A Swallowtail Stops By

Western Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

My photo above shows a beautiful example of the Western Tiger Swallowtail butterfly. This one spent a while in our front garden one afternoon earlier this week. These are very large butterflies; the wingspan of this one was about four inches.

Normally, although large and easy to see, these butterflies refuse to keep still for more than a moment, with the result that it’s almost impossible to get a good photograph of them. In this case, however, this individual seemed very happy to take its time and rest while feeding, so I was able to obtain a sharp image.

An Abundance of Butterflies

When I first set foot in California over thirty years ago (as described in an earlier post), it was a warm October and I was staying at a hotel in suburban San Mateo.

I really hadn’t thought much about the local wildlife here before making the journey, but I did expect it to be different from that in England. Among the first examples that I noticed were huge, brightly-colored butterflies, which were commonly to be seen flitting between flowers, even in fairly urban settings.

Of course, butterflies are common in England too, and many are brightly-colored, but those California species were particularly noticeable because of their size.

Below is another photo of the same Swallowtail.

Western Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

A California Sister

Another native species of butterfly that appeared in our garden a few years ago, and which stayed still long enough to be photographed, was this slightly-bedraggled California Sister.

California Sister Butterfly

California’s most famous butterfly is perhaps the Monarch, notable because of its habit of migrating en masse. Although I’ve seen many of those over the years, none have yet stayed sufficiently still to be photographed by me! Nonetheless, I’ll just keep trying.

Western Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

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

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

Strange Sights in Sebastopol

 

Cat-Themed Road Sign in Sebastopol

Cat-Themed Road Sign in Sebastopol

Just a few miles to the west of our house is the small city of Sebastopol. There are sometimes strange things to see in Sebastopol, as I confirmed last week when, while driving along Main Street there, I spotted a huge traffic sign that immediately reminded me of our cat, Ginger (Tom).

The real Ginger is in fact no stranger to car travel, as seen below in San Francisco, during a visit that I described in an earlier post!

Ginger in the City

Ginger in the City

The city name Sebastopol perhaps seems surprising for California, and you could be forgiven for thinking that there must be a connection to the one-time Russian settlements along the California coast. However, those settlements were further north, having never reached further south than Fort Ross. In any case, by the time that Sebastopol came to be so named, during the 1850s, the Russians had already abandoned Fort Ross.

In fact, it seems that the name Sebastopol was chosen as a result of a local bar fight that reminded locals of the contemporary Siege of Sebastopol! The California settlement, which had originally been called Pinegrove, came to be known by the new name, and was incorporated under that name in 1902.

During the late nineteenth century, the area around Sebastopol developed into a major center for the growing of fruit and vegetables. Nowadays, most of the local crop consists of grapes for the wine trade, but back then a much wider variety of fruits were cultivated. One variety of apple that became very popular in the district was the Gravenstein (although it’s no longer a popular variety today).

The image below shows a real fruit label, probably from the mid-twentieth century, which I found in a local antique store. Although the apples shown on the label are not identified as Gravensteins, they probably were.

Kikuchi Apples Label

Kikuchi Apples Label

Move it by Rail

In those days, the usual way to preserve produce was to can it (since, even when refrigerated transport was available, most homes still did not have refrigerators), and the best way to ship it over any appreciable distance was of course by rail. Inevitably, therefore, railway lines were laid to Sebastopol. The first was the San Francisco & North Pacific Railroad, which eventually became the North Western Pacific (NWP). Their branch from Santa Rosa reached the town in 1890.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a rival railroad called the Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railroad (P&SR) was proposed, including service to Sebastopol on its main line, the plan being for this to be an electrically-operated interurban network. Not surprisingly, the NWP violently opposed the construction of the P&SR, leading to the locally-famed Battle of Sebastopol Road in 1904.

Eventually, however, the P&SR was completed, the rival railroads learned to co-exist, and both served the people and industries of Sebastopol.

Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railroad

The P&SR station (depot) in Sebastopol faced onto Main Street, because the railroad itself ran down the middle of Main Street for some distance. The depot building was actually in the middle of a rail “wye” where the P&SR branch to Santa Rosa joined the main line between Petaluma and Forestville (which, thanks to the intervention of the 1906 earthquake, was as far north as the P&SR ever reached).

Fortunately, even though all the remaining railroads in the city were abandoned in 1983, and the rails removed shortly thereafter, the final depot building and nearby powerhouse have survived.

