Sunday, November 19, 2017

Annie Proulx nails it

Annie Proulx was recently given the National Book Award for Lifetime Achievement. In her acceptance speech, she spoke about the unique times in which we live and the challenges we face. The speech is brief and well worth reading in its entirety. As she does so often in her work, she has spoken for us all and she has absolutely nailed it. 

Although this award is for lifetime achievement, I didn’t start writing until I was 58, so if you’ve been thinking about it and putting it off, well…
I thank the National Book Award Foundation, the committees, and the judges for this medal. I was surprised when I learned of it and I’m grateful and honored to receive it and to be here tonight, and I thank my editor Nan Graham, for it is her medal too. 
We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. This is a Kafkaesque time. The television sparkles with images of despicable political louts and sexual harassment reports. We cannot look away from the pictures of furious elements, hurricanes and fires, from the repetitive crowd murders by gunmen burning with rage. We are made more anxious by flickering threats of nuclear war. We observe social media’s manipulation of a credulous population, a population dividing into bitter tribal cultures. We are living through a massive shift from representative democracy to something called viral direct democracy, now cascading over us in a garbage-laden tsunami of raw data. Everything is situational, seesawing between gut-response “likes” or vicious confrontations. For some this is a heady time of brilliant technological innovation that is bringing us into an exciting new world. For others it is the opening of a savagely difficult book without a happy ending. 
To me the most distressing circumstance of the new order is the accelerating destruction of the natural world and the dreadful belief that only the human species has the inalienable right to life and God-given permission to take anything it wants from nature, whether mountaintops, wetlands or oil. The ferocious business of stripping the earth of its flora and fauna, of drowning the land in pesticides again may have brought us to a place where no technology can save us. I personally have found an amelioration in becoming involved in citizen science projects. This is something everyone can do. Every state has marvelous projects of all kinds, from working with fish, with plants, with landscapes, with shore erosions, with water situations. 
Yet somehow the old discredited values and longings persist. We still have tender feelings for such outmoded notions as truth, respect for others, personal honor, justice, equitable sharing. We still hope for a happy ending. We still believe that we can save ourselves and our damaged earth—an indescribably difficult task as we discover that the web of life is far more mysteriously complex than we thought and subtly entangled with factors that we cannot even recognize. But we keep on trying, because there’s nothing else to do. 
The happy ending still beckons, and it is in hope of grasping it that we go on. The poet WisÅ‚awa Szymborska caught the writer’s dilemma of choosing between hard realities and the longing for the happy ending. She called it “consolation.” Darwin: They say he read novels to relax, but only certain kinds—nothing that ended unhappily. If he happened on something like that, enraged, he flung the book into the fire. True or not, I’m ready to believe it. Scanning in his mind so many times and places, he’s had enough with dying species, the triumphs of the strong over the weak, the endless struggle to survive, all doomed sooner or later. He’d earned the right to a happy ending, at least in fiction, with its micro-scales. 
Hence the indispensable silver lining, the lovers reunited, the families reconciled, the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded, fortunes regained, treasures uncovered, stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways, good names restored, greed daunted, old maids married off to worthy parsons, troublemakers banished to other hemispheres, forgers of documents tossed down the stairs, seducers scurried to the altar, orphans sheltered, widows comforted, pride humbled, wounds healed, prodigal sons summoned home, cups of sorrow tossed into the ocean, hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation, general merriment and celebration, and the dog Fido, gone astray in the first chapter, turns up barking gladly in the last. Thank you.

Poetry Sunday: This Be The Verse by Philip Larkin

The book that I recently read, Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere, made reference to this poem and, since I wasn't familiar with it, I looked it up. I found myself nodding and smiling in recognition and some chagrin as I read.

Ng's book was about mums and dads, especially mums, and about how families shape us. Philip Larkin made the same point and a lot more succinctly, summing it all up nicely in that last stanza.

This Be The Verse

by Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   
    They may not mean to, but they do.   
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,   
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

Friday, November 17, 2017

This week in birds - #281

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

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker image from WhatBird.

And yet another of our winter birds made its first appearance in my neighborhood this week. I've been hearing the squeaky call of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker all around my yard, although not actually in my yard, all week long. The birds favor the huge pine trees that stand in my next door neighbor's backyard.


The Keystone Pipeline had a leak that spilled about 210,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota this week. It was in an agricultural area of the state and apparently the oil has not gotten into the waterways. Coincidentally, the public service commission in Nebraska is set to announce in a few days its decision on allowing the pipeline to be extended through that state.


