Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Beautiful day

Cold and crisp morning. It was +2 degrees when I shot this. There was almost no wind and the sun was shining. Cows were soaking up the warm rays and dining on tasty hay. Sometimes there's something very nice about not being chained to a desk and punching a clock.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

More esses

I must have been a rotten kid this year because I got a big lump of influenza for Christmas. It set in on about December 22 and as I write this on December 30 I’m finally beginning to feel a bit better. But not a lot better.

It’s the respiratory flu, complete with wracking cough, congestion, fever and chills, aches and pains, weakness and general malaise. Hard to describe how awful it feels to feel so awful. Not a lot to do but treat the symptoms with cough and cold nostrums, take acetawhatchacallit for the pain and fever, force fluids, rest as much as possible, and endure.

Complicating matters is the fact that Mom and Dad were laid low by the same malady at the same time. They’re 20 years my senior and I could tell the illness was harder on them than on me. They also had a house full of teenage grandkids and their parental units. A reasonably good time was had by the visitors but a serious toll was exacted from Mom and Dad. The things our parents and grandparents do for us.

On December 22-23 the weather on the Ranch south of Kimball was extremely fine. Skies were clear and the temperatures were pleasant for late December. Although I was ill, I couldn't help but appreciate the beauty of the High Plains shortgrass prairie. In the bright sunshine the grasslands come alive with a brilliant gold color. Cattle grazed contentedly and basked in the warming sunshine. You can click on the images to, as they say, embignify.
Grazing with contentment.
There’s something enchanting about the quality of the sunlight this time of year. The sun never climbs very high in the southern sky, so it’s slanting rays have to travel farther through the atmosphere. As the light flows through the air it seems to gather warmth and a depth of color.
Winter light makes the mundane come alive with beauty.
On Christmas Day the snow came. A remarkable event given that we don’t often see snowfall on December 25 in this part of the country. Before, yes. After, certainly. On, seldom. It was a solid dusting, producing 8-9 inches of the white stuff, but it was also a gentle snowfall, with no blowing or drifting.

My world over the next couple of days was a bit bipolar. As the snow ended the sun came back out and bathed the landscape in a fresh coat of beauty. Gone -- for the most part -- was the gold of stem-cured prairie grasses. In it’s place was an endless vista of brilliantly clean, blisteringly white snow.
Summer's corn and sunflowers transformed.
The temperature remained reasonably mild and the wind stayed away, so venturing out to do chores was an excursion into the heart of fairytale winter. The cows and calves seemed to revel in their clean, crisp new world. They wandered about, seeking and finding still tasty and nutritious grazing. My chores were limited to forking a bit of hay, chopping a bit of ice, and eyeballing each individual cow and calf to assess their condition and health. Not a demanding job at all.

Which was fortunate, because while I appreciated the beauty of the winter landscape and the health of the cattle, I was also extremely ill and miserable. Two hours of morning chores was just about all the fun I could handle. The phrase ‘weak as a kitten’ comes to mind.

Speaking of kittens
Last summer my Mom’s precious companion Ruby passed away unexpectedly. Mom had raised Ruby from the time she was the runt of a litter of kittens, and the two of them had a powerful bond. Ruby spent her waking daylight hours close to Mom, sitting in her lap as she “did the computer” and hovering near as she did chores. At night Ruby was on mouse patrol throughout the ranch house. Her expertise was never very apparent except in the absence of mice and the signs of mice.
When Ruby died Mom swore she’d never have another cat. She tried to hide it, but her grief was profound and she missed Ruby terribly. And the mice returned to the ranch house.

On Christmas Day daughter Jenny arrived with her two sons and a carload of cheer. They also delivered a pair of nine week-old Snowshoe Siamese kittens, Jingle and Bell. The two strikingly pretty and playful kittens immediately made themselves at home and quickly thawed the icy grief in mom’s heart. Just another Christmas miracle.
Mom, Jingle and Bell.

There really needs to be another kitten picture here.
Jingle, Bell. Or vice-versa.

