Some weeks ago, in this post, I introduced a subject that is now an ongoing topic here. I’m interested in the question of just what it is we’re expecting from the experience of going somewhere to be “in nature.”

Why do we need to go anywhere at all for the experience of nature? We are animals, interacting with our environment. The fact that our surroundings are often highly contrived ones we and other homo sapiens have constructed doesn’t change the fact that we’re reacting to sight, sound, smell, feel and taste, and using our reactions to survive in a demanding world. That’s a fair definition of a living, natural animal. The fact that we’re driving cars, talking on phones or typing on keyboards in order to ensure our survival instead of hunting for food doesn’t change the essential fact that we need air, water, food, shelter etc. etc. in order to survive. We are surviving. We’re excellent at delivering packages, trading stocks or flipping hamburgers to earn money to buy food and pay the rent.

But, we consider ourselves to be different from other animals. Distinctions typically begin with the capacity and functions of our brain plus its size relative to body mass. From there, they progress to capabilities our brains have that other animals (possibly) lack: a structure for the duration of long periods of time, language, inductive and deductive reasoning, rapid adaptation to large-scale change and so forth.

The rest of our bodies are more or less uniquely evolved, with opposable thumbs and other refinements (although we come off worse than most animals in the disciplines of running, jumping, reproducing, swimming, flying, burrowing and, well, an incredibly long list of things).

Still, we want to leave our manufactured, paved and signposted environment behind and go somewhere that fences, roads and signs are in limited supply, offering, ideally, only paths that have excellent views and only signs that explain what wildlife, flowers or geomorphic features of the landscape we’re seeing: a national park, for example. Once there, if we take the right paved path at the appropriate time of day and follow the directions on the signs assiduously, we might finally SEE NATURE: mountain, waterfall, canyon, geyser, rock arch, western jackrabbit, snow leopard, ruby-throated hummingbird or Galapagos turtle, whatever’s native to that particular area. Maybe a mule deer in New Mexico.

DeNaZin Brad Nixon 4356 (640x494)

A problem arises. One of our defining characteristics ─ a thing that qualifies us as homo sapiens ─ is our ability to use tools. A few other creatures use tools occasionally in some ingenious ways, but they wouldn’t win any tool-making competition with even seven year-old humans. We’re tops in tools. The problem stems from a large set of the tools we’ve made and where we employ them. I won’t attempt an exhaustive list, but they include bulldozers; steam shovels; oil drilling rigs; chain saws; barbed wire; guns; dynamite; fishing nets; a wide variety of pesticides and herbicides; land mines and nuclear, coal-fired or natural gas-fired power plants.

The problem is that enthusiastic use of these tools has tended to reduce the available square footage of what we consider to be “nature.” It’s also resulted in the reduction or elimination of thousands of species of animals, including occasional humans. Take the California Grizzly Bear, depicted on the official flag of my state. Want to come out and see one? Oh, sorry. They’re extinct. Collateral damage from tool usage. Couldn’t be helped. We have some other nice animals, though. We’ll see if we can get you a look at a desert tortoise or a California Condor, although the last time we checked they were getting scarce, too.

Isn’t that a downer? Here we want to take a well-earned break from fulfilling our manifest destiny as tool-using animals, and now we stand darned little chance of seeing wild animals, even if we drive all the way to the national park.

Through sheer luck, we haven’t entirely eliminated all the animals. Some of them just snuck away when the tool users were reloading. Like the gray wolf. They were eliminated via (you guessed it) tool use from the contiguous United States. Some of them managed to sneak off to Canada and Alaska. In a concept called rewilding, native species ─ often large predators like the wolf ─ are reintroduced into good ol’ nature, making it more natural than ever. As it turns out, having wolves around balances out a population explosion of deer and elk, and doing that reduces pressure on tree and vegetation cover, which they’re eating too fast, and having more trees helps control some rampant erosion and stream silting. Perfect! That will be more “natural,” too. We’ll see wolves in nature! Here’s a native wolf pack I photographed in Denali National Park, Alaska.

Denali NP Wolf Pack Brad Nixon 021_1A (640x463)

Not everyone agrees. Wolves get some bad press. The whole Little Red Riding Hood thing and all.

What’s “natural?” How badly do we want to see whatever we think of as “nature?” Are we satisfied with pulling off at the overlooks and taking pictures? What if there are wolves there? Mountain lions? Grizzly bears? Willing to take that risk? I’ve hiked where there are Grizzly bears: Glacier National Park. I accidentally walked within maybe 40 yards of a mother with a cub. That, I can tell you, is a sobering moment. I don’t necessarily recommend it, but if you’re out for memorable experiences, there’s one for you. I don’t want to have the Grizzlies rounded up and moved into a fenced area of Glacier for my convenience. I went there hoping to see a bear, after all. I did, and slowly backed away from Big Mom hoping not to be seen BY a bear. “It comes with the territory” is a phrase that comes to mind. Here’s a Grizzly in Denali, photographed from the safety of a National Park Service bus.

Denali NP grizzly Brad Nixon 018_7

What do you think about rewilding? Are you ready to hike with the rest of the animals? Put the tourists in buses and let the animals roam? Let Alaska and Canada keep ’em? And where, exactly, is “nature,” anyway? Please leave a comment.

For a worthwhile brief article about rewilding, please see this article in the New York Times. The Striving Environmentalist wrote about rewilding in Great Britain at this link.

