Saturday, June 30, 2012

For Bookworms Only: Walk A Crooked Mile Books

Walk A Crooked Mile Books: For Bookworms Only!
 It's not that I don't have enough books stacked up in various rooms in my house to keep me reading for decades. I do. It's not that I'm such a big fan of architect Frank Furness that I had to go visit the Mt. Airy Train Station that he designed. I'm not, but I was curious. I was also curious about Walk A Crooked Mile Books, an independent used bookstore in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia, over there by Chestnut Hill. How lovely this is for the people of Mt. Airy to be able to walk to such a wonderland of books, and the people using the train station to browse while they are waiting or pick up a little something literary on the way home.

From the street side: the Mt. Airy Train Station
 The shop was not so easy to find, mainly because the free online cartographer I used had the audacity to rename one of the local streets. Riding around Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy looking for my street was no unpleasant task. There are beautiful homes there, made of stone and featuring turrets and other architectural delights.I can imagine me as the Grand Dame of any of them. But I finally found the street that connected to the street that terminated at Devon Street where Walk A Crooked Mile Books is.

Books outside and in-

This shop is made up of room after room of used books. They are organized according to genre, and more-or-less alphabetized. Co-manager Cynthia (I didn't see Greg) gave me a run-down of where stuff is, and I was off to browse. Mind you, this place is not air-conditioned and this was one of those 95+ degree days. Even the littlest room had a fan, though, and my treasure hunt was not unpleasantly warmish. The humming of those fans supplied some white noise that helped me focus on the books. It's a summery sound. I focused my time on History, Art, Literature, Reference, and Nature. I emerged eventually with a stack of other books by some of my favorite non-fiction authors: Bruce Chatwin, Rachel Carson, John McPhee; and some new voices: Annie Dillard and Edith Hamilton. My splurge for the day was a book on the history and artisty of Faberge eggs. If it rains everyday for the next three weeks, I am set with really good reading for my vacation. If it doesn't rain and I go to the beach everyday, I am also set with really good beach reading (I had already filled a bag with fiction for that purpose.)

Cape May's Emlen Physick Estate
I mentioned architect Frank Furness designed the train station. He was active in Philadelphia in the Victorian Age and favored the Stick Style rather than the flowery gingerbread style we usually picture. He also designed the Emlen Physick Estate in Cape May, that delightful 1879 mansion I have mentioned before on my blog. The 1882 Mt. Airy Train Station looks like the Physick Estate's kid sister on the outside. Inside every tiny room is stacked to the ceiling with books, and there is a tricky, narrow, curved staircase that leads to what used to be the station manager's apartment. More books! Outside the station on the street side are: more books! Outside the station on the track side are: people waiting for a train. I'm a little jealous, really, with my 35-minute automobile commute to work.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Philadelphia Museum of Art: 6/22/12, locus amoenus

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, from the South
I stole a page out of my graduate school Summer Survival Handbook yesterday and spent hours in the cool and cooled Philadelphia Museum of Art. When I was a graduate student in Music in Philadelphia, I used to retreat to the museum on hot days and just wander the galleries becoming acquainted with the collection, and making connections to the music history I was learning. It gave my studies depth, and created my appreciation and knowledge of art for its own sake. Yesterday's visit (the temperature outside was 95+ degrees) was inspired by the "Visions of Arcadia" exhibit, a special lecture by the senior curator, and a desire to wander around to visit my old art friends.Each time I visit this, my most familiar museum, I see paintings differently. For example, I recognized straight off John Singer Sargent's depiction of Paris's Luxembourg Gardens because I now have the experience of sitting their blissfully one July afternoon in 2007 eating pear ice cream. Other connections are formed by an attention to color theory, literary topics, and random interests, whatever's on my mind that day. (By the way, notice that the paintings mentioned here are linked to museum pages that furnish images and descriptions. Click away!)

One of the things I like to do when visiting an art museum is to select one item and study it carefully. I answer a set of questions from a book I have about writing about art (Looking and Writing by Marilyn Wyman, 2003) and try to look at the piece from different perspectives. Yesterday the museum was open late for their Friday Art-After-5 thing, so rather than listen to the music while noshing on museum food, I hung out in the galleries. I was drawn to Monet's "Marine View with a Sunset" from around 1875, probably because the theme of the day was locus amoenus or "pleasant place" and sunsets over water are very pleasant to me. This painting shows a tranquil scene with sailboats in silhouette on a still lake or river, with silhouetted trees and a cathedral in the distance. All of the silhouetted items are depicted with a purply blue which also shows up in the sky and water. The viewer is not part of the scene, but just peering at it from behind some leaves and grass. About a third of the bottom of the picture is obscured by foreground grasses, and in the same green, leaves provide the left quarter of the painting. The greenery frame draws the viewer in to the tranquil Impressionistic scene. The sun is not visible in this scene, but it is depicted by smears of pink and yellow on the blue of the sky and water.

