Monday, October 29, 2007

Silver and Silk

And now for something totally different... Silver and Silk is the name of a DVD documentary that Kathy and Bart lent me recently (the link is to the book, I can't find the DVD online). The documentary is about the marvelous textiles, embroidery, and silver jewelry crafted by the people of the Guizhou Province of China. Phila McDaniel, a friend of Kathy's, is the woman who went to Guizhou 27 times starting in 1984 to study the 17 different nationalities of people living there and brought back to this country examples of their wonderful artwork which were on display in an exhibit at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego until October 1st. But it is not to late to see examples from the exhibit as they are now part of the permanent Chinese collection at the museum.

I wish I could show you pictures from the documentary because the fiber artwork is stunning. The few pictures that the Mingei have put up on the web do not do justice to them. Incredibly, the amazing gowns, collars, skirts, bibs, and headpieces are crafted for the ordinary citizen to wear and not just for royalty. Each baby is given a cap at birth and at age one, they are given a new hat. When they enter school, they get a scholar's cap. Baby carriers display the best needlework of the women.

They do not marry within their own village, so festivals are held between villages so that the young people may meet. It is at these festivals that the fantastic silver headdresses are worn by the girls (usually made by their fathers) along with their own hand crafted skirts, etc. In one clan, the Small-flower Miao, girls embroider collars to give the boys they wish to marry. A boy may get several collars but he will return all but the one from the girl of his choice. A girl will start at age 7 to embroider and create her wedding dress. She will marry 7 years later. Her excellence in needlecraft is a sign of her diligence, creativity, and even beauty.

The names of the various clans will sometimes describe the particular type of garment that clan specializes in as in the Long-skirt Miao, and the Short-skirt Miao. The Folded-silk Miao fold silk into triangles to appliqué them on to costumes. The 100-bird Miao drop silk worms onto a board and let them crawl in all directions to make silk felt. Long Horn Miao men wear horns on their heads all day every day. The women specialize in pleated skirts and will wear several layers of skirts. The more pleats, the better, and the more skirts, the better. There are also the Small-flower Miao mentioned above and the Moon Mountain Miao.

Since they have no written language, the people tell stories with their needlework. Dragons are very popular in their designs. Paper cuts are used as templates. The pattern is drawn on paper and embroidered over. The Dong nationality makes Brown Shiny Cloth using indigo dyed silk that is rubbed with a hide soaked in pig's blood which makes the fabric tough (and brown). It is then polished with egg whites.

Guizhou, China was only accessible by a footpath until the 1980s and the recent industrialization of China has not changed the way of life for these people very much—yet. You can see more photos of their artwork at this site. Photos of the people of Guizhou and nearby provinces at work on their textiles are shown here.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Fog, Smoke, and Comets

This is the scene that greeted me yesterday morning when I went out to get the newspaper. When hot land meets cold water, you get fog, and the land has been very hot. The afternoon before the scene looked like the photo below, at noon! That's the noonday sun trying to break through the smoke from the fires that have ringed the Los Angeles basin. Needless to say we have not been going outdoors very much.

Today's L.A. Times has an article about the Santiago fire in Orange County which is the one that has caused most of the smoke for us. The fire is threatening a canyon called Silverado Canyon in which I have a special interest. I have a friend who lives there, another independent woman, trying to have her cake and eat it, too. The canyon is somewhat remote and rural, yet it is within driving distance of all the Southern California civilized amenities like concert halls, museums, and shopping centers. I toyed briefly with the idea of buying a home there myself after my husband died. It helped to ease my grief to think about starting a new life doing what I have always wanted to do, i.e., have my own private nature reserve in a remote area where I would spend my days feeding the birds and playing my violin. But after making a visit to the canyon, I changed my mind. It was a fire waiting to happen. Very dry woods on the slopes of a very narrow canyon with only one road in and out. The road stops abruptly at the top of the canyon and you have to u-turn to drive back out. Uh-oh thought I.