© Brad Nixon 2018

Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 14, 2018

Preserved: Las Vegas, New Mexico Train Station

Let us escape our humdrum lives and cease measuring out our lives with coffee spoons. Let’s go to the Wild West, at a stop along the Santa Fe Trail.

Plaza Hotel Las Vegas Brad Nixon 0845 (640x479)

That’s the Plaza Hotel in downtown Las Vegas, New Mexico (not Nevada). Las Vegas is on the eastern shoulder of the Sangre de Christo Mountains. Today, you can get there by car. Las Vegas is adjacent to Interstate 25, 5-1/2 hours south of Denver, an hour east of Santa Fe.

Las Vegas NM map google

From the town’s founding in 1835 (when the area was still part of Spain), you’d have reached Las Vegas on the storied Santa Fe Trail, whether in a wagon, on horseback or on foot. The town developed as a major stop along the trail, and it attracted a lively crowd, to put it mildly. In its heyday, visitors included Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Billy the Kid and a host of other characters from the history of the Wild West.

Wikipedia quotes the historian Ralph Emerson Twitchell stating that, “Without exception there was no town which harbored a more disreputable gang of desperadoes and outlaws than did Las Vegas.”

In the 1870s, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad arrived, via a route that followed the Santa Fe Trail. The rail line allowed the exchange of produce and livestock from the area with goods from the east. Las Vegas boomed, becoming one of the largest towns in the American southwest. As Las Vegas prospered, it featured a town plaza, lavish hotels like the one above, opera houses, civic buildings and department stores.

In 1899, the Santa Fe RR built a station in Spanish Revival style, which still serves as the Amtrak passenger station.

Restored at considerable expense beginning in 2000, it closely resembles its original form.

Las Vegas NM historic 0786 (640x470)

The station is on the east side of Las Vegas, in the Railroad District, near I-25. Like all of Las Vegas, the district contains numerous historic buildings. The Plaza Hotel, above, is in an older, earlier part of town, so a certain amount of driving and shoe leather are required to see Las Vegas. The station is a good place to start, because you can get your initial orientation and some tips there; it houses the Las Vegas Visitors Center.

Las Vegas NM station Brad Nixon 0797(640x425)

The waiting room preserves some of its historical character (drinking fountains not original).

Las Vegas NM station Brad Nixon 0788 (640x473)

Yes, you can wait for an Amtrak train there. Trains stop, but the station does not have a ticketing facility. Passenger boarding and arrival only.

Las Vegas is worth a visit, especially if you’re spending any time in the Santa Fe area. The hour’s drive through the high desert scenery is all on I-25. In addition to the station, the Plaza area with the hotel (still operating), Las Vegas is large enough to offer several restaurants. There’s a beautiful old Carnegie Library which, it may not surprise you to learn, I wrote about here.

Six miles north of Las Vegas is Montezuma, home of the former railroad resort hotel, Montezuma’s Castle, now a 2-year college, and its remarkable Dwan Light Sanctuary, which I wrote about at this link.

Happy trails, podners.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Archival photo captured from display at Las Vegas, NM Visitor Center. Map by Google.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 12, 2018

Virginia Dwan: From Gallery to Light Sanctuary

Several years ago, I encountered a remarkable building in New Mexico, the Dwan Light Sanctuary:

Dwan Light Sanctuary Brad Nixon 0853 (640x480)

The exterior of the circular building, set in a pine forest on the edge of the Sangre de Christo Mountains, is attractive, but what makes the structure distinctive is the spare, white interior, illuminated by rainbow bands of light refracted through a dozen prisms set in the ceiling and walls.

Dwan Light Sanctuary Brad Nixon 0856 (480x640)

The Counselor and I discovered the Sanctuary by chance. You can read more about it in an article I posted at this link.

Information at the sanctuary site indicated little more than that it was built in 1996, endowed and designed by Virginia Dwan, a name I didn’t recognize. Were I a more astute student of 20th Century art, her name would have resonated more clearly. Happily, in 2017, an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) gave me a better appreciation of Ms. Dwan and her significant contributions to the art world.

V Dwan by R Prigent (640x490)

Virginia Dwan was born in 1931, an heir to significant assets of the 3M Corporation. She studied art at the University of of California at Los Angeles, but did not finish her degree. Instead, she became an art patron, collector and proprietor of the Dwan Art Gallery.

She opened the original Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles in 1959. From the outset, she featured and often subsidized work by artists working on the edge of new trends, including abstract expressionism, minimalism, conceptualism and pop art. The artists to whom she devoted gallery space are far too many to list, but included Robert Rauschenberg, Yves Klein, Joan Mitchell, Niki de Saint Phalle, James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenburg and Jean Tinguely.

The LACMA exhibit, “Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery 1959 -1971,” included pieces from LACMA’s own collection which came to the museum’s attention via her gallery when LACMA was in its early years, beginning in 1961. I photographed almost none of the exhibit, because I was busy looking. The exception was from a 1964 Dwan exhibit named Boxes, in which one of the most attention-getting pieces was Brillo Boxes by Andy Warhol.

Warhol Brillo LACMA Brad Nixon (640x495)

In 1965, Dwan opened a second gallery in New York City, and for the next 2 years, the interplay of art and artists between America’s coasts was a hallmark of her tenure in the forefront of modern art. She closed the Los Angeles gallery in 1967, but continued to operate the New York location until 1971.

