Where there's a wall, there's a way
May 21, 2012
Like a roving news team, this month’s update comes to you from inside the cozy confines of the Writing Sanctuary. That is newsworthy only in so far as we don’t spend much time there these days, given our varied leisure pursuits and the fact that the room has gotten much smaller. No, the walls have not magically contracted, but rather the desks and floors have become repositories for piles of books, boxes and discarded electronic appliances that leave us with precious little space to get to the writing desk. We haven’t reached hoarder status quite yet, but sometimes it feels that way.
The only way to combat this problem is to retrieve some space in the garage, and the only way to do that is to toss a bunch of the junk that truly does qualify as junk, but that we can’t get rid of because we need to rent a garbage Dumpster. Which, if you recall last month’s missive, was the reason we started working on the second retaining wall in our garden, the goal being that it would rid our garden of a giant pile of sand and allow us access to the leftover remains of the dismantled spa we dumped there more than a year and a half ago. Once that task is accomplished, then we can rent the Dumpster and have enough stuff to put into it to justify its cost. See, everything has an order to it.
We bought 650 keystone wall blocks from Lowe’s the middle of last month and had them plopped on our driveway, where Glenn moved about 400 of them in the first weekend. The remaining two pallets sat in the driveway near the garage for nearly three weeks before he finally conquered them, waiting to see where in the yard they would be needed so they could be deposited closest to the wall that was under construction. He worked west from the garden stairs, digging out a few feet of trench for the footing each day and laying the blocks for each wall section before proceeding. While this provided the instant gratification of seeing a finished wall march across the yard, it did not ensure that everything would be perfectly straight or level despite leveling the new section’s base course each day. So there are a few spots where the wall is higher or lower by inches than it probably should be, a little closer to the fence in spots than we wanted it.
One of those places was at the brick staircase behind Winter’s Garden. The stairs have never been heavily used despite their location at the end of our flagstone path because they don’t go anywhere. There is no gate in the back fence at that point, and the stairs stop before the second tier of the wall. We use them mainly to get to the top of the first tier of wall blocks on the occasions when we need to access stuff up there. The plan was to build the second tier wall right over the top step so that the wall would continue uninterrupted to its conclusion at the side yard fence. But that’s not exactly what happened.
By the time he had built the wall to within 15 feet of the stairs, Glenn realized that the base course was a bit too high to match the height of the bricks. That meant the wall would either have to noticeably raise up a couple of inches or lower by about that much. The only other solution the one Roni advocated for was to build the wall around the stairs, which was something we could easily do. The result was a small alcove in the wall about a foot deep. The stairs still don’t go anywhere, but at least now we’re thinking creatively about how to use them. Perhaps stick a potted plant on top of them.
Working steadily for nearly four weeks, Glenn finally used up the last of the purchased blocks the morning of May 12, finishing everything but a small section near the garden. The nine blocks we were short would be easy enough to transport home in the car, so we made a second trip to Lowe’s and picked them up along with a few tomato and herb seedlings that Roni wanted for her summer vegetable garden. At home, Glenn plopped the last blocks into place and we took in the scope of the finished product that was our new wall. It was massive compared to the 12-inch tall redwood boards we had been using to support the second tier, and one would think that more than doubling that height would leave tons of space behind it for the storage of the sand pile we were anxious to remove from the garden.
But one would be wrong.
While indeed there were plenty of voids to fill with the new wall in place, the fact was that we didn’t account for the batter of the blocks eating into the space. For each of the seven courses of the wall, each successive course is set back half an inch from the one below it, which means you lose three inches between the top course and the bottom one. The reason for this is that if you built the wall straight up and down with no batter, gravity would eventually topple it over. The blocks are designed with a half-inch lip on them to ensure that they are properly stacked. Three inches might not sound like a lot, but multiply that by more than 105 feet the total length of our wall and you quickly discover how it alters your plans.
