Thank you, Summer, for your heat and color.
Thank you, September, for your rain and cooler air.
Happy Autumn Equinox.
Welcome, season of decay and renewal.
Thank you, Summer, for your heat and color.
Thank you, September, for your rain and cooler air.
Happy Autumn Equinox.
Welcome, season of decay and renewal.
I was running my loop the other day when I came across this delicate specimen in the middle of the road – a damselfly that was flitting around two weeks later than the very end of the usual damselfly season, probably because it still feels like high summer.
I shooed it off the asphalt as a car approached, and it alighted on a leaf just long enough for me to take its picture. Not for nothing is it known as ‘beautiful demoiselle’ (Calopteryx virgo), but it was a little far from its natural stream habitat. Maybe it was looking for water.
In a normal year, we’d get a week of rainfall the first few days of September. Same routine year after year. School starts, and it rains. Not this year. This year saw unbroken rain from spring to early summer, and not much since. The garden lawn is brown and crunchy as shredded wheat underfoot, the plants and trees are hanging on (or not – we’ve lost at least two trees to the heat this year).
The air has been still and heavy, the corn fields look green from a distance but the corn is dried and ruined on the stalks, and while no one is using the word drought because of all the rain earlier in the year, it feels…strange.
I was actually out on two separate runs the day I took these photos – the morning run, when I saw the damselfly, turned out to be too oppressively hot to complete my full 10k. I waited until dusk to do the rest.
NASA released numbers showing that 2016 is the hottest year on record, meaning of course not the hottest year ever, but just since we’ve had the technology to record temperatures. Meaning the ‘modern age’ which defines current society.
As much impact as our industrialized society has on the planet’s temperature, it’s hard to even estimate what impact these rising temperatures and extreme weather will have on societies around the world.
A recent study published by the Harvard University Economics Department correlated temperature with school test results and found that above a certain temperature, performance went down. Consistently. We talk about the adaptability of animals and plants to changing conditions, but what about our own adaptability?
Humans actually function within a relatively small comfort zone of temperature. We can survive at extremes, but it’s not always easy or pretty, and historically it’s been in smaller populations than currently sharing space on Earth.
The sky has turned grey in the past twelve hours, we’ve had a smattering of raindrops, but it’s still summer-hot and sticky. Much of France is on an extreme weather alert this week, not for heat, but for severe storms and hail.
Guess I’ll have to see what the day brings.
Here’s a good waiting for rain tune – one that I like, and not just because of the spoonerism of the band’s name.
We were sitting at the Sooke Harbour House overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca of Vancouver Island, British Colombia, sipping a martini made from local ingredients: Sheringham Gin, Tugwell Creek Solstice Metheglin, Bittered Sling Lem Marakesh. I recognized very few of the words.
I’m more of a whisky person, but I’m coming around to gin these days. And this was a bright, nuanced gin martini with both floral and salty marine flavors, just like our surroundings. The garnish of a pickled fir tip was truly something I had never considered possible, much less tasted before.
We learned that Sheringham Gin was distilled just up the road from Sooke, in the community of Shirley. We decided to search for the distillery at the end the next day, after a lazy day of touring the coast by motorcycle, a pistachio and cream-colored dream re-issue of a vintage model. It’s been decades since I sat on the back of motorcycle, but I remember now how much fun it was.
We got a little lost looking for the road to the gin place, not that there are many roads; we were following verbal instructions from the night before rather than a map. We asked a couple of guys chatting roadside if they knew of a local gin distillery. They laughed as if that was a stupid question. Of course they did – this is the kind of place where everybody knows everyone.
Two double-backs later, we’d found our way – a steep-ish gravel road through forest and blackberry bushes heavy with fruit.
It’s always a joy to see people create their own slice of paradise. Here is a place that distillers Jason and Alayne MacIsaac have made just the way they want it: A hand-built house, a lush garden overlooking the water, and a craft distillery out the back. The real deal. There was a vintage custom motorcycle out front to complete the picture.
We just showed up with no warning on loud bikes, and we were offered an extremely warm welcome.
Both Jason and Alayne came out to greet us, and Jason took us on a tour of their establishment.
Like the majority of distillers on Vancouver Island (there are almost 40 of them), the MacIsaacs make their own alcohol. Jason says they prefer the taste of locally produced organic white wheat and malted barley, and gives us a sip to prove it. It’s fresh, like a cool breeze.
