Fury Road and Arrival: Underrated and Mindbending


This last week I watched a couple of films that I think have gotten some critical attention, and success, but are still underrated. And, for me, kind of mind-blowing. But, maybe I’m thinking too much.

Okay, first of all, both of these films were nominated for Oscars. Fury Road won 6 of the 10 for which it was nominated! Arrival only won a single gold statue but garnered 8 nominations. So, it’s a bit stretched to say these were underrated films. I’m not suggested people didn’t realize these were good films. Obviously they did. Arrival has made nearly $200 million dollars worldwide on a $50 million budget and Fury Road made nearly twice that! No, these films have critical acclaim and lots of tickets sold. To me, what’s underrated is what each film managed to do and discuss in the course of their narratives. Namely, Fury Road honestly should make no sense whatsoever but, it’s completely coherent and even appears to be a relentless action film high on style but low on meaning. And, Arrival wants you to think of it as science fiction film but is much more of a meditation on the nature of our existence, our place in the cosmos, and how we think about the world and perceive it. Both of these films should leave you asking yourself about your place in the world, the universe, and society. What is civilization? How did we get here? Where are we going? And… why?

Why?

It’s the question that starts it all. We have been asking “Why?” since we learned to ask questions at all. Why is the sky blue? Why are there so many stars? Why does it rain? Sit down with a three year old and get ready. Every declaration you make will inevitably be met by the interrogatory “Why?” from the toddler.

“You need to eat your vegetables.” “Why?”

“We don’t hit our friends.” “Why?”

“Let’s put on clean clothes.” “Why?”

And so on. You just can’t answer enough times. There is always another why. But, it seems like as we get older, we stop asking why. At some point we just accept it. It is, that’s why.

So, Arrival has one answer to “why.” Because that’s the way we think and the way we think is predicated upon the language we speak. I’m going to try not to spoil the movie but if you haven’t watched either film yet, it would be a good idea to do that before reading the rest of this essay. Arrival uses the science fiction film to make us think about how we think and speak. It gets taken for granted. Most of us never think about the words we use and why we use them. And, it probably never occurs to most people at all to consider how our language, the diction, the syntax, is actually a framework for how we look at the world. We have all heard the (false) story of how the native Inuit people have 20 words for snow. It sort of makes sense that if your entire world is snow then you might have a more intimate relationship with snow and need more descriptive words for it than the one.

On the other hand, we have one word, “love” to describe a range of feelings. I love ice cream. I love my wife. I love heavy metal music. I love the smell of sage on summer mornings. I love my kids. All of these feelings but only one word.

Arrival uses the idea that a language you use changes the way you think. As a result of learning the alien language, the main character, Louise (played by Amy Adams) sees the world in a very different way and is able to save the day. But, the part of this film that blew my mind is it is also asking us to consider if we really understand fate versus free will. The predominant philosophy today is that we have free will. Even if you believe that God has a plan for you, you probably think that you have a choice to follow that plan or not. Few would say that our lives are predestined and we are going to fulfill our destiny no matter what. We, especially, Americans, like to see ourselves of agents of our own destiny. We can do what we want, be what we want.

But, Arrival asks us to consider: what if we don’t really fundamentally understand time and as a result, we don’t understand our place in the cosmos?  I have an amateur understanding of physics, basic and incomplete. I once read a book written by Michio Kaku called Hyperspace in which he tried to explain higher dimensions. Paraphrasing, because it has been many years since I read it, he gave the example of 2 dimensional beings who live on a sheet of paper. They might conceptually understand a third dimension. But, they wouldn’t be able to perceive it. Or, fish, living in water, might not really be able to understand the world on the other side of the surface of water, even though they can see some of it,

Is this what time is like? What if you could fold time like a piece of paper? We see time as linear experience, moving from the past to now into the future. But, what if that’s only because we are limited in our perception of time? And what if it’s because of the words we use? Our language is actually very much predicated on this understanding of time. We have verb tenses based on time, the past, present, and future.  Our very words indicate time and it is impossible to speak about almost anything without also defining time. The ball is red. The sun was hot. The boy will be here. Every complete sentence has a verb and every verb specifies a time. So, our very language structures our thinking about time as a linear, one way experience.

What if our language is actually limiting our experience of the world?

The other thing that occurred to me watching the film is how utterly alone we must be in the universe. Or, maybe we should hope we are. It’s comical to me, but scary, that the film explores the idea of what it would be like if aliens suddenly arrived. This has been done over and over. War of the Worlds, Independence Day, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and more. The story usually varies between the good aliens that have come in peace and want to help us, or the evil aliens here to destroy us and we have to fight them. If there are other advanced civilizations and if one does show up here, we better hope that they are the peaceful, helpful aliens. The truth is, if aliens were to visit us now, or in the next 1,000 years, I have to think that their technology will be so far advanced from ours that they will be essentially gods to us and we could only cower, grovel, and depend upon an advanced sense of ethics to go along with their advanced tech allowing them to travel the vast distances of space.

I regularly will reflect upon the distances in the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe. Interstellar travel is impossible. Or, it is if our understanding of physics doesn’t change in the future. People used to think a human being would die if they ever traveled on a train going over 30 mph. People wondered if humans would be able to survive the forces of air travel or going into space. Go back 20 years and tell someone that they will carry around the internet in their hand, using a computer the size of a candy bar, with a touchscreen, wirelessly connected to every other networked computer in the world, and they will think you are talking about science fiction. They might even say, “what’s an internet?” My first home computer in 1987 has 20 megabytes of hard disk space. That’s insane. I carry around a USB flash drive with twice that much and it cost me under $10!

To say something like “interstellar space travel is impossible” feels a bit foolish if only because it displays a hubris that we know all there is to know about the universe. In fifty years, much can change. In 100 years we may be seen as barbarians in much the same way a Civil War doctor seems like a butcher for hacking off limbs off left and right that today a doctor would save. But, what would it take to change the situation? What would make interstellar travel possible? We would need some way of dealing with vast time, and space, or both, in order to travel anywhere beyond our solar system. Time, itself, is a kind of distance. It is a measurement of the distance from one moment to the next. But, unlike other distances, we see only one direction to travel in time.

