Sunday, March 26, 2017

Poetry Sunday: Lines Written in Early Spring

Spring may be the season which most appeals to poets. They've certainly had a lot to say about it in many different ways.

Surely one of the poets most associated with poems about spring is William Wordsworth and one of his most famous poems on the subject is this one. It finds the poet in a pleasant woodland grove, enjoying the birds' songs and the spring flowers, but all this beauty prompts somber thoughts of what a mess humans have made of things. It was written in April 1798, but it might have been written today.
Lines Written in Early Spring
by William Wordsworth
I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.
To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.
Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.
The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.
If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

Saturday, March 25, 2017

This week in birds - #249

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

It's spring and there is new life everywhere, like this fuzzy young American Bittern, hidden among the weeds and waiting for its parent to return with a meal.


On Friday, the State Department granted the pipeline giant TransCanada a permit for construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a reversal of Obama administration policy. When President Barack Obama rejected the project in late 2015, he said it would undermine American leadership in curbing reliance on carbon fuels. 


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in January listed the rusty-patched bumblebee as endangered, citing population declines caused by the loss of habitat, disease, pesticide use, and climate change. But before the protections took effect, the listing was frozen by the new administration in Washington. This week, stung by a lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the administration reversed course and listed the bee as an endangered species.


A virtual earthquake occurred in the world of the dinosaur family tree this week. A graduate student at the University of Cambridge has rewritten the family tree, moving some species from one branch to another, as a part of his project to attain his Ph.D. His theory is supported by his supervisors and co-authors and by a prodigious database he constructed of dinosaur anatomical features. Of course, many scientists disagree with him and the debate is on!


The Night Parrot is an Australian species that was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in Queensland four years ago. Now, adding another twist to the mysterious history of the species, a Night Parrot has been photographed in arid Western Australia. It's the first verified sighting of the bird in that area in 100 years.


A little-known branch of the federal government charged with getting rid of unwanted and invasive pests killed 2.7 million animals in 2016, the agency's annual report shows. The Wildlife Services wing of the U.S. Department of Agriculture is called on to kill species considered a threat or nuisance to people or their livelihoods, including trapping wolves in northern Minnesota in areas where livestock or pets have been attacked. The kill list includes Red-winged Blackbirds, bobcats, Northern Cardinals(!!!), coyotes, feral chickens, raccoons, Rock Doves, and feral pigs among its many species. Personally, I fail to see how cardinals, or indeed many of these species, could ever be considered such pests that they require killing.

"Pest? Who, me?"


The author of the very first bird field guide I ever owned, The Golden Guide to Birds, died this week. That guide was one of the least of Chandler Robbins' achievements. He was an eminent ornithologist with a heartfelt love of birds and his research played a pivotal role in our understanding of birds' life cycles.


Of course, ornithologists are always looking for ways to better understand birds, and a new paper suggests a change to a very basic stratagem for studying them; namely, how we count how many birds are actually out there. 


"The Web of Life" blog discusses some of the unexpected relationships that introduced species can develop.


A tree census in San Francisco has discovered that the city has 20,000 more trees than was previously thought.


Keas are a New Zealand parrot species with a playful nature. It turns out that they have a particular call which invites other Keas to play. 


The "Arctic Sea Ice" blog reports that the maximum sea ice extent for the season was reached two weeks ago and it is the lowest maximum on record.


In spite of late winter snowfalls, fourteen of New Jersey's counties remain under a drought warning and four others are under a drought watch.


Birds benefit from flocking together, even when they are not the same species. Many eyes looking out for predators and for food provide significant benefits. It is not surprising, then, that China's endangered Crested Ibises flock together with more numerous species like egrets.


Congress has overturned a regulation implemented by President Obama near the end of his term. That regulation prevented big game hunting in Alaskan national wildlife refuges. Overturning it means that hunters will now be able to bait, trap, and shoot from the air such animals as wolves and grizzly bears. 


For migratory birds, breeding grounds are where the action is, but a new study by University of Guelph biologists is among the first to suggest that the number of songbirds breeding during spring and summer depends mostly on what happens at their wintering grounds. Not surprisingly, a successful winter often leads to a successful spring and summer. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

The North Water by Ian McGuire: A review

It is 1859. British whalers still make the annual journey into the North Water, the Arctic, in search of the giant mammals, but the industry itself is dying, killed off mostly by the discovery of the uses of petroleum.

The whaler Volunteer prepares for its trip to the dangerous realm of ice. Among the last of the crew hired for the voyage is Patrick Sumner, a former army surgeon just back from serving in India where he was disgraced and cashiered out of the army. 

With no resources to fall back on and no prospects on land, Sumner seeks the job as ship's surgeon. He hopes that the icy cold of the north will be an antidote to the memories of disgrace in the unbearable heat of India.

One could be forgiven here for seeing Sumner as a kind of Ishmael, Melville's survivor from Moby Dick. I am probably one of the only college freshmen ever to actually enjoy reading and analyzing that classic in my first year English class. In fact, it is one reason why I chose to read The North Water.  I had seen its comparisons to Moby Dick and also to Conrad's Lord Jim. Very like Jim, Patrick Sumner hides a shameful secret from his past and hopes for redemption. Instead, he finds a maelstrom of bloody savagery populated by brutal, cruel men who seem barely human.

Least human of all is the monstrous Henry Drax, one of the harpooners. He brutalizes and kills without remorse, both animals and humans. He is a devil incarnate with no redeeming qualities. McGuire describes him and his murderous activities in great detail. He is at the center of the action on the ill-fated Volunteer.

