Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - October 2019

Oops! I almost forgot Bloom Day! Then I saw Carol's of May Dreams Gardens post this morning and, of course, I had to get busy and participate in my favorite monthly meme.

In fact, I really don't have much to show you this month. It has not been a great year for my garden, but still, my old reliables continue showing up month after month.

There is one new face in the crowd. The Lycoris Radiata has been in bloom all month. I prefer their common name, "Naked Ladies", so called because they pop out of the ground fully bloomed with no leaves on.

 The fall asters are well past their prime but still sporting a few blooms.

There is nothing more iconic of October in my garden than the blooms of the Anisacanthus wrightii and the little yellow Sulphur butterflies that love them.

 And, of course, the yellow bell-shaped blooms of the Esperanza.

 The large shrub reaches for the October sky.

More down-to-earth is the Mexican firebush which lives up to its common name in October as it blazes with its flame-shaped blossoms.

The blue plumbago is a bank of these blossoms.

And the old yellow cestrum continues its blooming. That's the watermelon-colored crape myrtle in the background.
 The pink Knockout rose is putting forth a few of its pretty little single blooms.

The 'Lady of Shallott' rose has been one of my most dependable and beautiful bloomers throughout the summer.

 The autumn sage is decorating the season with its flowers.

 The Vitex, aka chaste tree, is one of my garden favorites.

 The old-fashioned 4 o'clocks are undaunted.

 Lantana is at its best now. That's basil next to it.

 The Turk's cap blooms just about twelve months of the year in my garden.

The butterfly ginger has not had a good year but it is rallying to put out a few blooms now.

And the chrysanthemums are just beginning to bloom. There will be more shortly.

Jatropha blooms on.

 And my purple oxalis is enjoying the cooler temperatures we've had recently.

Strolling through my garden, even when it is not at its best, as is the case now, always gives me hope.

May your garden also help to keep hope alive. Thank you for visiting mine. Happy Bloom Day!

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Poetry Sunday: Invitation by Mary Oliver

I dip into poetry throughout the week. I do it quite randomly, without a plan or agenda. But I am often astonished to find that the poem I have randomly chosen is exactly the one that I needed at that particular moment. And so it was when I landed on this poem by Mary Oliver a few days ago. She writes:
it is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
Yes, exactly.


by Mary Oliver

Oh do you have time
to linger
for just a little while
out of your busy
and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles
for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,
or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?
Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air
as they strive
not for your sake
and not for mine
and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude –
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
I beg of you,
do not walk by
without pausing
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.
It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

This week in birds - #373

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

A King Rail searches for a snack in the wetlands of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.


The National Park Service is one year into its effort to re-establish wolves on Isle Royale in Michigan. But there is a problem. Of the nineteen wolves that they have relocated to the island habitat, three have died of unknown causes. Another wolf walked across an ice bridge to the mainland in January. The NPS is trying to solve the mystery of the deaths and, in the meantime, has made some adjustments to its reintroduction procedures to try to reduce stress to the animals.  


Climate change is a threat to some of the oldest living entities on the planet - the giant sequoias. The not-for-profit conservation group Save the Redwoods has plans to buy the largest privately owned sequoia grove in order to try to protect and save it.


A new study confirms that North American bird species are attempting to adjust to climate change by shifting their ranges farther north. This could result in at least eight states losing their "state bird" as those birds move out of their areas. 


When the land-dwelling ancestors of whales and dolphins moved into the seas, they shed some of the genes of traits that were no longer useful to them in their aquatic life.


Margaret Renkl discusses the fall hummingbird migration.


Birders are already seeing hints of the climate change-caused range shifting by the birds that is discussed in the recent Audubon report.


The endangered Cerulean Warbler has lost 70% of its population over the last 44 years, but now the decline of the species has slowed and the bird seems to be making something of a recovery. It's not entirely clear why but there are several theories.


