Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Kennedy Center

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Before I came to DC, my bucket list included one visit to the Kennedy Center.  I ended up visiting at least half a dozen times, and appropriately, my final visit for this year was with Maggie.  I suggested that we go for a tour and find out more about what we had been seeing for the past year.

In the early 1960’s President and Mrs. Kennedy introduced the idea that there should be a cultural center for the performing arts in the Capital, and that it should have an international flavor.  Up until that time, the White House had been the only venue to serve anything like that purpose.  Congress agreeably acted to create this performing arts center with the stipulation that it must be self-supporting.  After President Kennedy was assassinated, the focus of the center shifted to encompass a national Presidential Memorial.

Hall of Nations

Hall of Nations

The two major entrance hallways are the Hall of Nations and the Hall of States.  Each hallway features walls built from statue-grade Carrera marble that was a gift from Italy.  Overhead in the Hall of State are the flags of all the American states and territories.  In the Hall of Nations, the double ranks of flags represent all the countries with whom we keep up diplomatic ties.  Many of those countries gave gifts for the construction of the Center, both because it was intended to be international and as tributes to JFK.  I lost track of the sources of all the artwork, but certainly the crystal chandeliers donated by Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Ireland were spectacular!

The Grand Foyer

The Grand Foyer

The first time I went to a show at the Kennedy Center, I was a bit bewildered to find that there was more than one theater under a single roof.  Indeed they count at least six theaters, of which the three main theaters are all on the first floor.  The space connecting all of these theaters runs behind the Hall of Nations and Hall of States, and it is called the Grand Foyer.  We were told that the Grand Foyer is the largest freestanding room in the world, and it is longer than two football fields placed end-to-end, or longer than the Washington Monument lying on its side.

Every day of the year at 6 PM, there is a performance on the Millennium Stage, which is actually two different stages at opposite ends of the Grand Foyer.  These performances are free, and we were also told that recordings from the past decade can be streamed from the internet.  I still cherish singing “I’m Just a Bill” and “Interjections” with the crowd here when I came to see Schoolhouse Rock.

The Concert Hall

The Concert Hall

The second largest theater, the Concert Hall, reminds me of Symphony Hall in Boston because most of the seating is on the Orchestra level with multiple levels of shallow boxes ringing the walls.  Reminiscent of some European theaters, the box seating extends onto the stage, and if there is no choir singing with the orchestra, then the elevated seats behind the stage and just beneath the pipe organ are also sold.  This theater is the home of the National Symphony, and it is where I saw the holiday pops concert in December and later where I attended the tribute to Sally Ride.

The Irish reception room with a Waterford Crystal chandelier

The Irish reception room with a Waterford Crystal chandelier

Ceiling of the Israel Reception Room, reflected in a mirrored table top

Ceiling of the Israel Reception Room, reflected in a mirrored table top

The Opera House is the largest and most opulent of the theaters, and I’ve seen numerous ballets here plus “White Christmas” and “Anything Goes.”  It is all done up in red velvet with a spectacular crystal chandelier in the center of the ceiling.  The “Book of Mormon” is now playing and has been sold out for weeks.  Because the set does not have a front curtain, I was not allowed to take pictures, but I’ve had a good time for every show I’ve attended here.

The Eisenhower Theater

The Eisenhower Theater

I think I’ve only been in the Eisenhower Theater once, and that was with my parents to see the Washington Ballet dance, “The Sun Also Rises.”  This smaller theater is a more intimate setting and is intended to be similar to some of the older Broadway theaters.  In contrast to the lush textiles of the Opera House, the walls of the Eisenhower are East Indian Laurel wood, and the black accents create a very modern feel.

The display cases outside each theater often present costumes from a current production

The display cases outside each theater often present costumes from a current production

These three main theaters each features a Presidential Box on the second level.  On the outside, the box entrances are identified by a Presidential Seal, with the exception of the third theater where a portrait of Eisenhower marks the location.  When the President attends a show, a Presidential seal is affixed to the theater-side of the box as well.  Each of the three main theaters has several themed reception rooms on the second level that are used for special events or gathering significant donors.  Gifts of artwork from various countries are also displayed on the second levels of the theaters.  Maggie and I apparently never buy tickets for this level because all of these features were new to us!

Reception room for the Presidential Box of the Opera House

Reception room for the Presidential Box of the Opera House

Terrace Theater

Terrace Theater

Upstairs there are three more theaters, one that tends to feature jazz, one that has been hosting “Shear Madness” ever since I arrived, and a third that hosts smaller groups including the national collegiate level theater competition that also involves technical competitions such as costuming.

