Joshua Tree National Park gained a certain notoriety this past winter, when idiots went there during the federal government shutdown and trashed the place. The vandals chopped down the iconic Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia), let their dogs run around unleashed, left litter scattered over the landscape, and carved new roads through the desert. I'd like to give most people the benefit of the doubt and assume that they didn't realize the damage they were doing to the park. However, it takes only a few bad apples to destroy a public resource for everybody, as we've all experienced at some point.
The very first thing I learned about Joshua Tree is that it has two distinct desert habitats. Hey, I'm a marine biologist, and the desert--any desert--is new territory for me. None of this landscape has been anywhere near the ocean for millions of years! Anyway, the eastern half of the park is Colorado Desert, which is similar to what we had seen at Anza-Borrego State Park. Many of the plants in this region were also familiar to us because we had seen them in Anza-Borrego, but for the most part were more abundant here in Joshua Tree.
For example, we saw many more bluebells (Phacelia campanularia) at Joshua Tree than in Anza-Borrego. The P. campanularia at Joshua Tree also looked healthier (more robust and vigorous, less spindly) than they did in Anza-Borrego. Perhaps the higher elevation of the Colorado Desert in Joshua Tree (approximately 914 meters, or 3000 feet) compared to Anza-Borrego (182 meters, or 597 feet) accounts for this observation.
I really liked the Colorado Desert in Joshua Tree. Even though it was the same ecosystem as what we saw in Anza-Borrego, here the flowers seemed more colorful and striking. The yellows were a little brighter, and the pinks and blues a little deeper. The scenery was breathtaking everywhere I looked. I wish my photos could do justice to the beauty of the landscape.
Aside from the desert bluebells, other flowers that we had seen at Anza-Borrego included the brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), which seems to be ubiquitous in the Colorado Desert. The Arizona lupine (Lupinus arizonicus) was also common in Joshua Tree; like the bluebells, these appeared to be more robust here than in Anza-Borrego.
There were new flowers, too. My favorite, which I didn't see a lot of, was this desert globemallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua:
Here's a close-up of the same plant. Look at that gorgeous orange color!
Against the prevailing palette of yellows and purples, this orange really stood out and caught the eye. This plant is also called the apricot mallow, for obvious reasons.
Some other flowers that we saw:
Among all the colorful flowers in the overall landscape, there was this very subtle plant, easily overlooked by eyes accustomed to more brilliant blossoms.
Something that tickled my funny bone was the little chia plant, Salvia columbariae. It looks like a prickly purple pom-pom. Two days in the desert had taught me not to touch things if I didn't know what they were, but I had to know if these blossoms were as pokey as they looked. They weren't!
There are parasitic plants in the desert, too. The red branches in this bush are the desert mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum), a hemiparasite. It drains water and nutrients from its host plant but performs its own photosynthesis.
In Joshua Tree National Park there's an area called the Cholla Cactus Garden. Chollas are cactuses with cylindrical stems, rather than the flat stems of the beavertail or prickly pear cactuses. The most common one in the Colorado Desert (that we saw, at least) was the teddybear cholla, Cylindropuntia bigelovii. As the name implies, it's a cute, fluffy cactus, but it's definitely still a cactus.
The teddybear cactus blooms in May and June, so we didn't see any flowers. In addition to having the normal plant sex using flowers, these cactuses also reproduce clonally by dropping branches. The dropped pieces roll around and find a new place to attach and grow. Interestingly, this type of clonal replication, called budding, is common in many marine invertebrates!
Here's a newly detached bud from a teddybear cholla:
And here's a recently established, young plant:
Cute little cactus, isn't it?
The trees that give Joshua Tree National Park its name live in the higher and cooler western region of the park, known as the Mojave Desert. The Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) live singly or in clusters. In some ways, Y. brevifolia is the symbol of the Mojave Desert. They are also abundant in the higher elevations of the Tehachapi Mountains along Highway 58 between Bakersfield and the town of Mojave.
In Joshua Tree National Park, said trees were blooming in late March.
I'll have more to say about reproduction in Joshua trees and some other desert plants in another post. This one is getting long, and we had more desert adventures to come.
The first new-to-me visit on our spring break road trip was Anza-Borrego State Park in the southern California desert. We arrived late in the day on Monday and had just a brief chance to look around. On Tuesday we got up early and went for a hike, trying to avoid some of the midday heat. Fortunately there was a bit of a breeze, which helped with the heat but made flower picture-taking challenging.
Anza-Borrego is located in the Colorado Desert, which is a western subdivision of the Sonoran Desert. The Colorado is a low-altitude desert (most of the surrounding hills are only ~900 meters tall) and thus gets much hotter in the summer than deserts at higher elevations, and very rarely experiences a winter frost. Winter is the main rainy season and some regions also receive rain during a late-summer monsoon season.
After a rainy winter, the desert explodes into vibrant life:
The color of the day at Anza-Borrego was yellow. More details on the yellow players in a bit.
It had rained a few days prior to our visit, and there a stream was flowing through the desert.
