Saturday, February 13, 2010

Birds I'm Watching: Bodega Bay

Did a little birding today. At the Bodega farm pond (about a mile east of the town of Bodega) I saw mostly canvasbacks (about 12) along with buffleheads, mallards, Canada geese, and turkey vultures overhead.

At Smith Bros. Rd., behind the Inn there, saw about 35 snowy egrets on the mud flats along with two great egrets. There were about 200 marbled godwits and about 30 willets. On the water there were buffleheads, a few greater scaup, Western grebes, about 300 brants, ruddy ducks, a few double-crested cormorants, Western gulls, a pied-billed grebe or two, one horned grebe, and a couple of female mergansers that looked like common mergansers but may have been red-breasted--they were quite far out.

At Porto Bodega, saw 12 coots, a couple of common mergansers, ring-billed gulls, common loons, a great blue heron, a ruddy turnstone, black turnstones, Western grebes, and both horned and eared grebes (these all fairly close in). Further out, saw surf scoters, a common goldeneye, more horned grebes, buffleheads, brants, and a red-breasted merganser drake.

At the north end of Bodega harbor, saw greater scaup, Western grebes, buffleheads, ruddy ducks, brants, horned grebes, eared grebes, and common loons.

At Campbell Cove, saw sanderlings, common loons, Western gulls, scrub jays, and a black phoebe. So, nothing startling, but there were certainly many, many brants, more loons than I'm used to seeing (probably saw about 12 different birds during the day), and many more grebes than usual. In at least two locations (Porto Bodega and the north end of the Harbor) there were groups of 10-30 birds, mostly eared grebes, with a few horned grebes thrown in--an excellent opportunity to compare the two in their confusing (to me, anyway) winter plumage.

The ruddy turnstone (pictured above) sat quite contently nearby on the pier at Porto Bodega. One of the loons also let me get close. Something is odd about the markings on his head. I wonder if this bird is the one I saw in about the same area during the summer struggling to get disentangled from a loop of fishing line?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Books I'm Reading: Black: The History of a Color

I've just finished reading Black: The History of a Color, by Michel Pastoureau (Princeton University Press, 2009), an English translation of a book published in French in 2008. I've had some experience reading French art criticism. It's sometimes been more mystifying than enlightening. Bad translation may have had something to do with it. I suspect, however, that a misguided, egotistical desire to appear erudite on the part of authors is mostly the root cause of problems I've had with French art historical writing in the past. Happily, this book appears to have been translated well--it reads quite naturally as English with one or two very minor exceptions--and it has something worthwhile to say in a style that is informative rather than aimed mostly at enhancing the reputation of the writer among his academic peers.

The book looks at the use and meanings of the color black throughout history from the perspective of religious art, heraldry, later secular art, and textiles and fashion--mostly in the Western world--, beginning with use of black at sites such as Lascaux, and then moving on to its use in ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and in the modern era. Frequently the discussion dwells on whether black was considered a color at all and what its connotations were in different periods of history. The author pays particular attention to questions of whether black had negative associations in different historical contexts. There is much valuable information about the history of dyeing in different periods and the fashionability of the color black among the nobility and upper classes (and later the wealthy merchant class) of Europe.

Sections on the influence of Newton's Principia Mathematica, which effectively divorced both black and white from the class of colors, were useful, and I was pleased to see this author discuss the effect printing must have had on the human consciousness of color (at least in the West) as black and white illustrations became relatively widely available to the public and replaced the costly and scarce hand-colored illustrations that were the norm in earlier periods. It has always struck me that after the diffusion of moveable-type printing processes and before full-color printing, television, and the Internet, most people experienced art not immediately viewable in their vicinity in the form of black and white engravings, etchings, or woodcuts--which had to have had an impact on perceptions. I've long wondered whether Van Gogh's use of sharp, short, repeated strokes in his drawings (and to a lesser extent in the paintings) might not have been influenced by his exposure to engraved reproductions. This book does not address or answer that particular question, but it at least acknowledges that black and white reproductions and illustrations became pervasive and probably profoundly changed the way people thought about color, even if unconsciously.

