Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Green roofs and glimmers of moonlight on the road

Last week I gave a mini-class on green or vegetated roofs, roofs with an insulating, carbon-sequestering, heat-island-effect mitigating and habitat-providing layer of soil and plants. My audience: Boulder Associates, an architectural firm in Boulder with an office in a very cool renovated historic bank building on the Pearl Street mall. They specialize in sustainable architecture, and their office shows it: it's flooded with natural light, uses energy-saving products throughout, and showcases a variety of innovative, sustainable materials including my personal favorites, cork floors and sunflower seed hull counters, which show seed hulls clearly, giving the counters a lovely random and natural pattern.

After my talk, Richard and I drove home to Salida the long way. The very long way: we headed north first, crossing the subdivision-choked high plains to Fort Collins via back roads.

From there we headed west, following the winding canyon cut by the Cache La Poudre River through the ancient crystalline rocks at the root of the Front Range on its way to the Plains. We went upriver, driving into the late afternoon sun, following the Cache La Poudre-North Park scenic byway. Scenic the road surely is: it winds up out of the plains along the river in a rocky canyon so tight at times that there is barely room for both the clear flow of the river, punctuated by anglers in waders stalking trout, and the two lanes of Colorado highway 14. The rocks are the show here, forming sheer cliffs right along the river, or at a remove, high above, twisted and compressed and shot with huge white veins of quartz.

We wound our way up and up and up and up as the sun slowly headed toward the horizon, finally topping out on the gently planed landscape of Cameron Pass with the white crags of the Never Summer Range to the south and the air smelling of wet spruce and fir needles.

Then a short drop into the high basin of North Park, zipping along through forests of lodgepole pines, and, just after the small town of Rand, turning onto a gravel road that angled southwest across the high valley. Just as we turned, and Richard slowed for the slush left by a recent snowstorm, we saw a yearling moose, all chocolate brown with tan stockings on its long, gangly legs, trotting off the road. It was tagging along behind two adult mule deer who looked absurdly small beside their long-legged, long-backed, big-eared adoptive "child." I hope they know what they're doing. . . .

We headed out of North Park to the south, topping Willow Creek Pass just as the one-day-shy- of full moon rose in the east, a chalky white disk in the still-blue sky. On the western horizon, the peaks of the Park Range stood bright white against a sun that hadn't quite set.

The light held as we zipped down Willow Creek to join another scenic byway, Colorado Headwaters, at Granby. We rushed west along the upper Colorado where it winds through the rumpled topography of Middle Park, through Windy Gap with its wide band of autumn-gold cottonwoods along the river and in the rear-view mirror, the line of the Front Range turning pink in the afterglow of sunset. Through Parshall, where a freight train four times the length of the tiny town passed slowly by, Sulphur Hot Springs with a steaming cloud rising from the historic spa, and to Kremmling, where the Colorado cuts its way out of the Rockies in the steep V of Gore Canyon, headed for the Plateau Country.

We parted from that byway north of Kremmling, a good thing, because it was dark and I was too tired and sated with the sights of the road to take notes. We drove the rest of the way home by moonlight: up the Blue River with the peaks of the Eagles Nest Wilderness shimmering ghostly against a sky shot with stars as I fed Richard bites of potato salad for dinner-on-the-road while he drove. At Silverthrone, we shot onto I-70 and sped through the marbled walls of rock where the Gore and Sixmile ranges grind against each other in a still-active fault. We shot off the ribbon of interstate at Copper Mountain and then turned south again, headed up the short and nearly straight pull to Fremont Pass.

Coming over the pass and into our own watershed, the Upper Arkansas River drainage, Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert, Colorado's two tallest peaks, shone like enormous white elephants sleeping along one edge of the valley far below, their glimmering snow-lit bulk dwarfing and palely illuminating the landscape. Through Leadville, and then alongside the silver ribbon of the Arkansas River tumbling down the valley through Granite, Buena Vista, and on to the pool of lights of the town where the river slices its way out of the mountains, headed for the Plains: Salida, the exit for the Arkansas, but home for us.

