Monday, March 18, 2019

Dispatches from the Butterfly Boom

This was supposed to be my year for monarchs.

I'd driven up north to Pismo Beach and Morro Bay this winter to see their migration.

But this year, there wasn't anything to see. The monarch population is down 80% or more.

What used to be millions of butterflies has been reduced down to thousands.

I didn't even see hundreds along the Central Coast. I barely saw a few stray individuals.

So my butterfly dreams were dashed—or so I thought.

And then after the wettest (or maybe second-wettest) winter seemed to draw to a close, a different butterfly came up to SoCal to visit from Mexico.

It looks like a smaller monarch, but it's actually the painted lady butterfly, heading all the way up the West Coast to Oregon (though some say they've seen them as far north as Alaska).

There are millions—or perhaps billions—of them making their way through Southern California.

They're not as picky as the monarchs are when it comes to feeding time. Pretty much all that's green and yellow and white and blooming and dripping with nectar will do just fine for these little ladies.

On Wednesday afternoon, I was stuck in stop-and-go traffic heading south on the 405, just past the 101 interchange, when I saw a mass migration of them literally crossing the freeway.

I don't know exactly where they were going, but it appeared to be westward—maybe towards the Pacific Ocean.

It was the one time I was glad that freeway traffic was just crawling, because I got to actually see them and enjoy them from behind my windshield.

And I didn't have to worry about any of them smacking into my windshield as I cruised at a steady 72 mph. They can handle car speeds of around 40 mph and actually catch the updraft—but anything faster than that, and they're toast.

We witnessed that this weekend driving along Borrego Springs Road through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, rising up and over the Texas Dip, yellow pollen streaks splattered on the windshield and the front bumper.

First there was one painted lady caught in the car grill, still alive. We tried to free her, but I think we just made it worse.

Then there were two.

This is the reality of nature. Millions may be migrating, but none of them will make it the whole way.

Even if they survive the traffic, their adult lifespan ouy of the cocoon is just two to four weeks (not days, thank goodness!). They've got to mate and reproduce as much as possible along the way.

And when the caterpillars get their wings, they've got to continue the relay.

The sight is both heavenly and apocalyptic. It's an in-your-face display of nature that you don't often get to see. And when you hear stories about mass migrations of insects—plagues of grasshoppers, the cicada season—it sounds like a horror story.

But these butterflies are beautiful. And they go where the flowers are.

The sight of them together is quite moving.

It's heartbreaking, however, to know how doomed they are.

And then you wonder what the point of it all is.

Why go up to Oregon at all? Just for more food? What's the point of eating if you're going to die in two days?

Is it really just about the survival of the species?

Leave it to me to overthink something like this and not just enjoy the show.

When something so unusual happens, it's hard not to try to find meaning in it. Of course people throughout history have seen events like this as a sign from God.

For me, it's just another way that California keeps me guessing. Just when I think I get it and I've got the routine down, the game changes.

But frankly, I'm grateful for something so beautiful to chase (and document).

And I know their populations will be thinning out here pretty quickly, but the onslaught sure was nice while it lasted.

Related Post:
A Deer Sighting in the Valley of the Bears
Pinning It Down

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Photo Essay: A Repository of Cures and Quackery, In Times of War and Peace

When I was actively applying for the Peace Corps more than 10 years ago, they made me take care of a few medical things before they'd approve my application.

My dentist was thrilled that something finally made me relent and agree to gum graft surgery to fix the exposed root of one tooth on the bottom right of my mouth.

Since 28 months abroad might've put me somewhere exotic—and without easy access to Western healthcare—Peace Corps also required I get inoculated for certain diseases I wouldn't normally have to worry about.

One of them was polio.

I was anxious because my mother had been crippled by polio as a child—and even as an adult, the virus continued to ravage through her body instead of remaining dormant. I knew the virus contained in the vaccine was supposedly "inactive," but I wasn't thrilled with the thought of even getting near it.

Poliomyelitis had been officially extinct in the U.S. since I was four years old.

But just as I submitted to the periodontal surgery, I rolled up my sleeve, let my primary care physician stick me in the arm, and tried to ignore the muscle aches and mild paralysis (real or imagine) that I felt in its wake.

Given that experience, it was a little crazy for me to see a Drinker-Collins iron lung in person at the Southern California Medical Museum (the only museum of its kind in SoCal), where it stands as the collection's centerpiece.

Donated by Rancho Los Amigos (whose polio ward was the premiere facility for polio patients in 1950s SoCal), the 500-pound respiratory contraption is now pretty much obsolete, replaced by modern ventilators and breathing tubes.

The rest of the museum contains exhibits on surgical tools and contraptions less relevant to my personal life, but perhaps no less disturbing—bone drills, scoops, and spoons of the Greco-Roman and Pre-Columbian eras, for starters.

Some of the older implements shocking look the same as they do today. Somehow we haven't improved on scissors.

Wartime necessitated quick fixes to ease pain (or knock out the wounded entirely), stop bleeding, extract bullets, and sometimes even amputate a limb...

...for both people and animals, sometimes right there on the battlefield (particularly during the Civil War).

Medical advances in the last two centuries didn't just involve learning about the human body's form and function at the cellular level.

