Photogenic blasting grit

Some people go through the ritual of making new year’s resolutions. I don’t. Instead I try to seize on the urge to reform when the urge is fresh, and that can happen at random times during the year. On January 1, my urges are more predictable: please, no more cookies.

That’s not to say I don’t have a new year’s ritual. I do. I take down the old wall calendars and put up the new ones.

In recent years, I’ve been fortunate enough to receive a calendar from a geologist friend, Kate Clover. Kate and several others, including photographer Leo Kenney, create a calendar with photos of sand from around the world. I’m pleased to say that sand I collected inspired a photo in their 2012 calendar. The sand, dredged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, came from the Mississippi River near the I-35W bridge.

Sand dredged from the Mississippi River at the I-35W bridge. Photo by Leo Kenney

Last spring, Kate and Leo offered preliminary ideas on what was in the sand, but they revised their thinking on the identity of the black, hollowed-out orb in the lower right of the photo. Originally they thought it might be buckshot, but now they think it’s sand-blasting grit.

On a sunny, unseasonably warm January day, I spent an hour browsing through abrasive blasting websites, and I think it’s likely that the sand-blasting grit in my Mississippi River sand was manufactured in China. One website described abrasive blasting this way: it “uses mechanical energy to hurl particles at high speeds against metallic and non-metallic surfaces, removing paints and other organic coatings.”

Somebody at some time in the fairly recent past repainted or removed rust from a Minneapolis bridge, probably the old 35W bridge, or perhaps a bridge upstream. At least some of the blasting grit wound up in the river.

It was clear last spring that the sand grains in this sample showed great range in their geologic provenance, less so in geographic origin — they all came from points north. But if I’m right that the grit came from China, the sand grains in our Midwestern river are much more the world travelers than I thought.

See Leo Kenney’s sand photo gallery for a peek at just how beautiful and variable sand can be.



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You plant potatoes, you get potatoes

It’s no mystery to me why I find beauty in the industrial relics of southeast Minneapolis.

I grew up on my dad’s photographs. A chemical engineer and a serious amateur photographer, he loved to shoot pictures of rusty valves, pipes and the decrepit interiors of abandoned flour mills.

Here’s to my dad, Walter Monson Westberg, 1921 – 2011, and to the powerful influence he had on me.

North Shore Grain Elevators. Photo by Walter Westberg

Electric Steel Elevator. Photo by Lisa Peters

Pressure Vessel. Photo by Walter Westberg

St. Anthony Falls Laboratory Valve. Photo by Lisa Peters

Mill Stairs. Photo by Walter Westberg

Pillsbury A Mill Window. Photo by Lisa Peters

St. Paul Skyline. Photo by Walter Westberg

Minneapolis Skyline. Photo by Lisa Peters

Self-portrait. Photo by Walter Westberg

Lisa. Photo by Walter Westberg



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Two photos: going wide, going deep

Two great panoramic photos that feature or include southeast Minneapolis are part of a current exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts: Wide-Eyed: Panoramic Photographs.

The first was created by a contemporary photographer, Jonathon Wells, who is also a geologist. He spent several years working on this composite of surface topography and subsurface geology. He exaggerated the vertical scale so that the image is dominated by massive layers of limestone and shale representing millions of years of sediments left behind by oceans. The teeny buildings on the surface represent a few decades of human civilization. It’s a strikingly fresh perspective.

Photo-geologic composite by Jonathon Wells

Wells flew over the Twin Cities four times and shot overlapping images on the transect (the blue line) shown below. He used a Canon 50D camera.

Image by Jonathon Wells

If I’ve figured it correctly, the cross-section intersects the Mississippi River valley in Minneapolis just downstream of the Washington Avenue bridge.

Wells had to drive to southeastern Minnesota and Wisconsin to find good exposures of the same kinds of rock that lie beneath our city. He estimates that he took about 350 photos altogether.

After all the driving and flying came the computer wizardry of blending hundreds of photos into one artistic image. In all, the project took several years. Wells describes himself as both a patient person and perfectionist, and he wonders whether other people might consider him a little crazy as well. I don’t. Accomplishing such a fresh view of the world takes time (and in this case, plenty of skill, a digital camera and sophisticated computer software).