One of my newest pleasures of the Kennedy Center is to arrive a little early and go up to the Terrace level.  After acquiring a beverage at the small cafeteria, I like to wander around the roof deck terrace and take in the superb views of Georgetown, the Potomac, and the National Cathedral on one side, and the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, and Jefferson Memorial (It’s not as close as it looks!) on the other side.  Sightseeing and theater watching on the same outing is an excellent combination.

View of the Potomac from the roof deck

View of the Potomac from the roof deck

Prior to the tour, I hadn’t consciously identified the Kennedy Center as connected to the National Mall and the many monuments.  As was pointed out to us, the Kennedy Center is different because it is a living memorial that feeds us in the present and looks to the future as well as paying tribute to the past.  My instinctive reaction was, “Wow, that’s so much better!” and I’ll appreciate having that awareness when I attend performances in the future.

 

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National Statuary Hall

National Statuary Hall

National Statuary Hall

Immediately off the Capitol Rotunda is the chamber that the House of Representatives occupied when they first got their own space.  As you may recall, in the sprint to finish both the White House and some kind of Legislative/Judicial facility by January 1st, 1800, there was only time to complete a single space on what is now the Senate side of the Capitol.  Like a kid leaving for college, I suspect that the Congressmen breathed a sigh of relief to escape from sharing quarters with the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the Library of Congress.  Construction of the new House Chamber (which is of course now known as the Old House Chamber) began in 1803 and lasted until 1807, when the House moved in.  Sadly, that occupation didn’t last long since the British arrived in 1814 to burn the White House and the Capitol.  Rep. Louise Slaughter, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Rules, occupies a historic office in the Capitol through which the British rode their horses into the building.  The hoof prints that damaged the floor have been carefully preserved, and she proudly pointed out these details to a fellow Fellow during a placement interview in September.

No surprise plot twist here.  As we all know, the Americans turned the tide and won the war of 1812, and with great resilience and stubbornness, the government stayed in the District of Columbia and met wherever they could until the Capitol had been reconstructed and they were able to reoccupy their space.  Thus it was in this House chamber that the inaugurations of Presidents James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and Millard Fillmore took place.  In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette became the first foreign citizen to address Congress in this space as well.

The room itself is most impressive since it is designed as a Roman amphitheater with marble columns and elaborate draperies. Unfortunately the acoustics of the chamber turned out to be less than ideal.  Sound bounced off the ceiling producing echoes, and unless you were right up front, it was very difficult to hear.  They even experimented with reversing the seating so that the “front” of the chamber faced in the other direction, but that was unsuccessful.

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The acoustics do, however, create one of the more charming stories that the guides like to tell.  Commemorating some of the Members of Congress from that time, in the current space there are half a dozen brass plaques embedded in the floor.  These show the positions of the desks of men who either subsequently became President or in the case of John Quincy Adams, became Representatives after their Executive Branch leadership.  As the story was told to me, John Quincy Adams was a bit of a devious sort, and he used the acoustics to his advantage.  He was elected to the House after he finished being President, and he played the role of weary politician to the hilt.  He would pretend to go to sleep at his desk, but from that spot, the acoustics were perfect to hear what was happening at the leadership desks on the other side of the chamber.  A vote would be called, he would rouse, and his colleagues could never understand how Adams could have been “asleep” on the other side of the chamber and have such detailed knowledge of their discussions.  The eavesdropping effect can be replicated with one person standing on the floor plaque for Adams and the other person across the chamber approximately at the Wyoming statue I think where suddenly you can speak in normal tones and hear each other quite clearly.  One extremely honest guide pointed out that the chamber had been extensively renovated after the House moved out, including the installation of the marble floor, all of which would have extensively altered the acoustics.  I appreciated the honesty, but it’s still a fun story (and a very strange effect!)

Of all men, John Quincy Adams may have had the strongest ties to the old House chamber.  It was in this room that he was elected President after no candidate received a majority of the votes.  He also had a long and distinguished post-Presidential career in the House.  Lastly, it was in this room that he suffered a fatal stroke in 1848; he was immediately taken to an adjacent chamber where he passed away two days later.

Eventually either the acoustics became unbearable or the constantly enlarging House outgrew its space, but in 1857, they moved into their new and present chamber in the House wing of the Capitol.  After the House moved out, there were a number of suggestions for using the vacant chamber, and eventually it was agreed that it could become an art gallery.  Each state was allowed to send two statues to the Capitol with the single stipulation that the statues must be made either of marble or of bronze.  (Hawaii sent a rather unusual statue of Father Damian, but because it was made out of wood, it had to be shipped back, bronzed, and then returned before it was installed.)  These statues began to collect in what became known as National Statuary Hall, but there were two issues that developed rapidly.  The first was that the chamber became a forest of statues.  The second was that the Architect of the Capitol had concerns that the floor was not built to stand up to so much weight.  Thus after the passage of two separate resolutions by the House, the statues are now dispersed throughout the Capitol and visitors’ center complex.  There are a few pieces that were commissioned specifically for the room; a statue of Rosa Parks is the most recent addition.

