Trail Building – Learning the Ropes

Note: This is one in a series of blogs on my volunteer work with the Land Trust of North Alabama (just ‘the Land Trust’ here). It details many of my experiences and observations creating and maintaining trails on the Green Mountain Nature Preserve (I’ll use GMNP for it here) in Huntsville. For the rest of this series, just click on ‘Trails’ in the top menu.

As I settled in to my role as a Trail Care Partner with the Land Trust, I was introduced to several of the folks who work at the Land Trust.

First was Brandon, the Land Stewart, one of the ‘boots-on-the-ground’ guys who do so much of the physical tasks, and also have a wealth of trail-building knowledge. We met to go over some preliminaries a week or two prior to the big work day when the Land Trust officially opened GMNP. It came as a bit of a surprise to realize that there were so many details in planning, financing, designing and lastly implementing and maintaining a trail. There are even a couple of concepts, such as the half-way rule (to be explained another day), that aren’t dead simple. In going over a lot of such details, I was definitely reminded of most any engineering discipline with both its theory and application. Was this simply the practice of ‘Trail Engineering’, I wondered?

During the initial work day on National Trails Day, the Land Trust was expecting, and got, a lot of volunteers; maybe 40 or 50. We even had a couple of vans to shuttle workers from the Madison County Nature Trail parking lot to the soon-to-be site of the GMNP trailhead and parking lot. While waiting for the next shuttle, I met Marie. At the time, I had no idea she was the Executive Director of the Land Trust, as well as a former City Planner with the City of Huntsville just after the tenure of Dallas Fanning. Mr. Fanning, one of Marie’s urban planning mentors, and an historical figure in Huntsville, is a topic for another day, as well. I struck up a conversation with her about mosquito repellants, and then on to the shuttle.

At the work site, I met Andy, the Land Manager, who was coordinating all the technical details. And that would be a good brief description of Andy’s overall task at the Land Trust as well; making sure all the technical details work out. As I would soon find out, it is impossible to plan exactly what work to try to accomplish until the actual number of volunteers are standing there ready to go. With so many there, Andy split us into at least four major tasks that I was aware of:

1 – Build a fence around the newly graveled parking lot. It was originally designed for about a dozen or so cars. It has since way over grown that.

2 – Build a kiosk at the parking lot / trailhead for the posting of information. This was a standard Land Trust design with shingled roof.

3 – Build East Plateau Trail, which Brandon had previously explored and flagged. I got on this team. We were actually in two teams for this, the only real trail-building for the day, with teams starting at either end of the new trail.

4 – Build a wooden bridge on Alum Hollow Trail over Turtle Creek. This is the creek that drains Sky Lake, the 17-acre lake in the Madison County Nature Trail. It is the main creek in the preserve. A group of Lockheed Engineering employees who volunteer with the Land Trust were tasked with this and so we call it the Lockheed Bridge.

So off we went to our respective jobs. Just past the parking lot, I met Hallie, whom I had emailed with when signing up. She was at a table gathering names and emails for the mailing list.

At the end of the work day, we had completed everything that Andy had set for us to accomplish. Hats off to the Lockheed team especially, as they had no idea that they were going to be designing AND constructing a 15-foot bridge until time to start. They did a great job.

So GMNP now had two trails: the original Alum Hollow Trail and the new East Plateau Trail. And I had met a few of the folks associated with the Land Trust and learned some more of the basics of trail building, with many more opportunities to come.

BTW, to this day this was the largest work day attendance I have seen at GMNP. In later years, we would occasionally see maybe 20 or 25, like when a Boy Scout troop would show up, but nothing like the 40 or 50 volunteers we had that day.

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Originators and Elaborators

I’ve been reading a book by the well-known photographer and author Tom Ang. In it, he prefaces a section on other famous photographers by comparing and contrasting originators and elaborators; terms defining, respectively, those who invent and pioneer, and those that improve and carry forward. Further, the vast majority of practitioners of whatever the field is, are elaborators.¹

I can’t help but make comparisons. Sometimes, I think that’s what I do best. Saying “This is like that” seems to be my first step in the process of understanding anything.

So it is with originators. In space exploration, we have Robert Goddard and Wernher von Braun among many others. In photography, there are pioneers such as Ansel Adams, Margaret Bourke-White and Stephen Dalton. In Bluegrass and banjo, they are like Earl Scruggs, Joel Sweeney, Bill Monroe, Bill Keith and Don Reno.