This running water would be a temporary situation, of course, but one that is of great help to the wildlife in the park. At the park visitor center I read that wildlife large and small come to drink from the shallow streams, and that if we were to see bighorn sheep approaching the water we should stay out of their way. Water is so scarce for these animals that any delay in getting to it, or any separation of individuals from their family unit could be very stressful. I didn't know whether or not we'd even see the sheep, since they are shy, but we got lucky!
Handsome fellow, isn't he? He was eating and didn't seem to mind us hikers as long as we stayed on the trail. Of course, there was an idiot who approached too close to get a better photo, and this ram wasn't happy about it. He withdrew away from us and then went about his business. Other sheep wandered through, too, to forage or drink from the stream. But this big guy gave me the best photo op.
A visit to the desert this spring, after all the rain we had over the winter, was all about the wildflowers. Most of them were new to me. One thing that struck me was that, instead of the carpets of color that we'd seen at Carrizo Plain or Antelope Valley, flowers at Anzo-Borrega were much more widely dispersed. Some species were very common and others I didn't see more than once or twice.
As I mentioned above, yellow was the predominant color at Anza-Borrego. There were several daisy-like flowers in both yellow and white, and some were very common. Fortunately for me, the visitor center had an easy-to-use pictorial guide of the most common wildflowers; using that, some wildflower field guides that we brought with us, and Calflora.org, I may have identified them all correctly. I'm sure that somebody will point out any identifications that I got wrong.
One of the defining characteristics of E. farinosa is the way that the blossoms are raised up above the grayish-green foliage. It's a cool morphology, and makes the plant look very different when you see it from the side. Here's a shot that shows it:
And brittlebush was very abundant!
Another very abundant yellow flower was the very aptly named desert dandelion, Malacothrix glabrata. It looks like a typical dandelion, perhaps a more pale buttery color than usual, and when mature the blossoms have a small purplish red spot in the center.
Our state flower, Eschscholzia californica, is typically a brilliant pure orange color, although sometimes the color can be more yellow. In Anza-Borrego I saw some plants whose foliage looked poppy-ish, but the blossoms didn't look quite right--a little too small to be California poppies and a color that was definitely yellow rather than orange. Turns out, though, that they were gold poppies (E. parishii)!
And who can resist a plant called ghostflower? That palest of yellows, almost but not quite white, combined with the tiny dark speckles, makes the plant seem very quiet--indeed, almost spooky. Ghostflower is easily overlooked, compared to the vibrant yellows of brittlebush, poppies, and dandelions.
One of my favorite flower color combinations is yellow, white, and purple. Imagine how pleased I was to find it in the desert!
The color purple was represented by two species of Phacelia, P. distans and P. campanularia. Phacelia distans was by far the most common in the floors of the valleys, and we saw P. campanularia at higher elevations.
This is Phacelia distans. Note the shape of the inflorescences, and how the blossoms are arranged.
And this is Phacelia campanularia, the desert bluebell:
These plants have the same blossom shape, but very different blossom arrangements and foliage morphology. Nifty, the differences between presumably closely related species, eh?
Another flower in the purple family was the desert sand verbena (Abronia villosa). It occurred in sandy soils, often in washes or dunes, similar to the sand verbena that I see on beaches along the coast.
The pink color family was represented by the bright pink Bigelow's monkeyflower, Diplacus bigelovii. They were fun. The golden-orange throat is the diagnostic feature for this species.
I didn't get very many good pictures of the white flowers. It always seemed to be especially windy when we saw them. Desert chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana) is a white daisy-like flower.
This being the desert, much of the plant biomass was succulent in nature. The ocotillo were blooming, as were the teddybear cholla and other cactuses.
Everything living in the desert survives only if it can take advantage of the minimal precipitation that falls every year. Cactuses must suck up as much water as they can during the wet season, and store it for use during the hot, dry summer. Barrel cactus (Ferocactus acanthodes) this spring are fat, like the barrels for which they are named, and full of water. Their bodies are pleated longitudinally, allowing them to swell up when water is available. Then, as their water stores are depleted during the summer, the pleats fold together and the body becomes more compact. The large saguaro cactuses in the Sonoran Desert do the same thing.
A cactus whose blossom definitely belongs in the pink category is the beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaria). I think it was early in the blooming season for them, as I never saw any plants with more than a few open flowers, but most of them had many buds developing.
The chollas are cactuses in the genus Cylindropuntia, characterized by cylindrical stems. The teddybear cholla (C. bigelovii) was the one we saw at Anza-Borrego. It has dense spines that give it a fuzzy look but in reality form an impenetrable defense--it manages to say "I'm cute and fuzzy!" and "Don't touch me!" at the same time.
The teddybear chollas were very abundant at Anza-Borrego. We continued to see them as we continued on our trip. Next stop, Joshua Tree!
We've had a good strong wet season this year, resulting in another wildflower superbloom. Over spring break we went to southern California to chase the flowers and, while we were at it, visit some places that I'd never been to. Our first stops were at familiar stomping grounds that we'd visited in 2017: Shell Creek Road, Carrizo Plain, and Antelope Valley. There were significantly more people at all of these places, compared to two years ago. Many of the well known sites for wildflowers have become very popular lately, and we tried to avoid the most crowded areas.