The gin recipe involves the addition of orris, angelica, coriander and juniper. With dashes of orange, lavender, rose petals and lemon – and a dash of hand-harvested local winged kelp(!). It might sound crazy, but we could taste every one of those ingredients. Lovely.
A further twist of the screw results in aqvavit, something I haven’t had in almost as long as I’ve been on a motorcycle. After tasting the Sheringham version, I’ll be returning to this drink more often.
When people talk about small craft distilleries, this is what they mean. It’s a lot of work and a massive amount of determination, but look at what it can bring forth. There is a commitment to authenticity, to quality, and to the life that goes with this work on every level.
I’m sorry to say we didn’t have time to visit the nearby Tugwell Creek winery to taste their honey mead – which is what the metheglin in that martini turned out to be.
Sheringham Distillers just started production over the past couple of years. Here’s hoping this is just the start of something beautiful.
I am not a dessert addict, and while I like cocktails, the sugar in them doesn’t always like me.
But sometimes you need to break the rules.
We were in need of an all-day distraction, so we decided to explore the Ballard district of Seattle, Washington.
Most restaurants provide alcohol beverages in some form or another to accompany the food.
But I’ve never seen so many restaurants in one place that place an emphasis on alcohol in food – specifically, alcohol in desserts.
Over the course of the day, while shopping for things we didn’t need, we had Tennessee bourbon ice cream.
We were lured into the Kiss Café by the sign out front that promised Whisky Ice Cream.
To be fair, we had soup and salad before our run on desserts started, just to lay a solid foundation.
It’s not like we were being irresponsible.
Then we moseyed over to Hot Cakes and had S’mores with smoky whisky infused chocolate and caramel.
Sure, we viewed other sights. The Ballard Locks, shipping locks located in the Lake Washington shipping canal that move boats and ships from one large body of water to another.
The Chittenden Locks, an artificial salmon ladder that allows salmon to traverse the same route.
It was a glorious sunny day for walking and talking.
Our real goal all day, however, had been the Pie Bar, which didn’t open until mid-afternoon. It’s a bar that serves mainly pies and pie-inspired cocktails.
We had pies, and pie-inspired cocktails.
It was worth the wait.
There’s something mesmerizing about scrap yards. Especially the big ones.
All those big objects, the sum of an equation involving perceived requirement, raw materials, engineering and time. So much time.
Time at the front end of process, in extracting the materials for production, time in the production itself, time in the use of those objects, and then, perhaps longest of all, the time they spend idle, after their usefulness has ended.
Some are re-purposed, broken down into the materials that can be used elsewhere.
Many are just left as monuments to outdated necessity.
In the case of offshore oil rigs, the necessity has a strong correlation to the price of oil. And as that has been falling steadily since 2014, from a previous ‘psychologically important’ USD 100 to the current USD 30, the oil rig graveyards have been growing at the highest rate in 20 years.
Added to this is the glut of old rigs long past their prime, many of which are idled, or ‘cold-stacked.’ A cold-stacked rig costs millions of dollars to maintain, and there’s a current glut of new generation rigs waiting for oil prices to rise and buyers to return.
These days, getting a decommissioned oil rig to its final destination is more of a challenge than it used to be.
Of course, what we used to do with them was simply drop them somewhere on the ocean floor where they were out of the way of shipping lines. Relatively easy, relatively cheap.
Out of sight, out of mind.
Since 1998, oil rigs – at least the topside, at least in the northern Atlantic region – must be dismantled, towed, scrubbed of hazardous waste, and scrapped. Bases must be reduced to a level that makes them safe for navigation and shipping, the wells completely capped.
Built for the ages, scrapped after a decade or two. Or maybe three. Hundreds of oil rigs all over the world currently await scrapping instead of sinking.
We humans are pretty good at building things to last, even if we don’t need them forever. Cars. Oil rigs. Oil habits.
We aren’t very good at getting rid of them quite so thoroughly.
The world’s first circumnavigation by an aircraft powered only by the sun was just completed this week.
The Solar Impulse 2, created and flown by Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, landed in Abu Dhabi after 23 days of flight time – spread over the course of 17 months and 42,438 km (22,915 nmi) of Northern Hemisphere territory.
It’s a strange thing to live in an age when scientific breakthroughs seem so commonplace as to barely merit more than a passing mention before they are lost again in the onslaught of information.
