Wine Country Autumn

Wine grapes

In Northern California it is early autumn and it is unfolding beautifully. We are experiencing cool nights in the 40s F. (4 C.), occasionally in the 30s (-1 C.). Days are warm when the sun shines…and it almost always does. About 75 F. (23 C.).

 

One of the biggest events right now is the grape harvest. Wine grapes are harvested at different times, depending on many things; but many are picked in the early fall before the rainy season arrives.

 

Large trucks labor up and down the small highways bearing big open boxes of grapes. Most of us have spent our share of time patiently sitting behind these slow-moving trucks on impassable roads. I use that time to look at the sun glistening on each purple jewel.

Bewick’s Wren on grape vine, California

The wine harvest attracts many visitors to the area, lured by the slick marketing of vineyards with their festive “stomps”, release parties, and energized tours. I drove through Napa County yesterday and counted six hot air balloons languidly suspended overhead, another popular tourist draw in autumn.

 

Every weekend there are animated harvest celebrations going on with gourmet food, live music, and free-flowing wine.

 

Other harvesting that goes on here, to a far lesser extent, are apples and pumpkins. I also see persimmons and figs on trees.

 

Persimmons on tree, California

Local Farmer’s markets have tables piled high with colorful peppers of all kinds, table grapes, heirloom tomatoes, and plums. The waning summer harvests are still yielding green beans, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, eggplants. Squash are coming out now, too.

 

Squash

 

We have had two short rains recently, so the autumn dry grass is not quite as intimidating as in past years. The anniversary of the raging 2017 wildfires is next week, and we are frequently reminded that we’ve now entered “Fire Season.” We hope for rain and work on ways to protect our families and homes.

 

Wildlife is shifting at this time of year, with the bird migration underway. A few species are coming in to settle here for the winter, and more will arrive as the temperatures up north cool.

 

I await the arrival of the sandhill cranes, due in about a month, if we get rain.

 

Sandhill cranes with red-winged blackbirds

 

Other birds like hawks and warblers are passing through from the northern parts of the continent as they travel to their summer homes in Mexico, Central and South America.

 

I’ve seen numerous flocks of swifts and waxwings in the past few days.

Healdsburg chimney and Vaux’s swifts

 

Cedar Waxwing

 

Due to the hot days, the reptiles can still be seen during the day when it’s warm. I saw a snake track on my morning walk yesterday, and was reminded of the thick rattlesnake I almost stepped on recently on the same path.

 

Lizards skitter as always in the heat, but now there are many little ones, smaller than my pinkie.

 

Chipmunks, squirrels, and jays are busy burying acorns, and woodpeckers are boisterous and frequent in the oaks. Several acorns fell out of the blue oaks above me this morning, acorn woodpeckers are on the move.

 

Tall grass is blonde and beautiful. The soil is so dry it is powder. Deciduous trees are starting to lose their leaves.

 

Other than the scent of dry vegetation, the distinct and common smell of vinegar is in the air. As the grapes are being picked and processed, the smell of freshly crushed grapes and fermentation are pungent. You can smell it everywhere in the valleys.

 

Both the big wineries and the small boutique wineries are bustling. Residents who grow and make their own wine have purple-stained fingers. This is a small grape press of a neighbor’s.

 

Grape Press with sides removed

 

I breathe in the smell of “the crush” with great reverence, and fervently hope we will be spared the wildfires this year.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

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Camera Obscura on Wheels

Camera Obscura Front View

I found another Camera Obscura this past summer. We were driving down Highway 1 and happened to see it beside the road. Stopped the car immediately. I never miss an opportunity to steal away from the real world and escape into a Camera Obscura.

 

This one is a mobile unit, and was parked at Russian House #1, a restaurant where the Pacific Ocean and the Russian River meet in Jenner, California.

 

From the outside it looks like a psychedelic tool-shed. The inside is small, but has all the essential ingredients: completely dark with a parabolic screen, a tiny ray of light, and the rotating lens and mirror on top. I found it charming and curious, and appreciated the ingenuity it took to build it. It rests sturdily on a small flatbed trailer, with steps built for visitors.

 

Camera Obscura Side View

 

Camera Obscura Lens

 

Camera Obscura means “dark chamber” in Latin. They date back centuries; and are the original idea behind the pinhole camera, where light passes through a pinhole and provides an inverted image in a dark chamber.

 

The oval photos are what we saw from the inside of the unit. These are real time images, as reflected by the lens onto the oval concave screen.

Camera Obscura Screen Photo of Russian River and Bridge

 

And this is the wheel, inside, that you turn, moving the lens for 360 degree views.

