Thursday, December 29, 2011


This little alien graces the retaining wall just outside my back door. He (or she) is a fairly recent addition to the landscape, still vividly drawn and commanding in the surrounding cement. Yet how long will this image survive? Months? Years? Weather will undoubtedly wash away the paint if the city doesn't take care of it first.

The longevity of the Hohokam artists clearly outranks that of my neighborhood graffiti artist. An ancient culture centered in the Phoenix basin, the Hohokam built canals and irrigation systems across the desert to support ambitious agricultural pursuits. When they weren't growing maize, beans and squash (otherwise known as the Three Sisters) they were carving pictures in rock. (It seems the Hohokam appreciated a challenge. If it had been up to me, I would have grown my corn in the Midwest and carved my pictures in oak trees.*)

One of their artscapes, the Hieroglyphic Canyon Trail, has a bit of a misnomer. Petroglyphs are pictures, hieroglyphs are words. The Hohokam didn't have a written language, a condition which prevents them from being a "true" archaeological civilization like the hieroglyphically-inclined Mayans and Egyptians. Wordlessness aside, the trail and its ancient petroglyphs offer a glimpse of life in the ancient American southwest, pre-stucco villas and urban sprawl. It went something like this:

I was fairly certain the animals in these drawings were deer but I didn't immediately realize that the box-like objects were people. Truth be told, they don't look all that different from my retaining wall alien.

I've yet to see a real snake while hiking, which I consider a good thing. This squamate (or scaled reptile) is awfully cute though. Maybe all snakes should look like this? And maybe we can start calling them squamates, which sounds a lot more innocuous than snake.

Most humans aren't prickly enough to thrive in the desert. Somehow, the Hohokam and their ancient neighbors did anyway.

*This is, in fact, exactly what I grew up doing.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

It's Always Sunny in PHX

The desert seems intent upon discouraging life in all but its most prickly forms. Water, the precursor to life, is a foggy concept. Rivers contain dirt, not water. (True story: In 1944 25 German prisoners of war interned in Phoenix's Papago Park tried to escape by boating down the Gila and Colorado Rivers to Mexico. They were easily apprehended when their boat failed to float down the dry riverbed.)

Outside of the faux green lawns and non-native palm trees of Phoenix the skyline disappears into a swath of burnt sienna and spiny cacti. Actually, much of the city looks like that too but the neon In-N-Out Burger signs lend a different air of desolation to the cityscape.

After so much brown, a field of sunflowers in downtown Phoenix served as a jolt to the senses. Such a vibrant yellow is missing in the earthen, rusted desert color wheel. Planted as a sign of life and regeneration in what has become a derelict downtown, the field was abuzz with bees.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A tornado, four months later

This past July a tornado wreaked havoc on my parents' property in rural Minnesota. It wasn't a big tornado and with their land so far removed from town it didn't make the news. The only evidence was the photos my mother took the next day, scenes filled with so much broken greenery it was difficult to decipher the destruction. The vertical lines of the woods had given way to jagged abstractions and profuse chaos. It remained that way for the rest of the summer, the starved leaves slowly dying on their broken branches.

Come autumn, the leaves have fallen and all that remains is the skeleton of the storm. Walking the paths takes some navigating, ducking under branches and scaling trunks. Some of the trees will become firewood for the sauna, stacked along the house and left to age until dry enough to burn. The rest will remain in the woods, hollowing and crumbling into detritus.

The best thing about nature is that even when it's broken it is beautiful. Then again, perhaps these are not scenes of brokenness but of forces so much bigger than us.

A swamp once named the most beautiful place on earth in a fit of youthful naturophlilia

Forgive the poor lighting but I think those roots are huge. Apparently the tornado did not.