And so it is with elaborators; they are like you and me.

To draw further analogy from Tom Ang’s work, he states:

“The vast majority of published and exhibited photography is in fact the work of elaborators – superlative artists who were often inspired to take up photography by the originators and who have themselves become great artists in their own right.” ²

To me, that’s very inspiring. To think that just because I didn’t invent anything doesn’t mean I can’t make contributions to banjo playing, photography, or whatever it is.

1Tom Ang, Photography: History, Art, Technique (New York: DK Publishing, 2019), p.21.

2 ibid, p21.

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… are the ‘Publish’ and ‘Save Draft’ buttons so easy to mix up in WordPress?

After close to 200 blogs, I finally did the unthinkable. I pressed the one when I thought I was pressing the other.

I’m pressing Publish on purpose now.


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Urban Density in Huntsville

Last week, I blogged on Huntsville’s ‘Heaviest Corner’; the place in downtown Huntsville, Alabama that had the greatest density concentration. Since then, I’ve had a few additional thoughts, so I’d like to look further into that topic here. Here are some factors to consider when talking about urban density, especially in downtown Huntsville.

Not the Only Corner in Town
So the corner of Holmes Avenue and Greene Street isn’t the only place that has a greater sense of urban density about it these days. Much of Washington Street, as well as Clinton Avenue from the VBC to Washington Street, is starting to have a more downtown look to them. Looking ahead, so too will any place inside of City Center and Clinton at Jefferson when the Hyatt House is finished (but it has to get started first!)

Some folks might point to the corner of Holmes Avenue and Spragins Street for the heaviest corner in Huntsville, as that corner has the Regions Bank Building at 12 stories and the old Russel Erskine Hotel, also at 12 stories. However, that corner only has two buildings, not a completed set of four. That makes it feel more open, even though two corners are already built up. Plus, they only add up to 24 stories. However…if some developer ever puts up even a 6-story building on either of the vacant corners, then Clinton & Spragins would replace Holmes & Greene as the reigning champion, even with only three corners completed.

Corners versus Elsewhere
Many of these more dense places aren’t actually on a corner as Holmes and Greene is, so it is a bit of an odd comparison if we look at them in terms of a ‘heaviest corner’. For example, the Embassy Suites Hotel, the new Autograph by Marriott, and the Curio by Hilton all are in the middle of a block. Yet they add to urban density as much as a corner building does. So I guess what we are really talking about when we say a heavy corner is simply how built-up the immediate area appears to a person standing on the street at that spot, whether it’s a corner or not. 

Human Scale
Human scale is desirable in modern architectural design where it may be seen as being the opposite of an automotive scale. Think one big parking lot out front as opposed to several small parking lots in the back of each store. Human scale can also be defined as the distance from which someone on an upper story can still have a conversation with someone on the street. Usually this is no more than 3 stories¹. But for this specific purpose of perceived urban density, we aren’t concerned with transportation or with a sense of community. It is simply the perception of how built-up a specific spot is. So with that as a definition, I’d say we lose human scale when we start to get up very roughly around 20 or 30 stories. In other words, we can perceive a difference between a 5-story building and a 15-story building, but 40 and 50-story buildings are just way too tall to notice much difference between them close up.

Qualitative Perceptions
In other words, things that are not really measurable, like how busy the street is, are there shops on the ground level and possibly the second story, and the presence or absence of signs, posters, marquees and other such distractions, pleasant or otherwise. I believe the more of any of these elements tend to cause us to perceive a more dense environment.

Building Setbacks
Another less quantitative consideration in urban density is the setback of a building. More modern buildings may or may not have more of a setback. This was not the style in the 1930s and 1940s, such as we see locally in the Russell Erskine Hotel and the Times Building. A setback will reduce the feeling of density, which may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the goal of the designing architect.

Why Not Map Them all?
As a matter of fact, all this got me to thinking. How do other corners around the downtown area stack up in terms of being ‘heavy’? So I put together a brief map detailing all the corners with a combined value of 10 stories or more. Holmes & Greene seems to be the only one with substantial buildings on all four sides, so I’ve included others here with just two or three buildings. I’ve also included ‘non-corners’ in green numbers in the map below such as directly across from the VBC Arena entrance and inside City Center when it is finished. Green question marks, three of them, indicate future construction that we know about but don’t really have a firm idea of how dense they will look yet. Any surprises that you see here? Anything I’ve over-looked?

