Saturday, August 23, 2008

Many happy thanks as LFH's blogometer turns over

Sometime last evening while we were at the Orton Park Festival, Letter from Here reached the 100,000 visitor mark. It's sort of like the odometer turning over on your car -- a certain amount of excitement, even though nothing really changes. There are, of course, big national blogs that exceed that that total in a day, or a fraction of a day, but for one little part-time blog that doesn't pretend to cover everything or even anything close to everything, but instead is a record of thoughts or images that happen to come to mind, it still feels great. Thanks for your page views and comments and words of encouragement. We now resume our regularly (un)scheduled programming . . .

Friday night at the Orton Park Festival

Lights and Performers at the Orton Park Festival
When it comes to putting on neighborhood festivals that also provide amazing programs of free music for everybody, the Marquette Neighborhood Association can't be beat. They kick the summer off with their Waterfront Festival, put on a great midsummer celebration with La FĂȘte De Marquette, and enliven the dog days of August with the Orton Park Festival. Friday night's headliners were St. Lucia reggae band Taj Weekes and Adowa (shown, backup vocalist Valerie Kelley). For more photos see this Flickr set. Saturday night's featured musician will be Louisiana blues guitarist Sonny Landreth and his band, and they'll reappear at the Orton After Dark High Noon Saloon event after 10:00. Cycropia Aerial Dance will also perform again.

Friday, August 22, 2008

To see the Capitol towering above the isthmus the way it used to, head east

Capitol Floating in the Mist
Most photos of Madison's skyline are taken from the south, across Lake Monona. Shooting from Olin Park you can get good detail and those nice rippling reflections in the water, especially at night. The trouble is, the Capitol sort of gets lost in the shuffle. Development in recent years has filled in the sightlines. The Capitol is more or less just another building competing for attention in a busy cityscape. To see the Capitol towering majestically above the isthmus the way it once did, you have to approach from an angle where the sightlines are still open -- from the east, for example. That's the direction from which I saw the Capitol floating in the mist recently and pulled into the Olbrich Park boat landing to take a few shots. Still shooting across Lake Monona, but at a completely different angle.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Vilas Park's wearable art that welcomes being worn away by playing children

Work in Progress
The "Old Woman Who lives in a Shoe" slide in Vilas Park has long served as a "museum wall" for temporary art that that reaches far beyond the nursery rhyme that inspired it. Unlike most museum walls, it has no "Do Not Touch the Art" signs. The kids playing on the slide wear out the art and it is repainted annually.

It looked different tonight when I passed it on the way home. Sure enough, at the top and bottom you can see an outline of the unfinished mural that is being filled in. A work in progress, caught at the midway-point. Work started today and will be completed tomorrow. Want to help? Madison School & Community Recreation welcomes you to wander on over.
VILAS PARK SHOE PAINTING! It is time for the annual "Paint The Shoe" project! This is a fun tradition to share as a family or for the informal artist! The public is welcome to come and help paint the shoe from 11am-5pm, Wednesday, August 20 & Thursday, August 21
I've always been fond of this slide, a true site-specific work of art that that is playful and interacts in so many ways with its community. And I love the idea of art that welcomes being worn away by playing children. What better way to go could there be?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Where have all the monarchs gone?

Monarch Butterfly Feeding on Milkweed
When we walked the dunes of Kohler-Andrae State Park, it was fun to watch the monarch butterflies, glowing bright orange in the sun, flitting lazily among the milkweeds (they seem to be fussy eaters, doing a lot of research to scout out just the right meal.) The the symbiotic relationship between milkweeds and monarchs is so tight that they're sometimes referred to as milkweed butterflies. The adults can and do get their nectar in many places, but they like milkweed flowers and also lay their eggs on the plant. The larvae eat only milkweed leaves, absorbing chemicals from the milkweed that are toxic or unpleasant to many animals. Traces remain in the adult butterfly, whose distinctive color and markings serve to remind predators who have tried to eat one not to repeat the mistake. Simple aversion therapy.

Although we saw many monarchs at Kohler-Andrae, there were not as many as other years. Where have all the monarchs gone? Weather plays a huge role in their lives and their remarkable trans-generational migratory journey to Mexico and back. In recent years cold weather in Mexico decimated their numbers, but Monarchs are remarkable in their ability to bounce back from unusual weather stress. This year, the villain seems to have been the awful rains earlier this year along their migratory route back up north. They can't fly in the rain, and the rain also disrupted the growing season of many of the plants they feed on enroute.

