Sunday, August 18, 2019

Poetry Sunday: Crickets by Sue Owen

Here are some of the sounds that I enjoy in the summer landscape: birdsong (of course!), frogs, cicadas, and crickets. Sue Owen, also, has an appreciation of the sound of crickets on a summer night. They inspired her poem. 

by Sue Owen
Some summer nights you
can hear them getting all
worked up over this idea
of cheerfulness and song.
Deep in the grasses where
they hide, there is a need
to be heard in the darkness,
even if their voices are
so small they sound
like a door creaking on
its hinge, or the squeak
a drawer makes when
it opens up at last.
It seems as if the damp
air and dew are trying
to hold their song down
out of sheer gravity,
but neither dampness nor
darkness makes them stop.
In fact, the crickets like
to show off their song,
to let it lift up off
the earth the way that
all notes rise to the stars,
and float up through the
thick night, as if their
joy itself were the only light
we needed to follow.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

This week in birds - #365

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

The beautiful and sweet-singing House Finch was originally from the southwestern part of this country and down into Mexico and Central America. But through the years, it has expanded its range eastward and is now found in most of the contiguous 48 states. Where you see one House Finch you can almost certainly see another. They tend to travel in pairs and family groups. Here a pair wait for their turn at the feeder. 


The magnitude of the harm that would be done by weakening the Endangered Species Act as the current administration in Washington wants to do truly boggles the mind. This comes as there have been repeated warnings from scientists that the biodiversity on this planet is at risk and, indeed, that this ultimately poses a threat to the continued existence of humans. 


Well, that didn't take long. I reported here last week that the EPA was planning to allow usage of so-called cyanide bombs to kill wild animals. The problem is that these bombs kill indiscriminately, including any household pets that might be in the affected area and they can harm humans as well. A tremendous uproar of public condemnation followed the announcement and now the EPA has said, "Never mind! We won't do it."


Scientists have named the epoch in which we are living the Anthropocene, but where some epochs on Earth have lasted more than 40 million years, this one started just about 400 years ago and there is no indication that it may last long enough to qualify as an "epoch". Thus, some scientists are now arguing that this time dominated by humans should rather be classified as an event.


I don't usually feature opinion pieces in my roundup of environmental news, but this one by Timothy Egan about the robbery of our public lands struck me as particularly cogent and important.


A human-sized penguin fossil from the Paleocene epoch (66 to 56 million years ago) has been found by an amateur paleontologist on New Zealand's South Island. 


Meanwhile, in modern-day news of penguins, two male King Penguins at Zoo Berlin have adopted an egg and are brooding it. Germans are watching and hoping for the hatching of the first penguin chick in the zoo in two decades.


Researchers in California are studying how coral reproduces, with the hope of being able to help give the threatened coral reefs of the world, as well as all the species that depend on them, a fighting chance at survival in a changing world.


Since the end of civil war in Colombia, the country has thrown more resources into the fight against wildlife trafficking, especially that of songbirds. Conserving these animals is especially important to a country that is a desirable destination for ecotourists.


"The Prairie Ecologist" reminds us that grasses have flowers, too.


Extreme climate change has arrived in the United States, regardless of what the deniers say. The Washington Post has an interactive map whereby you can check what the average temperature rise in your area has been.


"10,000 Birds" has a post about the economic impact of birding on national wildlife refuges. The influx of birders to an area helps to create local jobs.


It is estimated that there are less than 1,000 of these flowers, called purple fringeless orchids, in the state of Virginia, but recently a group of citizen scientists there discovered a previously unknown colony of the plants.


Introduced forest pests are cutting a swath of destruction across the forests of America. Scientists estimate that as much as 40% of forests are threatened


The waterwheel is a carnivorous plant that is a native to Australia, Africa, Asia, and Europe, but it is facing extinction in most of its native habitat. However, it has found its way into New York's streams and they may represent its best chance for survival. 


Many bird species are known as prodigious travelers in migration. Add to that list the Northern Wheatear. Tracking devices have revealed that these birds that spend their summers chasing insects in Alaska travel all across Asia and Europe in migration to spend their winters in Africa. It's a trip of some 9,000 miles, perhaps the longest of any songbird.  

Friday, August 16, 2019

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok: A review

Searching for Sylvie Lee is a tragedy wrapped in a mystery. Sylvie Lee is the older daughter in a family of Chinese immigrants to America. Her life in this country and with her parents has been complicated. When the family first came to America, the parents soon realized they were not equipped to take care of baby Sylvie because both had to work to survive and they had no family here to help them. So, they sent Sylvie back to her grandmother who had emigrated to The Netherlands and was living with a cousin and her husband there. Sylvie spent the first nine years of her life in the care of her grandmother.

Only then did her mother return to The Netherlands to claim her and take her back to America. By then, her parents had had a second daughter, Amy. Part of the bargain for having Sylvie rejoin her family was that she would help to care for Amy. But that was okay because she adored Amy and Amy adored her.

