In the beginning this blog was centered on San Francisco parks and open space issues with special emphasis on natural areas and natural history. Over time it began to range into other areas and topics. As you can see, it is eclectic, as I interlace it with topics of interest to me.

I welcome feedback: just click this link to reach me.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


1.   GOP, once again, trying to destroy the Endangered Species Act
2.   Rec-Park Commission/Dept shenanigans to privatize our parks v. Sunshine Ordinance
3.   In praise of butterflies
4.   Save the Frogs meets with Assemblymember Fiona Ma
5.   Friends of 5 Creeks - events
6.   Pretty picture
7.   2012 Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour - you can participate
8.   Historical record on U.S. govt defaulting
9.   Feedback:  testosterone and high finance
10. How Wall Street plundered great American newspapers
11.  Does quantum mechanics flout the Laws of Thermodynamics?
12.  Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life

1.   The House Interior Appropriations Committee has passed a disastrous Interior Appropriations budget for 2012. The House of Representatives will begin debate this week on this bill, H.R. 2584. The riders alone will make the Endangered Species Act useless and the impacts from the  loss of funding to federal natural resource programs is incalculable. The President has responded with  strong opposition. Attached is the White House letter explaining that opposition and illustrating how damaging that bill is by including non-funiding issues such as limiting the scope of the Endangered Species Act, responses to Climate Change and other federal resource laws. Please call your House members and ask them to oppose this bill and please let Senators Feinstein and Boxer know how strongly you oppose this House Interior Appropriation budget and that they must oppose it's provisions when it comes to the Senate Interior Appropriations committee (Senator Feinstein is on that Committee).
Examples of funding programs targeted by the bill include:

·         The Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act, the only federal U.S. grants program specifically dedicated to the conservation of our migratory birds throughout the Americas, will be completely eliminated.

·         State Wildlife Grants, the nation’s core program for preventing birds and wildlife from becoming endangered in addition to supporting strategic conservation investments in every state and territory has been reduced by over 64%.

·         The North American Wetlands Conservation Act, which provides funding for conservation projects that benefit wetland birds, has been reduced by over 40%.
·         The Endangered Species Act would be effectively gutted by preventing the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) from spending any money on new listings or habitat protection.
·         Language that blocks measures to protect imperiled species from harmful pesticides.  This amendment prohibits the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from implementing any measures recommended by federal wildlife experts to protect endangered species from pesticides.  This spells disaster for species that are already on the brink of extinction due to pesticides and other threats.


2.  From Golden Gate Park Preservation Alliance and SF Ocean Edge

     In March 2011, the Golden Gate Park Preservation Alliance and SF Ocean Edge brought together a panel to discuss the potential impacts of proposed development projects on Golden Gate Park. The Park is beloved by many throughout the Bay Area, and this was our effort to inform the general public in a broader forum than that allowed in government hearings. The Commonwealth Club was chosen due to their commitment to free speech and their willingness to explore a wide variety of issues.  The Club approved the program, notice went out to the general public, and people started to register for the event.

     We were therefore surprised in late April when the panel was modified by the Club, to include a member of the Recreation and Park Commission. The Recreation and Park Commissioners and Recreation and Park Department (RPD) staff have unlimited time to address the public at Commission meetings and in other government venues, and the addition of this person meant that the amount of time that we had in our own forum would be curtailed. However, in the spirit of cooperation, we accepted this addition.

    In an effort to learn more about what had caused the change, panelist George Wooding filed a Sunshine Request to RPD asking for any Department communications about the program. The Recreation and Park Department reply denied that there were any documents.

     However, according to Mr. Wooding’s subsequent complaint, e-mails were provided by other sources. In these communications, City employees, a Recreation and Park Commissioner, and a member of a Recreation and Park public-private partnership, attempted to not only discredit the panel members and to influence the content of the panel discussion but also, in one instance, to have the panel cancelled. The attached document is one page from Mr. Wooding’s supplement to his complaint, which illustrates the extent that the Department of Recreation and Park went in trying to influence information provided for the public benefit. We applaud the Commonwealth Club for upholding the principles of free speech and proceeding with the panel discussion.