I have no clue how, or if, we will be able to do this. Will we learn to manipulate spacetime such that distances become inconsequential? Instead of traveling through space, we travel around it. I don’t know. Right now, it’s impossible. So, if any aliens were to show up in giant ships and they want our planet, then we will just have give it to them because fighting them would be like Seal Team Six fighting a tribe that has lived isolated in the Amazon for centuries. It won’t even be close.

Mad Max: Fury Road is utter madness. It is also utter genius. What other film is like it? Is it a Western? A Fantasy? A Science Fiction film? Mindless action thriller? It’s all of that. I’ve watched this film several times and, on one hand, it’s completely bizarre to think about the world of this film. The setting is our future, it appears. Or, a future. But, it looks like our world but also not our world. Those look like our cars and trucks and motor bikes. The technology looks familiar. They have crossbows, leather, spears, hand grenades, and machine guns. One of the characters tells his machine gun, “Sing brother Koch!,” a reference to the brand Heckler and Koch. The war boys chant “V-8! V-8! V-8!” We have heard of the V-8 engine. We know what that is.

Yet, you have to ask, what the hell happened to get them to that point? And who lives that life and is okay with it? Those characters all appear to live in a world of constant stress, constant flight or fight, constant trauma. And maybe the worst thing is that no one seems to think anything is abnormal. Oh, water is rationed? But, you’re going to pour it out on the ground in a giant wasteful cascade? Okay. You wear a respirator with a skull face all of the time? Sure. Someone affixes a skull logo to your codpiece for you after someone else blows powder onto your festering, scared back? Yes, that’s reasonable. Or, what kind of outlook on life do you have if you take a prisoner and make him into a literal bag of blood for you? What kind of value do you put on humanity if you think it’s okay to make people live their lives with metal cages on their face? Or their genitals (the wives of Immortan Joe wore chastity belts that looked like gaping mouths filled with steel teeth). All of the world says life is cheap and that existence is brutal and short.

But, that’s not even the most mind blowing thing, to me. That George MIller had this vision and put it on screen represents a remarkable achievement. But, the fact that it makes sense is the craziest thing of all. Why do we watch it and buy into any of the madness? Why don’t we reject it for the fever dream it is? Shiny and chrome? Witness me!? We look at the skulls, the wives, the strange masks all of the bad guys are wearing, and we accept it! What in this film is coherent and familiar enough to make it palatable to us?

Fury Road at once seems futuristic and anachronistic and medieval. It takes the fascism of Nazism and combines it with the brutal warfare of the Middle Ages. It is a perfect amalgam of genres that is the specific domain of post-modernism. Hand to hand combat with blades, crossbows, saws, knives, and spears gives us that medieval anesthetic as do the armors, the “cavalry” of the car chases. But, the guns and explosives make us think of the modern action film, the war film, and even the Western. The desert setting must be a deliberate allusion to Monument Valley and the classic Westerns. Max Rockatansky makes sense to us because his anti-hero character resonates with Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” and Dirty Harry.

Is it a heist film? Furiosa is stealing Immortan Joe’s prize possessions, his breeding wives. Is it a quest film? A love story? Will Max and Furiosa learn to trust and to love and redeem the world of it’s hate? No, he’s leaving. He’s not going to help fix the world, he’s going to disappear into the wilderness again, just like the High Plains Drifter. Maybe it’s like a pirate film. The war boys and Joe seem to have a pirate culture and instead of ships, it’s cars and trucks. Instead of an ocean, it’s a giant expanse of sand and sun. Look at the “pole cat” warboys who swing on giant poles to attack other trucks and cars. It clearly echoes the way pirates would swing from rigging ropes to board enemy ships.

The reason that the gibbering instantly of Fury Road makes any sense at all to us is because it combines, cutting and pasting familiar elements of multiple genres. But, the true genius of the film is that it does it so well and still remains introspective and thoughtful.

Wait, the film with a guy strapped to bungee cords and playing random heavy metal power chords atop a super custom rig that has the sole purpose of driving him around with amps all while flames shoot out of the end of the guitar is thoughtful?

I think so, because the film seems to question culture itself. Why do we do what we do? How do we build culture? What do you have to go through to get to a place where reality is as depicted in Fury Road? Another reason that Fury Road makes sense is because Miller has clearly thought about this world and has created a mythology, a history, and there is depth there. A common criticism of post-modernism is the lack of heart and emotion. Fury Road threatens to go there. The nihilistic cult of Immortan Joe, woven of threads of death and destruction, and itself a pastiche, equal parts Viking myths (Valhalla), Christianity (water symbolism, the savior of the people, etc.), and NASCAR.

The film asks us to consider where our culture is taking us. Do we blindly follow our leader? Or, are we fighting for freedom? Are we victimizing others in order to enrich ourselves? Maybe it isn’t important exactly what “killed the world” in Fury Road as it is important to ask ourselves how far we are to making it possible. Are we killing the world? Are we worshipping death? Are we treating human life as worth only what we can take from it?

Both films ask the audience to consider the fundamental things that make us who we are, our language and our culture. What makes us do what we do? Here were are, rotating on a small rocky planet inside of an outer arm of relatively average sized galaxy, one of millions? Billions? Trillions? Do we even know how many galaxies there are? And, there we are, tiny little people, mere specks of dust when scaled against the cosmos, and we think what we do is sensible and obvious. But is it? Why do we do the things we do? We build houses, walls, fences, and lock the door at night. We used to live much closer together for safety but not now. Is that better? By what metric would we judge? Here we are, on this tiny planet, floating through a hostile vacuum of space, making up the rules as if we know what we are doing.