Location 1: Shell Creek Road
Just because I love the California oaks, here's one that is well festooned with lace lichen (Ramalina menziesii) and moss:
The sky was hazy that day, making for less than ideal picture-taking conditions. The wind certainly didn't help, as the flowers were moving constantly. This early in the bloom the predominant color was yellow: a soft, buttery yellow due to the tidy tips and a much more brilliant, retina-searing gold due to the goldfields.
There was some relief from all the yellow, in patches of baby blue eyes.
Location 2: Carrizo Plain and Temblor Hills
Soda Lake Road, which runs through Carrizo Plain, was quite crowded. We stopped at the vista point and then headed off the beaten track onto some less-traveled dirt roads.
Still hazy, see?
There was such glorious scenery all around!
To the northeast of Carrizo Plain lie the Temblor Range hills, on which the bloom was just beginning. We saw fiddlenecks and goldfields at lower elevations, and splotches of purple Phacelia and orange poppies higher on the hills.
Poppies weren't going very strongly yet, but were distinguishable as a faint orange wash on the hills:
We'd see plenty of poppies the next day!
Location 3: Antelope Valley
Antelope Valley was overrun with people, climbing up hillsides with their dogs and selfie sticks. Seems that selfies of people sitting in poppy fields is all the rage these days. We didn't bother even trying to get into the poppy preserve, as there were lots of flowers to be seen in the surrounding areas.
Compared to what we saw at Antelope Valley in 2017, this year's bloom was different. This year the poppies were not as widely scattered as in 2017, but where they occurred they were extremely dense. Then again, this year we were early in the bloom, and by now it could be different.
The United States entered World War II in December 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. With Japan now considered an enemy state, part of the U.S. response in 1942 was to order more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry living on the west coast and in Hawaii into forced interment in remote camps operated by the military. The internees were men, women, and children; immigrants and U.S.-born citizens. They were considered a risk to national security, and their removal from society was widely (but not universally) viewed as a justifiable precautionary measure.
Executive Order 9066 was issued and signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in February 1942. This order authorized the Secretary of War to build and operate military installations where Japanese Americans, German Americans, and Italian Americans would be imprisoned for the duration of the war. The order doesn't specify which Americans would be interned, but uses the term 'alien enemies'; given that at the time the U.S. was at war with Japan, Germany, and Italy, it doesn't take much imagination to figure out who the intended prisoners would be. Interestingly, or perhaps not, only Americans of Japanese descent were interned in large camps. A total of about 14,000 people of German or Italian descent were interned.
Of the Japanese Americans interned, about 70% were U.S. citizens. Many more would have been, but for the fact that Japanese-born immigrants to the U.S. (Issei) were by law forbidden to take U.S. citizenship despite having no loyalty to Japan. Their American-born children (Nisei) were, of course, American citizens, eligible to be drafted into the military and fight for the country that had interned their families.
Manzanar is one of the internment camps. Located in the eastern Sierra just off Highway 395 in the Owens Valley in southern California, it sits in a most glorious location. Even today it is hours away from any type of city, but definitely worth the drive to visit. I learned a lot at the visitor center, which is probably the best one I've ever been to. We were there for over three hours, learning about the lives of the people interned at Manzanar.
The camp was surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Eight guard towers (built, ironically, by Japanese craftsmen) were manned by military police. The fencing and most of the guard towers are gone now. At some point after the camp was dismantled, most of the buildings were removed to other locations. There isn't much remaining on the site, but what is there is crammed full of information and artifacts from the people who lived there.
Manzanar housed ~10,000 internees, most from California and Washington, plus civilian and military families. Internees were stuffed into 504 barracks organized into 36 blocks. Each block, home to 200-400 internees, contained 14 barracks, a mess hall, men's and women's latrines, and a laundry room. There were also school buildings, a Buddhist temple and a Buddhist church, housing for military and civilian residents (built of much better quality than the barracks for internees, with indoor plumbing, solid walls, and insulation). Within the barracks there was no privacy. Seven or eight people, who could be family members or complete strangers, lived in a 20-by-25 foot room, or 'apartment'. For each room, the government provided cots with straw mattresses, blankets, an oil stove for heat, and a single hanging light bulb. The restored exhibits in Block 14 are much better lit now than they were when people were interned here.
The internees would hang blankets or use personal belongings to contrive some semblance of privacy in a small room shared with strangers.
When internees began arriving at Manzanar, the barracks were built of wood covered with tar paper--no insulation or even sealant between the boards of the walls and floor. This construction was woefully inadequate for the frigid winters and blazing hot summers of the high desert, and provided no protection from the wind that blows year-round and the dust that it carries. Dust storms were very common, and internees would hunker down for the worst of the storm and then sweep out the dust. The barracks were eventually reinforced with real walls and some degree of insulation, but linoleum wasn't installed on the floors until late 1942.
The internees were very resourceful people who did a remarkable job of making an extremely unpleasant situation as bearable as possible. Many were craftsmen, and they built furniture from whatever they could get their hands on. Fruit packing crates provided lumber that was built into tables, chairs, and cabinets.