I had a lot of time to wander the galleries yesterday, so I spent some time in the medieval era. I came across a chest that most likely belonged to Florence's Medici Family. The museum has spent decades researching and restoring the paint on this chest, and the experts have dated it to between 1450 and 1460. They believe it was owned by the Medicis based on the coat of arms and emblems painted on it. To modern eyes, it is an unusual size, about 63 inches wide and 19 inches high and deep, but, there is another similar chest in the medieval section of similar dimensions. Anyway, what drew me to this chest in the first place was the digital slide show mounted on the wall, showing the interested viewer highlights of the research and restoration. As if that wasn't enough for the art geek, there is a number to call with your cell phone, a code to punch in, and then the lead restorer tells you first-hand about the object and its restoration. (Items with cell phone numbers are sprinkled throughout the galleries.)

The point of yesterday's visit, though. was to attend the new special exhibit, "Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia" and to hear Senior Curator Joseph Rishel speak about it. The exhibit is arranged so that the visitor learns first about the concept of Arcadia, the ideal place of glee and carefree living. The Roman poet Virgil wrote of locus amoenus or Arcadia, and many artists besides the Big Three in the exhibit title have been inspired by him since. Many of these are included in this exhibit: Ingres, Corot, Poussin, Pissauro, Signac, Derain, Titian, Picasso, and Rousseau, whose enormous "The Dream" leads into in the main exhibit room. "Giants walk among us" is how Joseph Rishel described this room: the huge Arcadian paintings of Gauguin, Cezanne, and Matisse were brought together so that people (including scholars) can see them all together in their enormity and compare the Arcadian visions. There is Cezanne's "Large Bathers," Gauguin's "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?", and Matisse's "Bathers By a River". The concept of Arcadia changed dramatically over the eight years Matisse worked on this painting: check out the New York Times story. The Arcadian paintings and sculpture rely heavily on eternal topics from mythology and literature. Apollo and Daphne are there, fauns and nymphs, and lots and lots of nude bathers in Tahiti, the South of France and elsewhere. The painting that closes the show in the last room (Arcadia outside France) is German painter Franz Marc's "Deer in the Forest," borrowed here from See how the deer are part of the natural landscape--wouldn't that be the best locus amoenus possible?
Franz Marc's "Deer in the Forest"

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Crystal Cave, Kutztown, Pennsylvania

The Crystal Cave I saw on Friday looks the same now as when people first visited in the 1870s. It takes about five hundred years for a stalactite (hanging from the top) or a stalagmite (growing up from the floor from stalactite drips) to gain one to three inches. Both of these are made from calcium carbonate. If they meet in the middle, they are called a column. Crystal Cave has some of these. It is considered a live cave because it is currently still affected by water even though no large quantities run through it changing its shapes and cavities. There is still seepage which causes the formations to change ever-so-slightly over centuries. The forty-five minute cave walk we experienced was damp and cool: the temperature stays constant at 54 degrees. There is very little life inside. Bats live in there, although we didn't see any, and tiny bits of moss where there is (artificial) light. If any ferns or other types of plants grow, their seed probably came in on someone's foot. Volunteers carefully remove any kind of plant life in order to preserve the rock formations.

Stalagmites: these are called the Prairie Dogs.

A huge formation of flowstone, created by running water
Two farmers discovered the cave in 1871 when they were working in a stone quarry. They ventured inside but were turned back by the darkness. Our tour guide let us experience that total darkness by turning out the lights that illuminate the various formations for an uncomfortably long time. This put me on edge more than I would like to admit, and I stood stalagmite-still in my spot for the duration. Those original farmer-discoverers talked up the cave and returned the next day with more guys, candles, and coal oil lanterns. They were fascinated by the formations, textures, and colors which they considered God's artistry. One of the first farmers to explore the cave, Samuel D.F. Kohler, purchased the land in 1872 and began accompanying visitors into the cave. He was the one who built the door to the cave to keep out anyone who might want to damage it. Well, more people came, he built a hotel, more people came, he ran buggies to and from the train station, and eventually his son David sold the property in 1923 to the Crystal Cave Company which still owns it and runs it today.