One of my favorite insider stories focuses on the lamps attached to the huge marble columns around the chamber.  The lamps were originally constructed to burn whale oil, so each unit had its own reservoir of fuel.  When electricity was developed, the quandary arose of how to electrify the lamps without marring the look of the columns with electrical wiring.  The solution was a type of electrified tape to provide the power, but then the tape was painted to match the stone pattern of the columns.  I like ducking behind the columns to see if I can spot the well-concealed tape.

In addition to being a regular stop on the Capitol tour, the space is sometimes used for fancy events.  On Inauguration day after the outdoor events were done and my Beloved Husband and I had retreated to a warmer location, we continued to watch the TV coverage of the day.  I quickly recognized that the luncheon for the President and all of the dignitaries was held in National Statuary Hall.  A modern sound system probably helped everyone to hear the speeches, but I had to wonder who might be sitting in John Quincy Adams’ spot and what interesting information he or she might have heard.

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One on the Floor

The title of this entry refers to the ongoing efforts of my Beloved Husband to teach me to recognize a song in the style of “four on the floor.”  I have made limited progress in this skill, mostly by memorizing the answers, but I continue to try to learn.  The connection to today’s post is rather obscure, but as the topic was assembling in my brain, this was the title that accompanied it.

I had a revelation today that I think I finally understand football.  Watching a game on TV is much different from buying a ticket and watching in the stadium.  Likewise, watching from the upper deck is different from watching from the sidelines of the field.   I regularly watch the action in the Senate on C-Span, and I am accustomed to that big picture (or little picture, depending on the TV size) perspective.  I have made a point to go over to the staff gallery to observe the action when I have time, but in spite of being only a floor above the action, it still resembles the view of the football game from the roof deck.  Absolutely worth the price of admission, since it’s free, but I hadn’t realized that I was still a little separated from the action.  Yesterday, I checked off “go onto the Senate floor” from my bucket list, and wow- that was definitely watching from the sidelines and being right in with the action!

I specifically arrived about 10 minutes before Senator-Elect Markey was due to be sworn in, but I learned that the floor was closed until after the swearing-in was finished.  I scooted up to the staff gallery where I ditched my prohibited cell phone and Blackberry and snagged a spot in the gang of pages (A murder of pages?  A Parliament of pages?) who were already seated.

The President Pro Tempore, Senator Leahy, presided over the opening of the session, which starts with the morning prayer and the pledge of allegiance.  Shortly thereafter, Vice President Biden arrived to preside over the swearing in.  I was pretty excited to see him in person.  (He’s tanned and relaxed, thank you for asking.)  I always enjoy watching the VP preside since he is such a veteran of the Senate.  I always feel as though all the rules and responses are simply second nature to him rather than requiring any coaching or even conscious thought.  I also noticed that somehow the chair for the presiding officer has ever so much more ceremony and dignity when occupied by either the President Pro Tempore or by the Vice President rather than by one of the junior senators who share the job of presiding over routine sessions. There was a bit of a delay before everything was organized and the cast of characters assembled, so I was able to observe the various conversations among the senators who were present.  There was no requirement to be present for the event, so I appreciated the people who did show up.  (and yes, my senator was there!).

Eventually, Vice President Biden read the certificate of election that is required for a new senator, and Senator-elect Ed Markey walked from the rear of the chamber accompanied by both Senator Elizabeth Warren, senior senator from Massachusetts, and Senator Mo Cowan, who has been serving as the junior senator from the state since Senator Kerry left to become Secretary of State.  For the swearing-in ceremony, usually a new senator is accompanied only by the senior senator from the same state, but I appreciated that under the circumstances, both sitting senators took part in the ritual.  After the official ceremony, the other senators who were present came to congratulate new Senator Markey as well as to give their regards to Senator Cowan.  I was pleased to see Senator Cowan one last time, although I noticed that he seemed to embrace that the center of attention was elsewhere this morning.  His navy bow tie was positively subdued compared to his usual sartorial splendor.

At this point, I ducked out to go down to the floor, but I decided that a stop at a restroom would be a strategic move first.  Thus I ended up running the gauntlet of press, security, and Secret Service outside the Senate Chamber as well as passing through the second knot of Markey family and well-wishers gathered in and around the Old Senate Chamber for the swearing-in ceremony to be re-staged to get pictures.  Secure in the power of my Senate Staff badge, I passed through unscathed and unchallenged in both directions.

