Monday, July 30, 2012

ANGEL ISLAND: History and Nature in the Middle of San Francisco Bay

Angel Island Ferry Landing and view of Visitor Center
Angel Island sits in the middle of San Francisco Bay, a short ferry ride from San Francisco, Oakland, or Tiburon in Marin County.  Or, if you have your own boat, you can sail over and tie up at the dock during the day and moor in the bay overnight.  Once a military base and immigration center (the West Coast equivalent of Ellis Island) Angel Island is now a state park, a natural haven that is home to birds, deer, and other wildlife, and a place where city folks can spend the day hiking and relaxing.  You can also rent kayaks,  bicycles, segways, and scooters near the ferry landing.

In early July, Art and I met friends at Angel Island for the day.  They came on their boat and we took the ferry from Tiburon, along with a group of day camp children, who delighted in watching the gulls follow the boat and dive after the fish that were stirred up in its wake.  Later, we watched the kids trying to catch their own fish off the dock, but no one had any luck.

Camp Reynolds (West Garrison)
After arriving at the dock and meeting our friends, we followed the path past the picnic area and visitor center to the main road around the island.  We walked for about a third of the way around the island before returning for lunch.  We had a picnic, but you can also buy food at the small cafĂ© at the ferry landing.

After lunch, we took the tram ride around the island, which takes about an hour and is an opportunity to hear some of the history of Angel Island and see the variety of the landscape on the different sides of the island.  The tram stopped for photos at an overlook where we had a spectacular view of the San Francisco skyline, Alcatraz, the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Marin headlands.  We were told that if we hiked the steep trail to the top of the island on a clear day, we would get a 360 degree view of the whole San Francisco Bay area.
Angel Island Tram
We had a beautifully clear, warm, and sunny day for our visit.  But San Francisco Bay can also be quite foggy.  For ships traveling through the Golden Gate, the rocky coast around Angel Island can be a hazard. One of the stories we heard on our tram ride was about the people who operated the fog bell at the Point Knox Lighthouse on the island in the early days.  The bell was designed with a mechanism that struck it automatically.  But, one foggy day in 1906, the mechanism for the bell failed and the only person home at the time was Juliet Fish Nichols, who had become the lighthouse keeper in 1902.  The bay was full of ships bringing in supplies after the recent San Francisco earthquake and Juliet knew she had to do something to warn them to keep a safe distance from the island.  So she took a sledge hammer to hit the large bell by hand, which she continued to do for twenty hours straight until the fog lifted. Juliet later received commendation for her heroic effort.  Although the lighthouse building at Point Knox is long gone, the large bell remains as a reminder of earlier days.
View of Alcatraz and San Francisco from Angel Island
Angel Island is a great place to spend the day.  For links to ferry schedules and more information about Angel Island's history and facilities, go to the Angel Island State Park site.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Grinnell, Iowa: A Small Midwestern Town with Roots in the Past

Grinnell, Iowa, 4th and Main
Grinnell’s downtown, a block of mostly two-story brick storefronts,
 is on the National Register of Historic Places

In early June, Art and I spent five days in Grinnell, Iowa, for both a family and college reunion.  The roots of the Arnold family are in Grinnell and both Art and I are graduates of Grinnell College.  But even if you don’t have a personal connection to Grinnell, it can be a rewarding visit.  For architectural buffs, Grinnell has numerous fine examples of 19th century architecture as well as more modern buildings on the Grinnell College campus.  The most famous building in Grinnell is the Brenton-National Bank of Poweshiek County, originally the Merchant’s National Bank of Grinnell, which was built in 1914 and designed by Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, renowned as the “father of modernism”.  In our student days, it was where we had our checking accounts. Today it houses the Chamber of Commerce. 

Merchant's National Bank, known as the "Jewel Box" Bank, designed by Louis Sullivan

J.B. Grinnell's desk, displayed in the Historical Museum
The town of Grinnell, (current population 9,064) was founded in 1854 by Josiah Bushnell Grinnell, allegedly after he was advised by Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, to “Go West young man, Go West.” (No evidence exists that Greeley actually said this to Grinnell, but Greeley was well-known for promoting expansion of the Western states.)  In any case, Grinnell, who was originally from Vermont, moved to Iowa and established himself as one of its upstanding citizens.  In 1859, he was instrumental in moving Iowa College, a small college in Davenport, Iowa, founded in 1846, to the town of Grinnell, where it became Grinnell College. (It was the first college west of the Mississippi to give Bachelor’s degrees.) Both Art and I were students at Grinnell in the 1960's, as were Art’s parents in the 1930's, his grandfather before that, and many other relatives through the years.