We tumbled out of the car at nine-thirty, our brains stuffed with the sights of a seven-hour drive home via two scenic byways, three major river drainages, over four passes, and along eight mountain ranges, and the last half of it by the reflected silver light of an almost-full moon. It was magic - and our own bed never looked so good!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Out on the Plains & headed home

Last week, Richard and I put 630 miles on our new Subaru Forester in just two days while taking my parents on another drive-a-scenic-byway trip. This time we headed northeast on I-76 from Denver, following the South Platte River across the rolling shortgrass prairie to Julesburg. Once we got away from the suburbs and climbed up out of the shallow South Platte River valley with its irrigated fields, we rolled with the gentle waves of the prairie, the dry tan grassland hugging the soil like a close-napped carpet.

By the time we dived off the twin ribbons of asphalt at exit 170, ten miles short of Julesburg to take the South Platte River Trails byway, the prairie had ever-so-subtly changed. The grasses were now knee-high and taller, and there were more kinds of them, forming a patchwork mosaic in hues from straw to gold to palest orange-going-peach. We had left the extreme aridity of the shortgrass prairie behind, a region so dry that the dominant grasses only venture a few inches above ground while their roots extend as deep as six feet into the sheltering soil. And we had entered the edge of the mid-grass prairie, a slightly wetter belt where grasses grow tall enough to wave in the wind.

As the sun dropped lower over the wide horizon that evening, we circumnavigated the rectangle of the South Platte River Trails byway following rural roads on both sides of the river. We saw the site of the fort featured in the movie "Dances With Wolves" (through the film was shot in Montana), the site of Colorado's only Pony Express Station, a gorgeous and peaceful stretch of the South Platte, and Julesburg and Ovid, two small Plains towns.

The highlights: Pony Express State Wildlife Area, a small patch giving onto the placid curving ribbon of the South Platte, dotted with the golden flames of cottonwood trees in their fall best. The wonderfully kitschy teepee-shaped picnic shelters at the Colorado Welcome Center at the Julesburg exit, and the severely beautiful lines of the enormous red brick beet sugar refinery and its antebellum-plantation style office - vacant since G&W Sugar went bankrupt in the 1980s - in Ovid.

We stayed that night in Sterling, sixty miles upriver on the Platte. The next morning we headed off on the Pawnee Pioneer Pathways byway, a route that meanders on two-lane paved and gravel roads through the prairie between Sterling and Greeley, a hundred miles west. Whole swaths of this route are wide-open grassland with nothing to interrupt the view of the miles-distant horizon.

Highlights of that route: The groups of pronghorn, tan as the shortgrass prairie, that we spotted here and there. The Prairie Cafe with its sign "buffalo served here" in tiny Stoneham (no store, gas station, or other services, just a small cluster of wind-blasted houses, a grain elevator, and three churches). Three pied-billed grebes happily swimming in one small puddle of creek many miles from any other body of water larger than a windmill-filled stock tank. The sight of Pawnee Buttes rising above the undulating prairie like miniature mountains. The ghostly line of giant wind turbines that follow the receding bluff in the hazy distance far beyond the buttes themselves. Walking the trail to the buttes in the chill wind of an approaching fall snowstorm, smelling the moisture on the wind and listening to the glorious silence of the open prairie. Seeing kit fox prints pressed neatly in the pale dust of the trail.