On December 27 at about 8:30 a.m. the sun began to break through the low overcast. I’d just finished checking calves and was negotiating the south gate of the hay meadow when warming rays of sunshine tumbled down from the heavens, illuminating the vast field of snow in front of me, setting off a riot of scintillating reflection from trillions of individual ice crystals, turning the snow into a blaze of glittering diamonds.
The temperature was hovering at about 28 degrees, and with the sunshine came just the barest puff of northerly breeze. As I watched, captivated by the sight, a mist of water vapor began to rise from the frozen snow and into the brightening winter sky.

I was all too mesmerized by the sight to capture an image. It was all I could do to witness and drink in the majesty of nature's beauty. The mist of vapor rose all about me, bringing the horizons in close and tight and wrapping my shrinking world in a cooling, invigorating embrace. Within a few minutes I stood at the heart of a classic “milkbowl” sky. All around me the air glowed with soft whiteness, far less dense than fog, but just as visually impenetrable.

My mind flashed back to a Mediterranean sky more than 30 years in the past, when as a young man I flew through a similar sky in the right seat of a trusty Intruder. There had been no snow then, and the meteorological phenomenon was completely different, but the result was subjectively the same.
In 1984 Smurf and I soared majestically through the milkbowl at 30,000 feet and 500 knots, returning to the boat from a routine SUCAP mission. We seemed to float along in a featureless void, with no up or down, left or right, front or back. There was no horizon to be seen, and no way to gauge how far we could even see. Did the world out there still exist or did it end at the glass of the canopy and windscreen? From our perch in an airborne tactical jet the sensation was both sublime and frightening. Our instruments told us that all was well, that we were wings level, upright, and proceeding normally, but our eyes told a different story. The milkbowl is a beautiful place, but it’s also a very dangerous place. A few moments of inattention, the onset of “the leans” or spatial disorientation, and disaster could strike. We kept the monsters at bay that day, but the experience has stayed with me.

In 2014 I stood firmly on the ground and had no fear of the leans or of flying unexpectedly into the sea. I could marvel at and enjoy the milkbowl sky. And so I did. The mist of vapor rising from the snow has a simple but beautiful explanation. As the sunshine washed down on the frozen snow, and as a puff of breeze wandered by, and with the air temperature and pressure at just the right point, the surface layer of the vast snowfield began to sublime.

By definition sublimation is the transition of matter from solid phase directly to gaseous phase, without an intermediate stop at the liquid phase. Most forms of matter can sublime when the conditions are right, but on our planet conditions are rarely right for any matter except water.

Water is a very interesting thing. It forms as a polar molecule, with two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. Because of the chemical properties of oxygen and hydrogen the water molecule can form as many as four molecular bonds. This, in part, makes the phase transition of solid ice to gaseous vapor possible. All that’s required, when conditions are right, is the addition of a bit of energy. As I stood at the hay meadow gate the other day the sun and the breeze added just the right quantity of energy and countless trillions of water molecules sprang into the chill morning air as water vapor. It was a beautiful thing to see.

On December 29 Arctic air began to flow into the region. At a minute after midnight the temperature at Kimball hovered at 20 degrees. Then it began to fall. By a minute past the next midnight it was minus one, and by 8 a.m. minus four. The forecast called for minus 17 in the depths of early morning on the last day of 2014.

As I scurried about my chores on December 30 the cold was a force to be reckoned with. My pickup gets me around and keeps me warm, but a breakdown or getting stuck could be a serious problem. It’s not worth fretting over, and I've taken the proper precautions, but a chores excursion on December 30 is very different than one on June 30, when the Earth is on the other side of it’s orbit and our northern hemisphere is directly facing the sun’s warmth. The high temperature on June 30 was 88, and the mercury only dipped to 49 that night.

