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Borrego Palm Canyon and the Rest of Spring Break

On our second day in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, we hiked the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail. There were plenty of people, and the trail was awash in desert flowers. The clouds of blooms were mainly shades of yellow and purple (desert dandelion, Parrish’s poppies, phacelia), with greenery and smatterings of other colors thrown in. The trail was pretty easy for a long stretch. Mountainsides jutted up sharply on either side of us, but far away on one side. There were streams (or maybe just one stream) flowing with cold water, and we had to cross all of these, usually on stepping stones or a log bridge. Closer to the palm oasis that was the endpoint of the trail, the path grew steeper and rockier in places.

Two kinds of phacelia?

A pretty blue flower

The oasis itself was a circle of California fan palms, the only native California palm tree. It was deliciously cool in the shade. Nearby, a shallow stream was flowing, and it seemed you could wade up it to find a waterfall. This sounded lovely, but a bunch of people had just arrived, so we opted to start the hike back. We stumbled upon some more ghost flowers along the trail, but alas, we didn’t meet any bighorn sheep.

Apricot mallow, I think

Stream from the trail, with ocotillos on the far hillside

On the drive back from the state park, we saw along the freeway near Lake Elsinore (lately overwhelmed by superbloom seekers) the hillsides coated in orange California poppies that are the signature of this year’s superbloom. The flowers do make impressive patches of color.

Back in Los Angeles, we visited the Getty Museum, where the illuminated manuscripts exhibit was Artful Words: Calligraphy in Illuminated Manuscripts. As usual, I tried to read the French texts. There was an amusing legend to an illustration in The Visions of the Knight Tondal: “The Good But Not Very Good Are Nourished by a Fountain”. Sounds like Not Very Good is good enough, then? This particular exhibit featured a lot of pages from books of music, which I’m a big fan of.

We also made our usual pilgrimage to The Huntington. In the Chinese garden, there was a performance underway in my eponymous pavilion: Gao Hejia was playing the guzheng.

The Chinese garden (notice the egret among the water lilies behind the rock)

Bird!

On the final day of our vacation, we visited the Getty Villa.

The Getty Villa, modeled on the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum

Inscription in what the exhibit called Palmyran Aramaic and what I think might be the Palmyrene alphabet–in any case, it’s beautiful!

A Mission and the Anza-Borrego Badlands

My parents recently visited me for spring break, and we started off by heading down the coast. We ate burritos and caught the sunset in Laguna Beach. The next morning, we arrived at Mission San Juan Capistrano soon after opening. The mission is very pretty, and the well-tended gardens were gorgeous. We apparently missed St. Joseph’s Day and the Return of the Swallows by a few days, but I saw nary a swallow (it seems like the mission is going to great lengths to attract them back–there were artificial nests and recordings of mating calls).

Mission San Juan Capistrano (there is a raven on the belltower)

The ruins of the Great Stone Church, destroyed by an earthquake, reminded me a bit of the Ruínas do Carmo in Lisbon. I liked the painted beams, painted motifs, and organ in Serra Chapel (which has the distinction of being the only church still standing in which Father Junipero Serra celebrated mass). The ornate alterpiece was less to my taste. I liked the bells too, including the bell-gable (maybe it wasn’t one, but it reminded me of what I saw in southern France last summer), and the cloisters. There were exhibits displaying both treasure and objects from daily life, including a bookcase of old volumes, a gloria bell wheel (like a spinning wheel with bells attached around it), and Acjachemen baskets. The gardens boasted many plump cacti, manzanita trees, California poppies, succulents, and a huge jasmine vine in full fragrant bloom.

I liked this musical display

From San Juan Capistrano, we drove inland to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which we had first visited two years ago for the 2017 superbloom. After picnicking in Christmas Circle, we arrived at the headquarters of California Overland Desert Excursions for our afternoon tour of the badlands. (I didn’t know there were badlands other than the ones in South Dakota; the formations do look alike.) The advantage of the tour was that we’d ride in a 10-wheel military truck on unpaved roads and desert washes to parts of the park that would be inaccessible to us in our rental car.