We needed to accommodate all the sand excavated from what eventually will become our garden pond. Since February 2011, that sand has been piled in the garden, rendering it essentially useless for other activities. We joke that it is our mini Mount Diablo, and truly it is steep enough that hiking over it to reach the other end of the weed-filled yard might be considered a decent workout. The pile represents perhaps 1,000 gallons of sand. At least, that’s about how much water the spa holds. Moving it to where it was needed beind the retaining wall would be an involved process of shoveling the sand into a 5-gallon plastic bucket, walking the bucket up the garden stairs and then dumping it in the wheelbarrow. Each wheelbarrow trip could accommodate four buckets of sand, so about 20 gallons per load. So far, Glenn has made 22 trips 440 gallons and has yet to carve a path through the giant sand pile. The space behind the wall is mostly filled up. This is a problem. Stay tuned.
It has been a busy month for Roni and the Delta Science Center. Spring marks the beginning of festival season, which means many opportunities to spread the word about the DSC’s activities to the public. The unofficial kickoff to this season’s exhibition schedule came April 21 in Martinez at the John Muir Birthday Earth Day Celebration.
Held at the John Muir National Historic Site, the environmental themed event was a combined celebration of Earth Day and the 174th birthday of John Muir, nature lover and co-founder of the Sierra Club. It was our first time visiting the famed John Muir House, and it turned out to be a splendid weekend for a festival.
The estate is on hilly terrain and set back deep from the main roadway. We had to drive onto the property through the front entrance, drop off our gear along the path near our booth site, then leave the property through the back gate and park the car at a union hall on the opposite side of the main street and hike back up the path to the festival site. Fortunately our booth was right beside the path, so we didn’t have far to lug our gear, and the canopy and tables were provided by the festival organizers, so there was little setup required on our part. We just put out some tablecloths, set up some literature, and we were ready to go by the time the show started at 10 a.m.
The weather was quite warm, bordering on hot. It didn’t seem to deter anyone from showing up, however. There was a steady crowd of people coming by the booth all day. We took turns watching the booth so that we could both wander the grounds and check out some of the other attractions. There were several different folk music acts that performed on the main stage, local groups promoting their causes at neighboring booths, and tours of the historic John Muir House where the famous author wrote most of his works. The house, which once was in such poor shape that it was nearly bulldozed, was lovingly restored by subsequent owners and is today a popular tourist destination. Glenn took the self-guided tour, visiting both of the two living floors, the attic and the belltower, which on this day was like visiting a sauna. The dozens of kids visiting the house enjoyed pulling on the bell cord incessantly, so not only did one roast while standing in the belltower gazing out at the Martinez vista, but also went deaf.
The highlight of the afternoon’s festivities was the serving of cake and singing happy birthday to John Muir, who was represented by a white-bearded actor well known for that role. After all, at 174 it wasn’t likely that the guest of honor could himself attend. During a short speech to the crowd, “Muir” quipped about having received a congratulatory telephone call earlier in the day from Teddy Roosevelt. If only.
The following week, Roni’s DSC involvement brought her to Holy Rosary School in Antioch, where she gave a slide presentation about the Delta and its wildlife to several hundred kids ranging in age from kindergarten to middle school. It was easily the largest audience she has presented to. The youngest kids got to hear a story about the life of a sturgeon and make paper masks of the endangered San Joaquin kit fox, then they all got to peek at aquariums filled with various types of Delta fish as they filed out of the auditorium. The DSC is starting to do more classroom presentations because schools don’t have money to budget for field trips and the talks are an inexpensive way of bringing the educational program into the schools. Roni wishes she had a larger staff of volunteers to produce more programs for the local schools.
On Saturday, April 28, the DSC was on the road again for the annual Oakley Science Week event held at the Ironhouse Sanitary District property. We were grateful that it was a short drive this time, even if there was more setup work of the booth required. This time we had to set up our own canopy and tables, and because Roni was also coordinating the booth display for the Ironhouse crew, that left less time for her to work on the DSC booth. Fortunately she had Glenn and Ben to help, so they spent most of the day in the DSC booth while Roni split time between there and the ISD booth, working with kids to teach them about water quality testing.
