What Awes You?

 

Cetaceans Grey
Cetacean Grey=Awesome

Ok, so here’s the thing—when were you last awed?  Saw something or did something that was awesome? Please leave a comment at the end of this blog.  It’s worth comtemplating, because according to an op-ed piece in The New York Times, being awed makes us better humans. (I greatly shortened the essay’s message, read it all here at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/24/opinion/sunday/why-do-we-experience-awe.html).

A grey whale, giving us a look
A grey whale, giving us a look

My answer would be touching and even bending to kiss a grey whale in Baja California.  Okay, so my bird nerd-eco friends are now rolling their eyes… but this has nothing to do with science or with observation. “Friendly encounters” in Laguna San Ignacio Lagoon are awesome events.  Of course, they are strictly controlled. Only Mexican operated/licensed panga (small, 8-10 people) boats are allowed, and only in a tiny fraction of the lagoon.  If a whale is spotted, the operators, who are local fishermen, approach gently, leaving at least 30 yards between the boat and the whale. Then they cut the motor. The only enticement, if you can call it that, is reaching over the side of the boat and flipping sea water into the air.  The panga drivers sometimes use cut-off gallon jugs (conveniently, they also could be used for bailing).

Grey whales like splash

For some reason, the gray whales seem to like water splashed on their faces. No one knows why, nor does anyone really know why they seek out humans.  No food is exchanged, there is no other attraction–other than splashing water and having a good scratch on the underside of the boat.  (That does rock the boat, but not violently.)

A Friendly Encounter
A Friendly Encounter

The tradition of friendly gray whales goes back to the 1970s, and began with fishermen. Now, mother whales bring their calves over, particularly in April when they are the only ones left in the lagoon before their trek to the Arctic. Females nudge their calves toward the pangas filled with people. (See my husband, John’s, Mother’s Day video: http://wp.me/p3hDGb-to).

The Searcher naturalist in our boat, who has visited Baja many times,  noted that years ago he had probably petted some of the whales who were now introducing their young to us. As he spoke, he almost cried and so did I.  At one time, our boat was surrounded by three mothers (each as long as a school bus)  and three calves.  That was awesome, goosebumps and all.

Mama grey whale knows best--she is 3X the size of our boat
Mama grey whale knows best–she is 3X the size of our boat

How about you? When have you experienced awe?

 

Cetacean Blues

You never know what to expect from a whale. On a whale watch a long time ago off the coast of New England, an Atlantic right whale swam under our boat and took a long look at the humans on deck. It was a transcendent moment for me. I felt that at that instant, the whale really saw us. And down we gazed–all the time aware that we could be pitched into the Atlantic with one flip of his mighty tail.

The Smithsonian's Blue Whale was installed in 1963
The Smithsonian’s Blue Whale was installed 1963.

Since then, it seems my life has led me to whales. The Natural History Museum in Washington DC, part of the Smithsonian, used to have a huge fiberglass model of a Blue Whale which hung from the ceiling of an exhibit called “Life in the Sea.” Our family visited that museum often, and all visitors walked under the model, which, quite simply, portrayed the largest creature on the planet poised to dive. That Blue Whale got to me.

Now, years later, when my husband and I started researching places we wanted to go, Baja California rose to the top. Both my husband and I instantly agreed that was the perfect destination. And for us, it was.

Me trying to photograph a Blue Whale tail
Me trying to photograph a Blue Whale tail

Naturally, a Blue Whale was the first whale we saw after we boarded our home for 11 days, Searcher (see my previous blog post “Things I Learned in Baja.”). The naturalist on board told us the whale was feeding on red pelagic crabs and krill. Gigantic and graceful, slow and deliberate, the whale rose to the surface and dove, showing us a tiny dorsal fin far back on its body.

It has a small dorsal fin far back on the body
It has a small dorsal fin far back on the body

 

Its tail was beautiful and almost seemed sculpted. When it began to surface again, which sometimes took up to 20 minutes, the water just beneath the surface turned a brilliant speckled turquoise in the sun…hence, a blue whale.

A Blue Whale's spout hangs in the air
A Blue Whale’s spout hangs in the air

Old whale hands can tell all the whales by their distinctive spouts. The Blue Whale’s is tall, columnar and hangs in the air a long time. It’s unmistakeable.

Crew searching on Searcher
Crew searching on Searcher

On Searcher, the crew constantly scanned the water for spouts with high-powered binoculars, and we were often rewarded with whale viewing.

