Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Joe Pye Weed

Eutrochium purpureum, "Joe Pye weed" with beautyberry in the background.

Joe Pye weed is an herbaceous perennial in the aster family that is native to the eastern and northern United States. It can grow from five to seven feet tall and spread from two to four feet wide, so it is best to give it plenty of room.

The plant is in bloom from mid to late summer. The one in my backyard is not quite in full bloom yet but is almost there. The blooms are mauve pink when fully opened. They can be quite showy and they have the added attraction of having a slight vanilla fragrance. The flowers give way to attractive seed heads which will persist right into winter.

The plants can be propagated through stem cuttings. It is best to cut them back to the ground in late winter and let them regenerate in the new growing season.

People often think of this plant as only a roadside weed and do not consider it as an ornamental for their gardens, but those, like myself, who like to use native plants in their gardens and who plant to attract butterflies and other wildlife know it to be a very valuable addition to their mixed ornamental borders, generally at the back of those borders.

This plant can take full sun to part shade. Mine is in part shade and it thrives there. It requires little water and is very hardy with no real disease or insect problems that I have discovered.

If you need a tall showy plant that will attract many different varieties of butterflies, you might consider giving Joe Pye a spot in your garden.


Frog Music by Emma Donaghue: A review

Frog MusicFrog Music by Emma Donoghue
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This story is based on an actual event that happened in San Francisco in the summer of 1876 - the never-solved murder of a young cross-dressing frog hunter named Jenny Bonnet. Emma Donaghue takes the bare bones of that case and fleshes it out to detail an interesting and plausible tale of just how and why this murder happened and who may have been responsible.

That summer in San Francisco was a terrible time. The city was in the grip of a record-breaking heat wave, but its misery was increased exponentially by a smallpox epidemic which was terrifying the populace and making them wary of interacting with each other.

We meet Blanche Beunon, French immigrant, a burlesque dancer and whore who was the support of herself and her two "fancy men," Arthur and Ernest. All three had formerly been performers in the circus in France, but after Arthur, who was a trapeze artist, had a fall which injured his back, they all came to America. In San Francisco, they lived a bohemian life.

The birth of a son threatened to interfere with that bohemian life and with Blanche's career, but the problem was solved when Blanche's madam arranged for the child to be cared for on a "farm." Blanche continued dancing and whoring and supporting the two men in the manner to which they had become accustomed. The caregiver of the baby, P'tit Arthur or just P'tit, brought the baby to visit its mother occasionally, but Blanche never bothered to visit the place where the baby was being kept.

Then Blanche met Jenny Bonnet and everything changed.

Their meeting was bruising. Jenny was riding her high-wheeler bicycle on the street and collided with Blanche who was walking. They got to talking and Blanche was intrigued by this woman who dressed as a man and who hunted frogs that she delivered to local restaurants for her living. Blanche learns that Jenny is a notorious character around town who has been arrested for dressing as a man, but she is a natural charmer who seems to have friends everywhere. Jenny goes to Blanche's apartment, meets Arthur and Ernest, and learns that Blanche has a son who is now one year old. She asks questions about where the child is and those questions trigger a suspicion in Blanche.

Blanche seeks her son and finds him being warehoused with countless other babies, kept in a crib all day long. She grabs the baby and leaves.

Having a baby with her, of course, upsets the order of her life with Arthur and Ernest and soon everything falls apart. Within a matter of weeks, Blanche's world is turned upside down as Arthur, Ernest, and P'tit have disappeared and she is on the run with Jenny. While she and Jenny are staying at a hardscrabble railroad saloon on the edge of the city, an attacker shoots through the window of their bedroom one night and kills Jenny.

Blanche tries to figure out who shot Jenny and whether the bullet was actually meant for her and shooting Jenny was a mistake. At the same time, she is obsessed with finding and recovering her son, but she is left penniless and without resources for either investigation.

Emma Donaghue makes Blanche a believable character. Although I found the tale a bit difficult to get into at first, by the latter chapters, my interest was fully engaged and I was curious to see how this very unconventional woman's life would play out. Moreover, I wanted things to end happily for her and especially for P'tit.

