Happy Valentine’s Day for 2019

Mary herding Cats in Wabasha

Mary herding Cats in Wabasha

Some of you may already know that my wife, Mary, is a volunteer at the Humane Society of Sonoma County, where she spends many hours looking after cats that are brought into the shelter. She specializes in helping feral cats, including those infected with ringworm (which have to be quarantined until they have been cured). She does wonderful work for the society, and has nursed many cats back to health, and then helped to find great homes for them.

However, the photo above does not show Mary at the Humane Society. I took it many years ago when we were both staying at the Anderson House Hotel in Wabasha, Minnesota. In those days, the Anderson House was famous for keeping a large number of cats, which could be “loaned out” to guests to sleep in their rooms! In the photo, I think Mary was in the process of deciding which cat we’d like to “borrow” for our stay, which was a difficult decision!

Unfortunately, although you can still stay at the Anderson House Hotel, the cats are no longer available there.

Celebrate the Day

Today is, of course, Valentine’s Day, so it seems appropriate to talk a little more about the “love of my life”. Mary has been helping cats (and other animals) for many years.

When we lived in San Mateo during the 1990s, we were members of an organization called the Homeless Cat Network. As members, we fostered many cats and kittens, eventually finding new homes for them. The photo below shows one of our success stories; an extremely shy kitten named Natasha, for whom (along with her sister Nicole) we found a great new home with a loving couple in San Francisco.

Mary with Foster Kitten Natasha

Mary with Foster Kitten Natasha

In my post for Valentine’s Day last year, I described how Mary and I met. We’ve now been together for nearly 30 years, and I’m really glad to be able to celebrate another Valentine’s Day with her!

I love you, Mary!

Mary herding Cats in Wabasha

Mary herding Cats in Wabasha

The Super Blood Wolf Moon Appears

 

Eclipse Ending

Eclipse Ending

The photo above shows last Sunday’s Super Blood Wolf Moon, as unexpectedly seen from our house. I realize that, by now, everyone is probably sick of hearing about that event, but the fact that I was able to photograph it at all came as something of a surprise. The US media certainly loved the name, which sounds like the title of a really bad horror film!

In an attempt to provide a little variety, I chose this photo as my header, because it depicts the latter phase of the eclipse, when Earth’s shadow was in the process of moving off the face of the moon. You can also see some thin high cloud drifting around, which provides an interesting effect.

We had heavy rain here for most of Sunday, so we really didn’t anticipate being able to see the eclipse at all. However, just as the moon was beginning to darken, the sky cleared temporarily, so I rushed out with my camera to capture whatever I could.

Unfortunately, although the “Moon Mode” on the camera works well for handheld shots when the moon is at full brightness, the dimmed moon really requires the camera to be on a tripod, which I didn’t have available, hence the jitteriness of some of these shots.

The photo below shows a zoomed-out view of the moon from in front of our house. In addition to the orange moon itself, you may just be able to make out the stars Castor and Pollux (in the constellation Gemini), above and to the left of the moon.

Blood Moon with Castor and Pollux

Blood Moon with Castor and Pollux

Here’s an enlarged version of the center of that photograph, which hopefully will make the stars easier to spot.

Detail of the Moon and Stars

Detail of the Moon and Stars

The photo below shows a closer view of the eclipsed moon itself, although rather unsteady because of the lack of a tripod.

An Orange Moon

An Orange Moon

While it’s true that I saw just the same event that millions of others saw that night, I really wasn’t expecting to see anything, so the opportunity came as a pleasant surprise.

The next similar event won’t occur until May 2021, so of course it won’t be a “Wolf Moon” on that occasion.

Eclipse Ending

Eclipse Ending

Winter Solstice, the Full Cold Moon, & A Happy New Year

The Moon and Orion over our House

The Moon and Orion over our House

Last week’s Winter Solstice almost exactly coincided with the Full Moon, so I went outside after dark to see whether I could obtain any worthwhile photographs. One of the photos I came back with is shown above, a remarkable view that includes our house (all lit up!), with the moon partially shown at the top, and the constellation Orion clearly visible in between. It’s all the more remarkable because I didn’t use a tripod; this is just a handheld shot. You can even see wisps of high cloud drifting across the night sky.

