Around the World in 30 Days (4)

This was my second time in the US. After the Smoky mountains I took a zigzag path to Florida. I had no real plan except to take some time from work to make a pilgrimage to Cape Kennedy, to see the place from which the longest trip in human history was made. But some people I met up with suggested a trip to the Everglades. So we piled into a car and drove down to the National Park.

A walk through the park would have been rewarding enough for me, the sight of Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) hanging from trees was so amazing. It was still a while before the world wide web would replace reference books, so it was not till that December that I had time to sit down and figure out that this was not moss, but a flowering plant, distantly related to pineapples.

It was possible to take a boat ride through the river. I was glad we decided to do that, because it was one of the most instructive rides I had. There were lots of turtles and alligators to be seen, and this picture of an alligator asleep with its snout resting on the back of a turtle was something that remained in my mind. I was surprised to look at the picture again and discover that my actual photo was not so good.

It would be decades before I began bird watching. This must have been my first time out spotting birds. As the launch puttered past stately mangroves, the guide pointed out various birds. I think the photo above was of a cast of vultures. Looking at it now along with a checklist of the birds of the Everglades, I think they were turkey vultures (Cathartes aura). I didn’t remember that at all.

This bird drying itself on a fallen mangrove does not seem to be a darter. My money is on it being a Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), simply because it is the most common of cormorants in the Everglades. But it could be Double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus). I can’t remember, and from this photo there is no way to tell. It would be another twenty years before I learnt to take multiple photos of every bird I saw so that I could identify it later.

The bird in the center of this photo is a great egret (Ardea alba), a common bird found everywhere. I wouldn’t usually take a picture of it these days, but it kind of anchors this landscape well. This picture captures the impression of the Everglades that I hold in my memory: forest, swamp, birds, and rivers.

I eventually went to Cape Kennedy but didn’t take my camera. I can’t believe how seldom I would carry my camera thirty years ago. I found that there was a shuttle launch the next day, and was sad I would miss it because I would be boarding my flight home at roughly that time. Incredibly, soon after my flight took off, the captain announced a space shuttle to port. I was next to a window, and I looked out to see the space shuttle Atlantis. It had just taken off for its mission of 15 November, 1990. For a while I could see this ball of fire flying parallel to our path, and then it veered off and was lost in the haze of the atmosphere. I couldn’t have planned a better to start the last flight of my journey around the world.

Around the world in 30 days (3)

The plane flew east over the Pacific. I slept as we passed over a quarter of the earth, and the clock turned back to yesterday. In LA I changed planes in a daze, and woke up only near dawn, to a question about coffee or tea. I can take bad coffee easier than bad tea. As I nursed a tasteless hot cup, I looked down at a very rumpled landscape cut through by rivers of clouds.

Where were we? The seat next to me was empty, and the cabin crew had done their job and passed on. The announcement from the cockpit was my saviour. We were passing the rockies. I looked down as we flew towards the terminator, the colour changing to a bright gold as the peaks turned gradually towards the sun. This must have been the southern tip of the range; we were perhaps over north Arizona or south Utah.

These 50 million year old mountains were not my destination this time. We flew over the north American continental divide towards the 450 million years old Appalachian mountains. I find it amazing that these mountains continue on into the Scottish hills and the Atlas mountains of Morocco. They were formed in the collision of the north American and African plates as the supercontinent of Pangaea was formed.

My destination was Gatlinburg in Tennessee. Thirty years ago this was still a bustling tourist town. It was amazing luck that someone would actually want to have a conference in this lovely place, otherwise I would never have thought of coming here. Soon enough I had my first view of the Smoky Mountains (see featured photo). I always thought that the “smoke” that hangs over these mountains must be mist. But I read that this is at least partly caused by organic compounds exhaled by trees.

I managed to get away from my work for long enough to go for a short walk through the mountains. Autumn is a wonderful time here. Even after seeing the deliberately planted autumn garden of Nikko in the previous week, a walk through the woods was stunning. I have a fond memory of a part of the path in which all the trees on one side had turned red but those on the other were green.

The mountains have (had? This was thirty years ago) cut through by beautiful streams, with absolutely clear water. This was my first visit to a national park in the US. My memories of the town of Gatlinburg have faded, but not of my walk through the forest. There are so many things left to see around the world that I don’t think I will go back, but it is a memory that remains alive.

Rare mustard

The ghosts of Junes past reminded me of a walk near the beach in the Asilomar state park of California. This is a nature reserve on a lovely beach near Pacific Grove in Monterey county. My attention was caught by a straggling little plant covered in wire mesh (featured photo). That led me to the discovery that this area was a protected micro-ecology, and that this tiny plant was a rare species on which protection effort is focused.

