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Explore: January 2011


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10 posts from January 2011

01/31/2011

Nature Art: Imagine Spring

The camellias are out! Of course, if you live in California, your camellias have been out since December. But for us in the East, anything that blooms in January is a miracle. I grow my camellia, the scented  "April Promise," in a pot outside from March to December, and I bring it indoors for the coldest months of the winter. Since I live in zone 7a, this hardy camellia might make it through the winter planted in the ground, but I don't want to risk losing the flowers to a cold snap.

The camillia and its pot weigh more than 60 pounds, so I must leave it in my dimly lit front hall until spring. I've often wondered what triggers its avalanche of bloom; over the past six years,its first bloom date has varied from New Year's Day to Valentine's Day. (It seems to be a plant that likes holidays.)

Last year it sat right next to the front door and, looking back, I realize that it caught every gust of cold wind. It blossomed on January 4, all at once with cascades of blossoms...and then it dropped its leaves.

Camelias1

So this year I placed it three feet back from the door. One ray of sunshine regularly caught the buds on the branch nearest the door. That bud was the first to bloom (see above), and I had to wonder if the extra light had triggered the blossom. Flowering in most plants is triggered by either long or short nights. But it turns out that light, or photoperiod, has no influence over the flowering time of camillia buds. But temperature does!

A cold shock--in this case gusts of 32-degree air--wakes the buds from their sleep. My plant needed temperatures below 50 degrees to trigger its blooms and, though my front hall was chilly, it wasn't cold enough. The plant actually needed some of those blasts of cold air from the front door, and the branch closest to the door got cold first. I was so happy to see the first blossom that I made it into a drawing for a card:

Camelias2

Check out this peaceful video of camellias, one of six, painted in the Chinese style. What fascinates me is the teacher's careful loading of paint onto his brush to create the shape of the flower petals.

-- Sue Fierston paints and teaches just outside of Washington, D.C. in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. As a painter, she works in acrylics and watercolor and is in the middle of a series called "100 Flowers." As a teaching artist, she works with teachers to bring art into their classrooms in grades 4-8. Her posts focus on her nature-themed art collaborations. For a look at her paintings or more about her teaching, check out her website at suzannefierston.com.

01/28/2011

February Observing Highlights

1-28-11 Jupiter and Ganymede by Chumack

The two largest gas giant planets are the notable targets for February, which is great news for telescope owners. While Venus is gorgeous to gaze at, it’s not as intriguing through a telescope. Jupiter and Saturn, however, reveal much more of themselves through the eyepiece. Track storms in their cloud tops, gaze at Saturn’s rings and look for shadows that they cast on the planet and vice versa, and follow Jupiter’s largest moons as they trace alternating patterns around it.

Jupiter shines brightly after sunset, in the west-southwest on February 1. The planet is still close to Uranus, which lies to its lower right. The planets will slowly separate as the month wears on, with Jupiter rising slightly higher into Pisces. A few hours after sunset, Jupiter will sink below the horizon, clearing the stage for Saturn to rise in the late evening in the east. Saturn is positioned in Virgo, just above the star Spica. Saturn is brighter than Spica and has a bit of a yellowish hue.

The crescent moon appears near Jupiter on the evening of February 6. On February 18, the moon reaches full phase at 12:36 a.m. PST. A waning moon passes Saturn late in the evening on February 20.

Learn more with the Night Sky Observing Guide for February 2011.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She is currently the Feature Writer for Astronomy and Space at Suite101.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

01/22/2011

A Yosemite Education

Karis learns to ski Karis learns to ski. Photo by Jon Jay

At 17 months our daughter Karis was diagnosed with a condition that occupational therapists call Sensory Integration Dysfunction. My Jewish mother calls it spilkes (ants in the pants), my friends politely call it busy (usually while shaking their heads in dismay) and most doctors call it hogwash.

Be that as it may, when our daughter was a toddler, she would wash her body in ice cream just for the sensation. She banged her head against the wall without stopping for minutes at a time and shook her head back and forth so violently we thought we were living with Linda Blair in "The Exorcist." She had trouble navigating different surfaces without falling down and when it was time to talk, she could understand everything that was said to her but couldn’t form even a two-word sentence.

