views from the exterior plaze and the restaurant inside are to die for.  I have not eaten at the restaurant, but with that view how could the meal be less than delightful?  The exhibits explaining how cyclones form, how ocean currents affect climate, and so on, are also interesting, though you will likely have to compete with a busload of elementary school field trippers to get close to them. 20170727_105455doc

 

 

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Freeway Free in California: Off the Beaten Track in Ojai

20170707_072416docImagine if Walt Disney, instead of building Disneyland with his own profits from the Mickey Mouse Empire, had gone to the city fathers of Anaheim and asked them to go in with him in making Anaheim a really interesting place to visit (After all, it already had beautiful orange groves  and a scenic mountain backdrop.)  That’s kind of what happened at a crucial point in the history of Ojai, except the mogul who re-made Ojai was not Walt Disney, but Edward Libbey, the glass-making magnate.

Libbey was invited by a friend to spend some time at the Foothills Hotel  in the 1920’s and decided that Ojai, with its orange groves, beautiful mountain scenery, and gurgling creek, should be an artist colony and tourist destination equal to Santa Barbara directly to the west.  Just one problem:  the downtown area of Ojai was a make-shift kind of place, with wooden sidewalks, tacky false storefronts, and dirt roads.

But Libbey had a vision, and he must have been quite a salesman, as he succeeded on persuading the local Chamber of Commerce that Ojai could and should be transformed.  Santa Barbara and Santa Fe had succeeded in enforcing cosmetic building codes, Ojai also could transform itself into a California-mission-architecture oasis, drawing artists and tourists year-round with its sunny climate.

20170707_144009webSome might have been daunted at prescribing mission architecture when in fact Ojai had nothing resembling a mission.  No problem.  Libbey engineered the building of a mission-style Post Office, complete with a four-story bell tower which chimed each quarter hour.  The false storefronts were replaced with cream-colored stucco and tile roofs; the wooden sidewalks were replaced with terra-cotta pavers and covered with arched arcades. Abracadabra! – Instant ambience!

It could have been a kitschy disaster.  But somehow it is not.  Almost a century has passed since Libbey had his vision, and with the passage of time Ojai has developed a patina of charm and tradition which seduces the visitor.  That bell tower IS charming to hear, those arcades ARE pleasant to stroll under, the central park IS a lovely shady place to enjoy a concert or a street fair,  the small shops, restaurants, and art galleries ARE worth a day of leisurely exploration.  And the mountains are still there.

One of the secrets to maintaining Ojai’s is that there are NO chain stores or restaurants allowed within the downtown center. If you go, stop at the Vons supermarket just outside the restricted area for weekend supplies.

The first night we went to a band concert in the park.  What could be more summery?  I felt as though I had stepped into “The Music Man” and Harold Hill would show up any second.  It was a perfect evening with a three-quarter moon growing brighter and brighter as the evening wore on.  A woman was selling balloons, some of which subsequently floated up into the overhanging oak to the accompaniment of wails from the child and cheers from the audience.  20170705_191205docThe band was a mixed group of kids and codgers, men and women, whites and people of color, all unified in white shirts and black pants. The concert began with a nonagenarian leading the group in the civic song, “Ojai, oh Ojai!” and continued with a succession of medleys – patriotic tunes, swing era tunes, Beatles tunes, John Williams movie themes.  (The advantage of a medley is that if the band messes up one tune, they have a chance to redeem themselves on the next.)

At intermission there was a balloon parade which circled the bandstand.  A visiting 12-year-old won a raffle and got to lead the band in the grand finale, “Stars and Stripes Forever”, preceded by the sonorous sounding of the 9PM hour by the Post Office bell tower across the way.  It was a rousing performanc by all.

I’d say Mr. Libbey got his money’s worth.20170707_080007web

 

 

 

 

 

 

California Under Fire (Los Altos Town Crier July 8, 2017

Whittier Fire

Ventura County STAR photo

A few weeks ago I drove down to Ojai to visit a cousin and some friends.  East of Los Alamos I took the Cachuma Highwy (CA-154) to avoid the dogleg south on 101 through Buellton, Solvang, Goleta, and along the coast.