Note that the tree trunk split entirely to the base

Homegrown happiness

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Cherries, the Eiffel Tower and thoughts on perspective

Every city has its iconic structure (or structures). Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Seattle has the Space Needle and no trip to Washington D.C. is complete without seeing the Washington Monument, among others. As a tourist, one is compelled to go and stare in awe of said structures, forced to take photos and comment on the sheer size of _______.

Yet from the ground, the Eiffel Tower looks essentially the same in real life as it does on a postcard except for the addition of hordes of fellow tourists, security guards and dirty pavement. I want to see it from the utmost top, looking down. Or laying on the ground, looking up. Few people get that experience, few postcards capture it for mass-market inundation. It would be new, a fresh sight.

In Minneapolis, we don't have any famous structures jutting into the sky but we do have the cherry and the spoon. This seems suitably Midwestern, a style favoring enigmatic representations of daily life over grandiose gestures. Officially named "Spoonbridge and Cherry," the sculpture is one of the most photographed sites in the city. Yet nearly all of the photos show the same perspective: the long side view of the spoon with the cherry perched jauntily at its tip. The truly original pose so as to be picking or eating the cherry, or perhaps even wielding the handle of the spoon.

I've lived in Minneapolis for over four years now and for four years I resisted the draw of the spoon and cherry. "Have you been to the Sculpture Gardens?" people ask. No. "You've never seen the cherry and the spoon?" Well, yes, I have. It's on every visitor's guide to Minneapolis and hundreds of postcards.

Then last Thursday I found myself with a guest, a sunny morning and the Sculpture Gardens a block away from her departure point. And there we were, standing before the cherry and the spoon.

From the side it looked (as I thought it would) just like the postcards. Yet postcards never show the view as seen above, with the handle inviting you to walk right up over the water. Rather than a simple object of contemplation, the cherry now seems only seconds from consumption.

Why is this view second-rate?

Why don't more people take pictures laying on the ground beneath the Eiffel Tower?

Why do we accept the standard view as the one we should admire?

By only noticing, photographing, writing about the socially accepted norms we perpetuate those norms. Yet there are more sides to every structure, more perspectives on every culture. Standing where everyone else stands does not guarantee an authentic experience of reality -it just means you've been lost in a crowd.

R: Why are you photographing broken electrical panels?
B: Why not?
The broken glass and wires made as much sense as anything else in the Sculpture Garden so I kept the photo.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The other kind of hiking

At age 13 I went on a hike with my sister Katie. She was working on her Ph. D at the University of Utah and I was visiting her over fall break. A brilliant geophysicist, my sister loves being surrounded by rocks. Where other people look at canyons and mountains and see interesting formations and pretty colors, Kate sees fault lines, compositions and millenia of plate tectonics at work.

Let's walk to the university, she suggested, and take a little detour through the foothills for a more scenic route.  Scenery sounds nice, I agreed, and off we went.

Several hours into the walk I realized why we had packed water bottles and an entire picnic. Though her school was only a mile or so away from her apartment, I was now standing five miles up a mountain. "Foothills" be damned - I was breathing pure oxygen and treading carefully high above dark canyons.

Here's a little Geophysics 101: when speaking with a geophysicist, notions of scale differ greatly. A layman's eternity is a rock scientist's millisecond. "Little" detours compare accordingly. Hence my position atop a mountain far from any sign of the city.

Ten miles up and down rock faces did a number on my feet. I had borrowed her sneakers, only a half-size too small, and when I took them off I was greeted with bloodied socks. A few toenails had turned purple and two months later, during the family Christmas celebration, they fell off.

Yesterday was not that kind of hike.

Yesterday involved actual hills (not mountains) and more scenery-gazing than walking. Hills are hard to find in Minnesota, a land mostly shaved clean by the glaciers. To gain a little vertical perspective - at least in the eastern half of the state - the best places to go are the Mississippi and the St. Croix river valleys.

I live along the Mississippi but for my birthday expedition I wanted something new. I wanted glacier deposits, frozen lava flows and remnants of ancient fault lines. Perhaps I'm more like Katie than I realized - I like rocks too, though I'd rather write about them than measure them.

