Monthly Archives: November 2014

Frontyard Visitor: The Gulf Fritillary

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Wednesday it rained. Thursday it rained. Saturday, it rained again.

Right there’s some news. Even though the rain didn’t amount to much — I’d guess just an inch or so here in Berkeley for all three “storms” — that was the most concentrated precipitation we’ve had since April, I’d guess. Today (Sunday) was clear, and that after avoiding even looking at the yard for a long time — the front “lawn” has not been watered in several seasons and looks worse than dead — I thought I’d taken advantage of the warm, dry weather and clean things up a little.

One of my chores was to cut down the mostly dead stalks of our September-blooming sunflowers (Helianthus salicifolius). I did that, then picked up the whole bundle of stalks to stuff in our green can (the one for “yard waste). As I started to push the stuff into the can, I realized there was a beautiful orange butterfly tangled up in the mass of dead stems and leaves. I thought it was dead, but then it moved. So I pulled stalks out of the can to give it more space to wriggle free. It quickly extricated itself. I ran for my camera, but it flew before I could get a shot.

I ran and grabbed my camera and followed it for a few minutes down the block. The undersides of the butterfly’s wings are gorgeous — “spangled in iridescent silver,” as one description I found puts it. I couldn’t manage to get a clear shot of the undersides, though.

Kate went online to make the identification: a Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae). The Bay Area is about as far north as these get in California, though they have been seen recently in the Davis and Sacramento areas. Here are a couple links with details:

The name “Gulf fritillary”: Well, “Gulf” comes from their association with areas bordering the Gulf of Mexico. And “fritillary”? A U.S. Forest Service “pollinator of the month” page explains:

The common name comes from a Latin word, fritillus, which means chessboard or dice box. Fritillary is also the name of a flower with an interesting checkered pattern; it is obvious that both the flower and the butterfly get their common name because of such pattern. Another name for these handsome butterflies is silverspots because of the metallic markings on their wings undersides. It is possible that this pattern, similar to a leopard’s spots, serves as camouflage when they are resting in places of dappled sun and shade spots.

Getting in further over my head: It should be noted that the Gulf fritillary is a member of the same butterfly subfamily, Nymphalidae (brush-footed butterflies) but a different tribe (Heliconiini) from the rest of the fritillaries (Argynnini). I didn’t know butterflies had tribes. And that’s as far as I’m going to take the fritillary story for this evening.

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Filed under Berkeley, Science, Weather

Air Blog: Over the Sierra

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Here’s a shot (click for larger image) from my flight to Chicago last week as the plane headed northeast toward the north end of Lake Tahoe. That’s French Meadows Reservoir, on the Middle Fork of the American River, at the top, Hell Hole Reservoir, on the Rubicon River, at the bottom.

Both reservoirs are at about 25 to 30 percent capacity; Hell Hole is at about 50 percent of its average level for this time of year, French Meadows is at about 66 percent average. Both are operated by the Placer County Water Agency, which supplies or sells water to in much of the Sacramento metropolitan area and northeast along the Interstate 80 corridor.

Besides the signs of drought in the image, one other notable feature: the brown area to the lower left and between the two reservoirs is part of the 97,000 acres burned in the King Fire in September.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Travel

Road Blog: Chicago City Hall; Woman in the Waves

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Gamboling about downtown Chicago last Sunday night after the conclusion of the Third Coast audio festival, I walked up LaSalle Street past Chicago City Hall. I think I was inside once, back in the early 1970s, tracking down a copy of my birth certificate so I could get a passport. I don’t know the building well.

So I was struck, looking across LaSalle, at a series of four bas reliefs on the wall of the building. They are heroic renderings interpreting the life of the great city as it was understood a century ago, when City Hall was built. I found one of the panels arresting: It depicts what I saw as a woman in the waves, with a lighthouse nearby. Something about the sweep of the waves, the woman’s expression, the figure’s apparent passiveness in the midst of (what I see as) peril, the presence of the lighthouse, made me think this was about near-drowning and rescue — maybe depicting the city’s role as guardian of the shores. Or something.

Delving into the history of the City Hall figures a little, here’s what I can readily establish: The bas reliefs were designed (if not executed) by a well-known American sculptor and medalist named John Flanagan. Most Americans know one piece of Flanagan’s work: George Washington’s head on the quarter.

What are the bas reliefs meant to depict? Here’s some research by way of the April 25, 1956, editions of the Chicago Tribune. The piece was written to mark the beginning of sandblasting at City Hall to remove nearly a half-century’s accumulated grit and coal-smoke residue. The story makes it sound like that before sandblasting, it wasn’t even apparent that the “woman in the waves” relief was there. The writer takes up the figure shown in the waves:

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When the writer of this piece looked at the same bas relief I was viewing the other night, he saw it as an “Adonis like figure with long, wavy hair, and he is bathing in some extremely high surf.” He, not she.

Huh. If you look at the other three reliefs — here, here and here — the male figures are all, to my eye, unmistakably male. The few female figures are clearly female. So I’m wondering what the sculptor’s intent, as executed by construction workers, actually was.

But here’s something that I’m sure colors my viewing of the piece: When our mom was nine years old, she survived a near-drowning out at the Indiana Dunes. Four others in her family — a brother, an aunt, a cousin, and an uncle — all died. So that image, to me, is anything but abstract. When I look at it, I see tragedy and loss.

