January, 2006 Archive

Snow

Friday, January 6th, 2006

I promised not to indulge the journaler’s vice, writing about writing. But I’ve lagged for two weeks now, and the longer delay the harder to start, so I drag myself to this window with a scolding. How can I expect students to fulfill this assignment if I can’t? How can I fail my own admired teachers, Thoreau, Wordsworth, Austin, Oliver?

My first seven months of retirement concluded with our Christmas trip to see grandson, Ethan, daughter-in-law Amy and son Joe, in the gorgeous new home he built in Sun Valley Idaho. Jan observed that his lifestyle blends his hippie childhood in British Columbia with his adolescence in Palo Alto, where we lived while I finished my doctorate and she attended law school.

The first couple of days there the temperature hovered around freezing. Cold rain alternated with falls of the largest thickest snowflakes I’d ever seen.


One late afternoon Ethan and I trudged through the foot-thick fresh cover to the creek and stared up as the grey flakes fell like cotton candy into our open mouths. They were so sticky they held to the surfaces they touched and to one another without compacting, sometimes leaving spaces that light passed through.

Next morning the temperature dropped and the sun came out. Joe was eager to ski the fresh powder at the top of the mountain. I stayed on the groomed slopes and watched the less adhesive crystals at high altitude blowing in the wind on the ridge top and the surrounding summits. They reminded me of the “snow banners” described lovingly by John Muir in chapter 3 of The Mountains of California.


Muir surmises that the powdery consistency that allows the snow crystals to be driven by the wind results from their crystalline hooks being ground off in the turbulence at high altitude. However, according to Snowcrystals.com, the reason why

…is still not known, believe it or not. The different ice facets grow at different rates in different temperatures, and to date we don’t really know why the growth rates depend so strongly on temperature. The growth depends on exactly how water vapor molecules are incorporated into the growing ice crystal, and the physics behind this is quite complex and not well understood. It is the subject of current research in my lab and elsewhere.

The celebrity resort of Sun Valley, with its $70 per day ski lifts and chandelier-bedecked mountaintop lodges is not where I’d have expected to spend holiday time. But the magnet of family and also the splendor of its outdoor recreation opportunities overcome my scruples about the conspicuous consumption of resources and the inequity of wealth distribution that the place represents.

The same weather system that was making life beautiful for skiers and resort owners in the Rockies lengthened our return trip home on the last day of 2005 to fourteen hours. We got back just in time for the ECOSLO bash in the Vets Hall that Jan had helped to organize, to celebrate a New Year’s Eve more hopeful than the last one.

Hazzardous Waste

Friday, January 6th, 2006

Yesterday morning I went to the Hazardous Waste Disposal Site in Cold Canyon Landfill that’s only open 11-3 on Fridays and Saturdays. The cardboard box of half-filled bottles and cans stashed in the garage–Diazanon, Malathion, ant-killer, Miracle-Grow–got soggy from the rain that seeped between the concrete wall and floor during last week’s storms. I had felt good about not using all these poisons since converting to native plants several years ago, but I never finished cleaning house because I didnt want to get near the toxic stuff any more.

I put on my gloves, transferred the frightening mess to a plastic carton and drove out Broad Street under a fresh sky brightened with puffy clouds. At Buckley Road a big pickup turned onto the highway in front of me stuffed with trash and sporting a huge confederate flag fluttering on a pole fastened to the tailgate. Concentrating the winter sunlight, its scintillating red field dominated the beautiful Edna Valley landscape and steadily increased my irritation. My head filled with challenges: “So you’re a big fan of slavery?” “You’re celebrating traffic in human beings.” “How about if you were the property rather than the owner?” When the driver moved into the left lane as if to turn on Corbett Canyon Road, I fantasized giving him the finger as I drove by but thought better of it as he moved back in front of me, clearly sharing the destination of the dump. I imagined the hostility and pain that might have been felt by an African-American staffing the landfill gate.

I followed the signs leading toward the shed where the poisons were to be left and watched the attendant dressed in white coveralls lifting a 48 inch television set on his forklift and dropping it with a crash onto a mountain of electronic detritus filling up an enormous dumpster. Five years ago somebody must have paid thousands of dollars for that half-ton item, giving it pride of place in the family home. Now it was just another piece of junk that needed to be processed at government expense. I remembered my earlier visit here with the old monitors and printers accumulated in my garage that no recycler could handle. The day before, at the Sierra Club office I discovered that installing the Quickbooks software necessary to handle our complicated non-profit financial statements required an upgrade to the operating system, which in turn required replacing the computer we had purchased only three years ago.