Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Aftermath of fire: Colorado Springs

 

The Waldo Canyon Fire burn scar

The Waldo Canyon Fire burn scar

Last summer, Colorado suffered its two largest wildfires ever, the Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs, which burned 18,400 acres, and the High Park fire near Fort Collins, which burned 87,000 acres.  When such disasters occur, all of the elected officials in the state pitch in to support the residents.   With my arrival in Senator Bennet’s office in October, I immediately started to contribute as I could.  I learned how much the incredibly dedicated staff from federal agencies worked with the Senator’s state staff to get information to people who had been affected.  People don’t automatically know what programs exist for assistance, when the programs are relevant, and how to apply for that help.  Thus there is an urgent need for people who have that knowledge to talk to communities and residents to make those connections and get the process started.  My contribution from across the country several months later was relatively small; I got to write a letter recognizing the dedication of the people who had helped.

Before this visit, the closest I had come to seeing the aftermath of a forest fire was hiking through Yellowstone National Park more than a decade after the devastating fires there.  I wanted not just to look at pictures but to see for myself the scar from a fire.  It was really Waldo Canyon that originally made me start thinking about a trip to Colorado.

My hosts for the day were from Colorado Spring Utilities, one of whom I had met in DC on several constituent visits, and he kindly set up the tour for me.  I also invited our local Bennet state staffer who deals with environmental issues to join us, and she was thrilled to come along.

We hopped into a four wheel drive vehicle and started off overlooking Rampart Reservoir, which supplies about 75% of Colorado Springs’ water.  Oddly, the majority of the water is piped in from other locations rather than being local.  As it was explained to me, the snow falls on the western slope of the Rockies, but the population is all on the eastern side, so some of the water is actually piped under the Continental Divide to this reservoir.

Rampart Reservoir

Rampart Reservoir

It was pointed out to me that the dense forests of green trees that we had been seeing were actually extremely unhealthy.  Instead of 100 trees per acre, a healthy forest for that area should have only about 10 trees per acre, and that extra tree density translates to more fuel for fires.  The juxtaposition of severely burned trees and patches of forest that hadn’t been touched was striking.

Unlike hurricanes or tornados, wildfires are actually a sequence of disasters that may go on for years.  First is the immediate devastation of the fire itself, but that turns out to be just the start.  Burned trees don’t absorb water and there is virtually no undergrowth after a fire.  When a fire stays in one place for a while, the burn severity is more intense, and the oils in the trees turn into a smoke that soaks into the soil.  When the fire stops, those oils become a hard waterproof crust that sheds water rather than absorbing it.  At the very least, the storm water flowing down a drainage doubles compared to pre-fire flows, and in some cases, there was a tenfold increase expected.

Water quality can also be affected since the ash is washed into the local rivers, streams, and reservoirs, sometimes turning the rivers black.  Since much of the source water for Colorado Springs isn’t local, they have had less trouble with water quality, but there was a thick crust of black sediment in every reservoir and stream.

Nichols Reservoir

Nichols Reservoir

A water sample from Nichols

A water sample from Nichols

Nichols Reservoir demonstrates the effects of both problems.  Nichols is low not only because of the current drought, but also because they aren’t storing water in it at the moment.  The transfer line to move the water from the reservoir to the water treatment plant got wiped out in a flash flood less than two months after the fire.  The storm wasn’t anything special, just something that would happen on average every two years, but there was so much water gushing down the drainages that it ripped up culverts, stacking them downstream, and carried so many three foot boulders that the transfer line didn’t have a chance.  For the next year, there is only one transfer tunnel that can bring water out of Rampart Reservoir, and everyone is nervous about the lack of redundancy in the system.

Damaged pipe removed from the system

Damaged pipe removed from the system

Treating the impaired watershed to reduce runoff, reduce sedimentation, and protect people and property from future damage is a critical priority following a wildfire, especially in Colorado where the steep slopes make all of those problems worse.  Colorado Springs benefitted from the experience of veterans of the previous record-holding 2002 Hayman fire that burned near Denver, since those folks had to devise entirely new strategies for trying to rehabilitate the watershed.  We met with man who was responsible for one of the projects, and he showed us around.

