Sunday, December 21, 2014

Poetry Sunday: The Shortest Day

This poem pays homage to the traditions of Winter Solstice, the time when the old year ends and the new year begins - never mind what our calendars say. It happens today at 5:03 P.M. CST.

As the days have gotten shorter and shorter and grayer and grayer in recent weeks, we've looked toward this day, the demarcation of seasons. Tomorrow the day will be just a little bit longer and a little bit lighter and for that fact we rejoice, knowing that, if winter comes, spring cannot be far behind.

The Shortest Day
Susan Cooper
And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

This week in birds - #138

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

The Cedar Waxwings are back! Just in time for the holidays and what a gift they are. A small flock of the nattily dressed birds have been making their way around the yard, renewing acquaintances with all their favorite trees, this week.

I always look forward to seeing that first waxwing in the fall. I know I say this about all my backyard birds, but they really are one of my favorites.


Drought continues to be the big environmental news in the Southwest, even though the recent storms in California have offered some relief to that parched state. Some of the southwestern states have taken steps to reduce the amount of water that they draw from the Colorado River in order to keep from exacerbating the reduced water available to the river system.


A recent study showed that Golden-winged Warblers abandoned their breeding grounds in the mountains of eastern Tennessee in April 2014 just ahead of a devastating system of tornadoes that struck the area. Scientists believe that the birds sensed the coming storms through infrasound and they fled to avoid them. That would not be too surprising. Migrating birds' lives depend on their ability to sense changes in the weather.


One of the arguments of climate change deniers is that even if more carbon is being added to the atmosphere that's a good thing. After all, plants breathe carbon dioxide, don't they? We'll be able to breed races of super-trees! Well, not so fast, the scientists say. It seems that increased carbon only works to spur growth up to a point. Then the trees and other plants max out on their consumption of the greenhouse gas. Those darned scientists! Always throwing cold water on our pet theories with their stubborn facts!   


A study in the U.K. indicates that seabirds are able to avoid those offshore wind turbines that are springing up along the coasts of many countries trying to produce more clean and renewable energy. Gannets in the study avoided the area of the turbines altogether, and even though gulls flew there, they avoided the big blades. 


The "Tetrapod Zoology" blog on Scientific American has an interesting post about one of the most common mammals that we are likely to encounter in the wilds on this continent as well as Eurasia. It explores confrontational behavior in the animals and their bipedal ability. 


A birder who had been kidnapped by an Islamic terrorist group in the Philippines two years ago was recently released. One of the first things he did on gaining his freedom was to post about a critically endangered bird he had seen - the Sulu Hornbill. He included a picture he had taken of the bird before he was captured and warned others to steer clear of the area which is controlled by the terrorists.  


President Obama has had a very busy month, but he found time in it to protect the environmentally important Bristol Bay in Alaska. The Presidential Memorandum withdraws the pristine waters of the bay from which 40% of the nation's wild-caught seafood is harvested from any future oil or gas drilling.


The "Prairie Ecologist" discusses contrasting approaches to prairie management with references to A Sand Count Almanac, Aldo Leopold's seminal work in the field of conservation. 


Oil spilling from a wrecked tanker in Bangladesh is endangering a unique mangrove forest and the rare animals that live there.


Pictures record an encounter between an Oriental Pied Hornbill and two Changeable Lizards. Spoiler Alert: Things did not turn out well for one of the lizards. 


The Arctic is being baked by global warming. It appears that the effects of global climate change are most pronounced there.


Meanwhile, a new report details that few Americans have given much thought to the present or future health effects of a drastic change in the world's climate.


The story of the evolution of modern penguins is written in the bones that show the development from the fossil bird Hesperornis to the current day Chinstraps, Adelies, Emperors, and others. 


We just keep learning more and being amazed by the reasoning abilities of crows. A new study utilizing a pattern-matching game has revealed that they are able to make analogies and recognize repeated actions. Indeed, corvids do seem to be the brainiacs of the bird world.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout: A review

Olive KitteridgeOlive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Olive Kitteridge is a large woman with a loud voice and a big personality. If we were to compare Crosby, Maine to a solar system, Olive would be the sun around which all the planets orbit.

