Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “climate”

Freeway Free in Scotland: Bonnie Braes and Bustling Edinburgh

20180723_082742docI can’t say I knew Scotland better after a whirlwind tour, and certainly gained no real insiders knowledge of its captital, Edinburgh.  So I will give you a bullet list, and some photos, and leave you to explore this fount of history and legend as you will.

  •  Take the train.

We traveled on a comfortable, modern first-class Virgin Atlantic coach from York to Edinburgh, and although the train was an hour late due to a malfunction somewhere along the line, the wait at the York station was not uncomfortable, with lots of people-watching to be done.  Once on the train, we enjoyed   lots of leg room, tasty snacks, and lovely scenery right out of Van Gogh with yellow/green checkered fields dotted with hay bales, and fringed with purple loosestrife.

  •  Pick a hotel in the middle of the action.

 

We stayed luxuriously at the Balmoral Hotel, just next to the train station.  (The hotel clocks are all set 3 minutes fast, to make sure guests don’t miss their train!)  Super elegant, super convenient.

  •  Enjoy the food.

We had an excellent lunch at the Whiski Room pub for delicious chicken, leek and carrots and beans, layered scalloped potatoes, a pint of IPA ale.  Later we splurged on an elegant dinner at The Dome, a restaurant that started as a physician’s college (hence the caedaceum in the stained glass windows), then was a bank headquarters, and is now a beautiful restaurant with 6×6′ floral arrangements and the most elaborately decorated ladies room I have ever seen (embroidered damask satin wall covering, six foot arrangements of orchids, gilt sun burst, carved and etched mirrors…).

We had a head start at Edinburgh Castle, being admitted  in advance of the other 10,000 odd visitors it receives per day. But in rushing to stay ahead of the throngs, we had little time to savor the history.  Here was where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James, and began all the resulting civil and ecclesiastical warfare..  Here is the fabled Stone of Scone, restored after centuries under the buttocks of English monarchs to its rightful place among the Scottish Crown Jewels.  Down the road is the square where the Bonnie Prince rallied his troops  in his ill-fated rising against English rule.  And further on is  Holyrood Palace where his grandmother Mary struggled against her own lords to maintain her majesty, and where Queen Elizabeth still stays during her annual visit.

  •  Read some books in advance, to prepare yourself.  Or see some movies.  Or some plays.  Tons has been written and acted about this intrinsically dramatic period. Go ahead and wallow in Diana Gabalon’s “The Outlander” in print or on TV (Seasons 1 &2) ,   or just type in “Mary, Queen of Scots” on Amazon and stab with your finger.
  • If you are a Harry Potter fan, you can put together your own  J. K. Rowling tour of Edinburgh, highlighting the Elephant House café where she began writing the series, and glimpsing other sites which are said to have inspired her.  Or you can book a tour through the many travel helpers available.

Hope for good weather, and take your time!  Edinburgh is a joy to walk about in, and there is a story around almost every corner. IMG_0609crop

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Freeway -Free in Yorkshire – Market Day in Helmsley

As we traveled across rolling hills purpled with heather under blue skies and puffy clouds, one member of our group asked our guide “When will we get to the Yorkshire moors?”  She gave him a quizzical look and replied “This is them!”  He was taken aback – this was not the dreary, dank scenery made famous  in Wuthering Heights and The Secret Garden.

20180720_095103webThe uncharacteristically lovely weather continued as we stopped in Helmsley.  It was Friday, Market Day, and the square was full of stalls offering everything from greeting cards to cabbages.   The window boxes were cascading with flowers, and inside the city hall vendors stood proudly behind tables teeming with meats, cheeses, and jellies all produced locally.

We were told there is a ruined castle suitable as a setting for Gothic novels on the banks of the adjacent river Rye,  but the bountiful display of local goods seduced me away from the ruins.  Sometimes real life is more attractive than fiction.

Freeway-Free in Wales: In Merlin’s Footsteps

20180718_135808docI’m a lifelong fan of Mary Stewart’s four-volume chronicle of King Arthur, told mostly from Merlin’s point of view, so when I found myself touring around the mountains of Snowdonial and through the fortress castle of Caernarvon on the banks of the river Seiont, I pictured the young Merlin with his visions and ambitions in some of the same places.  Wales is a bit magical still.