Moon Mode

I have no pretensions to being a professional photographer (because it’s too competitive; see * below), so I don’t invest in “professional grade” equipment. In the past, my attempts at shots of the moon have been thoroughly disappointing, usually resulting in nothing but a blurry white blob.

My new Nikon B700 camera, however, has a “Moon Mode”. I must admit that I was skeptical about this; many digital cameras have these faddish “modes” that often seem to be useless in real-life situations. However, I had tried the “Fireworks Mode” back in July (as shown in this previous post), with good results, so I thought I’d give “Moon Mode” a try.

* About 30 years ago, I attended a class on “glamour photography” at the Learning Annex in San Francisco. The class tutor, who was himself a professional photographer, explained to us how to succeed in that field. He told us, “I’m often asked my secret of my success, which is very simple; you just need to have a spouse who can support both of you”!

The Full Cold Moon

The results of using Moon Mode, as you can see here, were truly amazing. The photo below is a closeup of the almost-full moon taken at the same time as the shot above, showing spectacular detail. It’s not pin-sharp, but bear in mind that this is not taken through a telescope, nor even with a tripod; it’s just a handheld shot with a standard digital camera!

Almost-Full Moon at the Solstice

Almost-Full Moon at the Solstice

The actual full moon occurred about 24 hours after the Solstice, but I’m glad I didn’t wait, because, the following night, there was high hazy cloud here, so I could not have taken any usable photos.

Apparently, some Native Americans call the December full moon the “Full Cold Moon”, for obvious reasons. The coincidence of the Winter Solstice with a Full Moon is a relatively rare event, which won’t happen again until 2094, by which time I strongly doubt that I’ll be around to notice it! Thus, this was my last chance to record the event.

Moon Mode HDR

I had actually tested Moon Mode earlier on, at Thanksgiving, when we had some interesting views of an almost-full moon through clouds. While experimenting, I took the photo below from our front garden. Amazingly, there is an HDR effect whereby you can still see the moon through the clouds in the distance, and at the same time the lighting on our street.

A Cloud-Covered Moon at Thanksgiving

A Cloud-Covered Moon at Thanksgiving

The view above would certainly never have been possible with a film camera, at least without extensive compositing of multiple exposures.

The photo below shows the Thanksgiving almost-full moon, again without the use of a tripod.

Harvest Moon

Harvest Moon

I don’t know why the moon looks more orange in this photo than in the more recent example. It’s probably just a color-balance issue in the camera. Nonetheless, the crater shadow detail on the portion of the moon that is experiencing sunrise (top right) is truly astonishing.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year to all of you for 2019!

The Moon and Orion over our House

The Moon and Orion over our House

Do We Need A White Christmas?

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

The photo above was taken by my father during the severe winter of 1962-63, and shows me using our coal shovel to “help” clear snow from our front garden in Scarborough. Today marks the Winter Solstice here, so it seems like a good moment to reflect on something that many people seem to hope for at this time of year.

As the photo above demonstrates, some of my earliest memories of this time of year were associated with snow. This was largely because the winter depicted in the image was the coldest in Britain since 1895, a record which has still not been broken in the part of the country in which I was living.

As a result of that experience, as I grew up, I tended to assume that Christmases should be snowy, and I was most disappointed in later years when there was not only no snow on Christmas Day, but it was actually even sunny!

As I grew more mature, of course, I realized that my expectation was not particularly reasonable, and that it had in fact been instilled by episodes of weather that were anomalous, coupled with myths about what Christmas was supposed to be like.

Last weekend, I attended a “Holiday Soundtracks” concert by Michael Berkowitz at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa where we heard, once again and as we do every year, melodies proclaiming the desirability of a “White Christmas”. The photo below shows a view of the concert.