Down one floor, the very kind guard at the floor check-in desk walked me through the process of getting credentialed; because I am a Fellow, I don’t automatically have floor privileges.  The guard said, “Oh, you were UC’ed,” referring to my senator’s asking for Unanimous Consent that I have floor privileges for the rest of the session of Congress back in January.  We worked out all the details, and the guard escorted me to the door closest to the Democratic staff box.  After checking multiple times that I had turned off my cell phone, reminding me that I mustn’t check it or my Blackberry while I was on the floor, and that I should walk around the back of the chamber but never behind a senator who is speaking, I was allowed entry.

Being on the Senate floor is definitely watching the action from the sidelines.  It was exciting to see Vice President Biden in person from the staff gallery above, but shortly after I took my seat on the staff benches, the Vice President passed back through the chamber and left through a door not 20 feet from me.  I was quite thrilled, in my oh-so-cool-this-happens-to-me-all-the-time-but-look-there’s-the-Vice-President! Fellow kind of way.  My BH may have seen the President in person more times than I have, but I certainly got closer to the VPotus than I ever thought possible!

My Legislative Director had suggested that yesterday morning might be an interesting time to be on the floor since the latest filibuster kerfluffle was coming to a head.  Knowing that the staff seats can fill up, I arrived early and brought some reports to read while I waited.  Eventually the vote began, and as is my habit, I started tallying the yays and nays.  I can recognize all but a small handful of senators by sight (and it does irritate me that I don’t know them all), but my studying has paid off in my ability to watch the floor and sort out the dynamics of the conversations.  I also appear to be a resource for people around me trying to identify senators.  I am endlessly curious about why certain people might have conversations and what they have in common, other than being part of a very elite group of legislators.  Senator Mark Udall, whose brother recently passed away unexpectedly was obviously getting many condolences.  For others, I could identify issue or interest overlaps as well as being members of a class who were all elected at the same time. Other senators obviously make a point of chatting with folks on the other side of the aisle, and by the time the vote was halfway done, later-arriving senators were challenged to elbow their ways through the crush of colleagues conversing in the Well.

I knew that when a vote is happening, staff are not allowed to enter or leave the chamber, and when I considered all the congestion caused by the senators themselves, it all made immediate sense.  I stayed until the crowd dissipated and a quorum call began, and then I took my leave.

I think the overwhelming difference of being on the floor rather than being in the gallery is that the senators become people, especially people with widely different heights.  I certainly see people in the hallways; just last week I passed Speaker Boehner in the hallway and rode in an elevator with Senator McCain, but being on the Senate floor was another version of close encounters with senators.  I’m already looking forward to my next visit!

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The Old Senate Chamber

The Old Senate Chamber

The Old Senate Chamber

There are several rooms in the Capitol that are currently used as museums but periodically see a bit of modern action.  I love that the Old Supreme Court Chamber is such an appropriate space for the justices to gather prior to the Inauguration or the State of the Union Address.  The Old Senate Chamber likewise is normally a stop on the regular Capitol tour, but on a few rare occasions over the years, it has gone back to being a meeting space to bring all the senators together to deal with thorny problems.

The Senate began meeting in what is now known as the Old Senate Chamber in 1810.  That tenure was interrupted in 1814 when the British burned the Capitol (using the books belonging to the Library of Congress as fuel as you might remember).   Meetings were held in a building across the street until the Capitol was rebuilt, bigger and better, and the Senate could reoccupy the space in 1819.  Every time a state was added to the Union, two more desks needed to be squeezed in to the room, so by 1859, the body had outgrown their old quarters and moved to the current Senate Chamber.  The room was reconfigured for the Supreme Court, who met in this space until they got their own building in 1935, and eventually the room was restored to its original look in time for the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations.

You may actually have seen photographs of the Old Senate Chamber if you see pictures of senators being sworn in.  Because there are no photographs allowed in the current Senate Chamber, after the official swearing in of new senators, the ceremony is re-enacted in the Old Senate Chamber for official photographs.  Senator-elect Markey from Massachusetts is to be sworn in this morning, so if there is a photograph in the newspaper, you will actually be seeing the Old Senate Chamber.

Senator Michael Bennet's swearing-in photo in the Old Senate Chamber

Senator Michael Bennet’s swearing-in photo in the Old Senate Chamber

The two chambers have largely the same arrangement of functions, with the desk for the Vice President in the center, although in the 1800’s senators did not sit by party affiliation.  As in the new chamber, there is a second floor gallery above for visitors.  A curtain was quickly added across the front railing to prevent the men on the floor from looking up the ladies’ dresses, and male visitors were under strict orders not to put their feet on the railing lest they drop mud onto the senators below.  Apparently Sen. Sam Bowie whiled away his time on the Senate floor by whittling, and when a piece was completed, he would send it up to the gallery as a gift to one of the visiting ladies.