The castle was expanded and reinforced by Edward I long after Merlin’s time, and subsequently became the ceremonial site for investiture of the Prince of Wales.  It is surrounded now by a car park and a playground, and throughout the grounds are informative placards for a self-guided tour.  But there are still nooks and crannies where I could imagine a young boy hiding from bullies and enemies, over-hearing secrets, and receiving bulletins from the God.

We had unusually balmy weather as we toured around Mt. Snowdon the highest mountain in Wales, the Grey King of legend, so it was easy to imagine myself into the shoes of the other literary characters who kept thrusting themselves into my memory as familiar geographical names came up.  If you are an Arthurian junkie, you will find remnants of T. H. White’s “The Once and Future King”, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “Avalon Saga“, Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” series, Bernard Cornwell’s”Warlord Chronicles”, and other classic and not-so classic versions of his legend wafting across the landscape.  If you have missed any of the above, follow the links to some excellent reading adventures!

Next Week: Freeway-free in Wales: Life in the Town, Life in the Castle

Freeway Free down the Mississippi: the Shadow of Slavery

 

Floating down the Mississippi on a multi-tiered cruise ship, I was inevitably sucked into the “Gone With the Wind” myth.  We docked up at a number of pillared plantation homes.  We saw a home where James Audubon was employed as a tutor to the children, and drew his marvelous bird protraits from taxidermy models he had made.  We walked down a oak-lined alley with a lovely double-decker veranda’d mansion at the end of it.  We saw portraits of blonde children in lace-trimmed dresses, and dainty embroideries done by the ladies of the house.  And always the dark shadow of the enslaved people who made it all possible lurked behind, only barely acknowledged.

I believe it started with climate.  In this hot, humid region, African laborers were prized over Europeans because they had better tolerance for the climate.  Once that advantage was established, economics took over.  If there is a demand, someone will supply it. 

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The restored mansions include lovely murals, swooping staircases, and even the apparent remains of a poker party – one can imagine Scarlett O’Hara lifting her skirts as she goes up the stairs, or Rhett Butler sweeping up the chips with a rakish grin.

But the musty flavor of slavery still permeates.  In the dining room where crystal cut-glass sparkles, a huge fan hangs over the table – it would have been pulled back and forth by a silent slave in the corner.

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A Piece of My Mind: Smog – the Sequel (Los Altos Town Crier, Sept. 5, 2018)

  

When I was growing up on the southern San Francisco peninsula,  smog was the norm.  Many a morning  as I walked to school, the air was so full of dirt that the foothills were invisible – I might as well have been living on the prairie.

 Later when I was the age for making decisions about where to go to college, I was accepted at two excellent schools in southern California.  I visited both campuses and decided that it would be impossible for me to attend either – the air pollution was so severe that I could not go outside without suffering painful eye irritation with my contact lenses.  

People depend on their cars.  How could we have a modern civilization with the flexibility and mobility we needed if we restricted auto travel? But how could we avoid strangling ourselves by breathing  our own waste?

 Time passed.  Regulations and people demanded change.   Human ingenuity got to work.  Auto manufacturers learned to build more efficient cars which used less gas with no lead.  Petroleum plants learned to make gasoline which burned cleaner.   A problem which had seemed insoluble was nearly solved.  After a decade or so of effective regulation and innovation, the foothills reappeared.  When  I moved back to Los Altos after a ten year absence, I marveled at the consistent clarity of the air.

 But this summer I have seen a huge relapse.  The air quality day after day has been miserable, due to the uncontrolled wildfires burning to the north and east, and the prevailing winds which suck the smoke down into the Santa Clara and Central Valleys.  My sister posted photos on Facebook from trips she had taken to Ashland, Oregon and back .  Three years ago her photo showed snow-topped Mt. Shasta dominating  the valley, as pristine as a Japanese print of Mt. Fuji.  This year, from the same vantage point, on the same calendar day, nothing was visible but a brownish smear of polluted air.

 PG&E, among other entities affected, argues that the unusual severity of the fires is a result of global climate change, not human agency or corporate carelessness.  There are those who say that climate change is an act of God, beyond human repair. I believe, though, that God gave us brains and ingenuity in order to solve problems.  We have been able to shape our world in many ways to make it easier for us to live in it.  We have lowered the infant mortality rate.  Fewer women die in childbirth.  Smallpox, polio, and yellow fever have been conquered by vaccines.  We cleaned the air before.  With some inspiration and much determination I believe we can and must make the changes necessary to do it again.  I want my children and grandchildren to see our foothills.    

 

 

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

 

 

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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