Thanks to an enlightened pediatrician, she began therapies to correct these problems when she was 18 months old and by kindergarten she seemed like any other kid...sort of. There was still the little problem of sitting still and paying attention but her personality is so sunny and ebullient, most teachers overlooked this—until second grade.

Continue reading "A Yosemite Education" »

01/21/2011

Vacationing in the Dark

1-21-11 usa_night NASA
The United States at Night. Credit: NASA GSFC

For me, planning a vacation is the first step in enjoying the real thing. I love to whet my appetite for travel by sifting through guidebooks and browsing the internet for the perfect location. With spring break and summer vacation coming up for my kids, I'm looking forward to introducing them to some memorable locations.

I love traveling out west for many reasons. I love that it's not crowded; it's possible to sit outside and hear something other than the roar of a truck. I love that you can visit a chain of national parks within a week, if you are not the type to linger. I love the ruddy desert landscape of the southwest and the rocky, green and white mountains of the northwest. But one of the biggest treats for someone like me who works in astronomy every day is to see a truly dark sky. I think I have a pretty good grasp of just what's up there until I am presented with a sky that looks like I'm in another solar system, because there are so many "intruder" stars I'm not used to seeing. But after a little reorienting myself I can pick out the familiar constellations again and wind my way through the sky.

As you can see from the image of the United States taken at night, the East Coast and Midwest glow with more points of light than a Christmas tree. While there are still pockets of darkness to be found there (including Everglades National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park), the overall contrast with the western U.S. is remarkable. Northwestern Arizona (Grand Canyon National Park) and southeastern Utah (Monument Valley) are two locations that are not only beautiful in the daytime, but also put on a sparkling show at night. These are our picks for vacation this year. Meteor Crater is, of course, also on that list.

Maybe this light pollution map will help you to pinpoint your next vacation, too.

If you want to learn more about night sky conservation, visit the International Dark Sky Association website.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She is currently the Feature Writer for Astronomy and Space at Suite101.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

01/19/2011

John Muir: Sketching in the Sierra

Sierra_muir

A Sierra sketch by John Muir.

In 1911, when John Muir was 73, he published what I believe is his most engaging book, My First Summer in the Sierra. This spring marks the 100th anniversary of its publication. Muir kept a journal as he hiked, often tying it to his belt to keep company with his dried bread and tea. For this book he relied on those journals to tell the story of the summer of 1869. Though a wonderful storyteller, Muir often agonized over his writing; My First Summer in the Sierra reveals none of his struggle and reads as if he had simply reprinted the journal itself. All of his journals have been digitized by the University of the Pacific, and you can read the journal that is the basis for the book at Yosemite Year Book.

Muir also used his journals as sketchbooks. Many of his entries fill a page; others only a corner, surrounded by notes. He always used a pencil. Drawing in the Sierra is difficult because of their grandeur -- which is the problem I faced last spring when I tried to capture the scale of these trees outside my cabin window while on a visit to California:

Cabin_sketch

Muir's Sierra drawings are focused on capturing and recording that scale. As you might expect, he drew mountains, glaciers, trees, a few stick figures for scale -- but no portraits. He often wrote that he had spent an entire day drawing.

His drawings have the same strong point of view as his writing; in each one, he is recording a specific scene and uses accurate perspective with skilful use of shading to indicate distance or texture. Muir often guided artists on painting trips through the Sierra, but he never took up painting or changed his own style of drawing.  I can imagine he would have loved the idea of our small digital cameras! The University of the Pacific holds Muir's drawings, in addition to his writing. You can check them out here.

My First Summer in the Sierra is being reissued in the spring to commemorate the 100th year of its publication. An evocative, not-too-commercial video about the book will take you out to Yosemite Valley right now:

-- Sue Fierston paints and teaches just outside of Washington, D.C. in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. As a painter, she works in acrylics and watercolor and is in the middle of a series called "100 Flowers." As a teaching artist, she works with teachers to bring art into their classrooms in grades 4-8. Her posts focus on her nature-themed art collaborations. For a look at her paintings or more about her teaching, check out her website at suzannefierston.com.

