Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Travels with Susan

I'm off on the road again. For the next week, my older daughter and I will be traveling to visit family and friends and paying our respects at cemeteries where family members are buried. It's an annual June ritual for me but my daughter has not made the trip in several years. She's substituting for her father who elected to stay behind this year. (I think he's been looking forward to a break from me!) 

While we are traveling, I will be absent from this spot and from the internet in general, but I'll see you here again, I hope, in about a week. Meantime, stay cool! 

Kudos by Rachel Cusk: A review

I had been looking forward to this third entry in Rachel Cusk's Outline series. I found the two earlier books, Outline and Transit, to be remarkable works that were thought-provoking reads. With the release of Kudos, one can see now that all three are pieces of a whole and they fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces in the narrative that Cusk has constructed.

Cusk's story-teller once again is Faye, a middle-aged writer divorced from the father of her two sons and now remarried, although that marriage seems to play a very small role in her daily life. Faye travels - a lot it seems. She's always on the go to conferences or literary festivals or publicity tours that her publisher has arranged to promote her latest book. And in her travels, she constantly meets people who want to talk to her, who want to tell her the stories of their lives and their innermost secrets. Faye reports these mostly one-way conversations to us unedited and there is something almost magical in the way that we get a clear picture of the person who is talking by reading Faye's transcriptions of their words.

Seldom do we hear Faye speak. She is the most self-effacing of narrators, almost never inserting her thoughts into the narrative and yet, even in her silence, we do gain a full portrait of her as well, simply by listening to the way people talk to her and the things they say to her and about her. 

She does take time and care to describe the settings of her conversations - the hotels, the restaurants, the planes, the walks on the streets of the city - and her descriptions are almost photographic in their clarity.

Not only her descriptions of the settings but her descriptions of the people who talk to her are sharply perceptive. We "see" those people as if they were standing in front of us.

But the stories these people tell are the thing. They talk about their lives, their loves, families, friends, jobs. Many of the tales revolve around marriage, separation, and children. In this, the stories reflect Faye's life as well and the life of the author since she, too, was married and divorced and is dealing with raising two sons on her own.

In Kudos, Faye travels to an unnamed sunny port city in Europe to participate in a literary festival. The theme of the book seems to be success and failure: which writer(s) will succeed and thrive; which will win the prize and what will it cost them? In Outline, we got the parameters of Faye's self-definition; in Transit, she was moving on, renovating her house, redefining her life; now we see the outcome of all that effort and where it has taken her.

Several of the stories told to Faye and her own experiences to some extent deal with sexism or ageism. The difference in how the work of women writers is judged seems a subtle theme of the book. And the final scene of the book (no spoilers here) is so gross and seemingly fraught with metaphor and symbol that it makes this point in a particularly literal and primal way. 

Rachel Cusk's accomplishment with this trilogy has been extraordinary, in my opinion. Her unique method of telling the story almost entirely through a second-person narrative was brilliantly creative. Faye's story is one that I will not soon forget.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars   

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Poetry Sunday: The Afterlife by Billy Collins

If I were pressed to name my favorite poet who is writing today, I think it might be Billy Collins. I like the way he thinks and the way he expresses himself. Most of all I like his puckish humor and the fact that he manages to see that life on Earth, even in the worst of times, is not all doom and gloom. And neither, perhaps, is the afterlife.

The Afterlife 

by Billy Collins

While you are preparing for sleep, brushing your teeth,
or riffling through a magazine in bed,
the dead of the day are setting out on their journey.

They're moving off in all imaginable directions,
each according to his own private belief,
and this is the secret that silent Lazarus would not reveal:
that everyone is right, as it turns out.
you go to the place you always thought you would go,
The place you kept lit in an alcove in your head.

Some are being shot into a funnel of flashing colors
into a zone of light, white as a January sun.
Others are standing naked before a forbidding judge who sits
with a golden ladder on one side, a coal chute on the other.

Some have already joined the celestial choir
and are singing as if they have been doing this forever,
while the less inventive find themselves stuck
in a big air conditioned room full of food and chorus girls.

Some are approaching the apartment of the female God,
a woman in her forties with short wiry hair
and glasses hanging from her neck by a string.
With one eye she regards the dead through a hole in her door.

There are those who are squeezing into the bodies
of animals--eagles and leopards--and one trying on
the skin of a monkey like a tight suit,
ready to begin another life in a more simple key,

while others float off into some benign vagueness,
little units of energy heading for the ultimate elsewhere.

