The Sycamore Trees

I know I have already mentioned this – perhaps too many times – but the sight of the Sycamore trees in winter never ceases to generate a sense of wonder no matter how many times we see them during our walks along the river. Every time we visit the park it is as if we are experiencing the sight of these trees for the first time once again. They are majestic! They catch your attention. These trees tend to dominate the treeline wherever they are present, whether you are looking straight up, or whether you are looking at them along the shorelines of the river. The trees are very distinctive with their white trunks and branches in their upper reaches. The body of the tree looks robust, and the tree itself appears to tower over all others.

I tend to spend a lot of time during our walks looking around for stuff – birds mainly. Last weekend I spent a significant amount of time just trying to enjoy the sight of the Sycamore trees. I do not think I am able to take the kind of pictures that will do them full justice, but I tried anyway.

Tiktaalik

Nothing, of course, begins at the time you think it did.

I listened to a fascinating podcast a couple of days ago. It had to do with evolution, and the transition on Earth of living forms from fishes (of the water) to creatures who lived on dry land. Perhaps you, like I, have come across some pictures in the media in this regard that try to illustrate the concept in a easy to follow manner. The illustrations could include a body of water on one side and dry land on the other, and show a series of creatures emerging from the water onto the dry land, with the nature of the creatures changing form as you sequence them from the water on to the land. At one end of the sequence you will find a fish. At the other end you will find a human being. Here is an humorous example.

Of course, the pictures do not represent anything close to reality. The transition from fish form to human being took place over hundreds of millions of years and not in single picture frame – obviously. The process was also very complex, and impossible to capture in pictures like this. Also, if I understand correctly, there were simpler forms of life on earth before the fish. Nevertheless…

When scientists study evolution, they try to find evidence of the transitions from one kind of life form to another. This is the realm of the paleontologists. This is a fascinating subject, especially when you are dealing with the study of fossils/skeletons of lifeforms that existed hundreds of millions of years ago. It seems that we know enough about the geology of the earth and the ancient land forms that used to exist in those days, including the mountains, rivers, and oceans, to have some idea as to where to look for pieces of evidence of life from those times. And, surprising to me, there are such land forms, from those times, that are accessible to us easily. For example, there was a section of the Pennsylvania turnpike that was built by blasting a path through a mountainside that revealed rocks over 350 million years old. These rocks revealed preserved fossils from that period of time. (Human beings are capable of destroying our sources of knowledge without even a second thought in our quest for progress and all things “modern”, including mindless and unlimited convenience and speed.)

The reader will surely agree that, as part of the evidence of the evolution that took place, it would be great to find the lifeforms that represent the transition from a form of life that existed solely in the waters to one that lived solely on land, i.e., the fish to tetrapod transition. You may be surprised to learn that the first of this evidence was only discovered in 2004. This life form was given the name Tiktaalik (for reasons you will discover if you follow the links I am providing). The scientific process in this case allowed the scientists to narrow down the time-frame of possible existence of the kind of creature they were looking for, and then look for places where they could access the right kind of rocks of that particular period of time in order to search for the creature. They were successful in their quest.

My blog includes only a small part of the things I learnt from the podcast that I listened to. There is no way I, with my limited understanding, can do justice to the subject matter in a blog. Hopefully, I have stirred your curiosity, and motivated at least one or two of you to also listen to the podcast. Science is fascinating!

https://www.quantamagazine.org/neil-shubin-on-tiktaalik-ballistic-tongues-and-evolution-20210302/

Textures On The Ice

We had not been able to go out for our weekend walk for three weeks in a row because of the weather and did not feel too good about it. We were determined to try to get out this last weekend in spite of the cold, and in spite of the fact that we had had sleet as precipitation just a few short days earlier.

