Thursday Debris

It’s been a brilliant run of late spring, early summer days here. Rain, but not too much. Heat, but not too much. A few mosquitoes, but not many. Last week at the Klehm we did run into some large clouds of gnats, however, especially on the narrow trails.

Klehm Arbortetum May 2014

See the gnats? Maybe not. The camera’s not that good. But they’re there.

I just finished reading Neither Here Nor There, an entertaining Bill Bryson book. Mostly he dispenses with background detail about the places he visits, and focuses on his own experiences in getting from A to B and seeing what he sees in A and B. Even better, his enthusiasm for going out to see things shines through. Not many writers can pull that off without being a bore, but he does. A small example, describing Rome:

“You turn any street corner in Rome and it looks as if you’ve just missed a parking competition for blind people. Cars are pointed in every direction, half on the pavements and half off, facing in, facing sideways, blocking garages and side streets and phone boxes, fitted into spaces so tight that the only possible way out would be through the sun roof. Romans park their cars the way I would park if I had just spilled a beaker of hydrochloric acid on my lap.”

Since the travels he describes were in Europe in 1990, as well as flashbacks to the 1970s, he’s also detailing an increasingly obsolete style of travel, but one that I well remember myself, at least that of the last two decades of the 20th century. That is, pre-Internet, pre-smartphone, pre-debit card, pre-Ryanair travels. It won’t be long before — if it hasn’t already happened — smartphones or glasses tell tourists absolutely everything about getting to and being at a place. That’ll drain the life right out of the experience.

I wondered today whether the half-season finale Mad Men, broadcast Sunday, used all the lyrics of “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” I wasn’t very familiar with the earliest recorded version, so I looked it up.

As many songs were in the 1920s, much of it is instrumental. So yes indeed, the show used all of the lyrics. The 2010s recalling the 1960s recalling the 1920s. A remarkable scene.

More at the Klehm

One reason I like arboreta and conservatories is the signs. My memory for plant names is sieve-like, so it’s good to be able to look down and find out the name. The age of digital cameras has made it even easier to take notes based on the signs.

For instance, I know this is a W.B. Clarke Anise Magnolia (Magnolia salicifolia). It grows at the Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Rockford, a fact I documented on Saturday.

Magnolia & Ann May 2014

It isn’t a Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandifora). Good thing, since Rockford isn’t remotely in the South. I’d never seen magnolias quite like this, but then I’ve read there are many kinds.

Magnolia, Rockford, Ill. May 24, 2014

Apparently W.B. Clark was an early 20th-century hybridist working in San Jose, California, traces of whom are accessible to casual Googlers. He seems to have developed some plant varieties that are still with us, such as the Anise Magnolia, whose ancestors are from Japan.

The arboretum sported a few other attractions, such as a pleasant water feature —

Klehm Arboretum, May 2014

–and a maze of bushes. Not a very large one, and easily navigable to a child of 11 and middle-aged householders. The most interesting part wasn’t the maze itself, but the analemmatic sundial within the maze, such as we once ran across at Fermilab.

Sundial, Klehm Arboretum 5.24.14 - 1 pm

I stood on the May stone and my shadow told the time more-or-less accurately, accounting for Daylight Savings Time.

Conifer Man, Conifer Man, Does Whatever a Conifer Can

On Saturday we took a quick hop over to Rockford, Ill., and soon found ourselves face-to-face with Conifer Man.

Klehm Arborteum, May 24, 2014

To me this looks like a guy in a tree suit – that’s how I’d guess it looks, anyway – but it’s really one of the odd-shaped conifers to be seen at the Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Rockford, which features about 500 species and cultivars of woody plants on 155 acres. Not that I would know even a fraction of those, but still I know an odd conifer when I see one.

This, for instance, is a weeping white spruce. Ann compared it to Charlie Brown’s tree.

Rockford Ill., April 24, 2014

Next, according to the sign, is a procumbent blue spruce or, as I like to think of it, a Christmas tree implosion.

Conifer, Rockford, Ill May 2014

Procumbent. Now there’s a word you don’t see much, a solid Latinate that seems to be used mostly to describe plants with stems that trail along the ground without rooting. Another meaning is simply lying face down, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it used that way, with “recumbent” the main choice for lying down in some way. The terms accumbent and decumbent are cousin-words usually used in botany – “resting against another part” and “lying or growing along the ground, but erect near the plant’s apex,” respectively.

