Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Downtown Houston Photowalk

Occasionally I like to remind myself/pretend-really-hard that Houston is more than just 600+ square miles of infernal sprawl. We actually do have a downtown, just like a real city. ("Plucky Houston has 'skyline' and 'attractions'"). For a soulless corporate landscape, it does a few redeeming architectural and cultural elements.

I went on a ~4 hour photowalk along the Buffalo Bayou near downtown, watched the bats come out from under Waugh Bridge (not half as cool as Austin's) and sojourned around downtown proper. Overwhelming heat + bad backup tripod + bad shoes + 140% humidity did not make for a good photo session, but I came out with a few interesting shots.

As always, click on image to see full sized version, and "all rights reserved" applies to all pictures in this post and others.

Houston Skyline
Sabine Bridge Pic 2

Underpass Lighting
Blue 2

Skyline from Pedestrian Bridge
Pedestrian Bridge

Pennzoil Building
Pennzoil Building 2 (B&W)

Statuary with Skylines- Illumination

Flag Abstract
Abstract Flag

Friday, August 22, 2008

Vietnam, Sugar Land Style

Quan Am, Framed 2
Sugar Land (so named for the Imperial Sugar refinery from whose company town grew the existing city) is a fairly affluent suburb directly southwest of Houston. Its agrarian roots have all but been expunged as it transformed from sleepy sugar mill town to one of the fastest growing areas in the county/state/country. It is now primarily a mix of master planned developments and tree lined boulevards. This is Tom Delay country, if that says anything.

However, the demographics of Sugar Land are bizarrely diverse, including a fairly large and thriving southeast Asian population. (particularly Vietnamese and Indian/Pakistani communities) This has lead to equally bizarre but fascinating cultural juxtapositions.

To the north of Sugar Land is a strip of land between the City limits and the city limits of Houston. It is in the "extraterritorial jurisdiction" ( a vague developmental quasi jurisidctional area on the outskirts of a municipality) of Houston and/or unincorporated county. That means all the draconian development codes of Sugar Land do not apply. In this strip of land are a hodge-podge of metalwork shops, used car parts lots, ramshackle Mexican churches, barren lots, and, with increasing frequency, temples and religious centers of all manner and variety.

There are, within only several hundred feet, two vietnamese buddhist centers, a muslim center, and other assorted and as-of yet-unidentified-sects' facilities. Driving between golden mosque domes and Buddhist stautary is is almost as if someone had cut and paste temple grounds from a dozen different countries with neither rhyme nor reason.

The most impressive is the Vietnamese Buddhist center whose impressive grounds include, among other things, a 72 foot tall statue of the Quan Am, a Buddhist (deity?). Regardless of one's religous leanings, it is nothing short of inspiring to find such elegant beauty amidst what is essentially a wasteland of sprawl.

Click on the Images below to see Full Size Versions
Quan Am with Lion Statue

Quan Am, Framed (B&W)

Statue of Quan Am

Quan Am with Lion Statue

Statue of Quan Am, framed 3

(color version of a previous shot)
Quan Am, Framed

Monday, August 18, 2008

Brazos Bend Redux

I took a break from hitting new places to go back to an old favorite: Brazos Bend State Park. The park is pretty impressive as Texas state parks go. ( I have to qualify that statement, being from NY, where the Adirondacks sets the bar for state parks pretty damn high.)

Brazos Bend is a series of constructed and natural marshes and coastal prairie south southwest of Houston near the Brazos River. It's renowned for its healthy American Alligator population, but also boasts a fairly wide ranging number of other species.

I make a point to go down every so often. I work halfway between the Park and my home so I have started visiting on weekday evenings, when the light is fantastic, and I have the run of the park. These are some shots from my last visit. The photography was so-so that day, but still worth the trip.

Click to see larger sizes...the blog cuts off full sized pics.

Algae-gator. (you see what I did there...)