LutherBurbankCenterXmasSoundtracks1

Holiday Soundtracks, Santa Rosa

In a pre-show discussion, Berkowitz himself pointed out the irony of a “Christmas” show being presented by a Jewish conductor, and indeed several of the writers of those famous songs were also Jewish.

The origin of my own childhood views about snowy holidays are obvious to me, but the concert led me once again to consider why so many other people should also want this end-of-year festival to be “white”, that is, to have snow on the ground.

A Northern European Tradition

Presumably the source of the association of the Yuletide festival with snow was that most of its traditions originated in Northern Europe, where there was usually snow at this time of year.

Later, in North America, many of the regions that were settled earliest by European peoples also experienced snowy winters, so those traditions continued.

In the Southern Hemisphere, of course, it’s Summer at this time of year, so the idea of a “White Christmas” makes little sense in many places. However, even in Australia, there are high-altitude ski resorts where you can experience snow in mid-summer if you really want to, as described in this article.

Maintaining the Myths

Many blame the media for propagating the myth of the desirability of a snowy holiday, as in this Boston Globe article. There is also the ever-popular Santa Claus myth, which includes the idea of his living at the North Pole.

When I discovered the truth about “Father Christmas”, after my mother admitted it to me when I was about 8 years old, I was actually quite angry that she had conspired with my father to deceive me for so long!

Snow in London

After leaving my home town, I attended university in London, and lived there for several years. The climate in London is only slightly milder than that in Northern England, so of course it also snows in London during the winter.

I took the photo below, of the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, during my first winter as a London student.

AlbertMemorialSnow1981Cright

Albert Memorial, London, in Snow, 1981

There’s no question that it’s a pretty scene, but getting around in the city after a snowstorm wasn’t necessarily any fun. The snow quickly turned to dirty slush, which would often then refreeze overnight, creating black ice the following morning. Travel became unusually difficult and dangerous.

As I’ve said so many times since then, it’s great to be able to look at a snowy landscape, as long as you don’t have to go anywhere in it!

Snow in California

If anyone had asked me before I came here whether it snows in California, I may well have replied “No”, but I’d have been very wrong. At the higher elevations in the state, such as the Sierra Nevada, it snows every winter. In the lowland elevations where I live, however, it almost never snows. For example, I lived on the San Francisco Peninsula for about 20 years, and during that time it only snowed once at our house (and only very lightly), although we could sometimes see snow on the surrounding peaks.

The elevation of land in California ranges from sea level to about 14,000 feet above sea level, so the state has a corresponding variety of climates. Contrast that with the highest elevation in Britain, at about 4,400 feet, which is the peak of a mountain (Ben Nevis), while the whole of Lake Tahoe in California lies at 6,225 feet.

Thus, if I were to decide now that I would like a “White Christmas”, all I have to do is to get in my car and drive up to the Sierras. It’s nice to feel that, although I don’t need snow for the holiday, I have the option of it if I choose!

The photo below shows a typical local California view, taken near Cotati, on the occasion of the Winter Solstice in 2014. There’s mist over the hills, but no snow anywhere nearby.

Winter Solstice, Cotati, California

Winter Solstice, Cotati, California

Let It Go

If you happen to live somewhere that does not have snow at this time of year, then perhaps it will help to realize that its desirability is actually just a myth, and that there are actually definite benefits to a holiday without such weather!

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

2018 Yuletide Cards are On the Way

Winter Woodpecker: Ink & Watercolor

Winter Woodpecker: Ink & Watercolor

As of today, all our Yuletide cards are on the way to their recipients (or at least they will be when the USPS picks them up tomorrow!). My artwork for the card design is shown above. Naturally, the copyright notice does not appear on the card itself; it is included here only so that my artwork does not mysteriously become someone else’s design without my permission!

Mary and I discussed whether a Woodpecker was a “seasonal” bird, then we discovered that the USPS had already issued a set of stamps called “Winter Birds”, which included a woodpecker (albeit not a Downy Woodpecker)!

