Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sand / Story

     Have you heard people say they'll move mountains to accomplish their goals? I guess such intense drive is admirable, but I draw the line at small hills. Maybe low knolls would be even more accurate. The difference is that this talk of moving mountains is metaphoric bluster and bravado, while I'm actually leveling a real hill in pursuit of the goal of comfortable cows.
     The hill is a sand dune created at the end of the last glacial epoch some eleven or twelve thousand years ago. As the ice waned it released torrents of water. Flushed out in this meltwater flood were vast quantities of scoured glacial detritus - boulders and cobbles, sand and clay. A monster lake filled the Hudson Valley at this time. As the runoff streams entered its turbid water they dropped the heaviest sediments first, while carrying sand a little further. Fan shaped deltas were built in the process, including one to the west of Glens Falls. Eventually the lake drained and wind began to work on the exposed sand. Dunes were built and were stabilized over time by vegetation.

Old geological books and map

A blurry (sorry) map of surficial geology 

A detailed soils map. My sand dune is classified OaB.

     There is a broad belt of sand and dunes arching from Hudson Falls down towards the Capital District. The belt crosses one of my back hay fields and very little grows on the dry, infertile hilltops. But the sand does make for good cow beds and for years I've been leveling a dune and trucking it a quarter mile to the freestall barn. There I use a skid-steer to dump it into the stalls and finally (the fun never stops!) a shovel and rake to smooth it out. And there you have my tale of moving hills to accomplish my goal.

 My sand dune: this hill has got to go!

     That's the way I spent a recent Saturday, hopping between tractor (to load) and dump truck (to haul).The truck has a radio so every time I was hauling I'ld catch a few minutes of whatever NPR program was on at the moment. During one trip I was listening to something called Radiolab. The hosts were talking to an author, the conversation was interesting and then they asked her to read a short story she'd written.
     By then I was back at the sand pit and should have gotten on the tractor to bucket the next load. For some reason I didn't. Instead I sat and listened, transfixed by one of the most moving stories I've ever experienced.
     The author was Jenny Hollowell and her story was "A History of Everything, Including You". You can hear it here and see how it affects you.

Jenny Hollowell

"A History of Everything, Including You" is in the anthology New Sudden Fiction

     It left me thinking that we all need a narrative to anchor ourselves, to steady us in the storm of events and emotions that is life. Religions developed to fill this need, to give guidance and comfort. Many people find solace in their faith. Identity and answers can also be found in stories based on our gender, race or ethnicity, nationality or political philosophy. The world that science reveals offers satisfying logic and order for others.
     Perhaps the true challenge is to craft our own personal origin and explanation tale. Where did we come from and why? What's the meaning of the things that happen to us? Where is our place and where should we go from here? "A History of Everything, Including You" is Jenny Hollowell struggling to answer these questions. It's both deeply personal and also encompassingly universal. Yes, it's our nature to seek answers, but ultimately we might do well to embrace the unknowable mysteries at the heart of human existence.

More Stories and some Stargazing
     Some of the power of "A History of Everything, Including You" comes from hearing the author read it. The sound of her voice conveys meaning and emotion beyond what the printed word could. That's the appeal of storytelling and why it has become so popular. I heard there was a story slam on the topic of "place" at the Clark Museum in Williamstown. It was last Friday night and would have been fun but I couldn't make it. 
     We are fortunate to have many talented storytellers in the area. Jeannine Laverty, Margaret French, Siri Allison, Christie Keegan, Kelvin Keraga, Joe Peck and Tom Weakley come quickly to mind but I'm sure there are others. Like writers, painters and photographers, their art helps us find our place in the world.
     Finally a quick note on the ever changing story of the night sky. I've been able to spot Venus a couple of times this week. The only thing that makes this noteworthy is that the planet is quite close to the Sun right now. Look just above the western horizon maybe 15 to 30 minutes after sunset. The sky will still be pink/orange but if you're lucky you'll see a dim twinkle just above the treetops. That's Venus. Mercury is supposed to be nearby but much dimmer and probably impossible without a telescope. Jupiter, Mars and Saturn are bright and easy to find so four out of five ain't bad.

