30 September 2007

For Your Kindness

Thank you, all of you who commented on my last post, for your kindness, for your caring, for reaching out. I didn't seem like I was around much but I checked in on your comments regularly and they comforted me. My experience with Western society is that people often don't know how to deal with other people's grief, that often they are consternated at the sight of another's tears, that sometimes there is an expectation that after a few days time one should be over it. One of the most common comments one hears is "I don't know what to say". But you all know the secret, say something, reach out, that's all a grieving person needs, a feeling of connection to the rest of humanity. A hug, a wordless gesture, even the, I-don't-know-what-to-says, they all work. There is no right answer, a grieving person isn't looking for answers, they're looking for kindness and warmth when the world feels particularly cold & they're in a place where they are easily isolated. And it takes time, grief. It's been a long week and our grief as co-workers, and his family's grief, will not go away tomorrow. We find solace in our shared memories of him, of the kindness of people in an uncertain world. Thank you.

26 September 2007

In Memoriam: Matt M.

He came in and checked his email, grinning at us because the weather was nice and he was going out for a scientific dive. It was gorgeous clear, crisp autumn day and he was passionate about diving. I watched him pull on his dry suit in the back parking lot from my office window smiling at his energy his exuberance. Then at noon the call came from his dive partner that he'd gone missing. Work at the office came almost to a complete stop as we monitored the airwaves to listen to the coast guard and the fire department. It didn't sound good. They performed CPR on him all the way back to the harbor and to the hospital. Sometime around 2:30pm he was pronounced dead. Shortly there after I attended the quietest all staff meeting I have ever attended.

Matt was a colleague of mine. He was one of those people who are always infectiously cheerful and full of good humor. He'd just finished his PhD and we had been chatting about his two young boys and whether or not he had plans for his birthday on Thursday. It's hard to believe he's gone and at the same time it's more real than anything else today. Everyone is rather quiet and subdued today. We're all thinking of Matt and of his family. We're all remembering his laughter.

23 September 2007

Happy Equinox!

Today is the Equinox, for me the Autumnal Equinox. Today, every part of the world experiences exactly the same amount of daylight and darkness. For the northern hemisphere it marks the slide towards winter, for the southern hemisphere the slide towards summer. Every part of this earth receives the same amount of daylight in a year but depending on your latitude it will be distributed very differently.

Living in the far north I am very aware of how light plays a huge role into my perceptions and memories of the seasons. In the fall the light is changing rapidly, the sun is lower on the horizon, it often acts like a brilliant spotlight, lighting up the landscape as if it were an actor on a stage. The colors, which are bright and many at this time of year, are vibrant under this light as if they were powered from within, and in some way they are, they are the release of all the stored energy that the plants got from the sunlight all summer long. We first see the stars again, darkness comes as a surprise and we have to relearn how to navigate in it, the northern lights start appearing again in all their cloaked majesty.

In winter the light is muted and gentle. This light is very hard to capture by photograph or even by painting. There are thousands of shades of grey, of velvet, of black and purple and pink and white. The only item of color is the dark green of the evergreen trees but even these turn dark in shades of black in the light. The sun barely comes over the horizon before circling and coming back down. It is a time of year for fabulous, long sunrises & sunsets. It is the time of year for stargazing. For skiing or ice skating on a frozen lake solely by the reflection of the moon off the snowy landscape. It is a time of year to watch the breath-taking northern lights that dance and hover and wisp across the landscape more surreal and more amazing then is describable. And everything glitters with ice crystals and ice and the reflection of what sun there is off their surfaces. It is beautiful, it is cold.

Spring brings color to the landscapes. The stems of the willow bushes and the birches turn red with the swelling of sap, the spruce trees start to gain in green as the daylight grows stronger and the sun starts to register on the UV scale again. The sun gets higher in the sky, there is that day when you can actually feel heat from the sunlight and you know that spring is really here. There is lots of great skiing, robin egg blue skies, the northern lights are still out and your pulse quickens as the daylight increases and it gets easier to get out of bed in the morning. At the very tale end of spring the leaves burst forth - here in the north they do so very suddenly, almost overnight. Break-up occurs, large blocks of ice race down the rivers, the nose can smell the earth & the sea again, there is flooding and mud and shiny vivid green leaves, all in the blink of an eye.

And then summer comes, the sun is high in the sky and the darkness fades as do the stars and the northern lights but one can be out and active at any time of day without your headlamp without worrying about when darkness will fall. There are no more sunrises or sunsets, not that one would notice anyway. everything and everyone is busy, this season is short and there is much to do before the colder, darker months return. Light is beautiful, holiday light, the kind of light you associate with good memories and warmth and laziness. There is color from the vegetation & the flowers & the ocean & the sky. And you bathe in it, knowing it will soon be gone.

Happy Equinox!

