Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Smoky Skies

On Thursday halfway through the morning our skies slowly darkened to an unhealthy gray when smoke and ash were pushed into our region. The sunlight turned orange and it was hard to see the sun at all.

But the worst was the smell. It triggered memories of last year's October fires and heightened anxiety.

The smoke and ash comes from the rapidly spreading wildfire in Butte Canyon, about 100 miles from where I live. While I'm writing this, the fire has become the most destructive wildfire in California (surpassing "our" fire, what a sad record) with a death toll of 42 and the town of Paradise almost completely wiped out. Hell on earth.

Schools were closed here on Friday because of the poor air quality and they are closed again today (yesterday was Veterans Day, so they were closed anyway) which gives me a day off. To be honest though, I'd rather go to work and be able to breathe fresh air. We take fresh air for granted - until we don't have it anymore. Since Thursday I haven't been able to open my windows and can only be outside wearing an N95 mask. I crave fresh air. The smoke is so thick that I can't see my beloved Mount Bennett from our bedroom window. The first two days my lungs hurt and I had difficulties breathing. The Geek still does.

But these are small "sacrifices" compared to what the people in Butte County (and burning areas in Southern California as well) are going through right now. On the one hand I revisit all the emotions and despair that we felt a year and a month ago, on the other hand it is beyond my imagination to picture a community that has been extinguished within less than a day. I have no idea where these people will go to, how they will deal with the loss of their homes AND community, how they will go through the next weeks and months. So many people have lost their lives in this inferno.

It is heart breaking. How often have I said these words...

There is the Northern California Fire Relief Fund that I donated to (feeling completely helpless) and I just pass this on. We had a similar fund last year for "our" fires and it did a lot of financial help. From the experience of my friends who lost everything in the Tubbs and Nuns fires I know that every little bit helps.

The smoke makes for glorious sunrises and sunsets. It always amazes me how close horror and beauty are. Photo on top was taken on Friday morning, one day after the fire started. Second photo was shortly before sunset on Friday night and the last one is the sunrise on Saturday morning.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Night of Lights

In 2010, when I was still writing for Vision and Verb, I wrote this post about a special November tradition we have in Germany. Since we just celebrated this tradition with the children's classes at German Language School yesterday evening I thought it a good opportunity to post it on my blog as well.

November is a pretty gray month in Germany. Days of fog follow days of overcast skies, with the sun only making rare appearances. Except for the first day of the month (All Saints) when in the Catholic parts of the country candles appear on gravesites in the cemeteries, the month offers mainly dark and somber holidays: Volkstrauertag (our kind of Memorial Day), Buß- und Bettag (Day of Prayer and Repentance, a protestant holiday that is not an official holiday any longer) and Day of the Dead which also marks the end of the church year. All these holidays are very subdued and perfectly fit the somber mood of a German November.

However, almost midthrough the month, on November 11th, lights glow in the dark accompanied by the sweet little voices of children happily singing the old folksong “Ich geh mit meiner Laterne” (I walk with my lantern). Yes, it is Martinstag (St. Martin’s Day), not an official holiday at all, but a beautiful tradition. On this day, children all over Germany remember St. Martin of Tours, who was a soldier in the Roman Army (around 330 A.D.) and became famous when he cut his woolen coat in two parts with his sword and gave one part to a beggar. He later left the army and became a monk.

Today, children create their own paper lanterns, often in preschool, kindergarten and elementary school. These lanterns come in all shapes and sizes, from simple to elaborate – and in the evening of November 11th as well as the days around this date, the young children go out in the streets with their lit lanterns and sing those old folksongs. It is a sweet sound in all the hectic day-to-day noise, a moment to pause and listen to the beautiful tunes, look at the young faces and notice the enthusiasm and joy the children show.

They bring light into our night, music to our ears and joy to our hearts.

A beautiful tradition that I hope will never vanish.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

An Image and Its Story - October 2018

October was a busy month at work, especially at the German School where I felt like constantly putting out fires. Pretty exhausting, to be honest, but also good when you see that problems get solved. I am also very lucky to work with a wonderful team there.

But photography was again pushed to the back burner. I took a few photos in the garden and on my walks, but nothing that I thought worth for this post. But one day when I came home in the late afternoon I noticed how beautifully my favorite tree in our street was turning its leaves.