As long as I’m on a lingual tangent, the Latin cumbere, to lie down, goes all the way back to the Indo-European base keu-(2), which my American Heritage New College Dictionary appendix tells me is a “base of loosely related derivatives with assumed basic meaning ‘to bend.’ ” Plants certainly bend to be accumbent or decumbent or procumbent, but animals and people do as well, to some degree, so that fits.

Starting in the early 1900s, the site of the Klehm was a commercial nursery, and so it remained until 1985. The original owners planted a good many of the now-large trees, which are sometimes noticeable for being in rows. These days the land belongs to the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District, who have been busy in recent decades making the place less like a nursery and more like a woody museum.

Walk along the main path and you can’t miss the conifers, some of which are very large, unlike the oddities pictured above. Not that you can’t see the likes of pines, firs, junipers, spruces and so on elsewhere, especially as you go north, but even so the Klehm collection is impressive.

Klehm Arboretum, May 2014

Naturally, we had such a casual visit that we missed some of the more remarkable trees – which I read about later – such as the grove of Bur oaks that were there before the nursery, and which might be as old as a pre-settlement 300 years. There are also some fully grown American chestnut trees on the grounds, which I understand are pretty rare, since an invasive blight destroyed most of that species in the 20th century.

Taraxacum on the Lawn

Back to posting on Tuesday, in honor of Memorial Day, Observed, dead ahead. It’s a little early this year, owing to the shifting of the calendar. The closer to May 30, the better, but not this year.

An oxymoron for the day: temporary resilience. That’s what dandelions have in May. I mowed a lot of dandelions down on Tuesday afternoon, in both back and front yards, ahead of the wave of thunderstorms that blew through Tuesday evening and late into the night. I don’t have anything against dandelions, since they’re part of the biodiversity of the suburbs. They just happened to be in the way.

By Wednesday about noon, under warm sunny skies, some of the dandelion stalks were back. So they’ve got resilience. But the stalks won’t last through the summer, whether I mow or not. So they’re also temporary.

My daughters don’t stoop over to pick them any more, just as they don’t ask for toys any more, but the other day — when the dandelions were at their fullest — I noticed a couple of little neighborhood kids raiding our front yard for dandelion blooms.

The Hide Vendor of Giddings

One more item from Central Texas in late April. En route to San Antonio, Jay and I were at a stop light in Giddings, seat of Lee County, when we saw something neither of us had ever seen anywhere else.

It wasn’t the road sign marking the way to Dime Box, which I saw to the right, from the passenger’s seat. I’ve never been to Dime Box, but I remember the peculiar name — and the neighboring town Old Dime Box — from maps and because (I think) it was the capital, or at least the seat of power, in post-nuclear war Texas in the little-remembered SF novel The Texas-Israeli War: 1999.

From the driver’s seat, Jay saw something entirely more remarkable. I handed him my camera and he was able to take a shot just before the light turned green.

Texas4.25.14 067 The van at the gas station is selling Quality Hides, and you can see some hides hanging on display. But that’s not the strange thing, even though I’d never seen van-based hide selling before. This is central Texas, after all. Lots of cattle around. A hide-seller’s no big deal.

Look a little closer, between the Texas flag and the Quality Hides banner.

We Take BitcoinBITCOIN Accepted Here.

Oh, really? What’s the story here? A dealer in hides so libertarian in his sympathies — so anarchist maybe — that he takes, or wants to take, the famed cryptocurrency? What are the odds that someone driving along in Giddings, Texas, on a fine spring day will be in the market for a hide and just happen to have a Bitcoin or two burning a hole in his virtual pocket?

Or is this just the vendor’s idea of a joke? Guess I’ll never know for sure.

Independence Hall & the Brazos

The main attraction at Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site, as far as I’m concerned, is Independence Hall. Texas Independence Hall, that is, a much more modest and lesser-known structure than the one in Pennsylvania.

Independence Hall, Texas 2014Actually, it’s the second replica of the original building, dating from the 1950s, which replaced a 1910s replica put on the site. There’s something to be said for replicas or even hasty copies. After all, much of what survived the golden age of Greek civilization was through Roman copies.