     The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force will hear this complaint on Tuesday, July 26th, 2011, at 4 pm in City Hall Room 408.  It is presently item 23.  Check the SF Ocean Edge website for this item:  Any changes will be posted to that site as soon as known. 

     The full Commonwealth Club panel discussion can be accessed through website links to Youtube:

Here is Mr Wooding's letter to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force:
Re: SOTF Complaint #11-049 Supplementary Materials

Dear Mr. Rustom,

Enclosed are additional supplementary materials regarding my Sunshine Complaint against the Recreation and Park Department and the Recreation and Park Commission for consideration by the full Task Force when it hears complaint #11-049 on July 26.

Although RPD’s Ms. Gong has claimed there were “no responsive records” to my records request, several e-mails have surfaced which suggest evidence otherwise:

•       Figure 1 in this document shows RPD’s Director of Policy and Public Affairs, Sarah Ballard, wrote to the Commonwealth Club on April 20 from her City e-mail account, the day after placing a phone call to the Commonwealth Club on April 19, claiming that the proposed panelists for the Commonwealth Club’s May 11 forum on the Recreation and Park Department were “likely to incite an audience,” may have not been able to “rationally discuss” the issues, were “deeply biased,” and had “no interest in discussing facts.” She requested that the forum be canceled.

•       Figure 2 in this document is another April 20 e-mail from Ms. Ballard using her City e-mail account to a second Commonwealth Club member, alleging that some of the proposed panelists did not have member meetings, by-laws or formal meetings, and the panelists would be “heavily skewed.”

•       Figure 3 shows that Recreation and Park Commission president Mark Buell also alleged on April 25 that the Commonwealth Club’s May 11 forum’s proposed panelists were “biased.” Notably Buell cc’d both Phil Ginsburg, RPD’s General Manager (at either Mr. Ginsburg’s City e-mail address or personal e-mail address, which is unclear),and also Jim Chappell.

•       Figure 4 is a response from the Commonwealth Club’s Kerry Curtis in reply to Mr. Buell, and to Mr. Ginsburg, a t Ginsburg’s private e-mail address.

•       Figure 5 is an e-mail from Susan Hirsch, Director of the City Fields Foundation and CEO of Hirsch and Associates, LLC, Philanthropic Advisors, to forum moderator Jim Chappell claiming the May 11 forum panelists were only representative of people who oppose change. Hirsch’s e-mail shows that a “partner” in a public-private partnership may have been attempting to influence the public on behalf of a Department’s business.

Given the evidence presented in these five figures, it is unlikely that there are not other e-mails exchanged in RPD’s and the City’s internal e-mail system, or in personal e-mail accounts, between Mr. Ginsburg, Mr. Buell, Ms. Hirsch, Ms.Ballard, and other RPD or other City employees relating to the Commonwealth Club’s forum that should be produced.

Based on the new evidence enclosed that has become available to date showing that RPD and RPC, in fact, had in its possession e-mail records withheld from my records request, I ask that the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force find in my favor, and order the Recreation and Parks Department and the Recreation and Parks Commission to search their records again — including the private e-mails of Mr. Ginsburg, Mr. Buell, and any and all other RPD or City officials, and including the Deputy City Attorney assigned to the Recreation and Parks Department and the Recreation and Parks Commission — and produce any and all communications that I had initially sought to obtain in my initial records request.


3.  In praise of...butterflies

Increasingly, we realise we need the butterfly as much as we need a soul.  For a few weeks in July in Britain, it seems, they are everywhere:  gatekeepers bobbing along hedgerows, peacocks supping from buddleias and holly blues darting around treetops.  "You ask what is the use of butterflies?" said John Ray, a 17th-century lepidopterist.  "I reply to adorn the world and delight the eyes of men; to brighten the countryside like so many golden jewels."