Olive is not a lovable woman. She is outspoken and opinionated but has trouble expressing her own emotions. As we progress through the thirteen short stories that comprise this portrait of her, however, we learn that she is a woman who loves passionately and deeply. It is her tragedy that she is not able to express it.

Short stories are not my favorite form of writing, but these short stories seem a particularly appropriate way to reveal Olive to us. Each story features different characters, often long-married couples, sometimes former students of the formidable Ms. Kitteridge - she taught math at the junior high school until her retirement - and sometimes just people passing through the little town, but we see Olive through their eyes. She does not necessarily feature as a character herself in all the stories, but the strongest ones do have her at their center.

While we get to know Olive through the eyes of others, we get to know Crosby through her eyes. She is not pleased with what she sees. Her world is changing and she is not happy with those changes.

Olive is married to Henry, the town pharmacist, who is an easy-going, affable kind of guy, one who is liked by everyone. Others often wonder how Henry can stand the irascible Olive. One of the characters, Jane Houlton supplies the answer to that question.

"He loves her," said Jane, with a tone of admonishment. "That's how he can stand her."
And love is at the center of these tales. The love of husbands for wives and wives for husbands, parents for children and children for parents, love between friends, and love between strangers. Love, however silent or poorly expressed, rules these lives.

One of the amazing things about Olive is that she has an intuitive understanding of people. Perhaps it comes from all those years of teaching and observing children, but she seems to have an unerring instinct for what people need, what is lacking in their lives.

She sees one of her former students sitting alone in his car and feels immediately that he is in trouble and has lost the will to live and so she goes and sits with him - uninvited - and talks him back from the brink.

She sees a young anorexic woman and this large woman is able to identify with her.

Olive finished the doughnut, wiped the sugar from her fingers, sat back, and said, "You're starving."
The girl didn't move, only said, "Uh - duh."

"I'm starving, too," Olive said. The girl looked over at her. "I am," Olive said. "Why do you think I eat every doughnut in sight?"

"You're not starving," Nina said with disgust.

"Sure I am. We all are."

"Wow," Nina said, quietly. "Heavy."
A perceptive woman to see that we are, indeed, all starving for something and we try to fill our emptiness in different ways, whether with doughnuts or sex or music or walks by the river.

And those are the kinds of insights that we get from Olive Kitteridge. It is a tour de force of writing by Elizabeth Strout. It's not surprising that it was the Pulitzer Prize winner for literature in 2009.

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Iguanas 1, Kitten 0

Welcome to your Friday morning chuckle.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Christmas dinner that pleases everyone: Dreaming the impossible dream

The family Christmas dinner will be at my house again this year, as it is every year. That means that once again I am stuck with trying to plan a menu that will have something to appeal to all my picky eaters. The task gets harder every year.

This year nearly everybody is on a diet of one kind or another and even those who aren't fall in the category of the aforementioned picky eaters. We have people who eschew bread or sweets of any kind. Then there are those who claim gluten intolerance and/or lactose intolerance. We have people who are following the Paleo diet. I have one guest who will eat any vegetable as long as it's potatoes or green beans - and nothing else. Some will not eat pork, so a Christmas ham is out of the question. But then I still have some who expect a traditional Christmas feast with all the trimmings!

How to reconcile all these conflicting dietary demands and ensure that no one has to go away hungry? Well, believe me, it ain't easy, but I'll try. The key is to find some compromises that everyone can live with.

Poring over my cookbooks won't be much help, as most of them are from places and eras that didn't worry so much about the extra butter or breading or cream. So, I turn to my good friend Google and visit various sites for Paleo diets and gluten-free dishes. In doing this research, I get some help from my two daughters who have searched out some recipes that I might be able to use. By this weekend, I hope to have finalized a menu. Then all that remains is the shopping and the preparation. Hubby does the shopping and I do the preparation.

There's one other limitation on the Christmas menu and that is the energy of the cook. I love having everyone here for Christmas and I enjoy the challenge of the planning and preparation, but it does wear me out. How wonderful it would be some year to have no responsibility except to sit and enjoy my guests. 