The current residents have been evacuated once and were allowed to return to their homes only to be told to evacuate again. What makes this all so much more tragic is that the Santiago fire is believed to be the result of arson. Unfathomable!

This morning things are looking more normal here. The fog is not so thick but the skies are overcast. There was even blue sky showing straight overhead yesterday afternoon. I hope the skies clear tonight because there is a new comet to see—Holmes 17P. It was a faint 18th magnitude comet in the constellation Perseus a few days ago that has suddenly brightened to almost magnitude 2 which makes it visible with the naked eye. I was able to see it last night with my binoculars even though the skies were cloudy. To see this new celestial wonder, go out at about 10 or 11 pm and look up into the northeast. The moon is full right now but the comet is so bright that it doesn't interfere. Look to the left of the moon and straight up from Capella (a very bright star). Last night the comet looked like a big fuzzy ball with no tail.

P.S. Yesterday's junk mail included a chance to win a free cremation! Now that's poor timing.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Smoke and Ashes

It was eerily quiet here this afternoon. Not a single car went down my street after I arrived home from a morning children's concert. There was no breeze where 90% of the time we have ocean breezes in the afternoon. It was hot—95 degrees—and the air was full of smoke and ash.

I thought the mail lady was not going to come. I would not have blamed her for staying home, but she finally arrived around 4:30 pm. You know the expression, "Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor dark of night... " I wonder if anyone ever mentioned smoke and ashes to her. There was one bill and lots of junk mail in my delivery, so she could have stayed home as far as I am concerned.

My student cancelled. I don't blame her mother either for not wanting to bring her children out in this stuff. Usually, she waits in the car with her younger child while her daughter has her lesson. That was not an option today.

Let's hope the wind changes soon.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


For any family and friends who may be wondering how we are doing here in LA during these firestorms, we are fine. I am not in any danger and neither is my daughter. There is a lot of smoke and ash everywhere so we have all been advised to stay indoors and not do any heavy work outdoors. And it is also very hot. Hopefully, it will start to cool off tomorrow and the wind will shift. Those rains we had recently were not enough to ward off the inevitable.

Here is a link to CNN that shows a map of where the fires are. You can also go over to Grace's site and check out the wealth of information she has there on the fires.

If you live in Southern California, and are not in danger of the fires (and don't own an outdoor cat), I would urge you to put out some water for the birds. They are in full migration right now and the drought, not to mention the fires, has got to be very hard on them. If you don't have a bird bath, just a shallow bowl will do. You can hear dozens of warblers every morning voraciously combing the trees and bushes for bugs. They make a very high-pitched zeet zeet sound. They need to fill up on both water and food before continuing their journey.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Zonotrichia leucophrys Returns!

I caught a shadowy figure skulking across the lawn in my backyard this morning just before sunrise. I grabbed my binoculars which are always out on the kitchen counter, but he was too fast for me. Later, as I was eating breakfast I heard a very strange sound. My early morning visitor was trying to get in the window!

But this time I caught him! It was a White-crowned Sparrow. The sparrows have returned! A week late, but that's OK. I hope his journey wasn't too arduous. I will have to clean the feeder again and put out fresh seeds, throwing a few on the lawn underneath the feeder for ground feeders like him to hunt for.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


It rained again yesterday morning. Yes, this is getting monotonous, I know. This storm took my LA Times delivery man by surprise. There was no plastic bag to protect the paper and it was soaking wet when I went out to pick it up. I called the Times 800 number to request a new paper be delivered. An hour later I got a call from the delivery man himself saying that they had received over 200 calls and he had no more papers to replace the damaged ones. So he said my account would be credited.

Hmmpf! He knew it was raining when he threw the paper on my driveway from his speeding truck. With a little extra effort, he could have thrown it up under my porch roof where it would have stayed dry. But no... He preferred to let the customers complain and the Times take the loss. What a waste! A waste of all those trees and ink, too.