At first glance on a day like this the prairie appears cold and lifeless, mired in the depths of frigid winter. There’s plenty of life going on, though. The calves at the far end of the hay meadow, a full mile to the north, appear first as scattered dots, clustered about the bigger dots of hay bales. I try and try to capture the essence of this and similar scenes with my camera, but it never quite works. There's always too much information missing.

As I checked water the stock tank was frozen over with a thick rind of hard, white ice. If the pasture was larger and used more extensively in the winter, it might pay to install propane tank heaters. Then again, it might not. The conservative frugality of a successful operation dictates a manual option for making water available. And so I took up my trusty axe. Chopping ice isn't a big chore, and I have to admit that I’ve cheated a bit.
Over the last several days I let the tank float become captured beneath the ice so that a thin stream of water continues to flow from the supply valve at the bottom. A bit of water runs over, but not much, and it keeps the surface ice thin in even the coldest weather. It's the work of moments to clear a large hole. Hearing the chopping sound, calves begin drifting over for a drink of cool water. They don’t use as much water in the winter, only 7-8 gallons per head per day, but that doesn't mean it isn't critical for their survival. Chopping ice is a least favorite task, but it’s arguably the most important job of the cold season.

Thoreau had a number of interesting things to say about winter and ice. Thumbing through my well-worn edition of “Walden,” I can quickly find a familiar place, chapter 16, “The Pond in Winter.”

  • “…I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where…a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky. Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”

There are moments when the realization of my immense good fortune bursts to the fore and nearly drops me to my knees with gratitude. A frigid winter morn, a frozen stock tank, Christmas cheer and the love of a family provide such a moment. Here’s hoping that each of you kind readers will be similarly blessed in the coming year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Sunset, sunrise, solstice

This post is tardy. But hey, what's a few days when the dang blog's been on life support for two years? Trying to resurrect the thing and make it meaningful again. Or for once.

Bit of an attitude problem as I type this; combination of the flu, no sleep, nasty cold medicines, and a howling north wind have made me cranky.

Last night (December 20) a spectacular sunset presaged the arrival of overnight cloud cover. The southwestern sky was gorgeous; gauzy and ephemeral clouds were streaked with fiery colors that seemed to soak into the very molecules of the air, bringing the sea of gas alive. Tendrils of light and shadow danced across the landscape from the horizon to the very tip of my nose, playful and warm and shot through with wonder and joy. Over the next half-hour the colors faded, oh so slowly, making each moment a brand new and once in a lifetime gift. There aren’t enough words to describe the colors, let alone the feeling of the experience, the lightshow I so often take for granted, the place where Earth and air and light produce real and honest magic, seemingly just for me. Click on the images to enlarge.
Sunset, EJE ranch, December 20, 2014

And then it was gone. Behind me a photocell decided the time was right and Christmas lights came alive, warming the now chilly evening with pinpricks of color and a diffuse glow of cheer. Our little tricks of flowing electrons and hot filaments and glowing noble gases can’t begin to compete with nature’s light show, but that’s okay. Competition isn’t the point.
Christmas Lights, EJE Ranch, December 20, 2014

Finished with their lightshow duties, the clouds flowed in and covered the prairie with an insulating blanket of water vapor, holding the infrared energy of sun-warmed Earth close and tight where it could keep the air temperature relatively more warm than otherwise.

The science of this phenomenon is delightful. Water vapor is opaque to infrared light (which we think of as “heat” rather than light but which differs from visible light only in frequency), preventing the flight of photons which would otherwise zoom away towards outer space if not held in check. Kept close to the surface, infrared photons crash into molecules of air, imparting kinetic energy. We measure this motion as temperature: more motion equals warmer and less motion equals cooler.

This is the real greenhouse effect, and it couldn’t be more different from the politico-ideological version.

Around me in the dark, across the pastures of the ranch, the comparatively warmer air affected the formation of ice in stock tanks. On a clear winter’s eve, ice would form, thicken and harden quickly, but on the overcast longest night of the year, the ice formed only slowly.

