Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Anyone Can Wear Red

Jane on the ocean floor

Sand Pipers in flight

I think I’m in love with iron oxides.

I used to be in love with the man who introduced me to them, my geology professor at NYU. It was he who unlocked the mystery of tectonic plates for his devoted students and led us to marvel further at the wonders of this planet. I used to leave his class and dance up Fifth Avenue. He gave me an A on my first test and then I knew it was for real. I have a terrible memory for names but I never forgot the names he taught us – metamorphic, sedimentary, igneous, gneiss, conglomerate, obsidian, scoria.… And he informed us that anything red in the earth is the result of iron oxides.

This lapse into the dull was unlike him. What’s so fascinating about rusted iron liberally sprinkled with heavy metals? Give me underwater volcanoes any day.

But then I saw a dramatic demonstration of the beauty of this simple mineral when, years ago, I was on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. The river was green when we first began to run the rapids but as the week wore on the weather changed from dry to saturating. This created a certain amount of discomfort for a city girl who was trying not to whine about spending the night on beaches with nothing but a sleeping bag and ground sheet. Good that the ground sheet was transparent because I used to pull it over me and watch the lightening flash off the canyon walls while the rain beat on my face. (Why didn’t you sleep under a tree, you ask? That’s because scorpions drop from trees, and then there are other beasts that were using the beach first who also like to stay out of the rain. Ignore my warning at your peril.)

It rained for so long that waterfalls that didn’t exist before poured over the red canyon walls washing off the iron oxides into the river which turned from green to red in front of our eyes. When we reached the Little Colorado River, its aquamarine water joined the red Colorado in a kaleidoscope of colors that defy description. I was hooked.

Just recently I had a trip to the Bay of Fundy, that wondrous place in Nova Scotia that enjoys fifty-foot tides and is so full of iron oxides that even the massive cliffs are red. We stayed at a motel on the shore of the Minas Basin and watched as the tide came in and the tide went out. When it was in, it lapped at our feet; out, it disappeared over the horizon. What was left were miles of red mud – the ocean floor – with a rich mixture of small critters for the thousands of migrating sand pipers to fatten up on before their long trip south. (More on that later.) There is something primeval about walking on mud millions of years old as it squelches between your toes and slips and slides under your feet. And the iron oxides stain your toes and prolong your pedicure.

In the evening, we cooked up vegetables from the local farmers’ market, grilled some just-caught fish and ate at a picnic table watching the sun set. Why am I giving you this piece of off-topic information? Because the sunset intensified the color of the red mud so that it looked as though it were boiling. It looked like lava. Really, it did. Iron oxides have never looked so beautiful.

And the thousands of sand pipers used this beauty as a back-drop to their ancient dance that left us breathless. Do they have a choreographer? How is it that they can all turn at the same exact second going 35 miles an hour? One instant they’re a silver flying saucer; the next second they’re a black funnel, and the next they disappear altogether only to reappear as Japanese calligraphy. I’d be watching them still if I hadn’t had a plane to catch and they hadn’t left for South America.

I brought some red iron oxide back on my brand-new white tennis sneakers and was quite annoyed at how impossible it is to get off once it’s made its mark. (If only lip stains worked as well!) In spite of this minor character flaw, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m still in love with iron oxides. But what really breaks my heart is how much I love this glorious planet.

Note: To learn more about the ocean floor, the creatures that inhabit it and how a healthy ocean is crucial for all life on earth, visit http://www.teamorca.org/.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Different Perspective

Jane on the left...hanging on!

Isn’t it wonderful when something happens out of the blue that just blows you away?! Literally.

Last week our management team held a retreat so we could concentrate on thinking ahead for the next five years. On the final day we were told to bring warm clothes and soft-soled shoes. I thought we were going for a hike – you know, an orchestrated bonding experience. Instead, we were marched to a meadow where two hot air balloons were waiting for us.

I’ve never been in a hot air balloon.