The Clark Museum

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Last Call for Leo

     Leo isn't long for this world. At least not for the world of the evening sky. He's about to suffer the fate of all zodiacal constellations, slipping behind the Sun and rendered invisible by the dazzling light. This will happen in August and September.
     Over the next week or so you can watch the lion diving towards the western horizon as dusk fades. Between 10:00 and 10:30 pm is about right. A few nights ago I was out watching the holiday fireworks. The neighbors put on a great show and I could see other, more distant flashes. But then things started to settle down and the sky darkened to reveal the best fireworks of all - the stars and planets.

Sky and Telescope illustration

     A pair of Leo's brightest stars - Regulus and Algieba were just above the tree line. The trio that marks his butt was higher up while the familiar sickle of the lion's mane was hard to pick out - lost in twilight and haze. And that very bright star below his tail? That's not a star at all, but the the planet Jupiter which has been keeping Leo company all year.
     The constellation makes its first appearance in the evening sky in late winter, rising in the east. It's a hopeful sign that another spring is on the way. Earth's orbit shifts his position up each night placing Leo high overhead in May and finally sending him westward towards an annual rendezvous with the Sun. Fall and winter will come and go before we see him in the evening again.
     While most of us see a pattern that does indeed resemble a crouching lion, astronomers see much more. Regulus, the "star" of the constellation, is actually four stars gravitationally bound whose light merges as one to our eyes. There are double stars, variable stars, dwarfs and giants as well as flare stars and a carbon star or two. Algieba is known to have a planet in orbit as do a dozen other Leo stars. There are also galaxies sprinkled across the sky in Leo. Huge clans of billions of stars, they are massive but too distant to be seen by the eye alone.

     Much closer and more occasional is the Leonid meteor shower which seems to radiate from here in mid-November. It occurs when the Earth's orbit intersects with that of Comet Tempel-Tuttle and debris frictions and fires up in the atmosphere. Most years it's kind of duddy, some years absolutely spectacular.
     Jupiter also offers much more than meets the eye. There are four large Galilean moons that can be seen with binoculars. These got their namesake astronomer in trouble with the Church when he suggested that not everything orbits around the Earth. Beyond the four biggies are dozens of smaller moons (over 60 and counting). When we look at Jupiter's colorful bands and spots we're seeing the top of its thick atmosphere. It's mostly hydrogen and helium, the same elements that make up the Sun. Indeed, you could almost call Jupiter a "failed" star because it's not quite massive enough to create the pressures and temperatures needed for fusion, the process that produces the intense heat and light which defines stellar.

Damian Peach photo from Sky and Telescope

     It's not known for certain if Jupiter has a solid rocky core. It could just be gases that take on strange properties under the conditions that exist deep within the planet. Think hydrogen atoms compressed so tightly they turn into a dense metallic liquid. In any case we'll soon know more thanks to Juno, a NASA spacecraft that swung into orbit here on the Fourth of July. Check here for photos and updates.

Artist's illustration of Juno approaching Jupiter

     Though Leo and Jupiter are dropping out of the picture there's still plenty to see in the night sky. The Milky Way (our home galaxy) flows high overhead on these July evenings. Look for the summer triangle of bright stars - Vega, Deneb and Altair - embedded in the band with Arcturus further west. Hint: follow the curve of the Big Dippers handle to "arc" to Arcturus.

Sky and Telescope illustration

     Above the southern horizon Mars, Saturn and the star Antares form a shifting arrangement in the constellation Scorpius. Mars has looked distinctly orange all spring. It seems about the same brightness as Jupiter and it's also a place NASA has visited, with Curiosity up there roving as we gaze from down here.

Curiosity sees its shadow on Mars

     We all need to belong. To something, to someplace. It's one of the deepest human desires. We start families. We join churches, teams and organizations. We have school spirit, civic pride and patriotism for our country. We long for land, a place to put down roots. All good and natural urges. On some nights, when the sky is dark and clear and the stars seem close yet infinite, I find myself stretching the idea of "belonging". I imagine belonging to the universe, about as inclusive a concept of place as one can conjure. Out there are exploding stars and colliding black holes, extremes of heat and chill beyond measure, incredible violence and absolute stillness. I sense unlimited worlds to discover and unknowable mystery.
     When it starts to overwhelm I scurry back to our cozy little village solar system where you can peek out the window and watch the antics of those crazy next door neighbor planets. All in all, not a bad place to call home.

