May 2011

Posted by Ellen

Alex Bial, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, joins in the Pledge of Allegiance at the end of a citizenship ceremony in Burlington, Vermont.

Bial and the other Lost Boys in the United States came here after ten years or more in Kakuma, a UN refugee camp in northern Kenya; Kakuma is Swahili for Nowhere.

Some 20,000 boys from southern Sudan were separated from their families in the late 1980s when government soldiers swept across the southern part of the country, burning villages and attempting to enslave village children, especially boys. Families sent their young boys to hide in the forest, where they formed small bands that eventually came together in a massive exodus seeking safety in Ethiopia, hundreds of miles away across a war zone and a desert. They walked for a year.

Almost half of them died along the way. And after three years as refugees in Ethiopia, war again caught up with them and they were forced to wander for another year before finally reaching Kenya. Those who survived found strength in intense bonds with one another and deep commitment to nurturing the group.

Now scattered in communities across the United States, Lost Boys have raised millions of dollars to help refugees left behind in Kakuma. As of 2010, the camp held more than 70,000 refugees, families as well as Lost Boys, most of them from southern Sudan and Somalia.

The Sudanese civil war finally ended in 2005, and late in 2010 voters in the southern part of the country voted overwhelmingly to become a separate, independent nation, the newest state recognized by the United Nations.

Posted by Ellen

The Mississippi River is flooding now, cresting at Memphis near record levels and adding water from swollen tributaries as it rolls on south toward New Orleans.

By all accounts, flood crests along the southern part of the river will reach the highest levels ever recorded during the next ten days or so. Although little new rain is expected, snow melt from up north plus spring rains totaling 400 percent of normal throughout broad stretches of the Midwest and South have filled the river system far beyond capacity.

The worst recorded Mississippi floods–probably the worst single disaster in American history–came in 1927, when levees were overtopped and undermined in literally hundreds of places, stranding more than a million people in high water, many of them for three months or longer. Among the ironies of this disaster is its hero, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who organized rescue and relief operations that were so impressive his performance propelled him all the way to the presidency the next year, in which office he stood idly by while the country sank into the Great Depression.

Depression-era public works projects improved the levees and supplemented them with floodways–gates in the levees opening onto back channels that could be intentionally flooded when necessary, taking pressure off the levees during high water. But the water ran even higher in 1937 than in 1927, and again almost a million people were flooded out of their homes. Among the ironies this time: the rains that caused this flood were what finally put an end to the long Dust Bowl drought.

Again, flood defenses were strengthened, and the next time the river ran really, really high, in 1973, flooding was severe but not catastrophic. However, the 1973 floodwater did damage the "Old River Control Structure," shown here, which is key to the entire lower Mississippi Valley as we know it–and which is at risk now, in the highest flood the river has ever seen.

The Old River Control Structure is a Rube Goldberg sort of complex designed to keep the Mississippi River from abandoning its channel and finding a new route to the Gulf of Mexico. Like all rivers, the Mississippi constantly tries to create new distributaries near its mouth, where it has deposited so much sediment that it's blocking its own flow. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Army Corps of Engineers helped this process along by dredging new channels to shorten shipping routes and removing huge logjams that trapped river sediment. Year after year, more and more of the Mississippi left its banks and drained west through the Atchafalaya swamp, eventually reaching the Gulf near Morgan City, Louisiana, far to the west of New Orleans and the current river delta.

The Atchafalaya swamp drainage eventually scoured out a river channel, which could efficiently drain even more of the Mississippi water. Scientists predicted that by 1980, the entire river would reroute itself into the Atchafalaya basin, permanently flooding Morgan City and other communities near the swamp. The cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, with their huge ports, refineries, and other industries, would no longer be connected by a deepwater river to the rest of the country; a little water would still travel in the old riverbed, but it would become brackish, shallow, and slack, like all the other Gulf of Mexico bayous.

This would be economically devastating to the region and perhaps to the entire country, since we would lose massive amounts of petroleum and transportation infrastructure. New Orleans and environs would lose their drinking water and much of their economic function. The entire population of Morgan City would have to be relocated.

To prevent all this catastrophe, Congress passed a law against the Mississippi changing its course. Literally, the law requires that at least 70 percent of the river water stay in the current river channel all the way to the Gulf of the Mexico; only 30 percent can legally flow the way it now wants to flow, to the west through the Atchafalaya.

