Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel: A review

Well, we knew how it was going to end, didn't we? Because, in spite of what you might have heard from a certain orange blowhard, facts are immutable and history cannot be rewritten. And so we knew that Thomas Cromwell's road with all of its convoluted machinations would one day lead him to an appointment with the ax.

But if we hadn't known that we might never have guessed it at the beginning of The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel's third and final volume on the life of Cromwell. It is May 1536 and Cromwell is riding high. 

Mantel picks up the story just as Anne Boleyn has been beheaded by the executioner brought in specially for the purpose from Calais. Cromwell is a witness to the execution and afterward speaks with the executioner and admires his sword of Toledo steel that separated head from body. Then he goes to breakfast with those who had wanted Anne disposed of.

Anne had to be gotten rid of because Henry had tired of her and had lost patience with waiting for her to deliver him a son. He wanted to try his luck with a new wife and he already had her picked out: Jane Seymour, one of Anne's ladies in waiting. And, of course, it was his fixer, Thomas Cromwell, who provided the evidence of Anne's alleged crimes that allowed Henry to rid himself of her. Collateral damage included all the young men with whom she had supposedly had affairs - including her own brother, George - who were also beheaded.

After Anne's death, Cromwell's star continues to rise and he increases in power and influence with the king. Meanwhile, Henry's marriage to the virginal Jane is apparently a love match, but he is again disappointed when she does not immediately get pregnant with his much-desired son. After about three years, Jane is finally delivered of a son, Edward, after a hard labor of forty-eight hours. Jane was of a delicate build and the birth did severe damage to her body. Soon she suffered an infection and never recovered. She died, as did so many women after giving birth in those days. If the queen, who had the best medical care available at the time, could not be saved, it hardly bears thinking about what women of a lower class suffered.

So, Henry was free and on the marriage market again. It was unheard of for the king to be a bachelor. He had to be married and able to legally breed more kings in waiting. His two daughters, Mary from Catherine of Aragon and Elizabeth from Anne Boleyn, had both been declared bastards. An illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, had died only a few months after Anne. Henry needed more legal children in order to ensure the continuance of his line. And to whom did he look to find him a new bride? Why Thomas Cromwell, of course! 

At the time, France and the Holy Roman Empire had reached a rapprochement and England (and Cromwell) felt a need to make alliances that could protect the country from a possible attack by the new allies. Cromwell looked to Germany and the royalty of Cleves where there were two eligible princesses. The bargain was struck and Anna (or Anne) of Cleves came to England to marry the king.

It was not a successful marriage. Henry took a dislike to her almost immediately and found himself unable to consummate the marriage. There would be no royal children born from this match!

Henry seems to have blamed Cromwell for his unhappy marital estate and even though he continued to reward him and bestowed the Order of the Garter and ultimately named him the Earl of Essex, one senses a cooling of his attitude. It really is a masterful bit of writing that Mantel accomplishes here, as she leaves hints and clues that Cromwell's enemies are tightening the circle around him and that he is in mortal danger.

Does Cromwell realize it? He had been with the king for ten years and in that time he had conspired to rid his master of many inconvenient members of his court. He was an intelligent man so one feels that he must have, on some level, realized what was coming. He managed to get some of his money out of the country and admonished his son and nephew to renounce him after he was arrested. He knew there was no hope for him and his main concern at the end was that his family be protected.

And so, on July 28, 1540, we walk with him up the scaffold to meet the ax-man. Thus endeth the tale of the son of the brutal Putney blacksmith who rose to great heights and finally fell all the way back down. 

Hilary Mantel has accomplished a truly remarkable bit of story-telling with these three books of historical fiction. The first two won her back-to-back Man Booker Prizes. I think I can discern a third one waiting in the wings for her.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 


Poetry Sunday: Look It Over by Wendell Berry

If you have the opportunity this week, I would advise doing as Wendell Berry does: Leave everything behind and go into the woods and sit on a log that Nature has provided for free. Look, listen, be present there. Take the gift that Nature offers. Peace. It's a bargain. Get it while it lasts.

Look It Over
by Wendell Berry

I leave behind even
my walking stick. My knife
is in my pocket, but that
I have forgot. I bring
no car, no cell phone,
no computer, no camera,
no CD player, no fax, no
TV, not even a book. I go
into the woods. I sit on
a log provided at no cost.
It is the earth I’ve come to,
the earth itself, sadly
abused by the stupidity
only humans are capable of
but, as ever, itself. Free.
A bargain! Get it while it lasts.

