Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Hour of the Pearl

This week I’ve been waking up quite early (by my usual standards) – 6 – 6:30 am, but also going to bed quite early too (9 – 9:30 pm). Maybe it’s a residual effect of being in Europe for a week, but I’m trying to stay on the bandwagon and continue this pattern. I even made breakfast a few days: hashed browns with green onions and cheese!

Although my body screams at me to stay comfortably ensconced in bed during the early hours of the morning, once I do get out of bed, it’s the most rewarding feeling. It’s analogous to jumping into a pool on a cold day. You know the water will be icy cold, you hesitate, invisible strings are pulling you back to stay on the ground, but after the initial few moments of shock, it’s the most refreshing feeling ever.

Getting up early I’ve come to experience what John Steinbeck called “the hour of the pearl” – that calm, almost desolate time before the sun breaks over the horizon, and when everything is bathed in mysterious pearly light. Do you know what I’m talking about? It’s the hour when the world stops and takes a breath, before the clamor of the daybreaking and all the activities that follow.

This time of day is a solitary one. Even if there are other people around me, I feel like the hour of the pearl affects us all in a different, unique way – kind of like having your own pearl if you were an oyster, something you keep hidden away and treasure and build layers upon over time. I’ve experienced it while waking up at the crack of dawn to drive up to College Station to use the electron probe at TAMU. Once I got out of the Houston city limits, I was one of the few cars on the road. The countryside was beautiful: the first of the sun through the live oaks, rolling fields, wildflowers in waste places near broken fences, swallows flitting overhead. That scene stays with me forever. Why? There’s no rational reason… it’s probably a scene that millions of people wake up to every morning, but maybe they forget to immerse themselves in it, or are too busy. I’ve experienced the hour of the pearl back home on Long Island, when I wake up before everyone else and sit by the big window at the kitchen table, watching that magical grey light outside. No birds sing yet, everything is hushed, as if waiting.

So I’m glad that I’ve been waking up early and experiencing the hour of the pearl. Somehow, I feel more prepared, if that is the correct word, for the day ahead after I’ve been still and become part of this collective tranquility.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Prague, snails and slugs, my first European adventure

Haven't checked in here in a long time - seeing as my last post was over 2 months ago. The summer has been a whirlwind: first there was CIDER at UC Berkeley for 3 weeks, then a week in the field looking at pluton-wall rock interactions, skarns, and copper porphyries in Southern California and Nevada, then a few weeks back at Rice tidying up my paper for resubmission to JPet, and then the Goldschmidt Conference in Prague, Czech Republic.

Goldschmidt was a great conference, it was a good experience to see what the latest developments in the field of geochemistry were, as well as present my own work to the community. There were lots of interesting talks, here are some of the highlights. In the session on role of continental/island arcs in crust formation, there were several talks similar to mine, which instead of looking at crustal input beneath arcs from the continent-ward side, examined the material coming in from the subducting slab side:
delta 18O and how it might be used to estimate how much supracrustal material gets into the deep crust beneath arcs (Lackey), "relamination" mechanisms and how these might be related to UHP rocks (Kelemen at al.). I also went to several Keynote talks which were really good, particularly Ionov's talk on the Siberian craton. There was also an entire session on rutile and what we can now do with it for thermobarometry in light of new experiments. There was a whole session on crustal growth models, which was packed! I also sat in on some radiogenic isotope geochemistry sessions, during one of them the talk evolved into a shouting match.

On Sunday before the conference started, I had a chance to do a little exploration of the city. Prague is beautiful. It's truly a "textbook" of architecture, where you can see so many styles and old to modern buildings that are extremely well preserved. There were many things I loved about Prague. One was how much detail is packed in everywhere you look - the city is actually quite small, you can walk all around it in a day, but everywhere you turn you need to look twice to take in all the beautiful architectural details. I loved all the amazing Art Nouveau structures, such as the balconies and doorways:

Another thing I loved about Prague was how there are gardens everywhere throughout the city. Even in the main square, there's little patches of lawn and rows of roses, lavender, and other flowers. Wandering through the city, you find yourself walking through a passageway that you have no idea where it leads, but suddenly opens up into a little secluded garden with well-tended hedges and roses.

View of the Vltava River and one of the many bridges in Prague.

Even the bus stations are natural, with grass and flowers allowed to bloom and grow like they should.

Walking around the city there are tons of Bohemian crystal shops everywhere, with incredibly ornate, bejeweled goblets and crockery (they are really into crockery here in the Czech republic... even the water glasses and light bulb covers in our barebones dorm room were crockery). I found this tiny little "souvenir shop" tucked away in a corner on a cobblestone street:

Some native Czech arts and crafts.

While attending Goldschmidt, I stayed in a dorm along with other students, located on the outskirts of the city (but it was extremely easy to get into Prague since the public transport was so close and fast). The area by the dorms was quite natural, right near the river, and with lots of trees and fields around. A few nights it rained, and the morning afterward, all the slugs and one beautiful snail came out from the woods to hang out on the sidewalk. There was a pear tree nearby which had dropped a number of pears, which began to rot and ferment on the ground - this became a feast for the slugs. Walking to the bus stop each morning, I passed by tons of slugs just feasting on the rotting pears. Some of the slugs were enormous! I identified them as Arion rufus, the European red slug (native to Europe). Check out the huge pneumostome (breathing pore) on some of these guys:

Amidst all the slugs, there was only one snail, but he was huge (about the size of a crabapple):

Seeing this snail every day made me very happy for some reason. I don't know why, but I find snails fascinating. Maybe it's how their locomotion works - they slime the ground and then ripple their giant foot. And then their shells are beautiful too, and so are their bodies, which if you look really closely are translucent and seem to shimmer sometimes. OK, that's it for now. More posts later about our field work in Southern California. It's much easier adjusting to the time change going from Europe to North America, than the other way around. It's amazing that just yesterday I was on another continent!