A few things are note-worthy here.

  • At  Jefferson & Holmes, I put a value of 11 as it is and a value of 20 if the Hyatt House eventually gets started on a new 9-story hotel at that site.
  • I’m assuming a new City Hall of 5 or 6 stories, depending on which corner you are looking at.
  • I’m also assuming a completed 7-story Hampton Inn & Suites across from the VBC.
  • The new Curio by Hilton isn’t on a corner, but I suppose I could add that one with a mid-block value of 12.
  • The Medical District is starting to get some density nowadays, as well as the newer part of downtown between the traditional downtown and the Medical District.
  • Clinton Row, the strip of Holmes Avenue between Washington and Jefferson, would make for a good experiment in density perception. It has most of the elements briefly mentioned above under ‘Qualitative Perceptions’. Does it seem more dense for all the ‘pleasant distractions’ there?
  • Only 3 corners currently have a value of 20 or more, but I’d watch Clinton & Monroe (currently 11) and Clinton & Spragins (currently 24), as they both have development potential.

¹Kenneth B. Hall Jr. & Gerald A. Porterfield, Community by Design (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001).

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Huntsville’s ‘Heaviest Corner’

Here’s an interesting, obscure, fun fact for when Bank Independent completes its newly-announced 225 Holmes Avenue building in Downtown Huntsville, Alabama.

You may be aware of ‘The Heaviest Corner on Earth’; the corner of 1st Avenue N and 20th Street in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. That’s the corner that has buildings of 10, 14, 16, and 19 stories, mostly built in the 30s and 40s it would appear from the architectural styles. No other corner is so ’heavy’ in Birmingham as that one, even though there are taller buildings downtown.

When I worked as a research biologist at UAB years ago, I got to know downtown Birmingham very well as I would often catch the Crosstown South #9 bus near that corner. Many really big cities easily dwarf this corner, but that moniker has remained, I think because in a much bigger city, what would be the point? There would be so many corners with tall buildings on all four corners that the curiosity factor would be very watered-down. Plus, the human scale would have been long ago lost with the extreme tallness.

Here in Huntsville, we have no ‘Heaviest Corner’, as no place really has four buildings of even moderate height to add up, until now. B’ham’s corner adds up to 59 stories; our fledgling corner of Holmes & Greene would add up to 29 stories as follows:

  • Times Building: 12 stories
  • 301 Holmes 7 stories (actually just 6 on the very corner, but we’ll go with 7 here)
  • Greene Street Parking Deck: 5 stories
  • 225 Holmes: 5 stories

Total of 29 stories.

Note also how different each building is, with a new parking deck, a relatively new apartment building, a new office building and an historical ‘skyscraper’.

Well, not much, but it is a valid curiosity anyway, as ‘The Heaviest Corner in Huntsville’!

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The Coming Winter Storm

We seldom get real winter weather here in Huntsville, Alabama. But occasionally, it does give us glimpses of snow and ice, maybe even several inches of winter precipitation. The record for snow here in Huntsville came around 1962 or 1963. It was predicted that we would get some flurries that night, but imagine the delight of youngsters (and adults, too!) the next morning when we had 16 inches of snow just waiting to be enjoyed! Schedules took a backseat to this event, especially where we lived on one of the local mountains.

Then, on Christmas Eve, 2010, we got a rare White Christmas with maybe 4 or 5 inches of snow as seen in these two photos.

A more serious record, that of ice, came in the 1960s also. Ice, frozen solid on the ground, means bad news for the wildlife, as well as any hope of moving around. That year we had 12 inches – one foot – of ice on Green Mountain. We were stuck with no way out for a week. But we were okay. We had a wood burning fireplace, canned goods in the basement, and enough food.

With six kids in the house, we made good use of the ice and played in the woods a lot. One of my siblings even found a small, stranded screech owl. We took it home, fed it, and nursed it back to health over the next week and then released it when the ground thawed out. I still remember it, sitting in its cardboard box with a towel, looking at us as if wondering what we would do with it next. Sadly, nowadays I never hear screech owls up on the mountain anymore, and chuck-wills-widows are getting farther away and less frequent up there.

So we are currently predicting winter weather in a day or so. Just in time for a Monday holiday, President’s Day. Hopefully this will be a good opportunity to post some nice winter scenes here and on Facebook.