Marsh Sunset/Fade to Black
Marsh Sunset

Purple Haze Dragonfly

Evening Roost
Evening Roost

Heron Silhouette, or (with apologies to the Bhagavad Gita) " I am become Death, the Devourer of...Worms"
(I liked the Shiva-kinda thing going the heron is some sort of multi-limber harbinger of doom)
Heron Silhouette

Anhinga at Sunset (or maybe cormorant, too far away, though beak looks like Anhinga)
Sunset Anhinga

Night Heron

Juvenile Raccoon
Juvenile Raccoon, Brazos Bend

Couple more takes on the Marsh Sunset
Marsh Sunset 3
Marsh Sunset 2

More Birds

Country Roads

While I would love for them to literally "take me home, to the place I belong", Texas' back roads usually make for some interesting photographic opportunities. I went down to Brazos Bend State Park the day before Hurricane/Tropical Storm/Slightly-Wet-Breeze Edouard rolled through. Apparently an impending hurricane was enough to close down a low lying Park near the Coast, and the gate was locked when I got there.

Not to have my wanderlust given an abrupt cold shower, I drove around the surrounding back roads for a while, during a sunset that, while not fantastic by Big Texas Sky standards, was fairly decent.

Here are a couple pics of agricultural southeastern Texas. Click to see large.

...I'm not saying I want to build a summer home here, but the trees are actually quite lovely...

George Ranch Area Sunset
sunset pano 1 - George Ranch area

Sunset pano 2, George Ranch area

Sunset Pano 2 - George Ranch area (color version)

Fields of Gold. and Trees.
Twin Trees, George Ranch area

and one shot from the night before the "Storm":

Barker Reservoir as the "Storm" moves in
Storm pano 1 - Barker Reservoir

Monday, August 11, 2008

Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge

Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge Panoramic 7
Regardless of the seeming specificity of its name, the APCNWR is a vast sweep of land that has much more to offer than its namesake. In fact, due to the increasing scarcity of the critically endangered birds it shelters, it's unlikely that those who go there the majority of the year will ever see one of its famed inhabitants.

And that's ok. Because Attwater is impressive in its own right. Having just visited Anahuac NWR, (see previous posts) and getting a sense of its flat, moist fecundity, Attwater is an interesting transition. Located between Houston and Austin, it is in the higher reaches of the coastal prairie, a landscape removed from the coastal marshes. It is more reminiscint of the remnants of the prairies of the midwest, albeit on a smaller scale. It has vast sweeps of grasses, with small oases of trees sheltering hidden waterholes, and a hush that is nothing short of startling for an area not 7 miles removed from I-10. Like other NWRs it is far less acessible than a park, giving more of a sense of encountering wilderness than the impressive, but somewhat theme-park-esque "attractions" of some of the more popular National Parks.

I got there too late in the day to properly experience the whole place, but I took a few quick shots in the horribly uncooperative lighting to try to capture a piece of the place. Another down, several more Texas NWRs to go.

Open prairie with vintage fencing
Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge Panoramic 10

Still flat, but starting to roll a little up into the Hill Country
Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge Panoramic 5

Land, meet sky.
Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge Panoramic 4

An Argiope (aurantia, I believe, and about palm-sized) greeted me at the info kiosk
Garden Spider (Argiope)

I considered this somewhat of a bad omen, and couldn't help but play up the image with sepia tone and extra grain
Bad Omen

last wildflowers of the season hidden in their own secret gardens among the sea of grasses
Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge 3
Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge

The prairie to me has always been nothing so much as a compromise between endless earth and endless sky.
Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge Panoramic 2

Up next: either Aransas and Brazoria NWRs or a return to Big Thicket NPr and the national forests of se Texas.

Texas Road Trip

I recently had a chance to motor west to attend a watershed conference in Luling, Tx.

Let me preface this by the following assurance to the geographically insecure reader:
You probably have not heard of Luling, TX. No one holds this against you. Of Luling, like many places, it can be said "if you blink, you'll miss it". However, in Luling's extraordinarily miniscule case, that maxim applies not only while traveling 70mph down 10, but also ON A MAP.

It's a wee little place. The type where most of the signs are handmade, and probably all the better for it.

As those of us expats who rarely venture forth from the fortified stetsons-and-lattes city-states of Austin/San Antonio/Houston are invariably amazed at, life exists out in the rural "hinterlands" of Texas. And almost equally invariably, these small towns are pretty much like small towns everywhere else, except with a certain extra portion of that unique Texas weirdness.

