Monday, March 31, 2008


Tumacácori National Historical Park is located in Southern Arizona just north of Nogales and the Mexican border. It was originally a mission established by the Jesuits and later run by the Franciscans. I was inspired by the adobe ruins to try my hand at artful photography and so will just post the photos without further explanation except for the last photo which does require an explanation.

Taking a break from our tour of the ruins and birdwatching in the garden, we sat at a picnic table to have a snack. My grandson decided to give this ant one of his cashews (the cashews that I had roasted myself in coconut oil for two whole hours! But I digress.) The ant took off at such great speed with it that we were surprised and everyone requested that I take its picture. What is even more surprising now that I have had a closer look at the result is the fact that the ant was moving backwards (towards the upper left corner) not pulling, but dragging the nut along!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Birds of Arizona

Isn't he beautiful? This is a Broad-billed Hummingbird, one of those little jewels, only about 4 inches long, that flit about from flower to flower and fascinate us not only with their speed, but with their bravery. Perhaps one precludes the other. I was chasing down the Vermilion Flycatcher in the picture below when my DIL said, "Mom, look behind you!" and there he was just sitting on a branch, posing for me to take his picture.

There are many such colorful and interesting birds that can be found nowhere else in the U.S. except in Arizona. Most are birds of the Sonoran Desert which extends down into Mexico and are at the northernmost extent of their range. Others are migrants that pass through in spring and fall. Any birder worth his salt will make a trip to Arizona to add these birds to his North American life list.

For a map of the North American birding area as defined by the American Birding Association, click here. The 947 species that make up the North American checklist are here. Most birders in the U.S. are trying to see every one of these birds and when they speak of their Life List, this is the main list that they are talking about. I have seen over 400 of these birds, but I have a long way to go! The problem is that as the number gets higher, you have to go to more exotic places to find the birds. (Not a bad thing, actually.)

Both the hummingbird and the flycatcher are year-round residents of southern Arizona. We happened to be at the Tumacacori National Historical Museum, which I will blog about later, when I took their pictures. There was also a female flycatcher with the male. Females are not so colorful. As we tried to get closer to the trees in which they perched between rapid flights to catch bugs, they moved further away. The Chipping Sparrows, with the rusty crowns, and Lark Sparrow, with the bold face stripes, on the left were also in the museum's lovely garden.

One of the main places birders go in Arizona to find the birds is Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains which was just across the valley from where we were staying. In fact, it was a visit to the canyon that was the impetus for the whole trip. I had been there nine years ago and wanted to see it again. At first we were going to stay at the cabins right in the canyon at Santa Rita Lodge, but we were too late to make reservations there. The lodge has feeders out that attract birds and birders to sit and watch each other. This Mexican Jay with his head in the shade was at one of these feeders.

But there were plenty of birds to watch right at our condo at the Inn at San Ignacio in Green Valley. I gave my grandson a pair of binoculars and a field guide of the birds of Arizona and together went went out in the early morning to see what we could find in our own backyard—a covey of Gambel's Quail, Black-throated Sparrow, Inca Dove, a pair of Cardinals, and a mother hummingbird (possibly Black-chinned) feeding her baby.

There were some mystery birds, too. In fact, quite a few were mysteries either because you never got a good look at them, or because they defied identification even with a nice long look. We encountered one such mystery bird on a hike up at the end of Madera Canyon. This little guy sat high in a tree long enough for me to take several pictures of him, but I am still not sure of what species he is. He is all fluffed up because it was very cold that morning in the mountains (42 degrees), cold enough for their still to be snow on the ground. My first thought was that he is another Vermilion Flycatcher. If so, he was in the wrong place. My second thought was that he is a Hepatic Tanager, but the bill seems to be too sharp. I vacillate back and forth.

