Sightseeing in Your Town

I am in the process of planning a trip to Italy with my husband. I’m very excited. I’m sure we’ll be seeing our fair share of cathedrals and museums and art galleries, and we’ll also be experiencing new culinary delights.

I am ever mindful of how lucky I am to be able to do this. Not everyone gets to travel. They may not have the time or the money, or they may have very valid responsibilities that prevent them from doing so.

As I plan to poke my head into every publicly accessible edifice that I possibly can, and wander through every park, it occurs to me that I haven’t done so in the Seattle area. Not by a long shot.

There’s a botanical garden that I drive past at least once a week that I keep meaning to visit but I never quite get around to it. I have no idea what the largest churches in town look like from the inside. There are great works of art hanging in local galleries that I have yet to gaze upon. And heaven knows there’s a whole host of restaurants that I’ve never patronized.

So here we are, spending a fortune to fly halfway around the world to experience the new and exciting, when there’s plenty of that stuff in our own back yard. And a lot of these things are experiences anyone can have if they make the effort. Often museums have free or discount days. Most parks are free or very affordable. You can wander into pretty much every church, (but I wouldn’t advise doing so if a service is already in progress).

I wonder why so many of us think the only sights worth seeing are those that are far away? Is it because we know the local things will always be within our reach, and we assume we’ll get to them someday? Do we place a higher premium on all things foreign? Or are we simply too invested in our Netflix stream to get up off the couch?

If you’re reading this, I challenge you to get up and go experience something near you that you’ve always been meaning to experience. Go on! You’ll be glad you did.

A garden near me that I have yet to see.

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The Electrical Franklin

My favorite historical figure is Benjamin Franklin. His enthusiasm for science, his great sense of humor, his writing skills, and his desire to benefit mankind in so many ways with his inventions, often not profiting in any way himself, makes me wish I could travel through time and meet him. I am sure I’d be fascinated by just about anything he had to say.

Yes, he was a womanizer who treated his family horribly. He was a product of his time, and a product of his fame. Not that that’s any excuse. None of us are perfect, but I do wish he could have been a little less imperfect. Still, I’m captivated by all things Franklin.

I learned a great deal about Franklin by reading this article on the Franklin Institute web page. (It’s in Philadelphia, and I long to go there.)

This was a man who took scientific inquiry to the point of obsession. He was so enamored of lightning that he could often be seen on horseback, chasing storms. (Poor horse.)

He started doing electrical experiments in 1746, making his home ground zero for his antics. He once shocked himself so badly that he shook from head to toe and his arms and the back of his neck were numb for a time. That didn’t seem to slow him down, though.

He conducted so many experiments that, by 1749, he had come up with the concept of an electrical battery, but never took the step of figuring out what one could be used for.

It’s hard to believe in this day and age that people didn’t know that lightning was composed of a form of electricity, but Franklin took several years to prove it. While pursuing that goal, he began to think about ways to protect people from lightning, and thus came up with the lightning rod.

I love how I keep learning something new about Franklin, even after all these years. For example, he advocated sharp, pointy lightning rods, whereas in England they preferred blunt ones, theorizing that they would scrape the electrical charge out of the sky without actually getting struck. King George III favored this theory and soon set up his palace accordingly. But in the colonies, Franklin’s design prevailed, and sort of became a political statement. One more way to reject the king.

Two years after coming up with the lightning rod, he did his famous kite and key experiment. Another fun fact is that he never wrote about it himself, and the only witness was his 21 year old son William. Another thing I never knew is that he resorted to a kite simply because he had planned to conduct the experiment by using the steeple on Christ Church, but they were taking too long to finish building it. Franklin became impatient, so he went and flew a kite. When he saw that the key got an electrical charge, he knew that lightning was a form of electricity and, unbeknownst to him, his reputation amongst elementary school students was forever secured.

One tragic footnote to Franklin’s electrical fame that one rarely hears about is the story of Georg Wilhelm Richmann. His life started as tragically as it ended, as his father died of the plague before he was born. Still, Richmann became an Estonian scientist who was also studying electricity.

One stormy day in 1753 he was conducting an experiment using insulated rods, to quantify their response to said storm. He was following Franklin’s published instructions. He was struck in the head by ball lightning, receiving a red spot on his forehead, and was instantly killed, as his clothing singed and his shoes blew apart. An explosion immediately followed, and his assistant was blown across the room, as the door frame split apart and the door was torn off its hinges.