The lack of privacy extended to the most personal of daily activities. The women's latrine of Block 14 has been restored:
There's another bank of five toilets on the opposite side of the white partition. Imagine waiting in line with dozens of people, many suffering from diarrhea due to the unfamiliar diet and stress, for the chance to use a toilet with nine other strangers in such close proximity. This lack of privacy in latrines was cited by many residents as one of the greatest hardships of life at Manzanar.
Internees ate all of their meals in the block mess hall. At first internees would venture from block to block searching for the best chef in the camp, but eventually the authorities cracked down on such wandering and forced internees to eat in their own block.
Meal prep began well before dawn and continued through the evening. Meal times were stringently scheduled throughout the day. Kitchen scraps were used to feed hogs, and an on-site chicken ranch provided eggs. Eventually chefs were provided with the materials to make tofu and miso, which were used to make more palatable meals for the internees. Mess halls also served as social areas and often hosted movies, dances, or meetings.
Japanese craftsmanship is evident in the tools used by the chefs. Internees built this baker's table, and also the massive steaming basket on the industrial stove.
Exhibits at the Manzanar visitor center include recordings of internees recollecting their experiences in the camp. In many ways the internees tried and succeeded at making life as normal as possible. There were two schools, one for younger children and a high school. An on-site hospital was run by one of the woman internees who was a physician; she was extremely insistent on cleanliness throughout the camp and that all residents receive inoculations against disease. Couples were married and babies were born. Kids played the all-American games of baseball and basketball, even against other high schools that came to Manzanar. The Manzanar teams were never allowed to compete at other schools, though.
The internees at Manzanar must have been fully aware of the irony of their situation. They were prisoners of the U.S. government, their property and businesses seized, their rights stripped away. The worst of the indignities, in my opinion, was the loyalty questionnaire. Its purpose was, ostensibly, to determine who were the 'loyal' Japanese Americans who could be safely released from the camp to states in the interior of the country. Questions 27 and 28 were especially problematic. They were worded slightly differently for men and women, but the overall gist is the same.
Question 27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?
Question 28: Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attacks by foreign and domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or disobedience to the Japanese Emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?
Question 27 was problematic because if a man answered 'yes', he could conceivably be drafted into duty and have to fight against his ancestral homeland, where he may still have family residing. Some men answered 'no' for this reason and were deemed disloyal as a result; they were segregated from their families and sent to even more strict camps.
Question 28 was problematic for more subtle and insidious reasons. Many Nisei (American-born children of Japanese immigrants) were insulted by the implication that they had any loyalty to Japan or the Japanese Emperor. For Issei, who were denied U.S. citizenship, a 'yes' answer could leave them without a country. Recognizing the difficulty for Issei, the WRA (War Relocation Authority) did revise Question 28 to read as follows: Will you swear to abide by the laws of the United States and to take no action which would in anyway interfere with the war effort of the United States?
As a native Californian, I feel I should have known more about Manzanar and the role it played in our country's history. The gathering and imprisonment of Japanese Americans for no reason other than their Japanese-ness was misguided and, as it turns out, unnecessary. None of the Japanese American internees at Manzanar were ever found to have committed any act of treason, sabotage, or disloyalty towards the United States. I see similar attitudes in recent attempts to close our borders and separate immigrant children from their parents, and fear that those in power who most need to learn the lessons of Manzanar will choose to remain ignorant. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
I leave you with this image of the basketball court at Manzanar. Kids shooting hoops in the afternoon sun--how much more American can you get? But that fence. It gives me the creeps. What does this image say to you?
In early July we joined my in-laws on a 2-day driving trip around the International Selkirk Loop, a series of highways that follow rivers and lakes through the northeast corner of Washington, the northern skinny part of Idaho, and southern British Columbia. These roads pass through some beautiful country in both the U.S. and Canada, and it would be a nice trip to take at a more leisurely pace, stopping to explore some of the little towns along the way.
Knowing that we'd be driving through some spectacular scenery, I decided to test-drive a wide-angle lens. I rented the Nikkor 16-80mm lens, designed for crop-sensor cameras such as my Nikon D7200. I don't have much experience with wide-angle lenses, so it was a different kind of photography for me. And boy, talk about a whole new way of seeing things! I could get into landscape photography now. This post will showcase some of the photos I took with this lens.
Day 1: Our trip started in Blanchard, Idaho, a tiny dot on the South Lakes Super Side Trip outlined in pink in the map. Our first sight-seeing stop was the Kootenay National Wildlife Refuge, near the town of Bonners Ferry and about 20 miles south of the Canadian border. I hoped to see a moose. En route to the Refuge we took a dirt road and got a little lost. But our accidental detour took us through some wide open landscapes, and the sky was fantastic.
The Refuge is on the Pacific Flyway and is visited by many migrating birds in the spring and autumn. Mid-summer is supposed to be the best time to see moose, but the moose didn't read the same pamphlet that we did.
Seriously, doesn't this look like quintessential moose habitat? No moose to be seen.
