Monday, November 24, 2014

Piedmont Nature Trails at the North Carolina Botanical Garden

A year ago in November we traveled to North Carolina to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with our family in Chapel Hill.  On Thanksgiving day, the weather was crisp and clear, and while the turkey was cooking we decided to get some exercise and went for a walk along the Piedmont nature trails at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Following the marked trails through the forest, we took a circular route, crossing the Meeting-of-the-Waters Creek twice.  Although most of the leaves had already fallen, a few hardy remainders glowed in the afternoon sunlight.
A diversity of hardwood and evergreen trees, shrubs, and woodland wildflowers thrive in these woods. Interpretive brochures and a trail map are available at the entrance to the trail. The trail walk can take from 15 to 45 minutes or more, depending upon the path taken and your pace. We spent about an hour and went home with a healthy appetite for a delicious meal. For a trail map click here.
The Piedmont Nature Trails are open to the public every day of the year. 

The adjacent Botanical Garden includes an Education Center and numerous display gardens featuring native plant borders, a native water garden, a fern collection and more.
Visiting hours to the Botanical Garden are:
Weekdays: 8 am - 5 pm (administrative offices, gift shop, exhibits open at 9 am);
Saturday: 9 am - 5 pm; Sunday: 1 - 5 pm (open to 6 on weekends June - August)
Admission is free.

Other gardens and natural areas managed by the North Carolina Botanical Garden include the Coker Arboretum on the campus of the University of North Carolina. We have made many visits to the Coker Arboretum, which is especially beautiful in spring when the dogwoods and azaleas are in bloom.

Monday, November 17, 2014

DEGAS' Little Dancer and Works by ANDREW WYETH at the National Gallery, Washington, DC

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, Original Wax Sculpture by Edgar Degas
On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I spent the morning at the National Gallery of Art, focusing on two of the current special exhibits, Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, and a show of Andrew Wyeth paintings and drawings.  I have seen the Little Dancer by Degas several times before–in Paris, at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, and in another exhibit at the National Gallery–but they were all casts made after his death.  In this exhibit at the National Gallery is Degas’ original wax sculpture of the Little Dancer from which the casts were made so for the first time I could see how the surface was modeled.  The figure is made of wax over a metal armature to which the artist added wood, rope, and even old paintbrushes in the arms.  Then a wig of human hair was added as well as a cotton-and-silk tutu, a cotton faille bodice, and linen slippers. Her turned out toes, erect posture and raised chin seem to convey an inner determination. Little Dancer Aged Fourteen will be on view from October 5, 2014 to January 11, 2015.
Ballet Scene, Edgar Degas, Pastel
The Little Dancer was first exhibited in 1881 in Paris with other Impressionist works.  Fittingly, her surroundings at the National Gallery are paintings and drawings of other dancers by Degas, as well as works by other Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists including Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Cezanne. Many of the paintings are familiar from my art history classes but there were also some new ones such as Van Gogh's Green Wheat Fields, recently acquired by the museum. Van Gogh's characteristic layered brushstrokes pulsate across the surface of the painting.
Vincent van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890
Another featured exhibit currently at the National Gallery is Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In, which shows one of Wyeth’s  most famous paintings Wind from the Sea and explores his lifelong fascination with windows, a subject he depicted in more than three hundred works. Wyeth’s ability to paint the same subject over and over, each time seeing it in a new light and giving it new life is one of the pleasures of this exhibit.  Photographs were not allowed.  It will be on view until November 30, 2014.
Andrew Wyeth Exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
On our way to the two exhibits we passed many rooms of art that we didn’t have time to stop and view. The National Gallery is huge and impossible to see in one day. Our visit only encompassed the West Wing.  The East Wing galleries are currently closed for renovation.  On another trip we’ll go back to see more.
National Gallery of Art, West Wing