Why does anything we do make sense? Why are we not howling insanities at the skies above us all night long as we stare into the existential crisis that is interstellar space? How can we look into the blackness above us and not be utterly disturbed by how insignificant we really are in the face of it all. Part of the reason is because we don’t think about it. And, the other reason is that it doesn’t matter. Does it? All we have is ourselves and our lives here. What can we do in the face of such insignificance and powerlessness? Nothing. Or, rather, we can’t change that, so we create significance. Try to find “the green place” for each of us. Live with respect for the humanity in each of us. Try to see life from someone else’s point of view. Try to speak their language so you can truly understand them. Find love in the desert. Love someone even though you know they will one day leave you.

Live in the incoherence. Dwell amid the insanity. And, try not to be mediocre.

My White Sage (salvia apiana)

White sage has become a favorite plant of mine. It is elegant and grows well in my yard. I have wanted to focus some posts on specific plants for a while. So, this post will be looking at white sage and my experience with them.

One of my white sages; this one is two years old.

I have chosen a number of sage plants to go in my native plant garden mostly due to reports of their fragrance and easiness to grow. Both seem true at this point. As the picture above shows, I have a couple of white sage plants in my yard. Bees and hummingbirds love them. And, when they are doing well, they produce tall flower “wands” that shoot up over five feet tall. This one pictured is at least six feet tall in the highest stalks.

They have dealt with extreme heat. We regularly get temperatures over 100 degrees in August. And, last year was extremely dry. As it was the first year, I supplemented its water supply heavily. For the first year, I watered daily during the summer. I dropped the frequency down during the fall and stopped watering once the rainy season began this last October, unless it was still dry out. This summer I am watering about once per week, or so.

I have two other white sages that were pretty small for a while there. In fact, they still aren’t as big as the one above. But, I started watering them more and they got much bigger. So, early on, I would say that white sage enjoys a good amount of water. But, I have read that watering them less after the first year or two is a good idea. That seems true. But, I haven’t had the trouble with them being stressed from too much water like I have with my ceonothus plants.

Close up on white sage blooms from my back yard.

When white sage is in bloom it is a beautiful, very stately plant. The stalks of white flowers seem somehow heroic to me, rising skyward in defiance of gravity and serving as a beacon to birds and bees. I’m of the understanding that the stalks can be harvested and dried to make smudging sticks for Native American rituals, but I have not done so myself. I may give it a shot this year.

My soil is mostly loam but very rocky and layered. The first six inches, or so, is loamy sand. Below that is a lot of rock, majority granite, in potato-sized chunks, but there are some much larger rocks, too. I’ve pulled out quite a few that are over a foot wide and weigh what feels like over thirty pounds or more. That layer goes on for about a foot or two. Sometimes there are pockets of clay or sand. After the rock layer, there usually is a layer that is sandy and rocky. I’ve never dug down further than about 3 feet, so I’m unable to attest to more from my own experience.

I planted these sages from pots I bought at Grow Native Nursery in Claremont, CA (at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens). They were all quite small, most in gallon or smaller pots. I dug holes that about twice as wide and deep as the pots themselves. I filled the holes with water twice before installing the plants. Then, I made sure the base of the plant was about one inch or so higher than the surrounding  dirt. I buried the roots and packed the dirt slightly, just to get rid of air pockets, but not so much to avoid inhibiting root growth. I watered almost daily in the beginning. No fertilizer. Mulch is good, though.

Overall, I recommend this plant. I currently have eight of them. I just planted four this fall. Two of those already produced flower stalks! They are already significantly larger than when I planted them. So, this plant grows pretty fast. And, it can easily spread to 5 or 6 feet wide, so keep that in mind. The leaves are a light-green, near to silver. They offer a nice contrast to darker foliage. One of my white sages died, I think from a gopher. Another got a pretty bad bug infestation that seemed to kill a lot of leaves. The plant itself is still alive and producing new leaves and stalks so I’m keeping an eye on it. Not much I can do for it, though. I’m trying not to use anything stronger than Neem oil on my plants. I am going to try raising some from seeds if I can figure out how to harvest them. 

I’d be interested to hear from readers if they have questions about the white sages or experience with them. Thanks for reading!

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Progress Update June 2017

My stream area. Foreground: Cleveland Sage. Also, Bee’s Bliss Sage, Eldarica pine, some succulents I don’t know.
California Buckwheat in the foreground with some penstemons. My sages dominate the landscape right now.

The heat is upon us. Not the full-blast, oppressive, scorch of the Inland Summer, but still very warm and very dry weather. We have been averaging the high 80’s and low 90’s this last week. I have to force myself not to water. My instincts tell me to water the plants. But my experience says that will stress the plants and turn their leaves yellow.

And it attracts gophers. I hate gophers.

A good gopher. Good and dead.

I am sure that gophers play some important role in the food chain and environment. But they have no place in my yard. Let’s review what kind of damage gophers do in my yard:

  • Eat plants I am trying to keep alive
  • Eat the roots of plants I’m trying to keep alive
  • Shear off baby trees and shrubs at their bases
  • Dig holes throughout the yard
  • Throw dirt up on plants I’m trying to keep alive
  • Undermine my retaining wall
  • Kill plants I paid for and spent time trying to grow

Here is a list of the benefits of gophers in my yard:

  • I haven’t seen any benefit

I will walk past a black widow and let it live in my yard. I’m sure I don’t have to explain why a black widow can be a potential problem. But at least they eat other bugs. I’ve moved centipedes, the big yellow scary-looking kind, so I didn’t hurt them. I’ve gone out of my way to attract birds to my yard. Those poop on my chairs and patio. Their seeds drop and grow in my yard where I don’t want them. But they eat bad bugs and they are pretty.

But I will drop everything to put a trap in a gopher hole and kill it.

I know it sounds bloodthirsty and barbaric. I get it. But I’ve seen a healthy, blooming, growing manzanita turn brown and die within days because a gopher ate its roots and burrowed so much in its root system that it dries out. I’ve seen my baby pine tree pulled into a hole and its trunk gnawed by gopher teeth. That’s the kind of stuff that brings me to a lethal frame of mind toward small furry creatures.

But let’s not dwell on the negative. There is a whole yard of plants and flowers to look at and enjoy.