On our way home, we stopped at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum which has a world-famous hummingbird exhibit as well as a large aviary. My grandson was disappointed when we told him that these birds do not count for your Life List. They have to be in the wild. But I will never get this close to an American Kestrel (female) in the wild to take her picture. These beautiful birds can be found all over the U.S. They are a small, delicate falcon. But we did see one out on the top of a Saguaro at the north end of Saguaro National Park, so Nick was able to check that one off.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Arizona Wildflowers

It has been awhile since I posted anything but I just got back from a trip to Arizona and have lots to blog about. I was visiting my son and family and together we went down to Green Valley which is a retirement community south of Tucson. There are a lot of things to see and do in that part of Arizona and Green Valley was a nice central location. We did so many different things that I took over 500 pictures! It's a good thing "film" is so cheap these days. But it does take time to download all of them and sort through them for the best ones.

I am going to start with the wildflowers. The desert is bursting with blooms right now. The drive across Route 10 to Phoenix was the prettiest I ever remember. The area around Chiriaco Summit was especially beautiful. But there was no place to stop and take photos so I had to let the colors just whiz by me—lots of yellows, blues, purples, and whites. The Ocotillo were just sending up buds and the Saguaro will not bloom until later.

On our way down to Green Valley we stopped in Saguaro National Park and found it also bursting with wildflowers and with people who had come out to view them. Here are just some of the photos I took at our first stop. If I have the wrong names for any of these plants, please feel free to set me straight. I am by no means an expert! I did happen to latch on to a lady who seemed more knowledgeable than me as I was wandering around (an expert is someone who knows more than you do), plus she had a book in hand and she was happy to look up anything I pointed to. So some of the identifications are from her. The Visitor's Center had a nice display of exactly the flowers you could expect to find in the park, but as it was a display, I couldn't take it with me. I should have photographed it. (I'm a great one for taking pictures of signs. "You are here," etc. Otherwise you don't remember where you were!)

Arizona Jewelflower Streptanthus carinatus ssp. arizonicus The whitish blooms, not the purple or yellow. Click on the photo to view it larger and see these blooms better. They were almost spent when I took this photo.

Desert Pincushion Chaenactis stevoides

?-Lupine (Possibly Arroyo Lupine Lupinus sparsiflorus.)

Rancher's Fireweed or Devil's Lettuce Amesinckia menziesii var. intermedia. It is a fiddleneck kind of plant.

White Easter-Bonnet Eriphyllum lanosum and a Bladderpod (Gordon's?) Lesquerella gordonii

Blue Dicks or Wild Hyacinth or Coveria Dichelostemma capitatum

This is either Desert Chicory Rafinesquia neomexicana or White Tackstem or Cupfruit Calycoseris wrightii. They are very similar. The lady told me that if it felt sticky it was the latter, but I think I felt the wrong part—the flower and not the stem.

Purple Owls' Clover or Escobita Castilleja exserta

I am not at all sure of these next two. Possibly Desert Bluebells but they are more purple than blue and the leaf isn't quite right. They do seem to be in the Hydrophyllaceae family.

And last but not least, Gold Poppies. I think these are Mexican Gold Poppies or Amapola del Campo Eschscholzia californica ssp. Mexicana. Very similar to our own dear California Poppies.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Project BudBurst

The March 7th issue of Science Magazine, which I am only now getting around to browsing through, mentions an organization that gives everyone a chance to be a scientist and help with tracking climate change. The project, called BudBurst, started in 2007 and has already collected data from 26 states which will be analyzed by university and government researchers. Basically, what you do is report the timing of the appearance of leaves, flowers, and fruits in your own backyard and neighborhood. It helps to sign up and get started before things start blooming because they want to know the date that the first bloom appears. They also want to know when things are in full bloom, and when the last flower dies.

In Southern California, that can be tricky. Some plants bloom all year, and especially this year, there has been no rest for a lot of them. Other times, things start blooming before I have had a chance to check them out and I am pleasantly surprised. That happened this year with my Mickey Mouse plant, or Ochna serrulata. It's over on the side of the house and was planted by the birds. I hardly ever water it, only once a month in summer. (Someone told me that just means that its roots extend into my neighbor's yard and it is getting water there.) Anyway I was surprised recently to find it in full bloom. The sepals of these blooms will later turn red with black seed pods in the center making it look like Mickey hanging upside down.