They'll recover from this year's rains, as well -- but declining milkweed habitat is a continuing long-term threat. Milkweed makes cows sick, so farmers get rid of it in pasture land. But a bigger threat to monarch ecology is urban development. There's not a lot of milkweed growing in parking lots, and very little in the lawns and gardens of suburbia. If you get a chance, plant some milkweed in your garden. The monarchs will thank you.

Getting away from it all by exploring the dunes at Kohler-Andrae State Park

Flock of Seagulls
If you don't have time to go all the way up to Door County, one of the best places to kick back, get away from Madison and and escape to another world is to spend an afternoon or a day at Kohler-Andrae State Park on Lake Michigan -- the closest thing we have to an ocean in this part of the world. (If you have time, there's also a campground.) In late summer the water is emminently swimmable, and miles of sandy beach invite long, lazy walks. Let the waters of Lake Michigan lap over your bare feet and watch the shore birds occasionally explode into startled flight.

Walking in the Dunes at Kohler-Andrae State ParkBut that's not all. The Sanderling Nature Center at the north end of the park, staffed by local volunteers, has exhibits about dune preservation and the local flora and fauna. Best of all are the dunes themselves. Miles of boardwalk trail (or what they call "cordwalk" at the park -- wooden planks connected with steel cable that lets them shift with the gradually changing contours of the dunes) rise and fall over the undulating dunes like a vast natural roller coaster.

Afternoon LightThere are two trails through the shoreline dunes. One goes north and south and runs from the picnic grounds to the nature center, a 1.4-mile round trip. There's also a shorter loop that is 0.6 miles long. On one side is the seemingly limitless expanse of Lake Michigan. The other side is filled with the plant and animal life that make up the wildlife ecology of this unique habitat. White-tailed deer and red fox live in the area, and more than 150 species of birds live in or migrate through Kohler-Andrae (the Lake Michigan shoreline is a migration corridor). More than 400 plant species include specialized plants that grow only in this area. You'll find more than 50 species of trees in the park, including white pine and birch.

And you may get lucky and find sheer magic, like the time a few years ago when we walked the trail in early evening, just before the sun sank behind the dunes. We saw an entire herd of white-tailed deer, chased by their long black shadows across the dunes. They glowed in the golden light and flew across the landscape like spirits.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Seeing and not seeing what happened offshore at Monona Terrace Sunday morning

Sunday Bike Ride Interrupted by Tragedy at the Monona Terrace
Madison media came rushing to the Monona Terrace Sunday morning after police responded to reports of a body in Lake Monona in front of the Monona Terrace. Photographers came with their long lenses that allow them to be the all-seeing eyes for the rest of us news consumers, while perhaps triggering a Freudian chuckle here and there as they work.

Sunday Bike Ride Interrupted by Tragedy at the Monona TerraceWe usually go for a bike ride Sunday morning, but this Sunday we left later than we had planned. By the time we got to the Monona Terrace, the bike path had just been cordoned off and there were police and emergency vehicles eveywhere. Tragically, there had been a drowning. (The victim was later identified as Juan Cathy of Milwaukee, who Madison relatives said often went fishing with them here.) We couldn't help but wonder what we might have seen if we had left sooner, and were glad we hadn't.

Sunday Bike Ride Interrupted by Tragedy at the Monona TerraceWe escaped to B. B. Clarke Beach, where we sat on a bench and looked out at a perfect late summer morning. It had a timeless, almost surreal quality, perhaps because of the toy clock in the playground that always reads the wrong time. Out on the lake, the fishermen and boaters seemed oblivious to the tragedy that had taken place less than half a mile away. I couldn't help but think of Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts," his poem about the fall of Icarus. As Auden reminds us, people have been going on about their business for a long time.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
And so life goes on. As did we.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sala Thai: A warm beacon in the Madison night on Fair Oaks Avenue near Milwaukee Street

Sala Thai Restaurant on Fair Oaks
Great place to stop for dinner after checking out the Sorghum Sky on a twilight walk at the nearby Olbrich Botanical Gardens -- especially if Olbrich's beautiful Thai Pavilion has put you in the mood for Thai cuisine. Wonderful food, friendly service, and a great atmosphere, with paintings everywhere and beautiful wood carvings on the walls of the remodeled storefront. A warm beacon in the Madison night on Fair Oaks Avenue near Milwaukee Street.