Saturday, December 3, 2016

This week in birds - #234

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

Brown Pelican resting beside Galveston Bay.


The firestorm that hit Gatlinburg, Tennessee this week was the largest fire in more than 100 years in that state. Once a spark was lit, the bone-dry hillsides filled with ready fuel combined with hurricane force gusts of wind did the rest. The Gatlinburg and Great Smoky Mountain fires were aided by freakish fall warmth and drought.


The consequences of climate change are being felt all over the world but the effects are greater in some areas than in others. A 2015 study identified these "hotspots" around the planet. Climate and development policy should pay particular attention to these areas. 


The annual Christmas Bird Count will be beginning soon. You can find a count circle in your area by visiting the Audubon website. Participation is free and any level of expertise (or even lack thereof) is welcomed. 


The recent 7.8 magnitude earthquake in New Zealand caused considerable destruction to human structures, but it is feared that it also devastated a breeding colony of Hutton's Shearwaters. It is the nesting season of the birds in New Zealand and these seabirds nest in burrows. It is unknown how many of them may have been trapped in their burrows by the quake and killed.


Officials of the Environmental Protection Agency made critical changes at the 11th hour in a five year study of the effect of hydraulic fracturing on the nation's drinking water. The changes, which have been criticized by scientists as lacking evidence, played down the risks that fracking poses to sources of drinking water.


Did you know there is a spider that lives its life underwater? It is aptly called the diving bell spider and it is a truly weird creature.


Traffic noise in urban areas can drown out the warning calls of songbirds, potentially making them more vulnerable to predators.


The Ivory Gull is an already threatened seabird that depends on thick sea ice for breeding. As the Arctic sea ice continues to thin out, the bird's chance for long-term survival is decreased.


A Western Tanager, usually not seen east of Colorado, has been visiting Manhattan this fall. It is the first of its species seen in the area since 2008 and it fits the pattern of western birds straying into the East during migration. 


Global climate change is not an isolated problem. It affects many areas of concern including national security. Already some places in the world have experienced conflicts and wars because of the effects of climate change. This could well be a glimpse of our future, as our nation continues to refuse to take effective action to address the problem. 


Secret pools lined with concrete established in the Oregon desert half a century ago are magnets for all kinds of thirsty wildlife and they are helping to keep birds and other wildlife alive.


Scientists have discovered fossils of the first known ground beetle to have inhabited Antarctica. It is believed that the insect once inhabited the tundra area which existed on the continent. The insect fauna on Antarctica today consists of only three flightless midges.


The Connecticut Audubon Society's State of the Birds report warns that Saltmarsh Sparrows are threatened by extinction due to sea level rises caused by global warming. Other birds that live in the same habitat are threatened also. 


The woodpeckers called sapsuckers seem to have an innate ability to determine which plants will yield the most sap


The Gulf Coast mostly lucked out once again during this hurricane season, but the 2016 Atlantic hurricane season featured the largest number of hurricanes observed since 2012 and the first category 5 hurricane since 2007.

Friday, December 2, 2016

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: A review

Elizabeth Strout once again explores the mother/daughter relationship in My Name is Lucy Barton. As a daughter of a mother and a mother of daughters, I find the subject irresistible, and I can't really think of any writer who does it better than Strout. 

The eponymous title character has plenty of time to meditate on the intricacies and complications of such relationships as she lies in a hospital bed for nine long weeks. She had entered the hospital for an appendectomy in which everything proceeded routinely, except that then she was struck down by a bacterial infection which threatened her life. 

At the time of her illness, Lucy Barton was married to a man with a demanding job and was the mother of two small daughters. She was a budding writer. When her hospital stay stretched into weeks, her husband was not able to spend much time with her and she didn't really have any friends to take up the slack. And, of course, hospital regulations for the most part kept her daughters away. It was a very lonely time for her.

Lucy's husband tried to mend the situation by calling her mother, from whom she had been estranged for many years, and asking her to come to New York and be with her sick daughter. He paid for her airplane ticket from Illinois. She had never been on a plane, but she came and sat by her daughter's bedside for several days, refusing the cot offered by the staff and catnapping on her chair. And she talked to Lucy.