Bulbs that sent up their green shoots in early fall are just now blooming like these red Freesias and the Ixia below. I have yellow, white, and one or two of the red kind of Freesia planted around the "estate." Someone asked which ones smell the best and I have to say they all smell good and just slightly different from each other. I like to cut them and bring them into the house to adorn my table. Then I can enjoy the aroma while I eat. Plus the yellow and white blossoms together make a dazzling arrangement.

My friend Kathy says Ixia reminds her of colored Easter eggs. These bulbs were given to me by a music friend. One way for a plant to get itself propagated by humans is to have irresistible flowers or aromas.

Amaryllis has greens all year. This clump was started by seeds from a nearby bed of flowers and blown by the wind. These plants have been in bloom for months while the original plants are just starting to send up their fat flower stalks. They do get more sun. I received my first amaryllis bulbs from the woman who took care of my son while I was giving birth to my daughter. My daughter was born in March and the amaryllis has bloomed every year in March reminding me of that happy occasion. I used to dig the bulbs up every January, divide them, and distribute the extras to my neighbors, but lately, I haven't done that and they don't seem to mind. The bulbs, that is.

This Jasimine has produced profuse flowers this year. It started out as a plant in a pot hanging from my patio cover. After a few years, it started looking very sad, so I took it down and deposited it over by a wall where it gets much more shade. It obviously likes the change, plus all the rain water it got this year. I might mention that this species has a delicate fragrance. It is not overpowering like the night-blooming kind. When it is warm enough to open the patio door, the gentle scent fills my kitchen.

But Project BudBurst is more interested in native plants naturally and none of these plants are natives of my area. Most of them were planted before I became a native plant enthusiast and since they have adapted so well to my infrequent waterings, I have left them. New plants, whether drought-tolerant or not, require water to get established.

Now... That's... Slow...

Over a year ago, I blogged about the trash collection in my neighborhood. One day, without warning, my neighbors and I were supplied with three large trash collection barrels, one for garden waste, one for recyclables, and one for the other stuff. Along with the barrels came instructions on how to fill them and place them on the street such as 18 inches apart, wheels against the curb, lids closed, away from trees, etc. Besides being so large the barrels do not fit in many people's side yards (including mine). They are very heavy, especially when full and hard to manage even with wheels. And to make matters worse, the day of trash collection was the same day they swept the streets. With the trash barrels out on the street up against the curb, the sweeper could hardly do a very affective job. Some streets have no parking signs, but that does not include the trash barrels, I guess.

The entities involved both refused to change their schedules and we have been living with this situation for 18 months. Many meetings were held, many petitions signed, surveys filled out, and finally there has been some progress on the matter. Starting in April, the trash will be picked up on a different day. Yay.

So, take heart, there are still some elements of our lives that are very slow, usually those involving a government agency.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Slow Life

Grace and I have been having a discussion of sorts about the slow life, something we all wish we had, something many of us strive for, but something few of us attain. The slow life includes slow food, that's where you buy ingredients and make your own meals instead of buying prepared foods and especially fast foods. It includes slow clothing, where you make your own clothes instead of buying ready-made clothing that is often produced in sweat shops around the world. I suggested that we add slow music to the list. That's where you spend hours and days and weeks, months, and years of your life learning to play a musical instrument so that you can make your own music for entertainment. Here are some of my attempts to slow things down for myself.

The low-carb diet that I adhere to is definitely slow food I have to admit. It really helps to stay with the diet if you can do your own cooking. Last week I made a Pot-au-feu that took a whole afternoon to make but was out-of-this-world delicious. It could have taken longer, but I adapted the recipe to my needs which meant leaving out some of the ingredients. I just finished the last of the broth last night; I didn't want to waste one drop! The recipe came from a very slow-food cookbook, Lulu's Provençal Table by Richard Olney. The Lulu of the title is Lucie Tempier Peyraud, the wife of a French vintner, Lucian Peyraud and co-owner of Domaine Tempier, a vineyard and dwelling "nestled in the hillsides outside the neighboring fishing ports of Bandol and Sanary, some ten miles from Toulon and thirty miles from Marseilles."