The temperature was about 18°F when we awoke on Sunday. We decided that we would start our walk a little later in the morning than usual. Thankfully, all the roads on the way to the park had been cleared completely of snow and ice. But the parking lot at Riley’s Lock was a bit of a mess. We managed to find a section of the lot away from the lock house where there was a reduced amount of ice on the ground. The cars in the picture below are parked on ice. To the right side of this picture you can see the temporary bridge over Seneca Creek at the location of the Seneca Aqueduct. The aqueduct itself was badly damaged by major flooding in 1971. (I might have already mentioned in some earlier blog that this is the only aqueduct on the canal where there was a lock located on top of the aqueduct.)

The temperature was still below freezing when we started the walk. But, it was also a bright, sunny, morning. There was no breeze to be felt. Although it took a while for us to warm up, we felt no discomfort after that. Extra layers of covering were shed. We found ourselves in the walking zone once again. We covered our usual distance during the walk in spite of our initial concerns about the conditions. It had reached temperatures just above freezing by the time we finished our walk.

The trail was mostly covered by a sheet of ice,although there were a couple of short sections where the ice had melted to the water-soaked surface because of the sunshine.There were signs that many people had visited this section of this trail before us. The footprints in the snow and ice (in other sections of the trail) provided traction for us later arrivals. If you look carefully, you can see the faint markings of the Yaktrax that Teresa was wearing to provide traction while walking on the ice.

The sky was completely clear that morning. There was not a cloud to be seen.

The water in the canal had frozen,but the river was flowing freely.We even saw people in kayaks at one point during the walk.

The particular circumstances of the day allowed me to take a series of pictures under conditions that were unique and transitory. I just happened to be there at the right moment in time. The conditions were just right – the temperature, the state of the ice on the trail, the light that was falling on the trail, and finally, the simple things in nature that had fallen at the particular spots on the trail at that time without having been stepped on by either a human being or animal before we got there. Here are some of these pictures.

It was a unique opportunity that, thankfully, I did not miss!

Another Storm

This storm arrived, once again, on a Sunday – once again disrupting our Sunday walk. For some reason, I felt that this was a prettier storm than the one before. Perhaps it is only a state of mind. I took a few pictures around the house, but, in the end, felt disappointed about them. The weather was warm when compared to the days of the previous storm, and a lot of the snow melted away the same day.

It also happened to be Superbowl Sunday. Not that this mattered too much to me. I have not seen a single American football game this season. I used to watch a lot of sports when I was young, but no more. Arena sports no longer grabs my attention, especially if it is all about overpaid professionals going about their job.

Nevertheless, I had resolved to watch the entire game on Sunday because it is such an American thing to do. I even figured out which team to root for – even though I had no interest in the game. This year there would be no disruptions in the viewing of the game because we were not a a party with other people – which is typically the case on Superbowl Sunday.

The game was fine. There was enough strategy, skill, and technique demonstrated in this game, which, although physically tough and brutal, involves a lot of organization – almost military like, but perhaps with more rules! But I was also surprised by how I felt about all the hype and the additional artificial drama that was a part of the broadcast of the game. In the past I would have accepted it, and maybe even get drawn into it, but now it seemed completely fake and artificial. The ads were particularly stupid. And to build sports personalities into hero figures makes no sense to me. Perhaps the overall experience is like watching gladiators fight in ancient Rome – in a more “civilized” way. (I wonder if they had advertisements during the Roman times in the Colosseum. There must be an Asterix comic book including a panel or two satirizing this concept!)

Nevertheless, having chosen a side to cheer for, I was surprised by how quickly my emotions were manipulated. I began to not just cheer for my team, but also find fault with the other – and with the referees. I was actually “hating”, and I surprised myself with the intensity of this emotion. I was even prone to verbally expressing these emotions. I think it is the animal instinct in all of us that draws us in to something like this in spite of ourselves. I was a part of the audience in a Roman amphitheater! This is what happens in our politics today.

The Storm Arrives

It was snowing steadily when we woke up on Sunday. I had gotten up with the faint hope of still being able to go the river and the towpath for our usual weekend walk. I had actually been thinking about the unique opportunity to get pictures in the park during the snowfall. I gave up the idea quickly, primarily because of the risk of getting stuck in the snow on one of the narrow roads leading to a trailhead. There was no way that these secondary roads were going to be plowed that soon, especially during a snowstorm.

