Flowers and Light: Datura

The datura bush in my front yard is blooming now. Flowering is not new to this plant: as a tender perennial, it regrew from roots that did not freeze last winter and in early summer sported a few blossoms to celebrate being alive again. Since then, it has become a gargantuan, spreading mass, taking over its end of the flower bed and swallowing the sidewalk to my front door. A homeowner more hospitable than I would have cut the bush back to clear the path, but once I saw the hundred or so buds poking through the broad green leaves, I chose Beauty over neighborliness. For just a few days this week, I get to host a flower show’s profusion of large, trumpet-shaped white flowers. They bloom at night and glow in the indirect light of early morning, before wilting and dying under the afternoon sun. The next morning’s bloom presents an entirely new set of fresh flowers.

The bright light of midday bleaches the flowers of color: they appear simply white. Photographing them in the early morning, before direct sun touches them, reveals pale hints of lavendar at the fringe and pointy tips of the trumpets’ edges.  At this time of day, the flowers behave like stained glass, painting the light that bounces around them and passes through them with prismatic color. Photo editing can exaggerate this effect.


Boosting vibrance and saturation pulls more pink and blue out of the white flower. Manipulating image highlights reveals texture and cellular structure in the soft, fragile trumpet. When I produce photos that make these blooms glow with an eerie light, I find a new perspective on the flower known as “sacred datura.” See more at my Sacred Datura Gallery.

Waking up to Global Warming

It’s been a little over four months since I flew home from a 10-day trip to England.  My very first! I attended an interdisciplinary conference at Oxford on “Religion, Women and History” (and noted the ironic lack of Oxford comma in the title), developed satisfactory left-hand lane driving skills (with stick shift and without destroying the clutch), toured special places I’d long dreamed of visiting (Ah, Kelmscott! I love you even more, William Morris), discovered the delights of “a pitcher of Pimm’s with all the trims,” and enjoyed an all-around good time.  The British are delightully polite, witty, friendly people.  Old Oxford feels like an academic’s paradise: fortunate are they whom the gods have favored with full-time study or employment there.  I would go back to Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds in a heartbeat.  If only.

Even flying, which I generally dislike, was tolerable because the airline’s route to London took us north, over other places I had never before seen: far north into Canada, over Hudson’s Bay and the southern tip of Greenland, skirting the northern coast of Ireland, before landing at Gatwick. Sunset on the way to England lingered for what seemed like hours, a tight band of vivid red light hugging the northern horizon.  Regrettably, the flight attendant demanded “Shade down!” so that other passengers could have darkness for sleeping.  Spoil sports.

Thus, I missed seeing Greenland as we flew over during the early, early morning hours.  Going home on a morning departure from Gatwick, however, provided the perfect midday opportunity to study the glaciers.  Good old iPhone recorded some stunning landscapes despite the pitted glass of the airplane window.  This image, in particular, continues to haunt me.

greenland melt

You are seeing, in the foreground, a small section of the southeast shore. Barren rock has been exposed near the water, as well as further back where the ice’s bright white appearance suggests the glacier remains thick/deep there. The ice seen along the top and right edges of the water is different, slushy gray, and a careful eye can find the innumerable bright blue puddles formed in the slush’s wrinkles and crevices at the image’s lower-right corner.  Perhaps more troubling, three distinct sets of flow lines reveal where ice melt from the bright-white areas is seeping through the slush to the bay. How wide do you think each water flow is on the ground, given that the photo was taken at 35,000 feet of elevation? How many gallons of fresh water might be running off the glacier, into the North Atlantic Ocean?

These are but intellectual questions. What haunts me are the personal conundrums presented by the act of discovering glacial melt and global warming from the privileged perspective provided by a jet-fueled Airbus.  Was my epiphany worth my share of the billions of greenhouse gas molecules this passenger jet spewed into the atmosphere?  The point is not that I could have, should have taken advantage of the guilt-greening market mechanism—buy “carbon offset credits”—that airlines and other carbon-intensive industries offer their consumers.  A “better than nothing” trade in feel-good carbon credits dodges the real issue: How much longer can our planet tolerate our fossil-fuel fueled mobility? Cutting closer to the bone, now that I have seen the environmental effects of my life-style choices, what can I do to reduce my carbon burden? I had hoped to do more world traveling after retiring from teaching, but now, it seems, this recent trip to England must remain my farthest and last international trip.  What, then, of my twice-yearly flights between Las Vegas and the US East Coast to visit my aging parents and other family members? The geophysics of climate change care not that I have these emotional attachments nor that, 30 years ago, I chose to move away from “home” because I believed I could always visit whenever I wanted.  When 19th-century pioneers dragged their futures in Conestoga wagons across a wild continent, they accepted that they were, in fact, severing familial ties with those left behind. Can I live with the compromise of abandoning siblings and cousins after my parents die? Can I, instead, expect Amtrak to save my future Thanksgivings and Easters by building a transcontinental mag-lev train system?  In my lifetime?

