Atmospheric Rivers, the Pineapple Express, and a Large Wetland

California’s drought is, if not broken, seriously dented, especially for the upcoming summer. As of Tuesday the 17th, average depth of snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains was one and two-thirds the thirty-year average and increasing. As usual, once the media could get in, and the storms proved to be numerous and productive (and photogenic. Large bounders on the highway are cool. So are floating cars if they are somewhere far away from you,) people began trying to blame someone for the “atmospheric river.” (Climate change! Global warming! Cars and trucks! Hollywood’s moral turpitude!*) Um, well, not really. This isn’t new, just mildly uncommon.

California and parts of the western coast of North America have a Mediterranian Climate. This means that summers are warm and dry, because the ocean currents tend to be cold, and discourage evaporation. Also, winds from inland bring warm, dry air down from the mountains and push out to sea, sending any storms away from the coast. This makes for predictable seasonal weather – you can plan a picnic for July 15 and be 99% sure it will be sunny and warm, even if you set the date in December of the previous year. Likewise, November through March tend to be moist and cooler, although how wet and how cool vary from year to year. A strong La Niña pattern will send the moisture well to the north, and Seattle will get lots of snow, as will British Columbia. Southern California will be dry, and soon start worrying about water limits and rationing and Mega Drought. An El Niño year means California wades, the northern Rockies are relatively dry, and Arizona has a ski season as well as flooding. Remember when the Colorado River almost ripped out Glen Canyon Dam in the early 1980s? El Niño years. We’ve been having a series of La Niñas.

The short-term pattern his shifted, thanks to a series of Pacific storms that formed well south of the usual track in the Gulf of Alaska. These are sometimes called “the Pineapple Express,” because a southern branch of the jet stream picks them up from as far as Hawaii, and slings them over the west coast. From there they might go straight east, or north, or more rarely a little south**. They dump rain and snow on the West Coast.

Since California lives and dries by the winter rainfall and snow pack, all this would be great if it were spread out between October 1 and March 1. However, it is all in December-January, and the overload has filled rivers, flood plains, reservoirs, overloaded snow-removal equipment, and generally made a mess of the place. This is also not new. If you build a lot of hard surfaces along a river, it will rise higher and faster than before, causing flooding. Land-slides are part of the process as well, which people have observed going back to the Spanish colonial period. That’s just what the geology does in that part of the world, especially when very wet.

We’re nowhere near the mess of 1861-62 yet. Back then the Central Valley was still a wetland for the most part, undrained and grass covered, with meandering streams and only one major outlet. So when lots and lots and lots of snow and rain fell, and fell, and fell between November and January, some of it very hard and all at once, the Central Valley went under water. Literally. Sacramento was navigable by boat. Arizona, Washington, Oregon, and New Mexico also had flooding, and the Texas Panhandle finally saw the terrible drought of the 1850s broken for a while. A drought had plagued the area in the 1850s, and the shift to a very strong El Niño broke the drought hard. Very hard. Now, since there were far fewer people to be afflicted, it was a pain but not the disaster it is today. Only a few thousand people died (!) The rest of the country was more worried about the Civil War (and in TX, about the Comanches raiding again). It wasn’t that flooding hadn’t happened before, but that the scale was so impressive. Thirty-feet deep floodwaters are uncommon, and memorable. The good news was, it refilled the aquifers. The bad news was, it wiped out the ranches in the Central Valley along with a lot of other property, and cost human lives, and made a mess of the place. Wired has a pretty good article, if you skim the climate-apocalypse bits. The cautions and observations about the long-term sequence of floods and modern consequences is food for thought – and disaster novels.

Today, parts of the Central Valley have sunk from ground-water pumping. California’s water storage and use policies are . . . I will be charitable. Convoluted, awkward, complex, and perhaps slightly off in their use priorities. The current series of storms will be good in the medium-run, especially this spring and summer as the snow-pack melts and provides summer in-stream flow. Right now, it’s rough on people, livestock, and wildlife. It will also be a major concern for produce growers and other things, since so many fields are under water – literally – and will be water logged for a while. What the state of the soil will be after the water drains is to be seen. We may lose some to sand and other sediment deposits.

What we’re seeing isn’t new, just news. It’s not caused by people but by atmospheric pressure and temperature systems. Rain happens, and sometimes a lot of rain happens all at once.

*The Book of Genesis says no more global floods. There’s nothing about a localized scouring not being an option.

