Desert Poppies

It’s easy to ignore common plants, just as it’s easy to ignore people en masse. The eye becomes surfeited easily and novelty is required to revive our flagging attentions.

This tendency can be fruitfully resisted, I’ve noticed. Magnification helps. I’ll shoot a few photos while out walking, then later find unexpected aesthetic delights lurking in the bundles of pixels disgorged into a USB cable.

The California Poppy is a common spring flower here in Bisbee. Our sub-species (Eschscholzia californica ssp. mexicana) is a strong clear yellow with just a hint of orange, unlike the orange-yellow form found in California. The plant grows from sidewalk cracks where there is sufficient sun. The foliage is a distinctive shade of blue-green. So far I’ve seen just two clumps in bloom, but I’ve noticed hundreds of plants girding their vegetative loins for the big reproductive push. The plants bloom sporadically for a month or two, but eventually the severity of the midsummer sun will sear the ferny foliage into green dust.

A couple of morning shots:

Poppy-2013-1

Poppy-2013-2

Larry

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

I enjoy walking in those increasingly-rare places neglected and ignored by most humans. Such places aren’t confined to pristine nature reserves, but can also be found in the nooks and crannies of any town or city.

Human development isn’t a uniformly pervasive force. It insinuates an environment by finding the paths of least resistance. These conduits or channels roughly correspond to the perceptions people have of potential profitability, intuitions which, thankfully, are often wrong.

Think of a lichen finding its own path of least resistance into the microscopic seams and flaws in the surface of a granite boulder.

There is one thing (among others) that makes an observational walk perennially popular with a certain sort of person: the sheer unpredictability of what might be seen. The potential for surprise is always there, even on a walk in a very familiar place. There are transient scenes, experiential ephemera which for the most part aren’t witnessed by anyone. Chances are you won’t see one on a particular walk, but you are guaranteed to not see such a scene if you don’t go on that walk.

I’ve indulged in enough generalizing by now, don’t you think? Here’s a concrete example, a scene I encountered yesterday while walking along a canyon slope on the north edge of Bisbee, Arizona. The manzanita trees have passed their period of peak bloom. Here’s a spray of blossoms on a tree which is still attracting pollinators:

manz_bloom-1

The more hurried or impatient manzanitas have dropped their corollas now that the flowers have been fertilized and ovaries are bulging. The fallen waxy-white blooms make an appealing litter upon the debris-strewn rocky soil beneath the trees. This is a scene which sunlight and rain will soon destroy:

manz_bloom-2

I can’t help but feel lucky that I happened along while the scene was still pristine. In this next shot I like the color of the dead manzanita leaf, and the way it caught the morning sunlight:

manz_bloom-3

Larry

A Late Spring In Arizona

Phenology is an old-fashioned discipline, dependent as it is upon an observer staying in one place for several years. Who does that any more? I did for quite a few years, but for the time being I’m unmoored.

You could think of phenology as a blend of chronology, accounting, and natural history. It boils down to keeping records of when certain natural events happen each year in a certain place. The observer, of course, must be able to differentiate species of plant and animals; otherwise the records would be completely subjective and difficult to share with other record-keepers. Linnaeus’s wonderful idea lives on!

In the pre-computer era (most of human history) phenological observations were kept in notebooks. Aldo Leopold and his family wrote their observations in the day-squares of a large calendar, another common approach. A year-end task was transcribing those notes to a notebook so that the calendar could be disposed of.

I must confess that any phenological observations I make are a byproduct of photography. How fortunate that digital photographs, like all computer files, are intimately associated with their date of creation!

Here’s my slender contribution to Southeast Arizona phenology.

The desert spring is quite unlike those of northern climates. Many of the trees (including many oaks) are evergreen here, so there isn’t the dramatic budding, unfolding, and awakening I grew up with. Many of the plants here wait for the late-summer monsoon rains to make their growth. Still, there are a few spring ephemeral plants. One of them is the Golden Corydalis (Corydalis aurea), a beautiful and dainty plant closely related to the Dutchman’s Breeches and Bleeding Hearts common in Eastern woodlands and gardens.

I first saw and photographed this Corydalis last spring, and I had a vague idea or hunch that the flower bloomed earlier last year. Sometime in early March, I was certain, but only the existence of the photos I shot last year provided me with evidence of the flowering date. Here’s a close-up I shot last year on March 6th:

corydalis-2

This year the plants waited two weeks longer to bloom; I shot these photos a couple of days ago, on March 19th:

corydalis-3

corydalis-4

Naturally I wonder about the possible reasons for the delay. We did have an unusually chill and snowy winter. Many spring ephemeral plants bloom when the soil has warmed sufficiently. Now I wish I had records for previous years!

