June 30, 2014

Counting Stars at Mount Wilson Observatory

Usually, when you get to visit an observatory (like at Griffith Park or Palomar), it's during the day – so although you get to appreciate the architecture of the domes and their surrounding structures, you rarely get to see any stars.

And we have so might light pollution in the LA Basin, it's hard to adjust your eyes amidst the street lights and headlights to see the full array of celestial objects up there. Usually you have to out to Joshua Tree or Anza-Borrego to spot the Milky Way, and get some sense of the universe beyond your own navel.

Of the many adventures that I've had since moving to Southern California, only a few I would list as a perception-altering, life-changing "must-do." One of them is a nighttime star party at Mt. Wilson Observatory.

During summer months, the evenings are short, with long hours of daylight, so you drive up the Angeles Crest Highway during the Magic Hour – half the forest bathed in amber glow, and the other half darkened in dusky shadows. You arrive in time to recognize the 150 foot solar tower and the 100" telescope, before reaching your destination: the 60" telescope, which is rarely open to the public, and only available to small, private groups who book months in advance.

You always wonder what the insides of these domes look like...

...and now you get to not only see, but also listen – as it is nearly acoustically perfect (like the Integratron), save for the aperture that reveals the night sky.

We began seated around the massive telescope, peering at each other in red light as our eyes adjusted and the sky darkened. Soon all the lights both inside and outside went out, and the heavens were revealed to us, one sliver at a time, one squint through the eye piece at a time.

Though we spotted Mars and blue-ringed nebulae and even a globular cluster, the most spell-binding, spectacular vision was to see Saturn with its rings, surrounded by its moons, in such sharp definition it was unbelievable. We've all been taught in school about the solar system and the other planets, and we've seen pictures and paintings and other renderings, but it's always been so conceptual – so far away, so intangible – that it's never really seemed real, until we could witness it for ourselves.

And there it was.

And there we were.

And all the troubles of daily life and heartache and money and anxiety and family disappear for a while, as we stare into the sky. We weren't discovering anything for the first time. We merely observed that which was already known. But it was so new to us, so much more than we could ever see through our own bedroom telescopes and amateur astronomy club equipment.

And we were all the way up there, inside a locked Forest Service gate, down a winding, unlit road, in bear country, on a mountaintop 5700 feet above sea level. It's not the tallest peak around, but remarkably remote and preserved and unpolluted for its astronomical purposes, and yet accessible to anyone with a car and a reservation.

Any other Sunday night will pale in comparison.

Related Post:
Photo Essay: Mt. Wilson & Observatory

June 29, 2014

Feeding the Multitudes

I'm surprised I've made it this far after having been unceremoniously and abruptly laid off from my last job, unable to file for unemployment until July.

I was sure I was done for.

I've been waiting to perish.

But I've made it this far, despite all my multitudes of expenses and debts, through odd jobs and old sales commissions and selling some writing and photos.

I don't know how much longer I can last, though. I need a pedicure and a haircut. I need a new mattress. I need a romantic evening out. I need a reason to leave my apartment.

Sure, I've stayed busy, with these odd jobs and career counseling and doctors appointments and therapy, but it feels like busy work. It would really help me to know how much longer this is going to last. It's always easier to finish a hike if you know how far you've gotten, and how much farther you have to go.

What's the point of sustaining and surviving, if the trail goes on infinitely?

After all, my resources are limited. I'm out of savings. I'm almost out of 401k. My career, as they say, is "in transition." I can't rely on a spouse to support me. I can't move back in with my parents. Time is running out.

But for the last three months or so, by some miracle, I've survived. It's been like the fishes and loaves in terms of being able to pay my bills and have a few bucks for a beer or a glass of wine every now and then. Maybe the coins are multiplying in my change purse by some grace of God. Maybe somebody is slipping me a $20 while I sleep, the way I used to do for Phil when I had money. Or maybe life just doesn't have to be so expensive, if you're really selective, and invest in only those things you really really want to do, eat, and drink.

I know I'm a bit of a complainer and am rarely grateful enough for my life. When my back hurts, I don't appreciate the fact that I have feeling below the neck. When my ankle is jacked (like it is now), I don't praise having feet. I don't relish in chocolate and frosting and sprinkles because I am tortured every day by gaining weight, despite not eating all the things I desperately want to (over)eat.

But I would not be getting through this credit crunch without the help of some friends, organizations, and the government. I've been taken to dinner. I've had bills deferred. I've had my rent paid for. My groceries are covered for weeks at a time. My prescriptions are free now. And although I'm karmically indebted, I don't have to pay any of these back (though it would be wise to pay them forward, when I can).

I don't know when these kindnesses will cease, so for now, I cherish them as they come, if only to ease the pain of my worsening situation – a bit of morphine in my IV. They don't keep me comfortable, per se, but they stave off the abject panic, like those few extra miles you get, even when the gas gauge says you've got zero left in the tank.

And even if you do completely run out, maybe you're close enough to the gas station to roll over to the pump in Neutral...

Related Posts:
Facing the Unknown
Delaying the Inevitable
How Much Farther Does This Go?
Life Amongst the Humble
The Kindness of Strangers
Running on Empty

June 28, 2014

Photo Essay: The Eggs and Nests of The Bird Museum

[Edited 7/9/14 12:45 p.m. – see editor's note below]

The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology is a fascinating bird museum not just because of their collection of over 50,000 study skins, and over 600 mounted specimens posed in life-like postures...

...but also because of their through study of all aspects of bird life, including their eggs and nests.

In fact, the WFVZ has the largest collection of eggs in the world...

...more than a million individual eggs...

...all painstakingly catalogued with data cards...

...corresponding to notes handwritten on the eggs themselves.

Half of the bird species of the world are represented in nearly 200,000 sets of eggs...