 

Yuletide Label Artwork for 2018

Seasonal Woodpeckers

Seasonal Woodpeckers

The image above is artwork that I just completed for the return labels on our 2018 Yuletide cards. As you can see, this year we’re going to have a “Downy Woodpecker” theme!

As with last year’s artwork (seen here), I used Corel Draw to create it. I should perhaps explain that, when it appears on the actual labels, the drawing is much reduced in size (less than one inch wide), so there’s no point in adding too much detail to it.

I had already created the main card artwork before I started working on this label graphic, to ensure that the card design would be sent to the printer as early as possible! I’ll post that artwork on my blog as soon as we send out the cards, which hopefully will be during this week.

I must admit that my own photographs of Downy Woodpeckers are not very good at all, because the birds have a frustrating habit of hiding around the back of the tree just when I’m ready to take the picture, as shown below.

A Shy Downy Woodpecker

A Shy Downy Woodpecker

Fortunately, I have several books describing California birds, and the internet is a rich source of reference photos, so it wasn’t too difficult to find images that are more helpful than mine!

[Update 12/9/18: After reducing the size of the artwork to fit the return labels, I noticed that the stylized tree in the center was unrecognizable. Therefore, I adapted the design to show a stylized cracker. I realize that many outside the UK may not be familiar with crackers, but it is more seasonal! Naturally, the artwork on the labels does not include the copyright notices.]

Seasonal Woodpeckers

Seasonal Woodpeckers

Thanksgiving in Sonoma (Again)

Sonoma Plaza & City Hall, Thanksgiving 2018

Sonoma Plaza & City Hall, Thanksgiving 2018

Yesterday, we traveled again to Sonoma for Thanksgiving dinner, which is how we’ve celebrated the occasion for the past few years. My photo above shows Sonoma Plaza lit up for the holidays. The large red letters spelling “LOVE” are a new addition this year.

One other difference that you may notice, relative to my Thanksgiving post last year, is that the roads in the photo above are wet. The rainy season started late this year, but we’re very glad that it has finally arrived, to wash away the lingering smoke from the Camp Fire, and also hopefully to extinguish the remains of that terrible fire.

The photo below, taken from our bedroom window earlier in the day, shows a mixture of sun and rain as showers passed overhead. The view was brightened by the fact that the leaves on our ginkgo tree have just turned yellow. Unfortunately, the view was also marred by the work going on around the park (on the left) to remove and replace trees.

Rain, Sun & Autumn Leaves

Rain, Sun & Autumn Leaves

Sonoma’s Historic Plaza

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, Sonoma is today a rather small and quite sleepy city, but was once the military center of Mexican Alta California. It was probably for that reason that it became the hub of the Bear Flag Revolt, which led to California’s becoming independent of Mexico, and then soon after joining the United States.

I took the 2 photos below yesterday evening, with the wet roads reflecting the street lights. The first photo shows the northwest corner of the Plaza. On the right is the Swiss Hotel, which dates back to Mexican colonial days, having been built circa 1836 as a home for the brother of General Vallejo, who was one of the last Comandantes of Mexican Alta California, and went on to become a prominent citizen of the new US state of California.

Immediately to the left of the Swiss Hotel, where now stands the apartment building shown below, stood the main military barracks.

Sonoma Plaza, Northwest Corner

Sonoma Plaza, Northwest Corner

The second photo shows the north end of the Plaza itself, which until 1890 was the site of the city’s railroad depot. The main line ran along the road on the left, and the locomotive turntable was in the square, approximately where the tree lights are in the photo. Local property owners sued the railroad, and eventually forced the removal of the tracks and the depot several blocks northwards. The depot building was physically dragged all the way from this location to its present site.

Sonoma Plaza. Site of Railroad Depot

Sonoma Plaza. Site of Railroad Depot

If you celebrate Thanksgiving, then I hope you had an enjoyable one this year! If you’re not celebrating Thanksgiving, then I hope you enjoy your Black Friday, which now seems to have been embraced in many countries outside the US!

Sonoma Plaza & City Hall, Thanksgiving 2018

Sonoma Plaza & City Hall, Thanksgiving 2018