Butterflies - and their lovers - struggle to justify their place in our world.  In medieval times they were seen as mischievous fairies.  Victorians collected them - sometimes to extinction.  Now they are brutalised by industrial farming and changing woodland management.

Today, as most of Britain's 59 species continue to decline, butterflies are defended as vital indicator species showing the impact of climate change, pollinators of plants and providers of caterpillars for birds.  But their presence in our skies cannot be so simply measured.  Increasingly, we realise we need the butterfly, psyche in ancient Greek, as much as we need a soul.

Fashions change but children always appreciate the intricate marvel of creatures like the large blue, which lives for 10 months in ants' nests, or the purple emperor, the most lordly of butterflies with a depraved taste for dogpoo.  The charity Butterfly Conservation, whose membership is 48% up in five years, wants everyone to count them this summer.

This is not an exercise in logging decline.  It is a thrilling way to connect with a natural world we feel increasingly estranged from and rediscover our own capacity for childlike wonder.

Guardian Weekly editorial 22.07.11


4.  From Kerry Kriger, Save the Frogs
American Bullfrogs And My Meeting With Assemblywoman Fiona Ma

One of the greatest threats to California’s native wildlife is the continued introduction of non-native American Bullfrogs (Rana catesbeiana or Lithobates catesbeianus). The bullfrogs, widely regarded as one of the world’s worst invasive species, prey on native wildlife and spread infectious diseases. California currently imports several million live American Bullfrogs into the state annually, most coming from Asian frog farms.

In March 2010, the California Fish & Game Commission voted unanimously to stop issuing permits for the importation of non-native frogs (and turtles) for use as food. However, at the request of six Asian-American politicians from the San Francisco area (Fiona Ma; Leland Yee; Ted Lieu; Warren Furutani; Paul Fong; Mike Eng), the Commission held a “re-consideration” hearing on May 19th, 2010. I testified at the hearing, and 1,196 SAVE THE FROGS! supporters sent letters to the Commission asking them to uphold their original ruling. Amidst cries of cultural insensitivity, the Commission voted 3-2 this time to stop issuing permits. A close call, but victory nonetheless. This victory however was short-lived: to date the California Department of Fish & Game continues to issue permits for the importation of non-native frogs & turtles into California, and the Commission appears powerless to stop them.

So long as there are politicians and constituents who do not know or care about the problems frogs face, it will be incredibly difficult to SAVE THE FROGS!. Thus I wrote Assemblywoman Fiona Ma’s office to request a meeting with Ms. Ma (District 12 - San Francisco). As she had spoken out against the importation ban, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that she agreed to a 45-minute meeting at which I would give a presentation on amphibian conservation. On Wednesday May 19th, 2011 I arrived at her office in downtown San Francisco and was happy to see a room full of 35-40 of her interns awaiting my presentation. Most of them were high schoolers, a few were college students. Ms. Ma arrived and I gave a presentation on the threats to frogs, why frogs are important, ways normal people can save frogs, and the work I do with SAVE THE FROGS!. Fiona and the interns made Striped Marsh Frog Calls. I discussed the non-natives issue and requested that Ms. Ma not block frog legislation in the future, or even better that she speak to the other 5 politicians about the issue or introduce pro-frog legislation.

At the end of my presentation, Ms. Ma explained to her interns why she had opposed the ban. She said her constituents like eating frogs, and the pet industry should also have been targeted but was not, and thus the frog legs ban was unfair. She spoke of making hard decisions and the difficulties pleasing all parties when one is a politician. We agreed that the best way to save the frogs — while keeping the vote of the Asian community and getting new votes from the non-Asian community — is to ensure that everybody is educated about frogs and the environment. Ms. Ma and I thanked each other and she left for her next meeting. I stayed for another 15 minutes taking questions from the interns, who were all very interested in frog conservation, especially with regards to the politics of saving frogs.