The sun and heat are still bringing out the poppy blooms. I’m very pleased with my decision to sow poppy seeds around the garden. I think next October I will but several more packets and scatter them, too. It’s fun to see the little yellow and red flowers amid the rest of the plants.

My Gambel oak (a non-native species from the Colorado/Utah areas) is finally putting on some height. Already this season it has sprouted a full foot higher. But my other two oaks remain short. The Wislenzenii seems to be growing slowly. But my Cryselopsis (Canyon Live Oak) looks like it’s the same size as when I planted it in 2015. The Buckwheat next to it is already higher! I know it takes a while to develop the roots for the tree to grow. But this seems extreme.

My vegetable garden is running rampant and growing wildly.

Pumpkin vines climbing my trellis.

I hope to have some good pumpkins for Jack O’lanterns by October. Judging by these vines, I will have that. The square foot gardening experiment is going well. I’ve got tomatoes for days and we’ve eaten broccoli, zucchini,and kale from the garden.

Progress March 2017: Waiting Game

Wide shot of the yard, March 2017
Just a quick post with some pictures of the yard. Some of the spots are filling in well, and others are making me wait longer. When I started this in 2015, I understood intellectually that plants take time to grow. But, I underestimated exactly what that felt like in real time. There are eleven trees and probably four more large shrubs in my yard that, in time, will all be over 15 feet tall. I have two oaks that, after ten years ought to top 30 feet. And, those trees are all in my mind when I look at the garden. All of the manzanitas and ceanothuses are supposed to be at least 6 feet tall, some of them over ten! And I can see them, too, in those spaces, in my mind.

That makes it hard to look at the garden sometimes. I see what’s not there. Yet. I imagine the plants filling in  and covering the areas now dominated by the red mulch. Here’s a shot of my stream and bench area. But, look at the Bee’s Bliss sage in the center, in front of the bench. That’s three plants! But, they filled in that whole long area, about 15 feet long. Honestly, I am surprised at how well they actually did that. I expected plants to be about 4 feet wide. But, they are probably pushing six or eight feet! Most of my yard will, eventually, look similar to that, I hope. Maybe I will regret that, I don’t know.

Bee’s Bliss in front of the bench has filled the entire western border of my stream.

I actually have “banned” my gardener from my backyard. He pruned a couple of my California Buckwheats that I was enjoying spreading out. It was probably the right thing to do. But, I want to have a full, “wild” garden. Maybe in time I wlll need to remove some of these plants. But, I can deal with that later. The only things that I really can’t move, easily at least, are my trees. So I was much more deliberate in placing them. I think I made good choices. But I won’t be shocked if it turns out I underestimated their sizes, too.

I’ve had to water more now. I’m really only watering the really young plants. Not the ceanothuses, though. Nope. Those plants seriously hate water unless it’s cold and the soil is cold. And even then they seem to prefer little water. With our Toddler-in-Chief rolling back environmental protections so he can pretend he’s helping the working man, I suggest everyone buy ceanothuses. They love heat and dry soil which will likely the prevailing conditions in our future.

Waiting is hard to do. Every plant was bought from a nursery and were tiny when I planted them. Obviously, they are growing, some of them are thriving! But, still. I wish I could skip a few years and have bigger plants already.

Native Garden: Catching Up Is Hard To Do

It’s March, nearly April. Spring is well-sprung and the temperatures have been between 95 degrees on one extreme on March 13, to 34 degrees back on February 25. Average temperature is probably right around 50 degrees or so. There has even been some rainfall, about 1/2 an inch in the last 30 days. We are well over the average rainfall for the year here. And, flowers are blooming in the garden.

Some garlic and onions and carrots in my square foot garden.

Square foot garden seedlings growing.

The vegetable garden is coming along. The only plants that I didn’t get to sprout was my eggplant. Yesterday I put out new Eggplant seeds, along with some Jalapeño, Serrano, and Bullnose sweet peppers. They said to surface sow. Let’s see how that goes.

I’m going to have to go in and remove some of the plants where they grew better than I thought they would. I have a large amount of seeds still left over. Baker Creek, at this point, has lived up to the reputation and produced some great seeds to work with, but the true proof will be in how the vegetables taste.

On the other side of the garden, the California natives…

Penstemon flowers getting sprinkled in a last Southern California rain?
Fiesta sticky monkey flower and grinnelli penstemon contrasting flowers.
Bee’s bliss here hosting both bees and an awful lot of aphids.
A multitude of blooms brings all the bees to the yard. Milkshakes are for boys. I have milkweed, but not, yeah.
In the foreground, California Poppy baby plants, and in the background a Ray Hartman ceanothus.

Apparently it’s well-known gardening adage that “the first year they sleep, the second they creep, the third year they leap” in reference to perennials. This kind of seems to be what’s going on here, too. Some of my shrubs and trees are supposed to be 15 to 20 feet tall, others 6 to 10 feet. And, yet, the tallest I have right now is one of my desert willows is around 5 feet. But, my oaks seem to finally be making a lot of new leaves after spending the last year (or two in the case of my chryselopsis) just kind of sitting there. Many of my plants do really seem to be taking off this spring. It also wouldn’t surprise me that having so many plants in the ground, that their roots are helping the microorganisms in the soil to develop the kind of system that California natives want.

Two large Ray Hartman ceanothus are swarming with lilac blue flowers.

I have managed to kill a few of these ceanothus. I didn’t mean to kill them. It was my inexperience with watering them. I’ve planted whirly blue curls next to these Ray Hartman ceanothuses since I’m under the impression that they hate water during the summer, too. These mountain lilacs are said to get huge and I believe it. In one year they’ve tripled in size at least. They are about four feet wide and three feet tall, well below the 20 foot full-grown size. But, they have beautiful glossy green leaves all year and the blue flowers are striking.

If I can avoid watering these plants to death, these Ceanothus will be one of my favorite plants. I love the blue flowers all over!
California sagebrush dusted with rain drops in one of our last rain events… probably.
Firecracker penstemon gets drizzle in front of California buckwheat.
Grinnelli penstemon flowers collecting droplets of rain.