Crossing into Canada, we continued driving north along the east side of Kootenay Lake. One of the perks of the trip is the free ferry ride across the lake, from the town of Kootenay Lake on the east shore to Balfour on the west shore. During the summer season the crossing is traversed by two ferries, the M/V Osprey 2000 and the smaller M/V Balfour. We were on the Osprey, which runs year-round. Kootenay Lake remains ice-free in the winter, allowing business and pleasure craft to operate year-round.
Here's the other ferry vessel making the eastward crossing:
That night we stayed at Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort, where we had a fantastic dinner and 'took the waters' before going to bed.
Day 2: Our first stop on the second day was a town called Kaslo, the home of the S/S Moyie. The Moyie was one of several steam ships that transported passengers and cargo up and down Kootenay Lake. She operated from 1898 to 1957, when she was retired from service and sold to the City of Kaslo for $1.00. She was hauled up onto land, permanently dry-docked, and restored to become a museum. As the oldest known intact vessel of her type, the Moyie gives visitors a glimpse into the past. One thing I noticed right away was that people were a lot smaller 100 years ago.
Back in the day, there were 11 sternwheelers running on Kootenay and the other lakes in the region. The really cool thing was that they connected with the railroad lines, allowing transport of goods and people throughout the area before there were roads. Passengers would board the Moyie in the morning, stow their children and the nanny in one of the staterooms, and party in the parlor while cruising up or down the lake. It would be a leisurely cruise, with the passengers relaxed, well fed, and liquored up.
Passengers were looked after by a crew of stewards. I like kitchens, so this butler's pantry was my favorite part of the boat. Note sloping floor!
And because safety always comes first, here's the obligatory set of instructions for how to put on your cork life jacket. I'm guessing that they are called Cork Life Jackets because they are filled with cork, which apparently was A Real ThingTM.
The Moyie is docked on land right next to the shore of Kootenay Lake. Just off her port side there's a piling with an osprey nest on the top. And we got lucky in that the osprey was there, too!
The osprey was the first of our wildlife sightings on the second day of the trip. Heading west on Highway 31A between Kaslo and New Denver, we stopped at a little lake on the side of the road. This was Fish Lake.
In addition to being a pretty little lake in the mountains, Fish Lake is home to a species of amphibian called the Western Toad (Anaxyrus boreas). The toads are likely restricted to a few lakes in this basin and are listed as Near Threatened by the World Conservation Union, and as Special Concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. We didn't see any toads, but there were many proto-toads in the lake.
And guess what we saw a few miles up the road from Fish Lake? That's right, a moose! And not just one moose, but a cow and a calf. They were right off the side of the road, and all we had to do to get a good look was find a safe place to turn around and drive by again. I took these shots from the car.
Despite her proximity to the highway, the cow was pretty undisturbed. She kept feeding in the shallow water. It was surprising how long she could keep her head underwater. Meanwhile the calf, obviously not weaned yet as it kept trying to nurse and didn't feed on vegetation, just waited until its mother raised her head again. Then she looked around to check her surroundings and plunged her head right back into the water.
I haven't always had the best of luck in moose country, so I was glad to see these two. They are odd-looking, lumpy animals, even the calves. And to get a good close-up look at two wild moose totally made up for not seeing any at the Kootenai Wildlife Refuge.
So, what do I think of the Selkirk Loop? Highly recommended! The roads are lightly traveled, passage between the U.S. and Canada is easy through these ports of entry, and the scenery is spectacular. You can take the driving trip as we did, or stop and camp along the way. When we were there in early July the weather was quite warm, but those were the first sunny days of the season after a long, wet spring. You'd probably want to have a back-up plan in case your camping trip gets rained out. Honestly, though, the entire drive was gorgeous. If the opportunity comes your way to drive this loop, take it. You won't be sorry.
I was completely unprepared for how astoundingly beautiful the Library of Congress is. From the outside it looks like another of the many federal buildings constructed in the Classical style. The interior, though, was spectacular.
The ceiling of the Great Hall is magnificent--take a look at this stained glass!
We joined a tour and the docent explained the significance of many of the architectural and artistic details she pointed out to us. She told us that when the building was designed in the 1890s, the intent was to portray the United States as a major player on the world stage, able to build in the Classical style as well as the Europeans did, while adding details that are distinctly American. For example, the mosaic floor of the great hall features a motif of an ear of corn, to represent a New World plant that isn't native to Europe.
And this painting, high up on a wall, represents Sport. It features baseball, that most American of sports! The corresponding painting on the opposite wall shows American football. And of course the athletes are naked, because that's how the ancient Greek athletes competed. Artistic nudity, either in painting or in sculpture, was not a problem in the 1890s. There were no prudes calling for fig leaves to be placed over statues' genitals, or for female nipples to be covered with pasties.
Our docent told us that the building's designers were all Americans, but that some of the actual artisans were brought over from Europe. Likewise, much of the stone came from quarries in the U.S. The marble for those columns with the fancy capitals, however, was mined near Siena, Italy. She wasn't sure if it was Cararra marble. I think the look is right for Cararra marble, though.
There a lot going on, visually, inside this building. It's exactly the kind of visual input that should have killed my brain right on the spot. However, because all of the elements conform to the theme of Classical Greek and Roman design, they fit together thematically. The net result is very pleasing to the eye. I would really like to return and go on a tour with a different docent, who would highlight other things for us to look at. The amount of symbolism and history in the building is fantastic. Every item and detail means something.