Stairs in the cave
So Fred and I, being Fred and me, gazed in wonder at the cool formations, but equally at the concrete walkways and stairs. How did they build those? Keep in mind there is a limited opening, tight corners, stuff hanging from the top and pointing up from the bottom. You probably couldn't run a concrete shoot in there, let alone get a truck anywhere near. How do even build the forms for the concrete stairs?

This is the Historic Inn, portions built in 1799 and 1876. The gift shop is in there now.
This was a cool exploration for a late-springtime day. We finished the afternoon at the gift shop in the Historic Inn. I bought my usual post cards and informational booklet, and Fred contemplated some snack foods. These are real, not candy made to look like creatures. "We bought some as a joke, but didn't think they would sell. They did and we had to reorder a case!"

Snacks. (Photo courtesy of Fred Peters)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The "City of Monsterly Love": Monster Trucks at the Linc!

Why? Because I'd never been to anything like this before and I knew Fred would enjoy it because he watches it on TV. I'm not too shy to say I enjoyed it as well, although I did not come home with a Monster Jam T-shirt or Gravedigger hat, or any of the fabulous prizes given away to hard-core fans by the drivers. As with any sport, it's much more fun to be there than to watch it on TV. Fred is used to the edited-for-TV version, so he was seeing some parts here at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia for the first time.

Grave Diggers 1 and 2, driven by father Dennis Anderson (green) and son Adam Anderson (blue). Father/green is headed over to the other side to start, and son/blue (actually called Grave Digger: the legend) will start from the line in the foreground.

Medusa (Debra "Medusa" Miceli) is upside-down.

Here's how it goes: trucks with names like Grave Digger, Monster Mutt, Medusa, El Toro Loco, and Maximum Destruction are parked along the short ends of the football stadium. In pairs, they go out to the oval course to race starting at opposite ends. In a tie, they would both cross the finish line (where the fifty yard line would be) at the same time at opposite sides (both counter-clockwise). Winners play other winners through four rounds until a winner is crowned. Last night, the ultra-popular Gravedigger was the winner of the race portion, and the driver gave away his trophy to a lucky little fan. Generally there aren't many crashes in this part, but last night Medusa crashed, and missing one of her axles was not able to come back for the Freestyle portion later. When crashes do occur, these construction diggers and pushers come out to right the vehicles and tow them if necessary. Like a rodeo clown, a silver pickup truck comes out with guys shooting T-shirts into the crowd (from a shirt gun, of course) to distract the crowd.

In-between rounds, two swarms of ATVs come out, one swarm in red (Philadelphia) and one swarm in blue (New York). They race around in a curvier version of the course, a few flip, and during post-race interviews artificially-heated challenges are thrown about. Last night the Philadelphia swarm won the thing.

I think my favorite truck had to be Monster Mutt. It has a tail, a pink tongue in front of its grill, painted-on doggie teeth, and floppy ears that really flopped during the Freestyle carnage. (photo by Fred)

Everyone seems to be waiting for what was referred to as the "carnage." This is where the trucks go out onto the field solo and do a little freestyle show. Yes, come to think of it, this portion is technically called Freestyle. They cruise over the berms as they had in the race segment, but now they can go over the mounds of dirt they had circled around before. The junk cars painted flat red and flat yellow and parked around the dirt mounds are mashed to smithereens in short order, so more vehicles (a station wagon, boat, and recreational vehicle last night) are brought out as obstacles for the last bunch of trucks.

Fred snapped this shot of El Toro Loco (Marc McDonald, driver) catching some air. Note the red former vehicles below.
 Trucks are scored for creativity and stunts such as wheelies, catching air, and general mayhem. Last night, only one truck was able to do the new favorite stunt, a back-flip. (If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes...) Three trucks including the crowd-favorite Gravedigger attempted this flip, but only one, the Grinder, actually performed it last night. Check out this great video I found of another in the Grave Digger team, driven by another in the Anderson family (Ryan), performing the back flip!

Fred's favorite, Maximum Destruction (called affectionately "Max D" by Fred) did not do much to tell you about. My favorite, Monster Mutt, was almost eliminated because of an injury, er, uh, broken rocker arm, but was able to return after a visit to the pit. So although I know that the truck bodies are largely ornamental and are replaced after (sometimes during) each race, and although I know they do the same show in each town on their tour, I really did enjoy the Monster Jam! It was loud, but in the second level where we sat it really wasn't as loud as I expected. (I've been to rock concerts that bothered my ears more.) The crowd was well-behaved and there were so many kids with protective ear-wear on just loving the show. Fun.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Getting to Know the Birds Who Live in the Marsh: Skimmer Salt Marsh Safari

A Black Skimmer, left, and a Laughing Gull at the marsh
I count myself among the world's worst bird watchers, but I don't lack enthusiasm for the avocation. Usually, I look at the birds through my camera's longer lens and shoot a few photos that I will compare to the illustrations in my bird guides later on. Occasionally, I will treat myself to a guided birding excursion where experts tell me what I'm looking at. My favorite of these excursions is the Skimmer Salt Marsh Safari, between Cape May and Wildwood Crest. (The Skimmer is named after a bird, see photo.) Captain Ginny and Captain Ed know where to find the most interesting birds, and they describe them in ways that help us less adept birders remember who's who.