**The southern track is more common with El Niño patterns, and that’s where southern NM, TX, and northern Mexico get winter precipitation. Or we get it from the Gulf of Mexico, but that’s rare this time of year.


Dust Storm or Just Blowing Dirt?

If you are not from the area, it might seem like a difference without a distinction. If you happen to live in a place where, as long as we have written and geologic records, the soil has traveled downwind, it’s an important difference.

Note the make of the cars. Welcome to the Filthy Fifties, which were drier than the 1930s around here. Image source:

The above is a dust storm. They happen when the wind picks up so much dust that it starts attracting more, and you get black (or deep red) skies and lots and lots of static. In my part of the world, they often came from the north, part of a screaming cold front, but not always. In the 1950s people could identify the looming wind shift based on the color of dirt. Some cars would be shorted out by the static in the air, and woe betide you if you touched a barbed-wire fence. They became electrified. A dust storm is a haboob, “black roller” that tosses dirt and sand well into the sky. If you can see over it from the ground, it’s not a dust storm (by local standards). Back in the day, some were so bad south of the Panhandle that the blowing sand would strip the paint off of cars. I’ve not heard of that in a very, very long time.

I’ve been inside a dust storm once. The sky turned dark red, the wind howled, I could see two blocks in town, and the power went out for four hours. There wasn’t much to do besides read on my Kindle, then sit and listen to the wind and wait for the power to come back.

Blowing dust is just that. In local areas you will have poor visibility, such as downwind of a construction site or bare field (depending on soil moisture and wind direction). The top soil departs and gets into the air, but you can see blue-ish sky over the layer of dirt. Straight up might be blue, or somewhat brassy (as I type this, it is brassy in town, so it is probably icky brown in more open areas.) Visibility can drop locally, but you don’t have huge swaths of the area shut down because of no visibility at all. As I type, the wind is 270 at 41 MPH gusting to 67 MPH. Which explains why, as I drove back from Day Job, I saw exactly one semi on the interstate, and he was east bound. Everyone else is staying parked until this weakens, lest they end up on their sides, or needing to refuel every ten miles. We’re supposed to get a hard wind shift around 2000, 50 MPH from the north, then tapering off quickly.

If you go back to the earliest written accounts of the region, and from areas to the east, you find that the dirt blew long before humans farmed out here. The bunch-grasses had gaps between clumps when it got a little dry. Bare soil + steady dry winds = traveling topsoil. The dust storms are less common, but still happen.

Local Scents

I can’t locate myself by the scent of the place, but I can tell you who is doing what, which animals have been around, and wind direction. Come with me on an evening walk in a typical neighborhood during late December, around 1845 CST.

I set off southbound. The strong whiff of manure tells the world that the wind has switched to the south-west, bringing eau d’feedlot. It’s not so strong as to be unpleasant, and the wind has been fading anyway, so the scent will go away. A sharp whiff of smoke followed by the heavy scent of pitch warns of someone burning cheap pine wood, not the good stuff. That’s a little rough on the chimney, but some people like it. There’s a bit of humid floral scent, the universal perfume of a dryer. No matter what soap or dryer sheet (if any), all dryers smell the same from outside the house. That family does a lot of laundry, based on what I observe in the evenings.

At the end of the second block I turn east. The air is cool and crisp, dry. Crunching through leaves brings up some dust and leaf-smell. A diesel pickup chugs past, leaving exhaust in the air for several seconds. Diesel fumes always take me back to Europe, to London and even more to Vienna, because of being out and about during the wee hours of the morning, when deliveries are permitted in the central district of the city. Only workmen, me, and the truly devout are generally moving at those hours. After another few blocks I swing south. Moist dampness reveals someone watering grass. A rich, fatty smoke drifts down. Someone else has piñon in the fireplace. I stop to sniff appreciatively. The wood is rarely burned around here, now. Growing up, it was a common “luxury” wood around Christmas. Two houses pass. Another dryer.

Come the next block, I wrinkle my nose. Clackita clackita clackita hssss, and the sweet, too sweet, scent of a chemical. Not paint exactly, or solvent, but something too sweet and artificial. The wind paces me and the scent lingers for five houses before I escape and return to the usual night smells. Once I turn the corner, eastbound once more, sharp burning and scorch. I shake my head. Someone’s burger fell into the coals. No one is smoking meat tonight, alas, but several grill, mostly burgers.

