Redux: How I Spent My Summer Vacation (Winter Edition)

It’s a real treat for photographers and astronomers alike: our skies are currently witnessing a phenomenon known as a syzygy — when three celestial bodies (or more) nearly align themselves in the sky. When celestial bodies have similar ecliptic longitude, this event is also known as a triple near-conjunction. Of course, this is just a trick of perspective, but this doesn't make it any less spectacular. In this case, these bodies are three planets, and the only thing needed to enjoy the show is a clear view of the sky at sunset. Luckily, this is what happened for ESO photo ambassador Yuri Beletsky, who had the chance to spot this spectacular view from ESO's La Silla Observatory in northern Chile on Sunday 26 May. Above the round domes of the telescopes, three of the planets in our Solar System — Jupiter (top), Venus (lower left), and Mercury (lower right) — were revealed after sunset, engaged in their cosmic dance. An alignment like this happens only once every few years. The last one took place in May 2011, and the next one will not be until October 2015. This celestial triangle was at its best over the last week of May, but you may still be able to catch a glimpse of the three planets as they form ever-changing arrangements during their journey across the sky. Links Images Three planets dance over La Silla (annotated) Three people, three telescopes and three planets
The phenomenon known as a syzygy — when three celestial bodies (or more) nearly align themselves in the sky. In this case, Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury. From ESO’s La Silla Observatory in northern Chile. (Credit: European Southern Observatory

This week as summer hits its balmy peak, we look back at LWON posts from summers gone by. Five years ago, Richard spent his summer vacation in Chile’s winter, getting to know the astronomers and donkeys of the Chilean mountainside. It’s classic Richard, basically, and the delight is in the details. Here it is.


HOT: Guest Post: Counting Star Swirls

Perseids_Raffaella Mattei Cattani_Flickr 2016At three o’clock on Friday morning, August 12, I dragged my husband out of bed to go see shooting stars. I suspected it would be a hard sell. We live too close to the city to view all but the most obvious astronomical events from our backyard; we’d have to drive at least a half an hour, to the other side of the San Gabriel Mountains, to view the Perseid meteor shower at its peak, between moonset at 1 a.m. and dawn at around 6 a.m. But the astronomers and science writers and local blogs had promised it wouldn’t let us down: This would one would be no mere shower, but an “outburst,” thanks to Jupiter’s gravity pulling the comet dust closer to earth. It wouldn’t happen again for a decade and a year.

I was gentle; persistent. Billy, my husband, eventually gave in. Continue reading

HOT HOT HOT Redux: Rites of Summer

3568059854_98435e7541_zHere in the mid-August mid-Atlantic, it’s 99 degrees, heat index 106.  It’s been like this ever since I can remember and it’s going to keep being like this.  The air wraps itself around you, it doesn’t let you move, you push yourself through it, you can almost not breathe and I swear we’d be better off with some lung/gill combination.  Anyway, in honor of the heat here and everywhere across this great land, LWON is running a week of HOT HOT HOT posts — some reduxes, one hot guest.

This first one is from our beloved founder Heather Pringle.  She’s an archeology writer, meaning she has to follow archeologists to work wherever they go.  This time, they went to the Arizona desert.  I can picture them asking, “where’s the writer? did she faint again?”

Here you go. This ran June 25, 2010. Sit in airconditioning and comfort yourself in not being Heather in 2010.  She did survive.


photo by Kevin Dooley

The Last Word

blue, green, and pink berriesAugust 8 – 12, 2016

Helen, proud of herself and rightly so, shares her ingenuity in re: eating her vegetables with us and all humankind.  Smart and generous both, is Helen.

You know the problem with Rio’s harbor? Same with Cambridge, MA’s Charles River, and guest Emily Benson goes swimming anyway.

Such beautiful berries with their delicate and harmonizing colors, so photogenic, a delight to look at.  Just don’t get to know them, says Helen, they’re bad actors.

Craig hikes in to Burning Man, over Pleistocene lakes, tigers, mammoths, and stone tools.

You’ve played Poohsticks, right? Maybe you called it something different.  A pleasant, quieting game.  But what can it all mean?



Toward a Unified Theory of Poohsticks

5529154_735757fe34_oBy the time it arrived at the edge of our campsite, the stream had grown up so that it was almost a river, and, being grown-up, it did not run and jump and sparkle along as it used to do when it was younger, but moved more slowly. It was still clear and shallow, but it knew where it was going, and that made it the perfect sort of river for playing Poohsticks.