The events detailed here of so many damaged women and children, as well as desperate paupers and arrogant millionaires, combine to make an unexpectedly lyrical and riveting tale. It takes a very talented writer to be able to do that.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Finger Lickin' Fifteen by Janet Evanovich: A review

(Note: This summer I'm posting some of my old book reviews here - reviews that were published on Goodreads but never before here. This one appeared on Goodreads on August 4, 2009 as I was beginning to fall out of love with the Stephanie Plum series.)

Finger Lickin' Fifteen (Stephanie Plum #15)Finger Lickin' Fifteen by Janet Evanovich
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So what's with Evanonvich's sudden obsession with farts?  And why is it that only one of her characters performs this most human of functions?  It seems like on every third page of this book Lula lets go another big one.  Always Lula.  Obviously, it is supposed to be hilarious.  Now if RANGER let go a big one, that would be truly hilarious!  Oh, I forgot.  Ranger is perfect.  He doesn't fart.

And herein lies my problem with this book.  Yes, it is another quick, funny trip through the whacked-out landscape of the underbelly of Trenton as seen through the eyes of Stephanie Plum.  It has all the touches we've come to expect.  Stephanie and Morelli are on the outs so there isn't much hot sex this time - only implied and/or interrupted hot sex with Ranger and/or Morelli.  But everything else is here - the crazy skips, the wacky friends, the insane Grandma, the longsuffering Mom and Pop Plum, the exploding cars.  Still, I found it oddly unsatisfying.

Analyzing it, I decided that the source of my discomfort is the fact that Lula has become the butt (pun intended) of all jokes.  She seems to exist as nothing more than a cartoon character, someone at whom we are supposed to laugh knowingly and indulgently, secure in the knowledge that we would never do anything that buffoonish.

She is a fat, black, loud former prostitute who lives to eat fried chicken and have sex.  In other words, she is a cardboard stereotype of the kind that we see in so many movies and sitcoms.  I understand that these entire books are peopled by stereotypes and that we are not meant to take them seriously.  And yet...I am particularly offended by Lula. Not because I am a fat, black, loud former prostitute who lives for fried chicken and sex, but maybe, mostly, just because we share the same race - human.

I believe most sincerely though that most fat, black, loud former prostitutes have more to them than this series would indicate, and would it kill Evanovich to give this character a little depth?

Oh, well, I suppose I'm spitting in the wind.  As long as these books continue to sell millions of copies and wind up on the top ten of the New York Times best sellers, why should Evanovich change her formula?  I probably wouldn't either.      

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Poetry Sunday: Mending Wall

There are two sides to a wall or fence and two ways of viewing the efficacy of such a structure. Robert Frost understood both and expressed both in his poem "Mending Wall."

Mending Wall


Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbours."


"Good fences make good neighbours." That is one opinion. But "Why do they make good neighbours?" 

Before we build a wall, shouldn't we ask to know what we are walling in or walling out, and to whom we are likely to give offense? After all, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." Nature herself, I think.  

Saturday, August 16, 2014

This week in birds - #121

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

One of the most widespread raptors in the country - or indeed on the continent - is the magnificent Red-tailed Hawk. It is the hawk that most people will have in mind if they simply say "hawk."  It is the one that all of the big hawks (the buteos) are compared to. This hawk comes in many different color phases from very pale to almost black, but each of them has some things in common, including a white speckled V-shaped mark on the back and a streaked belly band on a lighter belly. And, of course, every one of them has that characteristic which gives the species its name.
Yes, they all have that red tail. It's the thing that makes this one of the most easily recognizable hawks among a class of birds that can often be quite confusing.


Another bird that is very widespread across the continent in summer is the Chimney Swift. I've often mentioned here that it is one of my favorite summer visitors. I love watching the fast-flying little cigar-shaped birds zipping around the skies over my yard on a late summer afternoon. We have left our chimney uncapped and so we have the little birds roosting in it and most summers nesting in it. (No, it's not a problem.) 