She talked about people back in her hometown of Amgash, Illinois. She talked about people from Lucy's childhood. It was a gentle gossip which seemed to help reconnect the two long-estranged people. But it was all surface stuff - idle chit-chat. She never went any deeper to the tensions that existed in their troubled family, the poverty and humiliation that were so much a part of the Barton family's life when Lucy was growing up, or to the reasons that Lucy had sought to escape and fulfill her desire to be a writer.

And yet, Lucy loved the sound of her mother's voice and it was a comfort to her during her time of need. As her mind wandered off into tangents from the sound of that voice, we are privy to her thoughts and we learn about traumatic events of childhood and what has made Lucy the person that she is. We learn, too, about her present-day relationships with her own daughters and with her husband, relationships that her mother, strangely, never asks about.

Much of Lucy's reminiscences of her childhood are painfully sad, full of grinding poverty and occasional abuse. It is the portrait of a joyless, dysfunctional family. We learn that in her relationships with her own daughters, Lucy tries to overcompensate, to ensure that she is ever attentive to all their needs. It's a familiar theme of a parent trying to avoid the mistakes of one's own upbringing and making new mistakes, which her children will someday try to avoid.

Even when discussing difficult memories from the past, there always seems to be a tenderness and gentleness in the telling of the story. It is part of the genius of Elizabeth Strout's writing, I think, to convey a certain empathy and understanding for her characters' actions, even when those characters are not necessarily likable people. I found this to be true in her wonderful Olive Kitteridge and it is a quality that is present here once again. The perceptions of the human condition which she conveys to us are both meaningful and wise and they give us hope that our species may, in fact, have some redeeming qualities.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien: A review

A challenging book to read but worth the effort.

Madeleine Thien's highly acclaimed novel encompassing the history of China since the Communist Revolution of the 1940s up to the present day as seen through the experiences of two families is a harrowing tale in so many ways. It details the unraveling of a society through the government's implementation of various ill-considered social experiments and we watch in horror as that society rips itself apart during the Cultural Revolution and then recoil again as students protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989. As the government reacted violently to those protests, it seemed that China might indeed be torn asunder.

We see all of this through the eyes of two families who are intertwined by their experiences at the Shanghai Conservatory. These are families for whom music is the breath of life and musical notation, as well as specific musical works, play a large part in the telling of the story. Bach's Goldberg Variations as performed by Glenn Gould, for example, is a continuing theme throughout the book.

During the course of the novel, we meet three generations of the character Sparrow's family - his parents, himself and his siblings and his wife, and finally his daughter, Ai-Ming, who is central to the story. Sparrow was at the Shanghai Conservatory and he was a talented composer who could have had a successful career in music, but then the Cultural Revolution hit. He was denounced as a "rightist" and sent to work in a factory. He was forbidden to compose.

Sparrow's good friend and perhaps lover was Kai, a virtuoso pianist at the Conservatory. He was on a trajectory to become an acclaimed and famous performer when the Cultural Revolution changed everything. He survived by becoming a Red Guard and denouncing friends and instructors at the Conservatory. Eventually, he was allowed to emigrate and he ended up in Canada, in Vancouver. He married and he and his wife had a daughter, Li-Ling, aka Marie. Through all of his experiences, he never forgot his friend Sparrow and managed to keep a tenuous connection to him. 

We meet Marie and her mother when Marie is ten years old and her father has just committed suicide by jumping from a great height. (This seems to be a favorite method of suicide throughout the book, although some of the "suicides" may actually have been murder.) Her view of the world is changed when a Chinese refugee comes to live with them after the Tiananmen protests. It is Ai-Ming, Sparrow's daughter. She becomes like an older sister to the ten-year-old Marie.

As she learns more about the relationship between the two families, Marie becomes ever more curious about their history. Through a series of events, she eventually becomes the keeper of a volume called the "Book of Records" which has maintained a multi-generational record of details of the history of Sparrow's family. As she pieces together the familial connections, she becomes the storyteller who takes us into all the dark and light corners of this collective and universal chronicle of families.

