Transitioning into Autumn

Late Summer / Early Fall

Psychologically, New Year’s Day is the day after Labour Day. The leisurely pace of summer ends, school’s back in session, people return from trips, blogs and podcasts are updated more frequently, summer reruns are replaced by new shows — life is energized. There’s a crackle in the air. Perhaps it’s conditioning from years of being in (and actually liking) school. My reading inclinations change from the lighter summer fare of fantasy, science fiction, and mystery fiction, to science, natural history, philosophy, art history — in short, anything intellectual. It’s automatic. I don’t say to myself, “Enough of this fluff! Let’s get on with the real stuff!” I don’t even think about it, until I realize I’m reaching for different kinds of books, and I start thinking about acquiring more Teaching Company courses.

Although the transition to autumn in nature is gradual, it seems sudden. As if the day after Labour Day the goldenrods and asters explode into full bloom and tree leaves begin turning red, yellow, or brown, according to their kind. As if nature itself were prompting us to get on with the new season.

In Ontario the nights begin to cool, and even though the days can remain quite warm, you feel the difference in the early morning. Dawn happens a little later, which, for people like me, makes it a little easier to achieve. I don’t have to get up quite as early to photograph the pre-dawn and daybreak colours.

Autumn is my favourite season. It’s the combination of quickening of the spirit with the beautiful vivid colours before the landscape becomes tired and monochromatic. It’ll be awhile yet before autumn reaches its peak beauty, but I’m highly partial to its transition time when the colours start appearing and the grass is still summery green

And every year I make a feeble vow to learn the names of the goldenrods and the asters that dominate the early autumn colour palette. I’m decent at spotting and identifying birds (except for fall warblers), but plant ID always eludes me. I make the vow, then look at what’s involved in learning the species, and I flinch.

Take the asters. They come in white and purple and I think I can usually ID New England aster correctly, though I wouldn’t stake my rep on it.  It’s discouraging to find out how many species are out there. The excellent online guide to Learning the Asters of Ontario lists the following as just the most common ones:

#1. Here is a list of the common Asters that occur in Ontario. This is a beginner’s list. Get to know all of the species on this list before moving on to list#2.

* Arrow-leaved Aster (Symphyotrichum urophyllum)
* Calico Aster (Aster lateriflorus)
* Flat-topped White Aster (Aster umbellatus var. umbellatus)
* Frost Aster (Aster pilosus)
* Heart-leaved Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)
* Heath Aster (Aster ericoides)
* Large-leaved Aster (Eurybia macrophyllus)
* New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
* Panicled Aster (Aster simplex)
* Purple-stemmed Aster (Aster puniceus var. puniceus)
* Smooth Aster (Aster laevis var. laevis)

There are two more lists after this one, the less common species and the rare ones.

Equally daunting is Learning the Goldenrods of Ontario:

#1. Here is a list of the common Goldenrods that occur in Ontario. This is a beginner’s list. Get to know all of the species on this list before moving on to list #2.

* Blue-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago caesia)
* Early Goldenrod (Solidago juncea)
* Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia)
* Gray Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis var. nemoralis)
* Hairy Goldenrod (Solidago hispida var. hispida)
* Rough-leaved Goldenrod (Solidago patula)
* Rough-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa spp. rugosa)
* Zigzag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis)

#2. The infamous three. These three species are very similar and very difficult to tell apart. In fact, two of them are often lumped together as one species.

* Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)
* Tall Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis var. scabra)
* Late Goldenrod (Solidago gigantea)

#3. These are less common Goldenrods in Ontario. You should only tackle these as the last step of learning Goldenrods.

* Bog Goldenrod (Solidago uliginosa)
* – not found often due to its habitat (bogs) Large-leaved Goldenrod (Solidago macrophylla) – only found east of Lake Superior
* Northern Goldenrod (Solidago multiradiata)
* – only found in the far north on Hudson Bay Ohio Goldenrod (Oligoneuron ohioense)
* – found mainly on the Bruce Peninsula & Manitoulin Island Silverrod (Solidago bicolor)
* – found in the E Lake Superior region and scattered other sites Stout Goldenrod (Solidago squarrosa)
* Upland White Aster (Solidago ptarmicoides)
(now classed as a Goldenrod, in spite of its common name and appearance)

You get the drift. If you want to be a serious naturalist, you have to do some serious study and memorization. I’m not against this, in principle, but the older I get, the more porous my memory becomes. I can just remember the names of the baristas at Starbucks, but I have to work at it and re-ask them their names periodically, or I forget.

So, as much as natural history appeals to me, intellectually, I’ll stick to the photographer’s classification of asters and goldenrods: white, purple, and yellow. I live by the GEPO principle: “Good Enough, Push On.” (Pronounced GEP-po)


1. As all the naturalist sites point out: goldenrods don’t cause your allergies. Goldenrod pollen is large and heavy and is carried by insect from plant to plant. Goldenrod just happens to appear at the same time as the potent ragweed plant, which is more inconspicuous. Ragweed pollen is tiny and light, and is dispersed by being carried airborne. Ragweed pollen is a potent allergen and accounts for much of the province’s autumn hayfever suffering. Goldenrod is an innocent, and very pretty, bystander.

2. Aster/Goldenrod honey is the last honey of the season produced by bees, and honey aficionados consider it one of the tastiest. You can purchase some of this golden-bodied, amber and delicious full-bodied fare from Bee Sweet.