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Reciprocity in Music

Those of you who remember film in cameras will recall, perhaps, the notion of film reciprocity and the associated attribute of reciprocity failure; that quality whereby film, upon being exposed, started to lose its sensitivity to take in photons at the stated speed. The ASA of the film as it was called is just like its modern-day digital counterpart known as ISO.  ASA 64 was pretty slow, ASA 1600 was super fast and grainy. Usually, reciprocity wasn’t much of a problem, unless you did time exposures as in astrophotography; then, the on-going loss could be considerable. A good introduction to reciprocity and reciprocity failure can be found here.

So what has this to do with music? In an high-level way, I believe it has a lot to do not just with musical instruments, but with the progression of musical creativity in general. Let me explain the concept of reciprocity as it pertains to music.

Each generation is known for the music of that age. The 1920s with Jazz, the 1950s with rock, the 1960s with the British Invasion (among other genres), hard rock of the 1980s, the insipidness of the 2010s, and on and on. Each of these, I would state, was driven by the necessity to find new outlets for creativity due to the previous genre being ‘used up’.

For example, in our own domains of Bluegrass and Folk music, do you see many new songs being written with the basic elements of, say, a fiddle tune like Cripple Creek? Or an early Rock song with just your basic G, C, and D chords? Of course, there are the occasional exceptions, but as a trend, this seems to not be the case.

Stylistically further afield, The American composer and conductor Aaron Copeland refers to this same phenomenon in his book ‘What to Listen for in Music’ when he discusses contemporary music (this is in the context of Classical and Jazz music). From an historical music perspective, this seems to be a familiar peculiarity and, I would argue, the same reason for why ‘modern’ Classical music is unlike, say, Bourque music. Or why Elvis Presley is different from Elvin Bishop. Concerning why Contemporary music is unlike 19th century Romantic music, Copeland states:

“… the self-evident truth is that the romantic movement had reached it’s apogee by the end of the last century and nothing fresh was to be extracted from it.”¹

So then, this is what I think is going on here:

Each instrument and musical style in its present, static state can only produce so much innovation before diminishing returns overtake further efforts. At that point, creative efforts extend the useful life of the creative genre, but even that eventually narrows, forcing artists to look further afield for new sources of creativity. 


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Winter – The Season of Textures

With winter comes barrenness. No bright spring or even fall colored leaves. Yet, winter has its own fascination that is devoid of bright color – you see it in the textures, shapes and patterns, hidden underneath the more obvious colors of other seasons. Once the leaves fall away, these patterns are what is left for display.

Some years ago, I hear or read the phrase “Winter – The Season of Textures”, and it has stuck with me, especially in obvious December, January, and February.

We talk about negative space in photograph composition. That’s where a lot or most of the space in a photo is taken up by a purposeful lack of detail. It doesn’t compete with the subject of the photo; instead, it helps to focus attention on the subject.

You can also find a similar, historical juxtaposition that strikes a similar chord to our topic of summer colors versus winter textures. Some classical writers were rather dismissive of color in art, seeing it as a distraction from the true glories of art, which were to them, embodied most in line and form.¹ Seldom if ever would anyone make similar arguments today, yet the distinction remains between the two.

I think winter textures are a similar compositional element to negative space. Because they lack other attractions, such as colors, they force you to seek what is of value within the frame. When you find that value in the textures and patterns, they become all the more striking.

Viewed this way, Winter is no longer a drab, dreary landscape, but an environment rich in undiscovered surprises.

You can find more examples in my photography portfolio in the Patterns & Textures album.

1 Kassia St. Clair, The Secret Lives of Color (New York: Penguin Books, 2017), p.29. Indeed, such notables as Herman Melville, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Le Corbusier expressed various arguments against using color as expression in their respective fields.

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5 Balances in Your Music

All of life is a series of balances. At least, that’s what I think. I often say that in response to discussions of complex topics, as though it is the be-all and end-all of the subject. In reality, I do know that simply saying that ignores much of whatever is specific to that issue. In general, though, it is a good maxim to follow. Here’s a few specific issues that we banjo players need to keep in balance.

1 – Being accurate and clean vs pushing yourself to play faster
When we are first learning to play, speed is that illusive quality that we strive for, yet it can slip away if we try for it to the exclusion of playing cleanly and accurately.

