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

Centenary of the Great War Armistice

St Clement Danes Church, London

St Clement Danes Church, London

The photo above, which I took during an early visit to London, shows the RAF memorial church of St Clement Danes. The building was completely destroyed during the Second World War, and fully restored in 1958, to act as a war memorial for the Air Force.

As most people are probably aware, today (11th November 2018) marks the centenary of the end of the First World War (known earlier as the Great War). There has been and continues to be much debate about the causes of that devastating war, and the issue will probably never be completely settled. What does seem clear is that, in those days, many European nations saw warfare as a satisfactory way to resolve disputes or gain territory, and had created detailed plans defining exactly whom they were going to attack and how. Their autocratic leaders were really just “spoiling for a fight”, and were supremely (but mistakenly) confident that they could win a swift, decisive victory.

It seems clear now that, if the conflict hadn’t been sparked by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a Yugoslav nationalist, then some other equally parochial incident would have served as the trigger.

The situation was made more volatile by the nationalistic attitudes of the general populations, who tended to see war as a spectator sport. Many were quite prepared to sit happily on the sidelines and cheer as their “team” slogged it out with the opposition. Warfare had usually been conducted that way for centuries, but all that was to change as the Great War turned into “total war”, involving substantial portions of the civilian populations.

The Invasion of Leeds?

Of course, I’m not nearly old enough to have lived through the First World War, let alone remember anything about it. However, my father was 5 years old when the war began in 1914, and he did have some memories of the time.

His family lived in Leeds, Yorkshire, which is some 60 miles from the coast of the North Sea, and thus was not likely to be in any direct danger from enemy action. Nonetheless, my father’s mother was apparently certain of an immediate German invasion, and insisted upon placing sandbags around the house on the outbreak of war! Apparently, even then, not everyone believed that the war would take place on faraway fields.

Raid on Scarborough

My home town of Scarborough became a flashpoint during the First World War, after being subjected to a German naval raid during December 1914. That attack was characterized as a brazen assault on civilians (and it’s difficult to see how it could have served much other purpose), and had the presumably-unintended consequence of offering a major propaganda opportunity for the Allied nations.

During the bombardment, Scarborough’s lighthouse was one of many buildings that were hit and damaged, but it was subsequently repaired, as shown in my photo below.

Scarborough Lighthouse, 2007

Scarborough Lighthouse, 2007

British illustrator Frank Patterson, whom I’ve mentioned in a previous post on my professional web site, normally avoided propaganda-style artwork. Apparently, however, he was so incensed by the attack on Scarborough that he produced the illustration below, showing a thunderous Kaiser glowering at the town from over the horizon.

Scarborough from the Moors, 1914. Copyright Frank Patterson

Scarborough from the Moors, 1914. Copyright Frank Patterson

A Changed World

Whatever its actual causes and motivations, there can be no doubt that the First World War changed the course of history very significantly, and not only in terms of international relations and territorial dominance.

The war essentially spelled the end of the colonial empires created by European powers during the preceding few centuries. Admittedly, some empires (such as the British and French) clung on for a few more decades, but the new order of affairs was already being set up at the end of the First War.

On the social level, agreements made during the War led to women eventually obtaining the right to vote in several countries, such as Britain. From the modern perspective, it seems astonishing that such a development took so long, and no sane, educated person would now suggest that women should not have such a right.

The First World War was undoubtedly a disaster of immense proportions, but some social good did eventually come of it.

St Clement Danes Church, London

St Clement Danes Church, London

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

The Tower by the Bay

The Tower by the Bay, 1976

The Tower by the Bay, 1976

I completed the painting above during 1976, but not at school. I apologize for the poor quality; not only has the poster paint I used decayed over time, but the painting was also folded into four at some point!

The scene depicted is completely imaginary, and doesn’t attempt to represent any real place. I’m not sure why I chose to do this particular work at home; perhaps I just felt that my schoolteachers would demand to know what it was supposed to represent, and I wouldn’t be able to explain!

Today (October 25th) is International Artist Day, so I thought it appropriate to feature some of my artwork in this post, even if it’s not of “professional” standard on this occasion.

If my painting above represents anything, then I suppose that it was intended to show my “ideal location”, from my viewpoint as a teenager. Looking closely, the “tower block” in the image has a sign on the side saying “Europa”, so presumably it was supposed to be a hotel somewhere in Europe. At that age, I had no experience of independent living, so it probably seemed to me that the only alternative to living with my parents was to stay in a hotel!

The city on the horizon, with its illuminated seaside promenade, is of course loosely based on views of my home town of Scarborough (as shown below in my 1977 photo). However, at that time, there were no modern “tower blocks” such as the one in my painting near the sea in Scarborough (although there was such a building—Ebor House—in the nearby resort of Bridlington, which was in the news just recently for the wrong reasons).

Scarborough South Bay at Night, 1977

Scarborough South Bay at Night, 1977

I seem to have spent a lot of time detailing the interiors of the rooms in the hotel, which I could have avoided simply by painting the curtains closed!

Slightly more than ten years after I painted the image above, I unexpectedly found myself in a seaside location that reminded me of that imaginary scene, although it was not anywhere in Europe.

Realizing the Dream

The photo below, which I took during my first visit to California in October 1987, shows the Metro Tower in Foster City, as seen from one of the lagoon bridges. At that time, the Metro Tower, which had only just been completed, had the distinction of being the tallest building between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Foster City, California, in 1987

Foster City, California, in 1987

During the first evening that I arrived in California, I found myself very disoriented, because I thought that the tower and lagoon in front of it were facing westwards towards the Pacific Ocean. In fact, Foster City faces San Francisco Bay, and thus eastwards. I had to consult maps to figure out why the sea seemed to be on both sides!

I’m afraid that once again the picture quality is very poor, but I could not in fact go back and take the same photograph today, because other large buildings now surround the Metro Tower, as shown in the nearest-available Google Street View today.

As I mentioned in a previous post, after emigrating to California later in 1987, I did rent an apartment in Foster City, and lived there for about 18 months. It was a pleasant place to live, and the sheer modernity of the surroundings was a refreshing change from everywhere that I’d previously lived.

Not a Premonition

I realize that, in view of what happened to me later on, it’s possible to interpret my teenage painting as some kind of “premonition” regarding the place where I would find myself living as an adult (and someone did in fact suggest that).

However, in general I see no evidence that premonitions, in the sense of someone being able to know what will happen in the future, are possible (if only because the future of the universe is inherently not knowable). You may be able to make a very good guess as to what will happen in the future, based on the current circumstances, but it’s only ever a prediction. (This is, of course, exactly what weather forecasters do every day.)

In the case of my painting, I think the reality is just the opposite. Having unexpectedly found myself in California, Foster City particularly appealed to me because it was so reminiscent of the scene in my earlier painting. Thus, I took action to fulfill aspects of the fantasy that I’d had as a teenager, and made it real.

In fact, seeing it that way seems better than believing in some kind of premonition, because I was able to take action to change my life in the way that I wanted it to be, rather than accepting whatever situation I found myself born into.

The Tower by the Bay, 1976

The Tower by the Bay, 1976