22 September 2007

Low Tide

The Disreputable Dog & I went out for a long stroll on one of our favorite beaches the other evening. The sun was below the horizon already in the part of town where my house is but on the beach it was still there but it was brisk and I was glad I brought along my lighter wool hat (I have a series of these that increase in weight as the weather gets colder).

We found all kinds of cool things on the beach and brought back pictures to share with you. One thing we found lots of were stranded jellies and nudibranchs. The nudibranchs increase dramatically in the northern oceans at this time of year. I'm not exactly sure you could call it migrating since they don't have a lot of self propelling ability but all the same, this time of year they suddenly show up in the water in large numbers and thus we start seeing them on the beaches along with the usual jellies.

The mudflats were generously patterned by the receding tides by endless ripples. I love the patterns of landscape, how it repeats, how it varies, how persistence of small forces over a long period of time can change everything as can something large and catastrophic.

A jack salmon, so called because of it's small size which indicates that something went wrong and it didn't become sexually mature. This one is a little dried out and some seagull has poached it's guts for a snack. With so many salmon laying around right now they can afford to be choosy about their favorite portions.

Sea duck footprints in the mud. No, they're not from sea gulls. The Disreputable Dog would have noticed these whether or not they were visible but I, being less blessed in the olfactory senses then he, had to rely on eye sight. I have a collection of footprint pictures from all different places and from all kinds of animals for reasons I can't really explain other then to say I love reading footprints and trying to read the story of what happened right there through them.This duck landed here and then waddled around a bit uncertainly before heading straight to the freshwater tributary that feeds the sea here.

21 September 2007

Last Field Excursion

Calving Glacier

Our last field trip of the year to collect oceanographic samples proved to be glorious with plenty of sunshine and few animals willing to show us their stuff. We saw seals, sea otters, orcas, and a myriad of birds. And we pulled up a couple of jellies on our equipment unintentionally - they made a mess. Luckily, one of our interns & one of our volunteers were around to tag along and see what the place they've been staring at through the glacier cam all summer looks like up and personal.

A male killer whale (you can tell by the height of the fin) with a wavy fin.

Yours truly (in the yellow cap) pulling up the plankton nets

A glacier cam in the wild (spiky thing on highest point)

18 September 2007

Autumn Colors Train

This weekend a friend and I took advantage of a discount offer for locals to take the Alaskan railroad north and then south again. It was a wonderful opportunity to gawk at the scenery and breathe in all of those vibrant colors of fall that come and go so quickly. The fact that it was blowing 40mph outside made the comfort of the train that much more cozy.
I have to admit, I sometimes feel like Fredrick Mouse (who stars in the children's book Fredrick by Leo Leonni). Fredrick goes around trying to store up color for the dark winter months much to the despair of his food collecting companions but when they run out of food in mid-winter it is his recollections of colors and smells that distracts them from their hungry bellies. Of course, I store food too but sometimes I feel like I am trying to drink up all of the colors around me and imbibe them in the fiber of my being to keep me warm when the days are long and dark. Look at the light on those grasses!

In case you are wondering why there are all these dead trees in the picture above I shall explain their existence. These trees died in the great Alaskan earthquake of 1964 when the ground subsided over 10 feet in only a few short minutes causing an inundation of salt water to kill trees all along Alaska's shoreline and to simultaneously preserve them by filling them with salt & preventing rot.

15 September 2007

Termination Dust

Yesterday morning there was termination dust or the first powder of snow on the mountains. Last night the wind kicked into high gear and this morning I curled under my blankets listening to things blowing by, pieces of roofing, unsecured garbage cans, the rose bush clippings that my neighbor had been intending to burn. High thrashing winds set the perfect mood for the Disreputable Cat to go crazy and race around the house as the Disreputable Dog looked on tolerantly, but rather like an old man shaking his head about what youngsters get up to these days, and me laughingly. All of the leaves have been shaken down from the trees overnight. The wind has changed directions; in the summer our weather comes from the south, in the winter from the north, and this was a north wind.

A Bald Eagle hangs out during a January snowstorm

The thing is, I love wind, I love rain, I love snow. But what I don't like is when it all combines together. It is typical here for it to snow 4-5 feet and then immediately start to rain in similar amounts. This results in the snow clogging the city drains which results in sheets of ice so thick that, I kid you not, I have seen people ice skate down the streets & sidewalks. On top of the ice then, you have a good foot of water which makes any slide on the ice twice as likely and ignominious; not only do you go down on your ass but you also fall into a puddle of icy water that soaks you from head to toe. Add to this 40-50 mile per hour winds and the whole town becomes an ice rink (and on a bicycle I am a sail trying to push against the wind & trying to not get blown into the bay). Last year I wore through 4 pairs of ice grippers and a couple of pairs of knee pads from falling off my bike - there's that moment when you know you're going down and there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop it. This year I am investing in studded bike tires....and I've already stocked up on new ice cleats which will be worn over my XtraTuffs (variously known, depending on your locale, as rain boots, barn boots, wellies, etc).

