Saturday, July 31, 2010

It's The Most Wonderful Time of The Year

Okay, maybe I exaggerated a little bit with the title, but when BBC streams the World Pipe Band Championships live, two years in a row, superlatives are about all that come to mind. The date for very early rising for those of us on this side of the pond is August 14 this year, and the excitement is here.

Friday, July 30, 2010

West Coast Lady

The alleged territorial habits of butterflies in the Vanessa genus might be what makes these insects so absorbing to photograph. They startle if you get too close, but having indulged in their obligatory barnstorming session, they generally settle down again quite close to the spot they just left. It gets to be a bit of a game, seeing just how carefully close you can move before they explode into flight. More tricky is keeping them in constant sight through the eccentricities of their arial acrobatics so they might not disappear in a sudden landing. The pictures here are all the same butterfly, over the space of about 5 minutes at the Davis Arboretum last Sunday. I had guessed it to be a Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui),but when it settled down at last with its wings open, the blue spots marked it as a West Coast Lady (Vanessa annabella).

Thursday, July 29, 2010

All Kind of Related

Well, for starters, I found this video, which is quite a lot of fun. How to tap your feet like a Quebecois fiddler + Le Vent du Nord = what's not to like?

I enjoyed that enough to see whether the folks who posted it, the Institute of Musical Traditions in Maryland, had any other videos. Which they do indeed (YouTube channel here). But who would have guessed that "any other videos" would include an Alasdair Fraser/Natalie Haas duet?

Then the search veered off in another direction as I thought if I put up a fiddle version of "Gloomy Winter's Noo Awa'," I might do well to find a definitive sung version. It's hard to say if Ben the Hoose has a definitive sung version, as the sample they have on their website is likewise mostly fiddle, but they are another duo worth a listen, in any case.

Most coincidental of all (but far off the trad music track), the phrase "gloomy winter" had been used in this nature photography blog post--so if you'd like to see some birds in very sharp focus indeed, that would be the place to check. If you've had enough birds for one week, go have a look anyway. It's pure art.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mostly Avian

Sunday afternoon this week meant a Sunday drive to have a look at the UC Davis Arboretum. It was quite a pleasant jaunt, after I got through the double torture of a traffic bottleneck in West Sac and the Youngbloods' "Get Together" coming on the radio simultaneously. That's not generally a song I tolerate at great length but I was too occupied with trying to keep track of who was merging and who was moving over, and who was losing a lane, and who was giving up and going back to Sacramento to reach over and turn it off. It proved a source of great entertainment when the chorus kicked in. The gentle-voiced singers were advising "Try to love one another right now!" and I was wondering why the jerk ahead of me didn't merge already since I'd left him a nice big space to merge into--surely he wasn't going to insist on passing yet another car before his lane ran out! And was the jerk (for he must be a jerk, and not possibly in the right) behind me honking at me for no apparent reason, or had some other unseen driver been caught in the middle of committing some infraction that would work its way up the centipede line of cars and become my concern all too soon?

The Davis Arboretum, thankfully, was about as far from bottlenecks and radios as you can get while still being within a mile of I-80. It was very quiet indeed; I had many a parking space to choose from (free, as it is on weekends, too) and gratefully left the car to its own devices for a while.

As I had decided to drive out on the spur of the moment, finding the Sunday afternoon heavy with the bright new intelligence that there was a botanical garden in Davis, I hadn't taken much time to research how the Arboretum was laid out. Without spending a good deal of time mulling it over, memories of other gardens had prepared me to expect something. . .well, if not expansive, giving, at least, a certain impression of spaciousness . This was why I was, at first, slightly disappointed to discover that the Arboretum is, through most of its considerable length, restricted to the banks of Putah Creek. It was, however, only a very momentary disappointment, which was pounced upon and devoured by the notion that there was far too much to see as it was.

While I am sure the creek has its charms as a feature in its own right, and likely enables the growing of some fine riparian flora, the greatest entertainment that it provided was the creatures living in and around it. I was only a few hundred yards on my wanderings when I was stopped by the sight of a barn swallow (or so I believe it was) calmly sitting on a branch over the water. I had never, in fact, seen a barn swallow calmly sitting anywhere, so I stopped to see it while I could, admiring the contrast of its sleek purple back and its scarlet face. It was just a hair too far away for me to get a sharp picture, but, since it didn't seem to be going anywhere, I had plenty of shots at it anyway.

It was carrying on a sporadic conversation with another swallow which would occasionally make an airborne appearance, coming in for a fly-by above the still water. The efforts of this second bird had a graceful conclusion, almost at my feet as I stood on the bridge. With sharp bank that would have done a Spitfire pilot proud, it came in on a blur that was a moth, winging, white beneath the overhanging trees. For an instant, sharp and startling as the best photo I missed all afternoon, all the unknown wonder of "footless halls of air" was suspended in the narrow void between the dark branches and the dark water. The moth was a darting star, wheeling across a strange, green inverted sky, and after it, exploded a presence, all spear-graceful wings, and purple smoke and red fire. Somewhere in the depths of space, these two impossible forces collided, and the star fluttered feebly in the mouth of the swallow.