There are even a few classicists being led to an underworld
by a mythological creature with a beard and hooves.
He will bring them to the mouth of the furious cave
guarded over by Edith Hamilton and her three-headed dog.

The rest just lie on their backs in their coffins
wishing they could return so they could learn Italian
or see the pyramids, or play some golf in a light rain.
They wish they could wake in the morning like you
and stand at a window examining the winter trees,
every branch traced with the ghost writing of snow.

(And some just smile, forever on)

Saturday, June 9, 2018

This week in birds - #307

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

Black-crowned Night Heron thrusts after a fish in the duckweed covered waters at Brazos Bend State Park.


A contributing factor in the recent disastrous 1,000 year flood in Maryland was the amount of paving in the area that prevented the rain from soaking into the ground. This, of course, is a problem in most urban areas and could intensify future flooding. 


As the federal government reduces, or ceases, its efforts at combating global warming, states and cities are stepping up to attempt to fill the vacuum of leadership.


Controlling rodents or other pests with poisons has always been problematic, but there are alternatives. One of them is to encourage the presence of raptors, those clean and efficient killing machines. Erecting perches for the raptors and nest boxes that some owls will use make the birds welcome in an area and they pay their rent by eating the rodents.


The tap water in Appalachia is not fit to drink because of pollution from coal mining and chemical operations that has leaked into the groundwater, soil, and waterways, and yet the American public knows little about this water crisis or has been desensitized to it.


The superintendent of Yellowstone National Park has been informed that he must take a transfer to the Capital Region in Washington, D.C., an area that includes the White House and Lincoln Memorial, within 60 days or resign. The superintendent has been a strong advocate for the wildlife of Yellowstone and that, it seems, is not what this new version of our Interior Department wants. 


A two-year project of surveying the birds of Botswana has produced some alarming results: many birds of prey are disappearing from Africa's last great wilderness areas. Some species of eagle and vultures have declined by as much as 80% from the last survey.


There are more than 200,000 protected areas around the world that cover more than 7.7 million square miles, an area greater than South America. These designated areas are supposed to provide protection for the animals and plants that live there, but new research shows that human pressure on these spaces is making it impossible for some of them to serve the conservation mission for which they were established.


If you are a serious gardener, you are probably already aware that your garden is hardly the peaceful spot that many imagine. It is a place of mortal combat between predator and prey insects, as well as the critters that feed on those insects. 


Atlantic Puffin population numbers have fallen sharply. The decline of the charismatic birds is directly related to the warming ocean which decreases the abundance of plankton and interrupts the supply chain that produces the small fish that the puffin needs to survive.


The new governor of New Jersey plans to take his state into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate program aimed at combating climate change. He is being urged by environmental groups to clamp down on CO2 emissions from power plants as part of that initiative. 


The United States just had its warmest May on record, breaking the previous record from 1934, the era of the infamous Dust Bowl. In addition, eight states had their warmest May ever: Virginia, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio and Oklahoma. 


There are some 3.4 million acres of primary forest in Europe that are found in a patchwork, scattered around a countryside of fields and pastures of the continent. These areas need protection as they provide important habitat for European wildlife.


The federal government, after heavy lobbying from the chemical industry, is scaling back the way it determines health and safety risks associated with the most dangerous chemicals on the market. 


It may seem counterintuitive but a new study shows that controlled burns of grasslands actually benefit butterflies


The Guardian had a story this week about the successful reintroduction of species back into areas where they had disappeared. It is called "rewilding" and it is one way of fighting back against extinction.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner: A review

The Mars Room of the book's title is a strip club in San Francisco where the book's protagonist, Romy Hall, gives lap dances. Suffice to say, it is not a high-class joint. Romy, who often exhibits a dark humor about life in general, describes it thusly: "If you'd showered you had a competitive edge at the Mars Room. If your tattoos weren't misspelled you were hot property. If you weren't five or six months pregnant, you were the it-girl in the club that night."

Romy ekes out a living for herself and her young son with her work at the club. Life is not exactly good but it is bearable and the love of her life is that son, called Jackson.

Romy is in her twenties, having survived a chaotic childhood that was marked by drug use and sexual licentiousness. Her father was gone and her mother was not a strong presence in her life. Predictably, that life went off the rails.

Romy spent a few years working in the Mars Room, but during most of the time that we know her, she is in quite a different room, a much more claustrophobic one: a women's prison in California's Central Valley. She has received two consecutive life sentences for killing a man.