The enormity of what Thien is attempting in the telling of this story is daunting to consider and yet she has managed to succeed in most cases, I think. The fact that I, a relative ignoramus about modern Chinese history, was able to follow along with her narrative without getting lost is proof of that. The hugeness of China tends to overwhelm us and make us tired, but by centering on the effects of events on two families, and particularly on two vulnerable men, the writer has made the almost inexpressible understandable.

Thien's book was short-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, and although it did not ultimately win, it was most assuredly a worthy candidate. Indeed, many critics were appalled that it did not win.

Looking at the history of a nation struggling between revolt and control is both mesmerizing and horrifying. It is a reminder of the old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is something that we would do well to remember, else we imagine that we are somehow exempt from the rules of history.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Poetry Sunday: One Perfect Rose

Dorothy Parker certainly had a way with words and a quirky sense of humor. Both are displayed to full effect in her poem "One Perfect Rose."

One Perfect Rose

by Dorothy Parker

A single flow'r he sent me, since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet -
One perfect rose. 

I knew the language of the floweret;
'My fragile leaves,' it said, 'his heart enclose.'
Love long has taken for his amulet
One perfect rose.

Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it's always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.

Not perfect perhaps, but still nice for November.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

This week in birds - # 233

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

The Whooping Cranes of the Canada/Texas migratory flock are returning to their winter home at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. Meanwhile, the young birds (called colts) from this year's hatch from the eastern (Wisconsin/Florida) migratory flock are being encouraged to follow adult cranes on their migration route rather than being led by ultralight aircraft as they have been in the past. It is hoped that this method will prove to be more successful in establishing the birds in a viable eastern flock.


The newly-elected administration in Washington plans to strip NASA's Earth science division of funding in order to eliminate its climate change research.This means the elimination of NASA's world-renowned research into temperature, ice, clouds, and other climate phenomena.


Arctic scientists are warning that the increasingly rapid melting of the polar ice cap risks triggering 19 "tipping points" in the region that could have catastrophic consequences around the globe. The effects could be felt as far away as the Indian Ocean and could cause uncontrollable climate change at a global level.


Peru's Manu National Park has been proclaimed as the world's top diversity hotspot. It has a greater variety of terrestrial species than any other known place on Earth.


Yellow Rails, like all members of their family, are secretive and elusive and a challenge to see in the wild, but one spot where your chances of a sighting at this time of year are better than most is the wetlands of Louisiana. The birds flock to those places on their fall migration.


The Hudson River might seem to be a most unlikely place for a humpback whale sighting, but, in fact, a number of the huge aquatic mammals have been reported there recently. The river has been cleaned up and the quality of the water improved since the passage of the Clean Water Act 35 year. Perhaps that has something to do with the return of the whales to the area. Sadly, a humpback whale in British Columbia was less lucky in its choice of places to explore. The dead whale was found tangled in an old fish net at a defunct fish farm.   


Archaeological evidence indicates that turkeys were domesticated at least 1,500 years ago. Not these guys though - they are still wild in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and in many areas around the country. They have reclaimed much of their former range.


The ongoing devastation of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf continues. The oil has killed the plants that held the soil in place causing some wetlands to literally sink beneath the waves. It is unlikely that we will ever know the true extent of the damage this ecological disaster has inflicted on the region.


Greece frequently gets a bad rap and is looked on as the "sick man of Europe," but, in fact, it has been one of the most successful countries in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new progress report by the European commission.


A bird's plumage is one of the traits that signals its health and vigor to potential mates. But a recent study of Northern Cardinals just published in The Auk indicates that the meaning of female birds' markings may vary from one place to another, even within the same species.


The elimination of invasive pests on Macquarie Island in the sub-Antarctic region has meant a rejuvenation of the population of threatened seabirds, such as the albatrosses and petrels that nest there.


We may not consider the negative effects of road salt on the environment in places where it is used in winter, but research has determined that it can change the sex ratio in frog populations, thus reducing their size and viability. This, added to all the other challenges that these amphibians face, could prove very detrimental.


One interesting effect of the severe drought in New Jersey is that lowered water levels have revealed some old villages that existed before some of the reservoirs were filled with water.