01/14/2011

Algol: The Demon Star

1-14-11 Perseus by Chandra X-ray Center
Algol, a.k.a., Beta, in the constellation Perseus. Credit: Chandra X-ray Center

In ancient times, certain sights in the sky were considered bad signs. For example, comets were thought of as portents of doom. One star that was considered "bad luck" for centuries is Algol, or Beta Persei.

Algol is the second brightest star in the constellation Perseus. Algol comes from the Arabic name for "ghoul" and Algol is sometimes called the Demon Star. Algol has a particularly creepy reputation in that it represents the part of the constellation that would be Medusa's severed head that Perseus holds in his hand.

Algol is a variable star that fluctuates in brightness from magnitude 2.1 to magnitude 3.4. Algol is actually a binary pair, with one star eclipsing the other every 2.867 days, with the actual drop in brightness lasting just a matter of hours. To catch Algol at minimum, first you have to find it and recognize what it looks like at maximum.

I like to refer to Perseus as the constellation that looks like an icicle, because it’s usually out in the winter and it makes a gently crooked path toward the ground. Look for Perseus in the northeast this weekend between the W shape of Cassiopeia and the V shape of Taurus. Its brightest star, Alpha Persei (Mirfak), is a part of the icicle shape (or, more traditionally, the form of Perseus). Beta Persei, or Algol, is to the right, as Perseus’ extended arm holds up Medusa's head.

Over the coming week, Algol will reach minimum brightness for about two hours during mideclipse centered at the following times:

January 15, 1:53 a.m. Central Time

January 17, 10:43 p.m. Central Time

January 20, 7:32 p.m. Central Time

January 23, 4:21 p.m. Central Time

See if you can spot the difference in Algol's brightness and maybe the "bad luck" star will be good luck for you!

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She is currently the Feature Writer for Astronomy and Space at Suite101.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

01/13/2011

Year in Yosemite: Perfection

Yosemite_trees1 Photo by Karis Simons

Can a day be perfect? When people hear that my family and I live in Yosemite National Park, they seem to assume that each day is awash with wonder and contentment. And while it’s true that I only have to walk outside on a sunny day to feel happy and alive, those times are tempered by real life—a husband who loves Yosemite’s beauty but finds it too isolated and too quiet, a child who seems allergic to homework and a home still in need of unpacking and organizing one month after we moved in.

So can a day in Yosemite be perfect? Based on a Christmas visit to Yosemite Valley, when the whole, exquisite dreamscape that makes up the heart of the park seemed like it was putting on a holiday show, even my “I’d rather be in L.A.” husband would answer with a hearty yes.

Part of its magic was probably due to the fact that the day was completely unplanned. My niece and her best friend Kathy had come to Wawona to help us unpack a seemingly endless stack of boxes and bins. Knowing this was to be a work trip, they hoped to squeeze in a couple of quick hikes around our house. Desperate to make use of their strong backs and organizational skills, I was one with that plan.

Yosemite_trees2 Photo by Karis Simons

But on their third day here, nature set me straight. After weeks of freezing, snowy weather, the day dawned bright and sunny with temperatures expected in the 60s. That, plus the fact that the two were raised in Ireland and Kathy had never been to Yosemite, made my husband and I decide that a trip to the Valley was in order. I quickly called The Ahwanhee Hotel to make a breakfast reservation only to be told that by the time we made the hour-long trip from Wawona, the dining room would be closed.

Then the lovely woman on the other end of the phone suggested that she tell the dining room we’d be late and see if they’d hold the reservation. We jumped in the car but in spite of our best efforts, a complete lack of traffic, and heroic driving on my husband’s part, we couldn’t make it on time. At 10:30, the very time the dining room closes, my cell phone rang. “Have you made it to the Valley floor yet?” asked the Delaware North employee. “We’re pulling up to the Ahwanhee now,” I replied. “Great,” she said, “because we’re keeping the dining room open for you.”

