Explore: January 2012

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12 posts from January 2012


Year in Yosemite: A Sense of Place

NELDER GROVE 11 MILE HIKEOur daughter was born in China. She came to the United States at the age of fifteen months. From then until the end of second grade, she lived in Los Angeles. For the past three years, Yosemite National Park has been her home. Part of the poignancy of living here is that she knows that one day we will pack up and head back south. These days it looks like that will be sooner rather than later. So she's sad. Sad because her love of Yosemite knows no bounds, sad because she knows that living here is a blessing -- one that she doesn't want to end.

When we moved to Yosemite, I felt that one of its great gifts would be to give our daughter a deep sense of place. To know that no matter where she goes in the world, there is a park so beautiful, so magical, that even decades after moving away, it will still feel like home. I wanted her to have this because I never did. Growing up, we changed neighborhoods, cities or states every couple of years. After college, I spent a decade traveling the globe, and while I liked some places better than others, nowhere left me feeling rooted.

Enter Brenda Negley. I met her this past Sunday when our daughters attended the same birthday party. Brenda's childhood was a lot like mine. Lots of moving. No sense of place ... except for this: Every summer of her life, Brenda would stay with her grandparents -- John and Marge Hawksworth -- at the Nelder Grove of Giant Sequoias, just outside the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park. The Hawksworths spent their summers in the grove because, after a lifetime of working for the U.S. Forest Service, they became the Nelder Grove's first campground hosts.

Continue reading "Year in Yosemite: A Sense of Place" »


Astronomy: Discovering Something Old

1-27-12 QuadrantidMeteor2012_Crop_Chumack
A meteor cuts through the winter sky. Credit: John Chumack.

I was in high school when I got my first telescope. It was a Christmas gift, and I took it out of the box and assembled it in record time. Fortunately it was a clear night, so I hauled it outside on its rickety tripod mount and set it up in the backyard. Aiming it at the brightest "star" I saw, I fiddled with aligning the finderscope with the main tube and then inserted an eyepiece. After some focusing, BOOM, there it was: a bright sphere of light with faint points of light on either side of it. I rushed inside to dig through some magazines and books on astronomy that I kept in my bedroom. I felt pretty sure that I knew what I was looking at, I just didn’t know it was possible. After a little time spent sleuthing, sure enough, I read that not only was Jupiter up and bright on that December night, but with a little optical aid it was possible to see four of its moons. Even though Galileo had first seen Jupiter and its moons hundreds of years ago, my discovery of it on that cold Christmas night felt just as earth-shattering.

While amateur astronomers occasionally do make real discoveries, such as new comets and the like, when most of us observe we will only be discovering things that are new to us. It can still feel just as exciting to stare at the dark sky and let your eyes adjust and wait to see what appears. You may be able to trace out the constellation that winds between the Big and Little Dippers as you discover Draco for yourself, or spy a cozy little diamond grouping of stars in the summer sky and check a star chart to  learn that this is the constellation Delphinus the Dolphin.

What can you discover on your next night out? The options are endless. All you need is a good star map (and there are many apps that work great for charting the sky and identifying objects) and some patience. This weekend after sunset as the stars begin to appear, examine the night sky. Do you know what the bright star is below Orion? Or the group of stars that looks like a V on its side? What about that orangish-looking "star" rising in the east? There are countless distant objects that are billions of years old waiting for you to discover them for the first time.

-- 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 writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.


Warming Up Winter with Daffodils

What do you do when it's January and temperatures are heading for the 30s?

I paint daffodils. I paint whatever comes in to my grocery store, and this week they had the windswept variety called Jetfire. Jetfire is a Grant Mitsch daffodil—fragrant, early blooming, with a punch of orange-red on its trumpet. Mitsch was one of the first hybridizers to reach the Holy Grail of the pink-cupped daffodil, but he's also known for the elegant form he bred into all his daffodils: the Jetfire's chartreuse petals don't simply encircle the corolla, they sweep backward over the stem, as if they are caught in a high wind. Here I began to paint them in watercolor:

Everything's wet here. I began by covering the entire sheet of paper with clear water. I dipped a wet brush into color and touched it to the still-wet paper. This technique created the hazy color shapes you see in the image above. With a fingernail, I scratched out leaves and stems into the still-wet paper.

Fierston2When the paper dried (no coldness when I touched it) I painted a second layer of darker color over the first. Somehow I couldn't capture the vividness I was seeing, and I almost ruined the painting by adding too much paint. In despair, I took a photo of the painting and tried Photoshop's paintbrush and 35 percent opacity tools on the blossoms. 