Dear thoughtful Reader, you must know that my questioning does not end here, but this blog post must. I have no answers, and I must weep.

Calling All Stargazers!

Welcome to April 14, the day before Income Tax Day here in the US. For those who are celebrating having filed their tax forms, who are needing stress relief to meet tomorrow’s deadline, or who enjoy having any excuse to party under the stars, the universe at midnight (PDT) gives the gift of a lunar eclipse.

One feature making this eclipse special is its totality’s visibility to most of the United States; only our friends in far-west Alaska and New England will see a partial eclipse. Notably, most of Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East won’t see an eclipse at all.

The more unusual feature is this eclipse’s position as the first in a tetrad of lunar eclipses, the second tetrad of 8 such sequences occurring this century. Whether you believe this lunar eclipse and its tetrad signify “The End Times” or you appreciate it as a natural phenomenon of our amazing cosmos, you might decide it’s worthwhile being a little sleepy at work or school tomorrow to go out and observe tonight’s spectacular sky show.

For those who prefer a good night’s rest, Changing Woman offers this post’s title image of a beautiful earthbound “Stargazer” for your meditation and enjoyment.

A Discovery in My Backyard Wilderness

During a recent storm, the ancient, huge prickly pear cactus behind our backyard shed collapsed. Fortunately, with my holiday break from teaching, I had plenty of time to complete the cleanup. Just yesterday, I finished the chore by raking up the cactus, leaf, and trash litter that had collected behind the shed. Just beyond the tip of the shovel I was using to pick up the debris, a flash of movement caught my attention. I had to look closely to find the small, camouflaged creature who had just barely escaped the metal blade: a Mediterranean house gecko!

Studying the gecko’s pink mottled skin, I began to wonder if I had seen it before, as the tiny baby lizard I had rescued from inside my house just after moving in. Our very first night, walking along the carpeted hallway, I saw movement by the baseboard. But then I had such a difficult time finding what had moved, since its color–unlike that of most insects–was so similar to the carpet’s. The experience was as if a speck of carpet fluff had spontaneously come alive to scurry away from my feet. When it fled into the bathroom, we could see it wasn’t an insect, and we used a glass to trap it and give it closer inspection. We were beholding the most delicately formed lizard with pink transparent skin! Not wanting to give our cats another chance to find it, I took the baby lizard outside to the shelter of a mock orange bush, hoping a bird wouldn’t discover it, either. Finding yesterday’s lizard felt very good, like a promise that this new backyard would continue unfolding secrets of nature that I will always treasure.

Please note: Today’s slideshow contains two images of the gecko. To activate the slideshow, click the “Play” triangle below the picture.

Celebrate Christmas at Christmas Tree Pass!

So, it’s Christmas day in Southern Nevada: the luster of newly opened presents is already fading, a malaise of “Is that all there is?” is settling over the family room, and little storm clouds are brewing on the horizon of your children’s boredom. But outside, the sky is bright blue, the sun is shining, and unseasonably warm weather beckons. What do you do? Why not pack the kids into the family car—or, better yet, SUV—and surprise them with an adventure along Christmas Tree Pass?

Accessible from Hwy 95 south of Cal-Nev-Ari or from Hwy 163 west of Laughlin, Christmas Tree Pass is a dirt-and-gravel scenic drive that leads to a display of decorated juniper trees. A few of my favorites from my recent holiday’s excursion are featured in this slideshow.

Christmas Tree Pass – Images by Jennifer Nelson

The trees are situated along the highest, narrowest, and most twisty part of the road (the middle, closer to Hwy 95 than to Hwy 163). Since no one lives along this back country byway, you’ll have no difficulty convincing the young ones that Santa’s elves created this high-country Christmas display out in the middle of nowhere.

That isolation, of course, means you need to travel smart. Yes, the 12-mile road is in generally good condition when it’s dry though a couple rutted and steep sections can pose challenges for low-clearance cars and inexperienced drivers. If the weather has recently rained or snowed, do not attempt this excursion in anything but a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle. Pack a picnic with plenty of water in addition to the juices and sodas your clan usually drinks. There are spots among the trees where you can park off the road and allow the children to explore. Yes, you’re in snake country, but even on winter’s warm days those creatures are hibernating. If you want to experience Christmas at other times of year, the trees will still be decorated, but you will want to be more cautious of where and how you walk through the rocky desert.

With the right precautions and a wondering spirit, traveling along Christmas Tree Pass can be a gift of experience the whole family will enjoy.

"Show and Tell" from Changing Woman Photography