Blue Whales all around
Blue Whales all around

On our second day, south of the Island of San Benito, we encountered many Blue Whales, all busy feeding on crabs and krill. Art, the captain explained that his call would be as if we were on a clock–with the prow of the boat always at 12. He would, for instance, call out over the PA, “ 10 o’clock, “ and then, “2 o’clock, “ but pretty soon, on that special day, whales were all around us. We could hear the spouts, see the whales and it was wonderful. Everyone on the boat stood on deck in awe–we were tiny dots on a small boat in a big ocean in the Last Kingdom of the Whales. And at that moment we knew it.

 

Side note: The first night on Searcher, the captain asked what whale we most wanted to see and why. Several of the Brits on board mentioned the Blue Whale model in the British Museum. I, of course, was affected by the Blue Whale model in the Smithsonian. Come to find out, the Smithsonian’s Blue Whale, which was installed in 1963, was modeled on the British one. Ours is no longer in the Natural History Museum, but I think the British model is still in the British Museum. Here’s some interesting reading I discovered about the whale models that influenced many of us on our whale watch:  http://www.mnh.si.edu/onehundredyears/profiles/whales_si.html

Things I Learned in Baja

We went on a three week vacation last month. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Our goal was to see whales and birds in Baja California, Mexico. In preparation, we got out some old duffel bags because we were warned our boat–Searcher–was small.

Searcher
Small but mighty–Searcher

We rolled and packed what we thought we would wear for temps between 50-80 degrees. We needed sturdy shoes and bathing suits, snorkel equipment and water shoes. Also in the mix were cameras, binoculars, and various field guides, all of which were heavy.
And clothes. According to the literature, we did not need ‘smart’ clothes, but we needed to  carry our own bags. (We always fail at this, but we try.)

I learned a few things on this trip, listed below, with elaboration. The list is not in any particular order, and some things I re-learned:

1. You can share 4 bathrooms, two of them with showers, with 28 other people. It helps that the crew cleans and tidies the bathrooms every day and changes the bathmats. There is not as much waiting as you might think. Also, don’t be too surprised if the occupancy sign says “vacant” and you walk in on someone. People forget. Side note: All toilet stalls everywhere should have “vacancy” and “occupied” signs. It helps.

A handy sign
A handy sign

2.*** You can get used to sleeping anywhere. Our bunks were small and my top bunk was challenging to get into. (Leg flinging was involved.) John’s had a cut-out section in the area reserved for his feet, due to the mysterious tiny sink in our cabin.

Small means small

3. Three weeks without TV, only occasional internet and no phone is doable. You will not miss the TV. Trust me. It is fun to actually talk to people and listen to their stories.

4. Jeans don’t need to be washed frequently. If you get a spot, sponge it off and hope for the best. Three weeks is not a long time to wear jeans.

5. Take sunscreen lip gloss. Your lips will thank you and you will be more comfortable.

6. Flip flops work. They are light, and you can wear them on a boat which is pitching and rolling. If that happens, stand firm and bend you knees.  All shoes you  take must be tried and true.  On the boat, walk carefully and hang on.

7. Take sea sick meds ahead of time–don’t wait until your journey begins. Take the pill even if the sea is calm when you get up in the morning. Things change.

Place used tea bags in the silver container on the shelf
Place used tea bags in the square silver container on the shelf near the coffee machine

8. If you are on a boat with Brits, find out what the tea bag etiquette is. Do not take your teabag out and place it on the table near food. Find the waste bin and jettison it. (Use the container for coffee stirrers.)

If you need them, you probably have some
If you need them, you probably have some

9. Little bars of soap you’ve kept from other hotels are pretty handy if soap is not provided in a shower. (At last! A use for little soaps.) 9A. Take many plastic bags as well. That way, you can keep using the soap from shower to shower…and you will feel like the queen of recycling.

10. Bring and use ear plugs when you travel. Sleeping masks are also recommended. (Both are also useful on red-eye flights; drugs are even better.)

WHAT TO DO:

One final note–when you are bone-tired, go to bed. Forget about time zones, stick to Ship’s Time and adjust. And if the captain blares the PA at 10 pm for everyone to get up and watch the smooth-tailed mobula rays attracted by the boat’s night-time searchlight, get up. (I plan to share much more on the fantastic critters we saw in later posts.)  John has already posted some wonderful photos and video:
https://youtu.be/65lPv3N-ACs
blog
http://wp.me/p3hDGb-to

If the captain calls you to the side, get up!