Will Assemblywoman Ma vote for the frogs in the future? I’m not sure, but I know she will understand the issues and think twice before speaking out against pro-frog legislation. And I have no doubt she will be surrounded by interns who like frogs – and that they may be her opposition one day if she doesn’t do her best to SAVE THE FROGS!

Educating San Francisco’s Students
In cooperation with Tree Frog Treks and the San Francisco Tadpole Headstart Program, SAVE THE FROGS! is giving educational presentations on frogs at elementary schools throughout the San Francisco area. We have already been to four schools and plan to visit 15 more this fall. By educating the next generation about the importance of frogs and by inspiring them to care for the planet, we will ensure that politicians will not need to decide between voting for the environment and pleasing their constituents: the choice will be simple, since their constituents will be predominantly supportive of environmental conservation efforts.

About the American Bullfrog

The American Bullfrog is North America’s largest frog. It is a voracious predator capable of eating California Red-Legged Frogs, bats, ducks and even 33-inch garter snakes. Bullfrogs are native to the eastern USA and Canada, but are farmed worldwide for use as frog legs. The crowded conditions at the farms are perfect for the growth and spread of chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis), causative agent of chytridiomycosis, which has driven up to 100 amphibian species to complete extinction worldwide in recent decades. A recent study estimated that 62% of the bullfrogs entering California from Asian frog farms are infected with the chytrid fungus. Bullfrogs serve as perfect vectors for fungus, as the frogs can survive infection loads of millions of chytrid zoospores. Because the infected frogs don’t die from the fungus, they are able to spread the pathogen to native amphibian populations. Though some from the pet and food industries claim the fungus cannot get to native populations, this is incorrect: bullfrogs regularly escape or get set free into the wild, and the water in which they are held gets set out into the environment every time it is flushed down the drain.


5.  From Friends of 5 Creeks

The California Coastal Commission’s 2011 Ocean and Coastal Amateur Photography Contest is open for free entry until September 2. You can upload up to five photos showing the scenic coast and Pacific Ocean off California, and then ask friends of vote for your entry! (Voting continues through Sept. 16.) Click here or more information.

Join El Cerrito’s Green Teams cleaning up trash at the Baxter Creek Gateway project 10 AM- noon Saturday, July 30. More information at, or sign up to volunteer at 559-7684 or

Congratulations to the City of Albany on finally acquiring the closed I-880 on-ramp at the foot of Albany Hill for Pierce Street Park! This took long years of negotiations with CalTrans, which because of tough economic times was obliged to seek a high return on the land. This means there will be green space and a Bay Trail connection instead of condos. (Wouldn’t it be fun to turn lots of freeway ramps into parks some day….)

Bay’s secrets revealed Monday, Aug. 1
Monday, August 1, join us for "The Hidden Bay," a slide talk on the fascinating world beneath San Francisco Bay. Marilyn Latta, Project Manager for the San Francisco Bay Subtidal Habitat Goals Project, speaks about what we know, and need to learn, about this hidden world – and how we can help make it more welcoming to a fascinating variety of creatures. Albany Community Center, 1249 Marin. Free, all welcome! Refreshments, too.  


6.  Every child is born a naturalist. His eyes are, by nature, open to the glories of the stars, the beauty of the flowers,and the mystery of life.    —R. Search


7.  The next Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour will take place on Sunday, May 6, 2012. Registration will open in January of 2012 at

Gardens containing 60% or more natives are being sought for the upcoming tour.  If you should have a garden to offer, the application for the 2012 is here  Please return the application, along with a list of the native plants in your garden, as soon as possible, so I can schedule a time to meet with you.

Summer is the time to plan for fall planting.  If you could use some guidance, you might want to request a consultation from a landscape professional familiar native plants.  You will find a list here:

If you have already developed your plant list and are preparing for fall shoping and planting, you can start checking out stock at native plant nurseries here:

If you enjoyed the Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour but didn’t have the chance to donate on the day of the Tour, you can do so here:

A number of events offered this fall may be of interest to you.