The military truck

Our guide, Joe, first oriented us to the region and showed us paintings of what it looked like in earlier prehistoric ages, when the climate was (sub)tropical and megafauna roamed. Then we all climbed a ladder into the back of the military truck, where there were green-upholstered benches, and off we went. Our first off-road detour was to the Truckhaven Trail to see some blooming desert sunflowers, with a little sand verbena thrown in. Then we started down a path on the other side of the highway. Joe stopped so we could get out and see some ghost flowers blooming along the trail. This is a rarer desert flower, I believe, and it has pretty speckles inside the cup of its pale petals.

The badlands

In the wash, with smoke trees in the middle ground

Further on, we reached the badlands and got out again to explore the landscape. The sandy ground glittered with pyrite. There were flowers here and there, and caterpillars, and a large round spotted beetle. The truck was parked in the wash near a palo verde and a smoke tree. I particularly liked the smoke trees; they looked like they were made of silver and gold. Joe also showed us a big creosote. We took a break for some snacks and lemon water and then drove a little farther on to see a mud cave (perhaps a century or two old) carved into the rock formations by water.

The badlands from Vista del Malpaís

The view in the other direction

Next we drove on and upward to Vista del Malpaís, which afforded views of the folds and ridges of the badlands, the wider valley, and the mountains ringing it in all directions. There were a lot of lupines blooming up here. After taking it all in, we returned to headquarters via a trail Joe called the rollercoaster for its ups and downs. I don’t usually go in for tours, but this one was well worth it.

Desert lily and lupines at Vista del Malpaís

Early Spring Break

It’s not my spring break yet, but my mother was in town recently, so we went on some excursions. We heard the UCLA Early Music Ensemble’s winter concert, Bach? What Bach?: A Program of Early Music from Germany. They sang two selections from Carmina Burana, and one of them, “Bacche, bene,” was very familiar. I knew I’d heard the melody before, and I was pretty sure it had been in a Tri Yann song, but I didn’t know how I was going to figure out which one. Of course it was going to bother me until I figured it out. But it turns out Googling “Tri Yann Carmina Burana” gets you what you want! The song is “Brian Boru” from the album Portraits.

We went to the Huntington, as per tradition, and saw lots of camellias, as well as a heron, some hawks, some woodpeckers in palm trees, and other birds.

My pavilion

Heron in the Japanese Garden

Later in the week, we stopped by the ocean on the Pacific Coast Highway and watched the waves. At our first stop, I saw what I think was a seal in the water! I may have been mistaken, but I’d rather think it was actually a seal. At our second stop, we saw lots of sandpipers.

Trip to Utah

At the end of August, I went on a road trip to Cedar City, Utah with Isabelle, Olivier, and another grad student from our department and his partner. The main purpose of the trip was to attend the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Isabelle is a big fan of playwright Mary Zimmerman, and her Treasure Island was one of the plays being performed this season.

This was my first trip with friends (as opposed to family) in a very long time, and I also never drive on the West Coast, so it was a grand adventure! We left on a Friday morning and drove northeast out of Los Angeles, through Las Vegas (I drove this part), through a little corner of Arizona, and into Utah. Luckily, Cedar City is in the part of Utah closest to Los Angeles. We just had time to settle into our Airbnb, a bunker-like but otherwise extremely nice basement apartment on a quiet street, before heading off to Friday evening’s performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I had neither read nor seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream before, though I roughly knew the story. The Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production was Jazz Age-themed, and the sets and costumes were beautiful. We had great seats in the middle of the front row of the balcony. Although the plot is ridiculous, on the face of it, the (human) drama was at times affecting (I particularly liked the parts about Hermia and Helena’s friendship). And the play was quite funny. I thought the dragging play-within-a-play in the last act was an example of horrible pacing on Shakespeare’s part, but the actors managed to milk as much humor out of it as possible (and I caught what I was 99.9% sure was a jab at Trump’s wall during an earlier rehearsal scene). Also, in her last speech to the audience, Puck interrupted herself to say “bless you” when an audience member sneezed, and the entire theatre laughed. Puck nearly cracked up herself, and it was a moment before she resumed her speech.

