Thursday, January 19, 2017

Stargazing (In the Category of Want What You Have)

You guys! You guys! You guys! (You can tell I'm a military brat because I said it three times.) I saw a shooting star!

I made a wish.

You can probably guess what it was.

I've star-gazed my entire life. As a child, awake when I was supposed to be asleep, in the backseat of the family VW sedan (white, with red vinyl interior), the moon and I locked eyes, and she followed me home.

I know the stars in my backyard, or at least I thought I did. But then I got in the hot tub tonight, to soak my bones and cry.

You can probably guess why.

Finally, the clouds moved out, and the stars! The stars! No moon tonight, but the stars! 

Thing is, this is my first winter with a hot tub. Until this year, my stargazing  had been confined to spring, summer and fall — firefly nights spent with friends under a black, velvet canvas of a sky. Until tonight, I never had a chance to fully gaze at the winter sky. It's glorious! The Pleiades transect the sky from east to west just above my roof line. I love the Seven Sisters. They replenish my soul.

Mars rose late tonight. Orion's belt followed. As I gazed at the Pleiades, I saw it! You guys! A shooting star! 

I sit outside for all the popular meteor showers: the Persieds, the Leonids. I envy my stargazing companions as they point and exclaim, "I saw one! Did you see that?"

My answer is usually, "no."

 Tonight, all alone in my swirling cauldron of relaxation, one streaked out of the cluster of the Seven Sisters, heading west and south. I reveled in all two seconds of its glory.

I wept with joy.

I made a wish.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Hidden History (In the Category of Say What You Mean)

I wanted to be an astronaut when I was little girl. I have always loved the stars, and the idea of floating among them enthralled me. My dad quickly dashed my ambitions when I shared them, though. "You have to have 20/20 vision, Flea." (Dad called me Flea, the abbreviated version of his nickname for me, Mini Flea. I am not sure why he called me that.)  "You could work for NASA, though."

Two years later, fifth grade math class demonstrated to me and everyone else that I didn't have the computational skills to be a NASA engineer either. (Fractions were my downfall, which, now that I think about it, is probably why I adore prime numbers.) An avid reader from an early age, I discovered Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke and immersed myself in books that took me to the moon and beyond. Growing up and as an adult, I watched every space shuttle launch and landing, even the horrible ones that made me cry for days. I still follow the arc of the International Space Station across the sky whenever it circles my way. (That Russia now holds the keys to our only space transportation makes me sad, but at the same time, I'm glad humans are still getting up there. We learn so much when we look upward, away from ourselves, and at the wider cosmos.)

I've been to NASA Langley at Langley AFB in Hampton, Virginia. I grew up in that area, and Dad, who had been in the Navy, took Sis and I to see the museum they have about the early space program years. I went a second time on a school field trip. I've been to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum multiple times. Heck, I watch The Right Stuff once a year. Maybe my memory fails me, but not once in all my years of obsessing about America's space program do I recall any mention of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, or Dorothy Vaughan. Now that I know their names, I am irked that I did not learn them in a history class at sometime in my substantial education.

I know why I never studied them in school. They were women. They were black. The white men who wrote the text books were particular about who got credit for what, so white men got all the credit. I could climb my soapbox and vent my aggravation about this fact, but I won't today. It would be off-topic.

This evening, I did some fact-checking on the details presented in the excellent movie about these women, Hidden Figures, which I saw earlier today. The parts that impressed me most about Katherine, Mary and Dorothy are, by and large, true. They were brilliant human computers assigned to duties in NASA that made the Mercury, Apollo, and shuttle programs successful. They should have been in my high school history books. I realize (like The Right Stuff) it's a movie, not documentary, but their contributions didn't deserve to be hidden by history, and I am glad they are finally getting the attention they have earned.

Go see Hidden Figures if you can. Take your daughters and your sons. Everyone should know the names of these incredible women.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Used to a View (In the Category of Be Where You Are)

When we bought the house in 2003, the large Bradford Pear tree that dominated the backyard didn’t mean much to me. It was a Bradford Pear, ubiquitous, non-native – it suited the purposes of birds and squirrels – and our cats. It obscured our view of the neighbors across the storm-water-runoff field and their view of us. The tree’s dual sections blossomed all over with lovely white flowers in early spring. Glossy green leaves offered shade in the summer, and a blaze of red and orange autumn colors followed. Ours, unlike some varieties, would bear small greenish-gray fruit that starlings harvested in the fall. The tree became a backdrop for long, daylight-filled weekends spent on the back deck watching birds and reading books. Fireflies flickered in its bole on hot nights. Even defoliated, as the deciduous tree was in the winter, its width filled the view, offering us an illusion of privacy rarely experienced in suburbia.