I used to get excited about taking pictures around our home, and even around our neighborhood, when it snowed. For some reason, I did not feel that way this time. Nevertheless, I did try taking a few pictures at home. Most of them did not look interesting to me. All I saw was whiteness. Here are a few of these pictures. At least a couple of these pictures were inspired simply by how I felt when looking at particular objects. They may not mean anything to you.

I am hoping that there will be better opportunities for picture-taking the next time we go to the canal.

The Next Blog

It is in the nature my blogging process that I am often not sure where the inspiration for the next blog will come from. There is definitely a theme that can run through a series of blogs when one is on a quest, or when something is happening. Not today. We have not been to new places on the canal recently, and there is also no new experience from the walks that seems worthy of sharing. The political scene that used to get me worked up in the recent past has gotten to a more tolerable level. We have also not traveled to new places in other parts of the world for over about a year at this point.

I have no interesting articles to point people to today. Also, I have not yet rummaged through my trove of old e-mails to gain some inspiration. There is not much other internal or external inspiration for thought either today. The mind is a blank – the thoughts that sometimes organize themselves in the brain organically to form a complete blog, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle coming together to create a complete picture, are not cooperating. The mind is not quiet enough for any of this to happen. I think I am also distracted because of having to deal with other practical matters. Perhaps, I will just post some pictures from our last weekend on the trail.

It was a cold morning on the towpath as far as we were concerned, but sensitivity to cold is a relative experience. There are some people (including some of those whose blogs I follow) who spend their winter outdoors, looking forward to their activities in the heights of the Rocky mountains in the middle of winter. Such folks might have laughed at us, and considered our reaction to the outside temperatures that morning “wimpy”. And we do not even have to go as far as the Rockies. There are others, even from our part of the world, who perhaps also laugh at our sensitivities – as they get out on their bikes on the roads and trails at these temperatures for recreation. Yes, we saw some of these people last weekend! I do not know how they do it, but I do know that even the little bit of additional airflow created by the forward motion on a bike would, at these temperatures, bring me to a stop quickly. Tears would run, my nose would turn red, and I would lose all sensation on my chin.

But, there we were, delaying our departure to the park to later in the morning since we thought that 24° F was far too cold for us. Not that it got that much warmer later in the morning when we reached the trail – but the sun was at least higher up in the sky. Here are some of the pictures from the outing.

These pictures were taken at the Monocacy Aqueduct. You can see where the Monocacy river meets the Potomac river in the second picture.The following pictures were taken at the parking lot for the Dickerson Conservation Center access point to the trail.These are all good sentiments on the poster, but I cannot see anybody attempting to barbecue at the kind of temperatures we are experiencing these days!

New Days

The new day is dawning. The rising sun lights ups the contrails of the aircraft high up in the sky, westward bound, carrying passengers to new places and expectations.

We, in the US, are now on a new path. We cannot know exactly where it will lead us. We cannot predict the future. But the path itself appears to be clear, and we are hopeful that it will take us to a place we want to be – a better place.

I am still feeling the high from the Inauguration of Joe Biden, the new president of the USA. There was almost a spiritual feel to the events of the day. There was optimism. There was a call to our better selves. There was the call for unity. As Amanda Gorman stated, The Hill We Climb is not easy. But the official echo-chamber of lies and fantasies is no more. There is hope for decency. These initial days of the new administration feel very different from the chaos and divisiveness, and the carnage, that came forth from the top the last few years from the very beginning.

I had this habit during the last few years of checking the news fairly regularly, impulsively – looking for the next big outrage that had been perpetuated by the people in charge. It was surely a habit that was not healthy. It will take a few days to stop doing this, but the first couple of days of the new administration have been calming, and that should help. The immediately issued executive orders from the new administration bring back the sense of decency to the way we do things. There is also the sense that the work of the nation is actually being done. And last, but not the least, it is clear that we are taking the pandemic seriously!