And best of all, many miles to the west where we dropped off the open plains and into the crowded farmland encroached by suburbs, the migrating sandhill cranes. Richard, who was driving, spotted them and simply pointed at the sky. There, high overhead were hundreds of cranes circling in a huge gyre. We stopped on the side of the highway, got out and watched. They circled, wide wings outstretched, long necks and legs extended, higher and higher, sometimes turning into the sun and nearly disappearing, then coming around again so that we could see their ever-smaller silhouettes. Now and then I could hear a fragment of their rolling, wild "khrrrrrrr! khrrrrrr!" calls in the intervals between the trucks rushing by on the highway. As the gyre of cranes began to form Vs and head southwest on what must have been a layer of high-altitude winds, I heard crane voices again. I turned north, and there was another group, this one flapping straight south and lower. We watched them pass, the music of their rolling calls washing over us as they flew overhead, aimed south for the winter.

Hours later, after we had dropped my parents at their apartment west of Denver, we were winding our way up into the Foothills toward the first of three mountain passes we cross on our way home, when I looked at the sky and saw another gyre of sandhill cranes high overhead, wide wings outstretched as they circled, gaining altitude. I pointed them out to Richard and he alternated between watching sandhills and watching the winding highway until the birds were directly overhead and out of view through the windshield. I opened the sunroof and we followed them until they disappeared from view entirely. We sped on, all of us aiming in our own way for home.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Taking to the road

In September, my friend and collaborator, photographer Jim Steinberg, came to see me with a proposition. He had spent the last two years photographing all 25 of Colorado's scenic byways, routes designated for their outstanding scenic or historic values. Jim wanted me to write the text to accompany his dozens of show-stopping images for a coffee table book on the byways - by January. Lyrical, informative essays on 25 routes giving the sense of the landscapes and their history, human and natural, in three and a half months. Sure. (How many hours are there in each day? Weeks in a month?) I said yes, of course. (Did I mention that it's a two-book set and the details of each route are due in February for the atlas & road guide?) I probably am certifiable. But who could resist an assignment to follow so many open roads?

Fortunately for my sanity and Jim's deadlines, I know many of Colorado's scenic byways already. Some, like the Collegiate Peaks and Top of the Rockies byways, which trace the Upper Arkansas Valley where I live, I know so well it's hard to write about them - there's too much to say. Others, like the North Platte River Road in northeastern Colorado, I don't know at all.

So for the past four weeks, Richard and I have been exploring far-flung parts of Colorado. We barreled down dusty gravel roads leading to the crumbling ruins of ancient pueblos - silent, but oddly still very much alive - in the southwestern corner of the state. We drove with my parents up into the glacier-nibbled and lava-capped high peaks of the Flat Tops in northwestern Colorado on a week when the aspens poured rivers of gold over the mountainsides. (That's Trapper's Lake in the Flat Tops Wilderness in the photo. The drive up a gravel road and short walk over a glacial moraine to the lake shore was my favorite side trip on that particular byway.)
I drove out onto the southeastern Plains to see the pale ruts of the Santa Fe trail still scoring the shortgrass prairie; we wound up and over the Wet Mountains two days later on another byway. Tomorrow, we're off to pick up my parents for a trip downstream on the North Platte River to explore the wide spaces where Colorado meets Wyoming and Nebraska.

What have I learned from these byway excursions? That the state of Colorado is even more diverse than I knew. That within a day's drive of the valley I call home are slickrock deserts, soaring palisades of sunset-colored rock layers, the ghosts of ancient ones who farmed where today's tractors plow modern fields, silver and gold mines that yielded instant, fabulous wealth and equally sudden bankruptcy, peaks sculpted by glaciers and dotted with snow even in summer, lakes hidden atop cool mountain "sky islands" rising out of sere desert, winding canyons holding log cabins and the rock spires of eccentric castles, wide plains stretching to the far horizon, ruled by fleet pronghorn. And that's just the beginning. The landscapes I thought I knew hold far more stories than I'd imagined, and I'm just beginning to discover them. No wonder we Americans love the open road!