Saturday, September 10:  The Contra Costa Master Gardeners' 2011 Fall Event will be held at St. Perpetua's School Garden of Learning in Lafayette. The day will include a Garden Tour, Plant & Garden Art Sale, Sick Plant Clinic, and hands-on demonstrations by Master Gardeners. Visit for information on free events and presentations.

Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 17 and 18:  Growing Natives:  Inspiring and Enduring Gardens -  A two-day symposium focusing on designing, installing, and maintaining native plant gardens of lasting value.  Saturday talks in Lafayette will be offered by Carol Bornstein, Michael Craib, David Fross, Luke Hass, and Deva Luna.  Sunday workshops in Berkeley will be offered by Jocelyn Cohen, Stephen Edwards, Katherine Greeberg, Don Mahoney, and Pete Veilleux.  Space is limited, and early registration is recommended.  Early bird registration ends July 31, 2011.  To register, visit:

Saturday, October 1 and 2:  The East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society’s Annual Plant Fair. 20,000+ plants, including bulbs and ferns, will be offered for sale.  Vendors will display garden arts and crafts, jewelry and sculptures, rare seeds and bulbs, photographs, and hard-to-find books. Talks will be offered both days. For more information, visit

Saturday, October 29: “Practical Gardening: Sustainability
 From the Ground Up” offered by Alameda County Master Gardeners. Participants will attend three seminars or workshops presented by specialists in their areas of focus, including “Maintaining Your Garden,” “Designing a Sustainable Garden,” “Pests in the Vegetable Garden,” Food Preservation Workshops in the kitchen, and more.  To be notified when registration is open click here.

Lose the Lawn, and get paid for it!

Tired of mowing, fertilizing, and watering?  Would you like to do something else with your weekends?  Three of the Tour’s sponsors are offering rebates to encourage their customers to replace their lawns with water-efficient landscaping.  Homeowners can receive up to a $500 rebate, and non-residential properties even more.  Click on the links below to find out about lawn-conversion rebate programs:

•               Contra Costa Water District (Central and Eastern Contra Costa County)

•               Zone 7 Water Agency (Tri-Valley Area)

•               Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (See BAWSCA’s Landscape Education Program section for a list of free lectures and hands-on workshops in San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Alameda Counties. )

Just think, maybe your new garden can be on the tour one day!

Kathy Kramer Consulting


8.  "The choice is for the United States to default on its debts for the first time in our 200-year history, or to accept a bill that has been cluttered up," explained the president in a radio address.  "This is yet another example of Congress trying to force my hand...Unfortunately [it] consistently brings the government to the edge of default before facing its responsibility."  The year?  It was 1987.  The president?  Ronald Reagan. 

From Gary Younge's column in Guardian Weekly 22.07.11

In the early 1990s, James Carville, Bill Clinton's campaign manager, said:  "I used to think if there was reincarnation I wanted to come back as the president or the pope...but now I want to come back as the bond market.  You can intimidate everybody."


9.  Feedback

Re:  Testosterone and high finance do not mix: so bring on the women, in Nature News from July 23 --
Fascinating (not totally surprising, but fascinating).   In case one wanted to read more, from what source was this excerpted?   Who is Mr. Coates?  (One assumes he is the "I" in the first paragraph?)
It was reprinted in Guardian Weekly from the Observer.

John Coates was one of two Cambridge (England) researchers, and his field is neuroscience and finance; his co-researcher is a professor of endocrinology.  They did the research on real live specimens in real situations.  "The curious thing about banks was that they know all about computers and systems and markets but know next to nothing about the human machine sitting in the chair in front of screens making decisions."

The "I" in the first paragraph is the book reviewer, not Coates.  That's a problem with excerpting, especially when done in a hurry.  I left out some juicy paragraphs.


10.  From NPR's Marketplace
The (Chicago) Tribune is trying to get out of bankruptcy. Can the company succeed given what it has in front of it?