...which have been gathered by private collectors, researchers and scientists...

...particularly those who have salvaged fragments and damaged eggs...

...including shells thinned by exposure to insecticides like DDT.

They display the world's largest bird egg – that of the extinct elephant bird – well as evidence of dinosaur eggs.

Challenging the common conception of birds' nests as little round cups of sticks and twigs...

...this bird museum demonstrates the resourcefulness and ingenuity of many bird species in building from whatever material they can get their hands on (horsehair, fishing line, Easter basket grass)... whatever size and shape is most likely to deter predator attacks.

At 18,000 specimens and counting, it is also the largest collection of bird nests in the word, featuring some in acrylic display cases, and others bagged away in drawers.

But they still rely on a very analog data system of hand-written tags corresponding to hand-written data cards, filed away manually in a card catalogue. If one gets lost, or if the data (where/when it was collected, initial appearance, other observations) gets separated from the specimen, there is no "cloud" from which to retrieve the backup. It's lost forever. [Ed: WFVZ says they have digitized a lot of their data already, and that they have several back ups to retrieve it. They are in the process of scanning and digitizing everything now, thanks to a national grant.]

Worse yet, this collection won't be here forever. Since their specimens are actively used for research and illustrators of field guides, in occasional human contact with monthly public tours, they can't be completely protected from the elements. Without a dark, airtight, temperature-controlled environment, they are constantly fighting bugs, lizards, and other critters who make their way into the collection looking for a tasty snack, as well as the degenerative properties of light and human touch.

Good taxidermy (and well-blown eggs) can last a while in human life span terms: the WFVZ's oldest surviving specimen is likely from the 1870s. From an evolutionary standpoint, though, that's not very long...

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Birds of the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology
Photo Essay: Moore Laboratory of Zoology, Closed to Public

Photo Essay: The Birds of the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology

It's a rare occasion that you get very up close and personal with birds. They're not the cuddly, curious sort. If you spot one and they spot you, they generally fly away.

So usually the only way you get to examine their plumage or admire their wingspan is post-mortem, after they've been skinned, stuffed, and tagged.

Male juvenile red-tailed hawk

Small raptor

Toe tag

Male (L) versus female (R) red-tailed hawks

Eurasian (Japanese) Jay Garrulus glandarius japonicus

But at the Western Foundation for Vertebrate Zoology...

These birds are posed in action!

American Barn Owl / Tyto a pratincola

They have personality!

Mandarin duck / Aix galericulata (female)

Greater roadrunner / Geococcyx Californians

They are posing...


Red-billed tropicbird / Phaeton aethereus


Rose-winged parakeet / Psittacula krameri


...and coy.

Some are even a bit imposing...

Ferruginous hawk / Buteo regalis (female)


Brown towhee


White-headed Buffalo Weaver  / Dinemellia dinemellia (male)


Common scaly thrush / Zoothera dauma

...and excited.

It's as though they're frozen in time, exhibiting their most characteristic qualities, unfazed by the rotating cast of scientists, researchers, and visitors who come and go.

That is some good taxidermy.

Stay tuned for more on the WFVZ's massive collection of eggs (not just from birds!) and bird nests. 

Related Post:
Photo Essay: Moore Laboratory of Zoology, Closed to Public

June 27, 2014

Photo Essay: What I Missed in Will Rogers Park

I've had what I consider two failed attempts at visiting Will Rogers Park. The first was when I attempted to hike to Rustic Canyon from there, ended up on the Backbone Trail, got totally lost, and had to backtrack to my car. In retrospect, it was actually a good hike, but I didn't get to see what I set out to. Last week, I intended to hike all the way to Will Rogers from Temescal Gateway Park along the Rivas Trail, but I got tired and took a shortcut down Rivas Canyon Road instead of going all the way to Will Rogers.

Both incidents were hanging over me. I was becoming obsessed with finding out what I'd missed out on.

So I returned to Will Rogers on a cloudy day, specifically to scout both short trails to see exactly what I had not seen.

First, I headed to the Rustic Canyon Trail, which for some reason was very easy for me to find this time around.

You're supposed to be able to take this trail all the way to Murphy Ranch...

...but signs warn that it is unmaintained, undefined and unmarked, and full of mountain lions, ticks, rattlesnakes, poison oak, and swarms of bees – "one of the best hikes in Los Angeles."

I proceeded.

I encountered many fences and wooden catwalks and stairs, reminiscent of the secret stairways on the other side of Rustic Canyon...

...and lots of lizards, all of which seemed surprised to be disturbed by human visitors.

Although the trail bore footprints and horse hoof prints, I don't think many people make there way down here very often.

As promised, the trail led down into the canyon to a creek bed...

...where signs try to discourage hikers from going the wrong way...

...but soon the path becomes too overgrown and too wet (surprising in this drought)...

...suitable only for the most intrepid explorer, immune to poison oak. I turned around.

I headed across the park to its western boundary, to meet up with the Rivas Trail that leads to Temescal, back towards where I'd been just one week before.

I quickly realized...

...that I'd made the right decision last week... cutting my hike short...

...because there wasn't much to see on this section...

...before I hit the housing development where I'd encountered some baffled work crews last week.

So I emerged onto the private Rivas Canyon Road, this time from the other side...

...walked down to Sunset and over to the Will Rogers access road...

...trying not to get hit by cars as I plodded up the shoulder, ducking under trees...

...and dodging a dead snake.

I still feel like I haven't really done Will Rogers Park – I've yet to play polo, ride a horse, or take a ranch house tour there.

Maybe next time I can at least do the Inspiration Point Loop Trail, which is probably the most common one that everybody else does.

Then again, I don't always try to see what everybody else sees.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: No Scene Twice Seen, Through Rivas Canyon
Out and Back