Snowflake Bentley’s passion for the beauty and wonder of nature


The snow this morning has me thinking about beauty, which always reminds me of Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley. I had never heard of him until about twelve years ago when I was taking a break at a cross-country ski lodge. Someone had made a poster of his photographs, which are distinctly striking: glowing white crystals on a black background. Cross-country skiers tend to worship the snow with a reverence and humility that is more rare among downhillers, who can rely on snow machines and lifts to ensure a good ski day.

Bentley was born during the Civil War in Jericho, a remote farming community in the Vermont mountains. Largely self-educated, he became fascinated as a teen with looking at natural objects through a microscope. He spent hours studying drops of water, fragments of stone, feathers, and flower petals. But snowflakes captured his heart early on: Continue reading

Shale gas drilling and the many faces of interdependence


I just finished “The Real Cost of Fracking: How America’s Shale Gas Boom Is Threatening Our Families, Pets, and Food,” by Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald. It’s got me thinking about interdependence, the reality that we are all connected through myriad threads, whether we acknowledge it or not. This book is full of gripping stories of people whose lives have been turned upside down by shale gas drilling in their pristine, rural communities.

On one level, it’s a nine-chapter slog through egregious practices by sloppy, greedy drillers and their disregard for farmers and for public health, as well as their shocking ignorance of the laws of physics (I mean, who really believes it’s fine to spread toxic wastewater on roads to “keep the dirt down”?). Continue reading

Failure is an option


People who research creativity and innovation tell us that the willingness to risk is a critical factor. Fear of failure shuts down creativity. At IDEO, a world-renowned design firm, their motto is “Fail early and fail often.” In the art classroom at my son’s grade school was a beautiful, handmade sign in rainbow letters that said, “Mistakes are treasures.”

My own relationship with risk and failure is evolving. A child of a grand perfectionist, I learned early to do everything possible to avoid failure. I never knowingly took risks and resisted mightily when in situations so challenging as to be ripe for failure. It took sailboat racing to reveal the unique freedom that’s concealed within failure. Continue reading



Our boat had just been yanked one-hundred-eighty degrees, spun on her keel in the opposite direction, and was now screaming northward up the Bay, back the way we had come. In the blackness, we could see nothing – not land, not a buoy, not another boat or – ominously – any ships.

“Why did you tack?” I yelled, to be heard above the storm.

“I didn’t,” my husband answered. “I’m just going with the wind.”

He knew that resistance was not only futile; it would be dangerous and stupid in the face of such omnipotent, unseen forces. His unquestioning compliance was the right response in a situation like that: a sudden thunderstorm sweeping over us in the dead of night. Continue reading

Beneath the crust


A spring storm battered Baltimore for two days in April 2014. After a record-setting winter of Arctic cold and snowstorms that broke water mains and opened potholes, the second day of rain fell in a deluge, flooding roads and softening the ground beneath the crust of asphalt and concrete. In one neighborhood block, the parking lane began to sag, cars listing to starboard against the curb. A small crowd gathered in the rain to document the event on smart phones and trade complaints.

“I’ve been trying for three years to get it done right.”

“We’ve got hundreds of pictures of this. They’ve been out here ten times and all they do is try and fill it in.”

And then, as they watched, everything exited the scene: street trees just leafing out, wrought iron light poles, cars, paving, fence, and stone retaining wall slid twenty feet to the railroad tracks below. Cries of alarm and outrage erupted on the video as a plume of dust rose and subsided. Continue reading

Shining Clarity

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At the end of a yoga class a while back, I was visited by a marvelous insight. The class sat facing the teacher after Savasana for our Namaste and goodbye. I caught sight of someone’s water bottle standing alone in the space between the group and the teacher. It was a clear orangey plastic and the water inside was glowing with light. Looking around, the room was rather dim. The windows were far away from this spot. Certainly, no direct shaft of light was hitting the bottle. I imagined that light is as dense and real a medium as air, and as ever-present. It takes a glowing water bottle to reveal that. As though the water is in league with the light — standing in the gravity-defying vertical column of that vessel.

The sudden insight was this: we are like that water in the bottle. Our substance can glow just like that — as the light flows around and through us. Continue reading

Shedding Water

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Learning architecture properly takes years, decades really. Architecture students are notoriously dedicated to their design studios and lackluster about all other subjects, including what was called in my day, “Tech,” but is now “Building Science,” the study of the physical realities of buildings. Tech Professors were always the geekiest and most boring people, wash-ups from related professions like mechanical equipment sales. Stupid from all nighters in the design studio, we weathered their classes in a sleep-deprived haze. We pried our eyelids open in cavernous basement classrooms to view forensic slides of rotted insulation and rusting metal structures, failures that could have been avoided with better window flashing.

Jim Tuley, my graduate school detailing professor, changed all that. He approached detailing – the intricate thinking-through of how a building is put together – with the focus of a Zen monk and the casual profanity of a 1960s Malibu surfer. Continue reading