A previously unknown species of a tiny primate called a tarsier was first discovered on the Togean Islands off Sulawesi, Indonesia, in 1993. It has taken until now for scientists to study the species sufficiently to describe it to science. 


One of the leading causes of extinction for many species is the global wildlife trade.


Saltwater is killing forests along the East Coast, sometimes even far distant from the sea. This leads to stands of dead trees, often bleached or blackened, known as ghost forests.


A study found that Greater Prairie-Chickens were less bothered by the sound of wind turbines than they were by inadequate ground cover when it came to choosing their territory.


Snakehead fish are an invasive species that is indigenous to Asia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Africa. They can breathe on land and crawl like a snake. Recently two were caught in Gwinnett County, Georgia. The blunt directive of the wildlife officials there was "Kill it! Don't let it escape."


More than half a century after being designated an endangered species, the tiny Kirtland's Warbler has recovered sufficiently to be removed from the endangered list. It will still require careful monitoring to ensure that it doesn't slip back into danger.


The Atlantic Puffin colony on Eastern Egg Rock Island in Maine had a record 188 breeding pairs this summer. But the colony's future is uncertain as climate change and the warming ocean affect the fish that they prefer as food.


The kangaroos and other herbivores of Australia are the cause of overgrazing on some of the country's national parks and preserves.


A Least Bittern recently turned up in, of all places, Ireland. Unfortunately, the bird was in poor condition and it expired not too long after it was discovered. Even so, it was the first record of this species in Ireland.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: A review

The main character in The Dutch House is the house itself. It looms over the lives of the human characters and haunts them to the very end of their days.

The house was built in a suburb of Philadelphia by a Dutch couple, the VanHoebeeks, who had made a fortune in a cigarette distribution business that they started before World War I. The facade of the house was glass; you could look right through it. The lives of the people who lived in it were never so transparent.

The VanHoebeeks raised their family there, but it was a family stalked by tragedy and by post World War II years, the only family member left was the mother who was cared for by a servant, Fiona (later nicknamed Fluffy). When the mother died, the house reverted to ownership by a bank and it was sold.

The buyer was Cyril Conroy, a man who had grown up poor but through a combination of acumen and luck had parlayed a single investment in a property into an enormous real estate empire. He was a man with a wife whom he adored and a young daughter, Maeve. He wanted to give his wife an amazing gift and the Dutch House just fit the bill.

When he took his wife and daughter to see the house and he told the wife he had bought it for her, she was astounded and appalled. She hated it! It was ostentatious, clearly the finest house in the town where it was located, but Elna was a woman who also had grown up in poverty and had flirted with the idea of becoming a nun and following Sister Theresa. She believed in the value of living simply and of serving the poor and needy of the world. She could never be happy in this house.

Nevertheless, the family moved in. A son, Danny, was born. But over the years, Elna would be absent from the home for extended periods, leaving the children in the care of their father and the caretaker "Fluffy," as well as two house servants who treated them as their own children. Finally, when Danny was three and Maeve was ten, she left for good. Her note said she was going to India.

And so we have the two motherless children and the makings of a fairy tale. Shortly, Maeve develops Type 1 diabetes, which will be another burden she and her brother will bear throughout her life. She is devoted to the care and protection of her little brother, even in adulthood. She essentially sacrifices her life to ensure that he has everything he needs.

In time, Cyril marries again to a much younger woman, the odious Andrea. Now we have the evil stepmother on the scene. We learn that Cyril's main attraction for her is in the house that he owns. She desired that house.

Maeve moves out of the Dutch House as soon as she can. Danny is left alone with Andrea and her two daughters and his father. But not for long. His father dies at age fifty-three and Andrea is in control. She kicks him out of the house.

Andrea is left in control of the business and the house. The only thing provided for Maeve and Danny is an educational trust, so Maeve devotes herself to seeing that her brother receives the most expensive education available.

I could go on and on and recite the whole plot for you, but I have to leave something for you to discover!