I mentioned that there were two photos. The photographer who took the second panorama on display at the MIA also possessed great skill, but after that, everything was different. Benjamin Franklin Upton moved from Maine to my neighborhood in 1856, which at the time was the pioneer town of St. Anthony. He had started his career as a daguerreotypist, a trickier word to spell than say, but it was just an early form of photography.

The panorama at the art institute is titled, St. Anthony and Minneapolis from the Roof of the Winslow House. It’s comprised of eight images taken with an 8 x 10 view camera, a large format camera that offers high resolution. I think of famous landscape photographers like Ansel Adams when I think of large format.

Upton’s subject was his new home. The Winslow House stood at the top of the river bluff near today’s 2nd Street SE and Central Avenue. Here is one of the eight images:

Benjamin Franklin Upton photo, Minneapolis Institute of Arts Collection

Upton was married and had a family, but it sounds as though he lived like a wandering minstrel. He traveled by wagon, which also served as gallery, occasional living quarters and storage locker for his equipment.

When he and his family left Minnesota for Florida about twenty years later, he continued to take photos, traveling by boat, railroad handcar and bicycle to get the right shot.

The exhibit at the MIA will be up until late January. I recommend it.

I found information about Benjamin Franklin Upton in a book called Pioneer Photographers From the Mississippi to the Continental Divide by Peter E. Palmquist. And I’d like to thank Jonathon Wells for answering my questions and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for permission to use a photo from its collection.


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Who’s eating the local fruit?

It’s not quite winter, but we’re well into the Dark Season, a reference to the tough electromagnetic spot we find ourselves in every year because of our planet’s axial tilt. I also think of it as the Gray Season, no reference to tilt, just a nod to snow clouds and muted landscapes.

Last week, I went out looking for a spot of color that would brighten a late-fall day. I wanted to find something a little more satisfying than stop signs and bright-orange construction barrels, and I think I did. Right here in the urban jungle, I found a substantial supply of wild berries in a variety of colors. Here’s a sampling:

Bitter nightshade The name alone discourages human consumption. Bitter! Who needs it? They look delicious, but for us, they’re slightly toxic and, therefore, forbidden fruit.

Bitter nightshade berries

Wild grapes  I used to eat wild grapes when I was a kid. I don’t remember any pies or jelly, just one grape at a time taken from the vines near our treehouse. I believe we also threw them at each other. Why not.

Guthrie-blue grapes

Buckthorn This is the bad boy of invasive species in Minnesota. People all over the state are trying to eliminate buckthorn. I have mixed feelings about this incredible effort. I’m fond of all the native species that buckthorn out-competes, but is it possible to keep the invader out? I’m not sure. These berries don’t lend much color to the landscape, but I felt I had to include them on this list because they’re abundant on the Mississippi River banks and flats.

Buckthorn berries and the Pillsbury red tile elevator

Highbush cranberries  I tried to make jam or jelly or something like that out of highbush cranberries one year. A disaster. This photo was taken from behind the closed gate at Xcel Energy’s Water Power Park. I suggest they keep the park open all year so that we can get better photos of the berries.

Highbush cranberries in Xcel Energy's Water Power Park

Who is eating all these urban berries? Urban birds, of course. But on this day, all I saw were seed eaters. A flock of juncos was working the ground and chickadees were searching in the trees.

On another day, though, I finally spotted a berry eater, a cardinal — no slouch when it comes to bright color. He was perched on the branch of a tree near the railroad tracks. Every once in a while, he’d launch himself and hover like a little red helicopter next to a cluster of wild grapes. He would pluck one from the vine, then go back to his branch to eat it.

The sun was nearly down (dark season), which rendered the colors dull (gray season). I didn’t have the camera anyway, so you’ll just have to take my word for it: I did finally see a locavore taking advantage of the local produce. If I see him again, and if I have the camera, I’ll try to capture the moment.





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The eponymous bridge: one year later

After my last post (the one with the blinking red adverbs), this week’s words might look a little plain. Black, no red anywhere.

For me, however, this post sings and shouts in another way: it’s the one-year anniversary of my blog. Time for an update on the bridge that inspired this blog, and time to speculate about its future.

In my first post, I mentioned that my favorite bridge was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Since then, I have picked the brains of some very smart historians — Susan Roth, Denis Gardner, and John Smoley — to see whether I should nominate it.