The display inside is refreshingly informal. Go in through the open door and there you are. There are no roped off areas, probably because everything inside’s a recent copy. Not that there’s much inside. Just a few long wooden tables, some straight-back wooden chairs, and a couple of jugs, maybe to represent the hard cider on hand to steady the delegates’ nerves. The small obelisk just outside the door says On This Spot Was Made the Declaration of Texas Independence – March 2, 1836.

There isn’t much else, at least in the way of structures, near Independence Hall. Various paths lead off from it through the rest of the historic site, including one to the Brazos River. The scenery along the way looks like this, at least in late April in a non-drought year.

Texas4.25.14 064Before long you arrive at the banks of the Brazos. It seems like an under-appreciated river. For a moment I thought I’d never been to its banks before, but of course I have – and not that long ago, when I walked along the Brazos in Waco in 2009, and even crossed it on a footbridge. But it hardly seems like the same river, even though maps tell me that it is.

Texas4.25.14 065Something I didn’t know about the Brazos before today: it’s the 11th longest (source-to-mouth) river in the United States, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and for that matter the longest within Texas. It used to be navigable as far north as Washington-on-the-Brazos, but its career as a river of commerce didn’t really take off. Finally, no less an authority than Hank Hill says that Alamo Beer is “from the lukewarm headwaters of the mighty Brazos River.”

Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site

Not far south of College Station and Bryan is Washington, Texas, an unincorporated place with a small population. In some alternate universe, it’s a major city sprawling along the Brazos River in Washington County – and it’s the capital of Texas (the state, or an independent nation; maybe that’s two different alternatives), best known for a large public university, its tech industry, and a thriving music scene. Popularly called Brazos, to distinguish it from that other Washington on the Potomac, the city also has a countercultural streak: Keep Brazos Weird, the bumper stickers say.

For a while, little Washington on the Brazos River was the capital of the Republic of Texas – 1842 to the end of independence in 1845, but then a town further west permanently won the prize of state capital, where it remains. Along the way, the back-and-forth of the Texas capital location led to the odd incident known as the Archive War, which wasn’t really a war, and which I don’t remember being discussed in 7th grade Texas History class.

These days, Washington, Texas, is best known as the site Texas declared independence from Mexico in 1836, a fact that was taught in Texas History class. That event is memorialized at the 293-acre Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site, owned and operated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. More about it here.

Jay and I took a look at the site on the way from College Station to San Antonio on April 25. I’d never visited before. The site has three major components: Independence Hall, the Star of the Republic Museum, and the Barrington Living History Farm. We saw the first two, along with the visitors center, where we each bought a small Come and Take It flag in the gift shop because how many places can you do that? (Amazon doesn’t count.)

Near the visitors center is a bronze of this fellow: George Campbell Childress (1804-1841).

Childress, April 2014Another of the long line of Tennesseans who came to Texas early, and a brother-in-law of James K. Polk, Childress was honored with this bronze because he’s acknowledged to be author of the Texas Declaration of Independence. Note the quill and scroll. He was head of the committee tasked on March 1 to write a declaration, and it was ready the next day, so it seems likely that he’d already prepared the thing. The document clearly owes a rhetorical debt to Jefferson. The first paragraph says:

When a government has ceased to protect the lives, liberty and property of the people, from whom its legitimate powers are derived, and for the advancement of whose happiness it was instituted, and so far from being a guarantee for the enjoyment of those inestimable and inalienable rights, becomes an instrument in the hands of evil rulers for their oppression.

Even so, the list of grievances is specific to the time and place, such as abrogation of the 1824 Constitution of Mexico and the annoying union of Texas with the state of Coahulia, but mainly boiling down to the assertion that no dictator in Mexico City’s going to tell us what to do.

Texas4.25.14 052The deco-like statue itself dates from 1936 – the centennial of Texas independence – and was done by Raoul Josset, a French sculptor who immigrated to the United States in the early 1930s, and left behind a number of works, including Childress but also “The Spirit of the Centennial,” now in Fair Park in Dallas, and the Fannin Monument in Goliad, Texas. More about Josset here.

Tiananmen Square 1994

Ten years ago, I wrote about our visit to Tiananmen Square 10 years earlier, noting that “Yuriko and I got into a taxi — one of those yellow van-like vehicles that Bob said were called breadboxes — and said ‘Tiananmen.’ Said it a few times, actually, before the driver figured out where we wanted to go. Soon we were walking the cement squares that make up that vast plaza. It was a bright, windy moment.”