The final P&SR depot building, which was built in 1917 from stone quarried at the nearby Stony Point Quarry, has become the West County Museum. The museum is open to the public 4 afternoons per week, and displays various exhibits related to Sebastopol and its railroads.

The photo below shows the former depot facing Main Street. The P&SR main line ran along the middle of the street in the foreground, and the branches of the wye heading for Santa Rosa joined that line on either side of the building.

Former P&SR Rail Depot, Sebastopol

Former P&SR Rail Depot, Sebastopol

Immediately behind the depot building, on what appears to be a surviving short section of one of the storage tracks, is a former Pacific Fruit Express refrigerator car. Apparently, this box car now houses the museum’s stored collections, hence the steps visible in the photo below.

Refrigerator Car at P&SR Depot, Sebastopol

Refrigerator Car at P&SR Depot, Sebastopol

The former P&SR powerhouse, which was built from the same stone as the depot, has now become the very popular Hop Monk Tavern, as shown below.

Former P&SR Power House, Sebastopol

Former P&SR Power House, Sebastopol

All Change at Gravenstein

About a quarter-mile east of the surviving P&SR railroad depot is the site of the NWP’s depot and freight yard, where there was a substantial array of sidings serving the local canneries and industries. There’s nothing left of this complex, but, on the site of part of the sidings, a modern shopping center was built during the 1980s.

The shopping center is called Gravenstein Station, and incorporates various features that commemorate its railroad heritage. From the road, you can see what appears to be the end of a railroad carriage sticking out of the building, as shown in my photo below.

Another Strange Sight: Gravenstein Station

Another Strange Sight: Gravenstein Station

At first, I assumed that this carriage must be a fake, since it’s clearly too close to the ground to be standing on a track. However, on looking at it more closely, inside the building (as shown below), it seems that it must be the body of a real Southern Pacific dining car, now used as a restaurant. Presumably the body was removed from the chassis because it was too high for the building.

Gravenstein Station: Former  SP Dining Car

Gravenstein Station: Former SP Dining Car

Also inside Gravenstein Station is a former Southern Pacific caboose, this time complete with its chassis and standing on a section of track. As shown in the photo below, it now houses a florist shop.

Gravenstein Station: Former  SP Caboose

Gravenstein Station: Former SP Caboose

Across the road from Gravenstein Station, on the site of the former NWP depot, is the Barlow shopping and office center, as shown below. The line of the NWP track to its depot approximately followed the line of cars parked in front of the building.

The Barlow, Sebastopol

The Barlow, Sebastopol

Sebastopol is an intriguing little community that has succeeded in making the most of its location in California’s fertile Wine Country, and is well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

Cat-Themed Road Sign in Sebastopol

Cat-Themed Road Sign in Sebastopol

California’s Petrified Forest

"The Queen": a Live Oak growing through Fossilized Redwood at the Petrified Forest

“The Queen”: a Live Oak growing through Fossilized Redwood at the Petrified Forest

The photo above, which I took during a visit to California’s Petrified Forest, shows the interesting juxtaposition of a live tree growing through the trunk of a fossilized tree.

I mentioned in an earlier post that, before I ever visited California, my ideas of the state had been seriously distorted by representations in British media. As a result, I thought that the Napa Valley must surely be a desert with rows of vines growing arbitrarily in it! Similarly, my view of a “petrified forest” was that it must be a group of blasted trunks standing in an arid landscape.

As you can see in these pictures, the California petrified forest, which is situated in the mountains between Santa Rosa and Calistoga, bears no resemblance to my naïve expectation. On the contrary, the petrified trees are in the middle of a living forest.

The land in which the forest is situated is privately-owned, but can be visited at specified times, and on purchase of tickets. Full details of the forest’s history can be found here, at the owners’ official web site. The fossils were created by what must have been a devastating volcanic eruption of Mount Saint Helena, about 3.4 million years ago. The remains of Mount Saint Helena are still plainly visible from the forest’s location, as shown below.

Mount Saint Helena, seen from the Petrified Forest

Mount Saint Helena, seen from the Petrified Forest

Many of the trees caught in the eruption were species of redwood, which is historically interesting because redwoods are not now to be found so far inland. It’s unclear whether the change was due to altered climate, or to a change in the actual position of the California coastline. The photo below shows a closeup of a living oak tree, growing through the fossilized trunk of a redwood known as “The Queen”.