The reality is that it will be at least ten years before the storm water flows return to their previous levels.  There is little to be done about the volume of water, so the focus is on trying to slow it down to reduce erosion and to give the flows a chance to dump their debris and sediment upstream instead of pounding infrastructure downstream.  Where there is enough land, and where it is possible to get equipment in, large sediment cachement ponds can be dug to give the water and debris a chance to collect.  On this project, the earth from digging two ponds was used to level out the stream bed to spread out and slow the flow.  Just above and below the surface, there are logs from burned trees embedded to prevent erosion.  On the slopes leading to the drainage, more burned trees have been wedged cross-wise again to slow the flow and collect sediment.  The cachement ponds are preserved by walls of logs assembled like Lincoln logs upstream.  Our guide explained that he had never been on a project that involved so much field engineering rather than working from detailed plans, but they learned rapidly and picked up speed.  The first log wall took two days to build.  The second log wall, which was larger, took them just six hours.

Log retaining wall and sediment cachement pond

Log retaining wall and sediment cachement pond

"Filling and Silling" the streambed

“Filling and Silling” the streambed

Sadly, all of these efforts are a tiny fraction of the work that needs to be done, but they are a start.  Many of the slopes show the efforts of aerial mulching, straw or wood chips dropped from helicopters, to reduce the water flows by about 20%.  It barely makes a dent, but every little bit helps.

Our next stop was to Glen Eyrie, a local conference center located in a castle built by General William Jackson Palmer, the founder of Colorado Springs.  The Navigators, who own Glen Eyrie, were faced with needing to find an immediate treatment to protect the castle since of the 5000 acres that drain into their canyon, 4000 burned in the fire.  The Hayman-type treatments were not quick enough or appropriate for their drainage, so they went a different route.  First, they “hardened” the foundation of the castle with an interlocking system of concrete blocks so that even if debris comes down the canyon, it won’t be able to erode away the bank.  Another advantage is that they can put down topsoil and grass seed on top of the blocks so that it won’t look any different, but the castle will still be protected.  Up the canyon, they have installed two flexible steel debris nets designed to stop the big boulders and trees from coming downstream.  That was the end of their financial resources for the year; they accept that the old stone bridges are choke points for the water flow which will exceed the capacity of their culverts, but there simply isn’t time or money to address those problems.

Glen Eyrie

Glen Eyrie

The hardened foundation

The hardened foundation

The lower debris net

The lower debris net

A bit of whimsy on the upper debris net.  (There's no electricity)

A bit of whimsy on the upper debris net. (There’s no electricity)

One of the best parts of the tour was that both at Glen Eyrie and with the Colorado Springs Utilities work, they made a point to identify the projects that were supported by funding that Senator Bennet had fought for months to obtain.  The Emergency Watershed Protection fund, which is intended to help communities stabilize their watersheds after a disaster, had been nearly empty when the fires happened.  Knowing how much energy, effort, and dogged determination went into passing legislation to put more money into the fund, it was enormously satisfying to see those funds making a difference in how people could make plans to cope with the post-fire flooding issues.

IMG_4543

To finish on an additional cheerful note, we saw an amazing amount of wildlife during our tour as well.  We saw a pair of bald eagles skirmishing with a red hawk over territory.  We saw two different coyotes (pronounced cay-oat around here), still sporting their white winter coats.  We also saw a dozen big-horned sheep munching on early spring grass.  I told my companions that it was my impression that they spent all of their days this way, but they said that no, my tour had been a treat for them as well.

Pike's Peak through the burn scar

Pike’s Peak through the burn scar

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Water and Sand but not the Beach: Alamosa

San Luis Valley

San Luis Valley

The San Luis Valley, where Alamosa is located, is about 75 miles from the headwaters of the Rio Grande River in the San Juan Mountains.  I was drawn to Alamosa in part because several folks from Colorado had mentioned that the valley is a very special place.  Granted, they said, everyone thinks his or her place is special, but they assured me that it is really true of the San Luis Valley.  Fair enough.

The Rio Grande winds its way through Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas before crossing over into New Mexico.  Like most of Colorado’s rivers, the water may all come from inside the state, but extensive interstate water compacts prevent Colorado from using its natural water wealth.  Through my policy work, I had learned that the residents of the San Luis Valley are unusually active with managing their environment to ensure that the agreed-upon amount flows downstream.  Unlike the Colorado River, which is allocated by a certain amount of water specified for each state regardless of how much water is actually available, the Rio Grande flows are based on tables which take into account the precipitation and snow pack to determine each state’s share.  Having learned so much about the Rio Grande, I wanted to see it for myself.

The Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge was on my radar because of a pair of constituents who came to DC to talk about the value and importance of the National Wildlife Refuge system.  When I learned that I could see the Rio Grande from the Alamosa NWR, that clinched my plans.  (When I got here, I realized that since the Rio Grande flows through Alamosa, I could have just stayed in town to see the river, but that hardly would have made a good story.)