Naturally, we took pictures of each other. Here I am wearing the same shirt I held while posing with Mt. Fuji, this time posing with Tiananmen Gate.

Beijing, May 1994Here’s Yuriko, posing near Mao’s tomb, or more formally the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall.

Mao's Tomb, May 1994The line wasn’t long to get into the tomb. The Great Helmsman, as I recall, was under glass, and had a Chinese flag draped from mid-chest on down. He looked a bit waxy, but I guess nearly 20 years of embalming (at the time) will do that to a fellow. Being the only exhibit, it didn’t take long to see Mao, and soon we exited – right into the gift shop, or rather the gift area outside the exit, which was marked off by partitions.

How many places can you buy Mao souvenirs? Not many, so I bought a set of Mao postcards, which I sent to Jay and Deb, and some packs of cigarettes with Mao on them, which I sent to friends who smoked. I also bought a set of lapel pins, which I still have somewhere. One has the National Emblem of the PRC; another, the Chinese flag; and then there’s Mao. I scanned it some years ago. Not the best image, but it gives a flavor of the thing, which is maybe about a half inch in diameter.

Mao pinIn September 1994, when we returned to Beijing to prepare to ride the Trans-Siberian to Moscow, Bob took us to the Hard Rock Cafe Beijing, which had opened earlier that year, and which I’ve learned closed in 2012. The place featured the usual Hard Rock collection of rock memorabilia and hagiographic images of rock stars, but particularly striking was a round painting on the ceiling. Its background was sky blue with clouds, and arrayed around the edge were portraits of early rock legends – Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, the Stones, et al. The painting also had local references: Tiananmen Gate and the Temple of Heaven.

We were seated so we could see the painting easily. Bob said, “Look closely and you’ll see a figure not usually associated with rock ’n’ roll.” And sure enough, there he was. The reproduction of Tiananmen Gate was accurate, including the painting of Mao that hangs there.

The George Bush Presidential Library

I’m told that we went to the Eisenhower Library when I was a child, but I don’t remember it. Since then I’ve visited other presidential libraries or museums: Lincoln, Hoover, Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter. And now the George Bush Presidential Library, focusing on George Bush the elder. Jay and I visited just before we left College Station.  

GHWB Prez Library 2014His library opened in 1997 on the Texas A&M campus, though it’s  way out from everything else. Bush didn’t attend A&M, famously being a Yale man, but presumably the Aggies put in the best bid. Besides, he did make his name in the oil business in Texas. A&M oversees the place with the National Archives and Records Administration. It’s an HOK design, which from the front looks a little like it’s missing a dome.

Presidential history’s interesting (of course it is), but I thought that the most interesting exhibit in this particular museum was a temporary one about offshore oil drilling. Called “Offshore Drilling: The Promise of Discovery” (sponsored by Shell), the museum says that it’s “a tribute to [Bush’s] role in the development and use of the innovative independent leg offshore jack-up rig Scorpion launched by LeTourneau in 1956… It focuses on the history, development and future of offshore drilling, with an emphasis on the work of George Bush, emerging technologies and ongoing research at Texas A&M University.”

An independent leg offshore jack-up rig is a mobile offshore platform stable enough for the open ocean, but flexible enough to be moved when the time comes. Before 1956, offshore platforms mostly had to be fixed permanently to the bottom, limiting their usefulness; the few floating platforms couldn’t stand heavy seas, so they tended to be near shore. LeTourneau was an inventor: Robert Gilmour LeTourneau (1888-1969). He was, says Wiki, “a prolific inventor of earthmoving machinery. His machines represented nearly 70 percent of the earthmoving equipment and engineering vehicles used during World War II, and over the course of his life he secured nearly 300 patents.”

Drilling Contractor (Sept/Oct 2005) further tells the story: “Although the concept of a deep-sea, mobile offshore platform aroused considerable interest among the oil companies, none of the companies were prepared to help finance construction of such an expensive (nearly $3 million) and unproven project. Then [in the early 1950s] Mr. LeTourneau proposed the idea to Zapata Off-Shore Company of Houston, headed by future United States President George H.W. Bush.” (The article is here.)