Our docent pointed out that there were no depictions of named women, anywhere in the Library of Congress. However, female figures were often used to portray broad themes such as wisdom, philosophy, culture, government, and the like. There is one mosaic of the Roman goddess Minerva:
Minerva is located at the landing on the staircase leading up to the overlook. Tour groups are allowed up to the overlook one at a time, and nobody is allowed to stop at the Minerva mosaic. The only way to photograph her is from across the room.
The overlook looks down into the Reading Room. It sounds like anybody needing to do research can obtain a library card and use the resources, including the Reading Room. As mere visitors, we were restricted to looking down from above.
The Library of Congress holds one of three existing Gutenberg Bibles printed on vellum; the other two are in Europe, housed in Paris and London.
The docent described how Gutenberg had to set, by hand, every single letter on each page he printed, and that he needed a way to organize all of the letters so he could find them easily and use them again. He decided to put all of the capital letters on the upper levels of his shelves . . . which is why we call them 'upper case' letters! And the lower case letters were, of course, organized in the lower levels of the shelves. I had no idea how or from where we inherited that terminology. If Gutenberg had put all the capital letters in boxes on the floor, 'upper case' and 'lower case' would mean the exact opposite of what they do mean!
Thomas Jefferson's library is housed in this building, as well as memorabilia from Bob Hope. It also holds much of the estates of George and Ira Gershwin, some of which is displayed in the Gershwin Room, opened as a permanent exhibit in 1998. We got to see George Gershwin's piano! It's a black Steinway grand, a smaller version of what you'd see in any concert hall and doesn't look particularly special until you consider the musical genius of the man who sat at it and composed Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris. Not to mention Porgy and Bess. I mean, WOW!
It doesn't get more American than that, does it?
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Finally, on the afternoon of our last day, we got to visit the NMNH. My friend, Dr. Chris Mah, works in the Invertebrate Zoology department of the NMNH. We arranged to meet him outside the staff entrance so we could bypass the ginormous line, then wandered the hall for a couple of hours before meeting up with him again for a tour of the behind-the-scenes stuff.
To be honest, while I love exploring any natural history museum, this one was too crowded for me to relax and enjoy. Again, it was because I was there during spring break, and all of the museums were especially packed with visitors. We had time to wander through the Ocean Hall, the fossils, and the minerals and gems. The minerals and gems are often my favorite part of a natural history museum, because (a) I'm not a geologist, so there's always stuff for me to learn; and (b) I love the colored minerals. I don't covet precious gems because of their monetary value, but I do love looking at them for their brilliant colors.
I took only one good picture on the main floor of the museum--there were too many people around for me to be able to take the time to frame shots nicely and after a while I gave up. But this is the fossil skeleton of a whale ancestor. Note that this animal didn't have just the pelvic bones that modern whales have; it had fully formed hind limbs. The most recent thinking is that Ambulocetus natans was entirely aquatic, but may have been able to walk around on the seafloor even if it never came out onto land.
The real treat for us was meeting up with Chris again at the end of the day. Chris took us through the security doors to the Invertebrate Zoology department, where the various collections are housed. This is where all the cool (and bizarre) stuff is kept. Most of the items are not going to be displayed, but are used by scientists studying particular groups of animals. Chris works at the NMNH but also travels to museums in California, Paris, and Tokyo to identify sea stars in those collections. The bowels of a museum are like the bowels of any other building--fluorescent lighting, dingy walls, old posters and whiteboards on the walls.
This was the best door sign. In recent years the federal museums have undergone reorganizations and consolidations. I don't know why and forgot to ask Chris, but the Invertebrate Zoology department inherited the entire National Parasite Slide collection. I bet it's a huge collection of parasites sectioned and mounted on slides.
In one of the collection rooms, sitting against the wall, was one of the most godawful objects I have ever seen.
It's a giant clam shell (Tridacna sp.) mounted on a silver base of mermaids. At first I thought it was a bathroom sink, but Chris said it's a punch bowl. Apparently there's a whole set of punch cups that go with it. The whole shebang was a gift to one of the early 20th-century presidents. Seems it might be a better item for the American History Museum, but may be they got right of first refusal and refused to accept it. Or maybe because of the clam shell the IZ department wanted it? Doubtful.
The collections are housed in movable shelves, in some order that hopefully makes sense to both the curators (people who decide what goes where) and the scientific users. Here's a bit of the coral collection:
Items that are being actively studied or need a temporary place while their permanent home is being decided or made ready end up spread out on big tables. This is the kind of thing that I find fascinating. The detritus of working scientists is fun to examine.
These are freshwater bivalves:
Chris said that the museum acquires items from a variety of sources: private collections, smaller museums or schools that can no longer keep all of the material in their own collections, and donations from individuals. Some of the artifacts are quite old, and arrive in quaint containers such as these nostalgic match boxes. Other things are packaged in paper towels and plastic bags. This, of course, is for dry specimens. Wet specimens, preserved in alcohol or formalin, are stored in buckets elsewhere.