After all my complaints yesterday about the heat, it was quite cold when I got up this morning.  I told myself to take it easy since this is technically a vacation, but I headed out toward the Alamosa NWR around 9 AM.  I smiled when I crossed from pavement onto the gravel road of the Reserve since driving on unpaved roads seems to be typical of my Western vacations.  There was an excellent driving loop that I had to myself so I could see the ways in which the Reserve managed water to provide pools, mud flats, and vegetation for different species of birds.  When I stopped the car and turned off the engine, what struck me most was the absolute silence.  I couldn’t even hear traffic in the background of the vast emptiness.  Then I would hear the birds chattering or what I assumed were frogs chittering away, and there was a point to the stillness.

A modest-sized Rio Grande

A modest-sized Rio Grande

My plan for a short nature hike was stymied by the complete absence of other people; I am too well trained to go off on my own, but I was able to get a few photos of the river.  It may be called the Rio Grande at that point, but it is more grand in potential than in manifestation.  Indeed, the irrigation canal adjacent to the river looked more impressive for water content, although its rigidly boxed-in channel had nothing on the graceful sweep of the river.

An irrigation canal

An irrigation canal

From one of the signs on the tour, I learned that the San Luis valley is actually a high elevation desert with less than 7” of rain annually.  Its human, animal, and bird residents get their water from the runoff of the surrounding mountains.  Farmers also tap the underground water reservoirs called aquifers when the surface water runs low, but over-pumping is threatening the water supply from the aquifers as well.

After I thoroughly photographed the golden desert vegetation and the distant mountains, I proceeded on to the second stop of the day, Great Sand Dunes National Park.  I confess that no one had told me about this park in particular, but having spent months staring at a beautifully colored map of Colorado with all the National Parks highlighted in purple, I was well aware of its presence in the valley.  Besides, it’s been far too long since I’ve added any stamps in the Rocky Mountain region to my National Parks passport.

Great Sand Dunes and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Great Sand Dunes and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains

The dunes are quite fascinating since they are made of sand, but the sand is pulverized rock instead of pulverized shell as you would find on a beach.  The dunes are built from a combination of the prevailing winds, which sweep the sand toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and storm winds, which blow down from the mountains and push the sand back, creating the huge piles.  The dunes themselves are amazingly stable.  In the visitor’s center, they compare photos of the dunes taken 138 years apart, and the peaks have not shifted position at all.

The daily picture of me

The daily picture of me

When I am vacationing, especially alone, one of my daily goals is to ask someone to take my picture.  Today’s picture is conveniently by the sign at the park entrance, and I did the same service for the family who pulled up behind me.  I actually saw the family later- well most of them.  The older boy was buried up to his neck in sand at the time, so all I saw was his head.

Without a four wheel drive vehicle, I was somewhat constrained for what I could do in the park, but the Ranger’s recommendation to just go climbing around the dunes turned out to be perfect.

Well, almost perfect.  There was a sign at the visitor’s center that the park is at 8100 ft elevation.  Having just arrived in Colorado yesterday, my body has had limited time to adjust, so I blame all of my shortness of breath on the steep climb on the altitude, rather than a lack of time at the gym.  I did my best to think encouraging thoughts in the direction of my spleen that it might be a bit more efficient at dumping out its extra red blood cells into my system.  Some extra oxygen-carrying capacity would be a big help during the next week!  I managed to climb to one of the highest peaks I could see from the parking lot, but just like mountain climbing, it turned out to be an illusion that I had reached a summit.  When I got there, all I could see was the next row of taller yet dunes, but I still felt I had done well.

The view from the "top"

The view from the “top”

The dunes seemed to attract an odd combination of summer and winter sports.  Some folks treated the sand like beach sand, whereas others treated it like snow.  Sand-boarding was a popular past-time, for example, and judging from the efforts I saw, it was far more efficient to sled down the sand on a saucer rather than trying to slide down on your bottom.  One young lass was undeterred about filling her britches with sand, but she announced that all the sliding made her butt hot.  I skipped the sliding part, but I still managed to get a fair amount of sand in my shoes by the time I was down again.

You can be Danny, and I'll be Sandy

You can be Danny, and I’ll be Sandy

On my return to Colorado Springs rather than repeat yesterday’s drive, I chose a longer but more scenic route that started going north in one of those roads that is so straight that it seemed that I could tie down the steering wheel, take a nap, and still be on the road when I woke up.  No, I didn’t try that experiment.  The highlight of the plan was driving along the Arkansas River as it wound through the mountains, which was quite delightful.

When I checked into my hotel, I got a room with a view of Pike’s Peak, so I can enjoy the beauty of Colorado while I type.  I like this plan.