Star Girl
     Obviously I love astronomy and star gazing so I have to tell you how lucky I am to know a real live astronomer. Dr. Adele Plunkett is a good friend of Holly's. They skied and ran together at school and Adele has been up to the farm several times to visit. Earlier this year Adele won the Robert L. Brown Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award for her research on how stars form in families from molecular clouds. She used the ALMA radio telescope for her work. It's located in northern Chili and is the most complex astronomical observatory ever built. I believe Adele is currently an ALMA Fellow at the European Southern Observatory.
     After four years at Middlebury (2005-2009) she continued her education at Yale, eventually earning a PhD in astronomy. This involved many trips to Chili for telescope time. Amazingly, she also ran marathons, did triathlons and X-C ski raced during that time. She even allowed Holly to talk her into doing the Stowe Derby and has since forgiven my daughter!
     With Adele chasing down clues I'll bet we know more about how stars form in the near future. Congratulations Adele for all your hard work and achievement and thanks for being my "real live astronomer".
     Adele has two blogs you might want to check out: Adele en Chili and The Observing(b)Log

Dr. Adele Plunkett

Suggested Reading
     For a fun look at Jupiter and all its little solar system siblings I'ld recommend Dava Sobel's The Planets. It's science with a light lyrical touch and lots of interesting and unexpected anecdotes.

Suggested Viewing

     Click here for a great shot of Jupiter, its moons and a familiar old friend.

In case of clouds

From the web

     Ok, it's not always clear skies and twinkling stars. But there's often fireflies to take up the slack. Lots of nights this summer there has been both and I've enjoyed double dipping - looking up for awhile and then out across the meadows. Lightning bugs are nocturnal winged beetles. Their family name Lampyridae comes from the Greek "lampein" - to shine. They create light by combining chemicals in their abdomen/tail and this is called bioluminescence. There are over 2000 species but not all produce light. The flashes are a form of communication, a way for males and females of a species to connect and make sparks fly. It's an insect even an astronomer can love!


Friday, July 1, 2016

Photos, paintings, performance

     The summer art scene is in full bloom. Here's a small sampling of exhibitions and events in Washington County and beyond:

Mettawee Theater

     I like running and biking on Dunnigan Road outside of Salem. Most of the time it's a peaceful backroad but in July you never know what you'll see there. That's because the Mettawee River Theater Company takes up residence in an old farmhouse during the summer and they might be rehearsing with their masks, giant puppets and stage wizardry on the front lawn. Ralph Lee and company are back for their 41st season of free outdoor performance (donations gratefully accepted). This years production is Before the Sun and Moon and it's a work in progress with only one Washington County show scheduled at the Georgi in Shushan. Details here.

Hubbard Hall
     For more outdoor theater there's Hubbard Hall's Shakespeare in the Park with five performances from July 7 - 16. This year it's Othello. Dates and locations here.

Salem Courthouse

     The Great Hall at the Courthouse features an exhibit of Leslie Peck's paintings thru August 5. Peck is noted for her striking animal portraits but she's also had a successful New York City career painting steamy covers for romance novels - think hunky guys sweeping buxom maidens off their feet. Meet Peck in person and the incongruity of her subjects seems perfectly normal!
     Peck's exhibit is a good starting point for a day in Salem. Get something to eat at Steininger's or Jacko's, stroll the grounds of the Salem Art Works and swing down by the Rexleigh Covered Bridge to cool off in the Battenkill.

Shelburne Museum

     How about a trip to Vermont to visit Grandma? The Shelburne Museum has an exhibit called Grandma Moses - American Modern. Moses was, and still is a much loved painter of folk art. She was born in Easton and lived much of her life in Eagle Bridge. The Shelburne show examines the "primitive" label she's sometimes tagged with.
     You could spend days at the Museum and weeks in the greater Burlington area taking in all the offerings. For the naturalist the ECHO Aquarium on Lake Champlain is a great destination probably deserving a separate trip. You might be able to combine a short hike up Snake Mountain in Addison with a Shelburne excursion. It's a pleasant climb up the Champlain Thrust to enjoy expansive views of the valley and its lake.

Cambridge by Grandma Moses

Middlebury Museum

     Also in Vermont, Middlebury College's Art Museum is displaying photographs by Paul Strand thru August 7. These were taken while he was in the Green Mountain State from 1943 to 1946. Strand was an influential contemporary of Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, noted for establishing photography as an art form.
     Middlebury's a fun town and great for walking, both on campus and downtown. There's also a series of trails that encircle the whole town - the TAM. Work up an appetite and reward yourself at 
one of the great restaurants or craft breweries the city hosts.

     That's it for now. With so much going on who has time to blog?