On Saturday, after a lazy morning singing with ukuleles, we explored Cedar City. We walked through the campus of Southern Utah University, home of the Shakespeare Festival, and had sandwiches and crêpes for lunch in town. Then we visited an art supplies shop and a stringed instrument store.

The luthier told us a local girl had built the instrument on the left for a Science Olympiad event and had won state! The instrument has no frets, and she bowed it.

Then we headed north on Main Street till we reached the public library. Out front, there was a sculpture that reproduced some of the petroglyphs of nearby Parowan Gap. And inside, guess whose books they had in the YA section?

Petroglyph reproductions outside the public library

Found them!

From the library, we went to a bead/comic book/trading card store, and then to a lovely (mostly used?) bookstore. After lingering there a while, we checked out a couple of art galleries and then headed to the Southern Utah Museum of Art. They had an exhibit of local artist Jimmie Jones’s paintings of the southern Utah landscape and an exhibit of quilts (broadly construed) that were part of a competition on the theme of Pathfinders. The quilts were really cool; some of them were absolutely gorgeous. Several, inspired by the theme, depicted refugees or displaced people.

We went back to the Airbnb to rest a little before the next play, and Isabelle, Olivier, and I checked out the back garden, where there were chickens and raspberry brambles from which we plucked ripe berries.

Saturday evening’s show was Mary Zimmerman’s Treasure Island, which was also excellent. The sets were splendid, and I was delighted to recognize among the incidental music the fiddle tune “Drowsy Maggie” (for the fight in the Admiral Benbow Inn) and that famous Boccherini minuet.

On Sunday, we visited Zion National Park. I drove us to the entrance to the northwest part of the park (i.e. the closest part), the Kolob Canyons area. We set out on the La Verkin Creek Trail. Our original destination was Kolob Arch, which would have made for a 14-mile round trip hike, but we actually turned back after we’d gone about halfway to the arch.

The trail led us around these majestic red cliffs, through occasional woods and alongside wildflowers and over many dry streambeds. There were junipers, pines, and cottonwoods, mainly. The earth was red and sometimes reduced to soft sand. We glimpsed small birds, including the blue Steller’s jay, and saw some very large birds wheeling in the distance (I’m not sure I believe they were condors). There were also (rock?) squirrels; at one point we observed one chirping at us and another party of hikers quite insistently, and we realized some of the chirping we’d heard earlier might not have been birds but squirrels. I’d forgotten how much they could sound like birds.

We spent a lovely evening eating crêpes and singing with ukulele, and then Isabelle and I went out to look at the stars once more. You can see a thousand times more stars on a suburban street in Cedar City, UT than you can on the Westside of Los Angeles. The Summer Triangle, Cygnus, the Big and Little Dippers, Polaris, Cassiopeia… The Milky Way, even.

On Monday, we roadtripped back to Los Angeles to a soundtrack of French Canadian music, Scottish songs, and French musicals.

Solar Eclipse!

I was a little worried when I woke up this morning to cloud cover, but Los Angeles’s typical sunniness came through in the end, and I was able to witness the partial solar eclipse (about 60%) visible here. A few of us from the department went to the UCLA Court of Sciences to view it. When we arrived, there was an enormous line we were afraid was for eclipse glasses. Turned out it was for both eclipse glasses and looking through the telescopes. Getting glasses looked like a bit of a lost cause, and indeed after we’d waited in line for a while someone else from the department farther ahead told us they’d run out. We improvised a pinhole camera from a sheet of paper nabbed from a campus newspaper stand and a business card someone poked a hole through with a pen. Then we abandoned the line and went to the center of the Court of Sciences. People who had eclipse glasses were happy to lend them to people like us, so we all got to peer at the eclipse directly after all.