A bit of dust comes through the air. Road construction has torn up several stretches of pave, and the dirt is departing, as it so often does around here. A sharp, bitter underscent cuts through everything else. The skunk has expressed unhappiness, and is sharing that distress with someone. Who will pass it along wherever he goes. Skunk fades and I catch a whiff of balsam. A new wreath on the Little Free Library adds scent to the air.

Cool, chilly night settles on the area. Stars have no scent, unless it is the clean, moist cold of snow after a storm that clears out the skies, revealing Orion, Taurus, and the Sisters in all their brilliant glory. I return home, exercised and entertained. Home smells of gingerbread and dust and a bit of tomato tartness from supper. Soon the spicy perfume of a winter tea will join the blend, held in chilly hands that ache oh so faintly from the cold.

Book Review: The Vortex

Carney, Scott and Jason Miklian. The Vortex: A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm, an Unspeakable War, and Liberation. (New York: Ecco Books, 2022) Kindle edition.

The short version – this account of the 1970 Bay of Bengal cyclone and the war between East and West Pakistan is well written, makes good use of sources, and is painful to read because of the topic.

Scott Carney and Jason Miklian tell the story of a natural disaster that became the catalyst for war, including attempted genocide (their term). Hurricane forecasting was just starting to move into the realm of science, and in 1970, different countries used different ways to predict storms and warn of their intensity. Sattelite imagery too lagged behind time of need, and the National Hurricane Center in the US didn’t get images quickly. When trying to warn people on the other side of the globe, that lag became lethal, as did the confusion in intensity scales. A US Category 4 sounded mild on the older 1-10 scale. It wasn’t.

The book follows five people – two young men from East Pakistan, an American woman and her husband who work in Dakka, East Pakistan, President Yahya Khan of Pakistan, and a Pakistani officer. President Richard Nixon and a few others appear at times. The way the authors use those characters can make the story a little confusing, because each chapter focuses on one person in turn. I found the American woman and the young man on the island to be the most intriguing. They tried to stay outside of politics, and for various reasons got pulled in: she organized international aid and distribution, and he became a guerilla fighter.

The story quickly turns ugly. The cyclone, which caused an estimated 250,000 deaths (possibly as many as 500,000) led to unrest in East Pakistan. This caused the government of West Pakistan to act against those who had been calling for more political rights for the flat, ethnically Bengali half of the country. The solution was to eliminate anyone in leadership and anyone who did not speak the languages of western Pakistan. The resulting “Operation Searchlight” led to the deaths of millions, either through execution through or disease and hunger as refugees fled to India, or tried to. That in turn galvanized East Pakistani units in the larger army to mutiny, and individuals in East Pakistan to turn to irregular warfare.

There are clear villains in the story as told. Yaha Khan, the president of the country, Richard Nixon (who gave Khan a blank check and arms in exchange for helping facilitate the opening up of China), the West Pakistani military commanders who encouraged murder, rapine, torture, and other things. Heroes include those who tried to help, and those who fought for the freedom of what became Bangladesh. Missing is India, for the most part.

The book is well written but painful to read. Genocide is not pleasant. I’d read about Operation Searchlight in general, but not the horrible details and how it was organized and carried out. The results of the 1970 cyclone – bodies, death, emotional pain, starvation – are also hard to read, although perhaps more familiar. I got tired of the Anthropogenic Climate Change drum being beaten, especially in the final chapter. The disjointed nature of the story, hopping from person to person, could also get confusing. Having a map in hand helps.

I’d recommend the book for those interested in the history of South Asia in general and Bangladesh in particular and those looking at the interplay of natural disasters and politics. I’m not comfortable with the amount of blame the US gets in the book for Operation Searchlight, but I’m not a diplomatic historian and don’t have enough background to be able to tell if the authors overplay the importance of the US’s reaction or lack there of to the West Pakistani actions.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from the authors or publisher for this review.

Book Review: The Yellow River: A Natural and Unnatural History

Mostern, Ruth. The Yellow River: A Natural and Unnatural History (Yale University Press, 2021) hard cover.

It was once called the Great River, and flowed clear. Over time, human use, climate shifts, and political responses to floods and droughts led to the river becoming the Yellow River, sometimes called China’s Sorrow. How this happened is a story as convoluted as the river’s floodplains, and a fascinating lesson in parts vs the whole, and the limits of human power. People and water, and silt and sand, worked together to destabilize the great river over the course of a thousand years.