Fortunately, the assistant survived to tell the tale. Richmann was apparently the first person to die while conducting electrical experiments. He was 42 years old.

I wonder if Franklin knew of this tragedy, and if he knew that Richmann had been following his instructions. If so, I wonder what he thought. I wonder if he felt any remorse. That information seems to have been lost to history.


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Is Environmental Regulation Good?

How you answer that question most likely has a lot to do with whether you live in a red state or a blue state in America. Conservatives, in general, feel that governmental regulations are bad, and that industries should be allowed to self-regulate. They feel that federal regulations impede industry’s ability to be profitable, and therefore they have a negative impact on jobs and the economy.

This is one of the many ways that conservatives and I part company. I have never seen industries act in the best interest of the common man, so I feel they need to be watched over very closely. But everyone is entitled to their opinion, and subsequently their vote. That’s how democracy works.

I only hope that when people vote, they cast educated votes. I certainly try to. In an attempt to educate myself about the vast gulf in my opinions as compared to the average conservative, I decided to read a fascinating book entitled Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild. I highly recommend that you read this well thought out book, regardless of your location on the political spectrum. The author is a sociologist who spends a year in conservative Louisiana to get to know the people, and learn how they have drawn the conclusions that they have on a variety of subjects, including the environment.

Louisiana has been ground zero for an unbelievable number of environmental disasters. (See also, my post entitled, “A Forgotten Catastrophe.”) According to page 79 of this book, “residents of red states suffer higher rates of industrial pollution than do residents of blue states. Voters in the twenty-two states that voted Republican in the five presidential elections between 1992 and 2008—and who generally call for less government regulation in business—lived in more polluted environments.”

But she also discovered that it isn’t just a state by state issue. She looked at data on the EPA website, which breaks down risk of exposure to pollution into counties, and she compared that to people’s answers on the General Social Survey, that linked what people believed about the environment and politics county by county.

What she found was very interesting. “If, in 2010, you lived in a county with a higher exposure to toxic pollution, we discovered, you are more likely to believe that Americans ‘worry too much’ about the environment and to believe that the United States is doing ‘more than enough’ about it. You are also more likely to describe yourself as a strong Republican.”

I find this paradox both fascinating and heartbreaking. Just because I disagree with you politically does not mean I want you to suffer. And, of course, I feel that your children should suffer even less. Unfortunately, your stance on the environment effects the planet as a whole, as well.

You don’t have to agree with me. But can you at least understand why I would find this contradiction in thinking confusing? Therein lies the crux of our extreme divide. By voting the way that they do on environmental issues, conservatives are hurting themselves and the rest of us. And that hurts to watch.

Like this Escher box below, I struggle to understand this logic.


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Mid-Month Marvels: Greenagers

A recurring theme in this blog is the celebration of people and/or organizations that have a positive impact on their communities. What they do is not easy, but it’s inspirational, and we don’t hear enough about them. So I’ve decided to commit to singing their praises at least once a month. I’ll be calling it Mid-Month Marvels. If you have any suggestions for the focus of this monthly spotlight, let me know in the comments below!

I’ve blogged about my teen participation in the Youth Conservation Corps before. It was a very life-changing part of my growing up, and it gave me skills that I employ to this day. It used to be a federal program, and I truly believe that when Reagan did away with it, the country didn’t quite realize what it was giving up in terms of teaching the nation’s youth how to be strong, capable, confident and hard working adults.

So imagine my joy when I stumbled upon an organization called Greenagers. The only fault I can find with this amazing program is that it is only in the Berkshires and a small part of New York State. I think this entire country could benefit from this fantastic idea.

According to their website, “Greenagers provides employment and volunteer opportunities for teens and young adults in the fields of conservation, sustainable farming, and environmental leadership.”

They have several programs. They help maintain the Appalachian trails in the area, work with local farmers, and install front yard gardens for area families. They work on public lands to build trails, remove invasive species, and construct kiosks and benches. They also have a river walk stewardship program, and a climate action program to educate students in middle school.

