Monday, June 29, 2015

Unofficial milkweed field trial

Over the past year, there has been a good bit of publicity and discussion in gardening circles about the efficacy of planting tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) in our butterfly gardens as an aid to Monarch and other milkweed butterflies. There has been research that has indicated that this non-native plant might actually be harming these butterflies and urging gardeners to plant native milkweed instead. 

For the past several years, the only milkweed that I had found available in local nurseries was the tropical kind, and so I had planted it in my garden where it has thrived. It lives through the winter here, although it generally dies back to the roots, and I usually cut it back several times during the year. Cutting it back supposedly reduces the toxins which may cause problems for butterflies, and, if it isn't cut back, it gets quite spindly and gangly and not very attractive. But the butterflies seemed to like it. Maybe because there wasn't an alternative for them.

So, I decided to give them an alternative.

After reviewing my options, I decided to order some seeds from Botanical Interests during this past winter. I planted the seeds of butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and started the plants under my grow-lights. 

Most of the seeds germinated and the plants thrived, so by late spring, I had two trays of native milkweed to plant in my garden. I put the plants outside for hardening off and planned how I would monitor both these plants and the tropical milkweed, which was already up and blooming, to try to determine if the butterflies actually showed a preference.

It didn't take long to get the first data from my unofficial milkweed field trial. By the time I went to put my native plants into my garden beds, I found that, in spite of the fact that the plants were still small and had no blooms, several of them already had tiny Monarch caterpillars on them! Meanwhile, all the tropical plants were bushy and healthy and blooming and notably caterpillar-free. The Monarchs had spoken loudly and clearly: They preferred the native plants.

And that has continued to be case. Here is a look at some of my plants today.

This is some of my native milkweed. It all looks like this today. Nothing but stems because the leaves have been devoured by several caterpillars. Actually, it has already started coming back because a few days ago it had no leaves at all. If only the butterflies will leave it alone for a while, it will eventually grow back all the way. Maybe it will even get a chance to bloom.

And here is some of the tropical milkweed, healthy and blooming. These last few days, I have noted a few Monarch butterflies visiting these plants. Once again, until the native plants grow back, they have little alternative if they have eggs to lay. 

There are some Monarch eggs scattered about on this plant. I expect to see caterpillars soon.

My thoroughly unscientific, anecdotal conclusion is this: Monarch butterflies will lay their eggs on native milkweed plants whenever they have that choice. If they have no choice, they'll settle for the non-native plants.

My advice to gardeners based on my findings is to locate native plants or get the seeds and start your own and plant them in your garden. Your butterflies will thank you. 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Poetry Sunday: Forgetfulness

I love the poetry of Billy Collins, with its down-to-earth wisdom and humor. It speaks to me and always seems to meet me wherever I happen to be in life at the time that I read it.

That's certainly true of this poem which addresses a problem that many of us, especially those of a certain age, have. Billy understands.


by Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall

well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted   
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Anniversary: Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

("This week in birds" will return next Saturday.)

I'm taking a day off from blogging to celebrate my - our - 40th wedding anniversary. 

Even as I type those words they hardly seem possible. Surely June 27, 1975 was only yesterday. All those intervening years have slipped by much too fast and they have changed me in more ways than I can count. Marriage can do that to a person. 

I think that's what Justice Kennedy was getting at yesterday in his summing up of the Supreme Court's majority opinion on the same-sex marriage case. He wrote: "No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were." Truer words were never written.

On this 40th anniversary, I thank my husband for making me "something greater" than I once was. Now, if only he could find a way to slow down the passage of time for me...

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir: A review

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Astronaut Mark Watney is in deep doo-doo. He is alone on Mars, left behind in a storm by his fellow crew-mates, who thought he was dead.

It all happened six days into the Ares 3 mission to Mars. The six team members had landed and set up their base on the planet and were beginning operations when an unexpectedly strong wind and dust storm hit the base and threatened to disable the craft that was their one means of escaping Mars. Their commander ordered an emergency evacuation, but, as they stumbled toward the craft, Watley was hit by an antenna that had been dislodged by the wind. It punctured his life-saving spacesuit, wounding him and knocking his unconscious body a good distance away from the rest of the crew. They immediately began searching for him, but it was hopeless. Visibility was near zero and the wind and flying debris were fierce and unrelenting.