I'm still not satisfied; I would blur and texture the trumpet on the left, if I were working with a brush.  But Photoshop helped me save this little picture. With more practice (and a drawing tablet instead of a mouse), I can see its possibilities for my own paintings.

-- 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.


Yosemite Muse

Upper Yosemite Fall

My life has now come full circle. When I was a child, biographies were my favorite type of reading. And no one captured my imagination more than Jessie Benton Fremont. “Jessie who?” you ask. Jessie Benton Fremont — wife, mother, adventuress, writer and, in the words of Yosemite's much more famous Galen Clark, probably the one person most responsible for the Yosemite Land Grant — the piece of legislation that saved Yosemite from development and was the seed from which the national park system grew.

So why have most people never heard of Jessie when her cohorts — John Muir, Galen Clark, Frederick Law Olmstead and her very famous husband, John C. Fremont — fill the history books? Beats me. Her life reads like a novel — a good one. Bridalveil Fall & the Cathedral Rocks

Born to wealth and influence, Jessie was the daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, the father of America's policy of Manifest Destiny. It was another kind of manifest destiny that brought John Fremont into her life. Younger than him by eleven years, Jessie was only fifteen when she met the dashing Fremont through her father. When she eloped at 16, her parents were horrified and refused to have anything to do with her.

For John Fremont, it would be the best decision of his life. He would become, as the comedian Danny Kaye once said of himself, a wife-made man. Brave and adventurous with a scientific mind and an aptitude for mapmaking, Fremont led five expeditions through America's western wilderness in the 1830s and 40s (some of them paid for by his father-in-law with whom he and Jessie had reconciled). Over the course of his lifetime, he was a Gold Rush millionaire, one of California's first senators and the first Republican presidential candidate ever, preceding Abraham Lincoln by four years and paving the way for Lincoln's anti-slavery leanings. But as much success as Fremont saw flow his way, he experienced just as many failures.

He was court-martialed by the army (for declaring himself the first governor of California), exonerated but later removed from command as a general in the Union Army after only 100 days (when he began freeing slaves long before Lincoln decided it was a good idea). Railroad schemes led to the loss of all his money and although he was governor of the Arizona Territories when he died, he was also a pauper. Through it all, Jessie was his most steadfast supporter; anything John lacked the talent for became Jessie’s area of expertise.

When John struggled to chronicle his Western explorations for Congress, Jessie did it for him, causing one wit to note that Fremont was one of those writers who “acquired by marriage a very attractive literary style.” When his schemes resulted in the loss of all their money, Jessie supported the family through her writings. One of her favorite topics was Yosemite. Her popular essays helped to put it into the national consciousness, although she referred to her stories as “harmless puddings.” What was not harmless pudding was Jessie’s flagrant use of connections (most notably her father) to change people’s perceptions of her husband and of the Yosemite region.

Living in the area of San Francisco now known as Fort Mason, Jessie held a weekly salon, attended by everyone from Herman Melville to Bret Harte. Regular guests included the Yosemite photographer Carlton Watkins, Starr King, Frederick Law Olmstead and Israel Ward Raymond and it was these men, along with Jessie, who began America’s first serious conservation effort, lobbying Congress and President Lincoln in hopes of preserving Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees. As with so much in her life, Jessie prevailed and then took little, if any, personal credit.

This spring, my daughter and 30 other fifth through eighth graders will take part in a recreation of history at Yosemite's Pioneer Village in Wawona. Part of the program includes taking on the persona of an individual who influenced the history of Yosemite. At the parents' training last September, I was assigned to be — you guessed it — Jessie Benton Fremont. Maybe it was chance or maybe the training leaders thought, “You're a writer, she was a writer. Good fit.” Whichever way it happened, I felt honored. If my writings about Yosemite find an audience, it's because Jessie is my secret muse. As her husband hopefully said countless times, “Thanks, Jessie.”

-- Jamie Simons/Photos credit: Kenny Karst for Delaware North Companies, Inc.

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." Jamie and her family have since lived in the park. Check out all of her blog articles by clicking here.

Shine On, Earthshine

1-20-12 Earthshine_ChumackIn snowy states, it can be hard to sleep in winter when there’s a full moon, because the glow coming off the snow lights up the outside world. The brightness behind my curtains on a snow-covered, full-moon night is comparable to my neighbors leaving their garage light on during a summer night during new moon.