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Colorado: Denver, Colorado Springs, and Alamosa

Almost as soon as I started working in my Senate office, I have wanted to travel to Colorado.  I have used a plethora of maps to do my work on natural resources such as water and forestry, but although I can picture the geographic locations of the cities, major rivers, mountains, and forests, there is nothing that can substitute for the firsthand experience.  Years ago on my very first hiking vacation, I drove across Colorado with my BFF (Best Friend Forever, for those of you who don’t speak the lingo), and we did some hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, so I am not completely lacking on Colorado experience, but I wanted more.

As I started to build an itinerary for the trip, I found that it was strongly shaped by constituents who had told me their stories.  OK, and National Park Passport stamps also played a role.  I finally accepted that with just a week, I wasn’t going to make it to the Western Slope, as natives refer to the “far” side of the Rockies, but I tried to balance a moderate amount of driving with breadth of experience.

The flight in was smooth as silk, and since I had a direct flight from DC and flew in the morning, I didn’t have to deal with any delays from air traffic controller furloughs.  I picked up my rental car, which was fully equipped with a snow brush; I do appreciate people who think ahead!  I took a few minutes to get organized, and fished out the GPS that I had brought along rather than renting one for a week.  I was a bit taken aback that my GPS was communicating in Greek.  Yes, literally using the Greek alphabet.  I’m perfectly happy to use Greek characters in solving an equation, but that’s about the extent of my comfort level.  I did a quick search on my iPhone to figure out how to reset the GPS, but the process stalled out partway through.  Fortunately, I had printed out directions for the whole week as a back-up system, so I put the GPS aside and set off.

Denver may be the mile high city, but it sits on the plains that rise to meet the mountains.  The Rockies seemed very misty in the distance, and although it was exciting to see them, they were a bit disappointing since I couldn’t see them clearly.  I drove the ring road around Denver through brown scrubland, and I had the thought that obviously it was just waiting for spring to come to green up.  Then I realized that spring probably isn’t coming this year, at least in terms of green.

Colorado and much of the Midwest have been in drought conditions for over a year.  It came on so suddenly, developing in the two months between May 2012 and July 2012, that the weather service people have created the term “flash drought” to describe the situation.  Due to some snow in the northeastern part of the state, there has been a slight easing to only the second highest drought category for much of the state, but the southeast remains stubbornly dark brown on the map, suffering from exceptional drought.  When I talk to constituents, one of the first chit-chat questions we usually discuss is whether or not there has been any precipitation lately, and I check the national drought monitor at least weekly.  Snow pack in much of the state has recently reached 95% of average, which has been a relief, but that’s still below average.  Water is one of my major policy areas, and it will be a theme of my trip.

Garden of the Gods

Garden of the Gods

My first stop was in Colorado Springs to see the Garden of the Gods.  My parents, my niece, and my nephew have all visited here before, and I wanted to see these red rocks that seem out of place between the plains and the mountains.  Garden of the Gods is a free park that is close enough to the city that it gets a considerable number of visitors.  In addition to being a convenient place to walk dogs, it is also a popular spot for rock climbers to learn their craft.  As I was on one short loop to see a structure called the Siamese Twins, I learned that it can also be a popular spot for a birthday party.  There was nothing formal about the gathering, but the kids had camped out in the window of the rock structure and I didn’t even bother to suggest that I might want to take a picture that didn’t include them.  Given my previously demonstrated propensity toward organizing other people for photographs in Arches National Park, my BFF will be surprised at my restraint.  Then again, my BFF has her own almost undeniable urge to mistake dry stream washes for the trail, so every time I specifically chose the trail instead of what appeared to be an equally navigable sand channel, I thought of her and smiled.

At the Siamese Twins.  You can see the kids in the "window" over my shoulder.

At the Siamese Twins. You can see the kids in the “window” over my shoulder.

Leaving Colorado Springs, the road veers away from the Rockies for a while and Pueblo is set in rolling scrublands.  I admire the sturdy and courageous people who make their living off the land here because even in April, the sun seemed to beat down unrelentingly.  Or possibly that was because I hadn’t quite mastered the temperature controls on the car.

In the northern part of the state, the Continental Divide runs a reasonably direct north-south line, but in the south, the mountains swing west before coming east again.  As I drove, the mountains seemed to flirt with me, revealing themselves a little at a time as I would go around a curve.  As I got closer to the snowcapped peaks, which had far too little snow to my biased eyes, the air seemed to cool, and the drive got prettier.  Yes, I had figured out how to turn on the air conditioning, which certainly helped.