The commander ordered her crew on board the escape vehicle while she continued the search, but soon Mark's smart suit reported his vital signs as "blood pressure - 0; pulse - 0." She had to accept that he was dead and that she would have to leave him behind. They managed to take off and leave the planet only moments before catastrophe.

But Mark wasn't dead. That NASA and JPL-designed life-saving suit had done its job, as had his own body. The coagulating blood from his wound helped to plug the hole. An alarm from the suit finally wakes him - to a world where he is the only inhabitant. An inhabitant whom his home planet believes is dead and who has no means of communicating to them the fact that he isn't.

This book is an absolute joyride from beginning to end. We meet Mark through his personal log entries and learn that he is a botanist and a mechanical engineer. As it turns out, that is a valuable combination for devising his strategy for survival and planning how he will rendezvous with the next Mars mission that will be landing a few years in the future.

But the voice that we hear through those logs is not a dry scientific monologue. Mark Watney is a cheeky, irreverent, almost unbelievably resilient, and very funny guy. His entries are a hoot to read - especially the ones where he takes inventory of what he has left and what the other team members have left behind and realizes that the sole entertainment left to him are bad '70s television and disco music. Plus an e-reader with Agatha Christie mysteries.

He finds that he has all he needs to sustain life, at least for a while, and he has a whole full tool box to assist him in maintaining and modifying equipment. Most importantly, he has duct tape.

Also, I have duct tape, like you buy at a hardware store. Turns out even NASA can't improve on duct tape.

Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.

Soon the first-person narrative of Watney shifts to third person when we get to see NASA's point of view. One of their sharp nerds begins noticing unusual details in satellite images from the Mars site. Someone is deliberating rearranging things. That can only mean one thing - Mark Watney is alive.

Things begin to look a little brighter when the ever-resourceful Watney finds a way to communicate. NASA/JPL basically drop everything else to try to find a way to bring him home. Soon that mission becomes a global cause, as other countries offer their assistance.

Meanwhile, Mark's Ares 3 teammates still think he's dead because NASA refuses to tell them he's alive for fear it would distract from their own efforts to get back to Earth.

Weir has written a rousing great tale that is a fun read from beginning to end. He doesn't stint on science and math. His character, Mark, explains all of his actions using the appropriate scientific terminology but he does it in a playful and witty way that never drags.

All of the characters in the book exhibit that sarcastic and rather dark sense of humor that I guess we've sort of come to expect from the NASA characters that we've met in movies over the years. In fact, I saw that someone had called this book the love child of Apollo 13 and Castaway. Not a bad analogy, actually.

The point is, though, that you don't really have to be a big sci-fi fan to enjoy this book. It's just a very well-written and exciting tale. But if you lived through the Apollo missions as I did, or even if you just enjoyed Apollo 13, the movie, you'll find a lot that seems familiar here.

At one point, as Mark tries to steel himself for his next big action on his lonely planet, his log entry reads:

I need to ask myself, 'What would an Apollo astronaut do?' He'd drink three whiskey sours, drive his Corvette to the launchpad, then fly to the moon in a command module smaller than my Rover. Man those guys were cool.

Mark Watney is pretty cool, too.

View all my reviews

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Supremes speak

So, this just happened.

Justices Back Federal Health Care Subsidy - New York Times headline

The Supreme Court has spoken. Does that mean that the opponents of the Affordable Care Act will finally accept reality and beat their swords into plowshares? Not likely. Just read the statements of the Republican candidates for the presidency in response to the decision. They've spent years enflaming their base with hatred for this law. To give up now would be to disappoint that base that the candidates need for a primary win. So, no doubt the fiery, intemperate rhetoric will continue. 

But, for now, the health care of millions of Americans is safe. And that is a good thing.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Phoenicopterus ruber plasticus

A pair of Phoenicopterus ruber plasticus birds feed among the vines next to my backyard goldfish pond. The Pepto-Bismol colored birds are favorite objects of backyard decoration kitsch among many gardeners, including myself. Every time I sit by my pond, contemplating my garden, and see the flamingos looking back at me with their beady black eyes, they make me smile.