I think after next week I'm going to be ready for a nice end-of-year vacation.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Backyard Nature Wednesday: December reptiles and amphibians

We got a cold front, or at least a cool front, through last night that lowered our temperatures to somewhat more seasonal levels, but prior to that, the last few days have felt more like Indian Summer than Almost Winter. Daytime temperatures have been in the 70s F. and it didn't cool down a whole lot at night. So maybe it isn't surprising that some of my favorite backyard critters, the reptiles and amphibians, that had disappeared during our quite cool weather of a couple of weeks ago, put in an appearance once again as they came out to enjoy warmer temperatures.

It's not often that one sees little green treefrogs out enjoying the sun on a December day, but there he was. He lives in a bed where crinums grow and throughout the summer I would often see him sunning himself on one of their broad leaves. Nevertheless, I was just a bit surprised to see him there this week 

Then I went to sit on the glider on the patio and when I looked up from my seat, this is what I saw - another little green treefrog resting on the metal bar from which the glider swings. The canopy over the glider is above him and he had found a very warm spot just there underneath it. 

The green anoles - yes, that's what he is even though he appears brown at the moment - were out en force. This is my little patio buddy that I was used to encountering on and around the patio during the summer and fall.

At night, even the Mediterranean geckos have been out once again, patrolling the ceilings of my front and back entry porches. 
Except for brief intervals of cold, it has been an unusually warm December so far. I wonder if I'll have frogs, anoles, and geckos on Christmas Day this year?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tripwire by Lee Child: A review

Tripwire (Jack Reacher, #3)Tripwire by Lee Child
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I needed an antidote to the news of the day. In a world where political leaders and their apologists on the right straight-facedly justify the use of torture and where policemen are not held accountable for killing unarmed citizens, it seems that justice is as rare as unicorns. I wanted to visit a world where bad guys are actually punished for their bad deeds. A Jack Reacher novel seemed like an appropriate choice.

I had read the first two Reacher novels (Killing Floor and Die Trying) and wasn't all that impressed, but at least I felt sure that in Reacherworld evil would not triumph. So I dipped into Lee Child's third offering in the series.

We meet Reacher in Key West, digging swimming pools by hand and building up his already prodigious muscles. He has this job, plus a second one as bouncer at a club, because he's low on cash and needs some ready money. Things have been going along swimmingly, so to speak, for three months, and then a private detective from New York turns up looking for him. Reacher is suspicious and doesn't admit to his identity when approached by the man. Soon after that incident, he discovers the man's body on the street. He's been horribly murdered.

Reacher wonders if the man's murder has anything to do with his search for someone named Jack Reacher and he decides to backtrack the murdered man and find the client he was working for in order to get to the bottom of things. His investigation leads him to the home of his mentor and former commanding officer in the Army, General Leon Garber. He finds that Garber has recently died but that his daughter, Jodie, for whom Reacher has always carried a torch, is very much alive and more beautiful than ever.

Garber had been trying to find Jack because he wanted him to take over the investigation into a Vietnam era soldier who is listed as MIA. Garber was ill and knew he wouldn't be able to complete the investigation. Reacher and Jodie follow up on the information that they have and it leads them into a web of pure evil.

If I had hoped to escape stories of torture, this was definitely the wrong book to turn to. The bad guy here, who calls himself Victor "Hook" Hobie (that's also the name of the MIA) revels in torturing his victims and every few pages throughout the book brought more descriptions of his acts. It was depressing to say the least.

And in between the torture scenes, we get to read about the lovemaking of Reacher and Jodie, long separated by life events and never able to express their love for one another until now. Indeed, much of the book reads like a romance novel. I know a lot of readers just eat this stuff up and more power to them, but I find it most often turns me off rather than on.

The mystery at the center of the story - what happened to Victor Hobie in Vietnam and is he really that evil character who now goes by that name - is easy enough to figure out. I got there way ahead of Reacher. Of course, i wasn't being distracted by the delicious Jodie.

It's really hard for me to rate this book. It's not truly awful but it would be wrong to say I enjoyed it. In a perfect world, I'd give it two-and-a-half stars. Since that isn't possible, I'll be generous and give three.

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