My notes describe the cutoff  as “a two lane road with two stop signs and one traffic circle in 40 miles, snaking through beautiful high country along the Chumash Reservoir, which was looking still a bit under filled despite one year of hefty rain after California’s five years of drought. This road is a playground for sports cars, and I had to pull over several times in my sedate 4-cylinder Camry to let a Mustang or Camaro roar by.” I was looking forward to a return trip on the same road, planning to check out the Vista Points overlooking the reservoir and maybe take a rest stop at the little Nature Center near the Boy Scout Camp. CachumaLakeweb

 

The evening before my departure my cousin warned me “Better check your route tomorrow.  The news says a wildfire broke out and Hwy 154 is closed.” 

Google Maps confirmed the closure the next morning, and I took the dog-leg through Goleta.  Beyond the hills behind Santa Barbara I could see the smoke roiling up like a dirty brown thunderhead.  From Santa Barbara to Pismo Beach the valley winds carried the soot from the fire thick enough to make the sky brown from the Coast Range to the ocean.  I aborted my plan of eating lunch on a balcony overlooking the Pacific, and settled for a grab-and-go shopping center sandwich.

All along 101 the fire scars from old and recent burns seemed to jump out of the landscape – blackened hills and leafless trees from summer after summer of drought and burns.  We had had a record-setting wet winter, but I had been warned by a park ranger earlier that the spring growth, now crisped by summer heat in the 100’s, would make any fire even more dangerous.

A day later the headlines in the SJ Merc shouted “Blazes rage across West;  Thousands Evacuated in State.” The fire that still closed CA-154, now dubbed “the Whittier fire” had consumed seventeen thousand acres and was only 5% contained.  The Boy Scout camp had been evacuated in a bull-dozer-led convoy, but the Nature Center was a total loss;  all of the resident animals had died in their cages.  

Two weeks later the Whittier fire had disappeared from the headlines.  I did a quick Google search;  it was still burning, but 85% contained, with a number of structures destroyed but no loss of life. 

I thought of the miles of sun-crisped golden hillsides that line our local freeways, and the thousands of discarded cigarette butts and back-firing cars that threaten to send a spark in the wrong place.  I remember the Oakland firestorm of 1991 which raged up the canyons of the East Bay hills killing twenty-three people, and I cross my fingers.  We still have a long fire season left. 

 

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Freeway Free in France – Hiking in the Dordogne – Day One (cont.)

september-2016-377webAt about the halfway point of our first day of hiking (9km) we felt raindrops.  Drizzle turned to gentle rain, enough to rate dragging out our rain gear – all except DB, who had left her poncho behind to save weight. (DB has some curvature of the spine and her backpack is not very comfortable, so she chose to leave some basic stuff, including sufficient water.  Fortunately both W and I tend to err in the opposite direction, and were able to keep her hydrated with our extra bottles, and fairly dry with my little polka-dot umbrella.). The ponchos added an unnecessary extra layer of warmth, so we kept trying to do without every time we felt the rain slacken, and then had to re-don when we got out of the sheltering woods or the rain renewed its attack.

september-2016-382webWe oohed and ached over a chateau whose ruined towers loomed above the woods on the left (it was burned by the Nazis in WWII) and exclaimed over weird fungi growing on logs and near the edges of the path.  We noted pear orchards, apple trees heavy with fruit, an occasional vineyard lush with grapes awaiting harvest.  We sampled wild blackberries at the side of the road, and tried to open chestnut husks to get at the chestnuts inside. (Chestnuts are stickery!”  And we were counting down the remaining KM by tenths.

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Finally we made it to Sarlat  after about 7 hours on the walk.  (It was supposed to take 5, but we missed a couple of turns, and some of us were pretty slow on the up hills)  The usual hotel for this tour company was booked up, so they put us in a backup – W and I are sharing a tiny room with two twin beds, minuscule night table shelves, one chair, and a clothes rack hung over the door on which we must try to dry our wet / sweaty clothing.  But the shower has cold water for my feet and warm water for the rest of me, and after the appropriate ablutions I am snuggled under the matelasse bedspread in my nightshirt while W in her night shirt is rapping out emails at the skimpy shelf-desk in the corner.   Our dinner reservation is in a half hour and we are hoping to be able to walk that far.

Today’s walk was the second longest of the 7.  Tomorrow we will be in Sarlat for the whole day; there is a “suggested loop” of 14 KM which takes about 4 hours per our tour route guide, or we can just wimp out and enjoy the famous market and explore the car-free streets of the old medieval town.  I’ll see what a good dinner and night’s rest does for me!