There are so many benefits to Greenagers that there is not enough space in this blog to count them all. Not only does it provide youth with gainful employment, but it educates them about the environment and provides them with tools to maintain this planet in a way that we should have been doing all along. It also teaches them teamwork and gives them skills in collaboration. It shows them how to work with their hands, and it gets them off the couch and into the great outdoors for actual exercise. It gives them an amazing work ethic and it instills confidence and keeps them out of trouble.

Currently, this organization is raising funds to acquire the April Hill Education and Conservation Center, a 100 acre plot that includes a farmhouse that was built in 1744, a barn, and several outbuildings, not far from the Appalachian Trail. This will allow them to expand this incredible program and increase their opportunities to educate and uplift the community. Check out this amazing video, and please join me in supporting this great cause.


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A Forgotten Catastrophe

Once upon a time, in the state of Louisiana, there was a beautiful freshwater lake called Lake Peigneur. It was about 10 feet deep, and covered about 10 square miles. It was a popular place to go fishing, and there was a botanical garden called Live Oak on its shores.

Unfortunately, humans, being what they are, couldn’t leave well enough alone. There was also a salt dome beneath the lake, and therefore the Diamond Crystal Salt Company created a salt mine there in 1919. Well, there’s no question that we all need salt to survive. But we’ve gotten it into our heads that we need oil to survive as well. That mistaken idea is what caused the Lake Peigneur disaster in 1980.

You see, Texaco had decided that drilling for oil on Lake Peigneur would be a financial boon to that company, because, you know, “drill, baby, drill.” And so they did. But due to a foolish miscalculation, they accidentally drilled right into the salt dome itself.

It’s really rather astonishing what happens when you drill a 14 inch wide hole through the floor of a lake and into a huge empty cavern below. Check out this history channel video that tells you all about it. The first thing that happened was that the drilling platform tilted, and the Texaco employees barely escaped with their lives. Then the salt mine began to fill with water, but thanks to an excellent evacuation plan, all 55 miners managed to escape as well.

Soon, that hole had turned into a whirlpool, and the entire drilling platform disappeared into what had been just 10 feet of water only moments before. Soon to follow were 11 barges and a tugboat that had been floating nearby. With them went trees, and 65 acres of land, including the botanical garden.

A fisherman who had been enjoying a tranquil day on the water only managed to survive because one of the barges temporarily blocked the hole and gave him just enough time to motor away and scramble to shore, only to watch his boat disappear along with, one assumes, the catch of the day.

Oh, but it gets worse. This maelstrom caused the Delcambre Canal, which usually drains out of the lake, to reverse course and empty brackish water into the void. For about a day, the lake was the site of Louisiana’s highest waterfall, measuring 164 feet. In addition, 400 foot geysers erupted, as the trapped air from the salt mine escaped.

It took two days for the water to stop rushing into the void. Once the pressure was equalized, 9 of the barges popped back up to the surface. The rest of what had been sucked in was never seen again.

Today, Lake Peigneur, once a 10 foot deep, fresh water lake, is now a 200 foot deep saltwater lake, with all the resulting ecological changes that that implies. You can still see a chimney sticking up from what remains of a house that sank below the waves, but other than that, you might never know there once was an environmental catastrophe here.

Oh, but it gets better. Texaco had to pay 32 million dollars to Diamond Crystal, and 12.8 million to Live Oak Gardens, which is a mere hand slap to such a large company. In exchange, they got to wait patiently for the news cycle to churn on so that their little oops would be forgotten and they could continue to rape mother nature in other locations. Because humans suck.

The salt mine, oddly enough, was able to continue operating until 1986, creating yet another cavern. There are several oil drilling operations nearby. And now, guess what? That cavern is being used as a storage facility for pressurized natural gas.

What could possibly go wrong?

Rip Van Winkle Gardens
Lake Peigneur

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Lightning Stories

I find lightning fascinating. From a distance. And from inside a safely grounded shelter. You don’t see much of it here in the Seattle area, though, and I miss it.

But I also have a healthy respect for lightning. At the age of 10, I moved from Connecticut to Florida, and quickly discovered that Connecticut’s lightning is child’s play by comparison. Florida has epic downpours with thunder that rattles the fillings in your teeth and lightning that can render you speechless. In fact, Florida is the most lightning-prone state in the U.S.