Four of us set off for Interstate Park, so named because it straddles the St. Croix River in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. We walked. We talked. When the ascent wore us down we sat and looked down at the valley below.

We had initially agreed upon a five-mile loop but I don't think we made it three. It didn't matter. The scent of the pine cones underfoot mingled with smoke from scattered campsites and the leaves above and below us shuddered in anticipation of the winter. We shivered too, at first, but as we warmed up as we climbed.

It gets dark early now and so as evening fell we followed the sinking sun down the narrow path to the car. Back on the highway signs at first advertised "Pumpkin' Chuckin' here" and corn mazes, then Gander Mountain sporting goods stores and Dairy Queens. Eventually the signs and billboards disappeared to make room for converging highways and we were back in Minneapolis.

At home in our top-floor apartment in an early 1900s brownstone I put a lasagne in the oven and put the tea kettle to boil. We were cold and the hills-induced aches were settling in but our toenails were still firmly attached. Come Christmas I bet mine still will be.

*Hey there Kate - if you're up for climbing mountains again I've got my own hiking shoes and I don't ask "Are we there yet?" every five minutes anymore. I like your kind of hiking too.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Chasing the Intangible

If this book could be more, could show more, could own more, this book would have smells....
It would have the smell of old farms; the sweet smell of new-mown hay as it falls off the oiled sickle blade when the horses pull the mower through the field, and the sour smell of manure steaming in a winter barn.
~ Gary Paulsen, The Winter Room

If my camera could be more, could show more, could own more, my camera would have smells. So too would this blog, this two-dimensional medium which prevents me from conveying the scent emanating in the wooded area down along the river by Father Hennepin Park.

As I walked the trails last Thursday, alone over the lunch hour, I was taken aback by the perfume of the trees and shrubs. Up above the river banks we have city trees, city shrubs. Lovely they may be, but all I smell when walking down the street is car exhaust and olives from the Greek deli on the corner. I forget that plants have smells. I forget that nature in its natural state is stronger, bigger, more forceful.

All I could think, then, was of the preface to The Winter Room by Gary Paulsen. I first read it in sixth grade, or more accurately, my teacher read it aloud to the class. Few books really stick with me from my preteen years, an era marked by largely disposable juvenile fiction. The Winter Room stuck with me.

The yearning in his words (quoted above) captures the inadequacy of expression, the inability to ever take a moment and present it in entirety to another. How do we really communicate? How do we make people understand our ideas and our experiences? As I walked the tree-shrouded path, I wanted to make my camera take a smell-picture. I wanted it to suck the scent of the blossoms into its lens, reflecting and imprinting it for others to relish.

But it couldn't. And neither can books. Books and blogs can't have smells, tastes, texture. And that is a shame. That walk was lovely, and I would have liked to share the air and all its heavy humid scents with you.

Along the way I came across a man sitting cross-legged on the edge of an overhang. He was posed as if meditating but in his left hand he held an unopened book.

Was his book, like this blog, inadequate in that moment? Both fail in comparison to moments like these. Nevertheless, it is our nature to try to grab hold of fleeting impressions and to try to convey them to one another as best we can.

If this blog had smells, this blog would smell like spring leaves and tightly closed blossoms, slowly warming under weak afternoon sunlight, It would have a sweet, wet floral scent, one which I thought was lilac until I smelled the distinctly different scent of lilacs the next day. If this blog had smells, it would smell of damp soil, slick with the morning's rain, and crushed green grass.

If this blog had smells, it would smell greener and wilder than any breath inhaled along a city street. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Minnehaha Falls: A Little Laugh

And he journeyed without resting,
Till he heard the cataract's laughter,
Heard the Falls of Minnehaha
Calling to him through the silence.
"Pleasant is the sound!" he murmured,
"Pleasant is the voice that calls me!"
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Suggestive of a little laugh, Minnehaha translates to "waterfall" in Dakota, making Waterfall Falls a clumsily redundant appellation.It's a beautiful word, however, and trips nicely off the tongue.