To enforce this law, the Corps of Engineers built the Old River Control Structure, which partially failed in the 1973 flood. They reinforced the original structure and added new auxiliary features to help out. The question now is whether this new control system can stand up to the record-level flooding of 2011.

If it fails, the lower Mississippi will most likely never again return to its banks. Already, in the forty years since the Control Structure went into effect, Mississippi mud deposited by the riverwater has built up the  Mississippi's bed near Old River till it is about five or six feet higher than the Atchafalaya river there; a hydroelectric power plant has been built on site to take advantage of the elevation drop, and a lock and dam had to be built to handle ship traffic. Obviously, if the river there were left to its own devices, it would respond to gravity like any other river and dive over this five-foot drop, hurrying along to the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans be damned.

The key metric is three million cubic feet per second; that's the "project flood," the maximum flow the Old River Control Structure was built to handle. It's not been tested at anything close to that level; it will be tested now, beginning around May 19. We can hope.

The video below shows images from the 1937 flood, to the song by Johnny Cash recalling his boyhood experience of that flood in Dies, Arkansas.

Posted by Ellen

Trekkers come from literally all over the globe to watch the sun rise over the Himalayas from the top of Poon Hill. And then, as soon as the sun is bright enough, they all take pictures of each other.

We met trekkers from the Netherlands, Australia, Israel, France, Japan, Ireland, Germany, and probably some other countries I've forgotten. The group in the foreground here was from China.

Very few came from the United States. Americans generally don't have the vacation time or the "hillwalking" tradition shared by the Europeans. However, patterns of tourism are changing; in the resort city of Pokhara, which we visited after our trek, we met a tour group of senior citizens from New Jersey.

Posted by Ellen

Not all of these menhaden are going to escape from the big bird–but then again, some of them will live to swim another day. Or if not another day, maybe at least till lunchtime?

The bird is a female least bittern, and she was fishing last week in Horsepen Bayou, near Pasadena, Texas.

Posted by Ellen

About a thousand feet straight up above the village of Ghorepani in Nepal's Annapurna region is the crest of Poon Hill, a vantage point where trekkers from around the world gather at dawn to watch the sun rise over the Himalayas.

Poon Hill is 10,500 feet above sea level, and it's cold there at dawn. Well before dawn, enterprising citizens of Ghorepani make huge vats of hot tea and carry them up the trail to sell to the trekkers. Here, a local dog shares a trekker's cup of tea.

Dogs are ubiquitous in Nepal. In the countryside, most of them look just like this one–medium-sized, square-headed, with a thick black coat and light tan markings. In the city of Kathmandu, the dog population exhibits more variety, but they still tend to be medium-sized, square-headed, and thick-coated. Dogs can be seen sleeping in the sun on sidewalks and streets all over the city. They live off garbage and scraps tossed out the back of restaurants and homes. They show no aggression toward humans and only a little toward other dogs; none of them, of course, is on a leash. Mostly, they sleep.

Posted by Ellen

Here we see yet another branch of the family, a cast of characters with international flair: my cousin Susan, at left, who lives near Toronto, Ontario; her daughter Erica, who is working on her doctorate in archaeology at Oxford University in England; and Susan's mother Ethel, who lives in Annapolis, Maryland.

Erica's research at Oxford focuses on what people ate in antiquity. She collects seeds and other plant materials from archaeological digs in the Middle East and and analyzes them in the lab to learn about their role in ancient diets.

This picture was taken a few months ago at Ethel's ninetieth birthday celebration. She is a young and active ninety, taking after her mother, who lived to be a young and active one hundred.


Posted by Ellen

Every fall and spring, civic organizations add new saplings to Philadelphia's complement of street trees. Here, our neighbor Carolyn Duffy points out proper technique last month with one of her tree-planting crews.

Carolyn is a volunteer "tree-tender" working under the auspices of Schuylkill River Park and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society; she and her volunteer crews plant about sixty trees a year in neighborhoods near Rittenhouse and Fitler squares. This tree is going in across the street from the public swimming pool near 26th and Lombard streets.

It's a big operation. Trees this size–with trunks about two inches in diameter–are expensive, often $200 each, if not more. Growing conditions on each particular block dictate different varieties of trees; for example, only short-growing trees can be planted under power lines, and only narrow, columnar varieties can be planted close to parking spaces. Some narrow old streets are so dark that many kinds of trees will not thrive; other spots are so open and windy that big, sturdy varieties are most appropriate.