James O'Shea: Once they come out, Tribune Company will be owned by banks that don't want to be in the newspaper business. So they're going to want their money back, and when they want their money back, they have a tendency to cut budgets. So I think it's a pretty daunting future. The papers might be sold to somebody who actually wants to be in the newspaper business, and that'll be the best thing that could happen to them.

James O'Shea, the author of The Deal from Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers.


11.  Does Quantum Mechanics Flout the Laws of Thermodynamics?
By Vlatko Vedral in Scientific American online June 1, 2011
Quantum mechanics is the most successful description of nature known to humans, yet it has many bizarre implications for our understanding of the world. There are phenomena of superposition (objects being in two places at the same time), entanglement (correlations that exceed any classical correlations) and nonlocality (apparent ability for information to travel instantaneously across vast distances). As my cover story in the June issue of Scientific American discusses, these oddities are not just limited to subatomic realms, but challenge our conception of the everyday world, too. Now, in a paper published in Nature, together with my colleagues from Switzerland and Singapore, I have discovered yet another counterintuitive consequence of quantum physics.

Everyone who has ever worked with a computer knows that they get hotter the more we use them. Physicist Rolf Landauer argued that this needs to be so, elevating the observation to the level of a principle. The principle states that in order to erase one bit of information, we need to increase the entropy of the environment by at least as much. In other words we need to dissipate at least one bit of heat into the environment (which is just equal to the bit of entropy times the temperature of the environment).

Landauer's erasure principle has been considered controversial in physics ever since he proposed it in the early '60s. Was it a new law of physics or just a consequence of some already existing laws? Our new paper argues that in quantum physics, you can, in fact, erase information and cool the environment at the same time. For many physicists, this is tantamount to saying that perpetual motion is possible! What makes it possible is entanglement, but let me not get too far ahead of myself. I will first set the scene by giving you a bit more background on Landauer. 

(Skipped article's central portion)

...If all this seems confusing, it is! This is very subtle physics and few people, even eminent physicists, understand it straight away.

The implications of our result could be important for superfast and superefficient computers. Current computers waste about 10,000 units of heat per computational step. If we can somehow control and manipulate entanglement between the microprocessor and the computer memory, then we could erase computations to make room for new ones, but keep the environment cool—we'd be right at the boundary of what is physically allowed. At present, this is admittedly very difficult to do, but who can foretell the already rapid progress of quantum technologies?


12.  Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life by Richard Cohen – review

Tim Radford is delighted by a glorious literary orbit around the Sun

 'How can there be another god?' . . . summer solstice at Stonehenge. Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

It is, in every sense, central to our lives. It contains 99.8% of the mass of the solar system. It provides all our food and all our energy. It is our clock and calendar. Its light is the ultimate instrument of discovery, the medium through which we understand the natural world. It is a focus for our traffic with the supernatural. It illuminates our art, informs our language and delivers our symbolism. It orders our lives so completely that we no longer notice.

We live with a star. The Earth and its creatures are specks of recycled stardust. To make this planet, other ancient, unremembered Suns had to burn hydrogen to forge helium and then carbon and oxygen and the rest of the 92 elements: to swell and then explode and distribute the raw materials for a new solar system, this time with rocky planets, one of which could become home to sentient life. But this life – complex, resourceful and inventive – remains entirely dependent on radiant energy from a thermonuclear power source 93m miles away. You could hardly think of a bigger subject.

Richard Cohen is a publisher who kept looking for other people to write this book, and then finally did it his way. This literary orbit around the biggest thing in our lives takes in mythology, written history, and the traffic of understanding from Babylon, ancient Egypt, Athens, the Islamic world, imperial China and Japan, the scientific revolution that began with Copernicus and Galileo and other extraordinary ways in which this slow understanding of the Sun has changed our lives.

The Sun informs all religion. "How can there be another god?" a Pueblo elder asked the psychologist Carl Jung. "Nothing can be without the Sun." The painter JMW Turner, shortly before he died, announced, "The Sun is God", and although Ruskin's authority for this statement is contested, Turner certainly painted as if it were. Nietzsche played with the idea of sunrise as the dawning of the age of the Superman; his admirer Munch was inspired by a sunset to paint The Scream. Hitler employed ancient Sanskrit solar symbolism with the swastika. Peru's leftwing terrorists called themselves the Shining Path.