While many of the pieces in the 134 exhibitions she mounted between 1959 and 1971 were acquired by museums and collectors, she was an active collector, too. Ms. Dwan has donated works to numerous museums and institutions, but the largest bequest, 250 paintings, sculptures and photographs, are pledged to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The exhibit we saw was selected from that collection.

Earth Art

During the 1960s, Ms. Dwan developed an interest in “Earth Art,” also referred to by a number of other names: large works created and displayed in situ, many of them in the American west and southwest. Earth art involves excavation and construction using native earth, stone, water and space, large scale, often requiring not only heavy machinery, labor and time, but acquisition of land rights. Dwan’s sponsorship made it possible for artists to bring their designs into existence.

Among the works her patronage helped realize was an iconic piece that essentially defines the genre: Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.

Spiral jetty M D Murphy

Constructed of rock, salt crystals and earth in 1970, Spiral Jetty is still in place on the northeastern shore of Great Salt Lake, Utah. Changes in lake level affect its visibility. A person standing in the center of the innermost point in the photograph above gives a sense of scale to the 1,500-foot long earthwork.

To the Sanctuary

That, in my view, takes us through a spiral of sorts to where my acquaintance with Ms. Dwan began, the Sanctuary. Art is form, color, shape and texture, whatever the medium. Most of all, though, it is light. Painters will tell you they aren’t painting an object or scene, they’re painting the light that’s reflected from their subject. Photographers live by the same code. Yes, they capture a face, a form, a landscape, but their first, abiding concern is the light.

On a day like many others when The Counselor and I have traveled, we were simply looking around. We walked into a grove of trees near Montezuma, New Mexico, following signs to the “chapel.” There was Ms. Dwan’s creation, the Light Sanctuary. Instead of a work of art designed to reflect the light, it was a space for contemplation; a building planned and positioned to catch and hold the light.

That, I think, expresses some essence of both art and spirit. Catch and hold the light.

Thank you for the light, Ms. Dwan.

© Brad Nixon 2018

Photograph of Virginia Dwan, 1969 by Roger Prigent, © Dwan Gallery Archives.

Brillo Boxes by Andy Warhol, exhibited by Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2017.

Photograph of Spiral Jetty by Michael David Murphy, retrieved from Wikipedia March 11, 2018. Public Domain.

Western Civilization is chock full of Serious Things. I’m taking a radical step, because it’s time for a break. It’s the end of a busy week packed with weighty, ponderous matters to consider. Poetry can help us weather the vicissitudes of life, right? It’s time for the first-ever Under Western Skies blog post devoted to my original poetry.

These are examples of a sophisticated, erudite form of poetry: Limericks. Each one is about a city or place I’ve featured in the blog in the past year or so. The single requirement is that the place name be used as a rhyme. Click on any place name to see a post about it.

Bologna, Italy

134 Bologna Brad Nixon (640x475)

I rode in a cab through Bologna.
My driver a woman named Sonia.
When we reached the piazza
That pazza ragazza
Just drove off and left me alogna.

Venice, Italy

Venice traghetto Brad Nixon 6341 (640x480)

A clueless young fellow named Dennis
Had his vacation spoiled in Venice.
After touring that town
And its sights of renown
He wrote home: “Flooded streets here — a menace!”

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Anza Borrego Brad Nixon 6831 (480x640)

Some folks in a big Winnebago
Took a drive out to Anza-Borrego.
On a steep downhill grade
Too much speed soon they made
And they bid the road, “Hasta luego.”

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6188 (640x473)

A hiker in Joshua Tree
Doesn’t rave ’bout the vast scenery.
He ignored a wise Ranger
Who warned of the danger
And sat down on a cactus, oh me.

Pisa, Italy

Pisa tower Brad Nixon 145 (480x640)

A heedless young woman named Lisa
Lost her purse near the tower of Pisa
That was bad, things got worse
With the loss of that purse,
For she’s stuck there now; she lost her visa.

Eureka, California

Redwood National Park Brad Nixon 7397 (640x480)

An eager and apt knowledge seeker
Went to old Humboldt State in Eureka.
But the hardship and strife
Of the northwestern life
Sent him packing to live in Topeka.

Colorado Springs, Colorado

Garden of the Gods Brad Nixon 120 (480x640)

I once spent a week in the Springs
And encountered all manner of things.
One of the best places:
The lovely Three Graces
Where you savor the joy nature brings.

Eugene, Oregon

Mt Spencer OR Brad Nixon 7435 (640x475)

When you’re feeling low down, beat and mean,
I suggest you head up to Eugene.
Where the forests of trees
Are caressed by the breeze
And you just feel “well born” in that scene.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park (Chaco Canyon)

Chaco Canyon Fajada view Brad Nixon 4041 (640x480)

I met an old fellow named Paco
Who was hiking the trails out in Chaco.
He had quite lost his way
Early on in the day
And he thought it was eastern Morocco.

Orange California Brad Nixon 8683 (640x426)

Orange, California

Off in Wales in a long-ago time
I went up a steep peak for a climb.
I met up on the Blorange
With a woman from Orange
Who said “Only here do we rhyme!”

And you thought I’d be stuck! There IS a word that rhymes with orange: the Blorange, a mountain in Wales. I wrote about it here.

If Western Civilization is lucky, it’ll be another eight years before I publish any more poetry.

