Saturday, September 26, 2020

Poetry Sunday: Follower by Seamus Heaney

Memories. They stumble behind us and will not go away.

My father was a farmer and in his time he sometimes worked with a horse-plow, except in his case it was a mule-plow. As a child, I would sometimes follow behind him and so when I came across this poem last week, it brought back all those memories once again. I could smell the fresh-turned soil and the horsey smell of the mules and hear my father's voice as he directed them. I think I, too, must have been a nuisance as he tried to do his work, but he never complained.  

My father is gone now but he's always there just over my shoulder and will not go away.


by Seamus Heaney

My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.

An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck

Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hobnailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.

I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away

Friday, September 25, 2020

This week in birds - #419

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

Mourning Dove - always a favorite of mine. As a child, I would wake up to the sound of their calls which I never thought of as mournful. To me, they sounded welcoming. They still do.


The environment lost a staunch friend with the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Politico has a look at her environmental legacy.  


Our current government could not by any stretch of the imagination be called a friend of the environment. The rollbacks of protections that they plan could add 1.8 billion tons of greenhouse gases over a period of fifteen years.


The cause of the mass die-off of elephants in Botswana that I reported on a couple of weeks ago has been identified. The elephants had ingested deadly toxins produced by bacteria at the waterholes that they frequent. At least 350 animals died in the Okavango delta this summer. 


The Winter Finch Forecast is out and forecasters are predicting quite a bit of movement by birds of the boreal forest this winter. Most of the cone crops did not have a good year and that may drive the birds farther south in search of food, a boon for birders in the United States.


Decades of a growing crisis in the climate and failure to act to ameliorate it are now locked into the global ecosystem and cannot be reversed, according to scientists in the field. How bad it will get depends on what we do next.


The current administration is moving forward with its plan to open up Tongass National Forest to logging. Tongass, located in Alaska, is America's largest national forest and is beloved by environmentalists, Alaskan tribal nations, and fishermen, all of whom will be fighting in court to stop the plans. In a state where the political races look to be quite close this year, it is possible that this could have an impact on the election.


Shorebirds like this one that have had a successful nesting season are more likely to nest again with a new mate, according to a new study. Unsuccessful nesters are less likely to nest again.


The western Joshua tree is on track to become the first plant species to be given the protection of the California Endangered Species Act primarily because of a climate crisis-related threat.


The Atlantic white cedar bogs of the New Jersey Pinelands are becoming ghost forests as the trees are being killed by the rise of saltwater.


Other than migration, there are two significant events in a bird's year: (1.) nesting and (2) molting. Migratory birds usually return to the same area year after year for nesting, but they do not have the same fidelity to the area where they complete their molt.


How do you feel about spiders? I hope you are of the same opinion as me, which is that spiders are our friends and allies. And some of them are quite fascinating. One of those is the tarantula, such as the greenbottle blue tarantula of Venezuela pictured above. Tarantulas were long thought to be colorblind but we've now learned they are able to see colors.


Tasmania's Macquarie Harbor was a scene of horror as more than 400 pilot whales beached themselves on a sand bar there. Some were able to be released but at least 380 of the animals died


Greater Sage-Grouse image courtesy of Audubon.

Five years ago an agreement was made to protect the habitat of the Greater Sage-Grouse, but environmentalists are frustrated because they say the federal government has not lived up to its responsibilities under the agreement. 


A research team has found levels of lichen diversity in Alaska's coastal rainforest that rival the tropics. In Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve they identified 947 different species of lichen.


The presently constituted Environmental Protection Agency has rejected the findings of its own scientists that the pesticide chlorpyrifos harms children's brains and can stunt development. They did this so they would not be forced to regulate the pesticide. The administration has determined to give less weight to scientific studies that it doesn't agree with.


It's not only our own western states that are burning. The Pantanal region of Brazil has more than 3,600 fires burning that are putting the region's Indigenous communities and its unique wildlife at risk, not to mention the tropical forests that serve as a carbon sink.