Zapata. You have to like that name for an oil company. (Apparently Bush and his partners were inspired by the movie Viva Zapata!) So Zapata became the first oil company to use an independent leg offshore jack-up rig. The exhibit tells that story, but even better, it includes models of various rigs, platforms and supply vessels that have been used over the years by the industry — exceptionally detailed models — as well as pieces of drilling equipment.

The rest of the museum has pretty much what you’d expect: exhibits about different stages of the life and career of George Bush the elder, including his harrowing escapes from death as a naval aviator in the Pacific in 1944 (over the course of the year, his squadron suffered a 300 percent casualty rate), though no mention of this story that I saw, and his various public-sector jobs, both elected and appointed. A well-done set of displays, but even so it’s hard to think of any presidency that happened while you’re an adult as history.

Other items included a big hunk of the Berlin Wall, a replica Oval Office – any presidential museum worth its salt has one – and a life-sized bronze of Bush, depicting him as Ambassador to the United Nations.

Texas4.25.14 048I didn’t make a picture of the oddest bit of art we saw in the museum. Called “1000 Points of Light,” it was painted for the Points of Light Foundation, which encourages volunteerism. A presidential George Bush reaches for a nimbus-ed U.S. flag, while a crowd of enraptured everyday Americans watches. I’d call the style Socialist Realism, but there’s no socialist content here. Maybe Volunteerist Realism. The artist is Frank Hopper, who seems to excel at this kind of thing, and is also fixated on mermaids.

Stranger still are the ghost presidents in the sky, watching. And not just any ghost presidents. With the exception of Washington and Jefferson and either Madison or Monroe, all the rest of them are ghost Republican presidents, all the way from Lincoln to Reagan. The faces are a little spectral, but I think the only ones left out are Arthur and Harding. Take a look.

In the plaza outside the museum stands another work of art, “The Day the Wall Came Down,” by Veryl Goodnight.

Texas4.25.14 042Bronze horses racing over replicated bits of the Berlin Wall, with graffiti copied from the actual wall (the west side, naturally). With the horses, the plaque tells us, “representing the freedom of the human spirit.” Fine figures of horses, and all very kinetic, which is fitting for the destruction of the wall, but I’m not sure how well beasts of burden stand in for the unconquerable human spirit.

Though the pieces of the Berlin Wall in “The Day the Wall Came Down” seem to be simulations, the sculpture (and the actual piece inside) did get me thinking. Like pieces of the World Trade Center, or moon rocks, where are all the scattered bits of that former communist concrete now? Relics tend to get around.

The Bonfire Memorial

Besides a few buildings and a WWI exhibit at a campus library, Jay and I also took a look at the Bonfire Memorial on the campus of Texas A&M. It’s located on the edge of campus, on the site where 12 students and former students were killed, and 27 more were injured, when the Aggie Bonfire collapsed during construction in the wee hours of November 18, 1999.

Bonfire Memorial, April 2014Passed the entranceway to the memorial, there’s a walkway to the ring – the Spirit Ring, it’s called. To the right of the walkway is a north-south line of cut stones that represents each year that the Bonfire burned from 1909 to 1998, with a black stone marking 1963, when the event was cancelled because of the assassination of President Kennedy. The names of three students who died during their involvement with pre-1999 Bonfires are also marked, each on the stone for the year he died (in logging and traffic accidents).

Bonfire Memorial April 2014These are three of the 12 granite “portals” of the ring, as they’re called. I wondered about their orientation on the ring; later I read that each points toward the hometown of the person they memorialize. Connecting the portals are 27 stones to represent the injured.

Inside each portal is a bronze interior that gives the name, likeness, and a written reflection about one of the dead.

Bonfire Memorial April 2014This one happens to be Bryan Allen McClain, Class of ’02, all of 19 years old, who happened to be from San Antonio. All of them are listed here, including their inscriptions on the bronze.

Usually when I see a new or newish memorial, I can’t help the sneaking suspicion that in a century, even half a century or less, the memorial will be disregarded, and the event hazily remembered at best. This comes from seeing too many neglected memorials of that age, though it’s just a feeling, and completely untestable.

Not the Bonfire Memorial. Texas A&M pays an unusual amount of attention to its past, mostly in the form of revered traditions. I don’t have any reason to think the 1999 Bonfire’s going to be forgotten as long as there’s an A&M.