Fortunately for my beauty rest, a new moon is on the way. January’s new moon occurs on Monday the 23rd, assuring me of darkness out the window, if cloud cover hasn’t already taken care of that for me.

Many people find the moon most interesting when it is rising in the east in full phase, often showing a yellow or orange hue and looking gargantuan when compared with earthly objects. While this is undeniably a pretty sight, I find the moon most intriguing on the nights following new moon, as the slender crescent creeps into sunset skies and slowly reveals more of its lit face.

The fourth week of January will be a great time to watch the moon emerge as a crescent and wax toward its first quarter phase, on January 31. The sunshine hitting the edge of the moon is a lovely sight, but what also draws the eye is the faint light coming from the night portion of the moon. This is called Earthshine, because light from the sun is hitting Earth and reflecting into space, hitting the dark side of the moon and then reflecting back toward us. The degree of brightness of Earthshine is influenced by what is happening on Earth; for example, if the side of Earth that the sunlight is reflecting off is especially cloudy, it will cause more light to be reflected and light up the dark side of the moon a bit more.

Another factor that figures into the scenario of the light on both snow and the moon is their albedo. Albedo refers to the amount of reflectivity an object has. Fresh snow has one of the highest albedos, with 80 to 95 percent of the light that hits the snow reflected back. The moon, while it looks white and bright (at least outside of the mare regions), is actually not bright at all. It’s just that the only thing we really can compare it to is the blackness of space. But in actuality, the surface of the moon is quite dark and only reflects back 12 percent of the light that hits it.

Look this coming week for the dark side of the moon lit by Earthshine. You may even be able to make out a number of the dark mare under the lunar night. Earthshine is sometimes poetically referred to as seeing the old moon in the new moon’s arms.

1-20-12 Astronaut Duke Apollo 16

This image from the Apollo 16 mission shows Astronaut Duke's spacesuit covered with dark moon dust. Credit: NASA. Above photo credit: Credit: John Chumack.

-- 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 writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.


The Beauty of a Map

Art stick chart color

In Micronesia, 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii, the Marshall Islands lie scattered like grains of sand. In fact, they lie closer to Japan and Australia than to the U.S. mainland. This Marshallese stick chart, above, called rebbilib in Marshallese, marks the islands and major wave patterns of the Marshalls.

Long ago, I lived on one of the largest Marshall Islands, Kwajalein, which is only half a mile wide by two and a half miles long. At the time, Kwajalein seemed as large as any home town but, on a world map, it's almost invisible. Here is a rebbilib chart laid on paper with the location of Kwajalein written in:

Art stick chart drawing copy

Marshallese navigators made these charts using cowries (the tiny brown shells you see in the color photo) and palm fronds right up until World War II. The rebbilib is most like our modern maps, with shells showing specific islands and their relation to one another, like cities in a state. Yet Marshallese navigational charts are not like our western-style maps; fishermen didn't use them to measure distance or count miles. Instead, they used them as memory aids, reviewing them before a journey but not bringing them along. It is said that a fishermen would study his charts, leave them behind, and then lie on his back in the canoe, the better to feel the rise and fall of the ocean swells. He interpreted the map with his body memory, not with his eyes.

The mattang stick chart, below, is a more typical fisherman's chart, used to teach navigation around a specific island. The palm fronds mark the swell pattern of the waves around the island in the center, with major swells marked by heavier fronds:

Art stckchrt2

Why do we make maps?  Why is the spare geometry of ocean swells so beautiful?  

German artist Adrian Lohmuller created a series of collages last year based on these patterns, inspired by their irregular, evocative shapes. Find out more about the geometry of stick chart navigation at the Ethnomathematics Digital Library.

-- 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 

Bummed-Out Ski Bums: Cheer Up!

Slope without snow

Skiers and boarders across the U.S. haven’t given up on this winter’s snowfall, but they don’t have high hopes either. In Squaw Valley, which is in California's Lake Tahoe area, it’s the driest winter since 1879.

“We're all waiting for Mother Nature to lend us a hand,” said Amelia Richmond, a Squaw Valley spokesperson. 

In the second week of January, national snow analysis reported that only 23% of the lower 48 states was covered with snow, a number well below average. Ski areas have opened up across North America, but quite a few have dismal base depths and limited terrain openings. The resorts reporting the most depth and recent snowfall are those in British Columbia, Washington, Wyoming and Montana — typical for a La Niña year.