The clouds hung around throughout the night. As dawn approached, a thin wash of light began to suffuse the landscape a scant few minutes before sunrise. The sun peeked over the horizon at 7:17 a.m. on this, the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice.

Sunrise (on the 21st) was far different than last night's (December 20) sunset. Same sun, same angle, same clouds, but the colors were muted and dull, tending more toward silver and gray. The light frequencies aren’t that different, a matter of a few angstroms, but visually the difference was pronounced. No less beautiful, but the light seemed cooler, maybe even standoffish. The morning felt dull and chill and far less uplifting than the previous evening. Was the light so very much different or was it just my perspective?
Dawn +90, EJE Ranch, December 21, 2014

Although the morning felt chill the temperature was just north of the freezing mark and there was little ice to chop as I made my rounds. The cattle were seemingly content; cows and calves, inhabiting different pastures miles apart, grazing on stem-cured grass.
Cows graze stem-cured grass

As I finished up my morning chores the sun managed to finally fight through the overcast and shafts of brilliant golden light illuminated the prairie, turning brooding browns and greys to uplifting gold in an instant. As the light changed so did my mood and perspective. The chill vanished and my heart filled with warm delight. There must be magic in those angstroms.
Calves graze stem-cured grass

At 4:03 p.m. the moment of solstice arrived. The sun was setting in the southwest as another sunset came on. Although I looked closely, I couldn’t tell that the moment had arrived, couldn’t see whether the sun actually halted in mid-sky or not.
See that? The sun just stopped! Winter Solstice, EJE Ranch, December 21, 2014

The notion of the sun halting and reversing course is the Earth-centric view, of course. Although the Sun seems to move southwards in the summer and fall and northwards in the winter and spring, that’s just our perspective from the surface of our planet. In reality, so far as our solar system is concerned, the sun is fixed in the center of the system and the planets – including the Earth – orbit around it.

The Earth's orbit alone doesn't account for the apparent movement of the sun. Were it as simple as that the sun would stay fixed in the sky over a single point. Half of the planet would experience perpetual day and the other half perpetual night. The moon is a good example; it orbits the Earth and rotates on its axis only once per revolution, keeping one side, the side familiar to us, always facing the Earth. The other side – the so-called dark side – never faces our planet, and only since the advent of space flight and rocket trips to the moon has man ever had a glimpse of the dark side.

But Earth, which is not tide-locked into a single rotation per orbit as the moon is, rotates much more frequently, making 365 and a quarter rotations for each orbit around the sun. Each rotation takes just under 24 hours. From these numbers, 365.25 and 24, we derive the length of our year, measured in days, and the length of our day, measured in hours.

This is all very well, but the fact that the Earth rotates once per day and orbits the sun every 365.25 days doesn’t explain the apparent north-to-south, south-to-north movement of the sun.

And now we get down to cases. Earth is tilted about 23.5 degrees in relation to the plane in which it orbits the sun, the plane of the ecliptic. This is the same plane occupied by the other seven planets in their orbits of the sun. If the Earth stood vertical in the Plane of the Ecliptic, with the north pole straight up and south pole straight down, the sun would never move north or south. It would rise each morning in precisely the same location on the eastern horizon and set each evening in precisely the same location on the western horizon. Each period of day and night would be the same from day to day, and those periods would be very close to 12 hours for most of the planet.
How it all works, more or less. From the interwebs.

Earth's axial tilt remains constant (at least in our very short temporal frame of reference) as the Earth orbits the sun. In the summer, the northern hemisphere is leaned over toward the sun, and the sun’s light shines more directly on the north half of the planet. In the winter, the northern hemisphere is leaned away from the sun, and the sun’s light shines less directly on the north half of the planet. If you live below the Equator, in Australia, say, the process is exactly reversed, and your summer begins in late December while your winter begins in late June.

All in all, three things have to work in concert to provide the seasons and the apparent solar movement we see. Earth has to orbit the sun. Earth has to rotate. And Earth has to be “leaned over” with an axial tilt.

There is wonder and magic in every single thing in the universe.