Friday, March 27, 2020

This week in birds - #395

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


American Robins are not the harbingers of spring around here, for the simple reason that they live here all year long. But they certainly are a lot more active and more visible these days. Whether they are looking for materials to build a nest or they are looking for food for the babies in that nest, they are around the yard all day long and even when they are not in view, one hears their cheery song as background music to one's daily activities.

*~*~*~* 

Well, those dastardly "deep-state" scientists are at it again! When instructed to undo regulations that many have worked on for decades, federal lawyers and scientists have managed to embed data into technical documents that environmental lawyers are able to use to challenge the rollbacks in court.

*~*~*~*

Where do pandemics come from and how do they get started? Those are complicated questions, of course, but environmental scientists believe they know one thing that can act as a defense against them: Biodiversity. If we can encourage and maintain biodiversity, it gives us a better chance, a better defense against something that seeks to overwhelm our environment. 

*~*~*~*

And then there is our so-called Environmental Protection Agency which is seeking to use the coronavirus crisis as an excuse for failing to enforce clean air and clean water regulations.

*~*~*~*

Do you ever think about vampire bats? Probably not because why would you? But it turns out they are interesting and altruistic creatures. After a good meal of blood, they will share the substance with their family or with friends with whom they have a close bond.  

*~*~*~*

The Red-fronted Macaw is a critically endangered Bolivian bird that is often caught up in the illegal wildlife trade. Last year the government had come up with a plan to conserve the species, but with the recent change in government there, the plan has yet to be implemented.

*~*~*~*

And in Colombia, the second-most biodiverse country in the world, the end of the civil war there had given hope for an expansion of ecotourism that would offer protection to the ecosystem and provide income for local economies. Instead, there has been a dramatic increase in deforestation and a move to increase petroleum drilling.

*~*~*~*

Temperature records are being challenged right across the South and Southeast this week. In our area, we've been flirting with high temperatures of 90 degrees Fahrenheit and above all week.

*~*~*~*

Many freshwater species are endangered and disappearing fast. This year is critical to saving their endangered ecosystems and the imperiled species that depend on them. Scientists and policymakers have a 
plan.

*~*~*~*

Feeding birds is a very popular backyard activity but research shows that a lot of the commercial birdseed that we use contains some troublesome invasive weed seeds among the seeds that the birds 
love.

*~*~*~*

Western Monarch butterflies that spend their winters on the central California coast end up as far north and east as Idaho in a few months' time. But researchers want to know, where do they go in between those times? It seems that a lot of them disappear along the way.

*~*~*~*

It has been confirmed that the Great Barrier Reef has just suffered its third mass coral bleaching episode within the past five years. The damage is described as very widespread.

*~*~*~*

Here's a bit of good news about rare Andean bears: Their numbers are increasing in Ecuador. They feast on the ripening wild avocados in the mist-shrouded cloud forest there.

*~*~*~*

Finally, here are three essays that offer some comfort in our troubled and scary present. I encourage you to visit and read all three.

(1). Michael Gerson on the importance of quietude and meditation.

(2.) James Gorman on the pleasures of watching geese and other birds that most definitely do not practice social distancing.

(3.) Margaret Renkl on the beautiful world of Nature just outside our broken human one.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

This week in the garden

I'm still reading The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. It's a very long book and full of informative details. It takes close reading which makes it slow - but very enjoyable - work. I say all that to explain that I don't have a review for you this week and so, instead, I offer this placeholder.

In addition to being slow reading, my progress on the book has been slowed because I've been spending quite a lot of my daytime hours in the garden. It is that time of year, after all. The garden demands my attention after its (relatively short) winter nap.

 In the vegetable garden, the curly kale is at its sweet and succulent best.

The sugar snap peas on their trellis are just beginning to bloom. They need to get a move on. Spring is heating up fast.

 Next to the vegetable garden, the wild blackberries are beginning to plump up.

The green anoles are out and about. This one enjoys a sunbath while resting on one of my succulent plants.

 The gerbera daisies are beginning to bloom.

 Is there any sunnier bloom anywhere?

Do these blooms really look like kangaroo paws? At any rate, that is their common name.

There is a Northern Mockingbird war going on in my backyard. Two pairs are vying for control. This one dares you to try to take "his" seeds!

Just a week ago the redbud tree was full of blooms. Now it is full of tiny leaves as it begins to green up.

The Japanese maple is putting out leaves and blooms, but at a much slower rate than the redbud.