Patchett's prose is so straightforward and one could almost say old-fashioned. It is a very traditional way of telling a story, without tricks or embellishments, and I very much appreciated that after some of the other books I've read recently. (I'm looking at you, Marlon James!)  I loved just about everything about her book, except I was a little disappointed with the ending. It seemed to just sort of fade out and I guess I was hoping for something a little more dramatic. I should have known better - no tricks, no embellishments, only real life.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Guest Book by Sarah Blake: A review

On the surface, The Guest Book tells the story of three generations of a privileged white American family. Dig underneath that surface just a bit and you find the history of our country from the mid-1930s until the present day with the racism of the powerful who control everything always casting its shadow over events.

The privileged white American family is the Miltons and in 1935 it seemed that Ogden and Kitty Milton had everything. They were rich and good looking and their marriage was a love match which everyone who knew them envied. They had three perfect children. Nothing untoward could touch them. Perhaps that is why when tragedy did come it was so devastating.

I must say it was devastating to this reader as well. It was so unexpected and it hit me right where I live.

After the family tragedy, Kitty was unable to recover and in order to bring her back and give her a reason to live, Ogden decided to buy an island off the coast of Maine. Crockett's Island. Because I guess that's what you do when you want to cheer up your grieving wife and you are rich!

His plan works and once we see the island we understand why. Here's a partial description of her first sighting of it: "The house on the hill, the spruce line behind it, these wide verdant fields whose grasses waved like girls at a fair." Yes, I would love it, too.

For three generations, the family spends its summers there and those who visit them there sign their names in the guest book. Among those who visited in 1936 were Elsa and Willy, a German woman and her Jewish son whom Ogden had met when he was pursuing his business in Germany. Elsa makes a request of Kitty and Kitty refuses her. It is a choice that will haunt Kitty for the rest of her life, along with that first tragedy.

The children grow up and embark on their adult lives. The island is full of life and it is the place where most members of the family feel most at home. Other people come to the island, including, in 1959, a young Jewish man who was an employee of the family business, Len Levy, and a black journalist/photographer named Reg Pauling. They were invited by the Miltons' son, Moss, a wannabe composer of music who was expected to some day take over the family business. Unbeknownst to the family, Levy was also the lover of their daughter, Joan. 

Needless to say, Jews and black people were about as scarce as hen's teeth on Crockett's Island. Their presence caused some predictable tensions, but, of course, everyone was very, very nice and civilized toward them because that's the kind of people they were. Nevertheless, the stage was set for a third tragedy.

Many years later, in the 21st century, the third generation, grandchildren of Ogden and Kitty, can no longer afford the island. One of the granddaughters, Evie, is a historian who is haunted by the fact that she doesn't really know her own family's history. There was a code of silence that was never broken, and, as she begins to uncover a few previously unknown facts, she becomes obsessed with learning more.

I found this to be a fascinating study of how silences build and secrets become firmly embedded in families, even if there is no logical reason for them to be. But when the silence is about something that is considered shameful, it can build and fester and poison lives even in future generations.

(In the same way, I suppose, silences fester and poison countries that refuse to face their pasts. One wonders, for example, what this country would look like if it finally faced and acknowledged the racism at its core, lanced it and let the poison drain away. It's funny the roads that fiction can take us down.)

Sarah Blake's writing in this novel is simply wonderful. She had me from the first page. I devoured her gorgeous descriptions of the island and her on-point social criticisms of the American social scene as represented by the Miltons and their friends and acquaintances. And I loved the historical view of our country. As Evie, the historian, once observed, there are facts and there are cracks between them. What fills those cracks is history. The Miltons and people like them fill some of those cracks.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars  


Sunday, October 6, 2019

Poetry Sunday: To Autumn by John Keats

We have the hope of some actual autumn-like weather in the coming week. The forecasters are saying that our high temperatures will be in the low 80s and may even dip into the 70s on one day! And nighttime temperatures could actually get as low as the high 50s. Those are the most pleasant numbers we've seen since April. We can only hope that they materialize.