Take for example the first birds we saw yesterday, the Laughing Gulls. These guys come here to nest and raise their chicks. As many species do, they fix up their appearance in order to attract the best possible mate. Their heads turn black as if they'd visited their expert colorist, and they appear to put on white eyeliner. As I mentioned in my two previous posts about the lighthouse full moon climb and the horseshoes on the beach, the full moon occurred Monday. This was good news for the Friends of the Lighthouse and the Delaware Bay horseshoes, but sad news indeed for the Laughing Gull community. They had prepared their nest in the salt marsh grass, laid their eggs, and then extra-high tides from the full moon and windy weather washed them all away. Heartbreaking! When we cruised by, we could see them busily rebuilding nests to attempt another go at families.
This Laughing Gull is carrying nesting material to his/her new home.

My father always loved seeing egrets because they reminded him of his childhood in Louisiana. They still seem exotic to me even though I see them often around these parts. This is a Snowy Egret, and you can see his yellow feet. We saw many of these yesterday, and many Great Egrets who have yellow bills and black feet. (Now will I remember that?)
"I am a Snowy Egret and I have yellow feet."  
An Osprey couple in their nest
The Osprey are easy to identify because they build their huge nests up high, usually, and you can usually see the mom hanging up there with chicks or eggs. The father might be up there, too, but he might be spotted nearby. There are around a dozen Osprey nests in the marsh, remarkable if you remember how the Ospreys were endangered not so long ago. The use of the pesticide DDT in the 1960s and 1970s caused their eggs to get too soft, and chicks could not mature. Awareness was raised by Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, and eventually DDT was banned. Happily, the Osprey population recovered. The full moon tides were unkind to some of the Osprey pairs in the marsh--those that built their nests too low lost their eggs. Unlike the Laughing Gulls, they are not able to re-nest this year and now are just hanging around until it is time to fly south.

The Oystercatcher is the coolest marsh bird, just because of its bright orange bill. I'm pretty sure I heard Captain Ginny say that these Oystercatchers don't actually eat oysters here, but the long, skinny razor clams. They pop the razor clam shell open with their long orange bill and eat the yummy clam from inside. It takes awhile for the kids to learn this trick, and Captain Ginny reports that they often see the young ones with razor clams stuck to their bills looking a bit like Pinocchio!
An Oystercatcher shows off his carrot-like bill.
Captain Ginny and Captain Ed don't just teach us about birds in the marsh. At one point, they scooped up a clump of brown seaweed and examined what was living in it. There was a brown speckled Laughing Gull egg, two kinds of tiny shrimp, and two kinds of mussels. Near the end of the trip, Captain Ed pulled out a plastic tub full of marsh life: a large rock crab, sea squirts (they do squirt water when feeling threatened), three kinds of welks (I thought they were conchs but conchs do not live in NJ), and more crabs and critters whose names I do not remember.
Captain Ginny shows us a tiny shrimp that lives in marsh seaweed (photo by Cara Cotellese)
The Skimmer Salt Marsh Safari is a fine way to spend a couple hours at the shore and learn about those marshes we drive past everyday. I'm getting better with my bird identification skills, at least with those that live in the marsh!
Me and Cara on the 40-foot Skimmer (photo by Captain Ginny)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Beach Spawning under a June Moon

Two horseshoes headed back to the water after a busy night.
There has been quite a bit of full-moon horseshoe "crab" action this week on my stretch of the Delaware Bay. These curious critters have changed little since before the dinosaurs if you can imagine that, and every June full moon and the weeks surrounding it, they leave the water to spawn on the beach. I usually shy away from circle-of-life and copulation topics, but I think I can manage to tell the horseshoe story.
This critter burrows as s/he moves back to the water. Note the doggie footprints and the razor clam to the right.
They are not really crabs, but related to spiders and scorpions. Their scientific name is limulus polyphemus. They live for 17 to 18 years. They are found up and down the east coast, but are most plentiful in the Delaware Bay. They have six pairs of claws under their shells along with gills for breathing. Their blood is blue because it has copper in it and not the iron that makes human blood turn red. This blood is used by scientists to check medicines for endotoxins and bacteria (and the scientists do not harm the animals!). Male horseshoes have two extra claws called claspers that they use to hold on to females during mating. These claspers were considered good luck by whalers in days of yore. They wore them around their necks to ensure they would find their way back home no matter what weather they might encounter. The whalers called the claspers lucky bones (and this is also the name of a new favorite Cape May restaurant).