The four-petaled flowers belong to the Menzies wallflower (Erysimum menziesii). I saw it in its typical habitat: bare beach sand over which the salt sea spray would land now and then. I was lucky to see the flowers; they usually flower earlier. I could already see the fruits; the long flat bean-like things that surround the flowers. There are a lot of seeds there, so it is not clear why it is endangered. The answer comes in two parts. Most of the seeds are unable to grow into mature plants, and therefore they are out-competed by invasive plants. The conservation effort focuses on removing trampling hazard (for example by placing wire mesh over it) and by removing invasive plants by hand.

This is an enormous human effort, and brought home to me how skewed the global conservation effort is. A few hectares of California coastline probably get more economic and human help than parts of the Amazon basin which went up in flames last year. There are structural factors at play, and we should perhaps think about that as we decide which charity to donate to.

Golden Gate Bridge

I continued with image-archeology and discovered photos of the most photographed bridge in the world. You take a risk doing this, because there is little that you can do that hasn’t been done before. And that little would probably involve something possibly illegal like flying a microlight through the suspension cables. I wasn’t going to try any of that, so I tried to leave out the bridge and capture the blue water and the early summer sunlight on a June morning eight years ago. The building that you see in the shadow of the bridge is the Lime Point lighthouse.

That photo was taken from the north. I took a conventional full on view of the bridge from San Francisco as the fog began to roll in. At least, I thought it was conventional. Not so much, it seems. Most people today are aware of how very ordinary something like this looks, so it is more common today to seek a different viewpoint. As a result, if you search for images of the bridge on Oodles, you will find a googol images which look nothing like this. I like the idea of being superlatively ordinary!

Common birds of San Francisco bay area

I was doing some archaeology with my photos and found some which I’d taken of birds in the San Francisco bay area eight years ago. This surprised me immensely because I did not think of myself as a bird watcher in those days. Maybe it was because The Family had already started carrying binoculars and field guides to birds on our holidays that made me take these photos in backyards and walks. I took the featured photo out of a kitchen window one morning while making a tea. I think that is a Western Wood Peewee (Contopus sordidulus). I have a couple of other photos, all of the same quality, but together they seem to defy an alternative identification.

In the same patch of ground at the same time I also spotted this small yellow and black bird. Again I have several photos, none of them very good, but all together indicating that this is perhaps the Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria). It is certainly small enough to be one, and the colour makes it unlikely that it is anything else.

Afterwards I stood in the kitchen with my tea and photrographed this dove. I hadn’t seen anything before which looks like this. It is the Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura). The birds I saw were all common birds, with a large range and stable population. They are of no concern to conservationists. I found them interesting then, because I knew nothing of New World birds. I have a memory of planning to identify them later. I could hardly have thought that the plan would mature almost a decade later.

The commonest of American birds was new to me. I found now that I have several photos of the American robin (Turdus migratorius) apart from the one you see above. This has a much more faded red in the breast than the variety I’ve seen on the east coast. Perhaps that means it belongs to the subspecies propinquus, which is one of the two subspecies which one can see in this area. I suppose I spent a bit of time photographing this bird because it looked different from the robins I’d seen before.

Identifying the bird which you can see in the photo above was not easy, although I have several photos. The reason, as ARKive says, is that the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) “from different areas vary quite considerably in size, colouration and behaviour”, although it is one of the commonest birds in North America. If you look through the photos in that site, you see how different they can look. Although the Wikipedia page has several photos, none of them look like this.

I spent quite a while looking at this common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and because I thought that I’d seen something quite similar halfway across the globe. My impression was correct. The web page of the Audubon Society says that it was brought to the Americas in the 1890s, and has since spread across this new habitat. My photos show the typical feeding behaviour of this adult male: poking at the grass repeatedly and eventually tugging its prey out of the group (photo above). I didn’t seen any flocks, though.

Finally that little song bird that is so common that I ignored it until it sat down on garden furniture right in front of me. This is the House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), which can be found everywhere from central Canada to Tierra del Fuego. That probably makes it one of the commonest of American birds. I wasn’t really looking for birds during that trip, and it is just chance that I took these photos. As a result, I have photos of the commonest of birds in the Bay Area.

Magical New York

When I first saw the sign in the featured photo I was taken aback. Somewhere a few paces back had I crossed an invisible line and now found myself in the New York of the Harry Potter universe? No such luck. It turns out that the department of transportation is behind these signs. There are stop signs on the road and pedestrian crossing at half-block points from the 51st to the 53rd street. These lead through a linked series of privately owned public spaces. This is the secret avenue in the heart of mid-town Manhattan. Just a badly kept secret, and not magic! I mentally shrugged my shoulders and moved on.

New York City skyliine

The day went by in a succession of muggle lattes. Later that evening I think I saw magic again. Looking out over the city I saw ectoplasm dribbling into the sky over the headquarters of the Ghostbusters. There’s a photo here to tell you that it’s the truth. New York is not totally mundane, rest assured.

