Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


Archive for August, 2009

Drawn Stone

Drawn Stone at the de Young Museum

Entrance to the de Young Museum

“Every time I hit a stone, it’s like my heart’s a little bit in my mouth.” Andy Goldsworthy

This Andy Goldsworthy installation, “Drawn Stone,” at the de Young is from 2005, but I didn’t have a blog back then and I’m generally slack about going to museums, so it’s just now that I’m checking it out and posting about it. Goldsworthy’s stone installations are always interesting to me, the way he often manages to (knowingly) break the rules about stonework while still remaining very attentive to and respectful of the craft. For instance, with “Drawn Stone,” the entire focus of the installation is a crack that runs through the sandstone pavers and slabs of the museum’s entrance. Installing a cracked paver is considered poor form, but he’s reveling in it, making it the entire focus of the installation. And in fact, it must have taken a lot of extra effort to crack the pavers and then match them up, so he even earns bonus points for doing something that would normally be frowned upon. Pretty bold.

The installation was originally named “Faultline,” but Goldsworthy changed the name along the way. I don’t know anything about the reasons for the change, but it seems like he somehow found out that Californians don’t really like earthquake-themed art, and so he decided to keep that aspect more low-key, the way Californians like it. In this case, it’s totally appropriate to have an earthquake theme — the new de Young was actually built because an earthquake made the old building unsafe — but it’s more in keeping with the local aesthetic to keep that aspect out of the title. And the piece is overall fairly subtle, anyways; several people didn’t notice it until I took out my camera and started snapping photos.

Goldsworthy is always an interesting talker, and KQED’s website has a 2005 segment about the installation with him talking about learning to break pavers (the best way is to just whack them with a hammer) and other aspects of the piece. The museum website has his artist’s statement along with a photo of him on top of one of the slabs, holding a sledgehammer, with the wedges and feathers still in the slab. It’s a fair bit of work to split a slab that big, but it must have been satisfying. Photos of cracked pavers and slabs are below. (more…)

The Sierras

the east side of the sierras, near mono lake

the east side of the sierras, near mono lake

A little while back someone corrected me about referring to our mountains as “the Sierras,” claiming that Sierra Nevada means “snowy range” and should just be shortened to “Sierra,” no plural. Well, I was skeptical — I’ve called it that all my life and thought everyone else did, too — but before I embarrassed myself with incorrect usage on this blog, I tried to check it out. The best authority I found was a 1947 Sierra Club article excerpting a 1927 article by Francis Farquhar — author of History of the Sierra Nevada (which Anita and I carried with us on the John Muir Trail five years ago and read cover to cover during a snowstorm) and purportedly “the authority on Sierra place names” (he has a book called Place Names of the High Sierra, so it might be true) — who writes:

‘The SPANISH word sierra means “range of mountains,” and is usually found in combination with other words, such as Sierra Blanca (White Range), Sierra Madre (Mother Range, or Central Range), and Nevada (Snowy Range)… The Sierra Nevada is distinctly a unit, both geographically and topographically, and is well described as “una sierra nevada.” Strictly speaking, therefore, we should never say “Sierras,” or “High Sierras,” or “Sierra Nevadas” in referring to it. Nevertheless, these forms are so frequently found in the very best works of literature and science that it would perhaps be pedantic to deny their admissibility. It becomes, therefore, a matter of preference, and for our part we rather like to keep in mind the unity of our great range by calling it simply “The Sierra” or “The Sierra Nevada.”

Having thus promised not to look askance at “Sierras,” we may perhaps be spared the pain of hearing “Sierra Nevada Mountains.” Surely one does not say “Loch Katrine Lake,” “Rio Grande River,” or “Saint San Francisco.”’

I don’t have Farquhar’s authority, but I would say that we’re speaking English, not Spanish, and when we capitalize Sierra, we make it a name and create distance from the Spanish meaning. Just about every other mountain range gets the plural: the Whites, the Rockies, the San Jacintos, the Alps, etc… And one does indeed say Loch Katrine Lake in California. For instance, with the Loch Leven Lakes, in the very same Sierras. You have to go to Scotland to just call it Loch Katrine or Loch Leven.

But the 1948 author, who cites this 1927 Farquhar article, knows all about a person like me:

‘The name “Sierras” is still stuck to by a few recalcitrants who probably concluded that logic has nothing to do with the acceptance of place names, and who could cite, in accepted nomenclature, many redundancies such as Little Chico Creek (Little Little Creek).

‘We cannot argue logically with persons who deprecate logic; nevertheless, we can call them names. So we aver that the man who will say “Sierras” will also say “Frisco,” and is probably on a par with the printer who would letter-space lower case type. Such a printer, said Goudy, would steal sheep.’

To which I say: Hey, below the belt. I would never say “Frisco.”

Anyways, now that I’m paying attention, I notice some people saying “the Sierra” and some saying “the Sierras.” Both seem acceptable. Neither group seems like they would steal sheep.

— Update —

I found a stereoscope by Edward Muybridge from around 1870 that labels them the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Though he predates Farquhar, Muybridge was from England and at one point tried to plead temporary insanity at a murder trial, so I’m not sure he should be seen as an authority.

Stereoscope by Edward Muybridge, c. 1870

Stereoscope by Edward Muybridge, c. 1870

Skidding, Rolling, and Lifting

Sold! To the person with a giant backhoe...

One of the fun parts about backcountry rock work is searching around to find the rocks to build with. One of the most laborious parts is then moving the chosen rocks to the building site. Some wilderness crews use a come-along or grip hoist, but most do it with human power, rolling the rocks downhill to the trail with their hands or with a six-foot long rockbar. Here are a few backcountry sayings, born of many hours of wrestling against gravity:

Skidding is better than rolling, rolling is better than lifting, lifting sucks.

Stones come in three sizes: hernia, double-hernia, and too small.

If you can carry it, it’s too small.

Mcleod the Tool


Mcleod (tool)

The other  tool that represents trail crews for me, along with the Pulaski I showed in my last post, is the Mcleod, a combination rake, hoe, and tamper. It doesn’t make a big first impression, but it’s surprisingly useful, a mainstay on trail-maintenance and fire-fighting crews. The straight edge is the primary business edge, kept sharp enough to cut through roots; useful for cleaning and grading out a trail. Most hikers don’t notice, but trails are never built completely flat; they always have a slight outslope so that water will flow off the trail. The classic Mcleod is built from a single piece of steel welded together (the oldest ones were built so that the handle could be removed for easier transport, but I’ve never actually seen one of those) and is useful for checking the outslope of your trial; you can just stand it upright, and it should tilt one or two inches to the side, instead of plumb, if the outslope is correct.

Mcleod head with bolt

Mcleod head with bolt

Newer Mcleods, the only ones I’m seeing now, have a bolt at the bottom. They still function for tamping, but you can’t check the outslope on a hard-packed trail with them. Instead you can lay down a water bottle on its side as a low-tech, backcountry level.

A ranger for the Sierra National Forest, Malcolm Mcleod, designed the first one around the start of the century, and his name provides one of the only tool jokes I know:

What is the difference between Mick Jagger and the Scottish people? Answer below the jump. (more…)

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