Anyway, it's good to know that the swifts can make themselves right at home in a variety of environments. Even in very urban settings. Even in New York City! All it takes is an open chimney or some similar structure where they can nest or roost. And they repay us by scouring the skies of insects.


Gardeners are often revolted by hornworms on their plants and tend to take lethal action against them, but if they can just bring themselves to leave the critters alone, Nature will often take care of them. They are favorite hosts for parasitic wasps that lay their eggs on the caterpillars. The eggs turn to larvae which then devour their hosts. "Beetles in the Bush" has pictures and more information about the process.  


Populations of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo have declined precipitously in the western part of the country. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering giving the bird "threatened" status under the Endangered Species Act. The proposal would designate critical habitat for the bird in nine western states.


Bats are essential to the pollination of many plants that we depend on, and many species are voracious devourers of insects. What would be the consequences if bats should become extinct on this continent? The widespread destruction of bats by a disease known as white-nose syndrome may not yet rise to the level of extinction but it is most certainly a "bataclysm," even if one of which most people seem blissfully unaware.


Bats may not be the most beloved of creatures, but vultures may get even less respect. And yet they are the essential sanitary crew that helps to keep our world clean. If they were not on the job, we would have a much less pleasant environment. But they face persecution in many parts of the world. This is especially true in Africa where some species have declined by as much as 98 percent in some locations.


Little Penguins are, as you might expect from the name, the smallest of the various penguin species. They live in Southern Australia, New Zealand, and the Chatham Islands. They are very social animals and a new study of the birds shows that they forage together, search for food in groups, and apparently synchronize their movements in search of prey.


The global sea level could rise as much as 37 centimeters in this century due to the discharge of ice from Antarctica caused by the warming of the climate.


The non-avian dinosaurs, as well as many other less well-known or less charismatic species, died out in a global catastrophe some 66 million years ago. It's known to scientists as the fifth extinction and indeed it came close to extinguishing life on Earth. But the deeply wounded planet rebounded. To understand just why and how we need to understand the plants that survived. The Cenozoic garden - basis of the resurrection of life on the "Big Blue Marble."


The New Jersey Institute of Technology had planned to test drones at Cape May this summer, but that has been blocked by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which feared the tests might endanger Piping Plovers and Red Knots, both of which are threatened species. The tests will be allowed to proceed in November once the birds have migrated. 


Good news about Grey-breasted Parakeets. A hitherto unknown population of the critically endangered bird has been discovered in Brazil.


Scientists are worried about the effects of the severe drought in California on the millions of migrating birds that pass through the state. It is unclear if there will be enough food and water to accommodate the fall migration this year.


Some of the giant sequoias of the Sierra Mountains have lived on Earth for 2,000 to 3,000 years, but will they be able to adapt to a warming planet? Scientists are looking for ways to help the trees survive.


"Shark Week!" The headlines and the television commercials scream it at us every year at this time. What is this fascination that the creatures seem to hold for many humans? Unfortunately, that fascination has not been enough to protect these top predators of the seas. The populations of many of the species have been declining for years. But now there seems to have been a bit of a turnaround. The state of sharks, 40 years after Jaws, shows signs of improving. Maybe we won't need a bigger boat after all!

One of my all-time favorite movie scenes. And now I've had an excuse to play it again!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - August 2014

Mid-August is the hottest part of summer for us in Southeast Texas. In addition, all our lovely showers from spring and early summer seem to have ended and suddenly things are very, very dry. I've had to deploy the sprinklers to keep some of my plants from succumbing to the heat and dry conditions.

Even so, in spite of hostile conditions, August has its blooms. Here are some of them.

In the little pond, the water lilies are blooming. Those pellets surrounding the blossom are food for the goldfish.

Also in the pond, the pickerel weed is going strong.

And beside the pond, the swamp hibiscus that we call Texas Star is sending out its daily blooms.

The 4 O'clocks are full of their blooms as well.

The almond verbena with its small blossoms that carry a big fragrance that scents the entire section of the garden where the big shrub lives.

Even though it has been dry, the humidity has been high and that has been enough to keep the Texas sage in bloom.

In the veggie garden, most of the vegetables have pooped out in the heat but the okra just gets stronger and more prolific. 