Needless to say, we couldn’t believe our luck. We bolted from the car and ran for the dining room just to be sure our luck held. It did. But as beautiful as the dining room and the Ahwanhee are, they paled in comparison to what awaited us outside.

In the weeks before our visit, an early winter storm had dumped three feet of snow on the Valley, turning everything white and encasing the autumn leaves in ice. Now with the spring-like temperatures, a fog was rising up from the ground while the sun, blazing down on the golden leaves, made them sparkle like diamonds. Could it get more perfect? Apparently so. 

Yosemite_buck Photo by Jon Jay

As we stood in front of the walkway to Yosemite Falls, three enormous bucks came romping through the snow-covered meadow, each displaying a rack of antlers so large and glorious they looked like their names should be Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen. We’ve lived in Yosemite for over a year now and we’ve seen a lot of deer, but until this day I had never seen such huge bucks, one after another, running across a snow-covered field like something straight out of a Christmas card. Then they crossed the road, gathered up their does and fawns and lay down among the visitors allowing people to get close enough to pet them (which thankfully no one did). It was at this point that I began to think the day had taken on an almost mystical aura, something even beyond the normal awe-inspiring beauty of the place.

The feeling was confirmed as we rounded the corner just below El Capitan. Shadows filled the meadow that runs alongside the river. Fog rose. Leaves shimmered. It was a landscape unlike anything I’d witnessed before in the park. Every car stopped. People leapt out with their cameras. My 9-year-old daughter nailed it.

John Muir once wrote, “So abundant and novel are the objects of interest in a pure wilderness that unless you are pursuing special studies it matters little where you go, or how often to the same place. Wherever you chance to be always seems at the moment of all places the best; and you feel that there can be no happiness in this world or in any other for those who may not be happy here.” On that day and in that place, even my husband had to concur.

-- Jamie Simons

In May 2009, while hiking in Yosemite National Park, long-time Los Angeles resident Jamie Simons turned to her husband and said, "I want to live here." Today she and her family have made the move to live for one year in Wawona, where her daughter attends the one-room schoolhouse, Jamie writes, and her husband longs for noise, fast food, people, and the city.(Though he's learning to appreciate mountain life.)

01/10/2011

Nature Art: On the Sidewalk

From Boston to Berkeley, leaves are falling, have fallen, become compost. Fresh concrete sidewalks keep the images of leaves around a bit longer as concrete prints and the ethereal tannin print.

Leaf onsidewalk

Tannin prints, with their lovely sepia tones, show up best on light=colored sidewalks, like this one in Berkeley. Though the chlorophyll is absorbed back into the tree before leaves fall, the tannins are not. Winter rains have washed tannins out of the fallen leaves of this Japanese maple. Oak leaves contain the most tannins of common tree species, but we rarely see prints from the oak because its thick leaves break down over many seasons; they are unlikely to lie on the same spot on the sidewalk for all that time. Animals, bacteria and fungi avoid leaves and unripe fruit with high concentrations of tannins. In the case of animals, they are likely avoiding the astringent taste. Unripe quinces and persimmons are particularly high in these protective tannins.

We taste the astringency of tannins in unripe fruit and when we drink black tea or drink red wine--it is that almost bitter, puckery sensation you enjoy on your tongue. If you're like me, though, you modify your tannins by adding milk to your tea. Harold McGee, author of the cooking reference "On Food and Cooking," says, "The sensation of astringency is caused by the ‘tanning’ of the proteins in the saliva and mucous membranes of the mouth; lubrication is reduced and the surface tissues actually contract."

Concrete prints have no chemistry behind them: leaves fall, cement is wet, their weight makes a print. They show up best in early morning or late afternoon when slanting light catches the edges of their silhouettes on a sidewalk. Here is one from a Boston sidewalk:

Leaf2

This one, because of the light, looks as if it is emerging from the concrete, but it isn't:

Sidewalk leaf

Once you start looking down at sidewalks, it is hard to stop. Even footprints start to look interesting! Just think of Hollywood and the movie star prints at Grauman's Chinese Theater...