© Brad Nixon 2018

Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 7, 2018

“Is It Art?” III; Let’s Ask Andy Warhol

Over the years, I’ve lost track of how many copies of some of Auguste Rodin’s monumental statues I’ve seen. There are, for example, 12 casts of The Burghers of Calais, and I think I’ve seen five of those, on two continents, not to mention The Thinker, The Kiss, and others. Rodin was enormously successful, and copies of his work were in demand. His workshop produced authorized copies of a number of works in a variety of media, including bronze, marble and plaster (all the “Burghers” are bronze).

The American pop art artist, Robert Indiana’s famous “LOVE” image has appeared in prints, sculptural versions and a U.S. postage stamp. Indiana even created a version in Hebrew, “AHAVA.”

Are copies art? The art world doesn’t have much difficulty embracing that concept, so long as the artist has executed or approved the replica, print or cast. Nor do many people have difficulty accepting photography as art, even though the photograph may, to all intents and purpose, consist of a more or less perfect representation of a scene, a person, an object. We grasp that there’s artistry in the composition, lighting and treatment of the image.

Enter Andy

In 1964, another American pop artist, Andy Warhol, entered the scene with a splash. His Campbell’s Soup Can from that year stands as probably the consummate representative of pop art. One can still generate a discussion by standing in front of one of Warhol’s soup cans and saying, loud enough to be heard in the museum or gallery, “I’m just not sure that’s really ART!”

Warhol was enormously prolific, and employed a staff of studio assistants to replicate numerous versions of some of his work. At the same time he debuted the soup can, he had his shop (“The Factory”) assembling wooden boxes, which were then painted and silkscreened like this:

Warhol Brillo LACMA Brad Nixon (640x495)

That photograph, a little blurry due to low light, is of an exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in August 2017. The boxes are identical copies of shipping cartons for Brillo® brand soap pads. They aren’t interpretations of the boxes, but recreations, as identical to the originals as Warhol could make them. He made not a few, but many, selling them to numerous museums and collectors. Warhol was intentionally challenging us to consider the implied statement: “When Brillo’s manufacturer mass produces these boxes, it’s commerce; when I, an artist, do exactly the same thing, it’s art.”

In the words of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “While they fulfill the idea that art should imitate life, they also raise questions about how we identify and value something as art.”*

What do you think? Those boxes and dozens of others are on display in prestigious museums around the world. Collectors have paid tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for them. They were made by Andy Warhol. Are they art? If so, where does the artistry reside? In the simple act of making something, and making it exactly so? Is the fact that Andy Warhol did it enough? Or, is it perhaps simply the conceptual aspect, stating that a soup can, a shipping box or any of scores of other images Warhol appropriated from the commercial world should be considered art?

Two Notes of Interest

At the gallery opening when Brillo Boxes first appeared, one of those present was an Abstract Expressionist painter named James Harvey. Like Warhol, he also worked in commercial design, and he’d created the original box design for Brillo’s manufacturer in 1961. In his words, he found it “Amusing.”**

In 1990, a highly respected individual in the art world, Pontus Hulten, generated a spectacular crisis. For a show in Stockholm, Sweden that included more than a hundred Brillo Boxes, Hulten had arranged to have the items manufactured, without the knowledge of or approval by the Warhol estate (Warhol died in 1987). He subsequently sold scores of those boxes to dealers and collectors, for many thousands of dollars apiece. Hulten died before the copies were discovered, so no one knows if it was simply fraud, or if Hulten was making some sort of post-pop/conceptual play on Warhol’s original concept.**

What’s your opinion? Please leave a comment.

For other articles in this series, see “Levitated Mass. Asking ‘Is It Art?’ on a Big, Big Scale” and “Is It Art II: Black Box.”

© Brad Nixon 2018. Brillo Boxes pictured are the property of the Los Angeles Museum of Art, and may not be reproduced for any commercial purpose.

*Philadelphia Museum of Art quotation retrieved on March 6, 2018 from 3/6/18

**James Harvey and Pontus Hulten anecdotes from ArtNews, November 1, 2009, retrieved from

Brillo® is a registered trademark of Armaly Brands.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 5, 2018

Java Jive! Long Beach Style

I love coffee, I love tea
I love the java jive and it loves me
Coffee and tea and the java and me
A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup (boy!)

Let’s drive east, across the Vincent Thomas suspension bridge, over the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, to the city of Long Beach. I went there recently in search of some of the city’s large stock of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne buildings.

Long Beach Art Deco Brad Nixon 5964 (640x454)

We’re headed to 4th Street, which starts near the Los Angeles River, north of the port, and extends due east for a couple of miles, skirting the northern edge of downtown. 4th Street’s lined with one- and two story commercial buildings, backed by residential neighborhoods of single- and multi-unit dwellings. Many of 4th Street’s structures survived the earthquake of 1933, or were built soon after that.

The street changes character numerous times: sometimes for better, while some areas are a bit beaten-down. A long block between Cherry and Junipero Avenues has become a lively zone full of vintage clothing, furniture and collectible shops, plus a few restaurants. The architectural highlight is a classic Art Deco movie house, the Art Theater.

Art Theater Brad Nixon 9116 (640x517)

The Art began life in 1925 as the oriental themed Carter Theater. It received its Art Deco restyling in 1934. I don’t know this for a fact, but it’s reasonable to speculate that it suffered some damage in the earthquake and emerged from repairs in the Art Deco style of the day, as did numerous other buildings in Long Beach.