The Vice President's Desk in the Well

The Vice President’s Desk in the Well

When I’ve asked the staff who monitor that room for their favorite story, they inevitably choose to tell the tale of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts.  In the lead up to the Civil War, Sumner, a fiery and extremist abolitionist, gave a five hour speech on the Senate floor known as “The Crime Against Kansas,” and denounced a number of Southern leaders in somewhat graphic terms, speculating about the intimate relations between some of the individuals and their slaves.  During the speech, Stephen Douglas of Illinois predicted, “This damn fool is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool.”  It didn’t quite work out that way, but several days later, Rep. Preston Brooks, the cousin of one of the men derided in Sumner’s speech, entered the Senate chamber with several like-minded Congressmen and proceeded to beat Sumner viciously with his cane.  At that point in time, the Senate desks were all bolted to the floor, which prevented Sumner from escaping, and Brooks’ companions prevented any of the other senators from coming to Sumner’s aid.  The cane eventually broke, and Brooks finally left the chamber.  Sumner spent three years convalescing from severe head injuries and suffered from chronic pain for the rest of his life.  As a sign of how high tensions were running at the time, numerous South Carolinians expressed their support for Brooks’ actions by sending him replacement canes for the one that had been broken. A subsequent motion to remove Brooks from the House was unsuccessful, but he resigned anyway a short time later, eventually to be re-elected to his post.  After Brooks passed away from croup at a relatively young age, Sumner seemed to blame slavery for his injuries more than the man who wielded the cane.

The Sumner-Brooks story makes for good telling, but the Old Senate Chamber actually has a much stronger history of housing the Senate during its “Golden Age,” when the Senate gained its reputation as the greatest deliberative body in the world.  Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun famously debated the issue of slavery in this room, and the Missouri Compromise, bringing in Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state was hammered out here as well.  Looking back, the Civil War was almost inevitable.  The amazing part is that Union held together for four decades before the war, in large part because of the debates and compromises in the Senate.

In modern times, the Senate has periodically sought to re-capture that spirit of tradition and compromise by meeting in the Old Senate Chamber, where they may convene in the absence of the press, the public, or even the staff.  It was to this space that the Senate retreated to have frank discussions about the procedures for the impeachment of President Clinton, and as a result of those conversations, impeachment was avoided.

This week, the Senate has again retreated to have a joint caucus meeting in the Old Senate Chamber in an attempt to come to some agreement about the progress of Presidential nominees moving through the approval process.  I hope that the chamber may again work its magic and that the senators may find a way to continue navigating a path forward together.  (Yes, after a year on Capitol Hill, I can still be an optimist.)

 

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“Burning Down the House” or How have Forest Fires Gotten so Bad?

I’m certainly more aware of forest fires this year than I have been in the past, but it’s not my imagination that the fires have been getting worse over time.  Forest fires were not as bad when I was younger, and it was not only because of the extremely effective campaign with Smokey the Bear telling us, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, a number of major fires devastated the West including the “Big Burn,” in 1910 which scorched a large swath of Montana and Idaho in the Yellowstone region.  The Forest Service was in its infancy at that point, and those large fires substantially shaped the resulting mission of the agency.  The two significant take-home messages of the Big Burn were, “Fire is Bad,” and “Humanity can control its environment.”  Thus began a program of ruthless suppression (putting out) of all wildfire ignitions.

There’s only one problem with this philosophy.  Fire is a natural part of the forest environment, particularly in the dry West where fallen vegetation does not decompose as rapidly as in the wetter East.  Fire sweeps through an area every 10-30 years and burns off all the small fuels low down toward the forest floor.  With regular burning, the fuels don’t build up, which means that the fires burn with low intensity on the surface.  Larger older trees can withstand these low intensity surface fires and survive with ease.  Indeed, Lodgepole pines have cones that only open to release seeds under the high temperatures of fire.

Decades of suppression took their toll on the forest.  Fuels built up in the absence of fire, and trees became much more densely packed.  In the Rocky Mountains, we look at lush forests of evergreens with admiration, but those wonderful expanses of green actually represent an unhealthy forest.  Where there should be 10 trees per acre, there are instead 100.  When forests with high fuel loads burn, the fires are much hotter and the damage is more intense.  Trees that have fallen but have not dropped all the way to the ground act as ladders to convey fire from the surface to the canopy creating crown fires.  Even the most resilient trees can’t survive these high intensity crown fires, and everything burns in what is known as a “stand replacement fire.”  The entire forest must come back from seed.  That’s if it comes back at all.  As climate is changing, the edges of forest ecosystems may no longer be ideally adapted to the new climate zone, so without intervention, some forests come back with a different mix of species, and some may be permanently converted to grassland.