Nearby homeowners are asked to supply mulch and to make sure the new trees are watered during their first two summers. The Pennsylvania Horitcultural Society supplies urban arborists who match trees to sites, check up on the trees' health, and see to any necessary pruning.

This spring, Carolyn and the neighbors planted gingkos, sycamore-like London plane trees, Bradford pears, ornamental cherries, and pretty little oak trees. In the upper right corner of this photo, behind the man in the red hat, you may be able to make out the green leaves and white flowers of a pear tree planted just last fall. In a few more years, all the real estate ads for houses on these city streets will boast of "lovely" tree-shaded blocks.

Posted by Ellen

The snowline has retreated most of the way up the hillside above the campus of the University of Montana in Missoula, and the well-tended campus lawns have turned seriously green.

Still, the sky sometimes spits snow, and the trees daren't yet display a hint of green. If on some afternoons the spring air is gentle enough to warm an upturned face, you can take it to the bank that a few minutes later the wind will stir and whip and sting, and push the people back indoors.

Must be May in Montana.


Posted by Ellen

This is what you see if you take the mirrored guts out of a little toy kaleidoscope, set one end of the mirrored prism atop a brushed-aluminum laptop computer case, and shoot a picture from the other end with a cellphone camera.

The white triangle in the middle is the direct reflection of the camera flash. The three mirrors making up the kaleidoscopic prism, facing inward, generate reflections upon reflections upon reflections, apparently ad infinitum. The further outward you go, the less light from the flash remains in the reflection, so the darker the triangles become.

You may be wondering why someone would bother to take a picture like this?

The short answer is that you would want to take a toy kaleidoscope apart and study the pieces if you were anxious to learn the basic principles of kaleidoscopy. You might need to understand those principles if you were wanting to build, say, a great big kaleidoscope, one with a tube so large that people could climb inside and wander among the mirrors. The movements of the people inside would be captured by mirrors to create the kaleidoscopic effect.

I don't know how many people on this planet are contemplating building great big huge kaleidoscopes, but at least one of them is related to me, so I do know a little about this sort of thing.

Anyways, once the toy kaleidoscope was all in pieces, it was only natural that a person with a cellphone would look at the pieces and start to wonder about snapping a picture of mirrors mirroring mirrors.

After which somebody with Photoshop would start to wonder about making the picture pop and putting it up on the web.

The End.


Posted by Ellen

On Wednesday, 27 April 2011, an outbreak of severe tornadoes unmatched in the U.S. since 1932 destroyed homes and neighborhoods across the Southeast from Mississippi to Virginia. Hundreds of people died.

This is what one of the storms did to the house in Tuscaloosa where we raised our children. At least I think that's what we're looking at here; if it's not our old house, it's the house next door; there's not enough left to know for certain. The picture is disorienting in part because the house in the foreground near the waterfront, amongst the trees, must have been blown in by the storm from somewhere else; none of the houses on that side of Forest Lake was built so close to the water.

It's been forty years since an American city was shredded like this by an EF5 tornado, with winds exceeding 200 miles per hour; the last such storm was in 1970, when 26 people died in Lubbock, Texas. Wednesday's storm crossed through the middle of Tuscaloosa from southwest to northeast, devastating a path up to a mile and a half wide--about as wide as tornado paths ever get, according to the meteorological commentary I have been reading obsessively.

In some spots, winds were so strong that they ripped up the pavement and tore culverts out of the ground.

Our old neighborhood, Forest Lake, is pretty much in the geographic center of town. Most of it is gone now. The neighborhood just to the northeast, Cedar Crest, was hit even worse, if you can imagine that, and beyond Cedar Crest the neighborhood of Alberta City was completely obliterated, many houses reduced to clean slabs, with the debris sucked so high into the sky it returned to earth fifty or even a hundred miles away.

The house we lived in before this one was also destroyed, as was the elementary school all five of our boys attended.

We've been able to get in touch with almost all our old friends and neighbors, and they seem to be among the relatively lucky Tuscaloosans--homeless in some cases, but safe and sound. As of Saturday, the local death toll was 39 but expected to climb as rescue crews complete their search through the ruins.

More than 5,000 houses are damaged, and over 1,000 people have been treated for injuries at the hospital.

From now on, life in Tuscaloosa will be divided into a before and an after.