Renovated in 2008, the theater has about 600 seats and shows current, classic and art films. As you can see, the day I shot the photo in January, 2018, they were showing “The Shape of Water,” which won the Academy Award for best picture just an hour or so before I was writing this post.

Let’s head seven or eight blocks west from the Art Theater to see another architectural gem. With the automobile becoming a common mode of travel in the 1930s, motels and restaurants vied for the attention of passing travelers with dramatic, sometimes silly or downright wacky structures shaped to let you know what sort of service or product was on offer. There are myriad examples. As I’ve written before, Los Angeles preserves its share of programmatic buildings,  including a few survivors of the “Big Donut” and “Donut King” chains.

Donut King II Brad Nixon 2274 (640x480)

Why, yes, they do sell donuts there. How did you know?

4th Street boasts a hard-to-notice little programmatic building that’s beaten the odds, and, despite having been significantly modified, it’s still there.

Koffee Pot LB Brad Nixon 0612 (480x640)

You’re right again. It started life in 1932 as a coffee shop. It’s had several names, including The Coffee Pot, Koffee Pot and, my favorite, Hot Cha. Programmatic? Yes.

Hot Cha LB Brad Nixon 0614 (640x517)

Apparently the place survived the earthquake, but I went looking for Hot Cha without much expectation of finding it. The latest edition of An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles (2003) describes it not likely to endure, having been derelict when they published. I’m happy to say that those photos, shot in January, 2018, show a recently refurbished structure with a sign indicating “Available.” Coffee entrepreneurs take note: Might be the location you’re looking for.

Some sources describe the building as hexagonal, but the Architectural Guidebook is correct: eight sides, octagonal. See it at 955 E. 4th St. in Long Beach, on the north side just east of Alamitos Ave.

The Art Theater is at 2025 E. 4th St. Click on the link for listings and show times. Cruise past the Koffee Pot to see if they’re serving. As the song says, shoot me the pot and pour me a shot!

Is there a programmatic building in your town? A big fish? Cactus? Giant hot dog or famous local produce? Tell us in a comment, and remember to let us know where, so we can visit.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Lyrics and music for “Java Jive” by Milton Drake and Ben Oakland. The Ink Spots recorded it in 1940, but you may know the later version by Manhattan Transfer, 1975 and after.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 4, 2018

A Tale of the Sea: Flotsam and Jetsam

The Walrus and the Carpenter were walking close at hand
They wept like anything to see such quantities of sand
“If this were only cleared away,” they said, “It would be grand!”

As I wrote in my previous post, we walked along the beach one afternoon last week.

Redondo Beach Brad Nixon (640x478)

Brilliant sunlight glanced off the deep-blue water. The ocean was relatively rough for Santa Monica Bay. A chilly wind swept the almost empty sand. With the temperature in the 50s, there was no one in the water except a few short-board surfers at the breakwater.

By a Commodius Vicus of Recirculation

Gazing at the ocean, through one of those series of word associations, a question came to me.

“What do you think ‘flotsam and jetsam’ actually mean?” I asked The Counselor.

Rarely nonplussed on matters etymological, she pondered, then replied, “I don’t know. Sounds like a blog post topic to me.”

Thus, here we are, in the flotsam and jetsam blog post.

With flotsam and jetsam in mind, we strolled to to take a look at the very edge of the surf. There was a typical line of debris at the farthest reach of the waves as they surged up the beach.

Flotsam Brad Nixon 3 (640x478)

After a lifetime of assuming “flotsam and jetsam” simply denoted that sort of stuff, generically, I then had to wonder if there were some differentiation between the two terms.

Flotsam Brad Nixon 10 (640x478)

Is one organic material like kelp, while the other signifies man-made items like bits of plastic, fishing buoys or the odd gold Doubloon? Or, perhaps, is flotsam floating material while jetsam is, say, cast up onto the sand, (perhaps, my inner etymologist conjectured, related to Latin jactare, “to throw”)?

Law, Not Etymology

At home, dictionaries open, I thought I’d merely be inquiring into questions of etymology. As it turns out, “flotsam” and “jetsam” are associated because they signify specific aspects of marine law. They define conditions of ownership of the debris from shipwrecks.

“Flotsam” does indeed derive from “float” or “floating,” from an old Anglo-French word, floteson. Legally, flotsam is cargo, fittings or other material from wrecked or sunken ships that floats to the surface. In marine law, it’s finders keepers where flotsam is concerned. Thus, if one finds something that’s floated away from a shipwreck or washed off a boat, it’s fair game to tote it home.

Jetsam is a different matter: cargo or goods intentionally thrown overboard, whether to lighten a ship’s load, preserve them from sinking with the ship or other reasons. It hasn’t accidentally floated away. The root word, obviously enough, is “jettison*,” from which “jetsam” derived while we were speaking Middle English. If the original owner files the appropriate claim (I can only imagine the complexities of doing that) attesting that certain goods or items were cast overboard by intent, the finder of jetsam must return it to the owner. *Language nerds see note at end.

Quite obviously, the pair of words has entered the vernacular without their specific legal significance, but that’s what they originally signify.

But Wait, There’s More

Marine law uses two additional terms to define the status of shipwrecks and goods.

Lagan specifies items that, like jetsam, have been intentionally cast away, but fixed to a buoy or marker. They may be adrift, but are typically resting on the bottom. The owner of lagan retains right of possession once it’s recovered. It comes from an Old French word, possibly out of Old Norse for lie or lay (which through a separate derivation probably gives us first the Old English precursor of Modern English “lie,” as in to lie down).