Larry

March Morning Sky

This morning I was sitting in front of the computer, reading posts at Metafilter and following links from Arts and Letters Daily. Bev had been out walking Sage; she came into the house and said, “Larry, you ought to take a look at the sky this morning!”

I put my shoes on, grabbed a camera and enacountered the best morning sky we’ve had this month. Most of the canyon was still shadowed but the higher slopes glowed brownish-orange as the sun’s rays swept across them:

morning-3-04_2

Some of the sky’s tints were reminiscent of those in a Maxfield Parrish painting:

morning-3-04_1

There was just a brief period when the eastern horizon exhibited impressive colors and patterns:

morning-3-04_3

Larry

Helicopter Tour

[the scene: a muddy airstrip in rural England. A pilot dressed in ragged khakis shepherds a group of assorted tourists to his waiting helicopter. Some of the tourists seem reluctant.]

[pilot] Step right up, folks, this this is the best chance you will ever have to get a bird’s-eye view of the magnificent rolling hills of Yorkshire! Just twenty bucks, a price that can’t be beat!

[tourist, a querulous elderly man] How do we know this machine of yours is safe?

[pilot, smarmily ingratiating] Never had a mishap, and I’ve had ‘er up hundreds of times!

[A portly German man wearing a curled white wig approaches the pilot, huffing and puffing]

My good man, I understand that you have a pianoforte on board your craft. Can that be true?

[pilot] Why as a matter fact, I do! It’s just a spinet, but I’m sure it will agree with you. I do keep it well-tuned and tempered!

[The German man pays his fare and the passengers are escorted into the helicopter by the pilot. Once the aircraft has gained elevation the pilot banks the ‘copter over the rough terrain]

Not as green as it usually is down there, but we’ve been enduring an oven-like drought!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_b-7YjmXwEM&w=420&h=315]

Larry

ABC Files and Recording Music and Video

This winter I’ve been writing less and devoting more time to playing and recording music. It’s great fun, and I feel it is high time I documented my music after so many years of playing.

The software available for musicians is plentiful. I tend to use only FOSS software (FOSS stands for Free And Open Source), a trait which as time passes becomes more feasible and less a statement of religious conviction.

Some of my favorite and most-used pieces of software cluster around an ASCII-text file format known as ABC. Chris Walsh came up with the format back in the 1980s. He needed a way to represent traditional melodies without going to the trouble of drawing staves and using normal musical notation. ABC is musical shorthand. Notes are represented by letters, and various typographical symbols indicate bars, rests, and most other musical features. ABC is quite portable; it can be scrawled on a restaurant napkin or included in the text of an e-mail. The format has been most popular with musicians in the British Isles.

With todays gargantuan multi-gig computer hard drives the advantages of ABC have declined somewhat, but there are so many tune and transcription collections available on the net in ABC format. For a fiddler like me the files are a cornucopia of musical delights. So portable, too! Millions of tunes in ABC format can be stored on a CD or a USB stick.

Software is available which converts an ABC file to a printable Postscript file. The results are excellent. Here’s an example. This is an ABC file represnting the bare bones of a tune I came up with several years ago:

X:1
T:Goldberg Waltz
R:waltz
C:Larry Ayers
N:First played circa 2004 --
N:Notated January 2013
L:1/8
M:3/4
K:G
GA|"G"B2 BAGE|D2 B,2 D2|"C" E2 C2 E2|G6|"Em"E2 B2 B2| B2 B B3|
"D"ABA GFE|D2 B,2 A,2|"G"G,2 BAGE|D2 B,2 D2|
"C"E2 C2 E2|G6|"D"D2 d3 d|d2 d2 d2|"G"BA G"D"F "G"GA|G6||
|:"G"Bdg dgd|Bdg dgd|"C"ceg ege|ceg ege|"Em"B2 e2 g2|b2 b2 b2|"D"a2 ag fe|
d2 dc BA|"G"B2 d2 g2|gf ed cB|"C"c2 cdef|g4 ^g2|"D"a3 gfe|d3 cBA|"G"B2 G F G2 :|

A program called abcm2ps translates the ABC typography into a file which looks like this:

goldberg

The tune sounds like this (more or less, as I seldom play anything the same way twice!):

Goldberg Waltz recording

I’ve been using a multi-platform program called Audacity, which can be obtained here:

Audacity

It’s a very versatile multi-track recording and sound-editing application.

Videos are ubiquitous on the net these days due to the popularity of Youtube and, to a lesser extent, Vimeo. I thought it would be fun to make some music videos and upload them, but I had a problem. I’d never successfully edited video before, and the few times I tried I felt stymied. The software has been written by people who grew up editing video and certain user-interface assumptions are made by the developers which were not at all intuitive for me.