"The Queen": trunk of Fossilized Redwood

“The Queen”: trunk of Fossilized Redwood

Many other species of tree have been discovered in fossilized form among the redwoods, including one pine tree, oaks, alders, spruces, firs, and so on. The photo below shows living manzanita bushes (with red bark) growing among the moss-covered stumps of fossilized trees.

PetrifiedForest2Cright

Manzanitas growing next to Fossilized Stumps

Following the volcanic eruption, the entire area must have been barren, but most of it is now covered with modern vegetation. However, some of the ash deposited during the eruption is still uncovered today, and little grows in it. Part of one of these “ash fields” is visible below.

Part of the remaining Ash Field

Part of the remaining Ash Field

The fossilized forest was discovered in 1870, and its fame soon spread. In 1880, the author Robert Louis Stevenson spent his honeymoon nearby (writing about it in his book The Silverado Squatters), and one of the fossilized redwoods is now named for him, as below.

The Robert Louis Stevenson Tree

The Robert Louis Stevenson Tree

You can take a docent-guided tour around the forest, or else stroll around at your leisure. The tour covers about half a mile, and it’s not particularly difficult, but it’s probably best to avoid taking it during the hottest or wettest weather!

If you’re ever visiting Wine Country, then the Petrified Forest is worth a visit. The site was closed temporarily for cleanup following last year’s fires, but is now open again.

Fireworks from the Wine Train

Wine Train Dining Car with Mary

Wine Train Dining Car with Mary

For the Fourth of July this year, Mary and I decided to have dinner on the Napa Valley Wine Train once again. The photo above shows Mary in one of the train’s dining cars, just as it was getting dark and we were preparing to watch the firework display from the train.

The “Wine Train” is a tourist meal excursion that, since 1989, has operated from Napa to St. Helena and back on the tracks of the old Napa Valley Railroad. The line originally ran from Napa Junction to Calistoga, but had been cut back to St. Helena in 1960. In 1987, when the Southern Pacific Railroad decided to abandon the remaining tracks, a local business group stepped up to buy the line and operate it as a tourist railroad.

The Yountville Stop

Generally, the dinner trains run nightly up and down the line, but it’s simply a round trip with dinner, because you usually can’t disembark in St. Helena. Once a year, however, on the Fourth of July, the train makes an extra stop outside the Yountville Veterans’ Home, which provides a public firework show. Passengers can watch the fireworks from the comfort of the train, and it is perhaps a unique way to enjoy the display without the inconveniencies of sitting outdoors at night.

The photo below shows the Yountville Veterans’ Home before dark, taken from the northbound train.

Yountville Veterans' Home from the Wine Train

Yountville Veterans’ Home from the Wine Train

The photo below shows a typical vineyard view from the train. This is the V Sattui Winery. The roses at the end of each row of vines are intended to keep aphids off the grapes.

V Sattui Winery from the Wine Train

V Sattui Winery from the Wine Train

Turnaround in St. Helena

When the train reaches St. Helena, the locomotive must run around for the return journey. This year, for the first time since we’ve been taking trips on the Wine Train, our motive power was not a pair of Alco FPA-4s, but instead GP20 #48, on lease from the Sierra Railroad. Currently, the owners of the Wine Train are refurbishing much of the rolling stock, which has necessitated leasing stock from elsewhere.

Locomotive #48 is shown below as it ran past our carriage.

Sierra Railroad #48 at St. Helena

Sierra Railroad #48 at St. Helena

The photo below, taken at St. Helena during our 2016 visit, shows one of the FPA-4s more traditionally associated with the Wine Train.

Alco FPA-4 at St. Helena

Alco FPA-4 at St. Helena

Eventually we arrived back at Yountville after dark, the train halted, and we settled in to enjoy the fireworks. The photo below shows a typical scene, shot from inside the train.

Fireworks at Yountville, 2018

Fireworks at Yountville, 2018

I’d just bought a new Nikon camera, which features a “fireworks mode”, so this was an excellent opportunity to try that out. I was very pleased with the results.

An Excellent Dinner

I should add that our dinners on the train were excellent. In “special dining” situations such as this, the quality of food and service sometimes leaves something to be desired. In the early days of the Wine Train (during the 1990s), the food was not always outstanding, but our recent dinners on the trains have been perfect.