August is brugmansia blooming time.

And it is datura blooming time.

The milk and wine lilies are past their prime now, but this picture, taken a few days ago, shows them in their full beauty.

The Philippine lilies also are now a bit past their prime but have bloomed gloriously this month. 

The cypress vines that reseed themselves every year are going strong and providing lots of their tiny trumpet-shaped blossoms for the butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds that love them. 

Porterweed has been a reliable bloomer this summer.

And so has the cosmos. The bumblebees are grateful!

You can see why the common name for this plant is "flame acanthus." Its blossoms do indeed look like little tongues of flame.

Pink purslane brightens its corner of the garden.

The butterfly ginger is in full bloom now.

Camphor weed is just beginning its long bloom time.

It has not been a good year for roses in my garden. Most of them have not done well at all, but I can always depend on the old 'Caldwell Pink' roses to give me lots of blooms.

The evergreen wisteria is filling up with these wine-colored blossoms.
Summer is beginning its long wind-down period as it slips inexorably toward autumn, but as it's winding down, we still enjoy the bright colors of the many flowers that we gardeners live for. I hope your garden is giving you lots of color on this Bloom Day. Thank you for stopping by my garden.

Don't forget to visit Carol at May Dreams Gardens as she once again hosts Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day.

The Reversal by Michael Connelly: A review

The Reversal (Mickey Haller, #3)The Reversal by Michael Connelly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Twenty-four years earlier, Jason Jessup had been convicted of the murder of a young girl. He had always maintained his innocence and had spent all of his years in San Quentin trying to get the conviction overturned. Finally, new and improved DNA forensic procedures cast doubt on the earlier conviction and led an appeals court to finally reverse the conviction.

The LA district attorney, however, is convinced that the earlier verdict, even if flawed, was correct and that Jessup is a murderer. He determines to try him again, but he realizes that he needs someone who is untainted by any association with the old trial to lead the new prosecution. For that role, he reaches out to a man who has never prosecuted anybody, but has always been a thorn in the prosecution's side, criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller.

Haller is at first reluctant to take on the challenge, but he becomes convinced also that Jessup is guilty, and he agrees to accept the task if he is allowed to pick his team and if he can be an independent prosecutor. The DA agrees to his terms and Haller selects his ex-wife Maggie McPherson, who is an assistant district attorney, as his second attorney on the case. He also selects LAPD Detective Harry Bosch, who he has recently discovered is his half-brother, as his investigator. So the prosecution turns into a family affair and since all three have teenage daughters, they feel a special passion for this case.

The retrial becomes a very high-profile event. The media see Jessup as a man wronged and they play up that angle in their stories. Meantime, the defendant is released from custody and the media follow him around on his daily excursions. The LAPD is following him, too. He is under 24-hour surveillance.  

Soon, the man's nighttime activities raise red flags. An FBI profiler tells Bosch that Jessup may have killed not once but many times, and it looks as though he be may planning to do it again. Bosch learns that the man has gone to his own house on one of his nighttime trips and has sat and looked at the house. He becomes concerned that his troubled teenage daughter, who has just lost her mother, may be in danger from a sadistic killer. The investigation becomes a sprint to find incontrovertible proof that will convict him and put him away for good.

Once again, most of the best scenes of the book are in the courtroom where Mickey Haller must learn some new skills if he is to operate effectively as a prosecuting attorney. It goes against the grain, but he must outthink his media-savvy opponent and poke holes in his defense in order to convince the jury that the defendant is a murderer. And he must do that without ever referring to the earlier trial and conviction for that might prejudice the jury. He's very lucky to have Maggie on his team and at his side to keep him on the straight and narrow.

I really enjoy Michael Connelly's writing, both the Bosch police procedurals and the Haller legal thrillers and in The Reversal we get a two-for-one deal, both characters being represented. The chapters dealing with Haller are presented in first-person, but Bosch's activities are always reported in third-person. The narrative is weighted toward the Haller sections, since it is, in fact, the story of a trial. All in all, it is another winner in the Connelly oeuvre.

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