For now, I’ve given up the idea because the bridge has no immediate threats — demolition, development or rapid deterioration.

Meanwhile, a fancy security camera was installed on the bridge. I didn’t notice it at first, but here it is, casting its 360 degree gaze.

I assumed it was there to record the identities of property vandals. Wrong. The city and the federal government got together and installed the camera as part of a larger project to increase security on the Minneapolis riverfront.

Bridge 9, an out-of-the-way walking bridge was an area of concern, in part, because…it’s an out-of-the way walking bridge. It also happens to be just downstream from the Lower St. Anthony Falls lock and dam.

Security experts apparently felt that terrorists could walk across the bridge in relative privacy to commit their mayhem.

This may be true. I’m not a security expert. But I do find it odd that I abandoned an effort to protect the bridge because I felt that it faced no immediate threat, and now, it turns out, Homeland Security thinks the bridge itself poses something of a threat.

Well. In honor of this ironic quirk, the security camera and I had a stare-down the other day.

I suspect the security camera won.

So much for 2011. What about the future? Repairs to a deteriorating pier,

MnDOT inspection photo

are on the city’s public works wish list for 2014. But in its five-year plan, the city ranks this project near the bottom, just above the “alley renovation program.” Yikes. The pier repairs might not happen for a while.

In my first post, I expressed the hope that someone would paint the bridge a more dignified color than pink. That project isn’t on the books yet. Some people, however, have suggested painting the sign on the downstream side.

View is from downstream on the west bank

I like that idea, but I’m not sure how many folks would rise up and demand it.

Going out on a limb here, my predictions for Bridge 9 in 2012:

  • The security camera probably won’t record anything too dramatic;
  • Bicycle traffic will increase when the U of M Bikeway opens in the spring;
  • The pink railings and the North Coast Limited sign will continue to fade.

Considering all the times I’ve declared that the world is going to hell, these predictions of relative calm seem downright good.

Thanks to John Smoley, Ole Mersinger and Tracy Downing, all of the city of Minneapolis, for taking the time to answer questions.



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Digging around for adverbs in the Central Corridor

Adverbs aren’t my favorite part of speech. In fact, they are one reason I gave up on the Harry Potter books. If someone had vacuumed up the adverbs, I might have been able to get through the series.

I prefer colorful verbs to colorful adverbs, but I have a work-related need to brush up on my grammar. The trouble is, the more you look at adverbs, the weirder they get.

I’ve learned that most adverbs tell us where, when, why, how, and how much. Their main job is to modify verbs, the action words in a sentence. I took a field trip to the light rail construction site on Washington Avenue at the University of Minnesota — a place full of action — to look for adverbs.

(Adverbs are blinking red in the text below. It’s probably the first time in the history of the English language that adverbs have been made to blink. The flashy stuff is courtesy of computer whiz Robert Broneak. If I’ve missed any adverbs, I hope the grammarians out there will either set me straight or forgive me.)

I leaned my bike against the fence and started shooting a few photos.

It was immediately clear to me that most people don’t stop to watch the work. In fact, students often walk past with their eyes on their cell phones, not on the backhoes. One worker nudged another and mentioned my camera.

A guy who seemed like the foreman walked past me and asked, “Are you going to reveal all our secrets?”

“You got some?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said, laughing.

“What are you working on today?” I asked.

I thought he answered “duck bank.” With all this apparently random activity, why not build a bank for ducks? But that couldn’t be right. It had to be a duct bank, even though my brain wasn’t coming up with a reason why a duct, or a duck for that matter, would need a bank. I just nodded stupidly.

It was fairly quiet on this particular Saturday afternoon, so I returned on a weekday. By then, a bobcat was zipping back and forth from debris pile to dump truck.

A sign warned of heavy construction for the next two years. I rarely feel sorry for University of Minnesota students, but two years is a long time. I had spent an hour around this massive dirt pile, and I was already overwhelmed.

The clock at the Washington Avenue Ramp, surrounded by long-term disorder, apparently abandoned its timekeeping chores. It’s always five to eight at this intersection.

And these stoplights have gone haywire, too. If you squint, is one yellow and one red? It kind of looks like it. Talk about mixed signals.

Slow down in the left lane, stop in the right?

I liked this mechanical robot, which instantly reminded me of a horizontal, articulated R2D2.

