Category Archives: Essays and Articles

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

I enjoy walking in those increasingly-rare places neglected and ignored by most humans. Such places aren’t confined to pristine nature reserves, but can also be found in the nooks and crannies of any town or city.

Human development isn’t a uniformly pervasive force. It insinuates an environment by finding the paths of least resistance. These conduits or channels roughly correspond to the perceptions people have of potential profitability, intuitions which, thankfully, are often wrong.

Think of a lichen finding its own path of least resistance into the microscopic seams and flaws in the surface of a granite boulder.

There is one thing (among others) that makes an observational walk perennially popular with a certain sort of person: the sheer unpredictability of what might be seen. The potential for surprise is always there, even on a walk in a very familiar place. There are transient scenes, experiential ephemera which for the most part aren’t witnessed by anyone. Chances are you won’t see one on a particular walk, but you are guaranteed to not see such a scene if you don’t go on that walk.

I’ve indulged in enough generalizing by now, don’t you think? Here’s a concrete example, a scene I encountered yesterday while walking along a canyon slope on the north edge of Bisbee, Arizona. The manzanita trees have passed their period of peak bloom. Here’s a spray of blossoms on a tree which is still attracting pollinators:

manz_bloom-1

The more hurried or impatient manzanitas have dropped their corollas now that the flowers have been fertilized and ovaries are bulging. The fallen waxy-white blooms make an appealing litter upon the debris-strewn rocky soil beneath the trees. This is a scene which sunlight and rain will soon destroy:

manz_bloom-2

I can’t help but feel lucky that I happened along while the scene was still pristine. In this next shot I like the color of the dead manzanita leaf, and the way it caught the morning sunlight:

manz_bloom-3

Larry

2 Comments

Filed under Essays and Articles, Natural History, Photos

ABC Files and Recording Music and Video

This winter I’ve been writing less and devoting more time to playing and recording music. It’s great fun, and I feel it is high time I documented my music after so many years of playing.

The software available for musicians is plentiful. I tend to use only FOSS software (FOSS stands for Free And Open Source), a trait which as time passes becomes more feasible and less a statement of religious conviction.

Some of my favorite and most-used pieces of software cluster around an ASCII-text file format known as ABC. Chris Walsh came up with the format back in the 1980s. He needed a way to represent traditional melodies without going to the trouble of drawing staves and using normal musical notation. ABC is musical shorthand. Notes are represented by letters, and various typographical symbols indicate bars, rests, and most other musical features. ABC is quite portable; it can be scrawled on a restaurant napkin or included in the text of an e-mail. The format has been most popular with musicians in the British Isles.

With todays gargantuan multi-gig computer hard drives the advantages of ABC have declined somewhat, but there are so many tune and transcription collections available on the net in ABC format. For a fiddler like me the files are a cornucopia of musical delights. So portable, too! Millions of tunes in ABC format can be stored on a CD or a USB stick.

Software is available which converts an ABC file to a printable Postscript file. The results are excellent. Here’s an example. This is an ABC file represnting the bare bones of a tune I came up with several years ago:

X:1
T:Goldberg Waltz
R:waltz
C:Larry Ayers
N:First played circa 2004 --
N:Notated January 2013
L:1/8
M:3/4
K:G
GA|"G"B2 BAGE|D2 B,2 D2|"C" E2 C2 E2|G6|"Em"E2 B2 B2| B2 B B3|
"D"ABA GFE|D2 B,2 A,2|"G"G,2 BAGE|D2 B,2 D2|
"C"E2 C2 E2|G6|"D"D2 d3 d|d2 d2 d2|"G"BA G"D"F "G"GA|G6||
|:"G"Bdg dgd|Bdg dgd|"C"ceg ege|ceg ege|"Em"B2 e2 g2|b2 b2 b2|"D"a2 ag fe|
d2 dc BA|"G"B2 d2 g2|gf ed cB|"C"c2 cdef|g4 ^g2|"D"a3 gfe|d3 cBA|"G"B2 G F G2 :|

A program called abcm2ps translates the ABC typography into a file which looks like this:

goldberg

The tune sounds like this (more or less, as I seldom play anything the same way twice!):

Goldberg Waltz recording

I’ve been using a multi-platform program called Audacity, which can be obtained here:

Audacity

It’s a very versatile multi-track recording and sound-editing application.

Videos are ubiquitous on the net these days due to the popularity of Youtube and, to a lesser extent, Vimeo. I thought it would be fun to make some music videos and upload them, but I had a problem. I’d never successfully edited video before, and the few times I tried I felt stymied. The software has been written by people who grew up editing video and certain user-interface assumptions are made by the developers which were not at all intuitive for me.