It reminded me of when I was 10 and my older brother had a newspaper route. It was a large route, although not 200 customers. So large that he needed help from me and later my younger brother to deliver the papers every evening. We rode our bicycles (in winter, in the dark) with the papers hanging in a bag from the handlebars. On Fridays, we had to ring every doorbell and wait for the customer to give us the $0.35 for the weekly subscription. If we were lucky, the customer would give us $0.50 and let us keep the change. We lived in an area of tenement housing which meant parking the bike and running up one or two flights of stairs at every house. We got lots of exercise. And our customers got great service—no wet papers.

Such a thing would not be allowed in today's world. It's not safe for our kids to be out riding their bikes after dark and going door to door. It's too bad because our kids not only lose a chance to make some money, they lose their freedom to roam and explore their world. A great learning experience.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Iridium Flare

I just saw an Iridium flare this morning when I went out to pick up the newspaper. The first time I heard the guys at the astronomy club mention seeing Iridium flares, I had no idea what they were talking about. What phenomenon of nature was that? It turns out it is not a natural phenomenon, but a man-made one. The Iridium satellites are small communication satellites orbiting the Earth with antennas that can give off a spectacular flare when angled to the sun just right. (Whether you can call these bursts of bright light a glint, a flash, or a flare is explained here.) This one occurred at 6:23:29 am PDT as the sun was rising. So it was not exactly daylight, but the sky was very bright. Venus and Saturn were visible in the east and Sirius was holding forth in the south-southeast.

There is a web page, called Heavens Above, which has tons of information about astronomy and will predict for you when a flare is going to occur at your location. This flare (my judgement) was extremely bright—magnitude -6. It lasted for several seconds and moved upward and spread outward briefly, then vanished. The particular satellite was the Iridium 25 which was launched from Vandenburg AFB in 1997. Heavens Above will even tell you which antenna caused the flare. In this case it was the left antenna. Amazing!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

More Rain!

Sunrise yesterday morning. Last night at about 3:00 am, it rained again! How lovely! My only worry is that usually when we have rain this early in the season, it stops around December and then the rest of the winter is very dry. If we are lucky, it will rain again in the spring, March to May. But if we are not...

Last week I bought five bags of mulch and put them down around my flower beds. Looks like I was just in time. I want to conserve every precious drop of rain that falls. I would prefer to use normal leaf litter and such as mulch, but I can't convince my gardner to leave the debris alone. He thinks it is unsightly, I guess. I don't live in a fire hazard area, so normal leaf litter is not only cheap, it is what is best for the soil and the birds prefer it to hunt through for seeds and bugs. The Sierra Club suggested putting store-bought mulch over the leaf litter to please the neighbors while still getting the advantages of the natural process of leaf decay. So that's what I did.

Another Orange-crowned Warbler has been by and a possible Yellow Warbler. I wasn't sure of that one. But no White-crowned Sparrows yet. Maybe this storm has held them off. No takers for my feeder either. The squirrel has given up, but the jays keep trying. One jay has found that if he contorts himself on the feeder's perch, he can get one seed. But it must be very uncomfortable for him because all he takes is one before flying off.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

On the Sticks

Now that cooler weather has arrived, knitting just feels like the thing to do. You know you are hooked when you have four projects on the sticks and several more stashed away waiting to get started. The main project I am trying to get finished is appropriately for this time of year called, Cobweb, from Rowan Magazine No. 40. I am making it in black so that I can wear it for concerts. It's a bolero with beading at the bottom and lace at the top.

What happened was, I ordered some beads from England to make my daughter a sweater, Anya from the same magazine, but they sent the wrong ones. After I notified them of the mistake, they very nicely sent out the correct ones with no shipping charges, but I told them I would keep the wrong ones anyway for use in other projects. They are perfect for Cobweb and it gives me a chance to learn beading technique before plunging into Anya which will be quite complicated. I have finished the back and the left front of Cobweb and am halfway through the right front. I think the sleeves, which are long, will take the most time.