***It should be noted that I learned the sleep-anywhere lesson as a freshman at Syracuse University. My room was in an old house, used by freshman who didn’t know any better. It was tiny, with a single bed and soft mattress. My room had a full length window facing the busiest street in the city. The first time a motorcycle roared by at 2 a.m., I swear I levitated over the bed. But I got used to it. You can get used to most anything.

You can see how old the cottages were--I'm not that old, but they were still in use in 1966.
You can see how old the cottages were–I’m not that old, but they were still in use in 1965.

FDR in Hyde Park

Springwood, FDR's House on the Hudson
Springwood, FDR’s House on the Hudson

Springwood, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s home on the Hudson, is in Hyde Park, N.Y. We visited on the last day of our trip to upstate New York. The house, as he instructed, was left exactly as it was in 1945, the year he died.  Nearby are Val-Kill, owned by Eleanor, and Top Ridge, a small retreat favored by FDR. All, except the library, are under the care of the National Park Service. The library and museum are administered by the National Archives.

The House is not much to look at, but the trees and the grounds are lovely. Like other famous houses on the Hudson(see my post on Kykuit–http://wp.me/p3cJ8X-lG ), it has a beautiful view of the river to the west.

Looking west, toward the Hudson River
Looking west, toward the Hudson River

Springwood is not a fancy place, but it reeks of Roosevelt. The entry, for instance, contains an entire wall with his childhood stuffed bird collection.  All the rest of the walls are covered with portraits of ancestors and naval prints,  and ship models are everywhere. He collected them.  FDR was an adored only child of a mother who saved everything, and the house and the museum are overflowing with his possessions.

Roosevelt's childhood bedroom
Roosevelt’s childhood bedroom

In another room, FDR’s stamp collection is set out as if he just stepped away… except he wheeled.  And got from one floor to another in a dumb waiter–in his wheel chair, pulling himself up with ropes. Isn’t it amazing that some people at the time did not even know he was wheel-chair dependent?

Hyde Park Living Room
Hyde Park living room–note the wheel chair

The living room at Hyde Park looks ripe for cocktails and cigarettes, which he enjoyed, and during which “shop talk” was forbidden. Eleanor was not often a participant.  She, I think, valued more serious pursuits, with good reason.

The museum attached to the library displays the President’s silver cocktail shaker.  I’ll have a martini, please, dry. I would have loved drinking in the presence of one of the most charming men there ever was.  You must admit, the Roosevelt men were very handsome.

FDR Portrait
FDR Portrait

The museum at Hyde Park contains just about everything that relates to FDR’s life and his four terms in office.  It is so detailed that it would take more than a day to see it all.

100 Days, 100 Nights
100 Days, 100 Nights

For someone who didn’t live through the Great Depression or World War II, it’s mind boggling.  I especially loved the museum’s recreation of a 1930s household kitchen with the radio broadcasting one of his radio chats. I could imagine gathering round and listening to his voice–rich and cultured, but not too much–all in all, something warm and comforting in a really scarey time.

Recreation of kitchen, circa 1930
Recreation of kitchen, circa 1930

 

 

 

 

 

 

Radio was the social media
Radio was the social media

 

Ken Burns’ wonderful series on the Roosevelts, Teddy, Eleanor and FDR–was on PBS soon after we visited Hyde Park (http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/the-roosevelts/watch-videos/. ) What complex individuals they all were!  My own relatives thought FDR was Satan incarnate. They were all  Republicans and thought he was a traitor to his class because he was a Democrat.  Except we weren’t of that class, just pretenders and wannabes. American history is so twisted–sometimes people vote against their best interests.

But back in FDR’s time,  we won a war partly on sheer guts and “we can do it” spirit.  And FDR believed in the power of community and the need for government not only as protector, but as stimulus and mover, helper and leader. We are still fighting those battles. Social Security is still reviled by some, but I left that flock long ago.  Count me among those who admire the Roosevelts. And highly recommend a visit to Hyde Park.

And when you’re in Washington, DC, visit the FDR Memorial near the Tidal Basin.  It is one of my favorites, right down to his little dog Fala.  And read FDR’s words–they hit home.

Fala
Fala

 

Too much, too little
Too much, too little

 

Stone Barns

Stone Barns from garden
Stone Barns from garden

No trip to Westchester County N.Y. is complete without a trip to Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.  And if two people you love work there, all the better.  Our beloved son is with the facilities crew and our daughter-in-law is a landscape apprentice.