Crank for Turning Outside Lens

 

As we hand-cranked the lens, the Russian River, bridge with passing cars, and restaurant appeared on the screen.

 

There are 23 public Camera Obscuras listed as existing in the world today. In addition, there are private ones. This one we came upon is both. The owner, Chris de Monterey, built it and owns it; he transports it and shares it with the public.

 

Camera Obscuras date back to the 5th Century, B.C. Over the centuries, scientists, scholars, and artists studied the phenomenon. By the 18th century, it had become a resource for education and entertainment. Then photography pioneers built portable Camera Obscuras, and the camera was born.

 

As portable cameras became popular, the Camera Obscuras fell out of fashion, and most were demolished. Fortunately there are still some in the world.

 

Camera Obscura Wikipedia — including the list of Camera Obscuras with public access.

 

In San Francisco there is a Camera Obscura: The Giant Camera, on Ocean Beach behind the Cliff House. It was built in 1946 and is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

 

I’ve been here dozens of times, and taken many loved ones here as well.

 

I wrote about it in a previous post:  Camera Obscura San Francisco.

 

San Francisco Camera Obscura

Camera Obscura, San Francisco

Camera Obscura, San Francisco

 

I have seen another one at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, but it’s always been closed when I’ve gone there. The Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles also has one; there are about two dozen open to the public around the world. A list of their locations is provided in the Wikipedia link above.

 

Today we all walk around, rather cavalierly, with a telephone/computer/camera in our back pocket.

 

I suppose one day our back-pocket-phone devices will become quaint antiques, too.

 

But for now, we can take pleasure in all the different versions of any sized device that records the beauty and magic of our surroundings.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexanader.

More info:

The Magic Mirror of Life, a website about the world’s Camera Obscuras by Jack and Beverly Wilgus.

 

 

Cruising the Columbia River Gorge

Columbia River Gorge

Located in the United States Pacific Northwest, the Columbia River is the largest river in this region; fourth largest, by volume, in the United States. We enjoyed a two-hour cruise on this historic waterway last month.

 

This is the vessel we were on.

Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler

 

About an hour’s drive east of Portland, between the border of Oregon and Washington, the Columbia River Gorge is a unique 100-mile section of the river.

Columbia River Gorge, Bridge of the Gods in center

More info:

Columbia River – Wikipedia

Columbia River Gorge – Wikipedia

 

The river is very wide, and the water is both roiling and sparkling.

 

We didn’t see many pleasure-craft boats here, no doubt because of the fierce winds; but every day we saw windsurfers and hydrofoil surfers. It’s known as the Windsurfing Capital of the World.

Wind surfers, Columbia River Gorge

 

Hydrofoil Surfer, Columbia River Gorge

Atmospheric pressure conditions within the Cascade Mountains create a wind-tunnel effect in the Gorge, regularly producing 35-mile-per-hour (56 km/h) winds.

 

The Columbia River has been a crucial corridor in North America for centuries, providing westward passage that avoids perilous mountain treks.

 

It is 1,243 miles (2,000 km) long, starting in the Canadian Rockies. It cuts west through the Cascade Mountain Range, empties into the Pacific Ocean.

Map of Columbia River

Map of Columbia River. Courtesy Google.

 

In 1803, President Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the western territory of the country. Also known as the Discovery Corps, they travelled the Columbia River to the coast, and again on their return trip.

 

Oregon Historical Society Essay on the Lewis and Clark Expedition

 

In the 1800s this Gorge section of the Columbia River was raging. It was rocky and turbulent, with precipitous drops.

 

Lewis and Clark, in their dugout canoes, journeyed through the treacherous Gorge. They recorded the Gorge as a “…great number of both large and small rocks, water passing with great velocity forming and boiling in a horrible manner, with a fall of about 20 feet” (October 30- November 1, 1805).

 

The rapids then were ferocious, later estimated to be Class V–violent, risky, and dangerous.

 

It was so dangerous that the resident Native Americans never took boats through this section. In fact, they came by the hundreds to watch the crazy explorers navigating their canoes through here.

 

In some places of the Gorge, the Corps would portage around the rapids; i.e. transport their vessels and gear over land.

 

Fast-forward over a century; locks and dams were built in this section. Today the Bonneville Dam has tamed the waters, and uses the river’s energy for hydroelectric purposes.

 

Bonneville Dam and Beacon Rock, Columbia River

 

Roads and railroad tracks have been built on both sides of the river, still utilizing the river’s path for passage to the coast.

Freight train bisecting through center of photo, beside the Columbia River

 

And tourists like us ride on a triple-decker 119-foot paddle wheeler, a replica riverboat built in the 1980s. The Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler is propelled by two internal diesel engines; and has a single paddle wheel on the stern (rear), and a large, flat bottom.

Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler paddle

 

We watched an osprey on its nest.

 

Lewis and Clark spotted California Condors here.

Osprey with nest on the Columbia River

 

Native Americans have fishing nets and platforms along the water’s edge. They catch salmon and other fish here, like their ancestors did centuries ago.

Fishing Platform, Columbia River

 

This small island is where the Lewis and Clark Discovery Corps camped.

Lewis and Clark Island

 

Thanks for joining me on the Columbia River Gorge, yesterday and today. A wild and wonderful place.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander except aerial photo, below.

Corps-engineers-archives bonneville dam looking east.jpg

Columbia River Gorge aerial at Bonneville Dam. Courtesy Wikipedia, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

 

Powell’s Books

Powell’s Entrance, 10th and Burnside

I recently had the opportunity, and privilege, to visit Powell’s Books in downtown Portland, Oregon. It is a pleasure to share with you this Oregonian institution, the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world.

 

Powell’s Entrance, 11th and Couch

The main store, photographed throughout this post, is called “Powell’s City of Books.” Their flagship store, it has one million books for sale. In addition, there are several other smaller Powell’s bookstores in the Portland vicinity.

 

Originally founded by Walter Powell in 1971, it is now in its third generation of Powell owners.

Powell’s Books, inside

 

For more history and information:

powells.com

Powell’s Books Wikipedia

The ONE Thing You Must Do in Every State by the Huffington Post

 

Their retail and online inventory combined: over four million books.

 

The City of Books takes up an entire city block, and covers 68,000 square feet (6,300 sq. meters). Four floors, two elevators. It is so big they offer a Store Map and color-code the different main rooms, for ease in navigation. Information booths and friendly staff abound.

 

It is easy to get lost in the seemingly endless catacombs of towering bookshelves…which, to a bibliophile, is the next best thing to heaven.

 

Powell’s Books

 

One of my favorite parts is the Rare Book Room. It was quiet, like a library; and filled with a fascinating collection from around the world.

 

Powell’s Books, Rare Book Room

 

The room is 1,000 square feet, and closed off from the rest of the store. It has 9,000 volumes of rare books atop elegant polished, wooden shelves. The most expensive books, rare collectibles, are behind glass; but most of the collection is open for perusing.

 

Powells’ most expensive book is priced at $350,000.00; it is off-premises in a safe. It is the first public description of the journals of Lewis and Clark on their 1804-06 U.S. Expedition. The two-volume set is in its original binding and includes a map. Enticing photos of the book are displayed for interested buyers.

 

The most expensive book in the Rare Book Room is a two-volume set of the Lewis and Clark journals, published in 1814. It sells for $25,000.00, and is locked behind glass.

 

Lewis and Clark Journals, priced at $25,000.

Their oldest book was printed in Venice 525 years ago: The Works of Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Sells for $6,000.00.

 

More books from the Rare Book Room.

Gorillas in the Mist, Autographed by Dian Fossey, priced at $2,500.

 

The Red Book by C.G. Jung, priced at $295.

 

In addition to Powells’ new, used, and antiquarian books, there is a wide selection of book bags, tee shirts, greeting cards, and other sundries. There is also a coffee shop.

 

For years I have heard about the marvel of Powell’s Books; there is no other bookstore like it in the world. It was far more organized and elaborate than I had ever imagined.

 

Glamorous even.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Powell’s Books, Coffee Room

 

Blue-colored Friends

Ulysses Butterflies on Lantana, Australia. Photo: A. Alexander

If any of my friends in the Northern Hemisphere are feeling a little blue about the waning of summer, here is a panoply of blue wildlife to uplift your spirits.

 

Blue-gray Tanager, Peru

 

Blue-footed Booby, Galapagos. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Costa Rica. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Though there are many birds with blue, there are also insects and reptiles, and even a monkey.

 

Bluet Damselfly, Nevada. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Butterfly, Ecuador. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Western fence lizards have a bright blue belly.

Western Fence Lizard, California. Photo: A. Alexander

 

This skink we see in California has a dazzling tail.

 

Skink, California

 

The blue monkey. Not as blue as some of its fellow blue-named creatures, but a beauty nonetheless.

Blue Monkey, Lake Manyara, Tanzania, Africa

 

Birds this blue sometimes blend into the greenery; but I have spotted them from far across an opposite ridge…gasping from behind my binoculars, such stunning beauty.

 

Blue Dacnis, Peru. Photo by B. Page

 

We found these blue-headed parrots at a river bank in the Amazon. They were busy extracting minerals from the clay soil.