I had the opportunity to ask a researcher in the Forest Service why we hear so much more about forest fires in the West than in the East.  I asked if part of it is that there simply are not the acres to burn in the East, and she said that’s part of it, but in the East, there somehow evolved a culture of understanding the need for forests to burn with some regularity.  So we can still get fires in the East, but they don’t have the expanse or the intensity of fires in the West.  Much more of the land in the East is also owned privately and is cut periodically when a landowner needs to send a child to college or to retire.  The West, with its wealth of National Forests and wilderness areas, includes preservation as one of its missions which makes management much more complex.

 

Oddly enough, improving the forest fuel issue through prescribed burns in the West is accomplished at the temporary expense of other environmental factors.  Forest fires create smoke, which is a source of Particulate Matter (PM), one of the metrics for air quality.  Smoke isn’t fun to breathe for anyone, so prescribed fires are unpopular because of the respiratory problems they may cause.  I can think of two prescribed fires in the past 10 years or so that escaped and burned far more than was intended.  That’s only two out of a large number of prescribed fires that went off without a hitch, but those incidents make people resist all prescribed burning.

The big Yellowstone fire of 1987 marked a turning point in the history of fires in the US.  Everyone thought that it was a once in a lifetime incident, but it turned out to be an indicator of a new era in forest fires.  Since then, fires have been getting bigger, more intense, and more expensive to fight.  In the rugged terrain of the West, especially in Colorado, fires are still contained through “boots on the ground.”  Air tankers carrying fire suppressant and helicopters carrying water in “bambi buckets,” are vital support elements and are critical for cooling off hot spots and protecting structures, but sometimes weather conditions and even smoke from the fires prevent the air support from flying.  Containment is achieved through cutting fire breaks, removing fuel, and sometimes through creating back-fires, which deprive the fires of anything to burn.  If the high fuel loads and steep terrain haven’t been enough challenge for firefighters, several other additional challenges have emerged in the past decade to make fires even more difficult to fight.

Bark Beetle kill in Rocky Mountain National Park

Bark Beetle kill in Rocky Mountain National Park

Outbreaks of various bark beetles have added to the fire risk.  Lodgepole pines and Mountain Pine Beetles have co-evolved to have mutual defenses.  The pines have chemical defenses to throw off small attacks, but the beetles respond with massive attacks on a tree to overwhelm the defenses.  In the first years after a beetle attack, the trees remain standing, and the dry brown needles that have yet to fall serve as very effective tinder to fuel a fire.  Eventually the needles and the trees fall, which reduces the fuel load and the fire risk, but in areas of recent beetle kill where there may be up to 80% tree mortality, humans don’t stand much of a chance against fire.

Fire in the WUI

Fire in the WUI

In the past ten years, the development of the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI, pronounced woo-ey), has made fighting forest fires additionally challenging.  I certainly understand the draw of a cabin in the woods, but when building codes allow wooden roofs and wooden decks, and when trees and brush come right up to the structure, the house doesn’t stand much of a chance from flying embers.  When fighting fires, the priorities are protecting people, structures, and infrastructure (roads, dams, bridges, etc.).  If a fire is burning entirely in a forest, then the goal is to contain it and then let it burn itself out.  If, however, a fire is burning near a neighborhood, then far greater effort is expended to try to protect the houses.  My guess is that the 100,000 acre West Fork fire in the Rio Grande and San Juan National Forests in Colorado will ultimately have a lower damage assessment than the 15,000 acre Black Forest fire in the Colorado Springs suburbs.  No structures were lost in the West Fork fire, whereas over 500 houses burned in the Black Forest fire.

Where the major damage occurs

Where the major damage occurs

On top of all these factors, climate change is also contributing to the problem.  Does climate change cause any particular fire?  No, of course not.  It does however contribute to a longer fire season, up to a month longer on either end.  Higher temperatures mean that the last snow falls early in the spring and later in the fall, so the trees have even longer to try out and fires have longer to burn.  The ongoing drought in the West is also not necessarily directly caused by climate change, but those weather conditions also contribute to much hire fire risks.

The prevention and treatment of forest fires has been a frequent topic on Capitol Hill lately, but unfortunately there are no easy answers.  The combination of so many different factors, each of which is feeding larger and hotter fires that are more challenging to fight in the WUI mean that we will be seeing active and extensive fire seasons for the foreseeable future.

2012 Waldo Canyon Fire burn scar

2012 Waldo Canyon Fire burn scar

 

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Shake it up Baby: the 2011 Earthquake

You might well wonder what relevance the earthquake from two years ago could have on my current existence in DC, but as I’ve shown my many visitors around the area, I’ve found that the earthquake is a theme that seems to crop up constantly.