Monday, November 10, 2014

MARTHA, THE LAST PASSENGER PIGEON, at the Natural History Museum, Washington, DC

Illustration of a Passenger Pigeon by Mark Catesby, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, 1729-1747
Once there were billions.  Now there are none. One hundred and fifty years ago gigantic flocks of passenger pigeons blackened the skies of North America. However, due to indiscriminate hunting and habitat destruction, the flocks rapidly diminished, and by 1914 only one passenger pigeon remained alive. She was known as “Martha” and lived in the Cincinnati Zoo.  When she died one hundred years ago, the species became extinct.
Passenger Pigeons; Martha, #11, on left
Martha’s body was sent to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC, where she was preserved and put in the research collection. She has been off of public view since the 1960's, but in this centenary of her demise, she is once again on view and is the center of a special exhibit, Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America.
Recently, I had a chance to visit the Natural History Museum and see Martha for myself, along with other now extinct birds including the Carolina Parakeet, Great Auk and the Heath Hen.  Martha is displayed with several other passenger pigeons from the museum collection and with historic illustrations from the archives of the Smithsonian library. Distinctive features of the passenger pigeon are warm pink breast feathers and soft grey feathers on the back and wings. (Passenger pigeons are related to another native American species, the band-tailed pigeon-- not the ubiquitous pigeons that inhabit our towns and cities, a non-native species imported from Europe.)
The passenger pigeon was among the many birds painted by John James Audubon for his book The Birds of America. In 1940, Norman Rockwell painted a picture for Look Magazine depicting a scene of Audubon observing passenger pigeons in flight.
Great Auk with Audubon print above
The Smithsonian’s Great Auk is one of about 80 museum specimens. Living in large colonies along North Atlantic shores, the birds were easily slaughtered for their meat, eggs, feathers, and oil.  They were extinct by the mid-1800's.
Heath Hen
In colonial times, Heath Hens flourished from Maine to Virginia, but they were tasty and easy to kill and their numbers quickly declined. The last heath hen, living in a sanctuary on Martha’s Vineyard, died in 1932.
Carolina Parakeets
Carolina Parakeets, prized as decorations for ladies’ hats, became extinct in the wild by 1904; the last one died in captivity in 1918.

The story of the last Passenger Pigeon and the disappearance of the Great Auk, Carolina Parakeet and Heath Hen, illustrate the fragile connections between species and their environment.  This exhibit reminds us all that we need to pay attention to the natural world and the complex connections of all the living things in it.

Note: Audubon Magazine featured the story of the Passenger Pigeon in its June 2014 issue, which included a pull-out origami Passenger Pigeon and link to a website “Fold the Flock” designed to create awareness of the Passenger Pigeon's plight as the folded birds are added to the virtual flock.  For more, click HERE to see my post at my Caroline Arnold Art and Books blog.

Monday, November 3, 2014


Chilean Flamingo, Santa Barbara, Zoo
Recently, on a trip to Santa Barbara, California, I decided to go to the zoo where I had not been for a long time. I stopped first at the large sundial on a plaza near the zoo entrance and stood on the marker for the month.  My shadow told me that it was 4:00–exactly the time on my watch! It was a great time to visit–the zoo was not crowded and the animals were up and about.

Sundial Shadow, 4:00
I then proceeded to the flamingo display, always a favorite, and watched these elegant and beautifully feathered birds. (They were Chilean flamingos, a species I had seen in the wild with my family on our trip to Patagonia in 1995.) After I left the flamingos and was walking down the trail to the next exhibit, I suddenly realized I was being followed.  I turned around and saw a group of flamingos (and their keepers) coming down the path!  I asked, and learned that the flamingos go out for a walk every day to get their exercise.

Flamingos Out for a Stroll
I took a circular path around the zoo past capybaras, some lively tamarin monkeys, and other animals, until I came to a sign that said “Giraffe Deck”. There I saw a group of children, under the supervision of a keeper, feeding treats to a very friendly giraffe.  As the giraffe stuck out its long blue tongue to grab the treats, the kids squealed with delight. (The cost for giraffe feeding is $6 or $5 for zoo members.) I learned from the sign that the blue color of the tongue is an adaptation that helps keep the tongue from becoming sunburned as giraffes feed in the wild.
Masai Giraffe
I then walked along the California Trails, which includes exhibits of a Channel Island fox, desert tortoises, and other animals native to the state.  I looked up and saw three condors sitting on their perches in their huge flight cage enjoying the afternoon sun. The Santa Barbara Zoo is one of only four zoos in the world to display California condors, along with Condor Ridge at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, Elephant Odyssey at the San Diego Zoo, and the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City. I have seen wild condors in the California mountains and along the Big Sur coast, but never this close up.  A distinguishing feature both in the wild and at the zoo are the large numbered tags on the birds’ wings. There are so few of these birds left, that each one has an identifying number. I learned about condors and their extreme plight when I researched and wrote my book On The Brink of Extinction: The California Condor.  No other bird in North America has a wingspan as wide as a condor’s–a spread of more than nine feet from tip to tip.
California Condors
The Santa Barbara Zoo is a relatively small zoo, but well worth a visit.  Its impeccably landscaped trails and large, well designed exhibits make it a perfect place for an afternoon walk or for a longer visit, with or without children.  As the attendant at the ticket booth says when you come to the zoo: “Have a Zooper Day!”

Santa Barbara Zoo
500 NiƱos Drive
Santa Barbara, CA 93103
Main Phone: (805) 962-5339
Info Line: (805) 962-6310

Open every day 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.,  10:00 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas.