According to the NOAA, La Niña and El Niño are naturally occurring climate cycles that refer to the interactions of the ocean's surface and the tropical Pacific's atmosphere. In the U.S., a classic La Niña spell includes drier than normal winters in the Southwest and Southeast and colder, wetter winters in the Northwest. 

Bummed-out ski bums make the absence of snow more obvious, but there are plenty of folks still getting in their turns on what snow-covered slopes there are.

"It's really what you make of it," Richmond said. "If you go out there with a good attitude, you're going to have a great day."

As dire as the times may seem right now, weather forecasts across the West next week actually include cold temperatures and lots of snow. The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center has also stated oceanic and atmospheric patterns reflect “a weak to moderate La Niña" that will peak early in the season.

"It's definitely one of the more dry winters," Richmond said. "But it's not the end of winter. Three quarters of the season is still ahead of us."

So hold off on sacrificially setting fire to your skis. You may need them soon.

--Lauren Pope / image: iStock/alohaspirit

Year in Yosemite: The Blessings of Winter

Year in Yosemite 1

When the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers.

-- Oscar Wilde

It seems the gods have answered my prayers this year. All through the summer and into the fall, as my husband and I debated moving away from Yosemite National Park to a warmer climate, I declared, “If only we had spring weather all year round, I’d stay here happily.” Wish granted. As in so many other parts of the country this winter, Yosemite is holding steady with temperatures at spring highs and nary a snowflake in sight. But there’s a problem with that.

We stayed in Yosemite so our daughter, Karis, could get in one more year of skiing. So far, that is not to be. I now publicly acknowledge and thank the gods for specifically listening to me, but, at this point, love of my daughter (and fear of the fires that would beset Yosemite this summer) have me changing my tune. For my daughter, her whole class, California skiers, ski resort employees, and anyone who is interested in continuing to have drinking water, I’m now officially changing my prayer.

One of the great perks of living in Yosemite and having a child at one of its three schools is that come winter, once a week for ten weeks, Yosemite Park schools close so all the kids can go skiing. The bus to Badger Pass Ski Area is provided by Delaware North Companies, Inc., the park’s concessionaire. Ditto for the lift tickets and ski rentals. Parents conduct the lessons (many teach skiing professionally the rest of the week). The cost for all of this is $24 per child­ -- for the entire season! If ever our daughter was going to learn to ski, this is the time and, most definitely, this is the place. 

I say that not only because of the $24 price tag but also because of where these kids get to ski -- Badger Pass. One of only three ski areas in a national park, Badger Pass was built in 1932 in the hopes of attracting the Winter Olympics to Yosemite. Lake Placid won out. Thank heaven. Because the Olympics passed it by, Badger Pass is not some big bruiser of a ski resort attracting masses of people to its carefully groomed slopes and offering wild rides for snowboarders. No, Badger Pass, like Yosemite throughout most of the year, is quiet, family-friendly and inviting.

Skiing_Boarding Family at Badger Pass

Its runs (which have to rely on nature-made snow, no artificial snow allowed) are just difficult enough to send the heart soaring but not so testosterone ripped that you fear for your life. Add to that zero après ski nightlife and most wild cowboy-snowboard types steer clear of here and head for Mammoth Mountain in the Eastern Sierras. If there is a better place for a child, or anyone for that matter, to learn to ski than Badger, I’d like to see it.

When we came here over two years ago, Karis’s teacher told her she had only two goals for her third-grade year. One was for her to love to learn math, the other was to learn to be a good skier. The jury is still out on the math, but she’s taken to skiing like a condor to a current. While I can’t stand snow, cold and ice, there isn’t anything about skiing Karis doesn’t like. In her first two years on the slopes she went from never having stood on skis to being a good, solid intermediate skier. And this year, she gets to move on to snowboarding…maybe.

Sitting here right now on what should have been her school’s first day at Badger Pass, I see nothing outside my window but green forest and sunshine. Karis’s snow pants, parka, helmet and newly purchased ski gloves are all waiting for a workout. Loving my daughter as I do, (and fearing for the health of the planet), my only thought now is let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

-- Jamie Simons/Photos credit: DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite

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." Jamie and her family have since lived in the park. Check out all of her blog articles by clicking here.

Astronomy: Bagging Neptune

Easy-to-spot Venus is the key to finding Neptune. Credit: John Chumack

Neptune is the most difficult planet for observers to check off their list. It is faint, at only magnitude 8.0, making it nearly impossible to distinguish from thousands of background stars. But every once in a while the farthest planet from the Sun drifts past another planet as seen from Earth. Using the closer and brighter planet as a guide, we then have a chance to spot the elusive Neptune.