With such a prospect in view, let us dream on with one of the Romantic poets, John Keats. Here is his take on autumn.

To Autumn

by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,—
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

This week in birds - #372

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

The Scrub Jay is one of the iconic birds of the western United States. I took this (not very good) photograph in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado on an autumn trip there a few years ago.


There's some rare good news about the plastic polluting our oceans. The huge floating device that was designed by Dutch scientists to collect plastic debris from what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch succeeded in picking up plastic from the high seas for the first time. That patch of rubbish in the Pacific is now three times the size of France.


But there's more evidence that any help in cleaning up plastic pollution may be too little too late. A comprehensive study of microplastics in California has turned up a mind-boggling amount in San Francisco Bay. Much of this pollution flows into the bay through storm drains. The scientists say that the plastics were found basically everywhere they looked.


There's a hopeful sign of cleaner waters on the opposite coast of the country, in the Potomac River, which President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed a "national disgrace" fifty years ago. Proving that strong clean water laws can have an effect, the river has been cleaned up to the point that dolphins now swim there! Not only do they swim there, they are mating and giving birth in the river.


Gunnison Island in the Great Salt Lake has long been a haven for nesting White Pelicans where their nests and chicks were protected from predators. But now the island is no longer an island. Falling water levels in the lake have created land bridges to the island, bridges that coyotes can walk across. Even if they do not hunt the pelicans, their presence disrupts the peace of the colony and affects the success of nests.  


Did you know there are more than 61,000 species of flies in North America? So the "Prairie Ecologist" assures us and they fill a great variety of niches including that of pollinators, predators, scavengers, decomposers, parasites, and much more.


The permafrost in Siberia is no longer "perma". It is melting as the planet heats up and that is exposing the stench of decomposing plants and animals that had been frozen there for millennia. Scientists say that Siberia is heating up faster than almost any place on Earth.


Margaret Renkl has some practical advice for us of things we can do individually and as a society to help birds.


Brown-headed Cowbirds crowd a feeder in my yard in late winter.

One bird that many people who feed birds wouldn't mind seeing a little less of is the Brown-headed Cowbird. Flocks of these birds can quickly clean out a feeder in winter. A recent study of the birds revealed some interesting information about their breeding habits though. It seems that more than 75% of the pairs studied were monogamous through the breeding season, even though the birds are brood parasites that do not raise their own chicks. This is contrary to what theories would suggest.


Loss of habitat has pushed the Oregon Silverspot butterfly to the brink of extinction, but now an effort is underway in the state of Washington to aid it and possibly pull it back. A native coastal prairie habitat is being restored there in order to attract and protect the little butterfly.


In other butterfly news, the various milkweed butterflies like the Monarch and the Queen have evolved to feed on a plant that is poisonous. The milkweed has toxins that the caterpillars ingest and thus gain some protection from hungry birds in the process. But how did this evolution happen, scientists wanted to know? Their report is in the latest Nature magazine. 


Leafcutter ants, it seems, know a lot about germ-killers and maybe we could learn something from them that would help to prevent antibiotic resistance.


Bird communities in the Mojave Desert are collapsing. Of the 135 species that were present 100 years ago, 29% are less common or less widespread today. The cause, scientists say, is heat stress caused by climate change.


Nature is wonderful in its infinite variety! There are parasitic wasps the size of a pinhead that prey on other parasitic wasps. They are called crypt-keeper wasps.


Six national forests in New Mexico and Arizona have been ordered by a federal court to stop firewood collection permit sales, timber sales, as well as thinning and prescribed burns in order to protect the endangered Mexican Spotted Owl.


The last undammed river in the Southwest U.S., the San Pedro in southwestern Arizona, is being slowly killed by the pumping of too much water from the ground.