Now I need to get ready for tomorrow, when we'll load up the car (our wonderfully efficient and clean-burning Subaru Forester) and hit the road again. Until the road brings us home!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Knitting, culture and place

Craft has always fascinated me because it's part of how we express our relationship to the world around us. As a knitter, I'm especially interested in the different styles and patterns of knitting around the world. So I'm delighted to host Donna Druchunas, award-winning author, whose new book, Ethnic Knitting Discovery: The Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and the Andes, was just released by Nomad Press on my blog. Here's our conversation about how knitting reflects culture and place:

Susan: I'm fascinated by how art and craft express people's experiences of the places where they live and the other species that share those landscapes. So I'm curious about how the patterns you show in Ethnic Knitting Discovery relate to the landscapes and cultures they come from.

Donna: What's really interesting is trying to track the movement of knitting traditions around the globe. The knitting style used in the Andes is also used in Portugal and Turkey. Most knitting historians believe that the craft began in the Middle East and later travelled to Europe and then to the United Sates. Tracing the path of the Andean technique makes me wonder if it wasn't brought to Portugal (and Spain?) by the Moorish conquerers as they were spreading Islam into that region, and then brought to South America later by the conquistadors and Christian missionaries. A similar style is used in Greece, but I'm not sure how closely related the Greek technique is to these others.

There are also similar designs and techniques that have been used in Scandinavia and the Baltics; some Lithuanian mittens have patterns that closely resemble Turkish socks, and fisherman's sweaters with similar construction have been made in many different parts of Europe. Before printed patterns, it seems like knitters had no problem sharing their techniques and stitches generously, and styles and garment constructions spread around, often quite quickly.

S: For example, do any of the patterns depict native animals or plants? Or if they are more abstract patterns, are they derived from shapes of the landscape, plants and animals, or cultural practices?

D: Some regions use mostly geometric patterns, and others use pictorial patterns. In most regions, there are some historical meanings to the symbols, although modern knitters probably don't think about this much in their designs. For example: In the Andes, many of the knitting designs are based on plants and animals in the region. There is a coca leaf pattern that is incredibly popular, as well as designs of flowers, water, the sun, dogs, cats, lamas, snakes, and many other animals. In Norway, symbols are more geometric, but no less meaningful. There are many variations of crosses, for example, that carry Christian symbolism. Circles may represent fidelity, like a wedding ring; squares stand for the four corners of the earth; and triangles may symbolize the Christian trinity, female power, or the virgin Mary. Although less popular today, animals, plants, and people were commonly featured on Norwegian sweaters and mittens in the past. My book, Ethnic Knitting Discovery, merely covers the tip of the iceberg. Volumes could be written, and have been written, about the textiles traditions in each of these regions. I hope my readers will get excited by my introductions and do further explorations on their own.

S: Is the knitting of anyone culture or region in the book more reflective of its landscape and natural community than the other regions?

D: Not really. Although knitting techniques and designs spread throughout Europe and then to other parts of the world fairly quickly, people were still quite isolated before the invention of the automobile. It was quite common to be born and die without ever leaving your own village or traveling over ten miles from home. So designs became unique in each region. This is even true within a single nation. I focused on a particular region of Noway in my book, but other knitting traditions around the country were unique, although there are some similarities that tie together the whole Scandinavian region, and "leak" into the designs found in the surrounding areas. The combination of world travel by a few and isolation of the many is something that's difficult to imagine in the United States today where just about everyone travels at least to another part of this huge country every year for the holidays, a wedding, or a high school graduation. Such informal travel would have been unheard of even 100 years ago. My great grandparents came to the US from Russia and Lithuania, and I'm the first person in our family to have an inkling of desire to return for a visit, over a century later.

S: Do you think that craft is a reflection of our view of the world? Or simply a decorative abstraction?

D: I think it's different for everyone. Some people knit and crochet to keep their hands busy, following patterns that they buy at the local yarn shop or hobby store. Others use their craft to be a part of a community and to connect to other knitters today, and to those who lived in the past. In any case, crafting is always a very personal experience.

What craft is your passion? Does it express something about your ties to culture and place? Let us know what you think!