The Andean Condor is another bird species that is threatened by poisoning, hunting, and loss of habitat, but one pair of the birds in Ecuador has been uniquely successful in raising chicks and increasing the population. In the past seven years, the pair has raised seven chicks, whereas most of the monogamous birds only produce a chick every two to three years.


When you think of deserts, I'll bet you don't imagine shrimp living there, but in Iran's Dasht-e Lut Desert, when the spring rains come, the ground comes alive with tiny upside-down crustaceans that call the desert home.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: A review

I have read so many glowing reviews of this book by my fellow bloggers this year, and now I read that it has been long-listed for the National Book Award for Fiction. So it was time for me to finally read the book and find out what all the shouting was about.

As all the reading world is probably aware by now, the book tells the story of twin girls, light-skinned African-Americans, who grew up in the little dusty town of Mallard, Louisiana, two hours north of New Orleans. The town of Mallard was founded by light-skinned African-Americans and had remained an enclave of their descendants through the years. Families had intermarried and their children had become lighter and lighter in skin tone until they could easily pass as White.

The twins were Estelle (called Stella) and Desiree. The light skin of their family had proved no protection when their father was dragged out of their house one night by five white men and lynched. The twins, who were only small girls at the time, witnessed the attack. Their father actually survived the attack and was taken to the hospital. When his attackers learned that, they went to the hospital and shot him in his bed. Of course, no one was ever prosecuted for the murder.

This left their mother, who was the housekeeper for a White family, as the only support for the family. Life was a struggle and when the girls were sixteen, their mother insisted they leave school and go to work. This was a particular blow to Stella who had a dream of going to college and studying math. Desiree, who was the more outgoing of the two, made a plan to run away to New Orleans, and Stella, who had never been separated from her sister, chose to go with her.

It was in New Orleans that their lives diverged. Stella was able to get an office job as a secretary by pretending to be White. Desiree worked in a laundry. Stella fell in love with her boss and he with her. When his job took him to Boston, she went along and eventually they married and moved to California. Desiree, on the other hand, married the darkest man she could find. He was a lawyer and they lived in Washington, D.C. where Desiree got a job with the FBI as a fingerprint analyst. (This was back in the 1950s when such analyses were still done by humans.)

Stella's marriage proved to be stable and relatively happy. They had a daughter who grew up to be a flighty blonde actress who was completely ignorant, as was her father, of Stella's racial background. Desiree's marriage ended unhappily. Her husband proved to be abusive toward her and their daughter, Jude. One night when she'd had enough, still bearing bruises on her throat from his abuse, she took her young daughter and ran. She had nowhere to run to except home and so she took her "blue-black" skinned daughter and went back to her mother's house in Mallard. The time was 1968.  

Desiree's husband tried to find her. He hired an investigator from New Orleans to look, but it turned out to be someone who had once had a crush on the teenaged Desiree. He refused to give her up, telling the husband he couldn't find her and saying he thought she had gone somewhere out west.

Jude had a difficult time growing up in Mallard. The residents were prejudiced against her because of her black skin and the children were cruel to her.  But she was whip-smart and a good athlete. She was a star runner in track and field and after high school was offered a scholarship to UCLA. At a party where she is working as a server, she meets her cousin, although she doesn't realize it at first. Then a woman arrives who looks just like her mother and she understands who the two women are.

As I read this book, I kept thinking of that old movie from the '50s called "Imitation of Life." It, too, tells of a woman passing for White. In fact, this whole storyline of "passing" seems to have quite a rich history in American literature and the visual arts, possibly because of the American obsession with racial identity. It's a theme that has come up time and again and almost always the stories end in tragedy. The person who is "passing" (usually a woman) is found out and ruined. Brit Bennett had an entirely different approach. Stella pays no price for her deception, other than the fact that she lost her mother and twin sister by turning her back on them. And even then, there is a kind of reconciliation in the end.