Along with this, I am working on the Where's the Opaque? sweater again. This one is from the book, The Knitting Experience: Book 1: The Knit Stitch. Knitting this sweater, which I started a year ago, was supposed to be a learning experience, but I got bored with it and went on to other things. I also decided I didn't like the yarn I was using, a micro fiber, because it wouldn't stretch out and stay stretched out. It kept wanting to go back to its original shape which didn't show off the open weave effect very well. Recently, I got some Rowan Cashsoft 4-ply on sale and started the whole thing over. I have almost finished the back already. This yarn is so soft and light. I love it. But I think it is a discontinued yarn. The pattern is all knit stitches with two different size needles (5 and 10.5) to create the sheer effect. My Options interchangeable needles make the work easy so I can watch DVD movies while I knit.

The third project I have started is the Maltese Shawl for my daughter-in-law from Victorian Lace Today. I just couldn't wait to try out the pattern. I knitted about 20 rows and realized I had made several errors further back and couldn't decide whether to rip it all out or keep going and hope no one would notice. The Kidsilk Haze is very hard to rip back, so I got discouraged. Grace said to send her a picture and she would give it the 4-foot test. So here's a photo, but I have already frogged back to the row where the mistakes occurred. Now I just have to make sure I have the pattern and the number of stitches right before I continue.

The yarn is very fine and the needles are size 7 so I am always dropping stitches. And the pattern uses a SSP (slip, slip, purl) stitch that I find difficult to do with this yarn. You slip 2 stitches as if to knit and pass the stitches back to the left needle. You then insert the right needle through the back loops starting with the second stitch and then the first, and then purl the two together. You get a left-slanting decrease without a twist in the stitches but I haven't quite got the hang of it yet.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Grass Fed Beef

My order of a split side of beef arrived from the Tawanda Ranch in Northern California last week. My daughter and I will be enjoying nutritious grass fed beef throughout the winter. We are sharing this shipment because she is the one with the stand alone freezer. Since this is our first year doing this we weren't sure how things would work and if it would all fit in the freezer. That's why we ordered a split side instead of a full side.

A split side means that when the butcher is carving the steer, he cuts one whole side but puts matching cuts in two piles so you get cuts from all the parts of the steer, but only 84 pounds worth and not 165. I also requested liver and soup bones which were extra. You place your order in the spring with a deposit, your very own steer grows all summer munching on healthy grasses, and then it is butchered to your specifications in the fall at a USDA facility. All the beef comes from one steer, your steer. The cuts are packaged in two-serving size portions (you can probably request larger ones) and they arrive already aged and frozen. You pop them in the freezer and then when the mood for a great T-bone steaks hits, you just pull it out and thaw it.

The meat is delicious, by the way, besides being nutritious. Grass fed beef has a better ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fats, is less fatty overall, and has a great texture as well. There are many sites that talk about the advantages of grass fed beef, but here is the one Tawanda Farms put up.

I was desperate to find another source of grass fed beef, which I had gotten used to, when Whole Foods price went up to $20 per pound. Even I, who am willing to pay extra for organic produce, blanch a little at that price. The shipping charges are rather high when ordering beef direct from the rancher, but the price per pound including the shipping from Tawanda was only $9.65. Granted that includes the soup bones and a lot of ground beef, but you pay that much for ground beef at Whole Foods. And I know where my beef came from.

The best part of the whole thing was when I discovered that the owners of the ranch are two women—two sisters who have forsaken city life to live the way they want to live. I think that's great.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

A Night with the Guys

Last night I was up past midnight again, gazing at the stars. It's addictive. The South Bay Astronomical Society's (SBAS) In Town Dark Sky Observing Session at Ridgecrest Middle School (that's a mouthful, isn't it?) took place last night. The seeing was not as good as last month, but still a good time was had by all. There was quite a crowd this time, with about 15 members with scopes set up and several visitors wandering from scope to scope to see what they could see.