The Trees in Winter

The spirit is often moved while walking along the towpath among the leafless trees of winter on a sunny morning. There is so much character to behold, especially in the upper reaches of the towering sycamores. They are magnificent, and it is beneficial to the soul to take a moment to pause and contemplate this magnificent beauty. The woods can be a place of both mystery and healing.

Water Colors

The image of a paintbox flashed through my mind one morning last week. I am not sure what triggered a memory of something from my childhood. I suddenly had a vivid remembrance/recollection of my leaning over a piece of paper with a wet paintbrush in hand, bringing my brush to a particular color in the tray that lay in front of me, moving the brush back and forth on the cake of color to allow the material to dissolve and be absorbed on to the brush, and then applying the brush to paper. For some reason the name Camel is associated in my mind with the brand of the paintbox that I would have used. I do not know if this was only in my imagination working overtime, but I do note that there still is a brand of watercolor called Camlin from a company based in India.

I used to really like painting as a kid. I think I even graduated to using tubes of paint at some point, but never beyond painting with water colors. I even got to the point of using brushes in different sizes to help fill in different spaces of the picture being painted more efficiently, and to try to achieve some degree of finesse.

I remember that we had to take drawing classes while in middle school. There was a separate classroom dedicated just to drawing. The person in charge of drawing (called the drawing master) was really good at painting. He also used to play volleyball well. But he was also a terror to the kids. He had a habit of breaking the rulers that he hit the kids on the hands with. I somehow managed to escape his wrath, and went on to appreciate what I got to indulge in while in his class. It is impossible to judge whether I had talent or not, but I did enjoy the process.

It was in 1969, the year when man landed on the moon for the first time, that the school decided to have a painting competition in commemoration of the event. I remember painting an astronaut on the surface of the moon. I remember that all the colors I used were dark. It makes sense, does it not? The other occasion I remember was when I took part in a competition organized by the college students in one of the hostels on campus. I do not know what the theme of the competition was, but I decided that I was going to paint an image of the Virgin Mary in what I pictured stained glass to look like. You see, I imagined this stained glass to consist simply of pieces of glass of different colors, stuck together to form a pattern. It was a brilliant move on my part. All I had to do was create random blocks in different shapes to fill in the space, and simply paint each block with a single color. Finesse did not matter in this regard. What mattered was how close the final result could be taken to represent the person I was trying to paint. It could be considered some form of abstract art. Best of all, I could fake out the details when drawing the face. Faces were my biggest challenge when it came to painting, especially the eyes and nose. (I had even avoided having to draw a face for the picture of the astronaut on the earlier occasion!) In any case, they decided to give me a prize in the category and age group that I was participating in. I do not remember any more details.

It is now years later, far removed from my days of middle school. I have not used a paintbrush since then other than for perhaps helping to paint the walls of a house. More recently, I have considered going to the local arts store to buy a the basic stuff needed to try out watercolor painting once again. But something is also stopping me. Basically, I think that I have become a wimp. I am cautious of even the process of getting started. I am concerned about consequences even if there probably aren’t any. I do not even want to buy something that I may not use after a period of experimentation. It could turn out to be a wasteful endeavor. I am concerned that this is only a temporary and foolish fancy that will eventually go away. (I have much experience with such things.) I am concerned that there are too many other things that I do that will distract me from putting in the effort that I feel is needed. I am lazy enough to not want to take classes. Essentially, I can no longer think like the innocent and carefree 10 year old I once was.

Manassas, Virginia

Our travels took us to Manassas last weekend. Manassas is an older town in the neighboring state of Virginia. It may be known for its proximity to the First and Second Battles of Bull Run (also called the battles of Manassas), battles that took place during the Civil War. The city was actually built up around a railroad junction. The Southern Railway tracks used to run through town. Today, it is a commuter railroad station on the VRE on their Manassas Line. Amtrak trains also pass through the town. This is the route of Amtrak’s Crescent train that runs between New York City and New Orleans.

There was a Farmer’s market going on while we were there. There was a band providing entertainment, playing on a stage set up up on the bed of an old, repurposed, Southern Railway flatcar. The town has a small and charming downtown area that we were able to visit and walk through quickly.