The Phoenicopterus ruber plasticus is a late addition to the planet's fauna. It emerged full-grown from the mind of sculptor Don Featherstone in 1957. He was a recent art-school graduate at the time and, in a tough job market, he took a job with Union Products, a maker of plastic lawn ornaments. It was for them that he created the pink plastic flamingo and as soon as they hit the stores, they started flying off the shelves. The rest, as they say, is history. It has since, as The New York Times wrote recently in their obituary for Mr. Featherstone, "been flaunted in front yards by the millions; feted in films, on television and in song; and held up as an object of impassioned pride and equally impassioned prejudice."

The popularity of the birds must have been a pleasant surprise to Mr. Featherstone and his employers. They had created a cultural phenomenon, and, even in the twenty-first century, it seems in no danger of going on the endangered species list.  And how many people get to say that they have accomplished such a feat in their lives? Mr. Featherstone died last Monday, but his birds live on.

R.I.P. Don Featherstone and thanks for giving us the bird!


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Original sin, current suffering

Slavery was the original sin of my country. Or maybe it was hypocrisy. After all, a country that, with a straight face, claims to be founded upon the principle that all men are created equal while simultaneously keeping in enslavement a good percentage of the men who live in that country is a country that practices mendacity and dissimulation even in its founding documents. Two hundred and thirty-nine years have, unfortunately, not been sufficient to wipe away the stain of that original sin, the original lie, and we still suffer the consequences of it today.

The acceptance of slavery at the founding of the country has cast a long, long shadow across attitudes toward those who were enslaved and their descendants. It continues to affect our society and our politics in pernicious ways. It has repercussions on how we deal with social inequities and why we have been more reluctant than any other modern Western country to implement policies that would serve to enhance the equality and the quality of life of its citizens. 

I was thinking about this last week as a result of the latest racist atrocity to claim our attention when I came across a posting on Paul Krugman's blog that referenced a paper published by the Brookings Institute that explored why the approach of the United States to assisting its impoverished citizens has been so different from - and so lacking in comparison to - European countries. The title of the paper is "Why Doesn't the United States Have a European-Style Welfare State?" 

The authors conclude that the reasons mostly have to do with our attitudes toward race, which have their basis in that original sin. One quote from their paper summarizes their conclusion:
Racial discord plays a critical role in determining beliefs about the poor. Since racial minorities are highly overrepresented among the poorest Americans, any income-based redistribution measures will redistribute disproportionately to these minorities. Opponents of redistribution in the United States have regularly used race-based rhetoric to resist left-wing policies. Across countries, racial fragmentation is a powerful predictor of redistribution. Within the United States, race is the single most important predictor of support for welfare. America’s troubled race relations are clearly a major reason for the absence of an American welfare state. 
Of course, it doesn't help when one of the major political parties in the country uses this race-based rhetoric to win elections and extend its power. It gives aid and comfort to those who feel the need to keep others powerless and disenfranchised in order to inflate their own feelings of self-worth. It is a malevolent ideology, one that you would hope would have no place in 2015-16 politics. You would hope in vain. 

And so we seem doomed to continue to live under the shadow of this original sin and suffer its consequences - for example, the refusal of some states to implement Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act because it would help too many of the "wrong people." 

And, in some cases, we even seem doomed to live under its odious symbols.

Unless the South Carolina government acts quickly - which seems unlikely - this symbol which inspired the terrorist who murdered nine of its citizens in a Charleston church last week will still be flying at its capitol when one of those victims, a state legislator, lies in state there later this week.

The state flag of Mississippi. I grew up under this flag and never thought about the fact that the Confederate battle flag was a part of it. In fact, I never thought about that flag, period. The United States flag was my flag. Still is. But this symbol is a slap in the face of much of the population of Mississippi. Kudos to the Speaker of the House (a Republican) in Mississippi for recognizing this and calling for this symbol to be removed from the flag. It won't happen tomorrow, but it is a start.  

Several of the formerly slave-holding states allow these images to be put on their license plates. The Supreme Court just ruled that Texas(!) can refuse to allow that flag on their license plates. The governor of Virginia (a Democrat) has now ordered the phasing out of the symbol on that state's license plates.

Will other states take the hint? Time will tell.