As for the two cousins, they eventually acknowledge their relationship and in all this wide country, they continue to bump into each other, the blonde one pursuing her acting career and the dark one going to medical school. (Coincidence does play a significant and somewhat unbelievable role in the story.) Moreover, Bennett never delves too deeply into the psychology of her characters. The narrative stays on the surface of things which gives it a rather flat feeling. That, I felt, was a weakness in the story. But a strong point was in her evocation of the town of Mallard with its own strict biases about skin color and the silences and secrets in family relationships. On the whole, my conclusion was that the book deserves the praise it has received.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi: A review

Akwaeke Emezi is a non-binary transgender writer from Nigeria who is known for their acclaimed debut novel, Freshwater, which tells the semi-autobiographical story of the spirituality and gender issues of the Igbo culture,  as experienced through the protagonist, Ada. This current novel again explores such issues as they exist alongside the Western construction of society in Nigeria.

As we enter the story, Vivek Oji is already dead. "They burned down the market the day Vivek Oji died," reads the first sentence of the novel. From that point, we get recollections of Oji from his friends and family interspersed with his own observations from beyond the grave. In this narrative, Oji is both alive and dead, sometimes in the same paragraph. If that sounds confusing, it really isn't. Within the context of the framework devised by the author, his posthumous narration seems perfectly plausible and ordinary.

Oji had been born the child of an Indian mother and Igbo father on the same day that his grandmother died. His grandmother had a scar like a starfish on her foot and Oji came into the world with a similar scar on his foot. His father dismisses the mark as mere coincidence and yet in light of later events, it seems to have been a foreshadowing of the future. 

As a child, Oji seemed ambivalent about gender. He loved playing with his mother's jewelry. He was always quite slender and beautiful and as he grew up he told his friends that they could refer to him as either she or he because he was both. As a young adult, he let his hair grow long, well past his shoulders. He abandoned his parents' dream of attending a university in America. He had started to attend a university in Nigeria but didn't last long there. His father brought him home and the family became convinced he was suffering from a sickness. Others believed he was possessed by a demon. And then one evening his mother, Kavita, opens her front door to find her son's broken, naked body lying there, his blood seeping into the welcome mat. As Kavita cradles his broken skull, we are reminded of a description of her caressing the head of her little boy, "the back curve of his boy skull, the soft hair and the warm skin underneath, the formed bone shaping him." The juxtaposition of the images is almost unbearably sad. 

There had been riots in the marketplace on the day Oji died and it is assumed that he met his fate in one of those disturbances, but who then brought his body home and left it on his parents' veranda? The facts of his death are a mystery that haunts his mother and she, in turn, nags his friends with questions, trying to find answers. But as she harasses them with her inquiries, it becomes clear that she didn't really know her son. She could not see his true self which was both male and female and that was true of many of the family that claimed to love him but didn't really see him. Indeed they profoundly and painfully misunderstood him. In a sense, he was invisible to them. Oji asks at one point, "If nobody sees you, are you still there?"

Throughout the novel, Oji is primarily referred to as "he" but at the time of his death, he had begun opening up to his friends and he lived unabashedly as both he (Oji) and she (Nnemdi, his grandmother's name). In this personage, he was "bright and brilliant and alive." It was a dangerous way to be and it ultimately led to his death which is finally explained near the end of this amazing narrative.

Reading Akwaeke Emezi's eloquent and poignant novel allowed me to feel perhaps just a little bit of what it must be like for someone who identifies as non-binary and who is forever an outsider in society. The novel, in solving the mystery of Oji's death, uncovers the story of a person whose self-acceptance shields them in some ways from the pain of the world, and finally, in death, Oji's life becomes fully visible to those who loved them.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen: A review

In need of a distraction from the sorrows of the world last week, I turned to Carl Hiaasen. His books are usually guaranteed to amuse. And I can't say that this one wasn't amusing on some level, but even in the pages of his book, I wasn't able to escape the sordidness that characterizes our current government.

