14 August 2008

Like Wildfire

If it’s taken me a while to document my June trip to California, it is because I wanted the time and space to ponder this most unusual trip to a countryside normally so familiar. This most recent trip to California was like a journey to another country, an unfamiliar territory so altered is the entire state by the element of Fire.

My husband M and I define a typical week of vacation as time spent doing as much outdoors as we can possibly squeeze into ten days. We flew across the United States sardine between two rows of young children, one of which wailed almost the entire way. I had not slept well for several nights before the flight so needless to say the screaming child lungs made my brain want to dissolve. Plus, I was starving. I had been too tired to remember that gone are the days when meals are provided in-flight. Not even a lousy bag of peanuts anymore. Hah-rumph!

Descending into LAX we discovered a heat wave. Los Angeles was not on fire, but it felt like it at 107-degrees Fahrenheit M drove North into the arid San Joaquin Valley and I blissfully slept through the afternoon, California dreamin’.

When I awoke we were nearing the mid-sized town of Tulare and we stopped to grab a take-out sub for dinner. The radiant heat from the parking lot tarmac was nearly unbearable. But, I thought, It’s a dry heat. (Unlike the semi-tropical Maryland swamp from where I had just come.)

We woke up before the sun rose, still on East Coast time. We were happy to have the early start so that we could walk among the Giant Sequoias in relative peace and quiet before the tour buses arrived. The National Park was some distance from Tulare, so we drove through some of the smaller towns and out into the “salad bowl” region at their outskirts. I saw vast rows of vegetables, soaking up the solar glare, ripening for the mega-market grocers so that they might make it onto American’s dinner plates. Some nice bits of nostalgic Americana can be viewed as you near the park, like the ten-foot high, metal Steer-shaped roaster at a B-B-Q stand.

Soon the road began to wind out of the valley and into the rolling lowlands of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We were amazed just how much winding we were doing. It didn’t look so winding on the highway map. The vistas of foothill lakes and green hillsides were worth the twisting drive.

We entered Sequoia National Park at the crest of the Sierra. I’d seen photographs of the Sequoias since childhood, but none of the images could prepare you for standing at the foot of a tree that could be one of the oldest living beings on the plant. Walking in a grove of Sequoias might make you believe in J.R.R. Tolkein’s race of Ents or believe in tree spirits. They are so tall and so old; they embody the meaning of word “great” in every way.

For me this experience of touching the Sequoias’ greatness was awe-inspiring. What made the trip all the more poignant was that after we returned back down to the broiling Central Valley we found out on the TV news that 800 fires had been sparked throughout California . Many wildfires resulted from these first sparks, caused by the combination of a land already desperate with drought hit by a rash of dry thunder and lightning storms.

At the time I was watching the news in my safe hotel room, the concept of wildfires seemed somewhat distant. But little did I know that I would be learning more than I ever cared to about the threat of wildfire in California before the end of this vacation.

22 July 2008

How to Build an Earth Oven

Do you remember your teachers asking you on the first week of school what you did for your summer vacation? Well, if I were still in school, this would have been a story to amaze my teacher and classmates.
My friend, TH, is an amazing baker and cook. She is also very wise in the ways of crafts and organizing activities that bring diverse people together.

Her great ambition has been to build and use a wood-fired oven in her own backyard. TH is not someone who merely dreams big -- she builds! She did her homework and found a book by Kiko Denzer called Build Your Own Earth Oven. She also found a website showing a group of masons who built an oven of the type she wanted using Kiko Denzer's model. Here is another website I found of a group of Australian gardeners built a similar oven.
Then she and her dad cooked up a scheme to build a test model in his backyard as a practice version. Her two teenage sons helped their grandad build the test oven. This was very wise since they notice a water-seepage problem because the test oven had no drain. So, they knew they had to make drainage holes in TH's oven.
TH's Dad drew plans up for brick foundations to be built in her backyard over the course of several summer weeks with the help of his grandsons. Then, the next step was to create the inner oven wall, made entirely of cobb, that is, clay from a local source, plus sand, mixed with straw.
And that's where I come into the "Earth Oven Project 2008," because TH invited me and a group of her friends and neighbors to be a part of the oven's creation.
It was an extremely hot (mid 90s F) day in mid-July, but not so humid as Maryland suburbs can be in this season. When I arrived on the scene, the boys were mixing cobb, as the English settlers to North America called it. Cobb is the blend of clay, sand, and straw that forms the bricks to create the earth oven. Here's an image of the boys pounding it out by foot and testing its moisture content.