It was a perfect evening to see our beautiful Berkshire Hills in all their late summer glory. At least, that’s what I repeated to myself as the balloons were inflated and my knees shook. Did I tell you I’m a nervous flier? I’ve been in all kinds of planes from two-seaters over the African jungle to jumbo jets around the world. I’ve even been in a glider. I’ve sat in 747 cockpits with jet pilots while they expressed their adoration for all those dials. I’ve taken the joystick of a two-seater in an effort by the pilot to have me “feel her soul.” I’ve read all the books and I understand why planes stay up there. As a friend of mine says, “Planes fly because of the laws of physics, not in spite of them.”

Nothing’s worked. I still experience at least one moment of abject terror every time I fly and that’s if there are no bumps. It comes down to this - I just don’t trust those engines and I don’t like knowing that I’m 30,000 feet in the air with no way out. (I always choose an aisle seat because looking down reminds me that we’re not on the ground.)

So, riding in a hot air balloon powered by a propane flame thrower, with a pilot dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt and being told that it would be better if my partner and I didn’t travel in the same balloon together wasn’t my idea of must-have recreation no matter how glorious the early evening light was!

And then we had to sign those releases. You know, the ones that tell you that you can’t hold the pilot responsible if you impale on a church steeple or the balloon goes up in flames. I made light of it, of course, because everyone else was being so carefree and also because I knew they were watching me. Gaily, I jumped into the basket and fell into deep prayer wishing I’d taken a seasick pill.

It makes a lot of noise when they pump that blow torch to keep the air in the balloon warmer than the ambient temperature. “Heat rises, cold sinks” became my mantra as we floated gently away. When the blow torch wasn’t in operation and singeing the top of my head, things were blissfully quiet and serene. The hills revealed their secrets, unfathomable from the ground. We discovered grand houses tucked into hillsides; formal gardens; lakes and ponds. We floated over trees so close we picked leaves from their very top branches. We looked for bear and deer in usually impenetrable woodland.

Our beautiful Berkshires Hills – the roots of mountains that used to be higher than the Rockies – spread out all around us in a shimmering blue light. Yes, this was worth it. This was actually fun.

Oh, I forgot to tell you that balloons can be made to go up and down but not sideways, so when I asked the pilot, “Where are we going to land?” His answer was, “I haven’t got a clue.” He did reveal that he planned to fly over the upcoming ridge. A slightly frantic, I thought, pumping of the Bunsen burner gave us enough lift to float over the ridge with not much to spare. And we did bump into our sister balloon as they got caught up in an air current that drove them backwards and into us. We have handprints on our balloon to prove it.

It eventually occurred to me that perhaps we were running out of propane since we had switched to the second tank and there’d been quite a bit of flame pumping going on. Sure enough our pilot started to make noises about looking for a field. In case he missed them, we were happy to help and pointed to several large, green, soft spaces close at hand. Remember I said that a balloon can’t go sideways? This is when I fully appreciated the phrase, “So near and yet so far,” as we had to leave a number of tantalizingly close meadows behind.

I have no sense of direction so trying to figure out where we were was impossible and everything looks so different from a hot air balloon. However, I did know that we were dangerously close to heading for the State of New York and hundreds of acres of dense woodland. But those puckish air currents just wouldn’t cooperate. Then, suddenly we were headed for a lush alfalfa field – the last green space before we hit NY. We were instructed to bend our knees and hold on tight. No problem. We bounced a few times and were down, exhilarated, congratulating each other and talking about when we could do it again. Now here comes the good part.

This unpredictable, uncontrollable balloon had landed in a field next to the house where I started the company fifteen years ago! It’s true. (My neighbors came running out to welcome us.) I know this sounds ridiculous, but it’s almost as if the balloon had deliberately taken us back to the beginning to show us how far we’d come. Lots of hugs and tears.

Our fifteen years since we started the company have been a soaring balloon ride with risk, unpredictability, adventure and quite a bit of hot air thrown in. But more than anything else it has been a ride full of beauty and discovery and connection.

Who needs to go sideways when you can go up?