We spend all of a few minutes or a few hours in wonderment before moving on to the next amazing novelty. Time moves more quickly these days than it once did.
I try to imagine the days when even an innovation in clock making and mechanics could provide the discussion of an evening, or longer.
The remarkable clockwork globe here was an innovation in its own time. Its movement was built by Gerhard Emmoser, clockmaker to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, and it was inspired by the words of Philip Melanchthon in contemplation of Plato:
“…the wings of the human mind are arithmetic and geometry…
Carried up to heaven by their help, you will be able to traverse with your eyes the entire nature of things, discern the intervals and boundaries of the greatest bodies, see the fateful meetings of the stars, and then understand the causes of the greatest things that happen in the life of man.”
The Solar Impulse 2 flight was 15 years in the making. Bertrand Piccard and his colleague André Borschberg shared piloting duties of a plane equipped with 17,000 solar cells. The undertaking has a dual purpose: To show that it can be done, and to inspire the ongoing pursuit and implementation of renewable energies over fossil fuels.
Exploration, research and innovation aren’t just matters of pushing boundaries of what we already know – they are about dreaming into areas about which we know nothing. The clockwork globe was no doubt inspired not only by the soaring words of Melanchthon, but by ever-growing knowledge of how the world might look from above.
Who wouldn’t want to circle the globe from the comfort of their own drawing room?
Four hundred years passed between the first circumnavigation of the world by water in 1519 (by an expedition initially led by Ferdinand Magellan over three years) and the first aerial circumnavigation in 1924 (by a the United States Army Air Service aviator team over 175 days).
Less than a hundred years passed between that feat and doing the same thing using only the sun as fuel.
We figured out how to harness electricity less than two hundred years ago using water power and coal; transforming sunlight into electricity happened around the same time, but the problem has always been storing that energy for use as needed.
The Solar Impulse 2, like other major achievements in science, engineering and exploration, reminds us that there is always further to go.
Just let that sink in for a few minutes, or a few days.
As Melanchthon wrote, “For I know that you are certainly convinced that the science of celestial things has great dignity and usefulness.”
Words as true now as they were over four hundred years ago.
Fistral Beach near Newquay in Cornwall is mainly known for one thing: Surfing.
The beach isn’t long, around a half a mile. But it is generally full.
On a recent visit, we watched a constant stream of surfboard-lidded cars arrive at the end of the beachfront road where our friend there lives, turn, and look for a parking spot. Surfers changed into wetsuits on the street.
A surfer website says: “Very consistent, beachbreak peak, that occasionally gets epic.” Indeed.
Even on a calm day of glassy water there are surfers out in the sea, there are beginner’s classes being held on the beach, dozens of people madly paddling and learning to stand on a board, right there on the sand.
On this day, the surf looked pretty decent, at least to this non-surfer. Boards filled the waves, boards filled the beach.
I didn’t take photos of all that.
I was more interested in the water at incoming tide, casting reflections in small pools, or rippling against the sand.
I went on an early Sunday walk, not early enough to beat the crowds of surfers and families and dogs and kids, but early enough that some of the walk was peaceful and meditative.
It’s the sand beneath the feet and between the toes. It’s the flow and retreat of water.
It’s the sun and subtle reflections.
It’s the hint of past human activity merged into the rocks. The rush of waves that drowns out the sound of bullhorned lifeguards calling out warnings and corralling wayward young.
Two small fish swim in a temporary pond of shadows and light, avoiding notice of nearby children with nets and waiting for the tide to return and carry them back out to the big pond.
Calm among frenzy. It was occasionally epic.
Not long ago, a news story went around the world about a weasel that shut down CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, forcing the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to go offline for a few days.
As it turns out, it was actually a beech marten (Martes foina), a cousin of the weasel. The animal gnawed through a cable of an open-air electrical transformer, causing a short circuit.
From time to time we hear stories of animals – usually small mammals – that wreak havoc on large-scale, technologically developed installations.
Almost always, these stories are told with a kind of breathless David versus Goliath glee at a victory of the tiny over the towering, the power of the small over the great.
At the same time, there’s also a tone of uncertainty and bafflement – shouldn’t we be better at protecting Very Important Human Things against wild creatures by now?
As if the animals were intentionally trying to take us down a notch or two by showing how fragile our machines really are.