The Spanish Peaks in southern Colorado

The Spanish Peaks in southern Colorado

I stayed overnight in Alamosa, which is a charming little town that has a traditional main street still populated by local businesses.  Alamosa sits in the middle of the San Luis valley, which seems almost entirely ringed by mountains.  It is still flat in the middle, but it is indeed a rather lovely spot.

Early to bed, both for the time change and to allow my body to acclimatize to the altitude.  I’m remembering to drink lots of water, which is supposed to help.  More about Alamosa in the next post.

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Big Data

Due to my father’s influence, I have a longstanding interest in the intersection of science, teaching, and technology.  Dad has been exploring the concept of Big Data for a little while now, and when I saw a hearing on the topic scheduled for the House side, I decided to go.

As the cast of characters was getting assembled, I had time to reflect on the differences between a Senate hearing and a House hearing.  The most obvious is that because House committees are so much larger than Senate committees, in a House hearing room, the Members of Congress sit in what I might think of as stadium or lecture hall seating with chairs on progressively higher levels.  In most Senate hearing rooms, the senators sit in some kind of horseshoe arrangement, which would seem to facilitate interactions.  The other difference was a Congresswoman who appeared in an iridescent pink plastic cowboy hat.  Considering that her outfit complimented her headgear, I had to assume that the hat was not an impulsive choice.  We just don’t have pink plastic cowboy hats on the Senate side.

The three speakers for the hearing were from IBM, North Carolina State, and NSF.  The man from NSF was apparently a regular witness for this subcommittee, and he was greeted as an old friend by the Members.  The man from NSF won over my heart by being the only person during the entire hearing who I noticed consistently and correctly used data as a plural word.  It took me about nine months of my postdoc to learn that “data are” is correct and “data is” is not, and it is now so ingrained that I notice whenever someone does not share my hard won lesson.  I accept that the only reason I understand the distinction is because of my scientific training, but I do think more of scientists who get it right.

In the opening statements by the Members, they pointed out that 90% of the data in the world were collected in the past two years.  Those data are not always in a convenient format either, since email and video count as data.  Enormous data sets can be harnessed to attack problems such as reducing traffic congestion, predicting natural disasters, and ensuring public security.  Most recently, the pictures and videos taken by people on the street and cameras in the air were all used to get clear pictures of the Boston Marathon bombers.  Big Data sets can be used to explore the galaxy or to advance the frontiers of medicine and other sciences.  Inevitably with any new advance, there are a number of challenges with moving forward.

One of the Members, a self-professed data nerd, asked if the bottlenecks were in hardware or in workforce, and the answer was that there are bottlenecks in both areas.

In the next decade, over half of all the jobs in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) will be in information technology, but that does not mean that anyone without a computer science major won’t get a job.  The fundamental skills required for data analysis are common across the STEM disciplines:  math and statistics are important, but so are communication skills and teamwork.  Especially critical is the ability to apply the results to help solve a problem.  Indeed, the biggest target for training is to build master’s degree programs since they teach how to understand the results and impacts of an analysis beyond the basic information technology skills.  People with doctorate degrees will be developing tools for analysis, but it will be the people who have masters degrees who will develop the skills to use those tools most effectively.

STEM education was a big part of President Obama’s budget, and there is an ongoing understanding that one of the biggest challenges is what is known as a leaky pipeline.  Particularly in middle school and high school, students lose their interest in science and mathematics and choose other careers instead.  The pipeline for women leaks at every level; more women than men leave and pursue other careers instead, so finding ways to fix these leaks is a vital long term strategy for ensuring that there is a well-trained workforce available to fill these jobs.

When dealing with hardware, the challenges of computation (performing operations) and curation or management of data are considered to be two sides of the same coin.  These issues get into the concept of exascale computing, which relates to the power of the system.  For perspective, our biggest fastest computers currently work at the petascale level, and exascale is 1000 times faster than that.  There is currently a bill in the House and will soon be a companion bill in the Senate requesting funding to build an exascale computer to ensure that the US retains its competitive advantage in this area.

When the speakers discussed hardware challenges, I realized that mentally, I simply imagined a computer in a larger box, or a smaller box, or a differently shaped box.  The man from IBM, however, obviously mentally went inside the box and pointed to specific systems that were preventing the computer from working any faster.  He talked about heat dissipation, the need for enormous amounts of electricity, and several other details that flew by too quickly for me to catch, but he could obviously nail down the specific systems that needed work.  He went on to explain that advances tend to occur when a very big and very important project hits a mission critical bottleneck caused by the inability of a computer to perform a specific function or at a specific speed.  If the project is important enough, then resources are thrown at the problem until someone comes up with a solution.  Inevitably there turn out to be numerous other applications for that solution, but it requires that initial strong pressure to make progress.