While the boys were mixing cobb, it was up to the rest of us to prepare the igloo-shaped sand mound around which the inner oven insulation would be formed.

After we made the sand mound (notice the brace we used to prevent sand from rolling off the edge), we covered the sand with wet newspaper, rather like you would a form for papier maché. By the time all hands had covered the sand mound with newspaper, TH's husband G had laid out a delicious spread for a hardy lunch. I had brought the beer and cider and there were copious amounts of herbal infusions and lemonade available for thirsty workers.
The next phase was to cover the entire sand mound with cobb bricks, so we spent the remainder of the afternoon doing just that. A shady yard and a bit of breeze go a long way to making summer's heat bearable. So does telling stories, laughter, and watching the boys rough-housing. We generally had a merry time at it, despite the heat.

Finally, about 5:00 p.m. we neared the home stretch. Only a tiny hole a the top of the insulation layer remained.
It takes something very interesting indeed to get me out on a 90-degree day, but this project was well worth it. I can remember with fondness mushing mudpies in my hands, but this is the most ambitious "mudpie" experiment I have witnessed. It's also very like molding a clay pot on a grand scale. The end result is larger than any typical potter might attempt on her/his own. The very social aspect of building something like the earth oven as part of a group, including several families, several generations is not unlike our pioneer ancestors did when a house frame or community barn needed to be built.
The outer layer of insulation and the final brick housing for TH's oven will be constructed by her, her family and friends next weekend.
I look forward to coming over to her house someday soon to enjoy wood-fired bread or pizza baked in her backyard.

PS. if you wish to know more about this fabulous earth oven, please contact my friend who runs Dances with Loaves in Maryland.

05 July 2008


I enclose to you a copy of the declaration of independence as agreed to by the House, and also, as originally framed. You will judge whether it is the better or worse for the Critics.

—Thomas Jefferson, Letter, July 8, 1776, to Richard Henry Lee.

(Borrowed image source: Portrait Miniature of Jefferson by John Trumbull, Collection of Monticello. 1788)

I have been living near the Chesapeake Bay now for quite a few years. I have come to think of Maryland as "home" on many levels. The number of years I have lived on the East Coast is growing equal to the number of years I spent growing up in a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio.

I have loved American history since I was a child. I never did think I would become a scholar of American history at all, but I liked to read stories of America's War for Independence from Britain such as the ride of Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty who threw tea into Boston Harbor. When I was about 9 or 10, my parents took me on vacation to Colonial Williamsburg where I became entranced with the dirt streets, cobblestones, carriages, fine folks strolling the paths, and craftsmen inviting you to watch their works in progress. I could imagine all the important politicians rushing to meet the Governor or attend the House of Burgesses, while their pretty wives and daughters embroidered or played music in grand parlours. (Now, if you want to take an arm-chair tour of Colonial Williamsburg, you can just visit their "Tour the Town" link. If only I had Internet access as a child!)

I think it was that particular vacation, where my parents took me for the first time to visit the home of a man who I have come to admire among all the so-called "founding fathers," Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson's home, Monticello, situated on a green ridge-top in Albemarle County, Virginia, enchanted my young mind. The lush trees embrace the river winding through the valley, and you drive up a winding road towards the distant past. When I was young I thought it had been there for centuries.