Emerging technology gave rise to all sorts of machinery—some of which, like the "Violet Ray Generator" or the "Oscilloclast"—weren't as revered as the iron lung and didn;t last nearly as long in active use.

Who knows what some of these things were supposed to do—or actually did?

Desperate patients with a variety of ailments submitted to these crazy gadgets—and often got burned, both literally and figuratively.

But when you're sick, in pain, or otherwise compromised, you'll try any crazy thing that promises to make you better.

And are any of those electrodes, probes, and doo-dads really any more barbaric than the way we still hack into sick people's bodies and cut out whatever ails them?

Some of the old diseases may have gone away in developed countries—but not because of how we treated them.

The "cure" usually comes in the form of prevention—like the polio vaccine.

Surgeons are still using metal clamps, tongs, and even staples to "repair" the patients they're operating on, despite the fact that our bodies tend to reject them.

Only now instead of silk, our sutures are made of polyester or maybe polypropylene (a.k.a. plastic).

Besides that gum graft surgery for the Peace Corps (which, by the way, didn't ultimately accept me anyway), a bit of whitening, and a wisdom tooth extraction, I've been largely spared the dental work that makes most people dread being sent to "the chair" (in their dentist's office, that is).

I've never had a cavity that needed to be filled.

And after I had to have my gum grafted, I became incredibly diligent about brushing and flossing.

I've never needed to be dilated "back there"...

...and while I've suffered from seasonal allergies my whole life, smoking cigarettes (even herbal ones) only ever made them worse.

Looking at this collection, it's easy to judge patients of the past.

You think, "Geez, people will try anything!"

Of course, now we're finding out that some of these herbal and homeopathic remedies actually do work.

Maybe there really is a cure out there.

Maybe somebody's already found it.

And if not, you can't blame them for trying.

Modern medicine is still based on trial and error.

Sometimes you feel better (even if it's just the placebo effect)...

...and sometimes you get poisoned.

There's a fine line between pharmacology and toxicity.

That why when I'm in doubt, I try whiskey first. (And its inclusion in the medical museum collection just serves to vindicate me more.)

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Monday, March 11, 2019

Photo Essay: The Gardens of the Blacksmith (Los Jardines del Herrero), A Slice of Spain Outside of Santa Barbara

While the Steedman Estate in Montecito is open for tours by appointment, photos of the interior aren't allowed.

Fortunately, there's lots to see on the outside of Casa del Herrero...

...including, upon your arrival, the palm-lined, pebbled motor court that surrounds an octagonal tiled Moorish fountain.

Walk through the gated, whitewashed stone walls and around to the back of the so-called "House of the Blacksmith," a mansion built of reinforced concrete with red terracotta roof tiles.

This was the home of George Fox Steedman and his wife Carrie Howard—a pair of well-to-do Midwestern industrialists who moved out West from St. Louis.

Steedman was the "blacksmith"—a munitions manufacturer and metalsmith who served as president of the Curtis Manufacturing Company, a one-time producer of saws and pneumatic machines that switched its operations to shell forging. Most of the metalwork at his home (including wrought iron gates, window grilles, and balconies) was of his making.

Steedman worked closely with architect George Washington Smith on the Spanish Colonial Revival design over the course of three year—and the two finally came to an agreement on its completion in 1925 (with no less than seven stucco interior chimneys, and many other unique features).

Behind the house, the land slopes gently downhill, allowing water from an artesian well to pool into a tiled peacock, surrounded by citrus orchards.

The cruciform main garden and its surrounding spaces were created by Ralph Stevens (also known for his work on Franceschi Park and Lotusland). Later, they were expanded by Lockwood de Forest and Francis T. Underhill, who completed the project in 1933. They were inspired by Moorish gardens of the Palacio de Generalife and the Alhambra in Granada, Andalusia, Spain.

The 11-acre estate fits squarely within the American Country Place movement—which, with touches like a birdhouse sundial, brought a taste of Europe to the rough West Coast.

The garden has all these different tiled environments that act like open-air "rooms"...

...perhaps for a bit of romance...

...or business-oriented conversation.

After Steedman died in 1940, the estate remained largely unaltered—though his widow continued to live there until her death in 1962 and it was maintained as a private residence until 1987.

That includes the aluminum patio furniture created by Steedman, some of which include an image of a centaur—the icon that repeats throughout the estate and is said to represent the blacksmith himself.

Casa del Herrero was designated a national landmark in 2009—and not just because of the exterior architecture or the interior furnishings.

Sure, Casa del Herrero boasts an impressive collection of 15th- and 16th-century fine art and decorative objects from Spain. And yes, a significant 15th-century pine ceiling—removed from a Gothic cathedral in Spain—adorns the the entrance hall and is only one of two in the U.S. (The other belonged to William Randolph Hearst.)

But perhaps the most intriguing areas of the estate is across from the tiled sink at the kitchen entrance, next to the garage—the Steedman workshop, with tools, machinery, and a casting furnace intact from the 1930s. (Unfortunately, no photos allowed.)

Even if you never heard of George Steedman—or George Washington Smith, for that matter—Casa del Herrero is a lovely slice of Spain, just outside of Santa Barbara.

And although most of us will never be able to build our own dream home to our exact specifications, it's nice to spend a little time in somebody else's.

For more information, click here.

Related Posts:
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