Last year, President Obama announced a Big Data Analytics initiative, so we can expect to hear more on this topic.  As an indication of how quickly the field is moving, my word processor did not recognize the word “petascale” much less “exascale.”  Or perhaps it is simply pouting because it doesn’t have that amount of power.

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Smithsonian Road Show

Federal agencies are very creative in communicating their mission and value to Congress, and some of these organizations seem to have a bit of an unfair advantage.  The situation reminds me of how much I enjoy doing demonstrations in my chemistry classes and the jealousy of my mathematician friends since they have not figured out how to incorporate explosions into their daily lessons.  Yesterday, the Smithsonian Museum of American History did their own version of my demonstrations and they brought a road show to Capitol Hill.

With the vast treasure trove of the Smithsonian collections, what do you bring to inform and impress Congressional staffers?  The answer was articles to excite, items to touch the heartstrings, but overall an assembly of objects to tell a story.  They set up shop in the lobby of the Rayburn House Office Building with tables around the perimeter.  Each department tried to select objects that would demonstrate the breadth of the collections as well as connect with each other in some way.

Eddie van Halen's guitar

Eddie van Halen’s guitar

The musical instrument table featured two guitars.  One was a Fender played by Eddie van Halen, which I had specifically come to see because I thought my Beloved Husband would want me to.  The second was made from downed wood from the former estate of Andrew Jackson, and the Gibson guitar, named “Old Hickory,” also tells the highlights of the President’s life.  (If Andrew Jackson was a closet guitar player, I don’t know, but I forgot to ask the question at the time.)

The Andrew Jackson guitar

The Andrew Jackson guitar

On the sports table, the focus was baseball.  The objects included Roberto Clemente’s batting helmet, a photograph of Lou Gehrig on the day of his last game, a baseball signed by Babe Ruth, and a baseball signed by players of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League.  I suspect that baseball fans can fill in their own stories for each of these objects, as I did.

Babe Ruth baseball

Babe Ruth baseball  No I don’t know why this picture is sideways.

The upcoming exhibit in the museum on “Roots and Routes” focuses on migration and immigration.  To highlight that exhibit, as well as the immigration legislation currently being considered, there were items that represented the cultures that people brought with them as well as their travels to America.  In this picture is the satchel brought by a woman who survived the Nazi concentration camps and was eventually able to join her daughter in New York.  Next to the suitcase is an exquisite piece of needlework typical of those done by women in the refugee camps of Laos to make money for food.

Roots and Routes

Roots and Routes

I thought the table on Bakelite was particularly well chosen.  The book is one of Mr. Bakelund’s diaries, and the other items are all made with the Bakelite hard plastic that he invented.  The curator said he especially liked the radio because of its multiple stories.  When the radio was a new technology, there was a question of what a radio should look like.  Many of the early radios are designed like theaters, and when I think about how people would gather round the radio for their evening entertainment, the design seems quite appropriate.  Nearby was the microphone used by FDR during his fireside chats.

Bakeland and Bakelite

Bakeland and Bakelite

Fireside chat microphone

Fireside chat microphone

 

There was also a Civil War theme to some of the displays.  In some of my reading, I had encountered hard tack, which was apparently about five parts flour to one part water and was tough enough to break a tooth on.  I loved that one enterprising soul had found a more palatable use for his helping as a picture frame.  The belt buckles are also from the Civil War, and on the next table was the West Point cadet uniform of Robert E. Lee.  Apparently wool stands up quite well over time as long as it is not exposed to light or insects.  The dyes fade a little, but that was less of an issue with the gray coat.  I had known that silk, on the other hand, dries out and shatters and is extremely difficult to preserve.

Hard tack picture fram.  (The picture to the left fits in the hole)

Hard tack picture fram. (The picture to the left fits in the hole)

Robert E. Lee's West Point cadet uniform

Robert E. Lee’s West Point cadet uniform

One table was obviously catering to pop culture and had a big wow factor.  It was big fun to see Indiana Jones’ hat and whip from the movies, and the lunch box also belonged to Indy.  I could tell because it had his picture on it.

Indiana Jones equipment

Indiana Jones equipment

I saved my favorite for last.  I was at the perfect age when Sesame Street first aired in 1969, and I watched the program for years.  For some reason being in the presence of the real Oscar the Grouch puppet gave me an overwhelming connection that little girl that I was. Of all the objects, it was hardest not to reach out to stroke Oscar’s fur and physically touch this character who taught and entertained me so many afternoons.