Looking west toward the Mississippi River, I could see downtown Minneapolis — the light rail’s ultimate destination.

When will we be able to take the train from the university campus to downtown? Not soon enough.

As I was leaving, the foreman, who was still working on that duct bank, asked me what I was doing. Fair question.

“I keep a website about southeast Minneapolis,” I said. “I write about whatever appeals to me.”

“So,” he said, “you’re livin’ the dream.”

Even I knew there were no adverbs in that sentence. Just a nice dose of humanity.

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Shadows of Gotham City

I love Halloween. I especially love the homemade costumes that barely make any sense. It’s true, the neighborhood art gallery’s month-long, haunted basement thing grows old after just a few days, but I assume the gallery is making a lot of money.

On Monday, I’ll wear my screeching Halloween socks and my multi-colored wig, but in the meantime, I’ve been seeing shadows in the neighborhood:

Devil's pitchfork

Lonely monk

Parabolic ghosts

Raggedy crows

Gotham City

Bats in a cage

Witch's broom

Skeleton's fingers

Creepy ants go marching

A coffin, of course

Man with a hook

Hummingbird gone bad

Shadow key:

devil’s pitchfork — parking meters
lonely monk — street light
parabolic ghosts — bike rack
raggedy crows — sumac leaves
Gotham City — newspaper boxes
bats in a cage — highbush cranberry leaves through a fence
witch’s broom — little bluestem grass
skeleton’s fingers — sunflower
creepy ants — sideoats grama grass
coffin — park bench
man with a hook — bicycle
hummingbird gone bad — cottonwood leaf

Happy Halloween!


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Dinkytown houses flaunt their colors

Dinkytown smiles in ways that its more dignified neighbor, the University of Minnesota, can’t. Dinkytown residents party on just about any night of the week. One of its restaurants, Al’s Breakfast, succeeds year after year serving a meal that college kids are normally inclined to skip. And many Dinkytown landlords ignore conservative Midwestern tendencies by painting their student rental properties with loud, cheerful colors.

It’s the house colors that get my attention today. Here is a small sample from the neighborhood:

Why would someone paint a house not just fire engine red, but shiny fire engine red? And lavender plus pink. What inspired that combo?

To find answers, I could have pounded on doors and asked to speak to landlords. But that approach seemed unpleasant and time-consuming. I decided to just guess. I also asked a few longtime southeast Minneapolis residents for their thoughts. We’re all guessing that the bold colors could be:

*A desire to follow the tradition of painting nineteenth century homes in bright colors, even though that tradition probably never existed;

*Resistance to the dreariness of our long colorless winters;

*A reflection of the funky, eclectic nature of the neighborhood;

*A representation of what paint color was on sale the week the house was painted;

*A conscious attempt to distract passersby or city inspectors from the dilapidated state of the house, and many of Dinkytown’s homes are dilapidated.

All of these reasons sounded good to me. (If you know other reasons, feel free to chime in.)

But when I think of colorful houses, I also think of port towns. I discovered that the coastal town of Valparaiso, Chile, is especially known for its colorful houses. The story is that residents painted their houses with the paint that was left over from ship repainting jobs.

In Venice, people say that the fishermen enjoyed being able to spot their homes from sea.

And in San Francisco, they say an artist in the ’60s started the tradition of colorful houses — known as the Painted Ladies — as a reaction to the use of surplus battleship gray paint during World War II.

We have a port in Minneapolis, but the city’s movers and shakers talk about closing the Upper St. Anthony locks on the nearby Mississippi River, which would leave us portless. I’ve rolled it around a few times, and the Port of Dinkytown has a nice ring.

But, let’s face it, no one ships anything by boat to Dinkytown. A creek used to run between Dinkytown and the U, but I don’t think it was navigable. It was just pretty:

Hennepin County Public Library photo

And it’s hard to think of Dinkytown as a safe harbor or as a place we yearn for after a long day of navigating those chemical engineering classes.

Bland apartment buildings with muted names like 421 Lofts are gradually replacing the neighborhood’s architectural gems. Maybe Dinkytown’s unconventional colors are nothing more than an expression of pure defiance. Not a simple smile. More like a mischievous grin.

That shiny fire engine red house might go down someday, but at least it will have all its bells clanging.

Thanks to Penny, Melissa, and Scott for their thoughts. And thanks to the Hennepin County Library for permission to use a photo from its collection.