We amused ourselves for quite a while by making improvised pinhole cameras out of various configurations of our hands and that same sheet of paper, and we attracted people who were curious about what we were doing and wanted to take pictures or try it out for themselves!

My hand, my head, and partial eclipse! (Photo by Isabelle)

We also saw some leaf shadow effects, though the crescents aren’t as spectacular as those I saw in photos from people who saw a more complete eclipse.

Octavia Butler at the Huntington

At the beginning of August, I went to the WriteGirl workshop at the Huntington. WriteGirl is an organization that runs creative writing workshops for teenage girls in Los Angeles (that’s really just a fraction of what they do–you should check them out!), and I’ve been a volunteer with them for almost a year now, though I’ve only been able to serve as a mentor at a few of their monthly workshops.

The summer workshop at the Huntington featured a private tour of the current exhibit on Octavia Butler, the celebrated black science fiction author. The promised tour was part of the reason I really wanted to make this workshop. A WriteGirl staff member gave me a ride, and we arrived bright and early to help set up. Upon our arrival, I realized that the Huntington is closed to the public on Tuesdays, meaning that we had special access to the library and gardens and that the only other people there were staff and researchers using the library.

I wound up with two mentees for the day, both rising high school seniors, and our group was the first to visit the exhibit Octavia E. Butler: Telling My Stories. We were welcomed by the exhibit’s curator, Natalie Russell, who told us how she’d spent a little over three years sifting through and cataloging all of Butler’s papers when they came to the Huntington after her untimely death. She’d selected about a hundred items for the exhibit.

The only novel of Octavia Butler’s I’ve read is Parable of the Sower, on the recommendation of my friend Leland. I bought it at graduation from the Swarthmore bookstore and read it shortly after. One of the many fascinating items on display was Butler’s typewritten outline for Parable of the Sower, with additional handwritten notes and highlighting in pastel colors. Some of the notes that caught my eye were: “ADD more racism”; “Add more Hispanics. …More Hispanic surnames on people…who seem ordinary blacks, or ordinary whites.”; “More casual, horrible death”; “GOD IS HER OPPONENT, AND/OR HER PARTNER” (Parable of the Sower is in part about the protagonist’s elaboration of a religion founded on the notion that God is change).

There was another item in the exhibit that featured Butler’s brief reflection on how science fiction treats religion. She said there was a prevailing attitude among science fiction writers of “Oh, we all know this is BS,” but she pointed out that no human society lives without religion (I think she acknowledged that some had tried, but she stood by this statement). This made me think about Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and its companion, A Closed and Common Orbit, two science fiction novels I recently read. I enjoyed them (I loved Angry Planet), but I remember being struck by how despite all the exploration of different sentient species and cultures in the galaxy, there was almost no mention of religion. Shouldn’t many of these cultures have religions?

Another item was what I think was a self-interview with Butler, perhaps a stock of answers to questions she might get in interviews. The first question was something like, “Who are you?” and about halfway through her answer there was: “I am also comfortably asocial–a hermit in the middle of Los Angeles.”

Yet another item was her answer to “Why do I write about mixed-race couples?” She said it was for the same reason she wrote about egalitarian societies (in terms of gender, I believe).

One of the drafts on display was of the short story “Speech Sounds,” which won the Hugo Award. I was curious about the title, since it sounded very linguisticky/phonetics-y. It’s about an outbreak of a mysterious illness (hmm, sound familiar?) that strikes Los Angeles, depriving people of the ability to use language. The page of the draft that was exhibited was from a scene on a bus, and the curator’s notes said that Butler would have been familiar with buses because she didn’t drive! It reminded me of the bus stories at BUSted!.