Julie, landscape apprentice at Stone Barns and daughter-in-law
Julie, landscape apprentice at Stone Barns and daughter-in-law

Stone Barns is in Pocantico Hills, a hamlet surrounded by land owned by the Rockefellers, who originally owned 3400 acres in Westchester County.   Up a winding road, past State Park/Rockefeller property on both sides, you come up open fields and then–stone barns, built to look like barns in Normandy, France. They are made of local grey stone, solid and earthy, but the soaring silos and huge curved windows give the whole place a fairytale look, kind of like Cinderella’s castle at Disney. (Sorry, that castle was imprinted on me in childhood.) The barns were built as a dairy in the 1930s by John D. Rockefeller Jr.  (At Kykuit, the family homestead, see my previous post, http://wp.me/p3cJ8X-lG, he was called “Mr. Junior.”)

Jordan, driving the Kabota
Jordan, driving the Kabota

 

Today,  Stone Barns is a four-season working farm (there’s a 1/2 acre minimally heated greenhouse that operates year-round), with a famous farm-to-table restaurant, a cafe, a gift store, organic market, and education center.

Long story short, It’s about growing stuff without chemicals and then eating it without violence to animals, plants, people or the environment.

In July when we visited, the 6.5 acre outdoor garden was in full fruit and flower, and the wild wine berries were being picked. Chickens were laying eggs, pigs were happy in the mud, and sheep were chowing down on nice new grass. In order to keep the grass green, pastures are rotated, meaning the sheep are moved and so are their fences.

Sheep in the shade
Sheep in the shade

Ditto for the chickens. The turkeys, including a heritage breed called Bourbon Red, also roam around outside once they are large enough to fend off predators.  You can buy one for the Holidays at the Stone Barns farm market–around $6 a pound for a broad-breasted white and $10 for the heritage birds.

Turkeys don't pose well
Turkeys don’t pose well

The restaurant associated with Stone Barns is called Blue Hill, and Dan Barber is the chef.  He just wrote a book, The Third Plate, Field Notes on the Future of Food, and he has quite a following.  (Remember, this is a place that is about 25 miles north of New York City, where he also has a restaurant.) One woman on our tour confided that eating a meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns changed the way she regarded food.  Her direct quote, “It changed my life.” If that is the result of eating there, the price really isn’t too steep–but on our tour we enjoyed some nice tea and coffee and  lovely scones in the cafe. See some reviews of Blue Hill at http://www.opentable.com/blue-hill-at-stone-barns

The Hayloft, set up for event
The Hayloft, set up for event

Martha Stewart is a strong supporter of Stone Barns and their mission, and she explains the mission much better than I can. Take a look at her recent blog.  In it, she describes a recent evening event in the Stone Barns Hayloft for backers, including David Rockefeller, last remaining son of John D. (he’s 99) http://www.themarthablog.com/2014/09/an-evening-at-stone-barns.html .

And please enjoy the photographs I’ve included in my slide show, many of them taken by my beloved husband, John Swank, who especially likes flowers and insects.  I like chickens.  At Stone Barns they seemed much more content that the hellish hens I remember from childhood.  Must be the chicken- mobiles. The poem at the end by Wendel Berry, a hero of mine, is also worth a read. Just click in the middle to stop it.

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Kykuit: The Rockefellers’ Place on the Hudson

 

Kykuit on the Hudson
Kykuit on the Hudson

Nelson Rockefeller was once the governor of New York state. He never carried cash, people said, and when I met him  in the ’60s at the State Fair, I was a Girl Scout. He was eating a coney (which he did not pay for), and it made the news.  Later, when I moved to Washington, DC, in the ’70s, I worked for a congressman with the memorable name of Herman  T. Schneebeli who had been Rockefeller’s freshman roommate at Dartmouth,.  Rocky would come by, and in his low gravely unmistakable voice say that he wanted to see “Herm, that old SOB.”  I was young then and such language from a public figure probably shocked me.

Little about the Rockefeller Estate, Kykuit, shocked me until we got to the basement. Kykuit means “lookout” in old Dutch, and the estate was built by patriarch John D. Rockefeller and another of his sons, John II, called Junior. It became a Historic Trust property after Rocky died in 1979. It is located 25 miles north of New York City overlooking the Hudson at Tappan Zee. You board the bus to the gated grounds in Tarrytown.

Beautiful gardens abound
Beautiful gardens abound

The gardens are very beautiful, and view of the Hudson River is breath-taking, but the house is rather, I hesitate to use the word modest, but let’s just say it isn’t Vanderbuilt’s  Biltmore.  Rocky and his wife Happy raised their sons in this three-story house that has 40 rooms.  The whole tour is tightly controlled and you never wander alone, nor is there any discussion of past tragedies or scandals that are part of the Rockefeller heritage.