A Pot-au-feu is basically a stew and includes several different kinds of meats. I made mine with some of my grass-fed beef and marrow bones that I bought last year when my daughter and I purchased a split side of beef from a California rancher. I love the instructions in the recipe that call for "freshly dug carrots." Apparently, Lulu can tell the difference. I did the best I could with carrots freshly bought from the Farmer's Market. Of course I added no potatoes and used no bread on which to spread the marrow. I love to eat marrow with a small spoon right out of the bone. The secret ingredient in the broth is a tangy white wine not red.

Knitting is definitely slow clothing especially, when it takes a whole year to produce a sweater! I have finished the back of Anya, but will have to put it aside for awhile as I will be travelling the next month and as I said in my earlier post on Anya, it is not a take-along project. So I have started something new which is definitely a take-along project, the Helon Dress from Rowan's newest magazine, No. 43 for Spring/Summer. This is an entirely crocheted dress, something I haven't done much of in years.

Crocheting makes me think of my mother who was so fond of it. She was constantly making something for someone right up until the day she died. In fact, she left a tablecloth unfinished for we don't know who. The mystery was never solved, so my sister finished the work and kept it. She says it helped her work through her grief. Interestingly, my sister is left-handed, my mother was not. Since the tablecloth was a work in the round, my sister had to reverse the direction and go the other way. She says she can knit both ways but never learned to crochet with her right hand.

I haven't really gotten off topic with all of this, it just made me think of when my mother, my sister, and I used to make all of our own clothing whether sewed, knitted or crocheted. Both my sister and I have pretty much stopped doing that. We don't have the time, or at least we don't think we have the time. My knitting is a hobby not a necessity. And sadly neither of us has taught our daughters the techniques so the skills will not be passed on.

Lastly, there's slow music. I get plenty of that. Grace, whose interests vary far and wide, came up with a link to a NY Times article on the subject. I have printed this piece out to give to all my adult students. It's never too late to learn to play an instrument and enjoy the benefits of slow music!

Saturday, March 8, 2008


Last night at the monthly meeting of the South Bay Astronomical Society, we were treated to an excellent lecture given by Michelle Thaller of JPL. Thaller is a dynamic young woman with not only the scientific knowledge to accurately discuss her subject (the Spitzer Space Telescope) but also the gift of gab. It was amazing to watch her in action. Questions that were off topic were answered quickly and to the point, but then without even a breath she was back on topic. The Spitzer Space Telescope is a NASA mission managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and we have heard speakers from JPL before who gushed over the possibilities of Spitzer but never with this level of expertise in public speaking. You can hear a couple of her podcasts at the Spitzer website, one on M82 a starburst galaxy, "Seeing Smoke from a Galactic Fire," and one on comets, "Cotton Candy Comets."

Spitzer views the universe in the infrared wavelength and last night Michelle brought along an infrared camera to demonstrate what viewing things in this wave-length looks like. I think everyone was captivated by what they saw from the several youngsters in the audience (ages 7 and up), to the college students, to the guys who have been working in the space industry all their lives. (The El Camino College planetarium was packed.) We watched how holding an ice cube can turn your hand black, or how you can write with it by smearing it on your shirt. The camera can even see through things like a black plastic bag to see your warm hands inside. There is a video of Michelle on the Spitzer website briefly demonstrating the camera. Scroll down to First Person: Michelle Thaller. (You'll need Real Player for this one.) The video also shows an artist's conception of the Telescope, again very briefly.

The main topic of her talk, however, was about using infrared and Spitzer to find other planets both inside and outside our solar system (exoplanets). Infrared is good for this because planets do not emit light of their own but they do emit heat that can be detected by the telescope. Sometimes what the scientists do is to take an infrared reading of a star over a period of time and watch for changes. If the readings go down periodically, they can assume that a planet is orbiting the star and has been eclipsed by it when the readings are down. Michelle claims that close to 300 "planets" have been discovered not to mention all kinds of other objects which we may or may not call planets. Michelle was actually one of the scientists who got to vote on whether or not Pluto should be cast out of that special category, and she admitted she voted aye.