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It’s dog-eat-dog on my bur oak branch

Last month I ran a photo of a mysterious black band on the bur oak branch I’ve been following since February. A state scientist helped me identify the band as a batch of eggs laid by an unidentified moth.

Here’s how it looked in early September:

I was looking forward to seeing tiny caterpillars emerge next spring.

But in the month since I took the photo, somebody — a bird? — probably snacked on the egg mass. I never would have guessed that an egg case could make yummy lunch material. It now has a big gap in it, and I can see a row of little white eggs. I’m not sure what’s keeping it attached to the tree, which stands in front of Eddy Hall at the University of Minnesota:

The whole thing is eye-opening for me because I usually take a tourist’s view of trees:

Eddy Hall on the left, my bur oak in the background

I swoon over fall colors — So pretty today! Oh, look at that one! — and snap cliche photo after cliche photo. And, really, what’s wrong with that?

But even a tourist like me can find life-and-death ecosystem drama playing out on a single branch. Here’s another look at the chomped-on egg mass:

No less dramatically, the leaves have lost chlorophyll and turned brown since early September. They’re falling like mad. And behind the tree, venerable Eddy Hall has closed. Spanish and Portuguese students no longer pass me as I set up a tripod, curse everything from the light to my photographic skills, all the while trying not to step on any bushes. The University of Minnesota hopes to receive money from the state legislature to renovate its oldest building. I wish them luck.

For a quick reminder of how Minnesota’s seasons can transform a single branch, check these bur oak posts:





Thanks for help from DNR scientists, Jana Albers and Val Cervenka. One last image of the bushes I so carefully avoid stepping on:


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Grain in, grain out, grain in

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I bicycled past TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota where tailgaters were partying in the parking lots with the help of  hamburgers, hot dogs, and beer.

I rode past the parties and the parking lots, and stopped at 25th Avenue SE, which seems to be the current line in the sand between two worlds in southeast Minneapolis: the business of shipping and storing grain, and the business of higher education — everything from football to physics.

A few photos show you how close these two worlds are:

TCF Bank Stadium in the foreground, Electric Steel Elevator Co. in the background

Higher ed meets grain industry at 25th Avenue SE

Grain elevators alongside football stadiums. It’s a weird juxtaposition, but the two worlds have a slightly whimsical connection, as you’ll see in a minute.

The grain operation in the photos is Electric Steel Elevator. The company has been storing and shipping North American grain since the start of the previous century. At its founding, the company was so proud of its shiny steel construction and modern electric motors that it named itself after those two features, and also created postcards with images like this:

Minnesota Historical Society photo

Minneapolis isn’t nearly as grain-centric as it used to be, but it is definitely still in the game. Electric Steel Elevator ships a variety of grain including wheat, oats, rye, and barley from North Dakota and Canada. The grain arrives by rail to the rail shed.

Then the grain is lifted up (elevated, as in grain elevator), and distributed into the big steel silos.

Grain arrives by train, but Electric Steel ships it all over the country by truck. On this Saturday afternoon, though, things were quiet — the trucks lined up, ready to go.

Electric Steel Elevator

The company might be feeling a little squeezed by changing times. There’s the expanding university, of course, and then there’s the city, which is pushing around a lot of dirt right in front of the manager’s office building. More development and more roads are planned. The city wants to build a park next to Electric Steel Elevator, develop the land all along the railroad tracks, and tie everything together with a new road, Granary Road.

The tailgaters will drink to that with beer containing malted barley.

Wait. Barley. Let’s take a speculative, but entirely possible, journey:

The barley in the tailgaters’ beer came from Canada by rail for temporary storage in one of the Electric Steel Elevator’s shiny steel silos. One of those colorful trucks hauled it to Rahr Malting in Shakopee where workers used it to produce malt and other brewing supplies. A beer company bought that malt, brewed up some beer and sold it to the tailgaters.


Last week I visited again. It was late in the day and this time, things were quiet on both sides of 25th Avenue SE. I couldn’t resist recording a few seconds of the eerie stillness, the only movement a train gliding past for destinations unknown.

Many thanks to Larry Morrison of Electric Steel Elevator Company and Haila Maze of the city of Minneapolis. Thanks, too, to the Minnesota Historical Society for permission to use a photo from its collection.









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