Grinnell College Campus, Fine Arts Building
Grinnell is a typical small midwestern town that developed in the late nineteeth and early the twentieth centuries.  It is in the middle of the state on U.S. Route 6, midway between Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. It developed around the intersection of two railroad lines.  When Art and I were students you could still ride the Rock Island Line from Grinnell to Chicago or Denver.  It no longer operates passenger trains; what was the train depot in Grinnell has been turned into a restaurant.  However, the north/south freight line (the M and St. L) still runs through town, bisecting the college campus.  During our visit (we stayed in the college dorms) I was awakened one night by the whistle of a train rolling through.  When we were students, we had to be careful not to get stranded on the wrong side of the tracks when going to class.

Grinnell Historical Museum, 1125 Broad Street
A highlight of our visit to Grinnell was a visit to the Grinnell Historical Museum, located in a late-Victorian 10-room residence known as the McMurray house. Thousands of items––among them an organ, a Duncan Phyfe sofa, J.B. Grinnell’s Wooten desk from 1877, and the desk from the Monroe  Hotel––arranged throughout the house by Museum volunteers, recreate an authentic atmosphere of Victorian family living. Our tour through the house, expertly led by one of the museum volunteers, was like taking a trip back through time, and we were delighted to find items with connections to the Arnold family, who lived in the town since the early twentieth century.  For hours and more information about the history of the museum go to the website of the Grinnell Historical Museum .

Grinnell Historical Museum, View from the sitting room into the dining room
If you are in Grinnell, you can go to the West Side Diner on Route 6 where some fascinating family and town photos, some taken with a large-format panoramic camera, are displayed on the walls of the cafe and reveal more of the town's history.  We went there for a hearty and delicious breakfast one morning during our visit.
Update, May 3, 2013:  If you would like to know more about J.B. Grinnell you can listen to this interview with Grinnell students who researched his life on Iowa Public Radio.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Tidbits on Nature at Rancho La Puerto by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent (Guest Post)

African Aloe plants decorate the path to the dining hall at Rancho La Puerta
My friend Dorothy Patent is a fellow nonfiction writer for kids who has more than 130 published books and who spends as much time out-of-doors enjoying nature as possible.  You can find out more about her and her books at her website,, and blog,  I think you will enjoy reading about her visit to Baja California.

 When we think of Baja California, we imagine gorgeous beaches stretching to the horizon with quaint villages and waterside resorts.  But there’s more to this westernmost Mexican state, as my husband, Greg, and I discovered four years ago when he received an irresistible invitation—a free week for us both at RanchoLa Puerta, a world-class spa retreat in the Mexican mountains not far from San Diego, in trade for Greg offering three cooking classes.  He enthusiastically accepted the offer, beginning a new annual experience for us both.
The deal was especially great for me, as Greg did all the work!  Rancho La Puerta just celebrated its 72th anniversary and has evolved from a health oriented tenting camp into a environmentally conscious destination spa offering just about any kind of healthful activity you might want, from weight training and aerobics to yoga and Feldenkreis.  For folks like me, who love being outdoors and enjoy learning about the environment, the hikes, bird walks, and garden tours are especially enticing.

A male California quail announces his presence atop an ancient grape vine

Our most recent visit to the Rancho came this April, a good time for flowers, and I especially enjoyed the garden tour.  I found out that many of the plants at the Rancho are native, but some are brought in from other parts of the world, such as South Africa, that have a similar dry, sunny climate.

