Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Shaw's Agave

One of my favorite books from my younger days has a poem with the line, “All that is gold does not glitter”. I would turn that around for Coastal, or Shaw’s, Agave and say, all that is drab is not as dull as it seems. Sometimes one just has to wander around until they see things in the proper light.

Coastal agave, i.e., Agave shawii is a succulent with closely spaced, overlapping sword-shaped leaves that measure up to 8 inches wide and about 18 inches long. They diverge from the center of the plant in a spiral making for a rounded shape. The deep green leaves are edged with spines.

These spines nominally appear as brown or gray and don't offer much in the way of a visual display. However, in early morning or late afternoon, when the the sunlight comes in from behind the plant, they light up and glow red and/or orange, rivaling any neon sign on the Las Vegas Strip. 

Coastal Agave
Shaw's Agave by Cliff Hutson

The leaves are also notable for bearing the imprint of the spines of the leaves that were in front and back of them when they were clasped together. I find this to be a charming visual element to the plant.

The flowering plant is also attractive. It may take 20 to 40 years before it flowers. But, then yellow blooms, looking much like  a hand of very small bananas, burst out on the top of an 8 to 12 foot stalk resembling an asparagus spear. The flowers attract hummingbirds, bats and bees. When a single plant flowers it dies, but its “pups” or clones will live on.

Bats are a key pollinator of this agave and probably the primary reason for the tallness of the flowering stalk. Bats, save for the few species of vampire bats, can not launch into flight by flapping their wings. they, instead, take off by dropping from a height be it the roof of a cave, bridge, or tall plant with sturdy flowers.

Coastal Agave is found in Baja California. Also native to California, it occurs naturally only in San Diego County, near Border Field State Park. Most of the plants that were there were bulldozed into oblivion by your government while building the boundary wall between the USA and Mexico. However, a few seem to have survived. Other populations exist elsewhere in Southern California, but they were probably planted out in an effort to preserve the plant. I, for one, certainly hope it stays with us.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

March 2018 Reading

The books that I finished reading in March 2018

March 2018 Books: photo by Cliff Hutson
March 2018 Books: photo by Cliff Hutson

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Spring Has Sprung

One of My Favorite Flowers

The calendar says that it is Spring. But, the weather says that it is "late Winter".  One of my favorite California native plants has been showing for a couple of weeks, as it can go either way.

As a naturalist, I like to have a theme in mind when I lead an interpretive walk. I see this as a means of engaging the audience’s interest, as opposed to just wandering around identifying plants until their eyes start to glaze over. One of the themes I use is “does the common name of this plant make sense”.  A favorite plant for this discussion is the Fairy Duster, Calliandra eriophylla. It takes little imagination to see that the fluffy pink blossoms do resemble feather dusters scaled down to fairy size, assuming we are thinking of Tinker Bell instead of Titania.

The flowers appear between late winter and late spring. They have dense clusters of pale to deep pink stamens and are about two inches wide. I think that they are quite attractive; and, in fact, Calliandra is derived from the Greek kallos, "beautiful," and andra, "stamen”. The leaves are also interesting being twice pinnately compound with each division bearing five to ten pairs of leaflets.

The plant, also known as False Mesquite, is a densely branched shrub, about two feet tall and twice as wide, native to western North America. A member of the Pea Family (Fabaceae), it belongs to a group of primarily tropical plants that include Acacias and Mimosas. However, Fairy Duster grows in sandy washes and on slopes in the arid desert and grasslands of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas; and Mexico.

But, to say it occurs in California is a bit misleading as it is found only in the Creosote Brush Scrub community and then seemingly limited to Imperial and San Diego Counties. Due to this geographic circumscription , it is included in the California Native Plant Society Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants on list 2.3 (rare, threatened, or endangered in California; common elsewhere). In the interest of full disclosure, I would like to point out that one specimen was collected by Dr. Robert F. Thorne (of RSABG) on April 12, 1964, in Riverside County and that there is also a questionable 1881 accession from Kern County. I, myself, first encountered Fairy Duster while hiking in Riverside County. It was on land that was starting to be developed somewhere outside of Palm Springs, so it may not have been a natural occurrence.

Wherever we find it, I think it offers people an opportunity to ask people to look more carefully at nature and by observing this one flower they might go to focus on other aspects of nature rather than passively walk though it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

February 2018 Reading

The books that I finished reading in February 2018:

February 2018 Books: photo by Cliff Hutson
February 2018 Books: photo by Cliff Hutson

From Great to Poor

Head and shoulders above all the books I read this month is "A Different Drummer," by William Melvin Kelley. Indeed, it is one one of the best books that I have ever read. It is imaginative - starting with a mass exodus of all the black people in a Southern state - and well written. It contains, what for me is a fascinating perspective, a black man writing about what white people think about black people. I can not recommend it highly enough, especially for those of us who question what it means to be a black author.

"Wine. All the Time.: The Casual Guide to Confident Drinking" is a fun piece of fluff with some good pointers. It is aimed at a much younger demographic than the one this reader belongs to, but it did introduce me to the Kalimotxo. That is a good thing.

"Fire and Fury" has been all the rage lately, but I found it lacking. Much of what is covered I already knew from following "The Guardian".  A lot of the rest seems like just so much conjecture, signifying  nothing.