There are other things that Spitzer can do, like seeing through gaseous clouds to observe stars and galaxies hidden by the gas and dust. We saw some spectacular photos of Orion and the Eagle Nebula taken by Spitzer. And there are other things that Michelle could have talked about from black holes to string theory. Her enthusiasm and energy seemed boundless. I wonder who does her writing for her.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Favorite Things

I think I have been really good about not posting too many pictures of my two grandsons, but this one of Baby C. that my daughter sent me yesterday is just so cute! My daughter labelled it, "My Favorite Things" (and from the looks of it, eating is one of his favorite things, too.) She says that to make the photo complete, he would need to be holding a cell phone, a regular phone, a camera, and an iPod as well. Buttons are just so fascinating! When we go for walks in his neighborhood, he tries to climb the steps to every door to ring the doorbell. Taking his picture has become almost impossible since I let him push the buttons on the back of my camera to see the photos come up on the LCD display. As soon as I take the camera out, he tries to grab it.

A few weeks ago, his favorite things were pots and pans. I gave him a couple of old pans from my kitchen, real grownup pans, not little toys, and definitely not plastic, and he acted like I had just given him the Crown Jewels. He spent days carting the pans around the house, moving them from here to there and back again, putting things inside, and clanging the lids. He loves to be held up high to see what's cooking on the stove except he is getting awfully heavy. His first word was "hot!" Maybe he'll be a chef, or a doorman, or an elevator operator who pushes buttons all day long.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Tocar y Luchar

Tocar y Luchar means "to play and to fight." It is the motto of the National Youth Orchestra program instituted 30 years ago in Venezuela. It is also the title of a wonderful documentary about the program that is available on DVD. This extraordinary film which a friend gave me recently displays the talents of many Venezuelan children who have benefited from this program. Indeed, the conductor-elect of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, is a product of this program and conducted the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra on a spectacular tour of the world that opened the eyes of many to the explosion of classical music taking place in Venezuela. It is truly amazing to see all these children playing at professional levels and thoroughly enjoying themselves while doing so. My friend wants to know why the same thing can't be done here in the U.S.

I watched the film the evening after my students played for their annual Certificate of Merit evaluations. This program is sponsored by the Music Teachers' Association of California and I am sure there are similar programs in other parts of the country. The idea is to have a graded system of testing (I hate to use that word, but that's what it is) to provide students and their parents with some idea of the progress their child is making with their private music lessons. Like passing their grades in school, my students like to see themselves advancing one level, year by year, and expect to finish the top level (which for violin is Level 10) by the time they reach their senior year in high school. The high school years are tough for our kids with so many demands on their time that not all make it that far. To encourage them, there is a special medallion awarded to high school students who manage to stick with the program until their senior year.

The evaluation includes a playing portion where students are expected to demonstrate proficiency in the technical areas of playing with scales and etudes, as well as performing two or three pieces of contrasting styles with piano accompaniment, one of which must be memorized. Then they are required to take a written exam that tests their skills at analyzing music and their knowledge of music history and composers on a very simple level. There is also a listening exam to test their ability to identify scales, intervals, rhythms, etc., by hearing them only. All in all, the whole thing is very thorough. In fact, there has been some complaining that the written tests are getting too difficult. And they are more difficult than the placement theory test I took when I entered music college.

When they showed the Venezuelan children in the film at home, their bedrooms were very sparse—bunk-beds only, indicating the rooms were shared with siblings. There were no toys in sight, no computers, video games, etc. It was touching to see the children clinging to their instruments, constantly fingering them, hugging them. They had nothing else. The film gave no indication that there is any testing, no auditions, no fighting for the first chair in the orchestras. Perhaps that is done, as it is an integral part of the orchestra system, but we were not given any glimpse into that aspect of music-making. We only saw joyful children making wonderful music. And that's where I think the Venezuelan program would fail in the U.S. (besides the fact that our children have no time for practicing an instrument). We are too competitive. We emphasize testing all the time. We want our children to be the "best" at whatever they do and they are expected to do a lot. With each generation, we raise the bar even higher and then tell the children to enjoy themselves!