Minnehaha is also the love interest in Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha," an ill-fated beauty who succumbs to famine and fever in a winter wasteland. Though the poem is written in an awkward meter (trochaic tetrameter, better used in Finnish epics than in English) I love the lines "And he journeyed without resting/ Till he heard the cataract's laughter." 

Did Longfellow think that the "haha" in Minnehaha meant laughter or was he just amusing himself with words? Or am I reading too much into his phrasing?

Regardless, I applaud his choice of the word cataract, which in this case means deluge of water rather than an abnormality of the eye. Perhaps cataract was in common usage in his day or perhaps, like me, Longfellow thought scoring thesauruses for obscure synonyms was fun.

Cataract is much like the Spanish word for waterfall, "catarata." A strong, hard word, catarata suggests a steady drumming, a rat-a-tat cadence reminiscent of the waterfall come summer. Right now all that can be heard is a deafening, rhythm-less rush. It seems Minneapolis' fourth snowiest winter and rain-soaked spring have made this cataract more likely to damage the auditory rather than visual faculties.

But I digress. This is not an English class, nor a lecture on etymology. This is a walk in the woods. This is an escape. Or perhaps it is all of these things. That's the beauty of a good wander. Everything begins to connect until you feel that you are part of a world that is not only so alive in the present moment but is also burgeoning with the past.

Do these little flowers have a history? Known as Creeping Charlie, ground ivy, gill-over-the-ground and Glechoma hederacea, the purple trumpets are both loved and despised. Some, like my sister, uproot them as weeds. Others use the plant for medicinal purposes or eat the greens in salads. And some, like me, take photos and contemplate the fact that Glechoma looks like glaucoma.
Glechoma, glaucoma, cataracts. My eyes feel fuzzy. Is that background supposed to be blurred?

Oh, that's right, it is. That's me playing with my new camera. Do you like it?

Friday, May 13, 2011


Regent's Canal, London
Its days as a trade route done under by railways and lorries, the canal lays silent and heavy. Rare late afternoon sunlight casts long shadows and unmarred reflections and a sleepy warmth lingers in the air. Don't drink the water, little birdies. Under the mirrored surface lies a layer of sludge.

Monday, April 4, 2011


The air hangs heavy with damp, brine and 40,000 years of human presence. This sunny bay, from which the American 4th Infantry Division sailed for Normandy in June of 1944,  may be the oldest human settlement in all of Europe. A breeze gusts in from the sea and I shiver. The "English Riviera" is naught but blue skies through the viewfinder but in this moment I dream of wool socks and hot tea.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


Basilica di Superga
Italy posed the biggest language barrier of my travels thus far. Though I've traveled through many non-English speaking countries, my experiences usually involve hostels filled with English speakers. This time, staying with a family in the northwestern region of Piedmont, I would be alone in my linguistic limitations.

On the train from Switzerland I studied my sister’s phrasebook. In those few hours I memorized key verbs, phrases and conjugation rules. To want. To eat. To sleep. To be. Those four verbs seemed to cover everything I would need in the next week.

We stumbled into the small townhouse my sister once called home laden with hiking backpacks and shoulder bags. I was too worn down from crowded trains and hostels to be overwhelmed by the crowd of family still celebrating the Christmas holiday. I simply stood there watching until from the blur of dark-haired strangers ran a small woman with a firm jaw and flashing eyes.

”Emily!” She embraced my sister, simultaneously scolding her for having been gone so long. Then she saw me.

Mia sorella.” My sister.

Ha fame?” Is she hungry?

I knew that word. “Si,” I replied. Ho fame.”