I finally figured out my problem, which was that I assumed that the editing paradigm used in text and audio editors carried over into video editors. This isn’t true. Video editors mostly have been developed using an analogy with film editing. Cutting and splicing film (with discarded strips of film falling in curls to the cutting-room floor) is used as a metaphor for dealing with streams of video frames. The computer’s cursor is exchanged for a knife or scissors which “cuts” the sequence of frames.

This may seem obvious, but it took me a while to embrace and be able to use that metaphor! I can be dense at times.

I’ve been using two video editors, Openshot and Kdenlive. They are both good programs, but each has its strong points.

I started out using the audio track recorded by the camera, a Canon G11. That audio was fairly decent considering the tiny microphone on the camera, but I wanted multiple audio tracks. Lately I’ve been recording and editing with Audacity, then substituting the Audacity track for the camera’s recorded audio. I also have been using an external microphone. Of course the audio has to be synchronized with the video, but I found that Kdenlive does that automatically.

Here are a couple of videos. This first one was shot using the built-in camera and mike on Bev’s Imac:

You can see Sage the collie in the background in that one. Pets wandering into the scene are commonly seen in Youtube videos!

This is a later one shot with the Canon G11 on a tripod, and with the audio recorded with Audacity:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yMm7n5FX6UM&w=420&h=315]

One last video… this one shows me playing an Irish set-dance tune called “The Blackbird” on the guitar. I dubbed in a fiddle track as well:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYiRWOMSrXg&w=420&h=315]

All rather amateurish, I admit, but fun!

Larry

Dream Of Convenience

fart-air

Last night I made a very delicious apple cake which we ate with vanilla ice cream. It was remarkably tasty, but about an hour later, just before we went to bed, I began to feel a tightness in my abdomen, which I presumed was due to an unwelcome accumulation of intestinal gases. Perhaps the cake and ice cream had reacted with the pad tai we had eaten for supper.

Oh, well! Gas happens from time to time, just another reminder of our biological nature. I fell asleep easily while Bev stayed up for a while roaming the internet. Her Imac is next to the bed and she possesses an uncanny ability to read sideways.

Meanwhile I was immersed in complicated dreams. I experienced a false awakening, one of those deceptive dream-sequences which mimic true awakening. In the dream I was lying in bed, on my side and facing away from Bev’s side. Somehow I knew that Bev had taken her collie outside to pee or whatever. The gas in my bowels was insistent, and I thought “A perfect time for a fart or two! The noxious fumes will have dissipated by the time she returns!”

It is such a pleasant feeling to release unruly farts which have been confined for too long. Three quick poots and my digestive system was in equilibrium once again.

Then I really woke up and sensed that Bev was actually in bed, and awake. I was sheepish as I turned and saw her shrink back. I explained my dream delusion and we laughed at the absurdity of the situation. Bev said, “When I heard those farts I thought, ‘He must be asleep! Surely he wouldn’t fart so shamelessly if he was awake!!'”

I thought about that portion of my mind which acts as my dream director. I could imagine him mischievously contriving the situation, saying, “Larry really does need to fart — let’s see, I’ll plant the idea in his head that he is alone in the bed. This should be fun to watch!”

By the way, Bev came up with the title for this post.

Larry

On Tamales

The first time I ever ate a real tamale was a revelatory experience. Such a wonderful amalgam of corn, meat, and vegetables!

This culinary exposure took place quite a few years ago in a Mexican village along the Gulf Coast. There are many street-food vendors in just about any Mexican town; I was hungry and took notice of a ten-year-old boy standing on the sidewalk next to a galvanized trash can.  A tiny wood fire beneath the can (which sat on a few bricks) seemed to be making something boil within. I was intrigued.

The boy looked at me hopefully and said “Tamales, señor?”

“Let me take a look!” I replied.

The boy removed the trashcan’s lid and showed me ranks of vertically-oriented tamales arranged in a rack above a simmering pot of water.   A marvelously savory odor was conveyed by the steam rolling out of the can.

I had eaten bad canned tamales before, paper-wrapped pale orange concoctions which bear as as much resemblance to a real tamale as Spaghetti-Os do to home-made spaghetti. The real thing, I found, belonged to another category altogether. Unwrapping the steamed-soft corn-husk wrapper I found a neat oval of what looked like fine-textured cornbread. The filling was a simple mixture of cubed pork and green salsa.

That day I vowed to learn how to cook tamales.

Last night Bev and I made a batch of tamales using commercial masa harina, a corn flour made from nixtamalized white corn. Nixtamalization is the ancient process of treating corn kernels with a base solution, originally ash-water. What this does is make the corn more nutritious by freeing up previously unavailable amino acids and vitamins. This was a New World culinary invention which unfortunately didn’t accompany corn when the grain entered the continents of the Old World.

