Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Birds I'm Watching: Spring Lake/Lake Ralphine

I just got back from a walk around the two lakes in Santa Rosa (near Howarth Park). Nothing unusual, but got a very good look at the spotted sandpiper that's been on the right side of Lake Ralphine (with the boathouse behind you; top photo). Also saw the bittern at Spring Lake, the osprey there (watched him land and rise up again with a huge blue gill), and saw three moorhens, and a red-shouldered hawk. There are still about a dozen common mergansers on Lake Ralphine and buffleheads on both lakes. Saw a noisy flock of bushtits along Spring Creek earlier in the day (bottom photo).

For more information about bird watching in Sonoma County, see my Website Sonoma County Bird Watching Spots.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Places I'm Visiting: Highway 12, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park

Took a drive up Highway 12 today, to pick up wine at one of my favorite Sonoma County wineries, Wellington Vineyards, on Dunbar Rd. Along the way, I stopped to photograph some of the old vines near Kenwood (circa 1921) and later went up to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park for the first time.

I was surprised to find whole slopes (under dense tree cover) clothed with a maidenhair fern growing wild. I looked it up. I hadn't known there was a native California Adiantum, Adiantum jordanii (California maidenhair). The photo above shows that plant along with Polypodium californica (California polypody, the big frond in the foreground), and Pentagramma triangularis (gold-backed fern, the small frond in the middle of the photo).

Gold-backed fern always reminds me of my childhood years in California (1967-1970). I used to love to press the fronds against my skin to leave a fern-shaped tattoo in gold dust on the back of one hand or on a forearm. My associations with maidenhair ferns go back to Glen Helen, in Yellow Springs, Ohio, but there we always saw the northern maidenhair (Adiantum pedatum), a rather different plant, with compound fronds resembling a hand with fingers outspread.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Plants I'm Growing: Cyclamen Coum

I tardily note here that the first Cyclamen coum blossoms in the garden opened on January 1st. That's seven days earlier than last year. Like last year, it was the first plant to bloom here in the new year. See last year's note on this plant for details. Cyclamen coum.

Thus, the duration of a year--according to this plant--was 358 days (in this case, corresponding mostly to calendar year 2009). As 2010 progresses, I plan to calculate the passage of a year as reckoned by the space between the first blossoms of various plants in the garden this year and last. It will be interesting to see how long each of the botanical years turns out to be. Will they average 365 days? More likely, the year for each species will average to 365 days over many years with significant annual variations. We'll see.

Movies I'm Watching: Biopics--Julie and Julia and Me and Orson Welles

In the last couple of weeks I've seen two (or should I say three?) entertaining films based on biographies, Me and Orson Welles and Julie & Julia, although the latter was something of a disappointment.

Me and Orson Welles (2009, directed by Richard Linklater) is based loosely on fact, going behind the scenes at the Mercury Theater, newly established in New York in 1937 by Orson Welles and John Houseman, and telling an embellished version of the story of its famous production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in that year, which Welles chose to set in fascist Italy. (If what we see is accurate, the film gives us a fascinating glimpse of what the original production might have looked like). How much is true to life is immaterial, however. The story is mostly a vehicle for a portrait of the young Orson Welles that becomes intertwined with a coming-of-age story centered on the Zac Efron character, a dreamy high school student that bluffs his way into the production, falls in love with Sonja Jones, Welles's assistant (played engagingly by Claire Danes), and then suffers a grand disillusionment. Although this is the New York theater, I was reminded of the silly lyrics to Hooray for Hollywood (Richard Whiting/Johnny Mercer) from the 1937 film Hollywood Hotel "Where any shop girl can be a top girl...." "Where any office boy or young mechanic can be a panic...." Oddly, that satirical song, making fun of Hollywood, has become its anthem. Whether that makes sense or not, I've always liked the original version sung by Johnnie Davis and Frances Langford backed by Benny Goodman and his orchestra (click the link above). But I digress.

Back to Me and Orson Welles. Christian McKay, in the role of Welles, is utterly convincing. The movie was worth seeing just for his performance. It is rare to be able to watch an historical character come to life on screen without constantly having to tell oneself that the actor is the person he's supposed to be. One wonders if the Mercury Theater was as chaotic as the film suggests, and I can't say whether the film really tells us anything new about Welles (is it simply rehashing a stale view of the man?), but there is no need to take things too seriously. Me and Orson Welles is good, light entertainment.