Less graceful in its first impression was the green heron I glimpsed several times along stream's course. Its feathers were, from a distance, as smooth--and imaginative--as something that had been drawn in coloured pencil, but when it would sense anyone nearby, its efforts to make itself scarce gave an impression of great vexation, rather than fear. It had fine, strong, bright yellow legs, which it used to such a desperate effect, galloping off at a quick, but ungainly waddle, that at first I (who had never seen a green heron before and had no idea what I was looking at) wondered whether it could fly at all. When, at last, with a cry of exasperation, it took off, it proved quite steady in the air, with an elegant wingspan that came as a surprise on its stolid body. Much less airworthy and certainly lacking in long, yellow legs, turtles would surface through the murky water on occasion. The pictures I got of those were irredeemably out of focus, probably because of overabundance of lighting between the sun and its reflection on the water, but they were quite funny to watch. Their build dictates only one possible way for them to swim, their heavy shells dragging below the surface of the water and only their noses just barely above it. Of course, going around at an angle like this, with their noses literally in the air, they have quite a supercillious look about them. Perhaps they have good reason for looking as though they think they should be envied--in some of the long, sunny stretches, even that green water looked rather tempting to me, too.

As I said, though, an early impression of the Arboretum was that there was too much to see. I felt rather as though I was faced with a buffet where, in feeling obliged to taste everything, I put myself in danger of missing those dishes I knew I liked best. That is to say, I would stop in one place and shoot a few pictures, and instead of getting all I could out of that location, would stop and push myself around the next bend in the creek in the interest of "seeing it all." Which I never did. But that's enough for tonight.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Monday Music

The iconic fiddler/mandolinist/composer Peter Ostroushko has a grand selection of tunes on his website, and in styles ranging from ragtime to Irish to Ukrainian. No miserly 30-second samples here, though since he had to leave you wanting something, only three selections from each CD are available (which is enough to keep anyone busy for quite some time, as the man has, industriously, made quite a few CD's).

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Matilija Poppies

Calflora has just about everything you might want to know about this native shrub.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Gory Etymology

This I did not know. Not that I've ever heard "decimate" used in a particularly cheerful sense anyway, but now they tell me it comes from the old Roman practice of punishing mutinous, or otherwise misbehaving legionaries by choosing a tenth of their number by lot, to be executed by their comrades. Here's a short article on the word, its use, and its misuse. One comfort--if you misuse it, whatever else the grammar police can do to you, they can't decimate you. Silver lining, and all that.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

In Which it Pours

At a country/bluegrass jam this afternoon, one of the musicians commented, "You can go for years without meeting any new fiddlers, and then all of a sudden, you'll run across six of them." The same must go for fiddle tunes; having posted Shetland music last night, I return to pass along a new tune that one of the guitar pickers at the jam today had just learned and was trying to teach me. I needn't mention, I am extremely thankful for YouTube--despite the man's patience in playing and replaying the tune at a clear, precise, and reasonable speed, the notes trickled, more or less, "through my head, like water from a sieve." But I did manage to recall the title, so here are a couple of versions of the "Temperance Reel". Kind of an interesting piece in that it is one of a handful (?) of apparently Irish tunes which have a degree of a regular following in the bluegrass world. (You do hear a good deal about bluegrass' Irish and Scottish roots, but it's a little rarer, at least in my experience, to run across a tune that retains such a close resemblance with the versions played in those traditions).

Anyway, here is a very bluegrassy version, complete with a couple of smashing banjo breaks by a group called High LoneSome Bluegrass Band.

And here is something even more unexpected (and I'm not just talking about the hat), a fluent harmonica version by Buddy Greene, Jeff Taylor (accordion/piano) and Tricia Walker (percussion) preceded by "Blackberry Blossom".

Saturday, July 10, 2010

For the Multitasker. . .

Shetland-Music offers this informative and enjoyable page; an article on Shetland fiddling (a three hundred year old tradition) and a sidebar full of tunes in case you're the sort who likes a bit of music with your reading. I can't speak for all the tunes yet, since I am sampling them in no particular order, and had to listen to Jenna Reid's twice; that girl plays a mighty sweet fiddle.

And, better and better, it looks as though this page is only a sliver in a forest of articles and biographies available on the site--but one must start somewhere.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Gadabout

Independence Day proved an interesting one this year. It was not the first time I had celebrated (if celebrating it can be called) my inalienable right to dress in woolen clothing on the 4th of July, but it was the first time I had ever played "Scotland the Brave" in downtown Napa. The band made a good showing, even if reeds (and throats) were getting a bit dry by the end of the parade route.