2 – Playing ‘straight’ vs playing bluesy
Playing bluesy licks can be addictive. They really sound cool and most of them are physically fun to play as well once you master them. But just like ice cream in your diet, it shouldn’t be a large part of your repertoire (unless you are playing jazz, of course).

3 – Watching the right hand vs watching the left hand
Unless you teach beginning banjo lessons or else are around beginners, you may have forgotten this one. But it is a real problem for players just starting out. I’ve even had some students remark that they can get dizzy trying to go back and forth watching both hands.

4 – Comfort vs functionality
This would be something like rigid hand posture, where you can adopt either a relaxed form or the classical chord form commonly seen in classical guitar performance, for instance. I would guess that about 10% of my students naturally have adopted a more classical fretting hand position. More power to them, as they now have the advantages of a classical, hand-away-from-the neck position yet without having to go through the adjustments from a more comfortable close-to-the-neck position.

5 – Fingers down: restriction vs control
Banjo players are all over the map on this one. Some gain control of both ring and little fingers, placing them firmly on the drum head right from the start. At the other extreme, I had one student long ago who deliberately did not put any fingers down when playing Scruggs style. I’ve long forgotten his explanation of why he did that, but he was firmly opposed to any fingers down.

Bottom line: you know how far you can push yourself before you start getting sloppy.

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Trail Building: How I Got Started

I’ve mentioned here and there that I am a volunteer Trail Care Partner with the Land Trust of North Alabama. I’ll call them just ‘the Land Trust’ here for simplicity. Been a volunteer with them since April of 2016. That’s when I received a campaign email from the Land Trust. It must have been sent out to a large distribution list, because I wasn’t on any sort of Land Trust email list. I had heard of the Land Trust and I knew that they owned a lot of land that some folks hiked on, but that was about the extent of my knowledge of the Land Trust at that time.

So what made me stop in my tracks and read this particular email? It was talking about some place near and dear to me; the woods behind my folk’s house on Green Mountain where I grew up. This was the same land that my brothers and I would spend entire summers traipsing around in, having adventures, discovering the big deal with poison ivy and snakes, and just generally experiencing all the life of growing up ‘in the woods’. You know, somehow, amidst all the climbing, cave exploring, and hiking, I managed to never get lost (that I can remember, anyway) nor to break a bone…

But I digress – you see how this email brought back fond memories!

So this email was talking about how a significant portion of Alum Cave Hollow (now called just Alum Hollow) had recently been donated to the Land Trust. And, they were about to start putting in trails in this new nature preserve. At this, I knew I had to be a part of whatever that shaped up to be.

The timing of this Land Trust announcement was significant too, because about 3 or 4 years prior to this, a friend and I had visited Alum Cave Ledge. We were standing there, silent, looking out over the hollow below. I whispered about how you can, occasionally, hear bands of wild turkeys in the hollow, unseen, but nearby. Then He and I hatched up a dream. Wouldn’t it be grand if we owned this hollow, and turned it into a preserve? With trails and bridges and all the other things that you could do here? We both agreed, yes that would indeed be grand… and totally just a dream too!

Oh wow! So just tell me which way do I go to sign up? Obviously, I did sign up, and I did start volunteering with the Land Trust.

As it turned out, the first big event scheduled at the new Green Mountain Preserve, fell on National Trails Day that year. My first work day with the Land Trust saw maybe 40 or 50 people there for the inaugural Green Mountain Nature Preserve activity. With so many in attendance, we managed to complete East Plateau Trail and to build the Lockheed bridge as well.

A bit of history. Alum Hollow Trail was pretty much already in place by this time. The western portion, over Alum Cave Ledge, had just recently been completed, but the eastern parts of it had existed as far back as when I was ten years old (that’s 1967) and my oldest brother had put a path over to the nearest creek, about a quarter mile from our house (hence, the name I call it; Quarter-mile Creek). In the 1990s, I was an avid runner and from time to time I would injure my knee. In order to ramp up to running on asphalt again, I needed a soft path. I put in a loop trail that was exactly 1 kilometer long, tying it into what is now Alum Hollow Trail where it runs along the bluff just east of Cruse Point. Our neighbors Kevin and Katey had also previously contributed eastern parts of the current trail to complete what we have today.

The rest of the story (and there’s a lot of it) – well, that’s something I’ll add to here as time goes on!

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