Oscar touched me, even if I didn't touch him.

Oscar touched me, even if I didn’t touch him.

Smithsonian curators, you did your job well.

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Special Rooms in the Capitol

The view out the window of Senator Reid's conference room

The view out the window of Senator Reid’s conference room

One of my fellow Fellows is placed in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office this year, and she arranged for a group of us to have a tour of his office in the Capitol.

Senate Majority Leader's office in the Capitol

Senate Majority Leader’s office in the Capitol

Senator Reid collects memorabilia of letters and pictures connected to past and present historic figures.  Senator Reid is the person who sat down the young Senator Barack Obama and asked him to run for President of the United States.  This picture was taken shortly after President Obama had begun his first term when he allowed staff to bring their families into the White House.  The young man in the picture looked at the President and said, “Your hair is just like mine,” and the President bent over so that the child could verify for himself.  In signing the picture for Senator Reid, the President wrote, “This is the change you helped to bring about.”

"This is the change you helped bring about."  -Barak Obama

“This is the change you helped bring about.” -Barak Obama

I haven’t quite wrapped my mind around the idea that the most important people in DC get to use the Smithsonians as their decorators.  The National Portrait Gallery is a favorite source of wall decorations, and Senator Reid’s choices include a portrait of Mark Twain and one of Harry Truman.  He also has a portrait of George Washington, which I understand to be a Gilbert Stuart copy of the original Gilbert Stuart painting.  That’s quite a provenance for a painting hanging so casually on the wall!

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One of the best perks about the Majority Leader’s office is that it comes with its own balcony.  There is no actual door to the balcony, but one of the windows slides up and then the bottom panel can be opened like a gate to gain access.  It provides a spectacular view of the Mall, even if the Mall was suffering from the pre-spring browns and was dotted by construction projects.

The balcony entrance

The balcony entrance

With a fellow Fellow on the balcony

With a fellow Fellow on the balcony

The conference room in Senator Reid’s suite is notable for the absence of a conference room table.  Senator Reid announced that important conversations and decisions would happen in this room and he wanted people to be comfortable.  Indeed, it was in this room that his conversation with then-Senator Obama occurred.

The conference room

The conference room

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell hails from Louisville, Kentucky, where he grew up and went to college.  I thus appreciated the collection of presents he has bestowed on his counterpart, Senator Reid, over the years in the form of multiple Louisville Slugger baseball bats, which are tucked into several corners of the room.

Gifts from the Senator from Kentucky

Gifts from the Senator from Kentucky

Although I may never find it again in the labyrinth of the Capitol, we also visited what is known as the President’s Room, which is close to the Senate Majority Leader’s office.  Its extremely ornate decorations feature paintings of some of the Founding Fathers, who I could identify as the first members of the Cabinet: Jefferson as Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of Treasury, etc.  There is also a display cabinet which contains an ever-changing collection of gifts presented to the President by foreign dignitaries.

The President's Room

The President’s Room

I am not the only Fellow who enjoys exploring around the Capitol, and I was very excited that our Fellow host was able to show us one of the other quirks of the Capitol, the legendary marble bathtubs.  When the Capitol was still under construction, many Members of Congress lived in nearby rooming houses that did not necessarily have a reliable supply of hot water.  Thus the Senators and Representatives would often use the elaborate facilities built for their convenience in the basement of the Capitol.  I seem to recall that Senator John F. Kennedy was also known for frequenting the bathtubs, each of which is carved out of solid block of marble.  At this point, there are only two tubs remaining, and they are hidden in a maintenance room where one appears to be filled with heating and cooling equipment.

the bathtubs are in the back

the bathtubs are in the back

All I need is bubble bath!

All I need is bubble bath!

Of all the things that I will miss in the future, being able to flash my Senate badge and prowl the back corridors of the Capitol is high up on the list.  It has been a fabulous place to explore!

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I have an idea!… Monticello

The "nickel" shot

The “nickel” shot

A free weekend miraculously appeared in the middle of April, and I suggested to Maggie that it was time to make our pilgrimage to Monticello.  When Maggie learned that the Metro’s Red Line would be chopped up into not two but three separate chunks over the weekend making travel in town a hassle at best, we figured it was karma that we should arrange to be away.

The last time I was at Monticello, I was entering fifth grade, and it was part of a family vacation that included DC, Mount Vernon, and Colonial Williamsburg.  Needless to say, I don’t remember much.  My Beloved Husband’s memories of Monticello are much more graphic since they involve his mother carrying her infant granddaughter in her arms.  Alas, while they were on the tour in Thomas Jefferson’s library, the baby pooped volcanicly, the diaper failed to contain the emissions, and my mother-in-law wore the results. The family left the tour rather precipitously at that point to attempt a clean-up of all parties.