This tree is a Chinese Pistache (Pistacia chinensis), a widely used street tree. It is deciduous, but before it loses all its leaves, it turns into the most brilliant shades of yellow, orange and red. It is a true stunner. I planted one in my own garden a few years ago simply because of its gorgeous color (my tree, however, is far from being such a beautiful mature tree like the one in the photo even though it already displays fiery colors). Every autumn I am in awe of this tree - the colors, the shape, the trunk. When the sun is deep in the sky, the colors are intense.

The show lasts only a few weeks, but oh! what a show!

Friday, October 26, 2018

Discovering an Old Neighborhood

Istanbul is an ancient city, and while we were there we also explored some of the oldest neighborhoods. Sure, it is a must to see the important landmarks, but it's while walking along those narrow streets and alleys that we tasted the flavor of this magical city.

The Küçük Ayasofya - Little Hagia Sophia - neighborhood is one of the oldest neighborhoods, making up what was once known as Constantinople, the capital city of the Byzantine Empire. Everywhere you look there are old walls and narrow paths, little alleys and steep stairs.

The Little Hagia Sophia looks a bit like her big and famous sister. However, it is so much quieter and calmer, almost no one is here and it lacks all the glamour and beautiful art. The courtyard is an oasis of silence; I don't know about the interior of the mosque since I only had one scarf with me to cover my head, but not to cover my legs. My dress barely fell to my knees and thus was too short for visiting a mosque. Good thing the Geek was wearing long pants and therefore was allowed to peek inside.

Wandering along those streets, alleys and paths it seems we saw something interesting or "exotic" every few meters. It was hard not to stop and take pictures.

Oh the doors - so many old and beautiful or just interesting doors! I seldom took so many photos of doors like I did during those two weeks in Turkey. I could actually write an entire post just about doors. Here are a few of them that we saw in this neighborhood:

The old wooden buildings were fascinating. Old Istanbul used to consist of these wooden houses, but many of them were demolished and new buildings were built in their place. However, quite a few are still left, and while some are still inhabited others are falling down and are in a state of deterioration.

But there are also old brick buildings that are falling completely apart. It seems that no one cares about them - there aren't even "for sale" signs. I'm pretty sure it would be interesting real estate for investors, but probably also not quite cheap to fix everything up. As you can see, some buildings are lovely on the ground floor with restaurants and street cafés, but when you look up you see a building that is slowly falling down. You might wonder about building codes... and it does remind me of images of bombed cities.

As it is so typical for Mediterranean countries people hang their laundry just outside their window or across the street. Always a sight that I love and enjoy. No one is ashamed to show their underwear!

After all this walking up and down this neighborhood we deserved a delicious meal of köfte, kebab and eggplant with some refreshing Ayran on the roof terrace of a small restaurant, enjoying a great view of one of the many mosques and the Sea of Marmara in the background.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Misty Morning at the Lake

Last Wednesday, the day after the first anniversary of the October wildfires, I had the deep desire to get into nature, to walk around the lake. It was a misty morning, so different from a year ago, and I enjoyed the cool clear air. It's always been a favorite place of mine, but this morning I enjoyed it even more.

The moment I got out of the car I was greeted by a flock of turkeys.

They love to hang out here and this is not the first time that we have crossed each other. They usually keep to themselves and that's what they did this morning as well.

I chose not to walk around the lake along the paths I normally take but decided to wander along the narrow trails away from the popular path. It is here that I have found my favorite spot, where I sometimes sit and write in my journal.

It doesn't look like much, especially on a gray morning, but this is my personal slice of heaven. It is quiet here except for the continuous chatter of the woodpeckers that live here. I can hear the Canada Geese at the lake when they take off as well as the call of the Green Herons and the Belted Kingfisher. Lizards like to soak up the sun on the rocks and squirrels chase each other up and down the trees.

There are several Buckeye trees around, but the buckeyes are still hanging on the tree. In a few more weeks they will pop open and fall to the ground. I love their shiny golden-brown skin. They remind me a lot of the horse chestnuts we had in Germany around this time.

As always the woodpeckers were busy hammering holes in the utility pole that is standing here. I once saw a Red Shouldered Hawk sitting on top of it. While examining it more closely I saw that many holes were filled with acorns.

Back at the lake I was happy to see that the park management has hired goats to keep the underbrush low - this is one of the most environmental-friendly way to do it (though not cheap) and one of the best things to do to prevent wildfires. However, chasing or not - the goats weren't there.