Finally, there’s abandoned material (which might be an entire ship) submerged, resting on the ocean-, river- or lakebed, without a marker or buoy. Such items are “derelict,” employed as a substantive, not an adjective: A sunken ship is “a derelict.” We use the term in the same way, grammatically, when we describe a lost or homeless person as a derelict. The word derives from Latin derelictus, abandoned.

Topping It All Off

British law contains a category that includes all flotsam, jetsam, lagan and derelict: Wreck. Whether something floats or is cast away ─ marked or unmarked ─ or resides unclaimed on the seabed, it is Wreck.

On some of Britain’s stormy coasts, there have long been reports of inhabitants who did brisk business collecting goods from shipwrecks in order to keep or sell them. In some tales, they used lights to lure ships onto rocks to cause shipwrecks, a practice known as “wrecking.” Britain established an officer stationed on coasts empowered to use any force necessary to stop such activity, register any wreck, and administer its return, if possible. To this day, there’s a British official titled “Receiver of Wreck,” who supervises the tracking, recovery and return of wreck.

Alas, amongst the flotsam (and/or jetsam) that day on the beach we found no doubloons or pirate treasure, only these:

Flotsam glasses Brad Nixon (531x640)

At least now I know they’re flotsam. I left them there. Cute, just not my style.

*Initially jetson, derived from original jettison. Common usage changed it to jetsom, in imitation of other common words ending in –some.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Stanza from “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” by Lewis Carroll (recited by Tweedledee and Tweedledum in Through the Looking Glass, 1872). “By a commodius vicus of recirculation” appears in the opening sentence of Finnegans Wake, James Joyce, 1939.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 28, 2018

Water-Gazer on an Urban Beach

The cities of southern California have an enormously popular asset: They’re adjacent to ocean beaches. Quite a few other places in the world can make the same claim — Barcelona; the French and Italian Rivieras; Rio de Janeiro; cities in Australia and Florida — and they’re important to both residents and tourists. Urban beaches like our SoCal ones have an extremely different vibe than, say, the wilder, less-frequented ones a thousand miles to the north in Oregon and Washington.

Oregon beach Brad Nixon 1874 (640x480)

Urban beaches like ours along Santa Monica Bay of Los Angeles have parking areas, restrooms and lifeguards. At the edge of the sand is a paved walkway popular with runners, cyclists and skaters, “the Strand.” And, as I’ve written before, many have piers for fishing and recreation. Redondo’s has shops and restaurants, as well as fishing.

Redondo Beach Pier Brad Nixon 3044 (640x414)

LA County Beaches and Harbors grooms the sand with tractors to keep it reasonably free of litter and provides — of course, this is California — volleyball nets.

Redondo volleyball Brad Nixon 8666 (640x491)

Most of all, unlike those empty beaches of the Pacific Northwest, urban beaches are visited by a lots of people, sometimes hordes of them. Not so much, though, on a winter weekday afternoon, as in this photograph I shot a few days ago on Redondo Beach, southwest of downtown Los Angeles.

Redondo Beach Brad Nixon (640x478)

An excellent day to walk or run, contemplate whatever thoughts the vastness of the ocean suggests, all the while scanning the surf line for a glimpse of dolphins, or the horizon for the distant spout of a whale.

There’s always some number of people: sitting solo or in pairs, small groups exercising or practicing yoga, an ever-changing opportunity for people-watching. The beach is a popular spot for couples posing for wedding photos, even on that breezy, chilly day this week, the bride obviously miserable in her sleeveless white gown, probably impatient that the photographer just get on with it (below, being lifted up by the groom, also dressed in white).

Bridal couple Brad Nixon (640x436)

One watches not only the water for wildlife, but the air. I’ve seen thousands of them, but I never tire of watching flights of pelicans on their way to the next fishing spot.

Pelican flight Brad Nixon 5794 (640x480)

Just as graceful in the air, though smaller, on that windy day the gulls seemed satisfied to hunker down on the beach.

Seagulls Brad Nixon 3 (640x461)

They’re all facing the same way, watching the ocean. We’re all, as Melville observed, “water-gazers.” An urban beach might not have the windswept, craggy aspect of the world’s wilder shores, but it draws us there. Whether it’s for wedding photos, exercise or simply to look and ponder, we want to be there.

My old friend, Algernon Swinburne, would probably not think much of my tame urban beach on its genuinely pacific ocean. Raised on his grandfather’s estate along the storm-wracked coast of Northumberland (to borrow a bit of his wonted hyperbole), he was utterly enthralled by the wild sea, desolate beaches and moors, the ceaseless surf.

Slowly, gladly, full of peace and Swonder
Grows his heart who journeys here alone
Earth and all its thoughts of earth sink under
Deep as deep in water sinks a stone.
Hardly knows it if the rollers thunder,
Hardly whence the lonely wind is blown.

One doesn’t always need a lonely wind or thundering rollers, Algernon. It’s still the beach.

Which Leads Me to a Question

What is it? What pulls us toward those beaches? Why do you go? Is it simply a variety of the same urge we feel to climb a mountain path, descend into a rocky canyon or hike through the sagebrush and cacti of a desert? This is a theme I’m exploring this year: What are we looking for in those places? Do we bring something back with us we didn’t possess? Do we leave something there we feel well rid of?