I had never seen a house like Jefferson's. So stately was its octagonal form balanced right on top of the entrance hall. (I mean, who builds a house with an octagonal dome? How cool is that! ) Inside was a treasure trove, where maps hung on the walls and natural specimens from Lewis and Clark's journey were spread around the room. I was fond of Jefferson's inventions like the Great Clock that tells hours, minutes, seconds, and day of the week, using cannonballs as weights to drive the device. He also had beautiful writing instruments and nifty scientific instruments all over his office and library.

Over the years since that first trip my fascination for Jefferson has only grown more complex and deeper. I find the fact that he was a conflicted slave-owner interesting, but it becomes even more so when you learn that he had a long relationship with his wife's half-sister, the mulatto woman Sally Hemings. (Yes, I believe the DNA research.) He was truly a renaissance man, being a scholar, a traveler, a statesman, an architect, an inventor, a scientist, a amateur fiddle-player, and a lover of the finer things in life.

Yes, I must admit I have fallen under Jefferson's spell a very long time ago. He must have been a charismatic gentleman, if introverted. He strikes me as a man more apt to put pen to paper in response than to speak aloud in passion.

But to think of what he and his compatriots in Philadelphia risked in the two years leading to the Declaration of Independence is beyond me. They risked wealth, reputation, career, life-and-limb for their belief in freedom. True, they put parameters on who could be free in keeping with their own time, but I cannot hold that against them.

We each have to walk our own journey through time and space. What my "culture" is today, will become different with every passing day. That is what history is all about. Finding fragments of time standing still, but we all know time does not stand still.

Each year on Independence Day I celebrate the lives of men who were quite flawed and human, but who nonetheless changed their world, their culture, with a big idea: Liberty, that is, freedom from autocratic government.

How many countless people across this Earth have been caught up in their revolution ever since?

I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.
—Thomas Jefferson, Letter to James Madison (January 30, 1787); referring to Shays' Rebellion

19 June 2008

My Long, Lost Atari 800

I recently had a conversation with a young lady of nineteen years about computers from the 1980s. "They were bulky, weren't they?" she speculated from accounts she'd heard.

"Bulky" is not the half of it! Compared to computers of today, the Commodore 64s, Ataris, and other PCs of the early 1980s were barely more intelligent and powerful than the a 2008 scientific calculator. And, yes, they were quite clumsy and weighed as much as a pile of my high school textbooks. The typical 21st-century urbanite carries more computing power in her or his mobile phone and iPod, then the computers of the Eighties.

That line of thinking has brought up fond memories of my first personal computer, my long, lost Atari 800. What ever happened to that old thing? I suppose we must have disposed of it when my parents moved to a second-floor apartment while I was in college round about 1989.

I was one of the first kids on my street to have my own computer. I guess I've always been a bit of a geek for new technology. My Atari 800 was all I wanted for Christmas. My parents were not well-off financially compared to many of the kids at my high school, but they understood the educational value of my desire. My father likely foresaw the advantage I would have if I could grasp the power of this new tool at a young age. Even though he preferred to draw by hand, he agreed to shell out his hard-earned commercial artist's cash, probably close to $1000 I now realize, on my one and only Christmas present that year.

I was thirteen years old. I had never had such an incredible toy! I had the mind-swirling video game Asteroids on cartridge and a -- I kid you not -- cassette-tape loading game called Energy Czar. (Those of you who remember the Jimmy Carter years, are probably snickering right about now.) That game took 30-minutes to load from cassette player to the Atari 800's memory chip. The text-based thought game tested your wits against the statistics of population-growth, demand for fossil fuels, and nuclear energy versus solar power. . . Wait a minute! That sounds like 2008, not 1983. My, my. We still exploit the earth's resources. But, I digress.

Rats! I cannot remember the other game that I loved and played so much. It was an Atari cartridge game with the player as a space pilot in a Star Wars-like fighter who must go through hyperspace and chase down all of the bad guys. (Feel free to remind me if you recognize the game I'm describing.)