My firsthand experience with the earthquake was limited, but I remember the flurry of activity on Facebook as many of my friends reported feeling the vibration back in August of 2011.  The tectonic plates on the East Coast transmit vibrations far more extensively and rapidly than the plates on the West coast, which is why people felt the effects of the Virginia quake to the south in Atlanta, north in Quebec, and west in Illinois.  When my BH and I were out in Colorado, we learned from the USGS that they were able to capture those social media data through their earthquake.gov website and the link, “Did you feel it?”  Their short questionnaire is remarkably accurate at determining the magnitude of shaking at a person’s location, and thus they were able to refine their original shake map to reflect more accurately the magnitude of the vibration in any location.  USGS also nailed the damage estimates extremely accurately.  FEMA thought the estimates were high, but by the time the damages were totaled to all of the big buildings in the area, the USGS was right on the money.

Speaking of money, during Orientation back in September, we had a special session with the Congressional Research Service just for Congressional Fellows.  We noticed that in the back of the plastic badge holder worn by one of our presenters, the woman had a $20 bill.  We asked about it, and she explained that when the earthquake happened, everyone had to leave the building and was not allowed back inside because everything had to be checked to ensure it was safe.  The woman had to borrow money from one of her staff members to get a ride home, and ever since then, she’s kept emergency money with her badge.  I thought it was a good idea, and I have also stashed some emergency cash just in case.  The funds are also good for emergency ice cream, emergency frozen yogurt, emergency hot chocolate… you get the idea.

As a quick survey of earthquake-affected locations, in the Library of Congress, in one of the upper galleries, the ceiling is divided up in squares, each with a stone rosette in the center.  One square is empty where the rosette fell to the floor during the earthquake. Union Station still has black netting half way up the huge vaulted space to catch pieces that fell in the two years since the quake.  I’ve spotted at least two stone chunks caught in the netting that might have hit someone if the net wasn’t there. The Lee mansion in Arlington was already scheduled to undergo restoration, but extra cracks to repair appeared as a result of the quake.  In contrast, the cast iron dome of the Capitol didn’t even flinch.

 

Photo of earthquake damage at the National Cathedral

Photo of earthquake damage at the National Cathedral

 

The National Cathedral suffered some of the most spectacular damage, and because it is a church, no federal funds can be provided to help with the repairs.  Stone buildings do particularly poorly in earthquakes, and I recall that a number of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, including the Pharos Lighthouse and the Colossus at Rhodes were both destroyed by earthquakes.  At the Cathedral, turrets twisted and lost their tops, and one gargoyle lost its head when it was struck by a falling chunk of stone from higher up on the tower.  The fiery light of the rose window inside is muted by the black netting that continues to protect people below.  Outside, a platform has been built on the highest tower to stabilize the structure and prevent further damage.  I, personally, think that it looks like the Cathedral is wearing a hat, and since it has been there for my entire year, I shall undoubtedly miss it when the repairs are complete and the hat is no longer needed.

The National Cathedral wearing its "hat"

The National Cathedral wearing its “hat”

I recently learned that the Bishop’s Garden at the Cathedral suffered damage even after the quake when a huge crane brought in to cope with the immediate earthquake damage fell over and took out some of the trees, shrubs, and a stone arch.  I can only imagine how heartbreaking that must have been to the caretakers, but since I was unaware of any obvious issues during my spring visits to the garden, they have done a wonderful job of recovering.

The top of a turret from the National Cathedral

The top of a turret from the National Cathedral

Construction of the scaffolding for the Washington Monument

Construction of the scaffolding for the Washington Monument

After the earthquake, the National Park Service almost immediately closed the Washington Monument.  Engineers rappelled down the sides (how cool must that have been?!) and established that indeed the structure had been damaged and was not safe for tours.  Over the past several months, the Monument has slowly been encased in scaffolding, which was specially designed for the most recent renovation.  The scaffolding rests against the stone by padded brackets, but it does not actually attach to the monument.  Once the steel corset had been completed, (and it took some interesting contortions to do the top!) they added strips of blue fabric to create a look to mimic the stone blocks used to construct the monument.  Recently lights have been added to illuminate the structure at night, and there was a special ceremony when the lights were first turned on.  Repairs are expected to take the better part of a year, but every effort has been made to provide a reasonably attractive façade in the meanwhile.

Completed scaffolding

Completed scaffolding

All of these examples illustrated to me how long it can take to recover from an earthquake completely, even in a prosperous area, but I look upon each scrim and scaffold as evidence of humanity’s unrelenting capacity to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Close up of the scaffolding with the stone block effect

Close up of the scaffolding with the stone block effect.  Note this is the elevator side!

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The Supreme Court

 

The Scrim-covered Supreme Court Building (taken from the Capitol Dome)

The Scrim-covered Supreme Court Building (taken from the Capitol Dome)

 

Before I came to DC for my fellowship year, I really thought that Capitol Hill ended abruptly immediately east of the Capitol, much like Columbus falling off the edge of the flat Earth. Thus it came as a bit of a surprise to discover that the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress both occupied prime real estate located where my mental maps got very vague and were labeled as, “unknown and unexplored territory.”