The man she killed was someone she had met at the Mars Room. He had become one of her "regulars" and finally had become completely obsessed with her. He ended up stalking her and when she left the Mars Room and moved to Los Angeles, he discovered her address there and turned up on her front porch one night. Perceiving him as a threat to her and her son, she beat his head with an iron bar, killing him.

Her trial is something of a joke. Her public defender seems incompetent and no exculpatory evidence - such as the fact that the victim was her stalker - is presented. Conviction is a foregone conclusion.

Romy goes to prison and Jackson is left in the care of her mother. But then a terrible thing happens: her mother is killed in an auto crash, in which Jackson is also injured. Romy is not able to find out any information. She is wild with grief and worry for Jackson and is put in administrative segregation and then on suicide watch for a while. There is no other family to look after Jackson and her parental rights are subsequently terminated because of her long prison sentence and the child disappears into the foster care system. She is never able to find out what happened to her son. 

The portrait that Kushner gives us of prison life is vivid and obviously extensively researched. We learn all about the cliques, the smuggling of contraband, lice treatments, violence triggered by racism or other forms of bigotry and intolerance, and, most of all, boredom. The mind-numbing sameness of the days breeds ennui, dissatisfaction, and restlessness. Kushner tells us, too, about the inventive ways that the incarcerated women try to combat the boredom with surreptitious parties and crafting.

Romy finds some relief from the boredom when an academic who teaches at the prison brings her books to read. A burgeoning relationship develops between the two and Romy tries to inveigle his assistance in finding out what has happened to her son. One intuits that this will not end well.

I was mesmerized by Kushner's narrative right from the beginning, especially with how she echoes other writers. Dostoyevski, for example. She explores his theories about evil, about how there are many kinds but not all are recognized. In the thoughts of that teacher at the prison, "There were stark acts of it: beating a person to death. And there were more abstract forms, depriving people of jobs, safe housing, adequate schools." Those abstract forms are the ones practiced by societies and governments and for which they deny responsibility.

She also shares an interesting perspective and insight with the juxtaposition of the writing of two men who chose to live, in their own way, outside of society: Henry David Thoreau and Theodore J. Kaczynski, the Unabomber. She quotes quite extensively from Kaczynski's diaries and, in truth, his ideas do seem to mirror in many ways those of Thoreau. Fascinating.

I have not read Kushner's earlier much-praised books, but now I certainly want to.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars  

Monday, June 4, 2018

Dark Horse by Craig Johnson: A review

Well, that was fun. This fifth entry in Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire series was a quick and entertaining weekend read. It contained all of the elements that have made this such a likable series for me and few of the ones that I have found annoying in the past.

Sheriff Walt Longmire of Absaroka County, Wyoming is called on to go undercover in The Dark Horse. The problem is that his undercover work is to be done in an adjoining county, in fact the county where he grew up and where the old Longmire family home is. He's not unknown in these parts, so being an anonymous undercover cop is a challenge to say the least.

The challenge comes about because Absaroka County has been sent a prisoner to house. They don't have enough criminals to keep their cells filled so when other counties have an overflow and need additional cells, they send them to Absaroka. But the sheriff of the adjoining county, an old friend of Walt's, might just have an ulterior motive in sending him this particular prisoner.

She's a young woman accused of having shot her husband in the head six times and then burning the house down around the body after he had burned her horses alive. She has confessed to the crime, but the sheriff has some concerns about that confession and wants someone he trusts to take a look at the case. Enter Walt Whitmire.

Walt goes to the little town where the crime occurred in the guise of an insurance investigator. It's a town with a population of forty souls. It is called Absalom, which gives Craig/Walt a chance to muse on how the town got such a name and to show off his knowledge of the Bible and of Faulkner.

There are some interesting characters in this mini-town. First among them is a barmaid named Juana. She is an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who came to Absalom by way of Chicago where she had married a Cheyenne construction worker. They had a son named Benjamin. After her husband was killed in an accident, she brought her half-Cheyenne son to Wyoming near the Cheyenne reservation and has been attempting to make a life for them there. She went to the local community college and took a course in criminal justice but was unable to finish because she ran out of money. But she is an enthusiastic practitioner of the investigatory skills that she learned and it doesn't take her long to rumble Longmire's cover.

Then there is an old cowpuncher named Herschel who worked for the couple at the center of the tale, the alleged victim and the alleged murderess. He despised the victim and idolized the murderess. Juana, who also worked for the couple, had the same opinion, as did, it seems, just about everyone in the town. I'm sensing a theme here.