I am so against competitions that I rarely enter a student in one. And that's another reason I love chamber music and encourage my students to get together with friends to play informally. Chamber ensembles are democratic. With one person per part, there is no fighting for first chair. There are two violin parts, but these days most of the violinists I play with would rather play the second part! The first part is too hard. When playing chamber music, we are all "amateurs" in the true sense of that word, "lovers of music."

Monday, March 3, 2008

Chamber Music

Whew! What a busy week last week was, topped by a hectic weekend. I played an unusual concert Saturday night which I will blog about later and yesterday, my students played for Certificate of Merit, which I will also explain later. But most of my time lately has been spent learning, listening to, and playing chamber music. Since a couple of people have asked me about my chamber music activities, I thought I would give a brief explanation here of what it is that gets us string players so excited.

Briefly, chamber music is music that is written for groups of ten people or less. More than that and you need a conductor to keep things together (Orpheus being an outstanding exception). It is music that is meant to be played in a small space (a chamber or room) with one person per part. In contrast, orchestral music is for larger groups of people, is played in large concert halls, and particularly for the string section, may have as many as 16 or more people playing the same part.

While there is a lot of chamber music for wind players, string players have the ace here. There is a wealth of music written just for various combinations of strings, strings with piano, strings with winds, strings with piano and winds. To some (me included), the string quartet is the epitome of chamber music and many of the greatest composers wrote their best music for this combination. When the piano could no longer serve Beethoven's artistic imagination, he turned to the string quartet in his last years and wrote what is now known as his Late Quartets—music that is unsurpassed for its beauty, uniqueness, originality, profundity, and lots of other attributes that words can't describe.

The string quartet consists of four players, two violins, one viola, and one cello. People often assume that the double bass, being the fourth member of the string family, should be part of the string quartet, but, with all due respect to my double bass colleagues, the bass is too large and unwieldy to be a true independent voice in a quartet. And that is the hallmark of the string quartet—four equal and independent voices. That is what makes it so inviting to players, amateur and professional alike. In an orchestra situation, there is less opportunity for self expression, especially as a string player. Think of all those 16 people playing together. If they each went their own way, it would be chaos. The music we play in an orchestra is usually chosen by the conductor, the bowings and sometimes even the fingerings are proscribed by the concertmaster and section leaders. The last thing you want to do in such a situation is stick out. At the other end of the spectrum you have the soloists but, to me, the life of a soloist appears to be rather lonely. In a quartet or other ensemble, you can have the best of both worlds, comradeship and the opportunity for self expression.

Add another viola or a second cello to the quartet and you have a quintet. Add both and you get a sextet. I have been fortunate to be able to play all these combinations in the last few weeks. Where do you find players? It's easy (almost). The classical music world is a small world, and the chamber music world even smaller. Some of the people I have been playing with recently, I have known for 30 years, since my arrival in California. We play for ourselves (and sometimes a spouse or two), in each other's homes. Over the years, we have added new members to the group, and played in all sorts of combinations. There is even a society of chamber music players that is worldwide. I have a friend who travels to England on business frequently. She looked up some people in the Amateur Chamber Music Players Directory and now brings her violin with her and plays chamber music while she is there. And there is a professional group in the U.S. called Chamber Music America. Amateurs can join this organization also.

When the opportunity came up to play the rarer works of the quintet and sextet genre, I hunted around for parts for these combinations. Some of the printed music is very hard to find, even for famous works that have been recorded on CD. My fellow violinist in the group alerted me to Editions Silvertrust. This organization is devoted to publishing "unjustly neglected music by once famous composers whose works were much appreciated." My first foray through their catalog prompted me to buy Bruckner's Quintet (music sent from heaven), Frank Bridge's Phantasie Quartet, and on a whim, a work by a total unknown, a quartet by Othmar Schoeck. Like my bookshelves, my file cabinets are bulging with music I have bought over the years. But unlike the many books I have never read, the music gets played. Next up, viola quintets—Bruckner and Beethoven's Op. 29.