(Image credit: Little Fuji)

Posted by Ellen

Here in a Zodiac, scooting across Milford Sound, a fjord on New Zealand's remote southwest coast, on a cold wet summer day this past December, is Helen Ruskin Stein Behr with her three sons. Not pictured is her daughter, who visited Milford Sound a few days earlier.

The impetus for the journey to New Zealand was the awesome wedding of one of the granddaughters, Gillian, who emigrated to New Zealand seven years ago with her parents, Richard and Arleigh, and her sister Avi.

Today is Helen's birthday, as she turns eighty-something-and-who's-counting, to our great joy. Wishing her many happy returns of the day.

Posted by Ellen

By eleven o'clock on a Friday night, the streets of downtown Bessemer, Alabama, are empty, and the town looks dead. Even the Bright Star Restaurant is closed for the night.

The only thing open, it seems, at least on this block of 19th Street in Bessemer, is the office of Liberty Tax preparers. Wonder why the folks in there are burning the midnight oil?

Posted by Ellen

Lots of weather delays Sunday at the Birmingham airport.

Posted by Ellen

On his knees all day long, making the city a better place.

Posted by Ellen

It's been the proverbial March so far, but we must be up around LANE if not even LAME by now.

     LION

     LOON

     LORN

     LORE

     LONE

     LANE

     LAME

     LAMB

Posted by Ellen

Back in March 1866, Greymouth was a rough little gold rush town on New Zealand's wild west coast, crowded with young men scheming to get rich quick, many of them immigrants from Ireland. While most of the town celebrated St. Patrick's Day that year, a man named Synder Browne huddled in a tent near the muddy outskirts of town, setting type by hand for the first edition of Greymouth's second newspaper, the Evening Star.

Greymouth's first paper, already a year old by then, was the Grey River Argus, which would become a Socialist tabloid. For the next century, the left-wing Argus and the right-wing Star would duke it out in the local marketplace of public opinion; their editors, it was said, took opposing positions on absolutely every public issue. Only once a year, on Christmas Eve, would the two editors get together for a holiday drink and some collegial conversation. Every other day of the year they spat and fussed in the competition for readers and for influence over Greymouth's affairs.

The town survived the gold rush, thanks to another mineral that had actually been discovered earlier but was initially ignored because it didn't glitter like you-know-what: coal. There was plenty of coal in the hillsides around Greymouth, though all the customers for coal, and all the ports suitable for coal shipping, were hundreds or thousands of kilometers away on the other side of the Southern Alps. Greymouth was a seaside town but without a decent harbor; it sat rough and damp in the nearly uninhabited rainforest along the west coast of New Zealand's South Island. To make a go of coal mining thereabouts, somebody was going to have to build a railroad over the mountains.

The Argus and the Star had different ideas about Greymouth's economic development. They argued for different people to pay for, and benefit from, the railroad project. When coal mining became established, the two papers argued even more fiercely over mine safety and environmental issues. The mines there have been productive but quite dangerous, with high concentrations of coalbed methane. Many miners have died over the years in mine fires and explosions, and several mine projects have been abandoned after methane levels proved uncontrollable. The Argus and the Star told different stories about the tragedies.

Most mines are closed now, and the town survives on forestry work and tourism; it is a portal to the glacier and fjord country further south. The population has leveled off at about 5,000, and there's only one newspaper left, the Greymouth Star. The Argus folded in the 1960s.

Today, the Star is owned by a publishing conglomerate based in Dunedin. And even though print media is in big trouble all over the world, the Star is hanging on, with subscribers all along the west coast and a workforce of more than 60 fulltime employees.

The Star is available online as well as on paper. In the latest edition, you can read about Charles Edward Miller Pearce, a New Zealand–born mathematician who taught at Adelaide University in Australia. He came home for a visit, rented a car at the Hokitika airport, just south of Greymouth, then drove south on the coastal highway until he apparently lost consciousness. His car landed upside down in shallow water, with only his head submerged.

"If he had been conscious, all he would have had to do was turn his head towards the middle of the car," a witness told the coroner, according to the Star's report, "and his face would have been out of the water."

"I observed that he had a peaceful expression on his face," noted a second witness. "My guess was that he fell asleep at the wheel and never woke up."

Posted by Ellen

Dressed perfectly for an outing to the Philadelphia Flower Show, and willing to pose for a picture if the photographer's really, really quick.

Posted by Ellen

Isaiah Zagar's Magic Gardens in Philadelphia is a compound of galleries and courtyards devoted to Zagar's obsessive mosaicking of every square inch of everything.

Here on the outer side of the wall surrounding the place, we see a sign on a drainpipe that clarifies what's important to life outside the magic garden

Posted by Ellen
New Zealand is a land of ferns, notably of tree ferns, which give many Kiwi forests a certain Jurassic Park sort of character. And of course it is also the land of the silver fern, which is botanically one of the endemic tree ferns and artistically an abstracted swirl of a fern frond, as much corporate-style logo as patriotic emblem.
 
How many countries have logos? One recent Kiwi prime minister thought the silver fern belonged on New Zealand's flag, which Kiwis don't seem to wave or display very much and which foreigners often confuse with Australia's flag.
 
There's no silver fern on the flag–yet–though it's been on numerous coins and stamps over the years. The world knows it as the symbol of the fearsome All Blacks rugby team, and it is also associated with centuries-old Maori cultural motifs.
 
Recently, the silver fern has shown up on airplane fuselages, t-shirts, tattoos, beer commercials, wedding cakes, and the foaming milk atop expresso drinks.
 
Posted by Ellen

When we returned from New Zealand late last year, we were particularly eager to share pictures of the really interesting, stretch-of-the-imagination stuff we'd encountered there: car-eating parrots, cardboard cathedrals, a parkour professor, and of course an awesome ukelele wedding.

We'd set out for New Zealand hoping for this sort of serendipity but knowing for sure we'd see scenery: mountains, waterfalls, forests of hobbity vegetation, cities with flowers, beaches and cliffs, and, of course of course, sheep. We lucked out with all of that as well.

And needless to say, we got pictures.

So for the next little while, we'll share some shots of the real New Zealand, beginning tomorrow with The Silver Fern