Julie & Julia (2009, directed by Nora Ephron) was fun to watch. That said, it left me full but unsatisfied. To paraphrase Mark Twain, Julie & Julia is a film about Julie Powell (played by Amy Adams) and her now-famous cooking blog with a film about Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and her long-famous cookbook struggling to get out. I couldn't help feeling that this would have been better as two films--although it's easy to understand the attempt to draw parallels between the efforts of the two women to master the art of French cooking, each in her own way, each in her own period of history--Julia Child by spending years in France cooking and researching recipes, Julie Powell by attempting to make all 524 recipes in Julia Child's classic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Knopf, originally published 1961) in the course of a year.

Meryl Streep is delightful as Julia Child. Some of the funniest scenes in the movie draw on the sheer force of Child's indomitable personality (we see her tackle dozens of onions in an effort to get her chopping skills up to snuff; her flustered apprehension ahead of the appearance of her sister at the train station is hilarious). During the contemporary scenes (the Julie storyline), however, I found myself longing to see more of Julia, less of Julie and friends. Paul Child, Julia's husband, was an interesting man in his own right. It was frustrating to see him appear only in brief supporting scenes. The film barely suggests his career as an artist and photographer and it fails to make clear his role in producing illustrations and photos for his wife's book. (His life is tangential, I suppose, but had this been a film about Julia (without Julie), there would have been some room to flesh things out.) That said, the Julia story is the best part of the movie.

Even so, Julie Powell's project deserved a fuller treatment. I was left with the impression that all the good stuff was in the blog and that we never got to read it. There was something unconvincing about the supporting cast, too. I never got the impression that these people were much interested in food or that Julie's cooking (and by extension Julia's) really moved them much. I would have liked to have seen this as a true foodie movie, conveying a sense of reverence for great food. We know that Julia Child had such a reverence. We don't know from the movie really what Julie felt about the food she was making. She comes across as shallow. Julia Child's reported remark at the end of the movie to the effect that Julie's attempt is frivolous is therefore hard to dismiss.

Having never seen the original blog, I can't say whether the impression given of Julie Powell is fair or not, but it doesn't help to hear Julie's husband simply tell her that Julia Child has misunderstood her. If that were really true (and it may be), shouldn't I (the audience) already know that by that stage of the film? I wanted to believe that cooking the classic cookbook cover to cover was more than a stunt to Julie, but the movie makes it hard to know. That seems a shame, because blogging with a purpose is an attractive idea and Julia Child's original dream of making Americans better cooks is as relevant today as it was then. Perhaps the only real value of Powell's cooking and blogging was personal--that it kept her sane (setting aside the effects of the fame it has brought her); perhaps Julie Powell finished her year feeling little different about cooking than when she began; perhaps getting through a truly important cookbook and absorbing such a cookbook are two different things. It's a shame that at the end of the movie we don't really know what Julie Powell accomplished. Maybe I'll read her book. Maybe I'll blog about it. Maybe I'll blog about reading every page of her book in 24 hours, maybe I'll...oh, never mind.

Birds I'm Watching: Oakland

Visiting friends in Oakland at the start of the new year, I found myself looking out at a pretty Townsend's Warbler in the trees visible from the dining table of my hosts. I got a good shot of the bird, although it's very difficult to focus on these fellows. They move incessantly and love to hide behind branches.

Books I'm Reading: Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten 20th Century

Just finished reading Tony Judt's Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (Penguin, 2008). I can't remember where I picked this up, but I know Tony Judt's writing from The New York Review of Books, and this turned out to be a collection of his essays/reviews mostly from that publication, some of which I read years ago when they first appeared. I wasn't disappointed because of that. In fact, I was rather pleased that it contained Judt's extended essay on Kennedy, Krushchev, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is among the the New York Review pieces that have always stood out in my mind. It was a pleasure to go through it again. Coincidentally, my reading of it coincides with the 40th anniversary of the start of Kennedy's presidential election campaign, in early 1960. The essay makes one very glad that we had Kennedy in the White House at the time. It's remarkable how level-headed and restrained Kennedy was in the face of much advice aimed at encouraging the most belligerent and provocative of routes through the crisis. I shudder to think what would have happened if a man like George W. Bush had been our president then.

The essays in the collection have been chosen not because each addresses a common theme, but because, taken together, they make the case obliquely that we have already forgotten (to our peril) many of the lessons the bellicose 20th century has given us--although the point is here and there made explicitly as well. Excellent writing throughout. Recommended.
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