 

Blue-headed Parrots, Peru. Photo: A. Alexander

 

The color blue is a bit complicated when it comes to nature. Peacock feathers, for example, are actually pigmented brown, but their microscopic structure, through light reflection, expresses blues and greens.

 

Indian Peacock, Texas. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Birdnote.org explains it well:

“Unlike many other bird colors, blue is not a pigment but a color produced by the structure of the feathers. Tiny air pockets and melanin pigment crystals in each feather scatter blue light and absorb the other wavelengths. The even finer structure of the feather gathers the bouncing blue wavelengths together and directs them outward.”

 

I think the blue feathers on this Glossy Starling take scattering and bouncing blue wavelengths to a new high.

Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling, Africa

 

I’ve noticed some birds sporting blue always seem to be bright, like these two tanager species…

 

Blue-necked Tanager, Peru

 

Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, Ecuador. Photo: A. Alexander

 

… whereas other blue-pigmented birds can sometimes look gray or black, depending on the light.

Little Blue Heron, Belize

 

Mountain Bluebird, Wyoming

 

Great Blue Heron, Ding Darling, Florida

 

These blue-footed boobies are performing a mating dance. The blue pigmentation in their feet comes from carotenoids in their fresh fish diet. The bluer the feet, the more healthy the bird.

 

Blue-footed Boobies, Galapagos Islands. Photo: A. Alexander

 

A few more of my blue favorites.

Belted Kingfisher, California

 

Green Honeycreeper, male, Trinidad (called a Green Honeycreeper, but more like turquoise)

 

Azure Kingfisher, Australia

 

Turquoise Jay, Ecuador. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Southern Cassowary, Queensland, Australia. Photo: A. Alexander

 

How wonderful to have all these blues in the world–so much pigmentation or light or wavelengths or whatever…to celebrate.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.

 

Western Bluebird, California

 

Point Reyes

Point Reyes, Tomales Point, Pacific Ocean side

 

Tule elks (male), Point Reyes

 

Pt. Reyes from Tomales Point Trail. McClure’s Beach.

 

About a two-hour drive north of San Francisco is an expansive park called Point Reyes. Geologically it is a large cape that extends off the Pacific coast. Technically it is Point Reyes National Seashore…locals call it Point Reyes.

 

It is an entire peninsula with ocean coastline, beaches, and dunes; rolling hills; forests; dairy ranches; hiking trails and more. The land area is 70,000 acres (283 sq. km). It is my favorite of all places to hike in Northern California.

 

Point Reyes Wikipedia

 

Point Reyes is home to 490 bird species, 40 species of land animals, and a dozen species of marine mammals. Pods of California gray whale migrate through here. Two resident mammal species nearly went extinct: tule elk and elephant seals.

 

A breeding colony of elephant seals can be seen from December through March.

 

Elephant Seals on the beach, Point Reyes near Chimney Rock

 

The coast is rocky and often foggy, typical of Northern California, and this peninsula juts ten miles into the ocean…so far that it is notorious for hundreds of shipwrecks.  See map below.

 

Sir Francis Drake’s ship is said to have hit damaging rocks here in 1579. The crew hauled The Golden Hinde up to the beach for repairs.

 

Centuries later, but in the same general vicinity, we came upon this tiny cemetery in a grove of eucalyptus trees. Experienced life-savers succumbed to treacherous waves while helping passengers of shipwrecked boats.

 

Life-saver Cemetery, Pt. Reyes, California

 

Today the Coast Guard cruises overhead, maintaining public safety.

 

Coast Guard helicopter at Point Reyes

 

On the craggy mountain ridges overlooking the Pacific Ocean, tule elk herds graze on protected land.

Tule elk male, Pt. Reyes, California

 

Hikers share the trails with elk herds. Sometimes when the fog is very thick you can hear their impressive bugling without actually seeing an animal. The first time this happened I was nervous, didn’t like not knowing where they were. But now when I’m there I hope for it, I like the mystery.

 

Point Reyes Tule Elk

 

At this time of year, late summer, the grass has turned brittle and brown. Wild amaryllis flowers, common name “naked ladies,” can be seen clumped in the grass. They have a heady fragrance–sweet, like bubble gum.

 

Wild Amaryllis, aka Naked Ladies

 

While hiking along the grassy trails to Abbotts Lagoon, we came upon California quail, brush rabbits, and many sparrows.

Abbotts Lagoon, Point Reyes

 

California Quail (male) in lupine

 

Last summer’s visit yielded a coyote.

 

Coyote, Point Reyes, California

 

Every spring we find nesting swallows.