Symbols, however, are neutral things that may be employed for any purpose by anybody. In the UK, 497 trademarks employ the Sun, against 366 that use the crown. Twenty nations deploy the Sun on their national flags.

The Sun's colour – in fact white – is perceived as yellow, and its lustre is linked to both blonde hair and bright gold. As a thermonuclear forge of the elements, the Sun itself is estimated to have amassed enough gold to cover Scotland half a mile deep.

This extraordinary book is informed by the most prodigious reading, and the most fabulous detail. The chapter on the role of the eclipse since the Enlightenment quotes, invokes or footnotes James Joyce, William Styron, Captain Cook, John Keats, Rider Haggard, Mark Twain, Herge's Tintin, Virginia Woolf, John Updike, Stephen Jay Gould, Arnold Bennett, Albert Einstein, and Omar Khayyam, as well as assorted astronomers, journalists and science historians.

In the course of his journey through the art, literature, music, science and symbolism of the Sun, Cohen sometimes seems to be matching the Earth's orbital speed of 20kms a second, spinning as he goes, and the incidentals flash by – sometimes too fast to be examined, but always warm and bright. He begins with a beautiful setpiece: the ascent of Mt Fuji to see dawn on the summer solstice. He ends with a serenade to eventide among the burning ghats of the Ganges at Varanasi.

In the course of his research, he witnesses a total eclipse in the Antarctic; visits the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena to bone up on the latest solar physics research; learns about the history of Sunspots from a Vatican astronomer; and examines for himself the pyramids and temples of the Sun in Mexico and Peru, the ancient observatory of Jaipur in India and Stonehenge on Salisbury plain. He follows the Sun as timekeeper for the world, and the development of the observatory, the clock and the telescope, first as instruments of navigation and then as pacesetters for industrial civilisation.

He looks into the solar power industry, the bickering over time zones and daylight saving, the debates over climate change, and the vagaries of weather. He explores the Sun's role in sickness and in health, and in agriculture, photography, architecture, movies, popular song and science fiction – and in the end of life on Earth.

His chapters on the Sun in literature and art are mesmerising, with perceptive and unexpected observations of Nabokov ("I must be the only person to have read Lolita for its Sun images"), Homer, Malory, Chaucer, Dante, Donne, Sir John Suckling ("I have a soft spot for Suckling, for during his short life . . . he invented the game of cribbage"), Blake, Coleridge, DH Lawrence and Albert Camus ("to correct a natural indifference I was placed halfway between misery and the Sun").

At every point, the footnotes, asides and interrogations throw up the unexpected and the delightful. The world's first solar power station was begun in Egypt in 1912; war interrupted the project, and it was never completed. The Italian translator of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four had to change the famously disturbing first sentence to "and the clocks were striking one" because clocks began striking 13 in Italy nearly 700 years ago. Porphyria is aggravated by the Sun, which leads to a digression on night-loving vampires. Psoriasis is ameliorated by it (so that had Jean-Paul Marat, murdered in his bath by Charlotte Corday, tried sunbathing instead of just bathing, "he might twice over have saved his skin").

The first person known to really play the eclipse card – the tired schoolboy fiction in which our hero escapes the wrath of superstitious savages by exploiting his knowledge of the lunar and solar cycles with a promise to make the Sun go out – was Christopher Columbus. In 1504 in Jamaica he warned some Arawak people that he would make the moon rise "inflamed with wrath" unless they supplied provisions.

It worked, as does this book. Some will call it eccentric in its discursiveness: a better word would be concentric. The journey is unpredictable, but always at a proper distance from its subject. It's a glorious literary walk in the Sun.

Guardian Weekly 10.12.10

No comments:

Post a Comment