An entire flock of the endangered Puerto Rican Parrots disappeared following the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Conservationists have been searching for them since. Some individual birds have been found alive and some are known to be dead, but, as yet, many are not accounted for.  


Global carbon emissions have been flat for the past three years, but this year they are on the rise again. They are up by about 2 percent. Most of the increase is attributable to China.

Donald Trump, Jr., the mighty elephant hunter, holding the trophy severed tail of the elephant he's just killed.

In their rush to undo every accomplishment of the Obama administration, the current administration in Washington announced this week that they would allow the importation of elephant hunting trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia. The Obama administration had implemented a ban on such imports in 2014. 

However, after a storm of protest, the president tweeted on Friday that he was putting the announced action on hold until he could "review all conservation facts." 

Here's a thought: Perhaps he should try reviewing all the facts before he announces an action.


A new study of birds in California reveals that, in an adaptation to the warming climate, many of the state's birds are nesting at least a week earlier than they did a century ago.


We know that many bird species as well as other kinds of animals have made the successful transition to city living. Now we learn that bats, too, are finding the city a welcoming place and perhaps a haven from some of the diseases that have plagued them in recent years. Bats seem to particularly like Washington, D.C.


Chaco Canyon in New Mexico contains a concentration of ancient Pueblo culture structures that were abandoned around 1200 AD. The site is as close as the US gets to Egypt’s pyramids and Peru’s Machu Picchu, but recent years have seen drilling pressing closer to the park’s boundaries, now aided by the current administration’s work to accelerate oil and gas development. Scientists and conservationists fear that drilling in the area could destroy important archeological information and artifacts.


At one time, the Passenger Pigeon was the most abundant bird in North America and, quite possibly, the world, but their abundance did not protect them. They were hunted to extinction, the last one dying in a zoo in 1914. Now, a study of their DNA has shown that they possessed a unique genome that made them well-adapted for their preferred life style.


John Rakestraw writes about two subspecies of Cackling Geese and describes the subtle differences that allow them to be differentiated.


Natural forest restoration is a lot more successful than human engineered restoration. That's not too surprising since Nature has been doing this a lot longer than we have.


Many seabirds are accidentally killed by commercial fishers. The deaths could be reduced or perhaps prevented by some simple changes to equipment or technique.


From the Everglades to Kilimanjaro, climate change is destroying world wonders. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has announced that there are at least 62 world heritage sites that are already being damaged and are at risk from the effects of climate change.


It's an uphill battle for survival for the endangered African Penguin. They are being put at risk by oil spills, commercial fisheries, climate change, disease, and predators. Rehabilitation of injured or ill birds is an important factor in trying to optimize the species' chances for survival.


Allopreening, i.e., the preening of one bird by another bird, is uncommon in the avian world, but it does occasionally happen and "The Rattling Crow" was able to snap some pictures of Common Moorhens in the act.


The colorful Jackson's climbing salamander was discovered in Guatemala in 1975 and had not been seen since. It's continuing existence was in doubt - until a forest guard recently sat down to have his lunch on the edges of the Finca San Isidro Amphibian Reserve. There he found what dozens of previous surveys could not – a small juvenile salamander, black and gold. It seems that the species is still alive and well; perhaps not numerous, but it does exist.

The pretty little salamander that the forest guard saw. Long may it live and climb.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: A review

I am bereft. I have exited the world of Mia Warren and her various relationships and I feel a bit lost and unmoored.

The world of Mia and her daughter Pearl and the Richardson family and all their associations in the planned community of Shaker Heights ("Most communities just happen; the best are planned.") have been the society in which I have been living these past few days. My sojourn there gave me a lot to think about and I didn't want it to end.

We visit Shaker Heights in the mid-1990s and meet the Richardson family on a day of tragedy for them. Someone has set fire to their comfortable home and uprooted their comfortable lives. In fact, someone set not just one fire but "little fires everywhere", pouring accelerant on three beds in the house and setting them ablaze.

Mrs. Richardson was in the house asleep at the time and we first encounter her standing on the sidewalk in front of the house in her robe and slippers as the firemen work to contain the blazes. Along with her are three of her four teenage children, Trip, Lexie, and Moody. They are soon joined by Mr. Richardson who has returned from work when notified of the fire. The fourth and youngest child, Izzy, is not present and is unaccounted for, and suspicion soon rests on her as the starter of the fires.

Slowly, the author draws us into this family's story and we learn about their tenants in a duplex rental property in another part of the Heights. Mia and Pearl Warren had moved in eleven months earlier. Mia is an artist, a photographer, who has led a vagabond existence for several years. She and Pearl travel in their Volkswagen Rabbit wherever Mia's inspiration takes them and at each new location, she begins a new photography project.

Fifteen-year-old Pearl has begun to long for some stability and roots and, when they came to Shaker Heights, Mia promised her they would stay. Now, all these months later, the two families, the Warrens and the Richardsons, have commingled. Pearl has become a fixture in the Richardson household and she and Moody are best friends. Meanwhile, Izzy is drawn to Mia and is learning about her art, helping her with it almost every day after school.

Soon, the community of Shaker Heights is divided over a child custody battle. Bebe Chow, a Chinese immigrant, had given birth to her daughter, May Ling, a year earlier. She was alone and without resources, working a minimum wage job, and she was in over her head, suffering from postpartum depression, and unable to properly care for her baby. Realizing this, she wrapped the baby in blankets and left her in a cardboard box at the door of a fire station. 

The firemen found her, of course, and delivered her to social services and social services, in turn, delivered her to the McCulloughs, a rich white couple who had tried for years to have a baby. They were ecstatic.

The McCulloughs showered their love and their considerable worldly goods on the child, whom they named Mirabelle, for a year. By then, the birth mother, Bebe, was in a better place financially and emotionally and she wanted her baby back. The ensuing custody battle had wide-ranging and unexpected reverberations that would eventually touch the Warrens and the Richardsons and change the course of their lives.

This is a novel about families, about class and race, adolescence and sexuality, about art, and about what defines an individual's sense of right and wrong. But most of all it is about motherhood, about what makes a real mother: Is it blood or is it love? The author gives us nuanced and sympathetic portraits of all her characters that help us to see all sides of the moral questions which the book asks.

At one point, Lexie, the blond, white "girl-next-door" Richardson who has a black boyfriend, says, "I mean, we're lucky. No one sees race here." That is the fantasy of the Shaker Heights world and it is not even close to the truth, but in the 1990s, it could serve as an innocent delusion. Part of the magic of this book is that Celeste Ng draws us in and even makes us a part of that delusion.

There is, in fact, a lot of magic in this book which is why I was so sad to turn that last page.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars  

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - November 2017

November. It always sneaks past me. Barely has it begun when I look up and it's Thanksgiving. Somehow, I always think I have more time to prepare, but suddenly there it is! Sigh. You'd think I'd learn after all these years.

And here we are, in the middle of the month already, and, yes, there are still a few blooms around the garden. Let me show you.  

November is the month when Cape honeysuckle shines.

The plant is covered in these bright blossoms just now.

It's also the month when yellowbells (golden Esperanza) is at its best.

The bronze Esperanza is a little past its prime but still has a few blooms and its contingent of bees.

The trailing purple lantana is covered in pine needles from my neighbors' large pine trees, as, in fact, is everything in my backyard when the wind blows at this time of year.

The yellow lantana rested for a while but now it, too, is blooming again.

As is the peaches and cream lantana.

'Cashmere Bouquet' clerodendrum is sending out what is probably its last blooms of the year.

The weird little blooms of porterweed always seem to be covered in butterflies like this tiny skipper.

The groundcover wedelia is in full bloom.

'Coral Nymph' salvia.

Salvia greggii (autumn sage).


And more marigolds.

Blue potato bush (Solanum rantonnetii).

And a relative, the ornamental potato vine (Solanum jasminoides).

The fragile-appearing blossom of Tradescantia pallida 'Purple Queen,' which is actually not a bit fragile but practically indestructible.

Blue plumbago, another indestructible.

The tubular blossoms of the flame acanthus (Anisacanthus wrightii) are a magnet for nectar sippers like hummingbirds and butterflies.

Butterflies like this Monarch, passing through on its way to the mountains of Mexico for the winter.

The delicate little flowers of convolvulus 'Blue Daze'.

A second generation tithonia. This volunteer plant was reseeded from its parent that was planted in the spring.

The funky blossoms of the shrimp plant.

Golden dewdrops (Duranta erecta).

Past its prime but still blooming - chrysanthemum.

Yellow cestrum. The plant has been blooming since spring.

And then there is this. Several of these interesting mushrooms have sprung up next to beds bordering my patio recently. I haven't been able to identify them yet, but I find them quite pretty in their own unique way.

There you have it - your Bloom Day tour of my Southeast Texas garden. Thank you for visiting and thank you, Carol of May Dreams Gardens, for hosting this meme each month.

Happy gardening.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Dead Yard by Adrian McKinty: A review

This is the second book in Adrian McKinty's trilogy featuring Belfast bad boy Michael Forsythe. In the first book, Michael almost single-handedly destroyed an Irish mob group, after which he had a price on his head and was forced to go into witness protection.

In this book, we find him living with his new identity and on vacation in the Canary Islands. Unfortunately, he manages to get in the middle of a riot between football hooligans, even though he wasn't really involved, and he is arrested by Spanish police.

Thrown into jail, he could be facing several years in a Spanish prison, or, even more worrying, he could be extradited back to Mexico to face charges there. He had escaped from a prison there in the first book.

Facing these unpalatable possibilities, Michael is visited in prison by a couple of representatives from British Intelligence, MI6. The MI6 leader, a woman named Samantha, offers him a way out. He can work undercover for them and infiltrate a rogue IRA sect in the U.S. called the Sons of Cuchulainn and help to destroy them.

This all takes place in the 1990s at a time when a tenuous cease fire is being negotiated in Northern Ireland and there is hope that peace may finally be about to break out there. The Sons of Cuchulainn want nothing to do with peace and are determined to throw a spanner into the works of the negotiations. Michael's job, should he choose to take it, will be to stop them.

Michael (now called Sean) reluctantly agrees and a day later is on a plane back to America and on to Boston where he must seek to ingratiate himself to the small group of sociopaths who are the heart of the Sons of Cuchulainn.

McKinty writes with a poetic lilt and some of the best parts of the book for me are the dialogues between various characters, which just seem spot-on. Michael/Sean's is a distinctive voice and, as he is the narrator of the story, we hear that voice throughout and we see things always through his eyes.

Some of the things that we see are truly appalling. The scenes of torture and murder were very hard to read but they are an essential part of the story, an essential tool for revealing the violent and sadistic activities of the enemy Michael/Sean must face and defeat if he is to live.

The suspense builds and builds. Since there is a third entry in this trilogy, the reader can be pretty sure that Michael Forsythe is going to make it out alive, but it is a near thing, and blood flows like a river on the way. 

I wouldn't recommend this for the faint of heart, but it is an exciting and very well-written thriller.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Poetry Sunday: And There Was a Great Calm by Thomas Hardy

Here is a poem that was written to commemorate the signing of the Armistice after World War I. It's a day late but still apropos, I think.

I am particularly struck by verse V:
So, when old hopes that earth was bettering slowly
Were dead and damned, there sounded 'War is done!'
One morrow. Said the bereft, and meek, and lowly,
'Will men some day be given to grace? yea, wholly,
And in good sooth, as our dreams used to run?'
"Will men some day be given to grace?" We can only hope. 

And There Was a Great Calm

by Thomas Hardy
(On the Signing of the Armistice, 11 Nov. 1918)
There had been years of Passion—scorching, cold,
And much Despair, and Anger heaving high,
Care whitely watching, Sorrows manifold,
Among the young, among the weak and old,
And the pensive Spirit of Pity whispered, “Why?”
Men had not paused to answer. Foes distraught
Pierced the thinned peoples in a brute-like blindness,
Philosophies that sages long had taught,
And Selflessness, were as an unknown thought,
And “Hell!” and “Shell!” were yapped at Lovingkindness.
The feeble folk at home had grown full-used
To 'dug-outs', 'snipers', 'Huns', from the war-adept
In the mornings heard, and at evetides perused;
To day-dreamt men in millions, when they mused—
To nightmare-men in millions when they slept.
Waking to wish existence timeless, null,
Sirius they watched above where armies fell;
He seemed to check his flapping when, in the lull
Of night a boom came thencewise, like the dull
Plunge of a stone dropped into some deep well.
So, when old hopes that earth was bettering slowly
Were dead and damned, there sounded 'War is done!'
One morrow. Said the bereft, and meek, and lowly,
'Will men some day be given to grace? yea, wholly,
And in good sooth, as our dreams used to run?'
Breathless they paused. Out there men raised their glance
To where had stood those poplars lank and lopped,
As they had raised it through the four years’ dance
Of Death in the now familiar flats of France;
And murmured, 'Strange, this! How? All firing stopped?'
Aye; all was hushed. The about-to-fire fired not,
The aimed-at moved away in trance-lipped song.
One checkless regiment slung a clinching shot
And turned. The Spirit of Irony smirked out, 'What?
Spoil peradventures woven of Rage and Wrong?'
Thenceforth no flying fires inflamed the gray,
No hurtlings shook the dewdrop from the thorn,
No moan perplexed the mute bird on the spray;
Worn horses mused: 'We are not whipped to-day;'
No weft-winged engines blurred the moon’s thin horn.
Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;
Some could, some could not, shake off misery:
The Sinister Spirit sneered: 'It had to be!'
And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, 'Why?'