At some point, I completely lost count of all the atrocities committed on this northern voyage. We have the wholesale relentless slaughter of whales and seals and bears. We have men being bludgeoned by bricks and whalebones, producing "a fine spray of blood," a recurring phrase in this book. Two Eskimo hunters are stabbed to death as they sleep. An oarsman's arm is ripped off by a polar bear, creating another spray of blood. But the first inkling that Sumner and his shipmates have of the evil among them on the ship is the brutal sodomizing and subsequent murder of a young cabin boy.

Drax points the finger for the murder to the ship's carpenter, but Sumner, on examining the body and examining the carpenter is convinced that Drax is lying and eventually convinces the captain of the clues which make it impossible for the carpenter to be the killer. Drax is finally unmasked as the killer himself by a suppurating wound on his arm that is found to contain a human tooth. A tooth pulled loose from the cabin boy as he was fighting for his life.

Drax is put in chains, but the reader suspects that those chains will not be able to hold him.

As the Volunteer reaches its destination among the icebergs, we already know that this is an ill-starred journey and we are aware that there is an insurance scam afoot. In league with the ship's owner, the captain has a plan to scuttle the ship and be rescued by another ship that is in the area, thereby collecting a bountiful insurance payoff. What could possibly go wrong?

I generally try to avoid such raw, bloody tales as this. It's the main reason I've never read Cormac McCarthy, but having now survived this one, perhaps I should give old Cormac a chance. Also, I try not to read books that have abuse of children and animals as a part of their story. This one has both. Still, I cannot deny that this is a powerfully told tale. McGuire seems to be a natural storyteller and he keeps his plot moving at a rapid pace. The world that he has imagined here is altogether believable, although it is not a pleasant world and he sees life as nasty, brutish, and short, with a constant fear of violent death. One can understand why the book made many lists as one of "the best of 2016."  

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Transit by Rachel Cusk: A review

I feel hypnotized by Rachel Cusk's method of storytelling. We sit down with our friend, Rachel, or Faye as she is known in the book, and she proceeds to tell us the story of her interactions and conversations with any number of people who have crossed paths with her. Thus, we get to eavesdrop on her conversations with two of her friends, with fellow writers at a book festival, with her Eastern European builders, an ex-lover, her hair stylist, one of her students, etc. All of these conversations focus on the other person, with Faye as the listener, the confidante, counsellor, or confessor. Nothing much happens here and yet the reader is utterly transfixed by the unfolding tale.

We met Faye in Outline, the first book of this planned trilogy. She is a writer and teacher. She is recently divorced and semi-broke. In this book, she has just moved to London with her two young sons and has bought a run-down ex-council property in a good neighborhood, and now she is trying to renovate it. (That's where the Eastern European builders come in.)

Her apartment is upstairs in the building. Downstairs, in the basement apartment live an elderly, almost feral couple, with their elderly dog. They are appalled by the noise of the remodeling effort and are constantly banging on the ceiling of their apartment with a broom to protest, or else they are rushing up the stairs and banging on Faye's apartment door to complain in person.

The noise and squalor of remodeling seem almost to be a reflection of Faye's own life, an existence that is in transition, as she tries to find her way and make a new life for herself and her sons. 

As we move from one conversation to the next throughout this narrative, it becomes clear that much of what Faye is listening to is the sound of human loneliness. We feel the loneliness of the person whose story Faye is narrating and also Faye's own melancholia as she searches for meaning.

Faye moves from person to person in the narrative much like a bee moves from flower to flower, and the result is a cross-pollination of truths as told by all these different speakers. In the end, perhaps the amalgamation of all those stories will give the listener a clearer picture as to the way forward.

At the end of this narrative, we feel that Faye really is on the cusp of some major transition in her life. We'll have to wait for the third volume in the trilogy to find out if our instinct is correct and just what that transition might be.

Rachel Cusk is a very clever and talented writer. Her method of writing seems so straightforward and effortless and yet I am sure that she worked very hard to present that impression. She obviously has a well-thought-out plan for this trilogy. I look forward to seeing where that plan will lead us in the third book.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Backyard Nature Wednesday: 'Old Blush'

I love antique roses. I've grown many of them over the years. They are tough customers, able to stand up to the vagaries of weather and changing climates, flourishing in many types of soil, and not demanding the ministrations of a gardener. They are, in fact, virtually care free once they are established. Now, that's the kind of plant I like in my garden!

One of my personal favorites among the antique roses is 'Old Blush.' It is one of the most common of the old roses and this is verified by its many common names. Names like Common Monthly, Common Blush China, Old Pink Daily, Old Pink Monthly, and Parsons Pink China. 

'Old Blush' is a semi-double hybrid of an old China rose and it has been cultivated for more than 200 years. It has medium, semi-double lilac pink flowers that are borne in loose clusters. They flush to a darker pink in the sun, so the blossoms often appear two-toned. The blooms are followed by large orange hips (if the gardener is not a dead-header) that are also decorative. 

My 'Old Blush' in full bloom today.

This rose blooms steadily from earliest spring until first frost - and if there is no frost, it just keeps on blooming. It's not a good candidate for a cut flower because each of the softly perfumed blossoms don't last long. They drop quickly to make room for their successors. The bush that they grow on is full and upright and can become quite rangy if the gardener is not diligent with the pruning shears. It has neat, healthy foliage, and, in fact, the plant itself is inordinately free of disease and pests of any kind. I've had my specimen for more than ten years and I can attest that it is extremely hardy and indifferent to my neglect.

'Old Blush' grows easily in zones 6 through 9. If you have a spot for it in your garden and are interested in a care free rose, I can highly recommend it.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The bee garden

Planning your spring garden? Spare some thought for the pollinators. Here are some plants that you can include in your garden to help them. Even if your garden is only a few pots on a patio, consider planting a few of these plants. The bees and butterflies will thank you.