Nicely printed and attractively illustrated throughout. While I wouldn't call this an easy read, it's likely to appeal to anyone with more than a casual interest in the history of art--the history of colors, in particular. Recommended.

I should also say that I love the painting on the cover. At first I took it to be a Georges de La Tour for the obvious reason--its excellent handling of a night scene lit dramatically by fire or candlelight--, but it turns out to be a painting by Etienne La Tour, son of Georges, a painter I was unaware of. You learn something new every day, as they say. It is The Discovery of the Body of Saint Alexis in the National Gallery of Ireland. It strikes me as wonderful, however, less for the lighting effect than for the expression on the torch bearer's face--its combination of no-nonsense determination and the slightly awestruck. Beautiful.

Having said that, it was chosen, no doubt, for the black clothing of Saint Alexis and its deep black background. Doing a little Internet browsing, I see that many sites attribute this painting to Georges de La Tour. I'll have to look into this and see who is right. The book reviewed here attributes it to Etienne de La Tour. I've sent an enquiry to the gallery. They should know.

Two other things about the painting puzzle me. Is that a young man or a young woman holding the torch? Have I just revealed my deep ignorance of stories about St. Alexis? Most certainly. And what is she doing with that piece of kelp? Hmmm....further research appears to be in order.

[Update: I got a reply from the National Gallery of Ireland. Apparently the painting was originally attributed to Georges de La Tour when it entered the collection in 1968. That attribution was disputed. Subsequently (by the early 1980s) it was attributed to Etienne La Tour but is now described as being "of the school of Georges de La Tour"--in other words, it is not considered to be by either. It is an attractive canvas nevertheless.]

[Further update: I got another reply. The gallery has corrected its earlier comment and said that it appears the official attribution at the moment is, in fact, Etienne La Tour. I'll let you know if that changes.]

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Wines I'm Drinking: 2007 Cousiño-Macul Maipo Valley Merlot

I recently reviewed the 2005 Maipo Valley (Chile) Merlot from Cousiño-Macul in these pages, having picked up half a dozen bottles at our local Grocery Outlet. It was such a good value that I went back to buy a case yesterday but was disappointed to find the 2005 gone. I must have bought all there was. The store now has only the 2007. I bought a case anyway, assuming that it was unlikely to be overpriced at $2.99 a bottle, even if it was less interesting than the 2005.

I was right on both counts: It is a less interesting wine, but it's still a bargain.

The 2007 was noticeably thinner and less tinged with orange. It looked like the younger wine that it is. It had some of the herbaceousness of the 2005, but nothing like the pronounced sage scent of its older sibling. The nose was more floral, suggestive of pencil shavings, and altogether more distant. On the palate, the wine was light in body with delicate fruit sweetness and very light tannins. The general impression it gave was one of smoothness but it had no especially endearing characteristics. The mid-palate was a trifle weak, but the wine had fairly good length, with distant, lingering, slightly woody tannins on the finish. With time some cocoa hints developed. No rough edges. This wine is perfectly acceptable for everyday drinking, but it lacks the distinctive characteristics and depth of the 2005. Its somewhat austere, rather European flavor profile may not appeal to wine drinkers used to the up-front fruitiness of California wines. Still, this is a good value at $2.99 and I don't regret buying a case of it. If, however, your Grocery Outlet has the 2005, snap it up.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Music I'm Writing: String Quartet No. 5

It's been about a year now since I started writing music in earnest. I've decided I like composing; unlike most other art forms, you don't have to clean up after yourself.

Today I finished my fifth string quartet. If you care to hear it, you can download it from the link below (good until February 20). The file is about 26MB. Note that it's a dumbed down MP3 file and that the music is being played mechanically by a computer and synthesizer. I wonder what it would sound like performed by living musicians? Better, I hope. This is a first revision. There are likely to be more as I tweak it, but it's enough to get an idea of the sort of thing I'm doing.