-- Sue Fierston paints and teaches just outside of Washington, D.C. in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. As a painter, she works in acrylics and watercolor and is in the middle of a series called "100 Flowers." As a teaching artist, she works with teachers to bring art into their classrooms in grades 4-8. Her posts focus on her nature-themed art collaborations. For a look at her paintings or more about her teaching, check out her website at suzannefierston.com.

01/06/2011

Nature Art: Brand New Pen

There's nothing like a new pen. I received the gift of this pen and bottle of blue ink for the holiday and I sat down on the floor to try them out while everyone else was still unwrapping gifts. I drew on the wrapping paper:

NewPen1

As a lefty, I avoid sketching pens. I can't keep my left hand from dragging through the wet ink and smearing it. And a calligraphy pen, with a slanted tip for lettering, is impossible for me to use because it releases a wave of ink for each letter. But this pen, with its tiny scratchy point, doesn't release much ink at once. It is magical! In the sketch below, I drew the view out my sister's  kitchen windows. I put the pen through its paces using every texture I could think of:

NewPen2

The new pen's fine point must be dipped regularly into the ink bottle, but the dipping became part of the rhythm of making my first drawings. I couldn't draw my regular way, with a mechanical pencil, erasing stray lines or just plain wrong ones; I had to be fearless. As I drew in my sketchbook I had to let shapes fall where they would; sometimes they lined up in awkward ways. More often, though, the fearlessness of continuing to draw no matter what resulted in a good drawing. I started the candles, below, on a page I had already used. I said to myself, "These tea lights might be hard to draw, so I will just try them out here..." I found I liked to draw on colored paper with a light texture.

NewPen3

Nature artists: Try a new pen for the New Year! Gel pens are also easy to find and travel with. Right now I'm trying out Sakura metallic gel pens that come in a package of 10. I feel the same fearlessness and fun when I look at the colors in the Sakura package: I have to make them work even if I wouldn't have chosen them myself. Drawing pens and gel pens are available online at dickblick.com and danielsmith.com. Michael's on the east coast and Flax in San Francisco are two bricks-and-mortar stores with a good selection of pens.

-- Sue Fierston paints and teaches just outside of Washington, D.C. in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. As a painter, she works in acrylics and watercolor and is in the middle of a series called "100 Flowers." As a teaching artist, she works with teachers to bring art into their classrooms in grades 4-8. Her posts focus on her nature-themed art collaborations. For a look at her paintings or more about her teaching, check out her website at suzannefierston.com.

M42: The Orion Nebula

Orion Nebula binoculars Roberto Mura
A realistic image of what the Orion Nebula looks like through binoculars. Credit: Roberto Mura

The Orion Nebula is one of the photogenic of astronomical objects. And while it is an excellent target for amateur observers, don't expect to see the kind of color and detail that shows up in enhanced photos. The cloud of gas and dust is relatively bright and easy to find, and its hazy appearance can even be seen with the eyes alone.

The Orion Nebula is located on the middle star of the sword that hangs from Orion's belt. The three-star belt is one of the most notable collections of stars in the sky, and hanging below it is a fainter trio of stars. Focus a pair of binoculars or a telescope on the middle sword star and the nebula should be instantly visible.

The Orion Nebula, also known as M42, is created by a little grouping of stars that almost looks like a tiny letter "C". This cluster of stars is called the Trapezium. Around the star cluster you can see the gray glow of the cloud. A black finger of denser material obstructs the view on one side, seeming to project outward toward the viewer as from a three-dimensional picture. Across the black expanse is another little glow of stars, separately labeled M43.

As a thrilled owner of a new 8-inch telescope that I received from my husband for Christmas, I was eager to get outside and check out just what the difference would be compared to my older telescope. In the one clear night we've had since the telescope was assembled, I aimed it directly for M42 and was not disappointed. The nebula loomed so large in the eyepiece that I couldn't even view it all at once. I managed to bring out my entire family to get a quick peek at the extraterrestrial cloud before the mundane earth-clouds moved in. If the skies ever clear again, the Orion Nebula will definitely make my list of observing targets.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She is currently the Feature Writer for Astronomy and Space at Suite101.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.


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