Monday, October 27, 2014

FESTIVALS OF MEXICO: Day of the Dead, Guest Post by Ann Stalcup

Skeleton Figures for Day of the Dead
My friend and fellow children's book author Ann Stalcup has been fascinated by Mexican customs and culture for many years. She has taken numerous photographs in the Mexican communities of Los Angeles where cultural events are celebrated frequently throughout the year. She has also visited areas of Mexico where she has observed many of the traditional festivals including The Blessing of the Animals, The Day of the Dead, and A Mexican Christmas. Here are a few of her photos and observations of The Day of the Dead.
Flower market for decorating family altars
THE DAY OF THE DEAD, EL DIA DE LOS MUERTOS, is celebrated on November 2nd. Families prepare for this special day when the spirits of their deceased loved ones return to visit them in candle lit cemeteries. In their homes, they create special altars that display items meaningful to the person who has died - clothes, books, favorite foods, along with water and oranges to refresh their spirits after their long journey.
Skeleton costume
The people of Mexico celebrate death as well as mourning it.  As October approaches its end, families work hard preparing for El dia de Los Muertos, a much-loved holiday.  For many centuries, the people of Mexico have believed that the souls of the dead return once a year to visit their families on Earth.  Preparations are made for the return of the children’s spirits on November 1st (All Saints’ Day), and for the adults on November 2nd (All Souls’ Day.)  Death is a natural part of life.  Having accepted this, people are able to joke about death, rather than fearing it.
Ofrenda, or Family Altar
Setting up an ofrenda or altar is an important part of the celebrations.  Many families follow the ancient Aztec traditions when they prepare their altar, a process that can take several days. The Aztecs believed that there were nine levels in the underworld.  The way a person died, not lived, determined his or her afterlife.  For example, those who drowned joined the Rain God; warriors killed in combat, sacrificial victims, and women who died in childbirth became companions of the Sun God.  Much like the ancient Egyptians, the dead were buried with food, clothing, personal items and sometimes sacrifices. The souls entered the underworld through the temples at Mitla.
Pan de Muertos
Before and during the Day of the Dead, bakery windows are filled with pan de muertos (bread of the dead), round loaves with a knob on the top for the skull and long twists for the bones.  Other loaves have flower designs, and heads and feet too.

Ann’s book for teachers on Day of the Dead celebrations was published a few years ago. It is filled with exquisite drawings by artist/author Pam Smallcomb.
For more information on Ann and her published work, visit her at her website:

Monday, October 20, 2014

POMPEII: THE EXHIBITION, A Vicarious Visit to Ancient Roman Times

Two thousand years ago, Pompeii was a bustling seaside Roman town, not far from the modern city of Naples, Italy.  It lay at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, an active volcano. Then on one fateful day in 79 A.D., the volcano erupted with a massive explosion, engulfing the town with toxic cases and deadly pyroclastic blasts. Within hours, Pompeii and nearly everything and everyone in it became buried in a twenty foot deep layer of ash.

Because of the lack of air and moisture, the objects that lay underneath the ash were so well preserved that when they are excavated they seem almost new. Rediscovered 250 years ago, the remains of Pompeii  provide an extraordinarily detailed insight into the life in the ancient Roman empire.
Imperial Portrait, Marble

I have never been to Pompeii to see it in person, but I recently went with my family to see Pompeii: the Exhibition at the California Science Center in Exposition Park in Los Angeles.  (The exhibit, which is traveling to various sites in the U.S., will be in Seattle, Washington at the Pacific Science Center beginning February 7, 2015.) Pompeii: The Exhibition features over 150 precious artifacts on loan from the Naples National Archaeological Museum. It is the next best thing to getting on a plane and flying to Italy.

As we entered the exhibit, we each received a wand so that we could move through at our own pace and listen to the narration at numbered stations. The exhibit is organized around objects that would have been part of daily and civic life in ancient Roman times.  Displays range from statues, coins and helmets to jewelry, household pots and furniture.
Walls were lined with beautiful frescoes and mosaics.  Statues that would have decorated the homes of wealthier citizens stood in niches and small courtyards. One of the most successful inhabitants of Pompeii was Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, a manufacturer of garum, a sauce made from fermented fish. Garum was an essential ingredient in ancient Roman cuisine.  Made by crushing the intestines of fresh tuna and moray eels in salt, it added a sharp, salty taste to otherwise bland dishes. 
Mosaic of a Garum Amphora from the house of Aulus Umbricius Scaurus
Apparently, Pompeii is well-known for its erotic art. The exhibit is designed so that families with children can bypass the room with those displays.  Since we had three children we took the bypass and went directly to the room with the plaster casts of people who had died at Pompeii.
Plaster cast of a child
During the excavation of Pompeii, plaster was used to fill in the spaces between the ash layers that once held human bodies. This allows one to see the exact position the person was in when he or she died.  The exhibit includes the body of a young child who was one of thirteen men, women, and children who died in a large garden or vineyard near the city wall. They all died in a single moment as they apparently tried to flee the pyroclastic surges of heat, hot gases, rock, and ash of Vesuvius, six miles away.
Bronze head
As we waited for the doors to open into the body room, the lights dimmed, the floor rumbled and we had a vicarious experience of the volcanic eruption.  It is hard to imagine the horror of that day for the people of Pompeii. Their buried remains, the buildings they lived in, and their personal effects provide us with a window onto the richness of the life they once led. For more on the history of Pompeii, click HERE.