 I learned some fascinating facts, such as the varying life history of the native Mexican century plant, which is a kind of agave.  Several of these giants were beginning to bloom during our visit.  Turns out these plants are more likely to flower after ten years of growth rather than a hundred!  After blooming, the plant dies.  Century plants are exquisitely adapted to their environment.  For example, the soaring flower stalk either releases the seeds into the wind or holds onto them, where they germinate and grow into baby plants that later go to ground, depending on the weather.
Plants belonging to the aloe family, native to Africa, also tend to live in this type of landscape.  Some of them look a lot like agaves, but they belong to a different plant family.  People are familiar with the healing houseplant, Aloe vera, but there are about 400 other species as well.  One that thrives at the Rancho is the African Aloe, which creates waves of bright orange color under the April sun.
Cactus shares a niche with daffodils near one of the swimming pools

The mountain climate brings cool nights, so even more plants considered as more northerly can thrive here, right along with cactuses. Daffodils, roses, ice plant—all of these were blooming in April.
As a zoologist, I’m especially drawn to animals.  The built environment at Rancho La Puerta integrates completely into the surrounding natural environment, so wild creatures share the land with the people.  Fence lizards sun themselves on rocks used for landscaping, and Mexican ground squirrels rest atop patio walls.

The Mexican ground squirrel has a nice long tail
 I could have spent my entire week just watching the many native and migratory birds that spend time here in the spring.  Songbirds and hummingbirds abound.  California quail scuttle quickly across the paths from one clump of shrubs to another, and vultures roost in tall eucalyptus trees at night, then spread out their wings in the morning sun to warm them before flying off for the day.
During our Rancho visits, I’m most likely to be found roaming around with my camera and binoculars in the cool morning and trying out the various indoor classes during the heat of the day.  When he isn’t busy teaching, Greg joins me.  Wherever I am at the Rancho, I’m in a perfect environment--experiencing nature quite different from at my Montana home, or trying out new ways to nourish my body and spirit.
A fence lizard warms himself next to a crack he can zip into for safety

Monday, July 9, 2012

Fourth of July Parade, Alameda, California

What could be a better way to celebrate the Fourth of July than going to a parade?  We spent the holiday this year in the San Francisco Bay area and joined friends in Alameda, California, an island community near Oakland, to watch the city’s famous parade, the second largest and longest Independence Day parade in the nation. Featuring 2,500 participants and 130 floats, the Alameda parade is truly a community celebration.  People line the 3.3 mile parade route, setting up lawn chairs and sitting on the curb to watch the spectacle, which includes patriotic floats (ranging from decorated pick-up trucks to huge flat-bed vehicles with whole orchestras on the back), horses, dogs, dancers, classic cars, old-fashioned high-wheel bicycles, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, swim and soccer teams, stilt walkers, marching bands, and many more.  For winners and a gallery of photos, click here.
Rhythmix Cultural Works, Winner of the Mayor's Trophy
My granddaughter’s favorites were the prancing horses and the people handing out candy and tiny flags.  Earlier in the day the Alameda parade route was used for a charity 5K run.  After the parade, people continued the celebration in a local park with music, games and more.  We headed home for a picnic in the park.  Altogether, it was a glorious Fourth!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Churches of Carlisle, PA, an Introduction, by Judith Stiehm (Guest Post)

First Presbyterian Church, Carlisle, Pennsylvania
My friend Judith Stiehm is a political theorist who teaches at the Florida International University in Miami.  She spent a year in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, doing academic research at the library of the Army War College.  On weekends, she explored the town and surrounding countryside.  She has graciously allowed me to share the introduction to a non-academic book she wrote about her visits to the churches of Carlisle.  I think you will enjoy her perspective on this central Pennsylvania community.

