Friday, February 22, 2013

Museum lecture looks up to solve intaglio mystery

Mysterious tortoise carved in the earth near Barstow.

By Mark Wheeler
Hi-Desert Star

Hi-Desert Nature Museum’s Lecture Series speaker held the attention of a full house Thursday as he told the story of a mystery tortoise located not far from Barstow.

Speaker John Rafter first read about and saw a photo of the tortoise in a book by Bill Mann called, “Guide to 50 Interesting and Mysterious Places in the Mojave Desert, Volume 1.”

About 40 feet in diameter, the tortoise was created when all the rocks on a large expanse of desert pavement were removed by someone so that the sand underneath would make a recessed design in contrast to the rocks still remaining around it. This kind of earth art is called an “intaglio.”

Some thought the intaglio was a modern construction, perhaps made by the troops who trained with Patton in the region. Upon studying the weathering on the stones of two rock cairns associated with the intaglio, and doing some background research on Patton’s training area, Rafter wasn’t so sure. But, if it wasn’t the work of bored tank crewmen, or some other contemporary desert rat, who did make it, and why, he wondered.

Five years later, Rafter thinks he has the answer, and the trail to that answer took him to the stars and back into the cultural history of Native American tribes that inhabited the region.

Not one to keep his audience waiting in too much suspense, Rafter dealt quickly with the ancillary research he did and got right down to the Eureka! discovery of his investigation. This involved finding alignments between certain points on the tortoise body and celestial bodies in the sky.

Rafter knew enough about such earthwork artifacts to suspect alignments right from the start of his study, and he quickly determined that the tortoise was laid out according to the cardinal points. The head pointed exactly true north, confirmed on a night visit by John when he observed the head’s perfect alignment with the North Star. However, upon subsequent overnight vigils, he couldn’t find any other such directional alignments.

None of the legs pointed at anything he could observe, nor did a mysterious arrow- or spear-shaped shaft cutting across the middle of the body point at anything. Of further mystery was the fact that all the appendages and the two ends of the shaft were all different lengths.

Looking for any line-of-sight coordinates on the intaglio he could think of, Rafter finally sighted across the tips of different appendages. There it was. His first confident alignment sighted across the tips of the tortoise’s front legs and right onto the tip of the equinox sun rising on the distant eastern horizon.

All in all, Rafter found numerous alignments between the tips of the appendages and solstice and equinox sunrises and sunsets. In addition, he found alignments with different star groups such as the Pleiades and Orion.

Still eluding him, though, was the shaft through the tortoise body. Why couldn’t he find an alignment for it? Studying star charts for some idea of what he might look for and when, he noticed a particular star called Spica that would be setting in the area right about sundown at summer’s end. He settled in one late summer afternoon and, sure enough, the star appeared brightly, right after sunset. Remaining visible just long enough to be seen, it then disappeared below the horizon. It aligned perfectly with the pointed tip of the shaft.

Showing his audience the alignment in his slideshow, Rafter noted he might have taken the alignment to be coincidental. However, he knows of one regional tribe that recognized the star because there is a name for it in their language. Moreover, the Chemehuevi, who inhabited the area in the near past, have a specific word for “the beginning of autumn” that is different from a word they have for the season of autumn. According to historical records, the beginning of autumn, besides launching harvest activities, was observed by the Chemehuevi as a ritual time for honoring the recent dead.

Much work remains in actually confirming the intaglio’s meaning and author, but Rafter is accumulating strong evidence that the artifact is Chemehuevi in origin, was built during the last 500 years and served as a calendar to pinpoint the exact end of summer. In Chemehuevi lore, the tortoise is the symbol for summer. At the fall equinox, summer dies, Spica appears briefly on the horizon at sunset, and the pointed shaft through the tortoise intaglio’s body points directly at it.