Sylvie had many problems to overcome, but she became a super-achiever. She was a Princeton undergrad and got an M.B.A. at Harvard before going on to a very successful career. She married a man from a rich family, a family which bought the newlyweds an apartment in Manhattan as a wedding gift. Sylvie was living the golden life.

Amy, meantime, was a bit of a late bloomer and was trying to find herself and decide what to do with her life. Their parents both continued to work hard. Then, a call came from The Netherlands. Grandma was dying. The family, especially Sylvie, needed to come if they wanted to say goodbye. Ma wanted to go and see her mother but Pa insisted that she stay. In the end, only Sylvie made the trip to see the people she had lived with for nine years and to be with her grandmother.

But while she is there and after the death of her grandmother, Sylvie disappears. She had packed her bags and the family assumes that she has returned to the United States. Only when Amy speaks to them asking about her sister do they begin to realize that Sylvie is missing.

This story is told to us by three narrators: Sylvie, Amy, and Ma. As we hear their different perspectives, it slowly becomes obvious that the family did not know Sylvie at all. They did not understand the torments she went through to make a successful life and they did not know that that life had fallen apart. Her marriage had failed and she had lost that high-powered job she had. She was hanging on by her fingernails but had not felt able to confide in anyone.

And so the idea of searching for Sylvie takes on a double meaning; Amy goes to The Netherlands and searches for her sister's physical being, but the search also involves uncovering who that sister really was. No spoilers here, but the mystery is all about secrets and the lies we tell ourselves and those close to us. Does anyone ever really know another human being? 

Jean Kwok is a gifted writer. This is her third book but the first one of hers that I've read and I found it quite engrossing. There was one thing that bothered me and that was the conversations between characters. Perhaps the conversations were meant to capture the difficulty of conveying the essence of a language such as Chinese or Dutch translated into English, but they just seemed stilted and a bit offputting to me and that hindered my enjoyment of the narrative. Other than that rather minor quibble, I found nothing to complain of in a very absorbing read.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - August 2019

What's blooming in my zone 9a Southeast Texas garden this August? Here's a look.

Sunflowers, of course.

Crape myrtles, ditto.

Wedelia, a rampantly growing ground cover.

 Coral vine.


 Hamelia patens, aka Mexican firebush or hummingbird bush.


 Ornamental potato vine.

 Vitex, aka chaste tree.

 Evergreen wisteria.

Autumn sage, Salvia greggii.

 Butterfly ginger.


Texas sage, blooms of which are triggered by rain, or, in this case, the sprinkler.

 Esperanza, aka yellowbells.

Ruellia 'Chi Chi'.

Blue plumbago.

 Turk's cap, 'Big Momma'.

 Rudbeckia 'Goldstrum'.

 'Pride of Barbados'.



 Cypress vine.

 Justicia 'Orange Flame'.

 Water lily.

What's blooming in your garden this month? If you leave a comment, I'll be able to visit and find out!

Thanks to Carol of May Dreams Gardens for this monthly meme and happy Bloom Day to all.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Marilou Is Everywhere by Sarah Elaine Smith: A review

Here is yet another remarkable first novel. Sarah Elaine Smith is a published poet and I think it shows in the vivid prose of this book, but this is her first work of fiction. It is a work of empathy and compassion for the flawed characters within it. Even when they behave badly or stupidly, their creator enfolds them in her generous understanding and, with that, she encourages her readers toward the same attitude. "See?" she seems to say, "they are only human and they are doing the best they can, just like all of us."

Her narrator is a 14-year-old outsider named Cindy Stoat. Cindy lives with her two older brothers, Virgil and Clinton, in a ramshackle house in rural Pennsylvania. The father is absent. They have a mother but she comes and goes and is seldom on the scene. The electricity has been turned off because of unpaid bills. They are basically on their own and frequently hungry.  They live a feral existence. (Shades of Where the Crawdads Sing!) 

They have neighbors named Jude and Bernadette Vanderjohn. Jude is the teenage daughter of Bernadette. When Jude was fourteen and Virgil was a senior in high school, they were a couple. They called themselves Marilou and Cletus. Now Bernadette has descended into alcoholism and has only a tenuous grasp on reality. Jude is a popular teenager with a wide circle of friends. When she disappears after a weekend with some of those friends, her mother doesn't even realize she is gone. Her friends miss her and call the police but the trail is already cold.

Virgil takes it upon himself to check on Bernadette daily and, after a while, Cindy goes along with him. She is overwhelmed by the riches contained in Bernadette's house, especially books. She had been an inveterate reader of catalogs because they were all that were available to her. Now she has access to actual books! Riches beyond her wildest imagination.

Then a strange transformation begins. The confused Bernadette starts mistaking Cindy for Jude. Finally, Cindy plays along with her and pretends to be Jude.