Asian environmental history has been relatively under-studied, in part because of problems with language, in part because of the enormous spans of time involved. European environmental history is easier to divide, and the archaeological pieces are gathered into tidier “heaps” of sources, so to speak. Only within the past 20 years or so have many works about the environmental history of China been published. This book builds on several classic works of that history, and expands the time-span of the history of the Yellow River.

Mostern argues that while climate shifts and weather pattern changes played a role in the changes observed in the Yellow River watershed, human activity played a far greater role, especially after roughly the year AD 600 CE. Differences in priorities between imperial governments and local officials, plus the focus on relatively free-market development and agriculture, led to Han Chinese culture expanding into regions not suited for intensive farming. By 1855, the Yellow River had become unusuable and impossible to manage (given the finances and technologies of the time), and what had once been a fertile and prosperous region turned into a salty, gravel and sand-choked series of barrens and wetlands. The Loess Plateau in the bend of the Yellow River transformed with ever-increasing speed from grasslands and mixed forests to a rugged, eroded near-desert that sent millions of tons of sediment to cover the floodplain downstream.

Warfare caused much of the damage to the ecosystem of the upper Yellow River, but stable imperial regimes could be just as bad for the environment. The region is one of conflicts – hot and cold air masses, desert winds and tropical moisture, herders and farmers, imperial centralization and tribal societies. Competing armies stripped the land of forests and grass, and the soldier-farmers of Imperial China denuded the land to build walls and grow food for their own survival. When the nomads chased the Han back to the river and farther south, they too removed forest cover, although long stable periods did allow for regrowth of grass and trees. Sometimes. The development of iron-bladed plows and intensive farming technologies caused further, faster, erosion. Demand for fuel and building wood in peace time as well as war devoured more and more forests, causing more erosion and more flooding downstream.

Some observers saw what was happening and argued that the erosion and loss of ground cover needed to stop at the source. When the capital city remained in the upper Yellow River, the government seemed—sometimes—more interested in considering those ideas. But once the government moved downstream, the focus shifted to coping with the results of the problem, not the sources. Huge floods in 1048 and other years devoured tens of thousands of farmland, displaced millions, and drained the imperial treasury. Only the Grand Canal made it possible to feed and supply Peking/Beijing as the land around it turned sandy and salty from inundation and sediment dumping. In 1885, efforts to keep the Grand Canal open failed, and sea transport became the only to move food to the city. Southern China refused to pay for the problems of the Yellow River.

The book is very well written with excellent illustrations, tables, and a long appendix of methodologies. It helps to have a background in overall Chinese history, but that is not needed. A bit of hydrology helps even more, otherwise the learning curve might be a touch steep in the introduction and first chapter. I found the book an easy read, but one with lots and lots to ponder and mull over. The author is even handed in her approach – people can’t know what they can’t know, and the imperial hydrocrats’ priorities made sense to them. They lacked the tools and the resources to see the entire watershed as a whole. Those who did pull back to see the larger picture lacked the will to sacrifice the imperial capital to floods in order to pour resources into the upstream lands.

The author’s use of some terms struck me as odd, enough so that it pushed me out of the story a few times. I disagree with using the term “Anthropocene,” although in this case there is some logic to it, given the importance of human influences on the life of the river. Other usages were literally correct, but jarring, almost as if the author were not a native speaker. I do not know, and it does not affect the overall readability and quality of the book.

I recommend the book to historians of water, historians of China, people interested in the interactions of government and the physical environment, and conservationists. The idea that “the problems caused by central control can be fixed by central control” rings all too true in the West today. I am reminded of an interview I did with a farmer about flooding on a small river. He shrugged and said, “Rivers flood. That’s what rivers do.” People can try to work around, with, or against floods and droughts, but only by looking at the watershed as a while, rather than reach by reach. This is an excellent addition to the literature in several disciplines.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no compensation or remuneration for this review.

Well, That Was Odd

So there I was, driving back from an 0700 appointment at Ye Haus of Autos. The air temp was a blazing 21-24 F, depending on where the thermometer happened to be hiding. Thick fog covered the areas away from town, and thinner fog in town. The sky turned heavy, low gray at sunrise. The first wave of cold air had oozed in overnight.