My big purchase in games during 1984 was an Atari cartridge game, Defender. I loved that one! The graphics seemed so smooth and slick. I liked it even better than the space pilot game for the sound effects and joystick steering.

My Atari 800 was not the first computer I had used, so my desire for a computer of my own was based upon experiences in school. Our gifted-and-talented program classroom had a Radio Shack TRS80. My classmates and I all took turns playing. I learned how to create a simple game in several lines of Basic. Once I got the Atari 800, I was coding all kinds of little games and images using if/then statements preceded by numbers in increments of 10. Learning Basic code seemed so high-tech. I was so proud of myself, my own geek-dom.

By 1985, I bought my first word-processing software and began to draft my school reports electronically, printed out from my dot-matrix printer. For that era my word processor was actually quite sophisticated. I could code diacritical marks, change fonts, the whole nine yards. Some of my teachers actually preferred hand-written papers to printed ones back in those days. I could no longer read my wretched cursive hand (I never really learned cursive script well). I taught myself a half-print, half-cursive style that I still use today just so I could read my own hand-writing. Do they even teach cursive today in public schools? Back then computers were so rare that most scholarship was all long-hand.

My very first serious research paper on "The Wasteland" a poem by T.S. Eliot of seven pages in length with footnotes was drafted by hand, but typed on my Atari. Well, all scholars have got to start somewhere. Little did I know at that time that I would be someday giving academic conference papers on some of T.S. Eliot's friends, artists Roger Fry and Vanessa Bell.

I stored my T.S. Eliot paper and some other assignments on 5-inch floppy diskettes. There was no hard-drive in my Atari 800, so that was the only option other than the cassette-tape drive. I had a modem, too. But never really understood how the bulletin board systems worked in the early days of the Internet. It seemed so weird and the community networking climate was all academic, all scientific lingo. Way over my 14-year-old head.

By the time I graduated from high school, I knew Basic code reasonably well for an arts and humanities student. Never brilliant at mathematics, I wisely chose a liberal arts track while studying abroad in England my freshman year of college funded by a merit-based scholarship. My college in England had only very early IBM computers, so I went back to writing papers by hand for a couple of semesters. I gave up on trying to make their outdated word processor work for me.

It's just amazing to review my own little piece of personal computer history and realize I was part of an technological revolution. A child of the 1980s, I was among the first to experience computers on a daily level. Now that is taken for granted.

And now, of course, my iPod Nano could beat up my long, lost Atari 800.

15 June 2008

Tempus fugit

Can it already be so close to the Summer solstice? I have not written anything here for far too long. The past six months have been a bit of a blur.

I go through periods of time when it is very difficult for me to express myself to others, except to those very few people to whom I always readily open up. At times like this I feel a bit sluggish and reserved sometimes. I seem to take a long time to process new ideas and situations mentally. I don't think these feelings qualify as full on "depression." No, I think that's too strong a word. It's more like a period of hibernation that allows me to dig deeply into myself and learn new truths, even difficult ones. It is a growing process. There is always an ebb and flow to my creative output relative to other factors affecting my life.

My quiet times are as much a part of my creativity as my witty times, when I seem to be full of new energy and exuberance for connecting with the world.

Is all of this normal? I think so. I think that the creative juices cannot always be flowing full tilt. If they did, there is a strong danger of burn-out. Like the tide creativity must necessarily ebb and flow.

When I get away from my writing it is usually because there is an under-current, or thought-process, churning away in the background that needs time to gestate. I am often not consciously aware of why the mental block has appeared. One day it's just there and I accept it for whatever it may bring.

I feel that I'm reaching the end of a long road. Maybe it is best represented by the spreading leaves arching over the pathway that I photographed at the Governor's Palace in Colonial Williamsburg. It appears to be an a-ha moment, when the light of day is seeping back into dusty corners of my mind. New doors are creaking open for me. The creative juices are flowing once again.

Time to begin anew.