The Potter Building

Contemporary opinion on the Potter Building, completed in 1886, is very mixed. One critic called it “coarse, pretentious, overloaded and intensely vulgar”. Another thought it was a “great and illustrious monument”. I was quite impressed by the sheer size of this building from more than a hundred and thirty years ago. It takes up a block, and rises to 11 storeys. Park Row and Beekman Street make an acute angle, and from this rises the tall column in the centre of the featured photo, topped off by a pinnacle.

The lot was owned by Orlando Potter, a very successful businessman and a prominent figure in local politics. When the previous building burnt down, he commissioned a new building in the same spot by architect Norris Starkweather. The building was to have every possible fire safety feature then known. At that time this meant that the construction would use iron and terra cotta. The iron framework, called a cage, supported the floors. The exterior walls were of fire-resistant brick, twice as thick at the bottom as the twenty inches on top. The base is clad in cast iron. Terra cotta had come into use after the Chicago fire of the previous decade, and this building used it extensively.

New York City: Potter Building detail

You can see some of the details of the terra cotta work in the photo above. A contemporary account noted that terra cotta used as a structural element was half as heavy as stone, while being equally fire proof. The deep sculpting of the terra cotta exterior in this building contrasts with those in the two neighbouring ones, for example, the Morse building behind it on Beekman Street.

I’d wanted to take a good look at the external light court on Beekman Street, but the ongoing external work meant that I could not. The building was originally office space, but has now become cooperative housing. It looked like a nice place to stay. Just out of curiosity I looked at the building listing, and found that nothing is available for rent or ownership currently.

New York City: Potter Building Park Row

I walked around it and found that the white tower behind it is another notable. It is one of the tallest residential buildings in the world. Frank Gehry was the architect and it was completed in 2011.

buonagurio@times.sq

Looking to catch my train at the Times Square/42nd Street subway station, I passed a long glass corridor. The monotony of the white glass was broken by colourful ceramic tiles set into the wall. I looked at some closely. Every day about half a million people pass through this subway station. If one percent of them look at a panel, it means that the ceramic works by Toby Buonagurio are examined daily by about 500 people. That’s a lot of inspection.

New York City: Times Sq 42nd St subway station

I examined the lovely work behind the lady in pink. If it had a title, it would be Boy with a hot dog. I examined the wonderful colours of the hot dog: perfectly done. A scribble in the pool of mustard says that the work was done in the year 2000. I googled the name of the artist. She has 35 of these panels in the station, in a group called 35 Times. Her web site allows you to buy good quality signed prints of these works. How many prints does she sell? You do the math.

The ceramic tablets are beautiful. I examined three more of the tablets. I think I would call them Looking at the NY skyline, New Year’s Eve party, and Two women with ice cream. Bright and cheerful pieces, each of them.

New York City: Times Sq 42nd St subway station New York City: Times Sq 42nd St subway station New York City: Times Sq 42nd St subway station

Buonagurio teaches ceramics at an university. The world’s most famous search engine vomited up various links for her, including a page at her university where I found reviews of her course by students. The most illuminating was this: “Toby was my ceramics teacher about 30 years ago and I’ve never forgotten her. She’s the best. Btw, I’ve been an artist and teacher all these years – though I’ve changed media, Toby teaches how to do things right, no easy way out.”

Still standing in the doorway

Often a writer will be known for years to a small readership before she writes that one novel which makes her known to the rest of the world. While walking uptown in New York, I came across the moral equivalent of such a history, set in brick and mortar. I wasn’t quite thinking of the route when I looked ahead at a crossing and saw before me the southwestern end of Carnegie Hall (see the featured photo). In 1961 Bob Dylan broke out of an already charmed circle of listeners in a concert at this place. It is not everyday that you walk past a place where a Nobel Prize winner was born to the world’s consciousness.

New York City: Carnegie Hall and tower

I came back to look at it again. When the million dollar hall was inaugurated in 1890 it was considered to be almost in the suburbs. When Tchaikovsky conducted his own composition on the opening night, structural steel had not yet been invented. The building was made of brick. It looks heavy and squat in spite of the Renaissance design of the facade. I wanted to take a photo of the stylish and simple foyer which was part of the overall design by Willian Tuthill, but the doors seemed to be locked. I don’t mind having to go back there. The next time I’ll make sure to select an interesting concert to go for.

Stone street

A little cobbled lane leads off from Hanover Square in downtown New York. No vehicle can pass through it, because the bars and restaurants lining the road have placed benches across it. It is a cheerful place. You wouldn’t look at it a second time, unless you wanted to sit down and relax.

It is hard to figure that it was once called High Street. In 1658 it was the pride of New Amsterdam because it was the first paved road on the continent. A few years before that the continent’s first brewery was founded in a building on the road. I don’t think any of the buildings survive. The exit of the Dutch and then of the English gave rise to much rebuilding. After that, the fire of 1835 wiped out a large part of lower Manhattan.

The look of the street is recent. It is possible, but unlikely, that the cobble stones are historic. After all, the road was redone in 1996. I walked through and peered at