Carlisle, Pennsylvania, population 18,000, lists more than fifty churches in its yellow pages, thirty of them within the city limits.  There is no mosque and no synagogue or temple, although there is a phone number for Congregation Beth Tikvah.  Worship is clearly an important part of the town=s culture, a culture which is not only mostly Christian, but also mostly Protestant. Still, the single Catholic church, St. Patrick=s, has not one, but two fine edifices. Since I am to be a part of this community for the next year, I have decided to attend services at a different church each Sunday in order to get a complete picture of the religious landscape of this small American city. Unfortunately, I missed the revival held at the Fairgrounds two weeks ago, but if there is another one in the spring or summer, I will be sure to attend.
.       Large and handsome churches are much in evidence.  They also seem to be the older churches.  I will begin with these to see if the newer, and often smaller, churches became necessary because the older ones had burst their seams, or if, somehow, their spirit faded or their tenets were displaced.
           Carlisle is 20 miles southwest of Pennsylvania=s capital, Harrisburg.  It is the home of the U.S. Army War College, Dickinson College, and Dickinson Law School.  It is embraced by the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the north and Highway 81 to the south. Trucking is a major industry.  One can easily walk anywhere in town, which is roughly two miles by two miles, and one can quickly find one=s way to open country--fertile farm land with the Appalachians on the horizon. The intersection of High and Hanover Streets, once the intersection of two Indian trails, is the town=s center. Churches occupy two of the four corners.  The other two are occupied by the old County Court House, which bears scars from Confederate gunfire during the Civil War, and the new County Court House, a four story, red brick building built in 1960, which replaced a series of market houses.  An Episcopalian church is located on the third corner, and the oldest public building in Carlisle, the First Presbyterian Church, has been on the northwest  corner since 1754. Since my great grandfather was a United Presbyterian minister in Sterling, Kansas, First Presbyterian seems a good place to start.
At ten thirty a.m. on a crisp fall day I begin my four block walk to a service due to begin at 10:45. I pass the oldest house in town at 119 E. High, a two-story, locally quarried, gray stone building with white mortar built right up to the sidewalk.  Behind it is a long but narrow tree-shaded yard. In the next block, I pass the Cumberland County Prison, built in 1854 as a replica of a Norman castle in Carlisle, England. Its fortress-like front is met by gray stone side walls, but a section of tennis-court like fencing and a modern insert, which looks like play-school blocks, gives it the appearance of a Frank Gehry idyll.  Having the barred windows a half block from city center reminds us that prisoners are a part of our society.
            Law enforcement began in Carlisle in 1754 with the construction of the first pillory.  This was also the year of the founding of the First Presbyterian Church--public and private policing, I suppose. The L-shaped gray stone building enfolds a grassy square.  Its sturdy stone tower has never boasted a steeple, though no one is able to tell me why.  George Washington worshiped here in 1794, when, as President, he led the troops that were on their way to put down the Whiskey Rebellion launched by Western farmers who did not want to pay taxes. Can you imagine a current President actually leading troops off to war?
The church=s rectangular sanctuary is sedately decorated with green carpets and dark red upholstered pews downstairs.  The pews in the three-sided balcony are upholstered in textured gray. The walls and pipe organ are white. Bright color is limited to the stained glass windows on three sides of the sanctuary.  Rectangular windows on the main floor, etched with a daisy theme, are paired with roman-arched windows in the balcony.  Once the congregation faced a long side of the ell; now there are thirteen rows with a center aisle that face a short side of the rectangle--more conventional, less egalitarian. Even without additional chairs 400 could participate in Christmas or Easter services. Today there are some 125 worshipers. All are white and clearly of the educated class.  Indeed, the minister=s robe looks greatly like my Columbia University academic gown.  The choir (small) is clad in royal blue with white trim.  They enter from a door behind the pulpit. Their music is supplemented by the "Super Singers@ a group of six children.
          Each pew contains a red booklet to register one=s attendance. It also provides a New Revised Standard Version Bible, published in 1989 in Nashville, Tennessee. It includes a chronology setting Biblical events in history, the Jewish calendar, and a list of Judaism=s seven feasts, thus establishing the Old Testament as Protestantism=s firm foundation. The Bible=s donor is honored with a book plate.  The pew=s hymnal has a bookplate too. 
There are lots of hymns in the hymnal: 150 pages of plain hymns, 100 pages of Psalms set to music, and 300 pages of topically arranged hymns.  There is also an order of service--Assembly, Proclamation of God=s Word, Thanksgiving, and Going in Peace. The offering comes at the end--so you can pay what you think you got out of it, perhaps.
Assembling is done in silence (except for organ music); a poem by William Blake is offered for contemplation:
Unless the eye catch fire, God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire, God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire, God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire, God will not be loved.
.        Unless the mind catch fire, God will not be known

In the rest of this first chapter, we learn more about First Presbyterian.  In Judith's book, The Churches of Carlisle, she visits twenty churches, ranging from the large churches in the center of town to smaller congregations such as the New Life Missionary Baptist church, whose home is a two-room cinder block building. Publication of the book is in progress.  When it becomes available, I will let you know. 

Note from Caroline:  I have visited Carlisle numerous times when visiting Art's parents, who, until recently, lived just outside Carlisle in the town of Newville, Pennylvania.  They went into Carlisle for shopping, eating out, other events, and were members of the Carlisle Second Presbyterian Church, located in lovely contemporary style building on the edge of town.