I’m loving how the plant, many of them, are finally filling in and looking good. Spring is fun!

Wind! Good God, Y’all! What Is It Good For?

My least favorite weather event by far. Wind. I hate it. I’m not talking about a breeze, a gentle stirring of the leaves. Nor do I refer to wind that is good for kite-flying and refreshes the atmospheric conditions. No, I speak here of gusting, tearing wind. Wind that blows and batters and blasts the land, the trees, and all that stands in its path.

Here in the sun-kissed Inland Empire, we get a hefty helping of this wind. I know, it’s my fault for buying a house below the Cajón Pass. Said geographical feature acts as a wind tunnel, it seems providing a natural easement between the great Mojave Desert that abuts the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains and the Inland Region that leads to the California Coast. This easement is the path of least resistance when there is a pressure difference between those areas. If an area of low pressure sets up off the coast, and high pressure is situated in the desert, then wind will rush through the Pass and eventually over my yard on its way to freedom over the ocean.

Like a young child let out of school for the summer, the wind breaks headlong toward, with speed and heedless of anything between it and its desired destination. This rough passage has an impact of no small import on my landscape.

As I walked around my yard, I find that where I used to have 1-3 inches of mulch (red bark, mostly), there is now bare ground. The aforementioned mulch is gathered in places I wish it was not, such as the base of my young Cleveland sage, which now has 4-6 inches surrounding it. The wind breaks some of the branches of my plants. A couple were entirely snapped off of their main trunk, effectively killing the plant. I believe I lost today a penstemon, a milkweed, and a monkey flower. I saw one of my Chickering Cleveland sage lost a major branch, too.

Bare ground showing after wind blew the mulch away.
Allen Chickering Cleveland sage with broken branches courtesy the @&$#%! wind!
Poor baby milkweed plant desiccated and thrashed by the wind.

Besides doing physical damage thusly, the wind is also dry. Very dry. The humidity today is currently 15% and dropped as low as 12% yesterday. My understanding is that this dry air has a desiccating effect on the plants, in some cases wicking moisture from the leaves and branches, not to mention from the ground. Ideally, mulch should mitigate this, but not if the wind manages to blow that mulch aside.

So, even though we just got weeks of rain and that brought 11 inches to the ground, I still had to go out and water my plants. Dry, young plants are less supple and weaker, more prone to breaking off. Their leaves shrivel as the dry air blows across them. Some of the plants, like manzanita, have leaves that don’t lose as much water. But, for the younger plants just installed this last season, I have to water them, too.

Rain, at least, will give us much needed moisture. Cold and hot temperatures give the plants a sense of season, reminding them to grow, to sleep, to flower, etc. But, wind? Wind doesn’t offer me anything. It makes a mess. It blows trash into my yard, moves furniture, knocks over containers and as I mentioned before, scatters my mulch.

And, listen, lest you, dear reader, get the misconception that I’m airing a grievience over a brief event, an occurrence that is evanescent in nature and I ought to simply hush. Well, please find it in your heart to understand that this wind has been blowing since Thursday. That’s four straight days of wind averaging 13 mph. That’s the average. And, I just checked, we’ve averaged 13 mph for the entire month! We had wind like this in the middle of the month, too. My weather station recorded a high wind speed of 20 mph January 14th. Yesterday, we had a gusting wind that hit 22 mph. Imagine getting the plants in your yard, putting them in pots, then strapping them to the roof of your car and driving around for four days around the streets of your neighborhood. You drive the whole time, too. Vary your speed if you like, but average about 15 mph and that’s what is going on with the plants in my yard.

Four days. This wind is forecasted to blow through the night and into tomorrow morning, but it is supposed to, at least, begin to subside and be a much more manageable 5-10mph. Still, I hate this wind. There’s just no good from it, to me.

Cold Night at Star Party

Last night I went out to the Star Party at the Riverside Astronomical Society‘s GMARS dark site. Note: there are three links in that sentence for you to follow if you want to check out RAS.

The author, bundled up against the cold, desert night, taking a break from the Star Party to warm up, use the litter box, and selfie.

Being that a Star Party happens in the dark, I don’t have many pictures. My iPhone doesn’t take great pictures that don’t have at least some light. And stars are best viewed in the deepest dark possible. But, in case it’s interesting to you, here’s a shot I took in September 2016 at the first Star Party I went to. In it, my sons were learning to use the telescopes while it was still light out. Last night I only took my 10″ dobsonian last night, which is the larger of the two telescopes seen here (in case you didn’t know).

This was our setup at the first Star Party we attended back in September.

Temperatures were hovering at or just above 40 degrees last night and there was a light and variable wind. It was enough to chill you but not enough to keep me from a few hours of viewing celestial sights. The club’s site is called Goat Mountain Astronomical Research Station, and is located in Landers, CA, the Mojave Desert. At night, in the winter, temperatures regularly drop into the 40’s and the 30’s have been common in the last month or so. I dressed in layers to try to stay warm and was mostly successful, but not entirely. My fingers and toes were cold, a bit, but I also had some Hot Hands warmers in my pockets, too. Those were not very expensive but totally worth it.

It was already dark when I got there. I wasn’t able to leave home until close to 4pm and by the time I got some gas and on the road, traffic meant the trip would take 2 hours. Sunset was about 5:15pm last night so twilight was complete as I pulled into GMARS and started looking for a place to set up. The club rules are that you can use any of the empty concrete pads if they are not being used by sunset. I’d prefer to arrive a little earlier, but it worked out. I got my gear set up, collimated my telescope, and had a little coffee and pan dulce as I let my scope cool down to ambient temperatures.

I honestly should have prepared a little more for the trip. It’s a good practice to study star charts a be familiar with what’s in the sky before you get out there in the dark. For me, the dark sky is kind of overwhelming. Unlike the skies I’m used to at home, there are so many stars apparent when there’s less light pollution. The Milky Way isn’t as bright in the winter sky, but it is definitely still a feature. As Orion is the first constellation I learned, well probably besides the Big Dipper, I started my observations with the Orion Nebula. It’s a very bright nebula any time. 