13 September 2007

Rain Gear

"It's over" he said. He was referring to the season of summer. It was a common conversation yesterday when it was pouring down rain. It was raining hard yesterday like someone was throwing it from the sky. If you went out for even a minute you got wetter then you would have gotten standing under a high pressure shower in your bathroom and the streams were running high, the waterfall that pours into the bay had turned brown & I watched as the stain of silty water spread into the salt water leaving a defined cleaving line between brown water and blue-green water. It was a fine time to test my newly re-waterproofed rain gear.

It's wet out there! We're staying inside!

I'd been suspicious of the water repellent re-wash that you see in outdoor stores now. It seems that with outdoor gear acquiring a more fashionable veneer it also acquired a new set of rules of how to treat it but over the weekend I noticed that my rain gear was starting to hold water & I was getting wet as a result. I suppose that's what happens when you practically live in your rain gear for two years and when it is almost always repelling water. So I decided to try the water repellent re-wash since I figured ten bucks was certainly cheaper then buying new gear and guess what? It worked! It really did. Luckily I washed it on Monday when the weather was fine and it was ready to go yesterday.

Today I saw a bald eagle sitting in a tree holding it's wings out in the precise posture one sees in bronze eagles used for car ornaments. I'd never actually seen an eagle do that but it made sense because the weather had actually, and surprisingly, cleared and s/he probably needed to dry out a bit - even eagle feather rain repellent would have been tried yesterday.

11 September 2007

Hosting Oct Scientiae Carnival (& a blurb on Just Posts)

CALLING ALL SCIENTISTS, TECHNOCRATS, ENGINEERS, & MATHEMATICIANS!!!! I have volunteered to host the October 1, 2007 Scientiae Carnival (click here or on the button to the right), a blog carnival that compiles posts written about the broad topic of "women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Anyone may contribute as long as the topics are "relevant & respectful" (for more details check out the Scientiae Welcome Page). Please pass the word on to your fellow scientists, technocrats, engineers, and mathematicians! SEPTEMBER's Scientiae Carnival can be found over at Suzanne E Frank's @ Thus Spake Zuska.

THE OCTOBER THEME: Mentoring/ Supervising/ Advising - the good, the bad, the inspiring, and the morale draining. Details about relationships you've had on either side of the boss/employee, advisor/student relationship. What kind of people inspired you and kept you going? What were the qualities that you admire in such people? What kind of people made you want to throw the towel in, made you feel incompetent and feel like you would never make it in the field? What kind of qualities were these? And most of all, how do we as a community of women scientists, be good mentors for the others? Any memories of someone who just inspired you? What are our responsibilities as mentors? As good supervisors? As employees/ students? Do tell!

SUBMISSION: Please submit your posts (or posts by others that you think qualify) by the usual methods, and try to get them in by 8 am Alaskan Standard Time (that's 12 pm Eastern Standard Time) on September 31st. I will get it up on the 1st or 2nd of October.

IN OTHER NEWS: Jen @ One Plus Two, Mad @ Under the Mad Hat, Hel @ Truth Cycles, and Susanne @ Creative Mother Thinking have just posted the August lists of Just Posts or Posts for Justice (they sum up posts at the end of the month while Scientiae sums them up at the begining, in case you were wondering). Go check them out (click on the button to go there now)!

10 September 2007

More on visitations & whales

There is the steady dripping sound of rain, the occasional cold drop cascading off the brim of my hat down the neck of my coat, mist rising from the bay, the bore tide hurling in like the rushing current of a river. I barely notice the wet as I am focused on the whale footprints, slicks of water like a strange stillness in the midst of the tide's ripples, waiting for the animal to surface. Sleek bodies of gleaming white muscle and of sliver onyx grey and the purple of an unripened plum push the water aside. The smaller ones in their sleekness are playful, rolling and spouting and occasionally slapping the water with their flippers. The larger ones, the mothers of this nursery pod are more purposeful, more directional. I am enraptured by the sight of them and turn away only when it is too dark to see and although the drive before me is long, it is no longer a matter of much concern.

Froghair & I had a delightful visit. She had two days of gorgeous sunshine during which she got to go out and visit the fjordlands to watch humpack whales, orcas, steller sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, cormorants, puffins, gulls, and glaciers and hike a local mountain which has stunning views with the Disreputable Dog for company during which they saw 3 black bears including Little Bear, the little black bear which is a bit smaller then the Disreputable Bear and for this reason hangs around the fringes of town because he can't compete for the better habitat. On the weekend the true weather of the local flew it's colors, liquid sunshine as we call it, rainy and wet we succeeded in drenching ourselves several times during the day. We enjoyed leisurely breakfasts in warm stationary cabooses, relaxed in the atmosphere in a church turned coffee house & art gallery, wandered beaches, prepared fruit for drying and talked and talked all the while playing and cuddling with the Disreputable Fur Balls who were disposed to this sort of thing.