What do you say? I’d like your opinion. I know you have one, because everyone who reads this blog is a traveler of one type or another … a seeker. Is going to the ocean different from going to the desert (I know it’s not just the sand), or something quintessentially distinctive? Are you equally as happy on a deserted beach as on one thronged with summer holiday revelers? What takes you there, and what do you take back with you?

More to come in this consideration of beaches. Leave your contribution in a comment. Thank you.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Lines from “By the North Sea” by Charles Algernon Swinburne, 1880.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 26, 2018

The Assault on Paris; The Long Campaign

With few exceptions, I’ve written at least once in this blog about nearly every “world city” I’ve visited. One omission stands out, because it’s perhaps the most written-about and most popular travel/tourist destination in the western world: Paris. Can one make even the slightest claim to be a travel writer of any consequence yet barely have mentioned — let alone raved, gushed about — Paris, the ne plus ultra of travel destinations?

You’ve already seen thousands of photographs: the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur, the Louvre, Notre Dame (with close-up of gargoyle), Arc de Triomphe? That’s well-covered territory.

How, really, does one go about visiting a city as replete with so many famous, “must-see” attractions, let alone write about it? I think there are two fundamental approaches.

The Full Frontal Assault

You’re Attila attacking Rome or … well, Napoleon en route to Moscow. Armed with detailed information about locations, bus and Metro stations, opening and closing times and lists of highlights and even floor plans (e.g. The Louvre), you will swarm across Paris, visiting every single noteworthy site your time and energy allow. From the crack of dawn (baguette and coffee at some recommended bistro) until well into the wee hours (moonlight on the Seine from the Pont Neuf?), you barrage Paris with a ceaseless fusillade of attention. Museums, monuments, churches and palaces, restaurants, statues and the birthplaces (and resting places, in Pere LaChaise cemetery) of the famous (and infamous) each get a check, one by one.

Paris lends itself to this approach. It’s not limitless, and with some planning, expeditious use of the Metro and, vraiment, significant investment in shoe leather, you can range from the Eiffel Tower up to Monmartre, then down past the Moulin Rouge to the Pompidou Museum, the Hotel de Ville, and across the Pont Neuf to Île de la Cité and the cathedral of Notre Dame (alors!).

Notre Dame sunset Brad Nixon (640x429)

The traditional line of attack, though, is along Paris’ west-east axis, from the Arc de Triomphe then along Champs-Élysées, Place de la Concorde, Tuileries Gardens, Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel to the Louvre.

MV Louvre Brad Nixon (640x461)

After you pop in to see Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, you’re again not far from Notre Dame.

Notre Dame Brad Nixon (560x640)

Despite the impressive density of significant sites, that’s a manageable distance of only about 5 kilometers, although there is a great deal to stop and see.

Paris is one of the most human and approachable of the world cities, far more amenable to the street-level traveler than Tokyo, New York or Hong Kong: more like the historic core of Boston, Massachusetts.

One thing all travelers learn: During your campaign, however many days it lasts, what you’ll remember most vividly will be something unexpected ─ probably not on any “must-see list:” a shop, a restaurant, a view, some unanticipated discovery. Yes, you’ll have conquered Paris, but in the end, that one small thing will be – for all time – your Paris.

The Long Campaign

I’ve conducted assaults on Paris like I’ve just described, but there’s a second strategy to consider. That one city we call “Paris” has multiple layers of significance. For those who make more than one visit, a steady, patient approach will eventually achieve your goal: you will know Paris.

Ask yourself, “Why is it I really want to go there?” Is it because of the legendary reputation of Parisian cuisine? You’ll need to set aside time for that, and not just one meal, mes amis, every meal. Museums? List the big ones ─ Louvre, Pompidou, d’Orsay, Petit Palais, Grand Palais — and you’ve scarcely begun! Which will you truly savor, even if only for an hour or two?

Perhaps it’s a pilgrimage: the Lost Generation’s Paris, Hemingway’s, Proust’s, Napoleon’s Paris, or the Paris of Latrec, Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse, Degas, Rodin or a hundred other artists, writers and musicians.

Paris is the city of a thousand operas, plays, ballets, films, stories and songs unnumbered (Maurice Chevalier’s Paris? Balzac? Zola? Jacques Brel? Audrey Hepburn?) There’s also shopping, architecture, book stalls along the Seine. Perhaps one of those signifies “Paris” to you.

Your answer will determine whether you’re going to wander the streets of Montparnasse or climb those famous steps to Montmartre and Sacre Coeur …

Montmartre steps M Vincent (640x460)

… and once there, search out the onetime haunt of local artists, the Lapin Agile.

Lapin Agile Brad Nixon (640x463)

Shopping? Browse the incomparable delicacies of Fauchon or the immense Printemps department store.

Printemps Brad Nixon (640x529)

Or stop for an aperitif at the Café de la Paix, near the Opera, as The Counselor and I did with our travel partners, two experienced visitors to Paris who showed us around.

Cafe de la Paix B. Pergande (640x428)

It means skipping something from the Big List, but save an hour, a morning or a day for that one experience that will make Paris yours. For The Counselor and me, one morning began with a run through the Bois de Boulogne, an experience we’d never have had loaded with backpacks, cameras and dressed for museums.

In Paris once on business, I had just one free evening. I rode the Metro to Montparnasse and simply walked as much as I could along the streets, past restaurants and shops I recognized from dozens of books and biographies. At the intersection of Boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail, I took this photo that stands for that entire visit: three landmark restaurants: Le Dome on the left, La Rontonde across the street, and beyond it, Le Select.