The "Florida Man" of Hiaasen's novels might now be identified as Trumpian. Indeed, the president and first lady and assorted Secret Service agents play central roles in Squeeze Me. So do those other unpleasant denizens of the Sunshine State who are there through no fault or impetus of their own, the pythons.

Invasive Burmese pythons have become a plague upon the state, their population exploding after being released either accidentally or on purpose into the wild. They have devastated native wildlife and capturing and destroying them has become a growth industry in the state. And thereby hangs Hiaasen's tale.

Angie Armstrong is a wildlife wrangler extraordinaire. After training as a veterinarian and then walking away from her father's practice, she had worked briefly for the state in their wildlife service. But then she encountered a poacher who had killed a small fawn and in a fit of anger, she fed one of the poacher's hands to an alligator. Although the state frowned on poachers, it frowned even more severely on wildlife officers who assaulted poachers. Angie was prosecuted for assault and spent some time in prison. When she got out, she decided to start her own wildlife service, Discreet Removals. She specialized in removing everything from mice to 20 foot long pythons. She did it discreetly and humanely and released her captives into the wild - except for the pythons. Those she delivered, alive or dead, to the state lab.

One night Angie is called to a posh golf club resort in Palm Beach to remove a python. She finds the beast in a tree near a lake. The snake is quite placid and a large bump in its middle reveals why. The animal has just fed and is digesting its meal. Angie dispatches the snake with a machete and removes it from the resort to take it to the lab. But things go awry. Before she can complete her delivery, the snake is stolen from her storage, the bulge in its stomach removed, and it ends up accidentally lost from its transport in the middle of a road crossing railroad tracks where it causes the first lady's motorcade to come to a screeching halt until the carcass can be removed.

Meanwhile, we learn that Kiki Pew Fitzsimmons, a wealthy Palm Beach matron had drunk a lot at a swank gala at the same resort from which Angie removed the python.  She had wandered outside and now she is missing. Kiki Pew was an unwavering supporter of the president and a founder of an organization of like-minded elderly Palm Beach matrons called the Potus Pussies, or Potussies for short.  She has vanished without a trace, the only clue being one of her shoes found by the lake where the python was removed. She was a small woman, only weighing around a hundred pounds. Is it possible that the bulge in the python's stomach was Kiki?

When her body is found buried in concrete at a construction site and an undocumented immigrant is picked up nearby by the immigration service, the predictable happens. The president rages that Kiki has been brutally murdered by an "illegal alien" and he whips his followers into a frenzy of hate as they demand vengeance from the "justice" system. Of course, there is zero evidence to support his claim, but when did a lack of evidence ever stop him?

Hiaasen takes all of these elements and stirs them into a social and political satire that, frankly, was just too close to reality to give me much of a laugh. He also manages to work in his character from previous books, the former governor who walked away from it all to become a warrior for the environment. We know him now as Skink and Angie manages to meet him in his hideaway in the swamp. They should be natural allies and they are. 

Hiaasen treats us to a view of the president's and first lady's private lives that includes the people they are having sex with. (Hint: It's not each other.) We learn that, at least in Hiaasen World, the Florida White House is called Casa Bellicosa which seems entirely appropriate, and also that the Secret Service name for the president is Mastodon and for the first lady is Mockingbird - names which also seem utterly appropriate.

I liked the character, Angie Armstrong.  She is the righteous center of this story. It's an absurd tale but well-plotted and with the usual helping of black humor and downright silliness that we expect from Hiaasen. Sadly, I'm sorely afraid that some of the more bizarre elements are very close to the truth.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Poetry Sunday: Monarchs, Viceroys, Swallowtails by Robert Hedin

For many years, my garden was a haven for butterflies of many kinds. Monarchs, queens, viceroys, swallowtails of various kinds, buckeyes, red admirals, sulphurs, skippers - they all came in good numbers. Walking into the backyard at any time of day and any time of year would almost guarantee an encounter with some species of butterfly. But things have changed in the past couple of years. There's been lots of construction going on and the neighborhood has changed but is that the reason that I don't see as many butterflies as before? Or is there some even more sinister reason? The flowers and the trees are still there, waiting. And I, the gardener, am waiting and hoping for their return.