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But at the moment wimping out sounds great.

A Piece of My Mind: To Green or Not to Green (LATC Feb 1,2017)

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After four years of drought our lawn was a patchy mélange of sparse grass, tough weeds, exposed tree roots, and bare dirt. We have a corner lot, and even with the rose garden, clothesline, and veggie garden along one side, the lawn area still wraps around three sides of our house – a lot of space to replant or re-imagine.

In recent months I had comforted myself that our yard was not yet the ugliest and most neglected-looking on the street, but it was sinking quickly into contention for that title, and one by one the other practitioners of benign neglect were re-landscaping.

Some folks in our neighborhood had opted for xeriscaped yardssuper-water-wise with lots of wood chips replacing grass and featuring agaves, sage, fountain grass, and other drought-tolerant plants.  This style of landscape looks good with mission-style architecture a la Santa Fe, but our house is a modified ranch style.  Desert landscaping doesn’t fit.

Plus, I heard from a reliable neighbor that the cost of such a total re-invention of our yard would be in thousands of dollars.  It would take us a long time to pay the investment off in water savings, no matter how ecologically correct it would be

Our gardener, veteran of many years of rain cycles, assured us that a lawn renewal – not with sod, but with seed, could be done at a fraction of the cost of re-landscaping, and now was the ideal time, with a series of winter storms coming in to break the drought.  So, despite my Sierra Club membership and longing for green cred, we agreed to his plan: first, thatching the yard to get rid of the existing scrubby growth, then reseeding with a drought-resistant grass, fertilizing, and hoping for rain.

The gardener’s team arrived, and in one Saturday morning our patchy, weedy yard was transformed into a smooth brown expanse of tilled soil  It looked so much better that I almost wanted to stop there.  But the gardener had already sowed seeds, and we sat back to wait for our new lawn.

Whoops!  Here come the birds!  Flocks of little brown sparrows and black-capped chickadees descend on that yummy grass seed.  I shout at them and shoo them and toss pebbles in their direction, and they fly back into the shrubbery, then flock out again as soon as I am inside the house.  How will there be any seeds left to germinate against this feathered horde?

Here comes the rain!  Buckets of rain in storm after storm for almost two weeks in January!

Here comes the grass!  It’s not exactly a smooth green carpet, and the little blades are noticeably sparser close to the shrubs that sheltered those dratted birds, but it is indubitably grass.  Surely those little blades will grow thicker as they push on into the sun!  And then

Here come the weeds! For four years of drought we had not worried about weeds- even dandelions had trouble thriving in baked adobe clay.  Now we have our first new dandelions.  Can oxalis and sticker-burs be far behind?

In another month or so I should be able to tell you whether we should have gone with the xeriscaping after all.  Stay tuned!

 

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Coastal vs Central California: It’s Still About the Water

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Left side of the road

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right side of road – just add water!

My husband and I took a road trip a few weeks ago, driving from Los Altos down to Bakersfield and then east, returning via Bakersfield and Paso Robles and then up 101.

As far as the Pacheco Pass, the landscape was lyrically green with oaks and buckeyes sporting fresh foliage, and  wildflowers filling the crevices between the hills with streams of yellow mustard, buttercups,  and golden poppies. Rock outcroppings were wreathed in ribbons of late-rising fog like the karst peaks in traditional Chinese landscapes.

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On the other side of the pass, we dropped down past the San Luis Reservoir, much healthier-looking at first glance than the last time we had passed this way almost two years ago. But a second look showed us the thirty  feet of rocky scree which separated the current level of the reservoir and the grassy level of the normal shore.  Despite heavy rain in March, the reservoir was still only at 52% capacity, 57% of the average fullness for the end of March.

Further down the hill, we began the long trek down the west side of the Central Valley on Interstate 5 . Except for irrigated fields and orchards, the green was gone – and the signs began.

On a barren field of scrub brush “Congress-Created Dust Bowl.” Next to an expanse of almond orchard, “Dams, Not Trains.” Several signs showing a perplexed looking boy and the query “Is Growing Food a Waste of Water?”  On the side of a truck parked next to the Interstate: “Politicians Created Water Crisis = Higher Food Costs, Lost Jobs.” The signs reflected the anger of farmers who had lost their historically unlimited water rights through recent  legislation.  No longer could they rely on digging ever deeper wells to enable cultivation of whatever they felt like growing.