I have no photos of the Bradford Pear tree in its heyday, a testament to how I undervalued the tree. Springs when early frost killed half the flower buds, it was beautiful. In the seasons where time and temperature better-aligned, the mass of snowy white flowers was breathtaking. After the petals dropped, the blanket of white gave the yard the appearance of freshly fallen snow, briefly. Bright green leaves would unfurl rapidly in the next few days, providing a solid wall between us and the world, for so long as the growing season lasted.

Then, one spring, only half of the usual number of leaves unfurled. The once-dense canopy had bald patches. Glimpses of the townhouse row across the field could be seen, especially when the near-constant mountain breeze ruffled the branches in the usual, prevailing direction. Having taken a semester of plant biology as an undergrad, I understood the implications for the tree. Leaves, you see, have a greater purpose beyond creating shade and privacy.

Grade school biology teaches us how the leaves of deciduous trees (think, ‘pretty in autumn’) use sunshine, water, and carbon dioxide to produce sugars (carbohydrates) and oxygen. The tree stores the sugars in its roots to be used as a food source during the dormant winter period and releases oxygen as a by-product (think ‘tree fart’). Only at the college level do you hear the phrase “tree fart” and learn that a large tree requires the efforts of nearly all its leaves, over the course of the growing season, to photosynthesize and store enough sugars to survive the dormant period. Failure to store enough “food” weakens the tree, making it less likely to produce viable leaves the next growing season. A vicious cycle ensues.

The following spring, only half of the tree had leaves. The year after, only a third. The tree put out no leaves the following year, and three years later, one of the two now-dead-tree sections fell into the backyard. It fell sometime in the morning. We didn’t see it, so we don’t know if it made a sound, being at work as we were. A friend recommended a tree cleanup service, and that weekend, in short order, half of the tree was gone. The view we were used to had changed.

We left the rest of the dead tree in place for several reasons: 1) Woodpecker bait (it worked); 2) Insurance will only pay to clean up a tree that falls; prophylactic removal is out-of-pocket; 3) If we let it fall on its own, it might crash down on a section of the back fence, thus allowing us to make an insurance claim and use the money to replace the broken fence with a gate that offered direct access to the back field, a convenience that would simplify cat-herding. Years passed…

The crab apple tree still blooms,but in April 2015,the dead tree was quite dead,
The funny thing about having an expired tree in your yard is realizing that it only looks forlorn for a portion of the year. From Thanksgiving until Easter, a dead Bradford Pear looks exactly like a dormant Bradford Pear. Only when the sap begins to flow again does one notice a lack of activity on the branches of a dead tree. I let the wild pokeweed hedge grow as tall as it wanted to, creating a perfect green barrier between our yard and everyone else’s. Birds and squirrels continued to use the tree as a highway and apartment building.

We knew it was only a matter of time, but even dead, the tree seemed so permanent. The view became familiar again. Kittens learned to climb the limbs, to the ire of squirrels and birds. They grew into cats (fluffy tanks, really) too heavy for the brittle, dead branches to support their weight. The pokeweed hedge returned each year. I let it. The squirrels and birds didn’t mind.

Returning home from a brisket run (I travel for brisket…a girl has her standards, and the local stuff is close, but no cigar) we discovered that gravity had, again, worked. We didn’t see it, so we don’t know if it made a sound, being away from home as we were.

In falling, the tree damaged almost nothing, not the section of fence we thought might make a nice gate, not the blue Weber grill in the middle of the yard, not the deck, which had been affected, though lightly, by the tumbling of the first tree section. Not the roof, not the new hot tub, none of it. An old crab-apple tree took the brunt of the tree’s fall, and had bounced back, unscathed. The only damage I can ascertain is to the two-pronged shepherd’s hook that now has only one prong. I cannot find the other one, only the evidence that it sheared away from the metal base.

Gravity won.

I warned the person who hauled away the wood -- they might encounter a metal hook when they chop or burn the Bradford Pear tree. Dead for years, the tree was pre-seasoned and ready to burn, and they came with a chainsaw and strength of will. In a few hours, the rest of the tree was gone. All that remained was the jagged stump crowned by the fail point where persistent and prevailing winds outmatched rotting wood and a wide-open view, new to me and more exposed than what I had been accustomed to.

January 2016

December 2016
I’m making plans to extend the rhododendron hedge next spring. Evergreen, three more bushes will line out the fence, and we’ll have better privacy from the field that already offers so much of that. The flowers will be lovely in spring, too, like the Bradford Pear once was. Eventually, we’ll get used to the view.
The new view.