But the deer were - more than in this picture. I have seen them so often - here and in my garden - but it still thrills me every time I see them (not so much in my garden though...). I just love wildlife.

Oh, and the California Quails! I always hear them, they make a very distinctive sound. However, they are quite shy and usually run in the bushes as soon as they hear or see a human approaching. It is lovely to watch them foraging on the ground. They look rather gray, but when you look closer (if you have a chance without them running away) you can see how pretty they actually are.

I apologize for the low quality of the pictures. They were all taken with my phone on a rather somber morning. The sun came out later in the day and it became quite hot again. This is Northern California for you - chilly in the morning, hot during the day, cold in the evening. And I love it.

The first anniversary of the fires the day before was quiet at the school. My colleague and I had decorated the library with fresh flowers and sparkling lights to make it a welcoming place (it was a safe space during that day for students who were overwhelmed and sad). At lunch we had therapy dogs coming in which is always popular with the kids. A few students came in during the day to talk to a counselor, but all in all it was a rather uneventful day. We were all thankful for that.


Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Fires One Year Later

Today it's been a year since we woke up to what would become the most destructive wildfire in the history of California.

Crown Hill in Fountaingrove

Some call it the first anniversary. The students at my high school, however, prefer the term "the fires one year later". One in nine of our students have lost their home during those fires.

One. In. Nine. Of 1600 students.

It still feels like yesterday that we woke up at 2:00 am to the worst week in our life. When I went to bed yesterday I had this huge knot in my stomach when I remembered a year ago. How we went to bed not knowing what would happen only a few hours later, and how much it would change our lives.

Of course our lives hadn't changed as much as for those people who lost their homes in the fires, far from it. They are still struggling with insurances, building permits, architects, rents that are way too high. Some are in the middle of rebuilding with some homes being ready to move in pretty soon. Others are still in the planning process. Others are frustrated about the many hurdles. And others got the money from the insurance and moved away.

The school year has been awful and each and every one of us - teachers and staff - were relieved when summer came and we could leave school behind for a couple months. This year we have a new administration and we have been off to a really good start. We will commemorate October 9th by having a "normal" day, but there will be a safe space in the library and we will have therapy dogs on campus. Last year after the fires these things helped a lot.

It's been a year, and still every conversation sooner or later turns to the fires. Talking about it is a way to go through it. Even though the nightmare is in our past, it's still there - in the burnt down neighborhoods we drive through daily, when we hear the sirens of police cars and fire trucks - especially the fire trucks. The smell of smoke, even only from a barbecue, brings up terrifying memories. I think we all have Nixle on our phone now and the emergency systems have been tested.

When I go to Davis and want to take the back roads I check weather conditions and Nixle alerts. I sure don't want to be trapped by a fire in the huge wooden area. Every time I drive along those roads I remember the drive we took there on the eve of the fires. I suspect it will always stay with me.

Crown Hill in the photo above is a neighborhood in Fountaingrove. We used to live right below it, and when we moved into our old house back in 2001 those homes on the hill were just in the process of being built. I remember the constant noise of construction. Now most of the homes are gone and some time in the future, the construction noise will be back. As it is in so many neighborhoods. It's good to see homes getting up again and hopefully families being able to move in and rebuild their lives.

As for our old house - the landlord has decided not to rebuild. The property has been cleared and is just dirt right now. It still makes me sad.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

An Image and Its Story - September 2018

The Point Reyes ship wreck has been on my "things to photograph"-list for a while, and a few weeks ago I finally got to check it off.

This ship wreck is in Tomales Bay, behind a general store in Inverness on Point Reyes. You can't see it from the road, you really have to know where it is. Thanks to Google I found the actual location on the satellite map (a feature I use very often).

We arrived there before noon when the ship wreck was in full sun. We thought the entire scene looked very dull and flat and didn't bother to take a single picture. It was disappointing - and so we moved on to our hikes and a wonderful enjoyable day at the beach.

We came back in the late afternoon when the sun was much closer to the horizon and Inverness had dipped into the shade. Nevertheless, we stopped at the general store again and walked over to the boat.

And wow! Only parts of the wreck were in the sun and the sky behind it was pretty dramatic. The water was quiet and reflected the old fisher boat. This was our moment.