Colin Talcroft String Quartet No. 5

Rain: Light Rain (February 10, 2010)

It's actually sunny today, although cold again--we had a light frost overnight and frost is expected again tonight; I haven't checked to see if the buds on the Aloe arborescens are intact--but we have had another 0.2 inches of rain since I last reported. That brings our 2009-2010 season precipitation total to 19.15 inches. More rain is predicted for this week. I guess it's better than all the snow that's fallen in places like washington D.C. Then again, when it snows that much, it's kind of fun. Sometimes I miss the snow.

[Update: Since writing the above, we have had another 0.35 inches of rain. That brings our total to 19.50 inches as of the afternoon of February 14. That is right in line with the average, but some local stations are reporting a couple inches more than us. In any case, the reservoirs are full again and we've already had as much rain as we had in the entire season last year, so we're way ahead.]

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Wines I'm Drinking: 2005 Cousiño-Macul Maipo Valley Merlot

Grocery Outlet is an interesting place to buy wine. The selection is a bit bizarre--ranging all over the place and including wines that show up nowhere else (around here anyway)--and always changing. Odds and ends. That all makes sense. Grocery Outlet generally picks up leftover lots and older vintages (often a good thing) at deep discounts from wineries and distributors that need to clear storage space for newer products.

The prices can be ridiculous (ridiculously low, that is). I stopped in this morning returning from teaching a printmaking class at my son's school. Grocery Outlet (in Santa Rosa, at 1116 College Avenue, occupying the site of a former Safeway) just happens to be on my way.

My usual strategy is to buy a mix of cheap wines on speculation, try them all quickly, and then go back to stock up on the good values before they disappear. Today I bought 12 bottles, of which six were the 2005 Cousiño-Macul Maipo Valley Merlot (I was pretty confident this would be worth the price). I had intended to buy ten bottles, but the cashier pointed out there was a 10% discount on cases, even mixed cases. I was flabbergasted (I hadn't been aware of the case discount), so I went back for two more bottles. I couldn't help laughing. Not even Trader Joe's gives a 10% case discount on its inexpensive wines, arguing its prices are already heavily discounted, and rightly so--but, I wasn't going to complain.

The wine was a moderately deep garnet red--suggestive of its age. It had a distinctive nose--herbs and leather. After some thought, I was finally able to pin the herbaceous scent down to garden sage. A bit unusual, but the pungency was not at all unpleasant. Tasting the wine, I was immediately impressed. It was surprisingly elegant, with restrained flavors, but a very good balance of delicate, fine-grained tannins; lingering, fruity sweetness (just enough); and delicate acidity. Showing signs of maturity at five years, but still vibrant and fresh. Moderate to good length. With a little time and some air, the bouquet began to gain complexity. The wine became suggestive of black cherries, licorice, and earth. Not great wine, but excellent everyday wine--or better.

So, how much did I pay for it? $2.99 a bottle. Excuse me. It was $2.69 a bottle with the case discount. Needless to say, I'm going back for more. This is likely to become the house wine for the time being (until it's all consumed). Recommended. The 2005 Cousiño-Macul Merlot normally retails for $8.99-$12.99 a bottle--probably about $25 on a restaurant menu.

Food I'm Eating: The Great Yogurt Taste-off: Part III (The Yogurts--Continued)

tasted four more vanilla yogurts today. If you want to know what prompted all this yogurt tasting, see the Introduction.

Voskos Greek Nonfat Vanilla Yogurt
($1.29 for a 5.3 oz. container, or $0.24 an ounce, 0% milkfat, 17 grams sugars, 45mg sodium)

Pale in color with a slightly runny appearance, but quite thick and creamy when stirred up. Nothing to stir up from the bottom. Vanilla specs throughout. Good vanilla scent, but also a sour yogurt scent. Good texture. Not tart but has a noticeable yogurt tang. Comes across as neither sweet nor sour. Moderate vanilla flavor. A compromise between the sweet and sour schools of yogurt making. Sweetened with cane sugar. Comparatively expensive, but among the better yogurts in the tasting, in my view.