The Green Book

"The Green Book": photo by Cliff Hutson
"The Green Book": photo by Cliff Hutson

The small, thin book in the photo, with no title on the spine, is a facsimile editor of the 1954 "The Negro Travelers' Green Book", usually referred as just "The Green Book". This book listed hotels, boarding houses, restaurants, beauty shops, barber shops and various other services would cater to black customers during the years that Jim Crow was rampant. It seems no surprise to me that interest in this publication is resurgent as divisions in America are being stoked by the subject of Michael Wolfe's book.

Off the Pace

I have completed eight months as of February. This means that I had better pick up the pace if I want to fulfill my self-imposed goal of sixty for the year.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Reading Log 2017 (Plus Robots)

Reading Nook: photo by Cliff Hutson
Reading Nook: photo by Cliff Hutson

I made it through fifty-nine books this past year.

Reading Log 2017

  1. “Night School,” Lee Child
  2. “Secrets of the Oak Woodland,” Kate Marianchild
  3. “Potshot,” Robert B. Parker
  4. “Sage Living,” Anne Sage
  5. “Island of Blue Dolphins,” Scott O’Dell
  6. “How to See,” George Nelson
  7. “Breaking Cat News,” Georgia Dunn
  8. “An Old Captivity,” Nevil Shute
  9. “The Kill Clause,” Gregg Hurwitz
  10. “Deep Blue,” Randy Wayne White
  11. “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” Robert Galbraith
  12. “The Silkworm,” Robert Galbraith
  13. “The Negro Cowboy,” Philip Durham & Everett L. Jones
  14. “Career of Evil,” Robert Galbraith
  15. “The Short Drop,” Matthew Fitzsimmons
  16. “On Trails,” Robert Moor
  17. “The Big Blow,” Joe R. Lansdale
  18. “The Pencil Perfect,” Caroline Weaver
  19. “The Revenge of Analog,” David Sax
  20. “The Gun Seller,” Hugh Laurie
  21. “The Highwayman,” Craig Johnson
  22. “The Redbreast,” Jo Nesbo
  23. “Nemesis,” Jo Nesbo
  24. “The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need,” Andrew Tobias
  25. “Cars & Culture,” Rudi Volti
  26. “Setting Up Shop: The Practical Guide to Designing and Building Your Dream Shop,” Sandor Nagyszalanczy
  27. “Murder at the Opera,” Margaret Truman
  28. “How to be Black,” Baratunde Thurston
  29. “The Bat,” Jo Nesbo
  30. “Stuff White People Like,” Christian Lander
  31. “The Late Show,” Michael Connelly 
  32. “Blind Spot,” Teju Cole
  33. “A Choice of Weapons,” Gordon Parks
  34. “Sorted Books,” Nina Katchadourian 
  35. “A Rage in Harlem,” Chester Himes
  36. “The Real Cool Killers,” Chester Himes
  37. “The Crazy Kill,” Chester Himes
  38. “The Heat’s On,” Chester Himes
  39. “Cotton Comes to Harlem,” Chester Himes
  40. “Blind Man With a Pistol,” Chester Himes
  41. “The Cooking Gene,” Michael W. Twitty
  42. “The Urban Bestiary,” Lyanda Lynn Haupt
  43. “Deep Freeze,” John Sandford
  44. “Invisible Beasts,” Sharona Muir
  45. “Double Play,” Robert B. Parker
  46. “Two Kinds of Truth,” Michael Connelly
  47. “Little Green,” Walter Mosley
  48. “The Yard,” Alex Grecian
  49. “The Black Country,” Alex Grecian
  50. “The Devil’s Workshop,” Alex Grecian
  51. “The Harvest Man,” Alex Grecian
  52. “Lost and Gone Forever,” Alex Grecian
  53. “NYPD Red 2,” James Patterson
  54. “Brunch Is Hell: How to Save the World by Throwing a Dinner Party,” Brendan Francis Newnam and Rico Gagliano 
  55. “White Butterfly,” Walter Mosley
  56. “Gone Fishin’,” Walter Mosley
  57. “Charcoal Joe,” Walter Mosley
  58. “And Sometimes I Worry About You,” Walter Mosley
  59. “Rose Gold,” Walter Mosley

Most of them were good, but the highlight of the year was what I call the shootout between Chester Himes and Walter Mosley.  As I mentioned before Himes was introduced to me by Luke Cage. He made it clear, to me anyway, that he preferred that author over Mosley, partially because the former's stories are based in New York - opposed to Los Angeles. (Note: Mosley also writes books set in New York.) So, as LA is where I was born and grew up I decided that I had to make the comparison for myself by reading the Easy Rawlins series.

Hometown bias aside, I enjoyed reading Mosley's work the most. This is partly due to the fact that his  latter stories are pretty much contemporaneous with my life and I like to see his perspectives on those times. Another reason is that he takes the time to contemplate (or comment) on being black in America. Himes ably illustrates what life was like in an earlier era, but offers little reflection on the rampant racism.

One of the final scenes of the first season of Luke Cage has a US Marshal reading The Heat’s On by Chester Himes. Luke comments on it and the marshal asks if he’s ever read Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series. I have read all of the Bosch books over the years and look forward to the next season of Luke Cage for more book suggestions.


Even though I spent quite a bit of time reading, I carved out enough time to start building three robots. Two were seen through to completion.

Some Assembly Required: photo by Cliff Hutson
Some Assembly Required: photo by Cliff Hutson

Insectoid: photo by Cliff Hutson
Insectoid: photo by Cliff Hutson