The Disreputable Cat has gotten quite good at driving as she has been to Los Anchorage & back at least 4 times in the last 2 weeks and the Disreputable Dog is content in a fresh bale of straw we picked up for him at the feed store and which he has clawed and nosed apart until the nest is to his liking. Now he looks for all the world like a bird in it's comfy nest and he can be hardly bothered to get up when you lift the topper door unless he is certain to be let out for a romp. Of course, the animal Froghair most wanted to see, the moose, was elusive, appearing almost immediately after we had let her off at the airport and were going for our evening walk at the Los Anchorage Dog Park. Next time Froghair! And on the way home, with the bore tide high in Turrnigan Arm, I once again saw the belugas. What a wonderful visit...

06 September 2007

Beluga Whales & Old Friends

Yesterday, after work, I headed to Los Anchorage in high anticipation to pick up Froghair (one of the few people here who knows me in real life) who is going be visiting through the end of this week. I am so delighted to see her again! The first time I ever met her she had a Alaskan auto license plate on her wall and expressed her wish to "live in Alaska in a tree-house, have a jeep and a goat". Well, at the time I was interested in backpacking in the state but had never given much thought to living there. So I used this as leverage to get her up to visit me as in "You've wanted to go to Alaska as long as I've known you and I've been here seven years....when are you coming to visit?" And she came!

I was a bit late in picking her up though because as I was driving along the gorgeous Turrnigan Arm I kept spotting flashes of white in the ocean. I knew what they were of course - Beluga Whales! And I absolutely HAD to stop and watch for awhile. White adult belugas swimming against the tide with smaller grayish and purplish baby belugas playfully slapping the water and turning gleeful circles the sun gleaming off of their backs. I have never seen them in such numbers. The belugas in Cook Inlet are supposedly genetically distinct from other populations and they are in trouble for reasons not clearly understood. I felt so awed, so privileged to see them there in the wild, happy and free. And every other worry and anxiety of the week and the day evaporated. And luckily, Froghair is the kind of person who totally understood that I had no choice but to stop.

05 September 2007

Of Fish (Salmon) & Fungi

Today I just have images for you...

04 September 2007

Workplace Changes

Things have been crazy since Friday - and it's only Tuesday.

My workplace is undergoing changes right now: funding is being negotiated, organizational structure is being dramatically altered, historical alliances are shifting, and many people, for reasons of their own, in key positions, just happen to be leaving at the same time. As a result the stress levels are high, the workload shifting and a bit unpredictable, tempers flare, and the meetings are ongoing and exhausting (& if you listen really hard in one you might just figure out what's really going on).

Photo taken near Denali by a friend of mine in 2003

One of my colleagues in my "lab", i.e. on the same research grant & project as I am, is leaving at the end of this week. I hate to admit it but I must - I am looking forward to her going. This woman has not exactly been welcoming. I have approached her to ask her how to follow a certain protocol without her turning her head from her computer or even acknowledging my presence until I forced her to by repeatedly asking her if she has time. She is very capable of her job and this week everyone is singing her praises which I am sure she has earned. Meanwhile, I have been assigned to take over some of her tasks when she leaves and getting the required information from her feels like pulling teeth and leaves me feeling incompetent and frustrated. Working with her or around her makes me feel like I'm in high school again, complaints arrive to me through gossip, if I ask a question she stares at me as if I'm daft, and she is the leader of her own little clique.

To be honest, I don't mind that she doesn't like me, we are colleagues and one cannot be liked by, nor like everyone, and honestly, I don't need friends like that. All I'm hoping for is to make it through the week patiently and with some of my sanity intact. And I sincerely hope that the atmosphere warms a bit when she leaves. I have plenty of other crazy things going on that must be squeezed in between the transitioning chaos from prepping all the field collections we took on another oceanographic trip on Friday and cleaning the gear to taking over many of the shifts on the glacier cam counting seals now that our crew is down from 5 to 2 all the while continuing to do my other projects. (And having my computer go down!!)

And today, when the day was done I bicycled home against the wind, watching the wind whip up the waves into furls and the sea gulls wheeling in the air. I took my dog out for a walk through the forest where I snacked on blueberries, raspberries, and salmon berries, admired a purple mushroom I have never seen before, and stared at a waterfall until the sound drowned out the noises in my head. We came home and Cat crept onto my belly and pawed Dog's nose. The grind of the day fades away as I remember what is important in this life and how lucky I am.