More telling were the signs which began to appear further south: “For Sale – 100 Acres Almonds”.  Still more poignant were the dead orchards – acres of almond trees uprooted, some already brown and dead, some appearing to have been sacrificed only a short time ago.  We saw one backhoe in the process of destruction.  I took some pictures: on one side of the road were healthy almond orchards stretching off into the valley haze, irrigation hoses clearly visible.  On the other side: no hoses, no trees, no greenery, only scrub brush and bare dirt.

Almond trees are currently one of the most controversial crops of the Central Valley.   Almonds are a lucrative product, but they require a lot of water, and the largest percentage of the crop is grown for export to Asia, where demand is rapidly expanding.  With water increasingly scarce, it is argued, why should we allow irrigation of non-essential crops for export, rather than focusing on nutritional basics to be consumed locally?  But who or what will decide what is or is not “essential”?

We crossed the California Aqueduct, sparkling with Northern California water headed for Los Angeles.  More signs: “Food Grows where Water Flows.”  “California produces 50% of US Fruits, Vegetables, and Nuts.”

We passed a well-tended farm house with a pillared porch and tiled roof, surrounded by shapely almond trees.  We passed an abandoned stone bungalow, its roof caved in, surrounded by scrub brush.

With enlightened, long-term, apolitical water management, many well-tended farmhouses will survive.  But there will inevitably be many rotting bungalows amid the desert scrub. And fewer almonds in my Chinese chicken salad.

 

The Plight of the Trees

Dying redwoods in the median strip

Dying redwoods in the median strip

The combination of age and water conservation measures is taking its toll all around my neighborhood.  There are dead and dying trees on every street. Particularly sad are the landscape trees which were planted years ago when Los Altos was a new development, chosen for their rapid growth with no thought to their natural requirements, maintained for decades with irrigation, and now left to fend for themselves in an unnatural habitat.

Many of the redwood trees which tower along our major roads are slowly turning brown at the tips of their branches.  Growth rings on redwood trees show that they have survived drought periods as long as 200 years in duration, but not on the eastern side of the Coast Range.  Redwoods are adapted to get moisture from morning fog.  Deprived of their morning fog drink and  of  irrigation , they are struggling.

The Monterey pines are in even worse shape.   In native stands on the California central coast, a Monterey pine can live 100-150 years.  But “in captivity”, as a landscape tree, the life span shortens to as little as 20-30 years.  Monterey pines are adapted to live in crowded stands on thin soil underlain by bedrock.  As landscape trees, too much space, too much rich soil, and too much fertilizer all combine to put the Monterey pines in trouble..

Without sufficient water in the soil, the trees’ hydraulic system for transporting water to the limbs and leaf tips may fail, weakening the limbs and causing branches and trunks of well-established trees to split and fall.  My son’s car was totaled several months ago when a heavy branch split from the sycamore in his front yard.  Our flowering plum blocked our driveway when a third of its canopy fell.  Around my area old gnarled oaks and pepper trees have split down the middle. Seeing these trees go is like an old friend’s passing.  But when the branches fell from our plum tree we discovered a colony of wood boring grubs had ravaged the interior. It had to go. It felt like a mercy killing.

Gnarly almond hanging in there

Gnarly almond hanging in there

I felt differently about our almond tree.  One of a pair, its twin was sacrificed when my parents subdivided their lot so that we could build our house next door.  My father had worked tirelessly to protect the almonds from marauding squirrels, using his pellet gun to such great effect that for five years after his death the squirrels still avoided the area. The average life span of an almond tree is only twenty-five years and this one had struggled along for at least sixty.   Its bark had peeled off in large sections, leaving the bare wood to weather or rot where water collected in crevices, although it still bravely sported blossoms on its gnarled branches every spring.Almond - after

Finally, a few weeks ago, we ordered the almond tree and the plum tree cut down – too much of a hazard next to our driveway.  “This would make great firewood,” the arborist commented. “Don’t you want to keep the logs?”  But we converted our fireplace to gas years ago.  The logs were loaded into a truck for someone else’s hearth.

We planted a new little tree where the flowering plum had been.  It is a Chinese pistache, well known for its flaming fall foliage, recommended as a street tree by our city,  and reputedly very drought tolerant. It’s not going to bloom, but then it won’t be subject to fungus.  Despite drought conservation measures, we will be watering it every few days until the rains start.  Hurry up, El Nino!

 

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