Comet Dust, Nanolasers & Leica

Leica X1

There is, for me, no question more intriguing than “where did life come from?” We know that, as Carl Sagan reminded us, and as Joni Mitchell put into song, “we are stardust.” The basic atoms and elements that make up everything on Earth and in us were created in supernovae, exploding stars. We’re put together from the debris.

Even so, how did elements combine into complex structures and amino acids that eventually became self-replicating and evolved. Is Earth unique? Scientists have speculated for years that amino acids, the building blocks of life as we know it, could be common in space. It’s one of the things they’re searching for on Mars. It’s one of the reasons the Wild 2 Mission swept through the tail of a comet and returned to earth with what it found there.

One of the things it found was glycine: (Building Block of Life Found in Comet):

The chem­i­cal, gly­cine, “is an ami­no ac­id used by living or­gan­isms to make pro­teins, and this is the first time an ami­no ac­id has been found in a com­et,” said Ja­mie El­sila of NASA’s God­dard Space Flight Center in Green­belt, Md. “Our dis­cov­ery sup­ports the the­o­ry that some of life’s in­gre­di­ents formed in space and were de­liv­ered to Earth long ago by meteorite and com­et im­pacts.”

The dis­cov­ery “sup­ports the idea that the fun­damental building blocks of life are prev­a­lent in space, and… that life in the un­iverse may be com­mon,” added Carl Pil­cher, Di­rec­tor of the NASA As­tro­bi­ol­o­gy In­sti­tute which co-funded the re­search.

At the current end of life’s spectrum, we’re awash in technology and it’s likely that “we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Nanolaser technology could eventually make the electronics we have in today’s gadgets look as primitive and bulky as yesteryear’s vacuum tubes. Tiny “nanolaser” could change face of computing:

Re­search­ers say they have cre­at­ed the world’s small­est sem­i­con­duc­tor la­ser, a de­vice that can gen­er­ate vis­i­ble light in a space smaller than a pro­tein mol­e­cule.

“This work shat­ters tra­di­tion­al no­tions of la­ser lim­its, and makes a ma­jor ad­vance to­ward ap­plica­t­ions in the bi­o­med­i­cal, com­mu­nica­t­ions and com­put­ing fields,” said Xi­ang Zhang, head of the Un­ivers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley re­search team be­hind the work.

The sci­en­tists said their work could help lead to ap­plica­t­ions such as ti­ny la­sers that can probe, ma­ni­pu­late and meas­ure prop­er­ties of DNA mol­e­cules; op­tics-based tele­com­mu­nica­t­ions many times faster than cur­rent tech­nol­o­gy; and op­ti­cal com­put­ing in which light re­places elec­tron­ic cir­cuit­ry, with a re­sult­ing leap in speed and pro­cess­ing pow­er.

Somewhere on the spectrum between glycine in comets and next decade’s technology lies the here and now, with its day-to-day product announcements for the consumer products that seem to be an essential part of current existence.

Apple introduced a new generation of slightly tweaked iPods in time for the Christmas season, but there is so little new about them there’s not much to report. Lower prices, some models include video capture, and lots of colours to choose from.

The big news of the week was Leica’s formal announcement of two new models of digital Leicas, the Leica M9 and Leica X1.  The M9 is the first full-frame digital Leica, giving the RF faithful what they’ve always said they wanted: a digital rangefinder in which a 21mm lens is a 21mm lens. It should be a delectable, but very expensive, machine.

I personally find the X1 more interesting. It’s tiny and offers a fixed 35mm f/2.8 equivalent lens on an APS-C size sensor, similar to the Sigma DP-1. It’s stylishly designed with aperture and shutter speed dials on the top, where they should be. Smart-looking. The perfect little street shooter, again, for those who can afford it.

Genius & Madness: What About Wil?

I originally wrote this piece for the Creative Nonfiction Writing Forums September Writing Challenge.

Cut off an ear. Throw paint at a canvas. Rocket a motorcycle across the Grand Canyon. Rob some graves and stitch the parts together. During a midnight thunderstorm, throw the switch and bring the creation to life. Madness and genius closely aligned — one of our most enduring cultural tropes.

But what about Wil?

There are missing parts to what’s known about William Shakespeare’s life — so many lacunae that some scholars doubt he was really the author of the sonnets and the plays. (Shakespeare’s plays, once quipped humourist Richard Armour, were actually written by another man of the same name.)

In reality, quite a bit is known about Shakespeare’s life, and that’s the problem. He doesn’t fit the trope. Shouldn’t the man who created the madness of Lear, the conflicted soul of Hamlet, and the grotesqueness of Caliban have, at the very least, lopped off an appendage or two?

As far as the evidence shows, Shakespeare was a plucky, well-educated young man (and getting a good education in the 16th Century tells you a lot about his social status growing up). He became an actor in the increasingly popular, and lucrative, world of theatre. At some point we know he began contributing material for his company to perform.

He may have had interesting affairs and even entertained his share of stage groupies, but the one thing we know for certain is that he was a good businessman. He was part-investor in the Globe Theatre and he wrote plays to attract large, paying, audiences, competing with other playhouses and playwrights doing the same.

He married Anne Hathaway, had children, and shrewdly managed his money. He sent home funds to Stratford-upon-Avon to be invested in land and real estate. By all accounts his investments prospered and when he retired from the theatre, moving back to Stratford, he proudly became a town burgher. Only men of considerable wealth became burghers.

Few persons in history have so deftly distilled the heights and depths of the human condition, the tragedy and comedy of life. A universally acclaimed genius, yet a satisfied, and rotund, town burgher. His example alone convinces me that you needn’t be mad in order to create master works. Yet down deep, there’s still a little whisper in my head that says, “But it helps.”