Poohsticks, as I expect you know, was invented by Winnie-the-Pooh when he was trying to make a rhyme about a fir-cone. He was walking in the Enchanted Forest, and when he came to the wooden bridge he tripped over something, and the fir-cone flew out of his paw and into the river. “Bother,” he said, but he wasn’t bothered for very long, because he realized that it was quite pleasant to watch the fir-cone float under the bridge and out the other side. Even more pleasant, he found, was to watch two fir-cones float under the bridge and guess which one would come out first. That was Poohsticks, and ever since Pooh and his friends have played it with cones and sticks and once, quite by accident, with Eeyore. But that’s another story.

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Redux: On My Way to Burning Man

In the summer of 2014 I backpacked across the Black Rock Desert to Burning Man with a small group of friends, after which this piece was originally published. It has been only slightly altered. Since the lake bed is from late Pleistocene origin, and the loud and luminous eruption of this annual event will be starting up again soon, re-posting anytime in a several-thousand year bracket works. Today is the day.


Walking to Burning Man across the Black Rock Desert, Neveda with Craig Childs, Timmy ONeil, john Tveten, Tom O'Heara & Editha

I’ve just returned from Burning Man, a Mad Max bacchanalia in the desert of western Nevada. I went to see what civilization was up to, what fiery pinnacle we’ve invited into this empty space. I also wanted to see the event in context of deep time, which is why my journey to this conflagration of 70,000 people did not begin in a miles-long train of dusty, sun-baked cars and RVs waiting to get in, but farther out in the desert, on foot.

Since I first heard of Burning Man, the  way I imagined getting there was by walking, coming in from the  horizon like a mirage. In 2014 (my first and so far only expedition to the gathering), I began with a crew of six in a barren-rock mountain range several days north of the site. We wound our way south toward an increasing glow on the horizon where you’d normally see only darkness at night.

My intention was not to follow a straight line, but to weave in and out of the terraced shorelines of an ancient lake that once filled this desert basin. Lake Lahontan peaked around 11,000 years ago as glaciers melted into the end of the Ice Age, leaving most of northwest Nevada underwater. We used its desiccated beaches and playa-edges as our route, following a Pleistocene route to the event. Continue reading

It’s Pretty, but It’s Bad News

blue, green, and pink berries

It’s August, and that means the porcelainberries are out.

The first time I noticed this plant, somewhere on the walk between home and work, I had no idea what I was seeing. Grapes? The leaves looked like grapes, but the fruits looked like so much more. Some kind of fabulous Easter confection. Chocolate covered in a hard candy shell, say.

A quick check with smart Facebook friends gave me the answer: Porcelainberry. And the hatred.

People really don’t like this plant. It’s an invasive species, but it used to be sold for planting in gardens. In fact, a lot of the references to it on the internet are still about what kind of yard it will thrive in. It’s a vine, a member of the grape family, and it has a habit of escaping and strangling other trees.

The one I stopped to look at Tuesday morning is growing on a fence along a railroad line, the kind of place where invasive species thrive.

Stopping invasive species seems a bit like trying to hold back a flood. How would you ever kill every single porcelainberry that has escaped domestication and spread across the eastern U.S.? Even as porcelainberry vines are destroyed by weed-fighting volunteers in nearby Rock Creek Park, this plant will still be here, offering its berries to hungry birds, who will eat the berries and poop the seeds everywhere.

Maybe someone will get ambitious some day and start eradicating invasive species from all the neglected lots, dormant construction sites, and unloved green spaces of the world. Until they get to this fence, I’ll get a kick out of those crazy fruits.

Photo: Helen Fields, Tuesday morning

Guest Post: Swimming in the Charles

CitySplash_2016The hot, thick summer air in Cambridge, Massachusetts, can make you feel like you’re sitting in a sauna, wrapped in a soaking-wet wool blanket. As a recent, temporary transplant, staying in a house without air conditioning, I needed a place to cool off.

I’ve gotten to know all my favorite places by immersing myself in their water—the lakes and ponds that dot the Adirondacks, the rivers that cut through interior Alaska. For me, swimming outside is a joy, a relief, and a way to feel the pulse of the landscape.

My first week in Cambridge, I found a park called Magazine Beach at the end of my street, tucked into an elbow of the Charles River. For a day or two, I thought I’d discovered the perfect spot to escape the heat and get acquainted with my new town. But the name of the park is a relic, left over from decades ago. These days, the river is off-limits to swimmers.

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