As I drove back into town, white began to frost the sidewalks and road. Cars shimmied a little as they pulled out of parking lots and side streets. The road had become slick. This wasn’t the usual “some [unkind word] left the sprinklers on” ice on the sidewalks and gutters. The fog thickened as well, even though I was surrounded by developed areas. How odd.

Up ahead, snow slithered across the road, whirling up behind cars. Snow? Snow had not been forecast at all. I eased forward when the light turned green, and the rear of the truck shivered a touch even so. Very bad traction. I glanced off to the side, into the park, and saw the large rainwater pond there. A few ducks and geese basked on the unfrozen water. Then I turned my attention back to the road. There was my answer. Indeed, the snow disappeared and the fog thinned two or three blocks past the pond, and the pavement returned to its usual rough self.

Pond-effect snow. The water had not frozen over, and the wind was just enough to cause “lake effect” precipitation.

How it works: Fair Use under Creative Commons. Original source:

This region gets orographic snow on a slightly different scale, but lake-effect isn’t as common, despite having a large lake. The canyon walls around the lake interfere with the airflow. What does happen is a north and south difference across the Canadian River Breaks, with more snow on the south side as northerly winds are forced back up onto the plains. It’s not as dramatic as Buffalo New York’s two meters (six feet) at a time, but it is noticeable if you look for it.

So I got to see lake-effect snow 60 miles or so from the closest official lake. I love Texas!

A Winter Reverie

When you live west of the 100th Meridian, “running a quick errand” sometimes driving for an hour or so. In this case, it was forty-five minutes, browse then chat then pay, and forty-five minutes to return to RedQuarters. In my defense, 1) the truck needed highway miles and 2) this time of year, it’s easier to fetch then have shipped when distances are so small*.

Given the construction on the main highway, which is extensive, ever-changing, and nerve-wracking to drive through when surrounded by semis, I took a series of county two-lane roads to my destination. These are Texas Farm to Market (FM) roads, so the speed limit is the same as the highways. Prudence and good sense apply, and doing 75 on a twisting, snow-packed road is generally frowned upon by the laws of Newton. That day we’d gotten “it won’t happen” snow overnight, but the roads were dry by the time I headed out of town. The first few miles were mildly interesting because of the mix of vehicles and the people turning into and out of roadside businesses. However, once past the Last Traffic Light, the cars and trucks disappeared. I saw a total of four on my first long leg. Since you can see traffic coming at least two miles away, relaxing and glancing at the sky and the sides of the road is safe**.

It was 39 F when I left town, and bright sunshine. The clouds that had come with the snow formed a white line far to the south and east, low on the horizon. There’s a different sort of look to retreating snow clouds, sort of soft on the edges and glowing under the blue top edge that separates cloud and clear sky. It probably comes from refracted light and their proximity to the ground. These were stratus, low and flat, not too thick. Soft blue arced from horizon to horizon, untroubled by contrails or clouds. The wind rested, although the forecast had that changing at some point in the day. A few golden brown tumbleweeds moved on the edges of the road, but only when a passing vehicle stirred the air.

I kept one eye on the black trail stretching before me, and another on the brown, dark brown, and occasionally bright green land to the sides of the road. New houses have sprouted up here and there as people build subdivisions “to get away from other people.” No, I don’t really understand it, and I’m not fond of it, but it’s not my money being spent (yet). However, past a certain distance and pasture replaced structure. The short, prickly, dark brown remains of cotton plants filled one former wheat field, explaining the globs and small tufts of “snow” that appeared in the ditch from that field into the next town. The winter wheat varied from very good looking (and irrigated) to barely holding down the soil, a faint green fuzz on the dark dirt. We need snow for the wheat. Rain is good, and almost no one objects to more rain, but snow protects and insulates the wheat, helping it survive truly cold temperatures. Pasture grasses catch the snow, holding it so that it melts into the soil and doesn’t drift (much.) Ranchers are fond of snow in moderation, and don’t really like rain after the grasses go dormant. It “washes the goodness out,” leaching out nutrients from the dry grasses. But rain fills the natural ponds and eases the need to irrigate or pump water, so . . . No, farmers and ranchers are never really happy, and certainly almost never happy at the same time.