Friday, January 13, 2012, is one such occasion. Venus, the brightest object in the night sky (the moon won’t be up) is easy to find as it glows brilliantly in the west after sunset. Using a pair of binoculars or a telescope, aim them at Venus. Just a little more than one degree to Venus’s right is Neptune. On this night, Neptune isn’t the closest point of light to Venus. Just below Venus is a star that shines at magnitude 6.9, and below that is an even brighter star at magnitude 4.2, Iota Aquarii. These distractions can actually help you spot Neptune.

If what you see when looking through the eyepiece is bright Venus with a small dot above it and a slightly brighter star above that, then you know that your telescope gives you an inverted view so you actually need to be looking to Venus’s left to find Neptune. Iota Aquarii is almost one degree away from Venus, so measure approximately that distance to Venus’s side (right or left depending on whether or not your view is inverted) to find Neptune.

Depending on how good your eyes and equipment are, you may see that Neptune has a bluish color and appears to be more of a disk and not pointlike, as the distant stars appear.

If your skies are cloudy on Friday, you can try again on Saturday, although Venus will already have moved farther away from Neptune, making their separation two degrees. Neptune will be to the lower right of Venus. Try looking just to Venus’s right for a trio of stars, then look just below them for one lonely point of light; this is Neptune.

Venus continues to climb upward away from Neptune each night. By February, Venus will be approaching the second most difficult planet to bag, Uranus. The Venus-Uranus encounter will be a much closer one, with the two planets appearing just 18 arcminutes, or less than a third of a degree, apart.

-- 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 writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.


Whooping-Crane Migration Gets the FAA OK

Grnd_trk_hndlrsAfter a lengthy sojourn on a remote field in the countryside of Franklin County, Alabama, a motley group of nine whooping cranes and their avian-impersonating human guides was granted a special FAA waiver on Monday. The approval will allow them to lift off and finish the rest of a seasonal 1,285-mile migratory flight from central Wisconsin to their wintering grounds on Florida's west coast.

The expedition, led by the wildlife organization Operation Migration and designed to reintroduce the endangered birds to a defunct Eastern flyway, was voluntarily grounded in late December after the FAA got complaints about, and launched a formal investigation into, how the costumed band of conservationists was violating an arcane rule that forbids paying pilots of light-sport aircraft.

"Normally, the FAA limits light-sport aircraft and pilots to personal flights without compensation,” a statement released by the FAA reads. “Because the operation is in ‘mid-migration,’ the FAA is granting a one-time exemption so the migration can be completed. The FAA will work with Operation Migration to develop a more comprehensive, long-term solution.”

The delay complicated the erratic journey, which is usually completed in two- to three-hour morning spurts when the air's calm enough that the cranes can follow three hang-glider-style, rear-engine-propelled planes. "If it starts to get bumpy, that wing moves around too much," says Operation Migration cofounder and pilot Joe Duff, whose exploits were fictionalized in the 1996 film Fly Away Home. Duff says the trip takes 23 to 25 flying days but adds: "The problem is it takes anywhere from 44 to 144 days to get that."

Besides weather issues, pilots must often wrangle the uncooperative birds into their wake. “Sometimes there’s a rodeo for up to an hour, so you never know,” Duff says. “It’s a real delicate art getting them up to altitude. It may take you 50 miles to get up to 500 feet.”

Not to mention that all the handlers and pilots must constantly don unwieldy white bird suits and alien-looking visors to conceal their skin and eyes. They also coax the birds with crane puppets and conduct their work in complete silence to make sure that the birds aren't confused about their identity. 121_2169

"It is a very difficult protocol," Duff says. "The idea is we're trying to disguise the human form so they're unfamiliar with it. You want to make sure these birds know they're whooping cranes." If the protocol isn't followed exactly, the birds may even try to breed with humans. "You don't want a 5-foot-tall bird to be friendly to people,” Duff explains.

If the FAA hadn’t come through, the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team, of which Operation Migration is a part, discussed shipping the birds in individual containers to the migration terminus. But this would have significantly reduced the chances of the cranes making the return trip on their own.

“We were elated,” Duff says of hearing the news. “I think the FAA recognized the importance of this and were very cooperative and supportive."

Duff hopes the FAA will find a more permanent solution for his organization's unique conservation efforts. As for an exact departure date for the rest of the trip, the team will just have to wait for calm, crisp winds to flow into that Alabama field.

--Ryan Jacobs / images courtesy of operationmigration.org

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