Rafter’s audience was convinced, and judging from the swarm of people around him at his lecture’s end, a lot of them will be eager to hear the mystery’s final outcome. Death of summer? Or, does the mystery win again?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Volcano house now home to higher learning

Huell Howser gifted his 'volcano house' to Chapman University last year.
Chapman University hopes to have landmark functional by summer

Desert Dispatch

NEWBERRY SPRINGS • It was described 10 years ago as a “launch pad for desert living” by the Los Angeles Times. Replace “living” with “learning” and it would describe the latest intent for the domed dwelling perched atop a cinder cone in Newberry Springs.

In one of several gifts to Chapman University, Huell Howser, the amicable host of the long-running PBS series “California’s Gold,” donated the so-called volcano house to the school last year.

As of now, it’s slated to be a home base for study tours in environmental science and astronomy, television and film projects, writer’s retreats and other activities, said Mary Platt, the director of communications and media relations for the university.

“The possibilities are endless,” Platt said, adding that the house is an “iconic piece of architecture.”

The university’s campus planning department is currently providing general maintenance to the property, which was on the market for $750,000 only two and half short years ago.

So, why the donation from the late Howser?

“He had forged this extraordinary friendship with the university,” Platt said. “He came down many times during the last years of his life.”

That friendship was ignited after an episode of “California’s Gold” aired featuring Orange Circle, a historic downtown plaza only blocks from the campus. Jim Doti, president of Chapman University, wrote Howser a note that suggested Howser should have visited the campus as well, Platt explained.

Howser would take Doti up on his offer and become enamored with the university.

Aside from the “volcano house” donation, Howser gifted Chapman with his art collection. Also, earnings from the sale of his Twentynine Palms residence will go toward the university’s California’s Gold scholarship.

In return, Chapman University has digitized episodes of “California’s Gold” — a mutual agreement to make the show available to the world for free — and is in the process of cataloging each episode by subject.

“He was extraordinarily generous to Chapman University,” Platt said. “He wanted us to be the keepers of his legacy.”

Howser never had children of his own, Platt noted, but “he thought of our students as his children.”

Visit to view the Huell Howser California’s Gold Archive.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Eastern California Museum Preps for L.A. Aqueduct's 100th Anniversary

Construction of the intake for the L.A. Aqueduct. (Photo: Eastern California Museum)

by Zach Behrens

100 years ago this November, as he stood among a crowd of tens of thousands at the edge of the San Fernando Valley, William Mulholland said a line that's gone down in the history books: "There it is--Take it." The engineer said it as crisp Sierra Nevada mountain water from more than 200 miles north flowed down the San Gabriel Mountains onto the valley floor, forever changing, or, as some would say, giving birth to the Los Angeles we know today.

It took five years to construct the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which today delivers about half of the city's water supply. Nine months before its opening Mulholland was at the other end of his engineering marvel near the Owens Valley town of Aberdeen celebrating a different, but equally important, milestone: the opening of the intake, where water from the Owens River is diverted into the aqueduct.

A photo caught the moment. A small crowd stands atop the intake while Mulholland mans one of the four gates locks. Bessy van Norman, wife of aqueduct supervisor Harvey van Norman, christens it by breaking a bottle of champagne over the water.

That captured moment is among about a dozen large photos put on display this week at the Eastern California Museum in Independence. It's a sneak peak at what's to come later this year when the small, but fascinating, museum opens a yearlong exhibit dedicated to the centennial of the aqueduct's opening. It's also timely: the intake opened February 13, 1913. (The L.A. Department of Water and Power will hold a small celebration at the museum on Friday, February 8 after a regularly scheduled meeting between them and Inyo County takes place)

The exhibit will mainly focus on the construction of the aqueduct, says museum administrator Jon Klusmire. As for the controversial and sordid history, he explains it's not quite "history" yet: "It's still going on."

While no opening date has been announced, the photos and some aqueduct realia are currently on display. The museum and LADWP also plan events throughout the year leading up to November 5 anniversary.

More: And while traveling near the museum, make sure to check out There It Is--Take It!, a self-guided car audio tour through the Owens Valley along U.S. Route 395 examining the controversial social, political, and environmental history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct system. Kim Stringfellow at KCET's Artbound has the details.