For a lot of people, nebulae are probably kind of disappointing when looked at through an amateur astronomer’s telescope. They are often called “faint fuzzies” because that’s what they are! A smudge, a “wisp of cloud,” a faint, fuzzy patch that isn’t always very impressive. Because of our advances with telescopes in space like the Hubble, people are familiar with seeing amazing, colorful, detailed images of deep sky objects and that’s what they expect to see in a telescope. Hell, even I get the Hubble effect when I’m looking.

Orion’s nebula is a good place to start, though, because it is, actually kind of impressive for a “faint fuzzy.” But, still, it looks like a bright cloud, grayish-green and wispy. Our eyes are just not adapted for seeing color in the dark. The parts of our eyes that detect color need more light to work.

So, I looked at the nebula for a little bit, then slid up to look at Betelgeuse, a Super Red Giant star that makes up Orion’s left shoulder. It definitely had a reddish-orange color. If you want to see color in the night sky, you’ve got to look at a star. The brightest one’s are usually a white or sometimes bluish color. To me, they look most like the sparkle of a high-quality diamond. It’s an overused cliche to compare a star to a diamond, I know. But, it’s quite apt nonetheless. My favorite star for seeing color is actually a double star called Albireo. It’s easy to find in the summer sky and clearly shows a gold and a blue star right next to each other. But, Albireo is gone for the winter. Betelgeuse is a great way to see a colorful sight during this time of year.

Then, it was like my ADHD kicked in. I moved my telescope over to look at the Pleiades and switched out my 18mm eyepiece for the 30mm. The 30 gives a much wider view. For the Pleiades, you want a wide view. I was using an Explore Scientific eyepiece with an 82 degree view. It’s a huge eyepiece and requires a coma corrector in my scope. Maybe one of these days I’ll write more about that, preferably when I know more about what I’m talking about! For now, I’m mostly just going off of the recommendation of astronomers with more experience than I who say that the focal length and mirror I have in this scope, combined with that eyepiece, needs the coma corrector to keep the stars from looking like “seagulls”. So, remove the 18mm eyepiece and the focuser tube extender and put the 30mm with the coma corrector into the focuser.

The Pleiades is an open star cluster of bluish-white stars that are quite beautiful. Under dark skies, I was able to detect a little bit of the nebulosity, the glowing gas, that surrounds some of the stars. Cameras show the nebulosity pretty well.

Then, I moved over to the Andromeda Galaxy. Usually I enjoy looking at Andromeda (also known as M31). For some reason tonight, it didn’t look as good as I was used to. I spent a little time looking. Some people say they can see “dust lanes” where interstellar dust blocks the light of the galaxy’s stars, but I couldn’t. M31 looked like a dim ball of light surrounded by an oval glowing haze. After that, I found the “double cluster” in Perseus. I’ve looked at this object a few times. It’s very pretty as two open clusters of stars are in close proximity. With the 30mm, I can pretty much have both clusters in the view at the same time. Tonight, something about the stars gave a 3D effect, as if there was depth to the image. Normally stars look as if they are all on the same plane. But, I think the proximity of the stars along with the variations in brightness and size caused it to seem as if some were closer to me than others. It looked really great.

At this point, I switched back to the 18mm eyepiece. Then, I took a short break to use the facilities and warm up inside the house. I found a neat bulletin board in the house with RAS memorabilia. I took a picture under the red lights in use to help preserve night vision.

RAS and GMARS memorabilia on a bulletin board inside the GMARS house.

Back at it, I decided to be a bit more methodical. I bought a great book called Turn Left at Orion that helps new astronomers like me find their way via “star-hopping” or using stars as sign posts to find your way to interesting objects. It’s helping me learn the sky. I used it a lot during the summer to help me find things to look at, like Albireo that I mentioned earlier. So, I got it open and started with the January skies section. The book is mostly organized around what you can see in the sky during different seasons. Orion was listed first, so I went back and looked at the nebula again. This time I was looking more carefully at Trapezium, the collection of four stars at the center of the nebula. Actually, there are two very faint companion stars so it’s more like a cluster of six stars, so it was neat to see that as I had never really observed it very carefully.

In the neighborhood were Iota Orionis, a “triple star” and Struve 747, a double. A great thing about this book is that it names all of these for you, helps you find them, and explains what they are. So, then I looke at Sigma Orionis, a quadruple star near to Alnitak, the left-most star of Orion’s Belt. It’s a little less than a third of the way toward the nebula, so it’s not that hard to find. With my 18mm and 10″ telescope, I was definitely able to see that what looked like a single star in my finderscope (a very small “telescope” that is mounted on top of my telescope to help aim it) was actually four star that are part of the same system of stars as the rest of Orion’s Belt and nebula. Near to that is Struve 761, a triple star system that makes a very narrow triangular shape. Fun!

This is from the book Turn Left at Orion, showing the star systems I was looking at in Orion.

For me, I might see stars like this close together if I was just scanning. But, I wouldn’t know that they are actual binary stars rotating around each other, merely an apparent double (meaning they look like they are near each other but aren’t really, they just look close from our perspective), or what. Honestly, I’m the worst kind of astronomer, I guess. Theoretically, I know that astronomers can observe the stars and measure their color to see if they are red-shifted or blue-shifted so they can measure speed and then, somehow distance. I don’t know how it really works and I’m pretty sure there’s some higher order math involved. So, I need a book like this to tell me what’s what up there.

I was starting to get tired by now. It was about 11pm. I flipped a couple pages of the book and decided to look for M79, a globular cluster in Lepus. I don’t know what Lepus is. I mean, I know it’s a constellation but if you asked me to point it out in the sky, I wouldn’t be able to without assistance. But, the book hooked me up! A globular cluster is a really tight collection of stars. One of the best to look at is visible during summer, the Great Cluster in Hercules. This one is small, dim, and was hard to find, but I did it. I wanted to because eventually I plan to make a deliberate observation of each of the Messier Objects, which are the things that Charles Messier, an astronomer from the 1700’s kept track of because he wanted to find comets and didn’t want to keep looking at nebulae and clusters in his hunt for the comets. A lot of amateur astronomers use the Messier Catalog and go find these things. Some people even do a Messier Marathon in March when, I guess, if you stay up all night, you can observe all of the objects during that time period.