I finally figured out my problem, which was that I assumed that the editing paradigm used in text and audio editors carried over into video editors. This isn’t true. Video editors mostly have been developed using an analogy with film editing. Cutting and splicing film (with discarded strips of film falling in curls to the cutting-room floor) is used as a metaphor for dealing with streams of video frames. The computer’s cursor is exchanged for a knife or scissors which “cuts” the sequence of frames.

This may seem obvious, but it took me a while to embrace and be able to use that metaphor! I can be dense at times.

I’ve been using two video editors, Openshot and Kdenlive. They are both good programs, but each has its strong points.

I started out using the audio track recorded by the camera, a Canon G11. That audio was fairly decent considering the tiny microphone on the camera, but I wanted multiple audio tracks. Lately I’ve been recording and editing with Audacity, then substituting the Audacity track for the camera’s recorded audio. I also have been using an external microphone. Of course the audio has to be synchronized with the video, but I found that Kdenlive does that automatically.

Here are a couple of videos. This first one was shot using the built-in camera and mike on Bev’s Imac:

You can see Sage the collie in the background in that one. Pets wandering into the scene are commonly seen in Youtube videos!

This is a later one shot with the Canon G11 on a tripod, and with the audio recorded with Audacity:

One last video… this one shows me playing an Irish set-dance tune called “The Blackbird” on the guitar. I dubbed in a fiddle track as well:

All rather amateurish, I admit, but fun!

Larry

2 Comments

Filed under Essays and Articles, Music, Uncategorized

Dream Of Convenience

fart-air

Last night I made a very delicious apple cake which we ate with vanilla ice cream. It was remarkably tasty, but about an hour later, just before we went to bed, I began to feel a tightness in my abdomen, which I presumed was due to an unwelcome accumulation of intestinal gases. Perhaps the cake and ice cream had reacted with the pad tai we had eaten for supper.

Oh, well! Gas happens from time to time, just another reminder of our biological nature. I fell asleep easily while Bev stayed up for a while roaming the internet. Her Imac is next to the bed and she possesses an uncanny ability to read sideways.

Meanwhile I was immersed in complicated dreams. I experienced a false awakening, one of those deceptive dream-sequences which mimic true awakening. In the dream I was lying in bed, on my side and facing away from Bev’s side. Somehow I knew that Bev had taken her collie outside to pee or whatever. The gas in my bowels was insistent, and I thought “A perfect time for a fart or two! The noxious fumes will have dissipated by the time she returns!”

It is such a pleasant feeling to release unruly farts which have been confined for too long. Three quick poots and my digestive system was in equilibrium once again.

Then I really woke up and sensed that Bev was actually in bed, and awake. I was sheepish as I turned and saw her shrink back. I explained my dream delusion and we laughed at the absurdity of the situation. Bev said, “When I heard those farts I thought, ‘He must be asleep! Surely he wouldn’t fart so shamelessly if he was awake!!'”

I thought about that portion of my mind which acts as my dream director. I could imagine him mischievously contriving the situation, saying, “Larry really does need to fart — let’s see, I’ll plant the idea in his head that he is alone in the bed. This should be fun to watch!”

By the way, Bev came up with the title for this post.

Larry

3 Comments

Filed under Arizona, Essays and Articles, Stories

The Lone Madrone

It’s easy to think that observing the world around you is a simple natural function, a survival trait inherited from Pleistocene ancestors. Over the years I’ve noticed that there seem to be several modes of observation distinguished by varying degrees of granularity and attention.

Here’s an analogy from the digital imaging world. As the resolution of a digital photo is decreased, blockiness or pixelization becomes evident. The amount of detail, which is equivalent to the amount of information, decreases along with the resolution.

Our attention to detail while observing the world around us varies widely depending upon previous experience and one’s general state of mind. When your mind is abstracted and distracted you don’t perceive much, usually just a blocky low-resolution version of the world. I call this minimal form of perception the Cartoon World. Every scene, object or organism in that blocky world exists as a stripped-down simulacrum of the “real” world, leached of all but the details essential for navigation and survival. This version of the world is crude but functional, and seems to be the pattern used by developers of real estate in this country. Expanses of anonymous green vegetation with smooth vehicular paths winding through them. But who wants to live in an environment which resembles a video game from the ’90s?

Sometimes “running on autopilot” is welcome, such as when driving along a lightly-traveled and familiar road. One part of your mind can dream, reminisce, and speculate while another part monitors the road, looking out for quickly-approaching objects and other anomalies. While taking a walk the penalties for immoderate abstraction are less severe and one’s fancy can be given free reign. Nevertheless, while I’m walking there is always a part of my mind looking out for unusual visual patterns which might signify a plant or other organism which is new to me. Of course, you can’t notice anomalies unless you have a basic knowledge of the creatures which share the landscape with you!