My first impression of Monticello on this trip was that it was smaller than I remembered, which probably isn’t surprising.  We entered the house through the public entrance, which sports a weather vane on top of the portico.  Rather than going out in the weather to take a reading for his twice daily weather diary, Jefferson had a bright idea and devised a system in which the vane was also connected to a plate in the ceiling of the portico beneath it so that if it was raining, anyone could simply stand under the arch and collect the same information.

The bad weather weather vane

The bad weather weather vane

The front hall sported souvenirs representing all the continents known at Jefferson’s time.  I especially liked the large map that showed Georgia extending all the way to the Mississippi River and the pair of elk horns that had been brought back by Lewis and Clark.  In the corner was one of the few things I remembered from my previous trip, and that was Jefferson’s intricate clock, that he designed himself.  He had an idea to use the clock to keep track not only of the time but also of the day of the week.  The clock itself had three hands, including one for the seconds, and it was attached to an intricate pulley system that moved a set of cannon balls down a series of signs saying, Sunday, Monday, etc..  He had miscalculated slightly in his design so that only Sunday through Friday fit on the first floor.  Undismayed, Jefferson solved the problem by cutting a hole in the floor and allowing the balls to fall through the floor into the basement on Saturday.

Saturday- a minor design flaw in the clock

Saturday- a minor design flaw in the clock

Jefferson’s library was uneventful compared to my husband’s experience, but it was still delightful.  Jefferson’s original collection of over 6000 volumes had over-filled the space leaving only a narrow path through the space and books stacked to the ceiling.  He eventually needed money and sold his collection to be the start of the Library of Congress, but he still managed to amass 1600 books again before he died.

I liked Jefferson’s study as well, but then again, I think the concept of a devoted work space in my house sounds wonderful.  I immediately spotted Jefferson’s “polygraph,” which he created from his idea to link two pens together so that while he wrote with one, the second would make a fair quality copy.  He also carried out his idea of a revolving book stand that would hold up to five books open at a time.  It reminded me of how I use multiple windows on my computer to achieve the same effect of cross-referencing several sources for a single project.

In the dining room, which is in the northeast corner of the house, all of the windows each have two sets of class, which was Jefferson’s idea that mimics our current double paned glass.  That room was striking because of its orange-yellow paint, the signature color of chrome yellow.  Chrome yellow was one of the first synthetic pigments that was widely available and presented far more vibrant color than pigments derived from natural sources.  Maggie, a chemical engineer, and I both knew that because it contains both lead and chromium, it is particularly toxic as well, so Maggie advised me not to lick the walls.

One of my original impressions of Jefferson was that he was an enormously inventive and creative man.  It was on this trip that I started to think about what that might have meant for the people living around him.  I could just imagine how many times he would announce, “I have an idea!” and that the mental response of the household would be, “Here we go again.”  For example, Jefferson felt that broad graceful staircases were a waste of space in the house, so he designed two very narrow staircases to access the upper floors.  Jefferson, himself, slept on the first floor, so he rarely had to navigate the small passages, but I had to imagine that the women in their voluminous skirts had less charitable thoughts about the layout.  In the huge ice house, they would cut ice from the farm ponds in the winter and then pack it in straw and sawdust to keep it over the summer.  There was still a fair amount of melting, so the water needed to be drawn off regularly.  Jefferson had devised a bucket and pulley system to meet the need, but it did not seem to be implemented.  I read that as, “I have an idea!…”  that didn’t work.

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It was a glorious day for a visit since the tulips were putting on a spectacular spring show for us.  Our guide mentioned that in Jefferson’s time, there were no pretty pictures attached to bags of bulbs, and the names such as, “Queen of Sheba” or “Marcus Aurelius” were not particularly descriptive.  Jefferson’s daughters would monitor the blooms in the spring and write to their father describing the blossoms of each type of bulb.

The vegetable gardens and the reading room

The vegetable gardens and the reading room

One idea that I know my Beloved Husband would embrace were the extensive vegetable gardens that were planted to help feed the household, although I can only imagine the amount of work involved in maintaining the plants.  For my part, I liked the idea of the glassed-in room in the middle of the garden that seemed perfect to read on a summer afternoon.  Since Jefferson’s comment to John Adams, “I cannot live without books,” was emblazoned on numerous items in the bookstore, I suspect that Jefferson agreed that that was one of better ideas.

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