Chris showed us some specimens that were of special interest to this marine biologist from California. The first were some brittle stars, Ophiocoma aethiops, collected by Ed Ricketts! Get a load of the label on this box:
There were four other boxes of the same animal. The date (March 20, 1940) and location (Espiritu Santo) indicate that this specimen and the several others just like it were collected during the trip that Ricketts and Steinbeck immortalized in their book Sea of Cortez. I read this book every so often, and use bits of it in lectures. I know that most of Ricketts' collection was deposited with the Hopkins Marine Station, part of Stanford University in Pacific Grove, after his death, and it was really cool to see this set of specimens in the Smithsonian.
The other special item that Chris likes to show visitors from California is the type specimen of one of our local sea stars, Pisaster giganteus. Before the onset of sea star wasting syndrome I'd see this star occasionally in the low intertidal, and divers would see it subtidally in kelp forests. The biggest one I'd ever seen was probably about 23 cm in diameter, a bit larger than my completely outstretched hand. What the Smithsonian has in its collection, for reasons that I don't remember, is the type specimen for this species. The type specimen is the individual (or group of individuals) that is the basis for the scientific description of a species and the species' name. You can think of it as the 'default' for a species, with an important caveat. Many times a species is named based on a type specimen that turns out to be not the norm for the species, which is why we encounter scientific names that are descriptive but make no sense.
Anyway, here's the type specimen of P. giganteus:
The tag says that this animal, which indeed lives up to its species epithet, was collected from Tomales Bay in 1857. It's easily three times the diameter of the conspecific stars that I've seen alive. And even in photos of subtidal stars, I haven't seen a P. giganteus this big. Do they just not get this big anymore? Does it have something to do with habitat? I wouldn't have expected to find P. giganteus in Tomales Bay, because I usually associate them with a rocky bottom in a more exposed habitat. So what's going on with this type specimen? I don't know, maybe nothing. This thing is remarkable for its huge size, though. Stuff like this is very cool. I always like going backstage and getting to see things that will never make it into the exhibit hall.
We spent the morning waiting in line to see things in the National Archives building. The lines to get in were very long, and even though we'd bought a membership the night before so that we could bypass the entry line, once we got inside the building there were more lines to go through security. And this was like going through security at the airport--all coats and belts removed, all pockets emptied, walk through the metal detector, then retrieve belongings and get dressed again. At least they let us keep our shoes on.
Of course, everybody at the Archives wants to see the Charters of Freedom. I'd never heard of that term before but it refers to documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. There were very long lines to get into the room where these items are displayed, and this was the location where my head really was unhappy with the crowds. Many of the tourists were school groups on spring break, and they were loud. It was exactly the kind of stimulus that my brain, still suffering from post-concussion syndrome, can't deal with.
Oh, and there's no photography allowed at all in the Archives, so no pictures to share.
The Charters of Freedom are exhibited in a dimly lit room. Museum staff let in group of ~30 people at a time, and people would rush from case to case. As soon as the crowd began to dissipate another group would come in and there wasn't any time to really look at any of the documents. Given their age it is not surprisingly that they are faded with time. The ink is visible but difficult to read. Some day I would like to go back when it isn't so crowded and spend some time inspecting them. There is something undeniably special about seeing one of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence in person, even if it is sealed in a special case behind glass.
Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
After lunch we made our first visit to one of the Smithsonian museums. Air and Space is always one of the most popular of all the museums in DC, and the day we were there it was predictably crowded. The staff was also setting up for a fancy shindig of some sort, which I imagine must happen fairly regularly in places like that. The folks arriving towards closing time were dressed in formal cocktail attire, and the rest of us were herded towards the doors right at 5:30 p.m.
The Air and Space Museum makes for tricky photography: all of the artifacts are behind glass and most are dimly lit so photos end up glare-y and/or noisy. A lot of the cool stuff is hanging from the ceiling, but there are so many vehicles suspended up there that it's really hard to get the entirety of any one item in view without it being at least partially covered up by something else. Still, there's no other way for some of these huge planes and craft to be displayed, and it's really cool seeing the actual sizes of things. You can walk through the Skylab module, which we did right at closing when they were shooing visitors out the doors. I didn't know they had a real shower up there!
This is probably my favorite artifact of the bunch. It's the Apollo command module. I don't know why, but I think it looks really cool.
As someone who suffers from mild claustrophobia, it's really hard for me to imagine what it would be like to be cooped in this capsule for longer than about five minutes. And the Gemini capsule would be even worse! This module was used to learn how humans perform in space and how they can work in space, leading up to the Apollo moon missions.
Two astronauts would stay in this tiny capsule for as long as the anticipated length of a lunar mission, up to 14 days. Two whole weeks! See those chairs? That's about all the space there is. There was nothing in the signage about how they took care of bodily functions when restrained in a tiny compartment for that long. Surely I can't be the only person who wonders!
This is the suit that Eugene Cernan wore on the moon. He became the last human to leave the moon's surface by being the last to return to the lunar landing module in Apollo 17. He died in January 2017. Some parts of each moon walker's suit were left behind on the moon to minimize weight for the voyage home.