 

Barn Swallow nestlings, Point Reyes

 

One summer a few years ago, Athena and I decided to go out after dark in search of a rare owl known to live here, the spotted owl.

 

We knew the trail well enough that we walked without light. Our reasoning for walking in the pitch black dark–which in retrospect doesn’t seem quite so wise–was that we would come upon the owl and hear it, without it being frightened by us. Once we located its hoot, we could use the light to see it.

 

But as we tripped along the trail, we heard the unmistakable breathing of a big mammal…very near. When we switched on the light, we came face-to-face with a really big buck.

 

We were all three very startled.

 

We backed off, gave him some room, and he continued to graze. We never did hear or see the owl.

 

I could fill a book with the outdoor adventures we have had in our 30 years exploring Point Reyes. You may know that feeling: when you realize you have spent most of your life in a place…and loved every minute.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Header photo, also Point Reyes: Tomales Bay. You would never guess that below Tomales Bay lies the San Andreas Fault.

 

Point Reyes, California. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

North American Prairies

Prairie meadow with black-eyed Susan wildflowers, Wisconsin

Pronghorn, California

Bison, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

The prairies of North America, unique to the continent’s central region, have intrigued and enlightened residents for centuries. Born and raised in America’s prairies, I continue to take great pleasure in our grassland expanses.

 

The history of the continent’s grasslands has been interesting, you can read about it below in the two links. Today we are in the fortunate period of a resurgence of prairie restoration.

 

Carrizo Plains, California

 

Red-winged blackbird, Horicon Marsh, WI

 

With the experience of previous generations, we have discovered that natural ecosystems, like grasslands, provide profound balance and abundant sustainable activity.

 

Prairie Ecology and History

 

Prairie Wikipedia

 

The deep roots of the grasses absorb rain and nutrients, preventing erosion and run-off. The grassland absorption of nutrients and minerals creates rich soil and productive farming. The grasses and forbs also capture carbon, an important process with the current threat of global warming.

 

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

 

Not all prairies are the same; some are wet, some are dry. The grasses are not all the same, either: tall, short, or a mixture of the two, depending on precipitation.

 

Colorado

 

In addition to the Great Plains of North America in the center of the continent, there are also prairie habitats in several parts of the U.S. and southern Canada. See map below.

 

Savannah habitats can include shallow waterways like marshes or vernal pools; some have occasional buttes. Trees are typically rare, except for what might grow alongside rivers.

 

With the absence of trees and mountain formations, unobstructed gale-force winds are common.

 

If you’ve ever been in grassland regions, you know about the storms. Sometimes they are glorious. Purple-black clouds roil for hours until at last the skies ominously open, bringing rain that actually smells sweet. Dramatic lightning and booming thunder.

 

Sometimes, admittedly, it’s not so glorious…it’s terrifying. This is where tornadoes occur.

 

Impending Storm on the Pawnee Grasslands

 

Wildlife in the prairies are dependent on open expanses, grasses and forbs. Grazers like bison, pronghorn antelope, deer, and elk live here.

Pronghorn, male, California

Tule elk male, Pt. Reyes, California

 

Insects here are grasshoppers, moths, beetles, and butterflies. Small mammals like rodents, reptiles, and prairie dogs occupy this habitat. Jackrabbits and coyote too.

 

Prairie Dog, Colorado

 

The vast open plains are also home to many bird species: raptors and burrowing owls, seed-eating birds, field birds like bobwhites and quail.

 

California Quail

In addition, large migrating bird populations pass through the continent’s grassland habitats.

 

Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

 

One spring we went to a prairie preserve in Texas in search of the rare prairie chickens native to these grasslands. We were unable to find the prairie chickens, they are now extremely rare, but we were treated to many prairie sights.

Texas

Several male dickcissels, seed-eating songbirds who occupy the prairie grasses, made their way to the top of the grass to vie for female partners.

Prairie Dickcissel, Attwater Preserve, Texas

Many plains and prairies show a vibrant display of wildflowers every spring. With the huge expanse of wildflowers brings the pollinating bees.

Texas prairie wildflowers

Western Meadowlark, Carrizo Plains, California

 

We tend to visit oceans, coasts, mountains, or cities when we travel, and the Plains (the word means ordinary) are not attractive to many folks.

 

But I love the flat grasslands redolent with sweet-smelling grasses and fresh air. Skies are open, grass is golden. Bison and elk graze without concern, meadow birds rest on fence posts or disappear in the tall grass.

 

Thanks for joining me.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

For early American prairie experiences, read Willa Cather. 

 

Bison Bull, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

Image result for north american prairie map

North American Prairie Map. Courtesy rediscovertheprairie.org.