Still more trouble for the endangered Hawaiian honeycreepers. They are being threatened by avian malaria carried by mosquitoes that have invaded their ecosystem because of a warming climate.


The Ruddy-headed Geese of Patagonia have been in an alarming decline, but the species exists in good numbers offshore in the Falkland Islands. Scientists have been studying whether the population of the endangered geese in Patagonia could be enhanced by a transfer of some of the Falkland birds, but their research indicates that such a transfer is unlikely to be successful. The two populations have apparently not interbred in the last million years, even though they are only separated by some 450 km.


Bolivia relies on its glaciers and large lakes to supply water during dry times, but what happens when even those dry up? That's what is happening. Bolivia, along with the rest of the world, has heated up and all of its water reserves are drying up. A drought emergency has been declared in the country.

Friday, November 25, 2016

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman: A review

The man called Ove is fifty-nine years old and all he wants in life is to die. His sole purpose for living, the only thing he truly loved, left his world six months before when his wife of almost forty years, Sonja, died.

Ove is a man for whom life is black or white. There is a right way and a wrong way of doing things. Ove adheres to the right way, the way his father taught him. His ambition is to be as little different from his father as is possible. Most of the rest of the world does things the wrong way and this makes Ove the irascible man that people see him to be.

Sonja saw the world in bright hues. She was interested in the people around her and lived to make their lives better. She was a teacher who was assigned to teach ADHD children "before ADHD was invented." She took to her job with passion and belief in the children's ability to learn. She got them to read Shakespeare. 

Sonja loved cats. Ove didn't.

Ove and Sonja had lived in the same neighborhood, the same house, since their marriage. Ove was known as the curmudgeonly neighbor who everyone saw as a bitter man. Sonja was the loving woman who everyone loved in return. And Ove loved her, too. He lived for her. 

And then she died.

We get to know Ove in a series of vignettes from his life. Each chapter of the book is a separate vignette. They might almost be a series of short stories, but, taken together, they give us the full picture of a man called Ove. We learn that tragedies in his and Sonja's lives gave him every excuse for being bitter.

As we meet him, Ove has made the decision to end it all and join his beloved Sonja underground. He makes repeated attempts to fulfill his aim, but inconvenient life keeps interrupting him.

His most inconvenient interruption comes when a new family moves in next door; the "Lanky One," a Swedish man, and his very pregnant Iranian wife and their two young daughters. They accidentally flatten Ove's mailbox in the process of moving in and, from then on, their lives are inextricably intertwined as Ove grudgingly shows the Lanky One the right way to back up a trailer and the right way to do other things around the house. Even as he struggles to evade their clutches, the wife, Parvaneh, continues to seek him out and treat him as a friend and the children see him, and draw him, as a man of many bright colors. 

This quirky novel, the debut of Fredrik Backman, was first published in Sweden in 2012, to very little notice, but it became a sleeper hit, and since then it has been translated into 38 languages (one of which, fortunately, was English) and it has become something of an international sensation. The New York Times called it one of the most popular literary exports since Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It could not be more different from than dark thriller. 

This is a sunny and hopeful book. It was a wonderful choice for my Thanksgiving week reading. Is it great literature? Probably not, but I loved it! I often found myself laughing out loud and then a few minutes later my cheeks would be wet with tears. It combines hilarity and poignancy in a marvelous cocktail of emotional reading.

Of many favorite moments in the book, one that resonated deeply with me was Sonja's explanation of the evolution of a long relationship.
"Loving someone is like moving into a house," Sonja used to say. "At first you fall in love with all the new things, amazed every morning that all this belongs to you, as if fearing that someone would suddenly come rushing in through the door to explain that a terrible mistake had been made, you weren't actually supposed to live in a wonderful place like this. Then over the years the walls become weathered, the wood splinters here and there, and you start to love that house not so much because of all its perfection, but rather for its imperfections. You get to know all the nooks and crannies. How to avoid getting the key caught in the lock when it's cold outside. Which of the floorboards flex slightly when one steps on them or exactly how to open the wardrobe doors without them creaking. These are the little secrets that make it your home."
Yes, exactly. How could I not love this book?

My rating: 5 of 5 stars