Friday, January 24, 2020

This week in birds - #386

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

Bald Eagles are becoming an almost common sight in our area, especially in winter. This one was photographed at Archbishop Fiorenza Park in Houston.
(Image courtesy of


It's not exactly a surprise to learn that 2019 capped the hottest decade in Earth's recorded history. The past five years are also the hottest on record.


The massive wildfires in Australia are fueling the anger of environmentalists there who hold their government at least partially responsible for the disaster because of its climate change denialism and lack of action. The environmental movement has been energized by this anger.


Spain's new government has declared a climate emergency, which is a step toward enacting ambitious plans to combat climate change. 


We tend to think of earthworms as a good thing for the environment, but not necessarily when those critters are an invasive species.


These are African Gray Parrots. They are amazing birds for many reasons, primarily related to their intelligence. But a new experiment has found that they are also capable of altruism. A parrot will help another parrot to get a treat, even though that in no way benefits the first bird. (Image courtesy of The New York Times.)


Some trees can live for more than 1,000 years. How do they manage to do that?


The gigantic "hot blob" in the Pacific Ocean has been instrumental in the deaths of a million seabirds in less than a year, according to new research.


The encroachment of the more aggressive Barred Owls into the territory of Northern Spotted Owls has displaced the Spotted Owls and created a conservation crisis. Now the Barred Owls are threatening to have the same effect on California Spotted Owls


Homero Gómez González, a well-known conservationist who has spent years protecting Monarch butterflies on their wintering grounds in Michoacan state in Mexico, has not been seen since January 13. It is feared that he has been killed because of his conservation work.


Leatherback turtles are being forced to make exhausting journeys, in some cases nearly twice as long as usual, from nesting to feeding grounds, because of rising ocean temperatures and changing sea currents.


What would be your guess as to the first air-breathing land-dwelling animal? If you said the scorpion, you may have hit the jackpot according to new fossil evidence.


An assistant professor of history and environmental studies believes that our efforts to keep the Galapagos Islands pristine may instead be destroying them.


This cute little guy is a West Virginia northern flying squirrel and his species is doing quite well, thank you, after their removal from the endangered species list in 2013. (Image courtesy of Mother Nature Network.)


Can reforesting the planet with one trillion trees help save it? Well, it couldn't hurt. We know that trees are our allies in removing carbon from the atmosphere and one trillion can remove a lot of carbon.


Malaysia has returned 42 shipping containers of illegally imported plastic waste to their country of origin, proclaiming that they will not serve as the garbage dump of the world. Meanwhile, China is taking steps to phase out single-use plastics.


The State of Florida is purchasing 20,000 acres of the Everglades in order to protect it from oil drilling.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Siberian Dilemma by Martin Cruz Smith: A review

The Siberian dilemma as stated by Moscow investigator Arkady Renko is simply this: If you fall into a lake in Siberia in winter, do you stay in and die quickly or do you climb out and let the hypothermia kill you a bit more slowly? The question always is to act or not to act.

It's a question faced almost daily by Renko in his job as an investigator and, even though he knows that to act is often dangerous and most likely won't accomplish anything, he can't help himself. He acts to solve crimes and bring criminals to whatever bit of justice he can achieve or, in some cases as in this tale, he acts to prevent an innocent party from being punished. He knows the system is corrupt and he is thoroughly cynical about his prospects for success, but still, he keeps trying. He keeps striving.

This time out, Renko is worried about his lover (former lover?), the journalist Tatiana Petrovna. Tatiana had headed off to Siberia in search of a story about the oligarchs who control the oil fields there. She has managed to make friends (or is it more than just friendship?) with one of the oligarchs, Mikhail Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov is also a political dissident who is running for president against Putin. Renko has tried repeatedly to reach Tatiana but she isn't responding to his calls and texts. He fears for her safety and is anxious to go and find her.

It seems serendipitous then when his boss, the prosecutor Zurin, wants to send him to Siberia to prosecute Aba Makhmud, a Chechen who is a supposed terrorist who allegedly tried to shoot Zurin. Renko is glad for the excuse to go, but Siberia is a big place and he doesn't really know where Tatiana is so finding her may be a problem. 

He interviews the young Aba and soon finds that things are not quite as reported to him, so he acts to rectify a miscarriage of justice. Then it's off to find Tatiana, which actually proves easier than he had feared. After all, she's with Kuznetsov who is a celebrity.

Then, through a series of circumstances, Renko and Tatiana, along with Renko's "factotum" and Boris Benz, another oil oligarch and close friend of Kuznetsov, and another man go on a bear hunt. It becomes a terror-filled expedition in which two are shot from ambush and killed and a bear becomes the hunter. 

As always in Smith's books, there's a bit of Russian history and politics underlying the story. We get descriptions of the Lake Baikal area and the historical prison city of Chita, as well as some of the shamanic practices of natives to that area. Smith excels at creating the atmosphere of a setting. One feels the oppressive nature of the society and the unforgiving climate of brutally freezing temperatures of a Siberian winter. I had to put on an extra sweater just to read it!