Rosa, her movements purposeful and exact, quickly assembled an array of food at a small table away from the familial festivities. As I ate, she watched, her arms crossed in satisfaction. She eats so much, she told my sister. Perhaps. My appetite wasn’t extraordinarily large that week but my gratitude was. I had been away from home for months and it felt good to be mothered.

So when I came down with wet hair in the morning I hardly minded when sent back upstairs with a blow dryer before being allowed out of the house. And when marched from piazza to piazza to church to piazza through Torino, I was again a little girl with tired legs mutely taking in cultural experiences beyond my comprehension.

Rosa talked in Italian, gestured and smiled. I understood, I thought. Each piazza had something magnificent that had occurred in its past. Each church had been the sight of revelations, miracles and saintly endeavors. Everything, I knew for sure, was bella. Beautiful.

Later, alone with my sister in our room, I learned what Rosa had really said. As we entered each piazza she declared her fervent desire to live in that particular square. She’d point to an especially attractive locale. Upon leaving each piazza she recanted, unable to fathom leaving her small home and neighbors in Rivalta di Torino. Que bella.

As the evening wore on Giammario started setting up a row of tables covered with vibrant red cloths. Rosa stirred pots while Giammario brought in wood for the fire. I learned how to use a salad spinner. The rhythm of their domesticity was a soothing respite from my arrhythmic life.  


While I stood at the back door, watching the sun pulled ever lower over the distant Italian Alps, friends and family trickled in through the front. Every day in Rosa’s home ends with a host guests sitting down to a long slow meal of simple dishes and small, decadent desserts.

As we sat down to eat (entrees first, salad later) I endeavored to practice my Italian. A tiny dictionary, tucked into my lap, coupled with hours reading Italian children books had worked wonders for my lexicon. Nevertheless, there were only so many things I could say about farm animals and trains. I lapsed into silence. Listening was enough.

Later, I sat at the piano. I had no music but I played what I remembered. When I ran out of pieces I improvised, letting the low, soft melody tumble down over the steady harmonic chords of my left hand. 

Rosa came in the room and stood listening, speaking quietly to my sister. I caught a few words but I didn’t really understand. Or did I? Once I stopped listening for the words and started catching the rise and fall of Rosa’s voice, her frequent gestures and expressive face, I understood quite a lot.

She sighed, as she frequently did, and rested a hand heavily on my sister’s shoulder. Had part of her been missing in the eight years that had passed? Together, one fair, one dark, one thin, one a little rounder, they looked complete.

Que bella.

Palazzina di Caccia di Stupinigi

Monday, March 21, 2011


Rain falling on the windows over a foreign bed strikes deeper, composed of drops of a different density. Their weight pushes me down below the surface of sleep even as it rouses me. In and out of dreams I spin. 

This rain is a muddled rain, molecules of indecipherable night thoughts and unfamiliar surroundings.

This is why I travel.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Highlands Homecoming

Compelled to visit Scotland by a long-held fascination with moors, faeries, medieval castles and feuding clans, I arrived eager to see not just a few major attractions but the entire country. I had one week, an entirely open schedule and more dreams than reality allowed.

Scotland, while much smaller than the United States, still makes up about 30 percent of the area of the United Kingdom. Travelling the entire country in seven days was not going to happen, especially when my goal was to see as many desolate moors, mountains and ruins as possible. Desolation does not lend itself well to transport; few buses and trains ramble the countryside in the way I hoped to do.

Sitting in Edinburgh, I was faced with a conundrum. My usual modes of travel, buses and trains, could not take me where I wanted to go. I lacked the money to rent a car and a constant drizzle ruled out a bike trip. I wandered the city for a time, exploring its own rich history and craggy medieval and Reformation-era architecture. Eventually, getting restless, I happened upon a travel agency while in search of a map. I wanted to explore but knew not precisely how or where and needed any guidance I could get.

I left the travel agency with a handful of maps, all part of various brochures advertising Highlands tours. Listening to the St. Giles choir rehearse Handel’s Messiah for evensong that night, I flipped through the tour descriptions. By the time the actual evensong arrived I was still in my seat, contentedly listening a second time. The next tour group left in the morning. I was going to be on it.