The male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are passing through. They usually lead the migration with the females and first-year birds following.

The amaryllis bulbs that I've planted in the garden over the years are just getting ready to bloom.

This canna has been trying to come back since January. Twice it got nipped back by cold weather, but that won't happen this time.

 Autumn sage, spring sage, every season sage - the Salvia greggii is in bloom.

 It comes in raspberry pink, too.

 A Red Admiral butterfly rests on the emerging lantana.

 The lime sedge seems to glow in its shaded bed.

The Carolina Wrens have been hard at work building a nest in the bluebird box outside my kitchen window. They abandoned it once before. We'll see if they follow through this time.

 The yarrow is in full bloom now.

I used to see nothing but fox squirrels in my yard but a couple of years ago they began to be displaced by the gray squirrels. Now I see nothing but grays - no more fox squirrels.

On its trellis by the garden shed, my 'Peggy Martin' rose is in its glory at the moment.

There you have it - a walk through my garden at mid-week and I hope to have that review for you in a few days!

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Poetry Sunday: You Are Old, Father William by Lewis Carroll

And now for a bit of fun.

You may remember this poem, as I do, from childhood. I read quite a bit of Lewis Carroll in those days. In fact, he may be the first poet I learned to appreciate. I loved his nonsense poems.

Here's one that isn't entirely nonsense. Now having arrived at an age where I can more easily appreciate and commiserate with Father William, I've gained a different perspective on it than I might have had in my younger days.

You Are Old, Father William

by Lewis Carroll

"You are old, father William," the young man said,
"And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head --
Do you think, at your age, it is right?

"In my youth," father William replied to his son,
"I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again."

"You are old," said the youth, "as I mentioned before,
And you have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door --
Pray what is the reason for that?"

"In my youth," said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
"I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment -- one shilling a box --
Allow me to sell you a couple?"

"You are old," said the youth, "and your jaws are too weak
For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak --
Pray, how did you manage to do it?"

"In my youth," said his father, "I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,
Has lasted the rest of my life."

"You are old," said the youth, "one would hardly suppose
That your eye was as steady as ever;
Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose --
What made you so awfully clever?"

"I have answered three questions, and that is enough,"
Said his father. "Don't give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I'll kick you downstairs."

Friday, March 20, 2020

This week in birds - #394

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


Image courtesy of allaboutbirds.org.

Although they are nest parasites that do considerable damage to some vulnerable species, it cannot be denied that the Brown-headed Cowbird is a handsome creature. This is the male. The female is drabber but still a neat-looking bird. This is the season when we are most likely to see them in our yards and at our feeders.

*~*~*~*

One victim of the coronavirus pandemic has been several spring birding festivals that have been canceled due to concerns about spreading the deadly virus. This is a disappointment to birders and also a major hit to some local economies that benefit greatly from the ecotourism associated with the festivals. Meanwhile, the National Park Service is, for the most part, keeping public spaces in its care open, often free of charge to visitors, but visitor centers and other spaces where people would normally come in close contact are closed. 

*~*~*~*

After a winter that featured higher than normal temperatures, most weather forecasting entities are predicting a warmer than usual spring right across the continent.

*~*~*~*

One way to deal with self-quarantining is to get outdoors as much as possible while maintaining one's social distancing. But this is a problem for some people who actually have a fear of Nature and their fear sometimes impedes efforts at conservation. I actually knew such a woman who was completely convinced that everything in Nature was her enemy and out to get her. Every bug, spider, frog, etc., was to be feared. It is a sad and disabling condition.

*~*~*~*

We know that members of the crow (corvid) family are very intelligent birds. Scientists who study them know that the birds react strongly to the death of one of their species. But what are the birds actually thinking when confronted by such deaths? 

*~*~*~*

Removing dams from waterways is very much in vogue these days, facilitating the migration of fish and returning to waterways to a more natural state. 

*~*~*~*

Yet another hopeful trend in conservation has been the development and opening of wildlife corridors to allow animals to pass safely past busy highways.

*~*~*~*

Birds' nests may sometimes appear to be a disordered mess of materials to the human eye, but, in fact, they are marvels of engineering

*~*~*~*

The chytrid fungus has devastated many populations of amphibians around the world, but it turns out that some toads are actually able to cure themselves of the fungus.

*~*~*~*

New Zealand's endangered Kākāpō, also known as the world's fattest parrot, was on the verge of being wiped out by the deadly disease, aspergillosis, but dedicated veterinarians have been able to save most of the birds and preserve the vulnerable species for another day.