First of all, Luling is obsessed with watermelon:


Really obsessed with watermelon:
No, I mean REALLY obsessed with watermelon: (picture from web)

They have an annual watermelon festival that apparently, from the otherwise abandoned whistlestop appearance of the town, forms the vast majority of their local economy. Coming from an area whose yearly events were headlined by a Dairy Festival, I am engaged less in mockery than in fond reminiscince of agricultural enthusiasm gone awry.
I wandered about at lunch with my camera, and ran smack dab into the other set of curiousities in Luling: the "gussied-up" oil derricks. Out in mid-west Texas, tiny single oil pumps are common sights in fields and along roadsides. They are accompanied, whether up or downwind, by a characteristic smell of petroleum...not the dizzy sweet smell of gasoline, but the dirty, rancid smell of unrefined crude.
Luling has the distinction of having several of these derricks in the midst of their downtown and residential neighborhoods. In an effort to prettify what, anywhere else but the Oil Patch, would be a shocking variance from traditional urban planning, and in the grand tradition of vaguely humerous country garden folk art (oh hey the old lady is bending over, ha ha, pass the cheese curd.), Luling's residents have gathered together to offer the following:
The football player - just off main street (as the derrick moves he makes the pass!)
The gardening girl (as the derrick pumps, she picks flowers!)
The Cow jumping over the moon (it, well, you can guess. Sorry for quality, out the car window from a distance)
And these are just a FEW of the ..somewhat disconcertingly cheerful camoflauges on derricks around town. A phenomenon so cherished there is a museum of sorts along the main street. Oh, and the train literally runs along main street. Right. through. it.
I may be presenting this with a bit of a laughing smirk, but having carted a rusty and dented trombone in threadbare uniform through countless local parades for all manner of agricultural and other celebrations, I bear a certain fondness for the ability of a small community to bond over any common ground. I may be hypocritical for turning around and having at disaffected urbanites after a post that admittedly has a bit of the "oh dear, the provincials are sooo ...provincial" to it, but there is a certain grounding in places like Luling that Houston will never have, and will always secretly covet.
(?species) Lizard, Luling, TX

Monday, August 4, 2008

Tropical Storm/Hurricane Edouard

Yet another unfortunately-named storm is bringing the funk and/or noise upon the Gulf Coast, and this one looks to hit us straight on. I figured I'd keep track of this (sure to be non-)event, in a (couple) hour-to-(couple) hour update:

7am - 10am - Cloudless Sky. Emergency meetings at work enable legitimate excuse to use phrases like "prepositioning of personnel assets" and "logistical synergies". Morale high.

10am-12pm - One or two clouds. Stores of emergency food for staff/workers evaluated and contemplated. Stores consist entirely of MREs. Morale notably less high than before.

12pm - 1pm - Slight cloud cover, still sunny. Lunch at vietnamese noodle place. Owner seems unconcerned. On further contemplation of MREs, bought extra sandwhich. Morale Improving.

1pm-2pm - Little cloudy. Contemplating silliness of naming massive forces of destruction things like "Dolly" and "Edouard". Concerned about losing life/home to storm with a pansy name.

2pm-5pm - Fewer clouds, very sunny. Average Monday. Sinuses/mucus surfaces in mouth still paying for Vietnamese lunch. Trouble coming up with witty update for blog. If storm does not materialize soon, may openly support gay marriage, women's right to vote, episcopalians, in effort to tempt God's wrath. Reread email from last storm (Rita, which missed us with no effect), entitled "Official Summary of Storm Damage". Email contained only picture of overturned lawnchair.

5pm-8pm - Decided a good idea would be to drive toward the storm...drove to Brazos Bend for evening of photography. Park was closed. Drove home.

8pm-12am - Prepared apartment for storm. Preparation included looking at fridge, acknowledging we had food, water, beer. Moved a few items away from windows. Shuffled things about a bit to feel like we had done something. Considered generally crappy construction of apartment vs. destructive power of hurricane. Gave up and went to sleep.

530am-7am - Storm makes sudden jog north. Sucks to be you, Beaumont. Now more than ever. In to work early, sky slightly clouded. Breakfast tacos abound. Morale high.

7am-10am - We wait and watch for the storm. Edouard hits us at about 10. I reflect that "hit" is an enitrely relative word in this sense.

10-am-the rest of the day - Non-Event Edouard passes by without so much as a decent rain. We get an inch or two, but really no more than your daily afternoon thundershower. the clouds try to be menacing during the day, but it seems even they are lackluster in their performance.

If I had nto known in advance we were experiencing a tropical storm, I would not even have said we "just had a storm". It was more on the order of "we just had a cloudy day with a sprinkling of rain".