This was, I knew, a potentially ludicrous decision. I could be wasting handfuls of money. I despised tour groups and scorned the hordes of tourists descending from double-decker buses in major cities worldwide. I designated tour groups to the realm of high school marching bands and senior citizens (both lovely sectors of the population, neither of whom I belong to nor identify with at this point in my life).

Yet I had my birthday money, thoughtfully deposited in my account by my sisters, and no other feasible option. Plus, the brochure promised a luxury Mercedes van. Never, in my experience with tour groups, had hordes descended from luxury vans. What exactly was a luxury van anyway?

The next morning I found out. Our van was shaped much like the 17-passenger vans I rode in while working in the cornfields as a teenager. However, instead of a leathery-skinned foreman in the driver's seat, this van had Tim the tour guide, a talkative Scot with a long face and easy smile.

Buses do not stop here.

My companions included four girls roughly my age, two Americans and two Chileans. There was also a Japanese couple on their honeymoon and a single, middle-aged man. There were no senior citizens or tuba players. I considered this a promising start.

Once seated, I pulled out my book and alternately gazed out at scenery and read scenes of the battle of Culloden. By the next day I was standing on that same battlefield. I recognized the names on the various clans’ tombstones. Suddenly my fascination with Scottish history and mythology was no longer a series of intangible day dreams but flesh, blood and earth beneath my feet.

We spent the days roaming Highland forests, moors and villages. There were no official programs, only frequent stops with requests to return to the van by a certain hour. I, along with the other girls, spent the night in a cottage-turned-hostel alongside Loch Ness while the older guests paid more for hotel rooms nearby.

With the tiny house to ourselves we heated Scottish oats and cans of soup, talking in a mixture of Spanish and English about our pasts. Later we prowled the town of Drumnadrochit looking for adventure. There is little to be found, it turns out, when darkness falls in small Scottish villages. Dodging raindrops and jumping puddles, we too went home to bed.

I wished I had booked the three or five day trip so I could have made it to the Isle of Skye and the northwest part of the country. I wished I could have ridden in that van indefinitely, reading my book as purpled moors and mountains slid past rain streaked windows.

Perhaps it would have gotten old. Perhaps even meandering rides through swaths of fog-covered countryside lose their charm.  I am thankful, however, that I put aside my preconceived notions and signed up for what were two unforgettable days. (I’m also thankful for the funds, A and C.)

I will return to Scotland to spend more time taking in the vast expanses of geography and history I missed in the short week that I was there. No country holds the same allure of ancient forests, worn mountains and mythical histories. No people were more welcoming, comforting and accepting of a lone girl travelling on her own for the past three months.

In Scotland, I found a bit of home. Its forests felt like the woods of Upper Michigan, where my father grew up where I camped and picked berries thimbleberries every summer. More importantly, Scotland felt like the stories I read as a girl, finally come alive and made real. It felt, I thought, like a place I had somehow always known and had been missing all the while.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Cauldron Subsidence

The Three Sisters

Three hundred and eighty million years ago the surface of Glen Coe collapsed as magma surged from below. The boiling rock cooled into ridges now worn down by age and passing glaciers. Waterfalls and streams tumble down from foggy peaks to the moors below. Through heather, bog myrtle and bladderwort, they make their way to the River Coe.

(Visit the Scottish Highlands. They are beautiful.)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Snow Covered Fantasy

Schloss Neuschwanstein, Germany
Bavarian dream
of a king lost in madness
wistful winter white

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Pons Fabricius, Rome
Autumn's last leaves linger, veiling the bridge through the mild Roman winter. All is quiet but for the soft rustling of branches overhead. Moving quickly past bricks laid two millenia ago, murky water churns its way through remnants of the Jewish Ghetto. Attraversi.