But I think the uncertainty speaks more to how we see ourselves and our achievements – it seems like complex structures that supply so much energy, or which are so advanced, demonstrate just how far removed we are from other animals on the planet.
Until we realize how easily these structures can be inadvertently rendered useless, at least for a while.
It also shows how close we still live to other life and animals for whom our fences are obstacles that don’t pose much of a challenge.
If we need protection from their intrusions, there’s probably no way to reliably protect them from wandering into the wrong tangle of wires.
For better or worse, we are all in this together.
*I suppose in the interest of full disclosure I should mention that beech martens are also regular criminals at our place, chewing through cables in car engines and generally making mischief. They’re protected, so no trapping allowed.
We live close to CERN in rural France on the border to Switzerland, so the only aspect of the news story that surprised us was that the animal was first reported to be a weasel – everyone around here knew right away what kind of culprit it must have been.
A very brief celebration of bridges, not walls.
Let’s build more of them.
The image of thousands of fish washing up on a shore is almost never a metaphor for lucky circumstance. It’s almost always a sign that something, somewhere, has gone very wrong.
Back in April, fishermen inprovinces, mostly outside the main tourist centers, started finding fish washed ashore. Fishing suddenly became easier than ever with countless fish drifting into the nets. Unfortunately, eating the catch was making people sick.
And then the deep sea fish started washing up. And then a small whale. Whatever was killing fish in off the coast of central Vietnam, it was spreading far offshore.
Suspicion fell on a sewage pipe flush carried out on a steel plant by run by the Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group. A sewage pipe connecting the plant to the ocean was discovered two years ago by divers, but it wasn’t until the Formosa allegedly cleaned this pipe, using 300 tons of imported chemicals described as “extremely toxic” by experts, that the massive fish die-off began.
Even three miles off shore, fishermen are finding entire areas of dead fish and squid. Dead fish are washing ashore by the ton.
Formosa company spokesperson Chou Chunfan didn’t help matters by telling an interview that “the discharge of wastewater will affect the environment to some extent, and it is obvious that the sea will have less fish. Before acquiring the land, (Formosa) already advised local fishermen to change their jobs. Despite our early recommendation, local fishermen kept on fishing in this area. Many times in life, people have to make a choice: either to catch and sell fish, or to develop the steel industry. We cannot have both.”
Formosa has gained a reputation around the world for its disdain when it comes to environmental standards, yet it continues to build factories in numerous countries, including the United States and Cambodia. It has paid millions in fines, but the sums are far too minor to be of any real punitive significance for Taiwan’s largest industrial conglomerate.
The Vietnamese government has publicly recognized the environmental disaster but refuses to make any direct accusations.
Now the situation has spiralled beyond a regional issue into a much larger confrontation between protesters angry about government corruption and a possible high-level cover-ups. Protesters have attacked mainland Chinese workers employed by the Taiwanese company – a continuation of attacks over the past couple of years against numerous Chinese-owned factories.
Beyond the disastrous environmental and human consequences of this story, it caught my eye because, well, I visited the central coast of Vietnam a couple of years ago. I went to the types of small fishing villages that are being devastated by the Formosa spill. There is little there in the way of business – except for fish.
Fishing is what people do, fish is what people eat, the coastline is the livelihood and life of the area.
It’s not clear to me where the choice between catching fish and developing the steel industry (as outlined by the Formosa spokesman, who has since been fired) was ever one to be made by inhabitants affected by the Formosa steel plant. The Vietnamese government belatedly told residents not to eat the toxic fish from their catch, and offered compensation in the form of bags of rice and 50,000 dong (approximately $2.20).
It’s not clear to me how mainland Chinese laborers imported for the steel plant, who were attacked and four of whom were killed during anti-Chinese protests when the steel plant was being built in 2013, are really responsible for the effects of a sweetheart deal between a Taiwanese conglomerate and the Vietnamese government.
Anyway, even if the local fishermen had been given a choice between fish and steel, shouldn’t they have been employed by the factory if they had, like their government, chosen steel over fishing?
Meanwhile, a large stretch the coastline of Vietnam is poisoned, and the dead fish washing ashore signify what some are calling Vietnam’s Chernobyl moment.
I’ll be interested to see how well the economics of this deal really work out for both the Communist Vietnamese government and the company that seem to operate on the notion that we can live without marine life as long as we still have steel.
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