Some of the grass looked very good. There were several large swaths of native grass pasture along the road, all well cared for. No cactus intruded, no mesquite poked up, and the grazing had been light and even. The lack of grazing’s not a great sign, because one reason for that is that local ranchers have been reducing their herds while prices are decent. The three years of drought are taking a toll on everyone. The road I took passes through an area that was blessed with more rain than other spots, and a little standing water lingered in the folds and pockets of the land. The only growing plants were the winter wehat. The native grasses are warm-season plants, able to tolerate higher temps and drier soils than the cool season grasses back east. Most of what I saw was western wheat-grass, grama grasses, and some un-grazed buffalo grass. Yes, buffalo grass will look like a nice carpet if it isn’t heavily grazed. Otherwise it is a very typical bunch grass, forming lumps and clumps for self defense. What I saw, with one exception, was pretty good. The one exception had been badly managed in the past, and a few cactus are still holding on despite the good grass cover. There’s one other “bad” place, but it is around a water hole, and has been used to stage construction materials and road equipment in the past, so weeds took over.

The trip passed quietly. I browsed through the shop and as usual left with more than I’d come for. I did not succumb to the lure of the beaver pelts (plews), although it wasn’t for lack of interest. I can justify books and Christmas gifts. A beaver fur for classroom use? Um, not so much. Nor could I justify a vintage men’s XL buffalo coat. For one thing, it was longer than I am tall, almost. Nor did I sign the list for the quarter beef give-away the local ranchers’ group is sponsoring. I have no freezer space, alas. A hair-on gun-rug almost followed me home, but I refrained. The shop owner and I chuckled at people who fussed about the real long-horn head “not looking like a real longhorn.” The visitor then pointed toward the African cattle*** grazing at the edge of town. The lady did not argue with her customers.

On the way back, clouds began filling the sky. Rows and clumps of winter grey dotted the sky, growing thicker as I drove back toward town. A few tumbleweeds danced across the road, chased from north to south. The wind had arrived. The sky reminded me of dollops of dough on a biscuit-topped cobbler. Some times, after being in a place for a few years, you just know what a “winter sky” or “spring sky” look like. This was winter, white and blue-grey stratus sheep grazing their way eastwards over the tawny-coated land.

Two more pickups came into view and then disappeared. Traffic was light on the back road, and light on the little bit of highway I traveled as well. Some schools are still in session, and the Christmas travel rush has not begun yet. Ranchers worked away from the road, and no farm work needed to be done outside, in the cold.

It was a good day to get away and rest my eyes on the land. The world is a lot larger than it feels, some days. It’s good to be reminded of that.

*Small being less than an hour one way at highway speed on dry pavement.

** As safe as looking around at 70 MPH on a rural road ever is.

*** If the horns curve up in a dramatic half-circle, it’s not a native Texas longhorn. You can also tell by body shape and size, and horn spread in some cases. But some things are not worth arguing about.

Winter Gothic

At some point, while looking for something else most likely, I found Erasure’s video of “Gaudete.” I started watching, blinked, and said, “It’s Caspar David Friedrich!” Because everyone borrows imagery from him when they want to do “ancient church in snow at night mildly creepy but maybe not” settings.

Gothic? Check, check. Eerie but not truly scary? Probably check. Winter? Check! Article about CDF:

This one tells a story:


Not all of C.D.F.’s paintings are “moody, brooding, cold,” but some of the most famous are, or at least the most often reproduced and borrowed from.

“Oaks in the Snow with Domlan.” A dolman is a prehistoric marker or burial mound, common (formerly) in parts of the northern German-speaking lands.

So, the video that borrows so heavily from C. D. F and a few others? Note that the video has some creepy and possibly sacrilegious elements, notable the burning candle.

The hard contrasts of dark, bare trees and stones against white snow have been noted by artists and poets for a very long time. Northern Europe tends to be misty and dark this time of year, especially the far northern areas where C. D. F. visited. The sun rises around eight-thirty and sets around three-thirty. That is, if you can see the sun for the heavy clouds. When I was in Vienna over Christmas, heavy skies, snow, and then hard cold reminded everyone that yes, winter had arrived. It was one of the few times that I ate everything in sight and lost weight, because I was converting so much of the snacks and treats into heat. The importance of light, and the turning of the year, was firmly reinforced on that trip. The true cold of winter usually arrives a little later than December, but not always.