The exhibit also had the manuscript of a short story called “Flash-Silver Star” that Butler wrote at age 11 in cursive on lined paper. It was about horses. It reminded me so much of how I wrote my stories around that age!

Among the most striking parts of the exhibit were the motivational notes that Butler wrote to herself, long before she came successful. There were different variations on these, but they included affirmations about her writing life: “I am a Bestselling Writer. I write Bestselling Books And Excellent Short Stories. Both Books and Short Stories Win prizes and awards. Everyday in Every way I am researching and writing My Awardwinning Best selling Books and Short Stories” as well as what she intended to do with her earnings as an author: buy her own home in a good neighborhood, obtain the best healthcare for herself and her mother, fund the educations and aspirations of young black people. It was inspiring. I have to admit I’m skeptical about this kind of motivational technique even though I’ve heard it touted before. I’m sure it can’t hurt, and it can probably actually help.

After we’d seen the exhibit, which you can probably tell I loved, my group had lunch and did some brainstorming of speculative fiction story ideas. The workshop wrapped up with some of the girls reading pieces they’d written that day. Afterwards, I got to catch up briefly with two mentees I’d worked with at previous WriteGirl workshops, which was lovely.

The staff member I’d gotten a ride with was running a focus group for some of the girls after the workshop, so that meant I had almost two hours to wander the gardens by myself. On a day the Huntington was closed to the public. I cannot overstate how excited I was by this prospect.

I made my way to the Chinese garden, which I’ve visited multiple times. On those occasions, the garden was always teeming with people, but this time it was beautifully empty. For most of the hour and a half I spent there, I felt like I had the whole garden entirely to myself. It was very hot that day, around 95°F, so I sat in the 愛蓮榭, my eponymous pavilion, writing in my journal and listening to the koi splash around the lotuses.

IMG_0445

愛蓮榭, amid the lotuses

When the sun was somewhat lower in the sky, I left the pavilion and wandered along the blissfully empty paths. It was glorious having the Chinese garden all to myself. So, thank you to WriteGirl for an amazing day at the Huntington.

Chasing Wildflowers

It’s that time of year again: spring break (ish–it’s actually still finals week), the annual pilgrimage to the Huntington, and, like last year, more wildflower hunting because superbloom.

At the Huntington, we visited the Library Exhibition Hall (I’m pretty sure some of the books and documents had been switched out since the last time I was there, though the stars of the show–and some of my favorites, like the John Dowland songbook–remained) as well as the Beautiful Science exhibit, which I hadn’t seen before and which featured more wonderful old books. We also hit the clivia show and the Chinese and Japanese gardens, as per usual.

Poppy

Anemone

The Chinese garden has a new pavilion, the 愛蓮榭 (Ài Lián Xiè–Love for the Lotus Pavilion)! I was delighted because the Chinese name I’ve had since the beginning of college is 愛蓮. It’s my pavilion! The explanatory panel in the garden mentioned Zhou Dunyi’s 11th century essay 愛蓮說 (Ài Lián Shuō–On the Love of the Lotus), which I learned about for the first time only last year, thanks to department Chinese lunch.

On Monday, my parents, Adeline, and I drove to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to witness the superbloom. We were not the only ones, but the crowds weren’t unmanageable. The park, at least the part we visited, is in a valley surrounded by mountains. After stopping at the visitors center, where I discovered thanks to some photos in the gift shop just how adorable bighorn sheep lambs are, we drove to two other destinations to see wildflowers. The first was Desert Gardens, where we’d hoped to find Parish’s poppies, but instead we saw lots of ocotillos, a lot of hawksweed, chollas, blossoming prickly pear, and a couple of desert lilies. Next we went to the sunflower fields along Henderson Canyon Road. Finally, we returned to the visitors center to poke around among the labeled specimens.

Indigo bush

A vetch of some sort

Desert lily

Phacelia with cactus

Some cactus flower

Some other cactus flower