The corn husks used to wrap tamales are pleasant to work with. Lesser-quality husks are ripped into slender strips which are just right for tying off the ends of the tamales. First the corn husks are steamed in a pan in order to soften them:

tamale-1

Bev had previously prepared a filling mixture which had cooled by the time we were ready to make the tamales. It’s a mixture of chopped vegetables:

tamale-2

While Bev was chopping vegetables I had mixed up a batch of dough in the food processor; it’s just masa harina, stock, and a mixture of butter and shortening. The texture is like that of cookie dough:

tamale-3

A couple of spoonfuls of dough is spread out in the middle of corn husk and filling is applied:

tamale-4

The husk is rolled up and the ends are twisted shut and held by strips of torn husk tied securely. The husk ties are surprisingly strong and quite pleasing to work with:

tamale-5

Water has been brought to a slow boil in a large stock-pot which has a folding vegetable steamer in the bottom to keep the tamales out of the water:

tamale-6

It is very satisfying to see the assembled tamales gathered in the steamer awaiting their collective fate!

The tamales don’t take all that long to steam, perhaps forty-five minutes. They are done when the husk will peel cleanly from the cooked masa. Here’s a finished tamale with sour cream and green tomatillo salsa:

tamale-7

Here’s a closer look at the corn masa after it has been steamed. The surface takes an impression from the grooved surface of the enfolding corn husk which pleases me mightily. The texture doesn’t contribute to the taste but it does gratify the eye:

tamale-8

It’s true that tamales are quite a bit of work, one reason we don’t make them all that often. It’s almost as easy to make a large batch as it to make a small one, and tamales reheat beautifully in a microwave. The corn husk wrappers protect the tender and moist corn masa and therefore tamales keep well. I’ve read that they are good after being frozen and thawed, but ordinarily they get eaten up rather quickly!

Larry

Crevice Oak

About one thousand feet from this canyon-side house is a limestone formation known as Dragon Rocks. A jagged dike of limestone was somehow extruded from a matrix of hot schist many years ago; a row of pinnacles remains as evidence of the geological tumult. The spine-like dike runs down the slope to the creek-bed, then back up the other side.

I like to walk in that neighborhood. Ferns cluster around the rocks and there are many deer and javelina trails to follow. Those well-adapted mammals have found the best cross-slope paths and they manage to keep the paths open due to their frequent wanderings.

Here’s a view of Dragon Rocks from the north. An agave stalk which has shed its seeds bisects the picture, and some of the canyon houses can be seen in the background.

dragon-rocks_agave_scene

Yesterday afternoon clouds were beginning to move in, harbingers of the rain which fell last night. I was scrambling from one limestone pinnacle to another when I saw a charming scene. A seedling oak, probably an evergreen Emory Oak, had sprouted a couple of years ago in a shallow crevice in the stone. A large Emory Oak grew nearby from the base of the formation and this tree most likely contributed the acorn.

There was only a couple inches of humus in the crevice, some of it contributed by coatimundis. Like raccoons, coatis like to poop on some sort of prominence.

The tiny oak’s leaves were a pleasing shade of mauve or violet and the under-surfaces were pale. Perhaps the reddish pigments protect the chlorophyll in the leaves from the intense summer sun. I imagine that by now the oak’s roots have blindly sought out minute cracks in the limestone at the bottom of the crevice.

This miniature scene cheered me; I always enjoy glimpsing lives which are lived in a vastly different time-scale than my own.

oak_seedling

Larry

Teff Pancakes

Last night I was pondering in a culinary mode. What to cook? Something new would be nice, I thought. Prospecting in the kitchen cupboards I came across a sack of teff flour, something I’ve never tasted. I knew that teff originated in the highlands of Ethiopia, but there were no Ethiopians handy to answer that crucial question: what do you do with this obscure grain?

Whenever Ethiopians are thin on the ground I gravitate towards Google, that fount of information which increasingly is replacing my memory. There I found a recipe from the New York Times which looked interesting:

Teff And Oatmeal Pancakes

We had no blueberries, but I figured frozen cranberries would be a good substitute. Twenty minutes later I had two meals’ worth of nice-looking pancakes cooked up, and another twenty minutes saw half of them consumed. I’m not sure that I could detect whatever difference using teff flour might have made in the taste of the pancakes, but I do believe it’s generally worthwhile to vary ingredients. We might as well make good use of the global food distribution network before it crumbles and we are reduced to winnowing bluegrass seeds in the toxic breeze!

Here’s a shot of a plate of leftover pancakes. I thought that they were quite photogenic!

teff-pancake

Larry