Paris Le Dome sunset Brad Nixon (640x499)

Take the time to see whatever it is that called you there. Then you will have Paris for all time. We all intend to return, but should that not be our fate, we’ll always have Paris.

© Brad Nixon 2018. One photo © M. Vincent 2018, used by kind permission.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 23, 2018

Italian Idyll … Catastrophe … Enlightenment

Every traveler understands the need for a bit of resilience — some willingness to roll with interruptions, delays or disappointments. I had a day in Italy that included some surprises, but concluded in a lesson about the value of taking things as they come.

To see a part of central Italy that fascinated both of us, we booked a week at an agriturismo — a working farm — in northern Umbria, on the border with Tuscany. Agriturismos offer the option of working on the farm to defray expenses, but we were simply guests staying on the property tucked into a forested valley east of the Tuscan hill town of Cortona.

Novole buildings Brad Nixon (437x640)

The Covento Novole was built as a convent in the 16th or 17th Century. The stone buildings possessed all the period charm one could desire.

20031003 Covento Novole buildings Brad Nixon (640x419)

Our quarters were in the former chapel, converted to provide a kitchen downstairs, with a sleeping loft above the small sacristy.

Novole chapel Brad Nixon (640x458)

We shopped in the market town of Camucia, at the foot of the hill beneath Cortona, and enjoyed the experience of cooking “local.” It helps to have a travel partner with some Italian roots and a fair bit of cooking skill, and The Counselor was in her element. We ate well. We had a car, and our plan was that every day we’d visit Umbrian towns: Assisi, Todi, Deruta, Bettona, Montefiore and others, each with its own distinctive history and character. That itinerary left little time for lounging around the property, which isn’t really our style, anyway. We did find time to make use of one of the farm’s amenities: a bocce court:

Novole bocce Brad Nixon (430x640)

That’s another skill The Counselor seems to have inherited from her Italian grandparents.

Day One Dawns Darkly

The plan for our first day was to visit Perugia, the provincial capital and largest city. Our goal was to visit the medieval city center with its piazza, cathedral, Palazzo dei Priori and notable fountain by Nicolo and Giovanni Pisano. We awoke at what we thought was a reasonable hour. The old chapel wasn’t a brightly lighted space at any time, but it was pitch black. There was no sign of light anywhere, and when I tried the small bedside lamp, it didn’t come on. Struggling to find my way downstairs, I determined that the power was out. Outside it was a dank, rainy early morning.

Fortunately, the kitchen had a gas stove, so we made coffee, then breakfast, getting accustomed to our first morning in the old stone building in the Italian countryside.

Italian kitchen Brad Nixon 001-2 (640x457)

Note the wood-burning stove, which was how we heated the place that chilly October. Soon we were on our way along the wet roads of Italy. It’s about an hour and a half to Perugia (red rectangle below) from the agriturismo (blue star), much of it on a major highway that skirts the northern and eastern sides of Lake Trasimeno.

Umbria map Google

I can’t recall when the realization took hold, but by the time we were threading our way through the busy city of Perugia, looking for the best approach to the centro storico, we realized that electric power was off everywhere: every town we passed, every building. No traffic lights were working. Shops were dark and closed.


In fact, almost the entire country had lost power through some fault in transmission lines from hydroelectic sources in the Alps: Milan, Rome, Florence, Turin, and every village, town and house throughout Italy was without power.

The guidebook advised that parking in the historic area was problematic. Our best means to reach the old part of the city, elevated above the modern town, was to park at the city bus station and take a local bus. At the station, we found a rather chaotic scene. Buses were running, but no agents were at the windows, since there was no electricity, and none of the display boards showing routes and times were operating.

Let It Happen

Determined to find someone who might answer a question, I went into the station, while The Counselor studied some route maps posted outside. My search yielded nothing, and I went back out.

Friends, I learned a lesson.

I stepped out to find her standing on the step of a bus. “This is our bus,” she said. Always more capable in Italian than I, she’d done an exceptional job of communicating and had found someone who told her what she needed to know. I, for no reason I can explain, doubted her.

“Are you sure?” I asked. At that point, the bus started to pull away. On it was my travel partner, and if she disappeared into some unknown part of a city I didn’t know, in a time before we had cell phones, goodness knows how I’d find her.

“Are you coming?” she asked with impressive aplomb, wondering if this guy was really going to disagree with a woman who was about to disappear. The bus was moving. She wasn’t getting off.

I hurried to get on, regardless of where it was headed. It was, of course, exactly the bus we should take, as she knew perfectly well.

We saw the ancient buildings of Perugia, despite the chilly rain. With the rain and dim light, I took no photos, but I can assure you it’s worth a visit. Here’s a photo of nearby Todi’s main piazza, taken a few days later, which has something of the same character.

Todi piazza Brad Nixon 001-2(640x452)

Perugia’s 14th-Century cathedral of San Lorenzo looms above the square, massive and stolid. On that dark day, with only candles illuminating the interior, we saw it the way it would have appeared for hundreds of years before gas or electric light. It was an experience not to be missed … although I very nearly had missed it.

I received my own illumination that day. Stop worrying. Not every moment is idyllic. You’re a traveler, dude. Get on the bus. Time to roll.

How about your “lesson learned” travel story? Tell us in a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Map © Google.

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