Readers might well welcome a return to experiential accounts rather than idle theorizing. Here’s an example:

The other day, one of those balmy, sunny winter days common in these subtropical latitudes, I was traversing a canyon slope not far from our house on the north edge of Bisbee. I enjoy seeing how the vegetation changes as I make my way up the slope. At about seven thousand feet the manzanita begin to taper off and the piƱon pines, alligator junipers, and ocotillos begin to appear among the ubiquitous evergreen oaks. Radial clumps of thorn-tipped agave, sotol, and yucca are scattered between the clumps of short and gnarled trees, but much of the surface is barren, crumbling expanses of decomposed granite and schist which only support plant life during the monsoon season..

I was on a deer and javelina trail when I encountered what seemed to be yet another multi-trunked oak, with widely-extended branches hugging a precious pool of shade. Something didn’t look right, though. The leaves were too long and their color unfamiliar, and the bark of the smaller branches showed curling red patches which reminded me of manzanita bark. Gradually it dawned on me that I was looking at an Arizona Madrone, a species I have mostly seen along creeks and rivers accompanied by sycamores. Later I learned that madrones grow on dry oak-juniper scrub-desert slopes as well as along streams. The stream-side trees are tall and straight, like most conifers, while the desert members of the species grow much like contorted scrub oaks.

Here is a shoot with buds and leaves. The leaf-stalks and branchlets always have some shade of reddish-brown shading into peach tones, a pleasing contrast to the greens of the leaf surfaces.

madrone-1

The bark of the trunks is gray and blocky, resembling the bark of certain oaks, but as the branches ramify and become smaller patches of red and orange appear:

madrone-2

The bark peels and curls just as the bark of the closely-related manzanita does. It’s as if the outer bark conceals vital reddish flesh within:

madrone-3

This arboreal encounter made my day, and as I walked back my mind was filled with speculations. Why is there only one madrone growing on that entire expanse of canyon slope? Were there more at one time? Perhaps the species was favored by firewood-cutters back in the day?

I was almost home when I saw a familiar corner post, a section of telephone pole which someone had laboriously embedded in the rocky slope back when sure-footed cattle risked their lives for what little grass grows here. I stopped and examined the weathered top surface of the pine pole, which was pleasingly illuminated by the afternoon sun. The weathering process, mostly just strong sunlight, had abraded away the softer spring-wood portion of the annual rings, leaving ranks of sharp blades of summer-wood. A pleasant miniature landscape to explore for a while!

madrone-4

Larry

4 Comments

Filed under Arizona, Essays and Articles, Natural History, Photos

Forgive Us Our Trespasses

The Chihuahuan desert-scrub slopes around Bisbee, Arizona are a patchwork of private land and federal BLM properties. The private land is rarely marked and most of the land-owners are either absentee or don’t have a problem with people traversing their land.

The other day I was walking along a canyon slope north of town, trying to find a usable path. I’d find what looked like a trail but inevitably the path would peter out and become a deer and javelina trail. I was trying to avoid too-steep slopes, patches of thorny acacia, and thickets which can only be crawled through on hands and knees.

I paused and watched a coyote loping up a draw away from me. It looked over its shoulder from time to time to see what I was doing.

Some of the slopes are too steep to walk along, and many are covered with loose scree. Sometimes just getting up to a ridge-top is quite a feat of navigation.

I happened across a lot, a ledge which had most likely been blasted out during the copper-mining heyday. There might well have been a house on the lot at one time, but whatever access lane or set of steps which might have existed then was long gone.

Someone had expended energy on this forlorn lot at one time. A partially-finished concrete-block retaining wall curved across the downhill side of the lot, adding a bit more level area to the ledge, widening a minor notch in the canyon slope.

canyon-lot-1

I noticed that a pine tree had been planted in the earth retained by the wall. It was about thirty feet tall and had a trunk about a foot in diameter. I estimated that the tree was thirty or forty years old. It must have been planted after the retaining wall was built. That pine functions as a date marker. Whoever had plans for that lot was probably working on the wall back in the late ’60s or early 70’s.

What intrigued me about the tree was a rusty one-piece wheel-rim which encircled the trunk:

canyon-lot-2

The only conceivable way that wheel-rim could have gotten there is if the tree as a seedling had been planted within it. The rim was probably intended to protect the young tree from mowers and animals. In another decade or so the iron rim which protected the tree in its youth might doom it if a human doesn’t intervene with a cutting torch or hacksaw. There is a chance that the cambium layer will manage to creep around the wheel-rim and engulf it.

I was contemplating this tree and its possible fate when an elderly woman popped up over the hill and regarded me suspiciously.

“Can I help you?”, she said, a polite landowner’s code for “So just what are you doing here on MY property?”

I tried to explain my presence as best I could, that I was just walking by, taking photos, etc.

I said, “So this is your property?”

“Yes, we own this whole side of the canyon. Our house is right down there.”

She pointed to a house down the slope and near the street.

I said “Well, I’ll walk on, then.”