 Monarchs, Viceroys, Swallowtails

by Robert Hedin

For years they came tacking in, full sail,
Riding the light down through the trees,
Over the rooftops, and not just monarchs,
But viceroys, swallowtails, so many
They became unremarkable, showing up
As they did whether we noticed them or not,
Swooping and fanning out at the bright
Margins of the day. So how did we know
Until it was too late, until they quit coming,
That the flowers in the flower beds
Would close their shutters, and the birds
Grow so dull they’d lose the power to sing,
And how later, after the river died,
Others would follow, admirals, buckeyes,
All going off like some lavish parade
Into the great overcrowded silence.
And no one bothered to tell the trees
They wouldn’t be coming back any more,
The huge shade trees where they used
To gather, every last branch and leaf sagging
Under the bright freight of their wings.

Friday, September 18, 2020

This week in birds - #418

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

Red-breasted Nuthatch. We get them here in some winters. I photographed this one in my backyard a couple of years ago. We'll have to wait to see if they come this far south this winter.


Why are so many birds dying in New Mexico and parts of Texas and Colorado? Huge numbers of migratory birds have been dropping dead in the area, so far for unexplained reasons. Speculation centers on the pollution from the wildfires in the West, combined with long-term drought and record heatwaves. Recently, there was also a cold snap in the mountains that may have contributed. But it is a mystery so far. 


Unsurprisingly, the president has picked a climate change denialist to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency that oversees weather forecasting, climate research, and fisheries. 


Chemical analyses of ancient sediments have allowed scientists to confirm that the planet is presently warming faster than it has in tens of millions of years.


The New York Times has an interactive map that allows you to see what the greatest climate risk is in the county where you live. 


Acorn Woodpeckers disputing territory. These woodpeckers can be ferocious fighters and when a territory opens up, the fights can get, well, beastly. They can also draw an audience. Other woodpeckers flock in from all around to watch.


As the effects of climate change worsen, this country will likely look quite different than it does today. Part of the change will be in centers of population as the changing climate forces people to migrate


The Puerto Rican Parrots in a captive breeding program have developed a unique dialect. The question now is when they are released into the wild will wild parrots be able to understand them?


Gray wolves that were relocated to Michigan's Isle Royale National Park in order to rebuild its nearly extinct population have now formed themselves into packs and are helping to reduce the moose population which had grown out of bounds.


The discovery of 120,000-year-old human footprints on the Arabian Peninsula may help to shed further light on the timeline for the spread of Homo sapiens out of Africa. 


Orcas from the Strait of Gibraltar to Galicia have been ramming and harassing yachts in the area, damaging vessels and injuring crew. Scientists are at a loss to explain the unusual behavior, although it is suspected that it is somehow related to stress that the animals feel.


And here's another mystery: the "unfathomable destruction" of thousands of rare wildflowers in Nevada. The wildflowers called Tiehm's buckwheat were located in an area where a proposed lithium and boron mine would be located. There has been fierce dispute over the location of a mine there and the destruction may be related to that or it could be a natural phenomenon. No cause has yet been confirmed.


When birds of prey feed on rodents that have been poisoned, they, too, can be poisoned. The second-hand rodenticides can be deadly for them.


The Arctic is shifting to a new climate because of the effects of climate change. The new climate will feature less ice and snow and more open water and rain. 


A new scientific paper has identified 65 species of plants that have gone extinct in North America since the continent was colonized. In truth, the total is probably much higher.


Sadly, it has been confirmed that at least two California Condor chicks have died in the wildfires there.


A female ancient python, about 62 years of age, who has not had contact with a male python for at least 15 years, has surprised her keepers at the St. Louis Zoo by laying seven eggs.


The Northern Hemisphere has had its hottest summer on record this year, according to NOAA, which at the moment is still run by scientists.