But what of the real Jude? What has happened to her? Is she even still alive? That is the mystery at the heart of this story. And what will happen to Cindy and her brothers if the mystery is solved?

Smith had me from the very first of this novel right through its ending. Her prose gives the reader entry into this strange but tender world. From the beginning, we feel a part of it and we understand Cindy's feeling of being an outsider and never quite being good enough. We understand her longing to be like Jude and finally to be Jude. It is, as I said in the beginning, a remarkable accomplishment in a first novel.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Poetry Sunday: Small Kindnesses by Danusha Lameris

My older daughter brought this poem to my attention last week and it proved to be just the antidote I needed for a week of truly horrible and depressing events. As I read it, I could feel the gloom lifting just a little and leaving that crack by which the light gets in, as Leonard Cohen once wrote.

I think, in the end, if there is anything that will save us as a species, it might be those small kindnesses that we do for each other; the things that we do automatically without thinking because we know in our deepest heart of hearts that they are the right things to do. Because "Mostly, we don't want to harm each other", and that sentiment may be "the true dwelling of the holy". 

Treasure those acts and those moments.

Small Kindnesses

by Danusha Lameris

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”

Saturday, August 10, 2019

This week in birds - #364

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

Black-crowned Night Herons are one of several species of herons and egrets that frequent our ponds and marshes. I photographed this one on a visit to Brazos Bend State Park. He was fishing for his dinner. 


Light, created by humans for their comfort and convenience, is a type of pollution of the environment that perhaps does not get the attention that it deserves. It has been linked to human illnesses as well as to abnormal behavior in wild animals. There are few places in the U.S. that are still considered pristine, without light pollution. The Washington Post this week published a map that shows those places. They are mostly in the western part of the country, including one of my favorite places, the Big Bend National Park in Texas. 


A new report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this week examines how land use around the world contributes to the warming of the Earth's atmosphere and concludes that, in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we must make serious changes in how we grow food, raise livestock, and manage forests.


Despite a formal directive that prioritizes oil and gas leasing and drilling outside the habitat of the Greater Sage-grouse, the current iteration of the Interior Department is pushing to allow such leasing and drilling in those areas, while at the same time working to undermine protections for the bird and its habitat. 


A quarter of humanity is facing the prospect of running out of water. Seventeen countries around the world are currently under extreme water stress, meaning they are using almost all the water they have. The New York Times has a map that shows the most severely affected areas.


What can cause the massive die-offs of bumblebees that sometimes occur? The knee-jerk answer is pesticides, of course, and sometimes they are the culprit but not always. Strange phenomena sometimes occur in Nature. 


Alaska recorded its warmest month on record in July with an average temperature nearly one degree higher than the previous record set in July 2004. Moreover, for the first time, the state's extensive coastline was left entirely free of sea ice.


The EPA has announced that it will allow the use of controversial poison devices that employ sodium cyanide, and are dubbed "cyanide bombs" by critics, to kill wild animals. The "bombs" have been known to kill indiscriminately, including endangered species and household pets as well as causing harm to humans, thus critics continue to object to their use. 


An Israeli probe meant to land on the moon instead crashed into the surface this week, which might not be noteworthy except for one thing: The probe contained a cargo of a few thousand creatures called tardigrades, considered the toughest animal on Earth. They are tiny but almost indestructible and scientists think they probably survived the crash and may now be live on the moon.

Tardigrades - tiny but tough.


Back on Earth, a part of the heartland of the U.S. has been flooded for five months but it doesn't seem to attract much attention. About 550,000 acres of land in the rural Yazoo backwater area of the Mississippi delta have been underwater since February. It's a poor farming area which may account for the lack of notice, but it has devastated the agricultural prospects for this year.


Despite habitat protection, Northern Spotted Owls are continuing to decline in Washington's Mount Ranier National Park and the main cause seems to be competition from the more aggressive Barred Owls which have expanded their range into the area.


New Zealand, which today has the heaviest parrot alive, the Kakapo that is too chubby to fly, was once home to a three feet tall probably flightless parrot which may have weighed as much as a bowling bowl. The creature's bones were found on New Zealand's South Island, an area replete with fossil deposits from the early Miocene (19 to 16 million years ago).


There is one area in Cambodia that is home to five critically endangered birds - three vultures and two ibises. It is Western Siem Pang, a forest sanctuary, and conservationists are working to ensure that it is preserved.


A beaver has been spotted splashing in the Hudson River off the Upper West Side in New York. Will it become the new animal darling of the city, replacing the now absent Mandarin Duck that caused such a stir?


A study recently published says that Herring Gulls are less likely to steal food if they are being watched. Making eye contact with the thieves keeps them at bay.


Researchers say that this year has been a good one for fireflies and Monarch butterflies in Eastern Canada. The numbers of the insects are up substantially over recent years, offering a flicker of hope for the continuing survival of their species.