That kind of weather gets magnified tenfold if experiencing it for the first time while living in a tent as I did. Back then, I was terrified by Florida storms, and used those unsettling events as an opportunity to wail and howl out my rage and fear about having been rendered all but homeless at a time in life when I had absolutely no control.

With age and an improved living situation, I learned to take shelter and enjoy nature’s free light shows whenever possible.

Once, a friend of mine was visiting from Holland, so I took her to the beach. She wandered along the shoreline as I sat and enjoyed the Atlantic waves. But storm clouds rushed in from the East, and me and the rest of the savvy Floridians took off for the safety of our cars. I was desperately hopping up and down and motioning to the black, looming clouds and waving at her to come the eff on, and you’d think that that, and the fact that she suddenly had the beach to herself, would have been some sort of a clue. But no. She continued to slowly amble down the shoreline. When she finally came back, I explained to her how much danger she had been in, but she simply got angry with me for rushing her. She rarely took me seriously. For a variety of reasons, we’ve lost touch.

Later in life, when I worked for the State of Florida Department of Transportation, I was friends with the district lighting inspector. One of his tasks was to drive around at night and make sure street lights were functioning, and report them for repair if they were not. One night he drove up to a light pole just after it had been struck by lightning. The pole was in sand, and the sand was still glowing. He came back after it cooled and dug up several chunks of multicolored glass from the ground. He gave me one. I still have it. Somewhere.

Another time he showed me a dead turtle, frozen in place, its legs extended, its neck outstretched. He said that it had been struck by lightning before his very eyes. You never knew what you’d see when you worked in the field.

When I first became a bridgetender in Florida, I quickly got used to lightning striking my bridges. All of our structures came with lightning rods which were attached to copper cables that stretched down to the water, but the fishermen often harvested said copper, so you never knew what was going to happen from one strike to the next. But when the lightning was at a distance, I enjoyed the light show, along with the blue glow of transformers being struck on the horizon, with the accompanying patches of dark city skyline.

Nature, man. It’s awesome.

Recently I learned about something to add to my bucket list. The Maracaibo Beacon, also known as the Catatumbo lightning is a phenomenon that happens in Venezuela, where the Catatumbo River meets Lake Maracaibo. Lightning can strike up to 280 times per hour, 160 days a year, for 9 hours at a stretch. It happens so much that it draws tourists, but it also kills residents, and drastically impacts economic pursuits, so scientists are attempting to predict these storms as much as three months in advance. I wish them luck.

There are several theories about these storms. The most reasonable one is that the warm, moist Caribbean air is forced upward into the cold surrounding mountains, causing electrical storms. Another has to do with the methane in area swamps, while a third mentions the uranium in the ground.

It’s hard to say, but it sounds like it would be a fascinating place to indulge in my lightning fetish! I only wish the politics of that country were a little more stable. Maybe someday. Until then, I’ll have to content myself with watching this amazing video.

Catatumbolightning (4)
Catatumbo lightning

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A Mini-Break to Ocean Shores

Every once in a while it’s nice to have a change of scenery. It’s like a palate cleanser for the soul. I could definitely use one of those every now and again. And since I had yet to experience the Washington coast, we decided to take a little overnight trip to Ocean Shores, which is only about 2 1/2 hours from Seattle.

I have only seen the Pacific three times in my life, and never toward the end of December, so I was braced for drama, and it didn’t disappoint. Stormy, rough, ice cold, it isn’t a place for sunbathing or swimming. And yet it was beautiful. I always manage to breathe more deeply when embraced by the salty sea air.

What I wasn’t expecting was the town of Ocean Shores itself. It may be clinging to the coast of the Pacific Northwest, but if you subtract the cold rain, it could have just as easily been a Florida beach town. The kitschy little souvenir shops (one of which you entered through the mouth of a shark), and the delightful little restaurants (one of which was in a mini lighthouse), could have easily been overlooking the Atlantic Southeast.

Given the time of year, we pretty much had the place to ourselves, but I could easily close my eyes and imagine it in the height of summer, chock full of guys in board shorts and children wearing water wings and making sand castles. It almost made me homesick for Florida. Almost.

Another weird connection is that Pat Boone lived in Ocean Shores for many years, and he was born in Jacksonville, Florida, where I lived for decades. So there’s that, too.

If ever I feel the need to reconnect with Florida, now I know it’s only a few hours away. That’s kind of comforting. I suspect I’ll be back.

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