The guys love showing off their scopes, and do a little wandering themselves to compare features. Some of the visitors were trying to decide which kind of scope to buy and having a look through the ones that were set up was probably a big help. But a couple of the scopes were priceless and can't be bought in any store. They were handmade by their owners, including (and I think this is the most fun part) the grinding of the mirror. These scopes don't have motors for tracking, so their one major drawback is that you have to constantly monitor your object and move the scope to keep the object in view. Is that why these were the folks that left early?

My own viewing got off to a slow start as it took three tries to get the alignment right. Either I didn't have the scope pointing true north to start (home position), or what is more likely, the two stars the computer chose for alignment, being ones that I am not familiar with, were not the ones I chose to zero in on. An awful lot of stars have names that begin with the letter "A" and the computer goes through the possible choices alphabetically. Why it didn't choose Arcturus or Antares, both of which were clearly visible and easy for me to recognize, I don't know.

Anyway, the third time was the charm and then the alignment was spot on. I looked at some old familiar things while waiting for it to get really dark (which it didn't do until after 10 p.m., unfortunately) and then headed out into new territory. My prizes for the evening included the blue planet Uranus, and the blue-green planet Neptune. M15 and nearby M2 were new globular clusters that I had not looked at before. Both looked the same in my scope, just fuzz balls although I tried to convince myself that I could see some individual stars in M2 using my highest powered lens with a Barlow lens, which doubles the power. There are 100,000 stars in this tight little cluster!

I used my filter a lot to bring out the nebulosity in things like M8, the Lagoon Nebula, and M17, the Swan Nebula, but it also worked very well to cut out some of the city light glow. The Double Cluster in Perseus, NGC 869 and 884, was spectacular when viewed at low power so that both were in my field of view at the same time. This was one place where the filter helped to make the background darker. M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, and M13, the Hercules Globular Cluster, were disappointing. They appeared as only faint fuzz balls in the glowing sky. I had waited too late to look at M13 and it was very low to the horizon.

Toward the end of the evening, the lovely Pleiades rose in the East along with the Hyades which is best viewed with binoculars because it is so large. I made a stab at viewing M57, the Ring Nebula, but it was too faint and my telescope is not powerful enough. Sometime when I am at a really dark sky location, I'll give that one another try.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


Last Friday night, Bart and Kathy invited me over to see their Night-blooming Cereus. Bart has become an expert in predicting when the blooms will open. He checks the buds out during the day, and gives me a call if he thinks there will be a fine display that evening. I believe the species name of this plant is Epiphyllum oxypetalum, but I am not an expert in epiphyllums. As the name implies, the plant blooms at night and the blooms last for one night only. Next day, they are limp and spent. They give off a very unique perfume that Bart loves, but I think is rather stinky.

A co-worker of Grace's, Robert Fovell, has a blog, Are you Cereus?, with some great photos of cereus blooms and other neat things. If you are a cereus lover, check out his site.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The End of the War

Whew! It's finally over. At about Episode 5, I was starting to feel like it would never end and had a glimpse of what it must have been like for the people who actually lived through it. I am talking about Ken Burns's The War, a documentary concerning World War II, which has just finished on my PBS station. Episode 6, the final episode dealt with the horror of the concentration camps, the death of Roosevelt, and the dropping of the atom bomb. Heavy stuff. You don't quite know how to deal with the immensity of these events even if you were well aware of all the facts before viewing the show. The soldiers that they interviewed, and who now must be in their 80s at least, were very eloquent about their feelings. Watching the show has helped me to appreciate even more my parents and other older relatives who had to deal with not only The War but the depression that came before it. My life has been a piece of cake in comparison.

On a lighter note, I saw an Orange-crowned Warbler in my yard last Sunday, the first of the winter birds to arrive. The Orange-crowns are always first and I expect the White-crowned Sparrows will be arriving by the end of the week. Life goes on.