Trader Joe's Organic Lowfat Vanilla Yogurt
($0.99 for a 6 oz. container, or $0.17 an ounce, 1.5% milkfat, 22 grams sugars, 75mg sodium)

Pale in color, but rich with vanilla specs. Not especially runny or thick--somewhere in the middle. Rather distant vanilla scent. Hints of yogurt sourness, but not very heavily scented, which doesn't prepare you for the rather full and decadent flavor. Sweet, creamy, rich. Strong vanilla flavor. This is on the sweet side, which usually isn't my preference, but I liked it. At 22 grams of sugar (cane sugar) this had less sugar than some of the yogurts I tasted (as much as 33 grams) but for some reason it tasted sweeter than some of the others. It may have something to do with the sodium levels, which, unfortunately, I didn't pay attention to in the first batch I compared. Sodium has ranged from 45mg to 110mg in the yogurts I have checked, putting this one in the middle of that range. While The Trader Joe's Organic Low-fat Vanilla lacks any discernible yogurt tartness, it was the tastiest of the sweeter examples. At $0.99 for a 6 oz. container, it is also in the middle of the range price-wise (the range of prices has been $0.40 to $2.39 for a 5-6 oz. container).  

Clover Organic Vanilla Bean Lowfat Yogurt
($1.18 for a 6 oz. container, or $0.18 an ounce, 1.5% milkfat, 16 grams sugars, 110mg sodium)

Solid rather than liquid. Pale, with no flecks of vanilla. Scents of both vanilla and yogurt. Thick, slightly cheesy graininess, but nice creamy texture when well stirred. Much less sweet than the others in this group, but not a lot of yogurt tang either and comparatively little vanilla flavor. Somehow this is tasty but doesn't have any especially notable characteristics. Good solid yogurt, but not a standout. Sweetened with cane sugar. 

Weight Watcher's Nonfat Vanilla Yogurt
($0.89 for a 6 oz. container, or $0.15 an ounce, 0% milkfat, 12 grams sugars, 110mg sodium)

This is the only yogurt I left unfinished. It had an odd and persistent saccharine-like aftertaste, although there are no artificial sweeteners in this. It is sweetened with crystalline fructose and inulin. Inulins, I see, are a group of polysaccharides that occur naturally in many plants. The inulin may have been the source of the taste. Otherwise, the WW yogurt was very pale and slightly gelatinous with nothing to stir up from the bottom. There was a pronounced vanilla scent. It was medium-thick when stirred. Very strongly flavored--giving a strong impression of sweetness, despite only 12 grams of sugar, but I suspect the inulin isn't included in that number. Any yogurt flavors there may have been were effectively masked by the sweetness.

[The Great Yogurt Taste-off Part IV (More yogurts)]

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Places I'm visiting: Carson Falls, Fairfax (Marin County)

I took a walk today to Carson Falls in the hills above Fairfax, California, in Marin County. My father lived in Fairfax for fifteen years and I visited him there often but had no idea this place existed. From the top of the ridges there are grand vistas that take in much of San Francisco Bay, looking out toward San Quentin and the San Rafael-Richmond Bridge. The light was beautiful. It was nice just to be outside without getting rained on for a change. Access is by foot from a parking area off of Bolinas Rd.

Oh, if you're wondering about the falls, I had a very long lens on my camera (for birding). I wasn't able to photograph anything as close as the falls were, so I concentrated on the distant hills instead. As for birds, there were almost none--only a few Turkey Vultures, Crows, Ravens, California Towhees, Bushtits, and Scrub-jays.

Plants I'm growing: First blooms--Rhododendron "Noyo Dream," Higanzakura Flowering Cherry

Our first rhododendron began to bloom today, the bright red one called "Noyo Dream," planted under the bird feeder (it fades to pink). Last year this plant bloomed on February 25--so the flowers opening today seems very early indeed. A year as calculated by this plant was thus only 347 days--the first real deviation from around 365 days of any of the plants I've been tracking. Perhaps it has bloomed early because of all the rain we've had this--or maybe it bloomed late last year, retarded by the drought.

The Japanese Higanzakura (a flowering cherry) appears to have started to bloom on the 5th. That, too is considerably earlier than last year. The plant bloomed in 2009 on February 20; a year according to this plant was therefore 350 days. Both photos are of the plants last year. None of the blossoms are so fully open yet.
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