This guy's mate told him to make tracks.
So here's what has been happening this week on my beach: the males crawl out of the bay water and up onto the sand. They hang out in-between the high-tide and low-tide lines where the sand is flat. They wait around for the females to show up, and then attach themselves to the back of the female's shell with those claspers. Females are bigger than the males. The female drags the male around as she digs holes in the sand and deposits her pearly green eggs. (I've never noticed these eggs before, but I should look closer. They are smaller than peas but not microscopic.) She'll drag the male over the egg hole so he can fertilize the eggs and move on to another location. One female will deposit as many as 10,000 eggs in a season. This procedure repeats every night for several weeks, mostly at night, but there are still shenanigans to witness during the day.

That's the male in front holding onto the female who is not much bigger than he is. Cougar maybe?
Yum! Horseshoe eggs!
That would be a lot of horseshoes if all of those eggs matured into actual creatures. Alas, they don't, and this is where the circle of life comes in. Horseshoe eggs happen to be a delicacy for many birds who winter at the southern tip of South America and fly north to the Arctic to nest in summer. Wouldn't you know, Cape May is about halfway for them, so the birds stop to refuel on those tasty green eggs. This is one reason why Cape May is a fabulous bird watching spot: red-wing blackbirds, mourning doves, grackles (who also love my pre-ripe figs, laughing gulls, sanderlings, plovers, dowitchers, dunlins, willets, yellowlegs, and those famous red knots who are rarely seen elsewhere but in the vicinity of horseshoe eggs, all show up this time of year to feast. Bigger birds like hawks and herons eat the smaller birds that eat the green eggs, but also devour the insides of any unfortunate horseshoes that may have overturned on the beach.
The bay beach in June

Sometimes horseshoes can flip themselves by pushing their long, stiff tail called a telson into the sand. If they are unsuccessful they will bend at the hinge between their shell and abdomen to try and protect their insides. If their gills dry out in the sun, it is curtains for them. Here's a short video of a horseshoe heading back to the water. Notice how he changes direction when the water hits him and reminds him which way to go. In the background there is a less fortunate horseshoe "bent at the hinge" to protect his soft belly and gills from the sun.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Full Moon Climb (Cape May Lighthouse)

The Cape May Point Lighthouse at dusk
If your calendar is the kind that shows the phases of the moon, you will see that tonight the moon is full. The full moon has been romanticized over the years, but what does it really mean to you? Maybe it explains odd behavior of coworkers, customers, and offensive drivers on this day, but can you think of anything else? Wolfmen, maybe? Well, if you are in Cape May, NJ, during this summer season the full moon signals an opportunity to climb the Cape May Lighthouse at night by the light of the moon!

Steps, steps, and more steps (199 to be exact)

Porthole window
I couldn't resist the opportunity this evening even though the skies were cloudy and the moon did not actually make an appearance. It was a fun climb, though I suspect an extra fifty or so cast-iron steps were added to the original 199 since I climbed last year. (Is that possible?) I stopped off at each window along the way to shoot pictures and breathe a little. Did you know that windows were placed facing different directions to catch the sun at various times of the year? It's more obvious in the Cape May Light than some others that the thickness between the inner and outer walls gradually gets smaller closer to the top. It's easiest to see this at the windows. There's about six feet between the inner and outer brick walls at the base, and up where the round porthole style windows are the walls come together (almost--the wall is about twelve inches thick there).

I'm pleased with the shots I got from the windy deck at the top of the light tonight, experimenting with various settings and buttons on my camera for nighttime shooting.Check them out:

That's St. Mary's retreat for nuns with the Delaware Bay behind. Rumor has it civilians can retreat there, too. Who's in?

This is the town of Cape May Point under a tempestuous sky. That's the Delaware Bay back there.
That's the bird sanctuary in the center, the WWII bunker to the right on the beach, the City of Cape May in the background, and the Atlantic Ocean to the right in back.

This one is a little blurry, but I like it anyway. I was using the roof of my car to steady the camera, but it didn't work as well as my tripod would have...if I had thought to bring it.