It was an entertaining book. My only real problem with it was the ending which seemed a bit rushed and truncated. But it was very nice to have Martin Cruz Smith back with a new Arkady Renko adventure after several years' absence.   

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller: A review

I enjoy reading historical fiction and Andrew Miller's book, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, came highly recommended. The book began with great promise. Set in the early 19th century during the wars between England and France, it tells the story of a British Army officer and veteran named John Lacroix.

We meet Lacroix when he is returned wounded in body and spirit to his estate in Somerset after a harrowing retreat across Spain. At this point, one is reminded of Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe series (which I loved!), but that is not what Andrew Miller is about. Instead, he brings us a kind of psychological thriller featuring a cat and mouse game with Lacroix playing the part of the mouse. At first, however, the mouse does not know that the cat is pursuing him.

Lacroix is nursed back to health by his faithful housekeeper, but he proves to be half-deaf from his injuries. Moreover, he is suffering from what we would term PTSD. Instead of returning to his regiment, Lacroix decides to head north to the Scottish islands, places he has never been and has no ties. Why does he choose this destination? There is no explanation other than that he wants to get away from war.

What Lacroix does not realize at first is that he is being pursued. While he was in Spain, we learn that he was present at the massacre of a village called Morales. The massacre was carried out by starving British troops under the command of Captain Lacroix. He was not involved in the outrage and in fact, was not aware that it was happening until it was well underway, but a vicious corporal named Calley testifies differently and the British commanders, needing a scapegoat, choose the absent Lacroix. They send Calley along with a Spanish witness named Medina to eliminate Lacroix. (Note: If you are of a certain age as I am, you will remember the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War and the role played by a Lt. Calley. This incident and the naming of this character cannot be a coincidence.)

From this point, the narrative of the book alternates between the implacable hunters and the, at first, clueless hunted. The suspense builds as we get to know more about the character of Calley, a particularly nasty piece of work. Meanwhile, Lacroix works his way through the islands until he reaches one occupied by a clan of vegetarian early hippies who believe in free love, non-violence, and no organized religion and who smoke something called "bang", apparently a 19th-century iteration of weed. Lacroix falls in love with one of their number, a woman named Emily, whose eyesight is failing and who may soon be blind. So we have a man with diminished hearing and a woman with diminished eyesight, who, in a way, complete each other.

There is a surgeon in Glasgow who may be able to help Emily, and Lacroix accompanies her on the trip to the city to have him examine and possibly operate on her eyes. While there, Lacroix unknowingly shares a bed in his rented room with Medina, one of his pursuers, but the two are like ships that pass in the night without hailing each other and Medina leaves the bed early in the morning, never realizing that he could have literally reached out and touched his quarry.  

As the story continued, it lost some of its steam for me. I can't really identify why. It just seemed to meander along without focus and I began to lose interest. So what had during its first half been perhaps a 4-star read got downgraded. 

This was my first experience reading Andrew Miller. His reputation as a writer of historical fiction is stellar, and I think this one is probably not the best example of his craft. It's not a bad book and there were passages that were enjoyable but I didn't find it to be the exciting psychological thriller that it apparently aspired to be.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Moth Catcher by Ann Cleeves: A review

During my recent struggles with health issues, I took comfort in returning to some of my guilty reading pleasures. One of the chief among these is the Vera Stanhope mystery series by Ann Cleeves. I've been working my way through this series and this is the seventh entry. So far I've found every book to be tightly plotted with well-drawn characters and plenty of social commentary and philosophical observations on human nature to go along with the puzzle of the mystery. 

And they are puzzles. I can never guess who the perpetrator is and that held true in The Moth Catcher as well.

Cleeves had a previous career as a probation officer and it seems obvious that that experience has informed her understanding of the UK criminal justice system and those philosophical observations on human nature that I mentioned. Here, she gives us the tale of two very different human beings who are brought together by their interest in moths. One is a recent college graduate, a young ecologist who has been hired by a couple to house sit and care for their dogs while they are in Australia for the birth of their granddaughter. The other is a middle-aged former teacher who is a bit of an outcast, someone who never can quite manage to fit in. They are both passionate about moths and thereby hangs a tale.

When the dead body of the young ecologist is found in a ditch by a country lane, DI Vera Stanhope is called to the scene. When she and her sergeant Joe Ashworth go to the victim's flat to search for clues, Vera stumbles upon a second body. It is that of the former teacher. What could possibly have led to the murder of these two mild-mannered, inoffensive men? Could it have anything to do with their mutual interest in moths?

In investigating the crime, Vera and her team find themselves looking into the lives and secrets of a group of hedonistic retirees who live in the quiet little community of Valley Farm. The three couples would seem to have no real connection to the victims and no motive for wishing them harm and yet Vera's unerring sense of something out of kilter leads her to take a closer look and focus her investigation there. Vera is a brilliant detective and if she thinks that something doesn't add up, it's time to recheck the calculator!