*~*~*~*

In the wake of the devastation of Italy by the coronavirus, Venice has been deserted by tourists and other human traffic and that has left the gate open for the return of Nature. Nature has not hesitated. It has moved into the spaces left empty.

*~*~*~*

According to a report published this week, the migration of Monarch butterflies to Mexico was down by 53% this winter. 

*~*~*~*

As the Arctic experienced its hottest year on record, the Greenland ice caps lost up to 600 billion tons of ice, enough to raise sea levels by 2.2 millimeters over a period of just two months.

*~*~*~*

In a related concern, scientists are increasingly worried about the carbon being released by melting permafrost located mostly in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. 

*~*~*~*

The blog, Awkward Botany, has a history of how apples were dispersed, both historically and recently, around the planet by humans and other megafauna.

*~*~*~*

By utilizing electronic tracking data from seabirds and sea mammals, scientists are attempting to identify biodiversity hotspots in the Southern Ocean.

*~*~*~*

We know that the white rhinos in Africa are categorized as near-threatened, primarily because of poaching to secure their impressive horns, but there is some good news about their cousins the black rhinos. Their numbers are actually increasing as some have been relocated to safer areas and law enforcement protecting the remaining animals has been strengthened.  

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon: A review

I was not familiar with author Paul Yoon before I read this book. I'm sure I had probably heard of him before but the information had not stuck with me. As I read the book, I thought he must be from Laos or he must at least have a familial connection to that country. Imagine my surprise when I finished the book and read his biography to learn that he was actually born in New York City! He has no connection to Laos. His cultural heritage, through his grandfather, is Korean. His grandfather was a refugee from North Korea who settled in South Korea and established an orphanage there. 

Score another one for the imagination of the writer. He has used that imagination to create a believable tale that begins in Laos in the late 1960s in the midst of the country's civil war. It was, of course, also the time during which the United States was involved in a war in Vietnam. Laos was collateral damage in that war as U.S. planes bombed the country repeatedly. Unexploded ordnance from those cluster bombs littered the countryside, presenting a lethal hazard long after the bombing stopped.

It is in the middle of this brutal reality of war that we meet three teenage orphans: Noi and Prany, sister and brother, and their friend, Alisak. They are trying to stay alive in a half-destroyed house that had been converted into a makeshift field hospital. There they met Vang, a doctor who is totally dedicated to helping the war-wounded at any cost. The three children were pressed into service as motorcycle couriers, picking up medicine and supplies and occasionally the wounded and delivering them to the hospital. To do this, they must navigate through fields littered with unexploded bombs and sometimes as more bombs are falling from the sky. The sense of incredible danger is palpable and as I read I literally sometimes felt as if my heart was in my throat.

As the situation continues to deteriorate, the patients at the hospital who can be moved must be evacuated by helicopter. Those that are unable to be moved have to be left behind in a decision that is absolutely excruciating for Vang and for the reader. Vang also arranges for Noi, Prany, and Alisak to be evacuated on the last helicopters that pick up passengers.

The horror of the situation is interspersed with memories of tenderness and selflessness that sustain Prany in particular as he and Vang end up in a long imprisonment in a "reeducation" center, another scene of torture and brutality. Prany remembers his father, a "secret poet" who had a love of writing. He remembers his father's eyes and the touch of his hand. He also recalls a farmer who once picked up a live grenade to shield Prany, Noi, and Alisak from certain death and how the farmer's shirt billowed out with the impact of the detonation. Prany, as are other characters, is driven to acts of violence by the war, but even the war's worst excesses cannot snuff out his memory of what it was to be loved.  

Alisak, meanwhile, has ended up in France following his evacuation. He is settled in a farmhouse there that is owned by a man with links to Laos, actually the brother of the man who owned the house that had been converted into a field hospital where Alisak had worked during the war. In his new life, Alisak continues to help others recover from injury and attempts to settle in his new home. He is haunted by the loss of his friends and his country and he's never able to really feel that he belongs. 

This is where a woman named Khit, who had known Alisak and the others in Laos during the war, tracks him down many years later. She had been living as an immigrant to America. Other characters that we met in Laos have settled in Spain and France. We follow their history through the years right up almost to the present day and through them we come to understand the complete and lifelong devastation wreaked by war on those who must suffer through it and who are displaced by it.

This is a wrenching and eloquent meditation on the effects of violence on the life of the individual. It is a novel not easily forgotten, certainly one of the very best I have read so far in 2020.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars