Sunday, September 25, 2016

Poetry Sunday: The Beautiful Changes

Autumn has arrived and, if we just peek over our windowsill, we can see October coming up our driveways. It is a time of change - changes in Nature and changes in ourselves as we enter this more contemplative season.

Richard Wilbur's poem addresses the beautiful changes that take place in autumn as the forest and the meadow are touched back to wonder. If we look hard, maybe we can see the changes in ourselves as well. 

The Beautiful Changes

by Richard Wilbur

One wading a Fall meadow finds on all sides
The Queen Anne's Lace lying like lilies
On water; it glides
So from the walker, it turns
Dry grass to a lake, as the slightest shade of you
Valleys my mind in fabulous blue Lucernes.

The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon's tuning his skin to it:
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.

Your hands hold roses always in a way that says
They are not only yours; the beautiful changes
In such kind ways,
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things' selves for a second finding, to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

This week in birds - #224

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

Green-winged Teal


The winter finch forecast is out. This is the forecast published by Ron Pittaway every year that predicts the movements of finches from Canada and the upper northeastern United States into the southern parts of the continent during the winter months. In general, he says that some of the cone crops in Canada have been poor this year which may prompt the finches to move farther south in search of food.


The modern day version of the Sagebrush Rebellion advocates turning over federal public lands in the West to private ownership or to the states. One of many questions not addressed by such proposals is just how the new owners would deal with protecting communities from wildfires that occur with increasing frequency over the area.


For the past fifteen years, ultralight aircraft have led young captive-hatched Whooping Cranes from Wisconsin to Florida on their first fall migration. There have been numerous problems with this program and this year researchers are trying something different. The young cranes are being placed with mature experienced cranes who, it is hoped, will lead them on migration. 

A few of this year's chicks which researchers hope will be able to make it safely to Florida with their adult leaders.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Monday that it is proposing giving the Iiwi, a red honeycreeper unique to Hawaii, status as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, allowing the bird to have greater protections. This comes at a time when very many of Hawaii's indigenous birds are in dire circumstances and facing possible extinction. 


The rusty-patched bumblebee has been proposed by the USFWS for protection under the Endangered Species Act. This native bee, found in the Midwest and Northeastern United States, has been declining over the past two decades due to habitat loss, use of pesticides and other chemicals in farming and gardening practices, and other challenges. 

Rusty-patched bumblebee


The National Audubon Society announced results of a national poll that suggests that two-thirds of America's registered voters are in favor of stronger regulations of energy industries that make them more accountable for causing the deaths of birds.


News from the world of anthropology: The first extensive study of the DNA of indigenous Australians supports the claim that they are the most ancient continuous civilization on Earth. The study dates their origins to more than 50,000 years ago and traces their journey out of Africa and across Asia. 


Birdbaths are important aids to birds' survival, but it is important to keep them clean to prevent spread of disease and breeding places for mosquitoes which may cause harm to humans and other animals as well as birds. 


There is a crisis going on in American forests which isn't getting a lot of notice. Call it a quiet crisis. Millions of trees across the continent are dying from drought, disease, insects, and wildfires. All of these problems are exacerbated by a warming climate. 


The winds of Hurricane Newton which hit the western coast of Mexico in early September pushed many seabirds all the way into Arizona, a bonanza for birders there.


Ancient oyster shells, long entombed in the muck of salt marshes, may be able to give scientists clues that will aid in the restoration of such vital habitats. 


The islands where two Pacific seabirds, the Scripp's Murrelet and Guadalupe Murrelet, breed have been restored and invasive species that posed a threat to birds have been removed. This has prompted the USFWS to announce that the birds no longer need to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Common sense conservation practices do work!


Caspian Terns have been found nesting 1,000 miles farther north than ever before recorded. This is an adaptation to the warming climate.


The world's only alpine parrot, the Kea of New Zealand, is facing extinction from predation by non-native predators and persecution by farmers who view them as a threat to their crops.


Did you know that fish sing? Apparently, fish on the reef have been found to greet the day much as birds do with a dawn chorus. Of course, a fish "song" sounds a bit different.

Thursday, September 22, 2016


Autumn tiptoed through our doorways this morning, glancing fearfully over its shoulder in case summer was about to tackle it and pull it back. And it should well have been nervous. Temperatures have still been in the 90s this week and the high today is supposed to be 90 degrees F. 

Maybe that doesn't sound too bad, but the humidity makes that feel like it is 97 degrees. To step outside, as I just did for about thirty minutes, is to quickly realize that autumn has not exactly taken hold yet.

Still, the calendar says it's here and there are some autumnal signs in the land. Some of the leaves are beginning to turn. 

Now, we don't get a lot of fall color in our leaves here, but a few trees, like the sycamore pictured above, will give us a bit of the feeling of fall. (Full disclosure: That picture was actually taken a couple of years ago and it was in late October when most of our fall colors, if we get any, make their appearance.

Crape myrtles, too, offer some reds and yellows in their fading leaves.

Crape myrtle leaves.

And the muscadine leaves in my backyard do get quite colorful before they drop.

Monarch butterfly sunning itself on the yellowing muscadine leaves.

Besides the changing leaves, there are other signs of autumn, of course. The fall bird migration has been in progress for weeks now. The most visible sign of it in my yard has been the hummingbirds. There's been a lot of activity lately as Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Black-chinned Hummingbirds, and Rufous Hummingbirds pass through. 

If we are lucky, some of the Rufous hummers will choose to stay with us through the winter, like this female shown perched on the crook holding one of my feeders last winter.

So, even though the signs are faint and often fleeting, I have it on good authority that autumn has arrived, finally. Our weather forecasters even promise us milder temperatures in the 80s, and on one day in the 70s, over the next ten days. I'm going to hold them to that. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Wishbones by Carolyn Haines: A review

Needing some light reading as a palate cleanser, I turned to Carolyn Haines. It doesn't come any lighter and fluffier than her Southern belle private eye series featuring Sarah Booth Delaney (hereafter referred to as SB). It turned out this one didn't so much cleanse my reading palate as poison it, or at least curdle it. Let me not mince words: This is not a good book.

In this entry, we have SB heading to Hollywood, on the basis of one turn as a star in a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in Zinnia, Mississippi, to star in a remake of Body Heat, with her in the Kathleen Turner role and her lover, Graf Milieu (that name - really???), in the William Hurt role. So, we have two complete unknowns starring in the millions of dollars remake of this major motion picture.

Oh, yes, and Ashton Kutcher is in a supporting role.

In Hollywood, SB and Graf seem to spend most of their time making sweet, sweet love and very little time working. They roll onto the movie set around midday, after spending the morning in bed, and play hot, hot scenes, getting it all done in one take.

But soon, even stranger things start happening to people involved in the movie. One woman falls to her death. A man falls from a balcony and is seriously injured. Rumors start circulating that the movie is cursed.

Before the police investigation of the death and injury are complete, the whole mob is allowed to decamp to Costa Rica where most of the movie will be shot at a home that is owned by the director. And when we get to that house, weird things REALLY start happening.

The house seems to be haunted by the mournful spirit of the director's long dead wife who apparently died of anorexia nervosa. She starved herself to death thinking she was not thin or beautiful enough. It also seems to be haunted by the very much alive daughter of the dead woman and the director, who blames the director for the death of her mother.

Of course, SB is very much at home with "haints" since she has her own personal family ghost, Jitty, back in Zinnia, Mississippi. In fact, Jitty actually turns up in Costa Rica when SB calls on her for help. Moreover, all of SB's Mississippi gang of friends drop everything and travel to Costa Rica to support their friend and SB and her PI partner Tinkie get busy trying to solve the mystery of what's going on with this movie set.

Oh, did I mention that people were getting pushed down stairs, tied up on rocks by the ocean and left for the tide to drown them, conked on the head with various instruments, there are mysterious moans and whimpers coming from somewhere in the walls of the house, and a woman in red keeps materializing for SB, although nobody else seems to have seen her? Yeah.

This plot is a mess. It just flails around and it seems that the writer is just throwing everything up against the wall in the hopes that something will stick. Nothing does.

Perhaps the silliest thing about the book is all the name-dropping. We have Robert Redford and Brad Pitt dropping by the set - just because they have nothing better to do, I guess. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (because you can't have one without the other of course!) turn up at a party. Charlize Theron gives SB and Tinkie a plane ride back to Hollywood from Costa Rica.

No, I take it back. The silliest thing about the book is that SB and Graf are continually referred to - and refer to themselves - as movie stars, even though neither of them has ever been in a movie before. And everyone is continually gobsmacked by the prodigious talent of SB. She's "brilliant!" The director is "brilliant." Graf is brilliant and off-the-charts sexy and his only desire in life is to settle down with SB and raise a family.

The early entries in this series were entertaining and had a certain charm. The last two that I've read just seemed like the writer had lost interest and was phoning it in. This was the last one of the series that I had in my reading queue. I can't imagine a circumstance where I will be adding any more.

My rating: 1 of 5 stars   

Wordless Wednesday: Black swallowtail

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Devils of Cardona by Matthew Carr: A review

Matthew Carr has written several nonfiction books on historical subjects, including the Inquisition and the purging of Muslims from Spain in the 16th century. Now he has written his first novel, also dealing with that subject.

The Devils of Cardona refer to the Moriscos who were Moors who were forced to convert to Christianity. But, as the book makes clear, they were not devils; they were just human beings trying to survive in the world and raise their families in peace. Peace, however, was in very short supply in the Spain of the 16th century.

It was the time of the Spanish Inquisition, which nobody expected. (Sorry, Monty Python fans. I couldn't resist.) The Inquisition saw heresy and conspiracies everywhere and the Moriscos were easy scapegoats. They were persecuted unmercifully.

The story here begins in 1584 when a priest in Aragon is murdered in his church. The church itself is desecrated with the walls defaced with Arabic words written in the priest's blood. The crime is blamed on Moriscos and the province's Inquisitor soon receives a letter that threatens to drive all Christians from the region by the same methods that were used to forceably convert the Moors. The letter is signed by someone who calls himself the Redeemer.

Bernardo Mendoza, whose Jewish ancestors also were forced to convert, is a veteran of the wars that expelled the Moors from Granada and is now a criminal judge in the city of Valladolid, an important role in the Catholic Spanish government. He is sent to Aragon to solve the priest's murder and bring his killer(s) to justice.  

Mendoza takes with him his ward, a 17-year-old Moor whom he has raised as Christian, to serve as his scrivener and write his reports. Also in his entourage are his cousin Luis de Ventura, a professional soldier; Johannes Necker, a stern German constable; and two young soldiers who are to provide escort and protection. 

When Mendoza arrives in the town of Belamar de la Sierra where the priest was killed, he learns pretty quickly that no one mourns the dead man. He was a corrupt and lecherous man who preyed on the women of his town and had earned the enmity of all the townspeople.

Mendoza also meets a greatly beloved local figure, the Countess of Cardona, who is a benevolent overlord to the region and is sympathetic to the Moriscos. He soon begins to suspect that the killing of the priest will not be a simple matter to unravel and, in that assumption, he is absolutely right.

I thought Matthew Carr did an excellent job of bringing the late 16th century to life. It was a savage and terror-filled time and he does not shrink from describing some of the tortures of the Inquisition in all their gory detail. I did shrink, however, from reading those descriptions and I admit I skipped over a few pages to get to the end result. 

Many of the scenes are truly harrowing and hard to read about. Some of the vicious and sadistic inquisitors who presented themselves as God's judges on Earth do get their just rewards as the plot proceeds and it is difficult to feel any sympathy for their characters.

All in all, this first novel was a creditable effort, although the plotting of the mystery at the center of the story was less successful than the descriptions of society and the culture of 16th century Spain. The solution to the question of who was responsible for the priest's death and other atrocities in the area seemed fairly obvious early on. Moreover, the writer stretched our credulity with the number of coincidences that were necessary to wrap everything up in a neat denouement. But endings can be difficult, even for experienced novelists. 

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Poetry Sunday: September Tomatoes

The end of the spring/summer vegetable garden is fast approaching as we anticipate the autumnal equinox a few days hence. It's a bittersweet time for the gardener, pulling out all those plants that she had so assiduously cultivated for months. But they are spent. They have fulfilled their purpose and now it is time for them to go. 

"The whiskey stink of rot" that pervades the garden confirms that this is so. And so, even though "it feels cruel," the good gardener steels herself and pulls up the plants and tosses them on the compost in a ritual as old as our great-grandmothers and even older. A ritual that may even be so powerful that it can "turn the weather." 

As we swelter under the late summer sun, we can only hope.
September Tomatoes

by Karina Borowicz

The whiskey stink of rot has settled
in the garden, and a burst of fruit flies rises
when I touch the dying tomato plants.

Still, the claws of tiny yellow blossoms
flail in the air as I pull the vines up by the roots
and toss them in the compost.

It feels cruel. Something in me isn't ready
to let go of summer so easily. To destroy
what I've carefully cultivated all these months.
Those pale flowers might still have time to fruit.

My great-grandmother sang with the girls of her village
as they pulled the flax. Songs so old
and so tied to the season that the very sound
seemed to turn the weather.