This was an entirely entertaining book to read, but I do have one quibble with the author. She insists on reminding us in practically every chapter that Vera Stanhope is a fat, somewhat slovenly woman with a bad case of recurring eczema that torments her and she's a control freak in her job. The reaction of people who meet her is always that she is a physically unattractive human being. Okay, Ann Cleeves, we get it! You don't have to keep hitting us over the head with it! The beauty of Vera is that of the mind and the indomitable spirit. Her team, who are her only real family, know and appreciate that. And so do her admiring readers.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Monday, January 20, 2020

A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: A review

This book has languished on my TBR list for quite a while and I'm not sure why I haven't read it sooner. Now that I have read it, I regret that I didn't read it the minute that I got it. It is a terrific book, the first novel by this author, but one would never guess that for it is an assured and self-confident bit of writing. Sexton gives full-bodied life to her characters without either sentimentalizing them or making them into oddities. These are ordinary people whose struggles we can identify with.

The author is a resident of New Orleans and that is where her novel is set. Part of the appeal of the narrative is that she deeply understands her city and its culture and she delivers it to us with clear-eyed descriptions which allow us to see it with all of its richness as well as its deeply ingrained flaws.

She tells her story through the lives of three generations of a New Orleans family, a quintessential New Orleans family of Creole and African-American heritage. She begins in 1944 with the love story of Evelyn and Renard. Evelyn is the daughter of a wealthy and prominent family. Her mother is Creole and her father is an African-American who worked his way out of poverty to become a respected doctor. Renard is from a poor Twelfth Ward neighborhood who works menial jobs but aspires to something better. He wants to be a doctor but the paths open to him to achieve that goal are straight, narrow, and full of obstacles. Their courtship is passionate, but it reveals all the class-based impediments to their achieving a life together. In the end, the only way that Renard can see to further his education and perhaps become worthy in the eyes of Evelyn's father is to join the military, so he volunteers for the army. Before he is shipped out to Europe, he and Evelyn make love for the first time. Of course, she becomes pregnant but she doesn't know that until Renard is in France and she chooses not to tell him. She also doesn't tell her family until her condition becomes obvious.

Their story has a happy ending in that Renard returns from Europe and is delighted with the idea of fatherhood and of being a husband to Evelyn. Their marriage is made to last, but forty years later, their daughter, Jackie is not so lucky. In 1980s New Orleans, Jackie is in love with Terry, but Terry is a crack addict who struggles to overcome his addiction. He is a pharmacist but his addictions rob him of his profession and his family of their middle-class life. Ultimately, Jackie is a struggling single mother trying to make a decent life for her son T.C. 

And it is through T.C. in 2010 that we see New Orleans and this family at their lowest ebb. It is post-Katrina New Orleans after the federal government had allowed that city to drown in the storm. The odor of mold is still in the air and the con artists and grifters have moved in to take advantage of the vulnerable. T.C., who never really knew his father, struggles with many of the same issues as that father, chief among them a police force and justice system that targets black men. Although he tries to keep himself straight and to work toward a better life, it seems to be a losing battle.

Thus we see the decline of this family from a position of wealth and prominence in the mid-20th century to just barely making it in the 21st century. Throughout the period, the fortunes of the family and, it could be argued, of the city have been hostage to racial and class prejudice. As one who loves that city, I find this reprehensible, particularly what I consider the abandonment of the city by the federal government during its time of greatest need. It's something that I can never forget or forgive. But Sexton does not dwell on this; it is simply there in the background of her story. And her bottom line is that both the family and the city endure. She highlights their courage in never giving up. With all its setbacks, it is a hopeful story and Margaret Wilkerson Sexton has succeeded brilliantly in telling it. 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars  

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Poetry Sunday: Mighty Forms by Brenda Hillman

I've never experienced an earthquake, but I imagine it could be terrifying. To think that the solid Earth could crack and open up and swallow structures and people. Yes, I think it would be terrifying.

But poets make poetry of anything. Brenda Hillman makes a poem about the experience of an earthquake. 

Mighty Forms

by Brenda Hillman

The earth had wanted us all to itself.
The mountains wanted us back for themselves.
The numbered valleys of serpentine wanted us;
that’s why it happened as it did, the split
as if one slow gear turned beneath us. . .
Then the Tuesday shoppers paused in the street
and the tube that held the trout-colored train
and the cords of action from triangular buildings
and the terraced gardens that held camellias
shook and shook, each flower a single thought.

Mothers and children took cover under tables.
I called out to her who was my life.
From under the table—I hid under the table
that held the begonia with the fiery stem,
the stem that had been trying to root, that paused
in its effort—I called to the child who was my life.
And understood, in the endless instant
before she answered, how Pharaoh’s army, seeing
the ground break open, seeing the first fringed
horses fall into the gap, made their vows,
that each heart changes, faced with a single awe
and in that moment a promise is written out.

However we remember California later
the earth we loved will know the truth:
that it wanted us back for itself
with our mighty forms and our specific longings,
wanted them to be air and fire but they wouldn’t;
the kestrel circled over a pine, which lasted,
the towhee who loved freedom, gathering seed
during the shaking lasted, the painting released
by the wall, the mark and hook we placed
on the wall, and the nail, and the memory
of driving the nail in, these also lasted—

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Hospital stay

If you have noticed my absence, let me explain. I've been in the hospital. I'm home now and hoping to soon be back into my usual routine. In the meantime, please keep me in your thoughts.