And hey, here's that flag from MTV! This isn't the actual flag that astronauts left on the moon, obviously, but is a replicate. There were six U.S. flags planted on the moon, by astronauts from Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17. According to this NASA site, five of the six flags were still standing on the moon's surface until fairly recently. I think many scientists were surprised to learn that the flags have survived several decades on the moon's surface, with constant exposure to full solar radiation and extreme temperature. They must be completely faded by now.
I have been fascinated by the idea of robots crawling across the surface of Mars and sending data home to Earth since the Sojourner rover landed on Independence Day 1997. And I remember watching and listening with bated breath as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers approached for its landing on Mars in 2004. To me, the fact that we sent robots to another planet and communicated with them for over 10 years as they collected data, is the epitome of scientific success. Spirit's wheels got stuck in the sand and NASA was unable to free it, but the robot continued to send data back to Earth until March 2010. As of today, Opportunity is still alive and roaming.
But I've never known how big these robots are. Air and Space has a life-size model of the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012 and remains operational. Based on this model, Curiosity is about as long as and both wider and taller than my car, a Honda Fit.
Of all the weird gizmos and gadgets displayed in the Air and Space museum, one of my favorite displays was this panel of equipment included in the return modules. I think that now, with Russian Soyuz capsules serving as the vehicles taking astronauts and cosmonauts up to and back from the International Space Station (ISS), returning space travelers land in Kazakhstan. But before the use of the Space Shuttle, astronauts came back to Earth by splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. So perhaps it isn't surprising that their return kit included these items:
Those NASA engineers sure thought of everything, didn't they? I wonder if any of the astronauts had to use the shark repellent. Unfortunately, the signs didn't say.
This is one of the most easily recognizable monuments in Washington, DC. It graces the back of our $5 bill and sits directly across the Reflecting Pool from the Washington Monument. Everybody knows what it looks like.
From the outside, especially from the bottom of the steps, this is another imposing marble edifice. I like that the names of the states carved into the frieze above the colonnade. I first saw these names on the back of a $5 bill when I was in grade school. Kinda cool to see that they're also present in the real thing.
Inside the memorial has a very different feel. There's the famous sculpture of Lincoln sitting on that big chair, of course, with his various writings carved into the walls around him. But even though that statue is so dang big, it doesn't feel cold or distancing. Lincoln looks like he's just a person. Viewed from ground level the statue's hands and feet are enormous compared to the head; I don't know if the sculptor did that deliberately, or if it's just an artifact of perspective because we're looking up at it.
I'm strongly drawn to the hands of this sculpture. Neither of them indicates a relaxed posture; the fingers of the right hand are gripping the armrest of the chair, and the left hand is closed in a fist. I don't know what those hands are intended to convey, but to me they suggest tension.
Isn't that slightly raised right index finger interesting? I wonder if that was an actual mannerism of Lincoln's, or just an artistic decision made by the sculptor.
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is, of course, among those writings inscribed on the wall of the memorial. For some reason I'd assumed that the bit we all know was the beginning of a much longer speech. But no, the entire thing is contained in this single panel. Simple and eloquent. Why the heck do politicians talk so dang much today? And why do they so often seem to say so little?
Vietnam Veterans Memorial I knew what the Vietnam Memorial was going to look like, having seen plenty of pictures and followed from afar the design and construction of it. And everyone I knew who had seen it raved at how touching it is. The one thing that pictures and words cannot convey is what it feels like to walk by the wall. Getting to the wall from the Lincoln Memorial you walk past a monument to the U.S. soldiers who fought in Vietnam.
It's slightly larger than life-size and the details are amazing. From the expressions on their faces these men are exhausted and yet resolved. I wish we'd had more time so I could take pictures of this piece from different angles.
The Vietnam Wall is shaped like a long, meandering trapezoid. Like the FDR Memorial, this is one that you don't just approach and leave; the path takes you along the entire length of the Wall. The panels on each end taper up towards the panels in the middle. This is visually pleasing, but the effect results from the fact that each panel bears the names of the soldiers who died in a given year of the war, and so the overall shape of the wall is a long, tapered trapezoid. I didn't have the right equipment to get all or even any significant portion of the Wall in a photograph, so I didn't even try.
You might not expect a simple list of names to be so moving. I certainly didn't. And while this listing might seem like a way of making the names anonymous, it had the opposite effect. I don't have a relative whose name is on the Wall so none of the names here meant anything to me personally. But when you are confronted with the sheer magnitude of the mortality and the (mostly) young people who were lost to their families, it's very sobering.
Note that there are no ranks among the names. Each name on the wall represents a person who served and died, and military ranks don't matter to the dead. Nobody gets special treatment in this memorial.
Slightly off the beaten path and therefore not heavily visited is the Vietnam Women's Monument. There are only eight women's names on the Wall, but there were ~11,000 women who served in Vietnam, mostly as nurses. The Vietnam Women's Monument recognizes the skills of these women as they tend to a wounded soldier.
The blue cards on the base of the monument are thank-you notes written by schoolchildren in Kansas. They said things like "Thank you for serving your country" and "I wish I had your courage." Smart kids.