The Miro in question
The Miro in question

The house is filled with nice stuff.  Gold and mirrors and some especially graceful and beautiful Chinese figurines.  Nice furniture, and some 20th Century modern art on the walls.  In the living room, for example, there is a Miro over the sofa.  Except it’s a copy, made bigger to fit the wall space. But then the tour guide escorts you to the basement.

It smells like a basement, and there are no windows, or if there are any, they’re high up.  It’s humid and claustrophobic, but the white walls are covered with art.  There are also sculptures. And white couches that the guide tells us were used when the family entertained and wanted to take in the vibe (my words).

The basement hideaway
The basement hideaway
The Picasso Tapestries
The Picasso Tapestries

Huge tapestries, woven by one woman in France impressed me the most. Her name was Madame J. de la Baume Durrback and it took her a year to weave each.  The tapestries are all copies of paintings by Picasso, writ large and woven under his supervision. Just hanging there, in the basement! It was as if someone had a hobby (collecting modern art) and had died and no one could break up the collection or change anything.  Talk about throwback.  Remember the rec room–that secret hideaway in the basement?  Imagine a really big one with works of art that should be in museums in the basement of a 100-year-old house

When you come above ground again at Kykuit, it’s a relief. The tour ends in the light and airy stable/carriage house. What a relief to look at cars and carriages and read about how many National Parks (20) the Rockefellers donated the land for and what they have done for conservation.

Oh, and I just read online that the tapestries are going on exhibit at the San Antonio Museum of Art  December 20, 2014 thru March 8, 2015.  I’m glad they will be admired by more art lovers and will escape the rec room for awhile.

 

guernica-tapestry1
This is the tapestry of Guernica, my favorite Picasso. The painting is in Madrid

 

 

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Skaneateles, Ontario and Green Lake

Skaneateles looking north
Skaneateles looking north

Skaneateles is another lake near Syracuse.  A Finger Lake.  I learned to swim in another Finger Lake, Canandaigua. It was cold. Finger Lakes are stoney, long and narrow, deep, and if you had a map, they look like fingers. They are beautifully framed by long hills,  and home to a burgeoning wine industry.  It used to be that NY State wine was basic rotgut, but that has changed big time.  Read  Summer in a Glass by Evan Dawson, and you’ll be running out to get some.

Beloved cousin Alan's place on Lake Ontario
Beloved cousin Alan’s place on Lake Ontario

Another lake that features in upstate New York topography is Lake Ontario.  It’s a Great Lake.  My cousin lives there most of the summer and delighted us with descriptions of the ice caves that form from wind action on the shoreline in winter. Big ice caves.

Ice Caves are big
Ice Caves

As a child, we went to Lake Ontario to experience big waves in the summer.  Maybe they just seemed big, but that was our little ocean, complete with sunsets from the bluffs of Fairhaven State Park.

Ontario
Ontario in summer

Another exciting topographic feature Upstate is Montezuma Swamp.  It’s a national wildlife refuge, close to my heart because I volunteer at Ding Darlilng NWR here in Florida.

Montezuma, named after the Aztec Emperor
Montezuma, named after the Aztec Emperor

Montezuma is  a great birding spot, especially during migration, but July wasn’t bad either.  We saw black terns (I hesitate to call it a life bird, but it was one, see my post  “A Crow Gets Even”  http://wp.me/p3cJ8X-bd) and many other shorebirds. Great to see birds in their proper colors, unlike the drab plumage we experience during Florida winters when the birds spend their time with us.   Topping off the trip to Montezuma, we counted 22 great blue herons in one spot. That would be a Battery of Herons.

Just a few of the 22 we saw
Just a few of the 22 Great Blues we saw

And then there’s my friend Lauren’s backyard.  She has transformed a  city lot near the University into a Garden Haven. (capitalization deliberate).  She has three ponds, bird feeders, lawn chairs and art shows  in her backyard…she is a ceramic artist who makes pierced  lanterns, dragons and other things, but many come by just to see the garden. You can get an idea why.

It's a narrow lot
It’s a narrow lot

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For our final day upstate, we choose a walk in Green Lakes State Park.  The lakes really are green, and very deep, so deep the bottom water never gets to the top, and who knows what lives down there. Stuff that makes it green, I think.

Green Lake in Fayetteville, NY
Green Lake in Fayetteville, NY
-5
There are fish in Green Lake

Next up, heading downstate…Stone Barns, Rockefellers and Roosevelts, Storm King and Tarrytown ahead.