I thank my son-in-law Humberto Gutierrez Rivas for his contribution of excellent photos for this post. 

Mosaic table with lion foot legs from Pompeii
Note:  If you are in Los Angeles and have a chance to visit the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, you will see how an ancient Roman house looked at the time.  The Getty Villa and its beautiful gardens are modeled after a first-century Roman country house, the Villa de Papiri, at Herculaneum.  Herculaneum was smaller town near Pompeii that was also destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The Getty Villa is home to the J. Paul Getty Antiquities collection.
The Getty Villa is modeled after a first-century Roman country house, the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, Italy.
The building was constructed in the early 1970s by architects who worked closely with J. Paul Getty to develop the interior and exterior details.
- See more at:
The Getty Villa is modeled after a first-century Roman country house, the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, Italy.
The building was constructed in the early 1970s by architects who worked closely with J. Paul Getty to develop the interior and exterior details.
- See more at:
The Getty Villa is modeled after a first-century Roman country house, the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, Italy.
The building was constructed in the early 1970s by architects who worked closely with J. Paul Getty to develop the interior and exterior details.
- See more at:

Monday, October 13, 2014

SPACE SHUTTLE ENDEAVOUR at the California Science Center, Los Angeles

Entrance to Space Shuttle Exhibit at the California Science Center
In the fall of 2012, I watched on television as the space shuttle Endeavour made its slow journey from LAX through the streets of Los Angeles on its way to its new home at the California Science Center in Exposition Park. Tree branches had been trimmed, power lines relocated, and other obstacles moved along the carefully chosen route. Thousands of people lined the streets to witness this historic journey. It was first stage of Mission 26, Endeavour’s final mission.

Space Shuttle Endeavour inside the Samuel Oschin Pavilion
Last July, I went with my family to spend a day at the California Science Center and finally had a chance to see the Endeavour close-up.  Only then did I really appreciate its enormous size and its important role, along with the other NASA space shuttles, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis, in the exploration and understanding of outer space.
Record of  Endeavour's First flight, 1992
The Endeavour is currently housed in a temporary, hanger-like building adjacent to the museum, the Samuel Oschin Pavilion. Walls of the building are lined with photographs of the many space shuttle crews, documenting the history of the program which began in 1981 and ended with the last space flight of the Endeavour June 1, 2011. 

Inside the museum, a companion exhibit, Endeavour: the California Story, shows various aspects of shuttle life in space ranging from what kind of food the astronauts ate to the waste collection system (“space potty”) to scientific experiments and walks in space.  It celebrates Endeavour’s many scientific achievements and its strong connection to California, where all the orbiters were built. The California Story includes images of Endeavour under construction locally in Palmdale and Downey, as well as artifacts that flew into space aboard Endeavour. A film of the Endeavour’s journey from the airport is part of the exhibit as well.
Film of Endeavour on the streets of Los Angeles is part of the exhibit
For a fee, one can also take a “ride” in space–enclosed in a vibrating capsule with a video display, it recreates what it feels like traveling inside the space shuttle.
Space capsule "ride"
I am old enough to remember when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin was the first person to fly in space more than fifty years ago.  It is amazing to contemplate how much more we now know about outer space than we did then–much due to the space shuttle program–and how much more there is to know.

Note: During the second phase of Mission 26, now through October 25 (dates subject to change), the Science Center will open the shuttle's payload bay doors to install its final cargo. Space shuttle experts will install a flown SPACEHAB and other equipment into the payload bay, in preparation for Endeavour's permanent display. Click HERE to learn more about the payload installation.

This will be the only opportunity to see the payload bay open for several years. After the payload is installed, the doors will be closed until stage three of Mission 26, when Endeavour is moved to its new home, and is lifted into vertical position—another step closer to the launch of the new Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center, projected to open in 2018.

Timed reservations to see Endeavour are required for weekends, holidays, special events and high attendance seasons.

I am grateful to my son-in-law Humberto Gutierrez Rivas for the use of his photos of the Endeavour exhibit.