One thing I like about so many of C. D. F.’s paintings is that they catch the mystery of things. Christmas and Advent are often too shiny, up-front, and bright for my taste. There’s a Mystery in the familiar story, a hushed and intent waiting for . . . something. Something wonderful, but something also deep and more than a little scary. “He is good, but he’s not safe,” as C. S. Lewis describes Aslan. “Gaudete” calls us to rejoice, but in a minor key, often arranged with slightly discordant harmonies. The turning of the year, the Winter Solstice, brings light but also deeper cold in many places. There’s a mystery, something hidden in the night, in the winter mist and clouds.

The Falkirk Wheel

How do you move boats up and down hill without using a long series of locks, such as Neptune’s Staircase on Lock Ness? Especially when you have a lot of old, leaky locks, a bridge that’s going to block the canal, and a few other problems? First, you hire a Scots engineer. Then . . .

Until 2002, when boats needed to go from the Union Canal to the Forth and Clyde Canal, they descended 100 feet (33 m) through a series of 11 locks. Each lock has two gates. The gates were opened and closed by pure muscle power. It made for a long, slow, tiring day at best. There had to be a better way to get around Stirling, if you were a boat. Using a crane to lift the boats would have been dangerous and amazingly expensive, because of lifting boats and water up and down requires a LOT of power. or it would have . . .

Enter the brilliant design of the Falkirk Wheel ship-lift. It rotates, using the weight of the water to lift water and boat. [All photos by author]

As you approach the wheel from the uphill (Antonine wall) side, you boggle at the steep hill that you descend and the size of the equipment. If it is moving, the silence is also a bit surprising. for a huge piece of machinery, it makes very little noise.

The base of the lower tower. Note operator for scale.

The idea is simple and amazing. Canal boats or personal boats sail into the box. The watertight doors close, and the mechanism begins turning the wheel. Gravity and momentum take over, and as the weight of the upper chamber pushes down, it raises the lower chamber. Past a certain point, momentum takes over and the boats trade places.

Above you see that the lift is just starting . . .

Boat in the air!

Boat coming down. Note tourists for scale.

I’m an engineering geek. I was oogling the equipment and devouring the tech specs, and so on, the the mild amusement of my guide. My parents are also engineering buffs, so we had fun discussing the physics. The power needed is much lower than you’d think. It needs 22KW to start moving and uses 1.5 kWh to rotate. That’s not much electricity at all.

The Tree of Jesse

The idea of the tree of life is found in lots and lots of traditions, be they “organized religion,” animist, environmentalism-as-religion, neopagan, or just people who see certain trees as having special personal, spiritual significance.

The concept of the Jesse Tree comes from the book of Isaiah. In 11:1, it says, “But there shall come a rod forth of the stock of Jesse, and a grass shall grow out of his roots.” (Geneva Translation) More common is “and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Either way, medieval artists depicted this literally, showing the sleeping figure of Jesse, father of David, with a tree growing from him. This ties back into the Genesis account of the Tree of Life vs the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Tree of Life comes from Jesse.

The above was the only Jesse Tree I found in Scotland. It is in the National Museum, on a panel from woodwork associated with Mary Queen of Scots. Since the reformers in Scotland took a dim view on “idol worship” as they described it, a lot of the visual imagery from the medieval period in lowland Scotland vanished in the 1500s-1600s. It remains in the German lands, however.

From Limburg, Germany. This and the above photo from Swabisch Hall are author photos.

Ceilings are also a tad unusual.

This is another tree of life, the only one I’ve seen thus far on the ceiling of a church. It is inverted, so you can follow the order. Adam and Eve are on the bottom, then Jesse, David, and on to Jesus.

The cross on which Jesus was crucified was called the Holy Tree, or Holy Rood (rod) in Anglo-Saxon and Old English. One of the first surviving hymns in “English” is the Dream of the Rood, where the tree that became the cross talks about what happened. A modern depiction from York Minster that takes the idea literally is below.

Modern art seems to have gotten away from the idea, although I have seen some attempts to reclaim the neopagan tree of life images for Catholicism in particular. That one . . . doesn’t quite work for me, although I can’t pin down quite why. The Latter-day Saints use the image of the Tree of Life, taken from the vision of Nephi, in their faith, sometimes literally as in the case of Mack Wilburg’s song “O Tree of Life” and the dance setting that used it during Christmas a few years ago.

Most Protestants hear the text once a year, during Advent, but don’t see it depicted. We might, rarely, get to hear the song, “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” Although not directly about the Tree of Jesse*, it is often done around Christmas.

*Oddly enough, what I think of with the Jesse Tree is “Behold a star from Jacob shining” by Mendelssohn.