So, I found M79 finally. Then, I decided to try for M1, The Crab Nebula. It was the very definition of a faint fuzzy. I had trouble finding it because it was so dim, just a gray smudge in the blackness. Along the way, though, I learned to identify Aldebaran, a big bright orange star near Orion, and also Zeta Tauri and El Nath, two other stars. It was after 11:40pm now. I was tired. My brain felt tired from learning and looking for stars and trying to look carefully at them. I was cold. My toes and fingers were cold. I was still sniffling as the night air made my nose run (don’t worry, I had a handkerchief with which I wiped it). My back had been hurting for a couple hours and stretching my hamstrings didn’t seem to be helping. A warm bed next to my wife was calling my name and I decided to pack it all in finally. I’d been out there for near to six hours, observing for at least four hours. That’s a good night for me.

I took down my telescope, putting away the finderscope, the Telrad, the eyepieces, and putting all of the covers and protectors in place. Zippers zipped, latches latched, and it all went back into the Prius. Now, you have to understand, there’s no light out here. There are very tiny solar lights in places to help mark some paths. But, there’s no streetlights, no porch lights. And, since all of the people there are trying to keep their eyes dark adapted, I can’t turn on my headlights. In fact, I dim all the lights in my car, keeping the console screen off, as well as the dome and interior lights. I even back in so I don’t have to turn on my reverse lights when I leave. I have a small red flashlight that I shine out the window to help me try to see where to go, but it’s still an adventure to get out to the road.

I did make it but I very nearly drove off the path and into the bushes at one point. Did I mention it’s dark? It’s dark. But, once I was away from the telescope field, I turned on my headlights which blazed into life, like twin suns and burned away the inky blackness ahead of my car. I drove away after setting my destination into the navigation app and having a drink of coffee. I made it home after an hour and a half of wind-blown driving. It was good to get back into a warm house see my favorite star, my wife. I think some people enjoy certain hobbies because it gives them time away from a spouse. But, for me the time away from her is one of the impediments toward me engaging in the hobby. One day, I hope we can live somewhere with sufficiently dark skies such that I can have backyard viewing sessions on par with what I can see at GMARS. But, even still, I had a great time and got to see some cool stuff. And, here I will resist making a joke about hot stars and cold nights. You’re welcome.

Scrap wood into potting bench

As I have worked on various projects over the years, I have accumulated some leftover wood. I made some “floating shelves” for our bedroom and had some pine planks and 2x4s that I had ripped in half (“ripping” wood means you cut along the grain, usually lengthwise; a crosscut goes against the grain). I also had some saw horses I made years ago from 2x4s and I took those apart. (I got tired of storing them. I have plastic saw horses that fold flat.) I also had some 1x6s left over from my bench project. And some 2x6s were left from my benches and raised garden beds. And, finally some plywood from, probably, when I made my work bench. So, yeah.

I didn’t go with a specific plan. I looked at a lot of potting benches on line and used ideas from some of them. Basically, I wanted to get rid of the scrap wood. Some of it has been hanging around and I keep it thinking, “Hey, I might use this for something later…” But, see, whenever I go to make a new project, I’m usually following a plan I got that has a cut list and often a list of wood to get. So, it’s easier to get wood from the store in standard cuts than to see if I have enough in my scrap collection. This means, of course, the scrap collection accrues further.

In this case, I got the scrap out and started trying to see what I could put together based on that. This is why it has taken me three days to build something that should have been done in one day. Instead of the cuts being planned ahead of time and knowing the dimensions of the project, I had to go with the flow.

I started with a left over 2×6 that was over 60″ and then I used the 2x4s to make legs… Then, some of the wood split. The screws I am using are supposed to not need pre-drilling. But, they do because if you get the head of the screw flush with the surface, it splits the wood. I then chose to take it apart and make it smaller. I realized that the space where I was putting the bench was 59″ and that 60″ would be too long. And, then I thought pocket holes would be good for the joints because maybe it wouldn’t split the wood.

But, I don’t have the right screws for pocket holes and the size of the wood I’m using. Ugh. So I made it work but I think it sucks. Whatever. I think it will work.

I used the ripped 2x4s to make rails and stretchers. Those are the parts of the frame that go around the lower parts of the legs to give it stability. It turns out that a lot of this wood had twisted or warped in the time I’ve had it. So, despite cutting it really carefully to exact measurements, it’s not exactly square and the legs aren’t the same length. Or, they are the same length but the piece connecting the two legs is warped so it seems like they are not the same length. And, when I take the shelf boards, that are square and put then into the frame to create the top, they don’t fit exactly because the top frame is warped.

I keep reminding myself that this isn’t fine furniture, it’s a potting bench made from scrap wood. Even though I don’t actually make, um, well, anything perfect, I always feel like it should be perfect. So, it bugs me that it’s not.

I then added a shelf unit above the work surface. Cutting the rabbets for that took a while. I have dado blades. But, I thought the time it would take for me to set them up in my table saw would take almost as long as using a regular blade and  cutting, very slowly, was about the same. I used my table saw to cut slots 3/4″ deep. Then I removed the excess wood. I screwed the supports into the frame and set about making a shelf and shelf supports. I think it worked out okay.

I cut slats and nailed them into the bottom shelf supports. Then I installed supports for the middle shelf. And supports for the work surface. Then I installed the work surface.

The final part is that I want some kind of holes in the work surface that will allow excess soil to fall through into a plastic bin below when I’m doing stuff like that. I saw some benches like that and it seemed pretty cool, so I’m doing that. But, I haven’t been able to decide how to accomplish it. Some benches have that part be removable so you can put in a solid surface. That seems good, too, but I don’t think it will work, ultimately. I was also seeing a couple benches that had another part with a removable surface and recessed bin to hold soil you are using. I want to do that but I might not. Finally, I’ve sanded it where ever I could reach and I put a coat of spar urethane on it last night. With the rainy, cold weather, it will take a long time to dry. But, at least it will protect it and make it less likely to rot and fall apart.