In 1935, having been housed in with the legislative branch for over 100 years, the Supreme Court finally got its own building on Capitol Hill.  The move happened in part because of need; there wasn’t any office space in the Capitol for the justices and their staffs, so they scattered about in different buildings.  In part it was the leverage applied by Chief Justice and former President William Howard Taft, who unfortunately passed away before the completion of the new building.

Chief Justice and President William Howard Taft

Chief Justice and President William Howard Taft

The new Supreme Court building was constructed to be a Temple of Justice, and marble featuring prominently in the construction.  For all the outer halls, the white marble was hauled in from a number of quarries in different states.  The Supreme Court chamber, itself, was intended to provide a contrast with the other spaces, and it is made from a more yellow marble from Spain and Morocco.

Central corridor of the "Temple of Justice"

Central corridor of the “Temple of Justice”

My first visit to the Court was back in November when my friends, the Election Tourists, came to visit.  We stood in line and were able to hear the second of two cases presented on the day before the election.  I remember sitting on a wooden chair in the back row of the chamber trying to absorb everything that was happening.  I had completely neglected to do any homework before I went, and since we had to stash all our belongings before we went in, there was no quick Google search to help me identify the justices.  I recognized Chief Justice John Roberts in the center, and then the justices sit by seniority, alternating sides.  I was able to identify the diminutive Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and then Justices Sonja Sotomayor and Elena Kagan on the outer edges as the two newest Associate Justices.  Justice Clarence Thomas was easily recognizable, but the others I had to sort out by listening to the attorneys who would periodically drop a, “Yes, Justice Scalia…” into the mix.

I have two enduring memories of the experience of listening to a case.  The first was that it was far worse than a Ph.D. dissertation defense.  A committee of four faculty quizzing me on my work is nothing compared to nine justices peppering the attorneys with rapid fire questions.  (Well, eight justices.  Justice Thomas is well-known for not asking questions in the courtroom.)  I was extremely impressed that the attorneys remained poised as they were answering questions and also apparently managed to cover all their major talking points as well.  Each side gets only 30 minutes, and after one hour, the oral arguments are completed.

My other memory of watching the court in session was the justices in their chairs.  Apparently the large black leather chairs have every motion possible designed in.  Some justices would tip back so that they could barely be seen, whereas others would spin and rock.  I could only imagine what a group of kindergarteners would do in those chairs!

The Supreme Court Chamber

The Supreme Court Chamber

More recently, my BFF and I visited when the court was not in session, and we arrived at the perfect time to catch a courtroom lecture for which we got to go in and sit in the bench seats for the public.  In both cases, I had a very powerful sense of simply being present in a space where important decisions were handed down.

Like the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol, the new space has the justices sitting on a raised bench with tables for the lawyers in front.  The Marshal, who keeps order and is in charge of security, sits at a desk to the right, and a desk for the Clerk, who keeps the calendar, is off to the left.  No television cameras or any kind of electronics are allowed in the court; there is one official electronic recording made that is transcribed for the official record, which includes notations of who said what.  The Press are only allowed paper and writing implements, and their gallery is off to the left.  That’s why sketches of the action in the court always show the same perspective angle.  Immediately behind the attorneys are chairs for any of the 250,000 lawyers who are members of the Supreme Court Bar who choose to show up for a case, and the public sits on wooden pew-like benches or wooden chairs behind.

During my Fellowship year, the Supreme Court heard and ruled on two cases involving the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  These cases involved strong partisans on both sides and were followed with great attention across the country.  On the morning that the cases were heard, I took a stroll around the Supreme Court to check out all the demonstrators.  People had filled the space in front of the building and had spilled out across the street onto the Capitol Side.  There is usually one token protestor in front of the building, but it was quite apparent that a more contentious case was being heard.  It was pretty thrilling to be able to wander around and observe.

Demonstrators outside the Court

Demonstrators outside the Court

Just recently, the decisions on the DOMA cases were handed down.  This time I didn’t go out to watch, but it was significant that for the first time that I could remember in my office, half of the TV’s were turned to CNN while the other half were on the Senate floor.  Of course, the volume was turned up on one of each, so it was rather noisy, but it was fun to be more aware than usual of the workings of the Court.

Newscasters broadcasting with the Court and protestors in the background

Newscasters broadcasting with the Court and protestors in the background

I remember during Orientation that we had a single lecture on the Judicial Branch of the government since all the Fellows were going to either the Legislative or Executive Branches.  My impression at the time was that it was mildly interesting information, but working in such close proximity to the Supreme Court every day has significantly raised my awareness of the work of that body and how they interact with the other branches of the government.  For the full Capitol Hill experience, it is worth a visit.

 

 

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