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Filed under Chicago, Family, History

Road Blog: Chicagoland

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Chicagoland. Where did that name come from, anyway? I just submitted that question to WBEZ’s Curious City, which is a really interesting project if you haven’t heard it or seen it, so maybe they’ll investigate. I can tell from a brief scan of Google Books that my main assumption about the history — that it was the post-World War II brainchild of some advertising or marketing ace, is apparently incorrect. The name Chicagoland shows up at least as far back as the late 1920s. The favorite title I’ve found listed so far is 1938’s “Chicagoland Household Pests and How to Get Rid of Them.”

Fast forward to Tuesday, and here were my day’s activities in Chicagoland: I breakfasted with my sister Ann’s family on the North Side. I watched it rain. I drove down to the South Side (and a little beyond) to meet my brother Chris and visit the various Brekke, Hogan, O’Malley and Morans graves at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. We went to lunch (Smashburger on 95th Street in Oak Lawn). Then I made a slow northward trek to Mount Olive Cemetery, where much of my dad’s family was buried.

I rounded out the excursion with a drive down Irving Park Road to the Dairy Queen near Central Avenue. I had a chocolate malted and actually said aloud, “Here’s to you, Pop.” He was a longtime DQ customer, and he and I visited that location many times in the last few years before he died.

It was cold out, in the 30s and windy, and after dark, but I wanted to check out a taxidermy place across the street from the Dairy Queen to see if I could get a decent shot of specimens in the windows. I don’t think I did. Then I walked west a couple blocks, cross Irving Park, then walk back east, just looking at what was happening in he storefronts along the way.

Dr. Charlemagne Guerrero, M.D. A music store advertising lessons in guitar and music theory. A dance studio with a kids’ ballet class going on. Several bars — Pub OK and The Martini Club and a couple I didn’t get the names of. A Polish antique store. Dr. M.A. Starsiak, general dentistry. A barber shop. A door bearing a sign reading “Emperor’s Headquarters.” Then I was back across the street from the taxidermy shop.

The warm car afterward was nice.

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Filed under Family, History, Travel

Road Blog: Harvest

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Visiting Chicago for a few days, I drove down to the south suburbs this afternoon — late in the afternoon, as it turned out — to see my brother Chris and his wife, Patty. They live in Tinley Park, about 25 miles southwest of downtown, within sight of the junction of Interstate 57 and Interstate 80, but far enough away that the highways aren’t present as a constant roar.

I had left early to avoid the worst of the commute traffic and had some time to kill, so I drove on past Tinley Park and got off I-57 a little to the south. Then I wandered west and south, watching the last of the sunset and the dusk come on. Most of the suburban sprawl in the Chicago area over the last 40 years has been to the northwest, west and southwest. Comparatively little has been built due south of the city in the area where I grew up.

Which isn’t to say nothing’s happened out there. Chris and Patty have a big house in a subdivision that was probably mostly corn and soybean fields 15 years ago. As I drove this evening, I wandered through one subdivision in Matteson I’d never seen before, and as I moved on, through the western edge of Richton Park and the farms west of Monee, I kept passing big, newish homes planted in ones and twos on big patches of land — ranchettes, of a sort, I guess, for people who probably work in the city or away in the western suburbs and want to enjoy some relatively splendid isolation.

I needed to answer the call of nature on one of the roadsides, and before I got back in the car, I decided to check out corn planted right up to the bank of a creek. It looked ready to harvest and given the fact the soil looked dry and combines would probably have no problem in the field, I was a little surprised the corn was still standing.

I was surprised as I drove that my sense of the checkerboard geography, or road-ography, was mostly intact. Heading south from Vollmer Road, the first big intersection was U.S. 30. Then Sauk Trail, then Steger Road, where I turned west until I got to 80th Avenue (where the avenue is 80th from, I don’t know). Then south again, past Stuenkel Road and Dralle Road and Monee-Manhattan Road and, sure, a couple roads whose names I didn’t know. Driving this part of eastern Will County, you’re reminded that the country has some contours; 80th Avenue climbs one of the low ridges (glacial moraines, I’m guessing), west and south of Monee, with the terrain falling away in every direction. Some of the ranchettes out there are built in spots that afford long views across the prairie.

Then up ahead, I saw a combine and grain cart working in a cornfield just off the road to the west. I stopped, thinking I might get an iPhone picture in the dark (I didn’t get one worth saving). As I stood there, parked in the road in my Bay Area get-up (shorts and flannel shirt), a man approached me from a truck parked at the edge of the field.

I told him pretty much straight up what I was doing: Just driving aimlessly, taking in the landscape, that I had lived nearby, had been away from the area a while, and was taking a look. Then I asked about the harvest.

To make a long story short, the farmer, a guy named Ron Schubbe, was working with his brother and his brother’s son on a 35-acre cornfield. His own son had a day job nearby but would also be helping out. He said the grain had been too wet to harvest, but now, “We’re hitting it pretty hard.” I didn’t get other salient facts — how long it would take to harvest 35 acres, how big his entire acreage was (because I’m assuming nobody out there in corn and soybean country harvests just 35 acres of anything), how long it would take to harvest the field they were working, how late they’d be working, or what it felt like to be bringing in the crop.

But I did ask how long he’d lived out there. “I was born and raised right here,” he said. How long had his family been out there? He said his great-grandfather had begun farming in the area, north of the town of Peotone, since the 1880s.

So I did find that out, at least. Then I wandered around a little more, noticing a couple of other combines moving through the fields in the dark, and headed to Chris and Patty’s as the night finally fell.

(Conclusion of the foregoing.)

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