Overall, considering I didn’t pay anything extra for it, that all of the materials used to build it have been left over from previous projects, including the urethane, screws and nails, it turned out satisfactorily. It was interesting to build something with no plans or measurements to rely on. I let the materials dictate what the project turned out to be. I mean, of course, I had the ideas of what it should look like when I’m done. I wanted a work surface and a place to store my “everyday” gardening tools. I wanted a place to work on plants and related outdoor activities that I wouldn’t mind getting dirty. And, in theory, if a part gets damaged, I can replace it.The work top is only screwed in so, if I decide to, I can replace it. Maybe one day I will get some new plywood and make the top a single piece instead of the three pieces there now. I can always replace the lower shelves, too. If I used half-inch plywood it would allow me a bit more room for storage. I wouldn’t mind adding a few extra “cubby holes” in the upper shelf for storing smaller items like seed packets maybe.

If you want any measurements or more details on the construction, leave me a comment. I’ll post an update when I get it finished completely with the slots in the work surface. I’m also going to add in some hooks for hanging tools. But, for today, I’m happy with the build. 

Dry no longer: drought broken, or just at bay?

My region of Southern California is often dry. Total days of rain are usually few, less than 30, I’d say. Additionally, inches of rain average between 10 and 15. But, in the last several years, California, and here specifically, has been in the grip of severe drought. I estimate that we got something like 6 inches of rain all year last year (by which, I mean, the “rainfall year” which typically is said to begin in October. This month alone we have doubled that. In January, my weather station (which is probably fairly acurate but not necessarily precise) has received nearly 12 inches, and will most likely exceed that today.


I’ve become much more aware of the weather and rainfall since starting my garden/yard. The majority of my plants are drought tolerant. They still need water and in times of drought, they need supplementary irrigation. But, I think I may not be watering much this Spring. In fact, more than half of my plants have been in the yard over a year. My understanding is that after a year, California native plants are “established” and need significantly less water. For some, that means none. There’s a great site, Las Pilitas, that is primarily a nursery but is also a treasure trove of information about California native plants. On that site, they specifically state that most truly drought tolerant California native plants hate water after the first season or two. For example, I have a few different Ceonothus species. These are also known as California Lilacs.


Ceonothus plants, as far as I can tell, hate water, especially when it’s warm. They will accept water when it’s cold, like right now, but that’s it. What I have read is that there are microorganisms in the soil that live when it is either cool and moist or warm and dry. Warm and moist soil kill these microorganisms. They are what provide nutrients to the roots of many native plants! This is why, by the way, you also should not amend California soils when planting natives, and do not add fertilizer. Apparently these mycorrhizae feed the plants are vital for their growth and survival. You might say that if you are a gardener of California natives, you aren’t growing the plants so much as these mycorrhizae!

So, I have killed at least two Ceonothus plants by watering them too much. I’m doing better with the ones I have right now. I have four that have been in my garden over a year now. Two others were growing and looking good but they were eaten by gophers. Speaking of, I just read as I was getting links for this post, that gophers tend not to eat plants that aren’t being watered!!! Oh yeah! So, maybe this year will be better if I’m not watering so much, then maybe the gophers won’t eat so many.

That doesn’t mean my hose will be idle. About once per week, I will go out and “wash” the dust off the plants by spraying the leaves. This won’t really water them but it will keep them from getting covered in dust, something else they hate. That will be nice to just go spray my plants down and not worry about watering deeply. Let’s be clear, though, this only applies to established plants. For the plants that are still young and in the first season, I will definitely be watering those plants (and keeping an eye out for gophers!).

The rain coming down right now as I write this means I will probably not water any of these established plants at all this Spring. We’re having a good year for rain, even by California’s standards. It looks like we will at least meet the “normal” averages for rain and that should make my garden very happy.

A couple Black sages, and a California Buckhwheat in the foreground. Behind it is my baby Live Oak. 01-22-2017
The garden on January 22, 2017

Seedlings Update No. 1: frustration

It’s been 12 days since I started trying to germinate some seeds. California Poppys have a germination time of between 10 and 15 days, I’m told. I have two of those that have sprouted. But, that’s all. One looks good, the other looks, um, not as good. Is it, as they say, “leggy”? I’m not sure.

Two seedlings: in the foreground… lying down. In the background, standing up.

The picture shows the two seedlings. The one in the foreground is the first to have sprouted. It has been lying down like that the whole time. The second one, in the back, looks better with four leaves and is standing up. It’s possible others will still sprout. But, I’m a bit disappointed with the “crop” so far.

Spruce and Joshua Trees take longer to germinate, anywhere from 20 to 30 days. So, maybe they will still show up, too.

My tray has a heating mat and I have it on a thermostat set to 75 degrees (those are freedom units, of course. That’s what the F stands for, isn’t it?). I chose that number because it was about average for spring time and it’s what vegetable seeds seem to like. Also, I didn’t know I needed a thermostat initially. The mat didn’t come with one and the instructions said it would keep the soil about 10 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature. Since, the garage is around 50, I thought that would be okay. But, the mat was actually warming up to 80 or 90 degrees! That’s too warm. I’m wondering if I didn’t do something wrong with the seeds by having it too hot like that for the first few days. I also have two LED grow lights I bought on them during the day. I’m under the impression that the lights emit the right spectrum for plants to grow while limiting heat output and using minimal energy.

LED grow lights on the germination station.

Anyway, the seeds were cheap and this was just for fun. Maybe I will still get some more sprouts. And maybe I’m learning enough to not make mistakes with the veggies and the other poppy seeds I have. I bought some from Grow Native Nursery at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens. Those are the ones I’m really hoping to get growing this year.

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An eclectic mind garden. Cultivate, prune, mulch, compost.