I had brought a change of clothes with a hazy notion of going. . .somewhere after the parade and getting a few pictures of. . .something. Fortunately, I took a wrong turn early in the day, when I was trying to find the spot where the band was supposed to meet, and found myself crossing Silverado Trail. What was it about the name that sounded so familiar? The answer took the form of a second question, which burst upon me scarce seconds later--How did you forget that Robert Louis Stevenson used to live around here? So, after the parade, and fully aware that no stretch of the imagination was going to qualify what I was doing as a legitimate 4th of July custom, I got back on Silverado Trail and drove up towards St. Helena to see if there was a trace of RLS to be found. There were certainly a good many cars to see. St. Helena was a happenin' place. Still the slowed traffic meant I had plenty of time to see the sign pointing the way to to the Stevenson museum. I chortled in my joy at this stroke of luck; searching for small, rumoured historical sites by dead reckoning is a very chancy business. Of course, I was under no misapprehensions that luck would extend to fantastical lengths and that the museum would be open, but it was still gratifying to find the place, neatly labeled, next to the public library.
There were small, mud-colored fish quivering in the fountain, and a dozen-odd indulgent yellowjackets were making semi-acquatic landings on the algae at the foot of the horsetail. They were so languid about it that one might have believed it was the insect version of the neighborhood pub; they certainly lingered over their drinks.

Not far from the fountain, a larger sign designated the library and museum, and beyond that was (perhaps not too surprisingly) a small, tidy vineyard.
Having satisfied, as far as I could, my literary curiousity by gazing at the stucco on the outside of the building, one might think I would be content and would head for home. Even I thought that-- but I did not do it. Instead I let myself be seized by an even wilder ambition, and, by rather devious routes, turned the car in a gradually westering direction.

After some time (the details of which I will spare you, as it mostly involved going around corners, so I could go around other corners and up grades so I could go down grades), I saw something grey and soft curled about the tops of the hills ahead of me. Fire? I didn't smell any smoke when I rolled the window down. Perhaps the wind was blowing the wrong way. But, no, the wind was just fine as it was, and great tufts of the grey stuff were eddying past the car. And it smelled wonderfully wet. "It's fog!" And grand fog it was, too, just flitting about in graceful pieces, cooling off July in a most unexpected way, and not interfering with driving in the least. And if fog on the hills was a sight for sore eyes, what was fog on the ocean? I, having driven about as far westward as I was going to get, got out at Doran Beach on Bodega Bay. Perhaps enthusiasm leads to exaggeration in this case, but the weather didn't feel much above 60, if it was even that. And there was plenty of ocean.
An intriguing boat was anchored and bobbing about at rather uncomfortable angles in the fog beyond the jetty.
After a time, either the crew found what they were looking for, or grew very tired of bobbing about at uncomfortable angles; they fired up the motor and came around to the harbour entrance. As the craft came nearer, it proved to be of a particularly endearing build--even wooden. The plot thickened with a sign hung over the side that belied the trawling rig, proclaiming, "Special Research." Judging from the beating they had been taking out on the water, they might well have been doing research on seasickness.
I lingered on the beach near the jetty for a while, trying to get an interesting angle of the waves, which ended up being a rather bad idea, as I had brought my pipes along, in their box, rather than leave them in the car. Of course, I was loathe to leave them too far out of reach, but that was not a very good reason for setting them down below the tide line, even if I was down there too. Inevitably, I got just far enough away to have a particularly enthusiastic wave go sizzling by me, and right through the box before I could reach it. Luckily the pipes were not touched at all, and the bag only got a couple of small spots of seawater, but the box is due for a good vacuuming--it's a miniature beach in there at the moment.
Even after I had packed my sandy box and my sandy self back into the car, it was a rather long departure. Every few hundred feet, it seemed there was a different feast for the eyes that could not be squandered for a mere drive home.
Doran Beach is on one side of a small peninsula; if I understand the geography correctly, the harbour channel runs around the end of the peninsula and skirts a salt marsh. That, being about as close to the end of the park as I could get, was my last stop, and it was difficult to get enough of it. The sluggish water was slightly oppressive after the caprices of the open sea, but by the same token, the channels and pools of the marsh, mirroring the grey sky, had edges as sharply defined as the shards of a sword against a red and green mosaic, the thick, tough growth of marsh grasses. Impossibly, from the steel-like fragments of water, the wind was carding soft spirals of wooly fog, each curl moving slowly in its own eldritch dance to the music that was the invisible surf, the insistent foghorn, the cries of the gulls, and the songs of numberless hidden birds in the marsh itself.

And if that wasn't a fine Independence Day, what is?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Food for Thought. . .On Food

One of my kinfolk emailed the link to this essay this morning, and I thought it was well worth passing on. Maybe some of you are already familiar with Mike Rowe of the TV show Dirty Jobs. Here's his take on the vital, and often unrecognized, role of the farmer in civilization.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Thursday, July 1, 2010

In Case You're Feeling Too Cheerful

Once more, I was looking for something else, but here is a powerful recording of an orchestra from Indiana University and Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Tallis Fantasia". Perhaps this piece wouldn't strike me as being quite so sad if I hadn't made its acquaintance first in a tragic scene in the movie Master and Commander, but it isn't exactly a sprightly tune, however you look at it. Sprightly, it isn't; lovely it is.