0 for 2, Houston. Lets hope/not hope 3 is the magic number.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Down on the Bayou

(pics below)
So last Friday I shook free the shackles of suburbia and headed east. I should preface this by saying that Houston, east of downtown is refinery-and-shipping-channel-land...not known for its scenic beauty, fine dining, or, you know, ability to support basic ecoological functions. Even east past industrial east Houston is ...well...not a whole hell of a lot. Flat, Open coastal plain and good old bayou swamp until you're a fair degree into Louisiana.

However, along the coast, SE of Houston is Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and the High Island bird sanctuaries. This part of the coast is part of large migratory routes for all manner of large birds, and in my effort to check off a few more things on the "national lands visited" list, I thought I'd take the day and head on down to check them out. (The most opportune time for these areas, apparently is earlier in the year during the migration, etc. Also, days that are not 100 degrees in the [non-existant] shade are recommended.

I was not aware of this at the time.

One one leaves the relative civilization of the great east-west gulf coast artery of Highway 10, you descend almost immediately south into what every movie about the delta blues has always lead me to believe the rural delta to be. Hot to the point of mirages on the road, flat, and seemingly devoid of humanity short of old run down shacks. The long drive down brought me along dusty (it hasn't rained in a while) old roads with nothing but flat, sun saturated fields as far as the eye could see. I could practically hear strains of mournful delta blues guitar, and was half convinced at each successive crossroads that I would come upon Robert Johnson making his legendary deal with the Devil.

I finally got down to Anahuac, and was pretty excited to see the usual National Parks/Lands sign. At that point the beaten down back roads became newly paved actual blacktop.....until you get into the Refuge itself. (Then the roads aren't so much "roads" as "proto-roads"...or vague IDEAS of roads). The day was already overly bright and hazy, so photography was not my first aim.Anahuac has about zero change in elevation, and is very reminiscint of the land around it, just not carved up for agriculture. Flat coastal prairie and seemingly endless marsh broken only by slowly meandering waterways and bayou. Not quite the majesty of Zion or other-wordly scale of Arches, but an impressively vast space in its own right.

After spending a few hours wandering its expanse and frightening uncounted numbers of wading birds, I headed southeast to High Island. High Island is neither High nor Island. It's just a big salt dome bubble that raises the "town" a couple feet above sea level. There are four separate bird sanctuaries in this tiny little hamlet, which seemed to outnumber the people I saw, (0) streets (a couple), and certainly, signs directing one to the sancturaries.(0) Friends had raved about the sanctuaries, but in my short tour during this off season, it really appeared they had been abandoned in 1964 and nature had taken over since. It had a post-apocalyptic feel to it. After I finally hiked to the main roosting area, surrounded by alligator infested lake, any thoughts of actually seeing the birds were put to rest by the burgeoning populations of Golden Silk spiders. At the zenith of their season, these ubiquitous arachnids had reached (female) sizes approximating the width and length of my thumb, not including legs. As the largest true spider in North America, they essentially rule the landscape from late May to early fall. Which means hiking on trails in this time frame is greatly hampered by large (like, ten by four or more foot webs) stretched out across flyways (like trails) at about face-height, about every 2 or 3 feet. While I got some brief glimpses at some roseate spoonbills, cormorants, herons, egrets, etc, I was unable to really get to good vantage spots for the sheer volume and space of spider webs blocking the trails. Part of my latent arachnophobia flared up as the day went on, though I wouild argue this had less to do with personal quirks and more to do with HUNDREDS OF FIST SIZD SPIDERS in any direction one stepped/looked.

So I didn't have quite the photographic outing I had hoped for, but it was an interesting jaunt, regardless.

Immature Yellow Crowned Night Heron
Juvenile Yellow-Crowned Night Heron

Coastal Prairie Grasses
Fields of Gold

Egret on Watch
keeping watch

Cattail marsh
cattails in "bloom"

Egret in Flight
Egret in Flight 2 (B&W)

Storm over the marsh

Golden Silk Spider
Golden Silk Spider (B&W)

Marsh Crab
Defender of the Keep

Egret on Watch 2
All along the watchtower

Cattle Egret
Defiant Cattle Egreat

Field of Grasses and Cattails - "Rush hour"
rush hour

Dragonfly with Monkey Face
(?) Monkey-faced Dragonfly

Flower Shadow 2

Giant Swallowtail and Flowers
Giant Swallowtail