I imagine there have been very few trespassers on that lot, as it isn’t easy to get to! I later heard from a neighbor that the retired couple who own the property are rather territorial.

This happens to me every so often, but I’m not fazed. If someone wants me to stay off their turf they should put up a fence, or at least a sign!

Larry

4 Comments

Filed under Arizona, Essays and Articles, Photos

Canyon Oasis

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been caretaking a house in Wood Canyon, a pleasant job which involves watching after a dog named Frank. Frank is a friendly dog and he likes nothing more than walking, a proclivity which he and I share.

The geography of Bisbee’s streets and neighborhoods is topographically constrained. The town follows the winding course of Tombstone Canyon, while side-streets mostly follow tributary canyons, most of them feeding into the northeast side of Tombstone Canyon. The highest of the Mule Mountains lie on the opposite (southwest) side, and most of that steep land belongs to mining interests.

Wood Canyon Street is out of the way, up on the north side of town about a mile and a half from the busy and touristy downtown. The street’s cross-section is shaped like a very shallow V. During wet years (now a distant memory) water flows down from canyon slopes and forms a stream in the middle of the street.

A quiet street; I rarely see anyone walking down it. I suspect many of the residents are retired and don’t get out much.

If you walk up the street, as I have been doing every day, it turns into a driveway or lane. After that is the original rocky stream-bed. I wave to the rare resident upon whose property I’m trespassing in order to get beyond civilization. I think they know Frank as a resident dog, and if I’m with him I must be okay.

An aside: since I left Knox County, Missouri, I’ve spent uncounted hours trespassing upon other people’s property. Not once have I been ordered off or threatened in any way. I attribute this seeming luck to several factors. I’m not furtive, and if I see someone out (really, a rare circumstance) I approach the person and try to initiate a conversation. You can’t go wrong with “Nice place you have here!” as an opener.

Back to the walk — once the paved street had disappeared the first thing I encountered was the first of many check-dams constructed in these canyons during the 1930s. The WPA employed people to build these dams in order to slow the tumultuous and potentially disastrous flow of monsoon rain-water. Just think of it: an inch or more of rain cascading down from many canyons into the center of town! People got tired of the frequent floods and the word must have percolated up to the WPA administrators.

Dragon Rock, a spine of stone which juts from the canyon slope, was visible up above towards the left. I’d never noticed how crooked that formation is!

This dam is about the third one I encountered. It was originally a natural dam, but the WPA workers added a couple of feet to its height. As I approached it I could hear a pervasive buzzing sound. Insects of dozens of species were flocking to the gravel beds at the base of the dam, but why?

None of these insects, many of which were wicked-looking wasps and bees, seemed to notice my presence. Frank sighed and found a shady spot, doubtless thinking something like, “So much for this walk! Next he’ll be getting that damned camera out!”

I sat down on a rock and watched the insects’ activity. They seemed to be finding moisture, but the surface of the stream-bed was barely damp to the touch. There must be a seep, I thought. These tiny butterflies, one of the many species known as Blues, were present in the hundreds:

This tattered specimen of Arizona Sister was as avid for water as any of them. Surely its reproductive duties were done, and it would die soon, but I suppose the splendid weather affects insects as well as humans:

I’ve always been fond of the various butterfly species known as Painted Ladies. That afternoon the American Painted Ladies (Vanessa virginiensis) were out in full force. Such exquisite patterns on their wings! Note the twin eyespots on the ventral surfaces:

This beetle had eye-spots, too, and seemed just as thirsty as the others. The striped abdomen made me wonder if the species was imitating a bee or wasp as a camouflage defense:

I was rather surprised at how little attention the wasps and bees paid to me. I suppose that as long as you don’t approach their nests they don’t see people as a threat:

Finally I had my fill of sitting in the October sun photographing this congregation of disparate species. I stood up and Frank looked at me pleadingly, as if to say, “Enough, Larry! Let’s walk!”

Larry

5 Comments

Filed under Arizona, Essays and Articles, Natural History, Photos

Waves Of The Danube

Several years ago I happened across a tune, one of those melodies which crossed the Atlantic Ocean sometime during the 20th century. I can’t remember where I first heard it — probably the internet was involved.

I first knew the tune as “The Anniversary Song”. This tune was played as a fiddle duet by Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson, and I learned that the tune came from a song by Al Jolson.

Later I learned that the tune was written by the Romanian composer Iosif Ivanovici, and the original title is “The Waves Of The Danube”.

Here’s a sappy movie scene with that song:

I learned the tune on the fiddle and guitar, but then I was faced with the task of introducing the tune to the session musicians in Hannibal. The chord sequence is a bit more complex than the simple sequences in the fiddle tunes we normally played.

The tune became a favorite tune in the local sessions. I still enjoy playing it!

Larry

7 Comments

Filed under Essays and Articles, Music