The theme of the DSC’s booth for the science week event was sturgeon. Originally the idea was to have a fish tank on display in which there would be a sturgeon caught from our own Delta waters. The problem is that sturgeon become scarce in these parts after the winter months, and legally you can’t keep them if they are under 48 inches. A 4-foot sturgeon in a 3-foot tank wouldn’t fit very well anyway, so we would have had to put it in a kids wading pool or something similar. Besides, a 4-foot sturgeon is relatively puny; they can grow up to 12 feet or more and live up to 100 years. Roni wanted audiences to see the full effect of a huge prehistoric fish. The only way to achieve that was to make one ourselves.
Roni put Glenn in charge of the project (or rather Glenn volunteered) to create a large sturgeon cutout. With his recent experience making yard art of silhouetted cowboys and coyotes for Christmas gifts, he thought he could do the same for fish. We bought a 4’x8’ sheet of masonite from Lowe’s and split it right down the center. From that, Glenn traced a pattern and cut out an 8-foot sturgeon that he then spent several days painting. The job was more challenging than the cowboy cutouts, which only required a few coats of flat black paint. The sturgeon required multiple coats and colors, and Glenn had to learn some sponging and blending skills to make it look halfway credible.
In the end, the fish was completed in time for its debut in the DSC booth for Oakley Science Week. We hung it up using fishing line in the front of the canopy, where it was an attention getter as folks arrived to see the booths. The quarter-inch masonite was light and flexible, which made it easy for one person to carry around, but unfortunately meant it wasn’t as durable as a thicker material like plywood. The sturgeon cutout held up well and survived the day mostly unscathed, except for losing its whiskers when someone accidentally bumped into it. Nothing a little glue won’t fix. The fish was retired after the event to the wall of Roni’s office, where it now serves as a conversation piece for the occasional visitor.
May 14 found Roni back in the classroom, only this time it was at Lauritzen Yacht Harbor to host a field trip of Gehringer School students from Oakley. The kids got to learn about water quality testing and zooplankton, which are the nearly microscopic critters that inhabit the water in the Delta and provide food for such things as fish. The DSC recently acquired a plastic magnifier box that the kids can hold up to their eyes to see the plankton swimming around inside. Roni used a 5-gallon plastic bucket to fish the plankton out of the water near the yacht harbor’s fuel dock. She had to get them at low tide so there would be enough for the kids to see, but the ones she did catch were in many cases large enough to see with the naked eye.
Ben celebrated his 18th birthday on May 2, a milestone we’d been anticipating since 1994 and just didn’t expect to arrive so quickly. We celebrated by taking him and his friends Alexis and Aaron out to dinner at the Golden Dragon Buffet in Antioch, one of Ben’s favorite dining spots. Afterward we came back home for cake and ice cream and the eventual unveiling of presents. Ben really wanted the new wireless Xbox, which served as his main present. He wasted no time hooking it up to the large tube TV in his bedroom and now can play online with his friends without disturbing the rest of the house there are few things louder than a teenage boy chatting with friends over Xbox Live.
Ben’s personal goal for his birthday was to secure his learner’s permit from the DMV, which he had tried to do in March with no success. The permit application allows three attempts at the written test, so he went back for another try on May 1. You are only allowed to miss six questions, and when he failed the test on the second try the clerk suggested he retake it right away while the information was still fresh in his mind. He came ohsoclose the third time around, but missed it by one. Devastated, he spent the next week studying and returned to the DMV on May 8 for a fresh attempt at the permit test. On his fourth attempt he missed 11 questions and decided to try again immediately. It was on the fifth go-around that he at last made the cut, and proudly called Dad at work to announce his success.
Now comes the tricky part, which is finding out about insurance so that he can get behind the wheel and practice for a while.