As Walt is able to talk to his prisoner by bribing her with his dog (named Dog), he learns more about her, including the fact that she is a sleepwalker who takes Ambien(!). She was a barrel racer and owned a championship racer, a black mare named Wahoo Sue, who her husband hated and took out of the barn one day and told his wife later that he had killed her. The wife, knowing how he enjoyed torturing things, doesn't believe him and thinks the horse is still alive somewhere but in great pain. How did her S.O.B. of a husband live as long as he did?

Well, all of this makes for an intriguing plot and we get to follow Walt as he proceeds with his investigation and talks to the locals. Craig Johnson's ear for the vernacular is astute and it is a pleasure to read these conversations and to enjoy the dry wit with which they are imbued. 

Humor and Johnson's use of language in conveying a sense of the fantastic setting that is Wyoming are two of the strong points of this series. Both are on full display here.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars   


Sunday, June 3, 2018

Poetry Sunday: The Sound of the Trees by Robert Frost

I spent the last week reading Richard Powers' wonderful book, The Overstory, and thinking a lot about trees.

There is something about trees that seems to inspire poets. There are certainly plenty of poems about them and even more that employ the imagery of trees to make the poet's point about something. Robert Frost, in particular, seemed to have a special affinity for trees and wrote about them often. This is one of my favorites.

The Sound of the Trees

by Robert Frost1874 - 1963

I wonder about the trees.  
Why do we wish to bear  
Forever the noise of these  
More than another noise  
So close to our dwelling place? 
We suffer them by the day  
Till we lose all measure of pace,  
And fixity in our joys,  
And acquire a listening air.  
They are that that talks of going       
But never gets away;  
And that talks no less for knowing,  
As it grows wiser and older,  
That now it means to stay.  
My feet tug at the floor 
And my head sways to my shoulder  
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,  
From the window or the door.  
I shall set forth for somewhere,  
I shall make the reckless choice 
Some day when they are in voice  
And tossing so as to scare  
The white clouds over them on.  
I shall have less to say,  
But I shall be gone.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

This week in birds - #306

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

Tufted Titmouse having a drink from my little backyard fountain.


A new study out this week estimates Puerto Rico's deaths from Hurricane Maria could number as many as 4,600 Americans. Many of these deaths were attributable to delayed medical care because assistance to the island after the storm was delayed, ineffective, and insufficient. The island's infrastructure still has not been restored and this year's hurricane season began yesterday.


Plastic bags are a major threat to the environment and do inestimable damage. New Jersey's legislature is considering tackling this problem with either an outright ban or a tax on each bag. Perhaps more states will follow suit. 


A group of volunteers monitoring spring migration at an observatory in Quebec were hoping to be able to count as many as 50,000 warblers on one day. Instead, they saw an astonishing estimated total of more than 700,000! It was a veritable river of warblers. 


The midwestern United States had one of the coldest Aprils on record this year. That was followed by the hottest May on record, in which Minneapolis posted its earliest ever 100 degree day on Memorial Day.


Burrowing Owls in a Silicon Valley park are dying and disappearing. A bit of investigation has traced the source of the owl mortality to the nearby Google campus which maintains feeding stations for feral cats in the neighborhood.


Numerous studies have documented a precipitous decline in the biomass of insect life in many areas. That this has not gotten the attention that it deserves may be due to the fact that the naturalists who study insects also are dying off. Apparently, insects are just not sexy enough to command the attention of today's naturalists.


The Rio Grande Valley region of Texas is a major ecotourism destination, and much of the economy of the area depends on it. Building a wall across the border between the state and Mexico would harm biodiversity on both sides and would adversely affect ecotourism and the economy of the Valley. 


Whiskered Auklet image from The Auk.

Nearly all seabirds migrate. A notable exception is the Whiskered Auklet which stays close to its home in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska right through the year.


China has placed a ban on recycling most foreign garbage. That has led to many American cities and towns sending items designated for recycling to landfills instead as they have nowhere else to send them.  


The eggs of some stick insects that are eaten by birds survive that experience and are excreted by the birds. The eggs then hatch in whatever location they've been dropped, thus assisting in the dispersal of the insects. 


One of the problems in aiding the survival of insect species is that we don't know enough about them or about what they need to survive. This is especially a problem in regard to the native bees of North America.


The small, flightless Wake Island Rail became extinct as a direct result of World War II


For the first time since the 1980s, Western Snowy Plovers are nesting in Fort Stevens State Park in Oregon. Conservationists had been trying for years to lure them back to the area where they once nested many years ago.


A new study has found that parasites impair the ability of seabirds to fly and to care for their offspring.


How Homo sapiens first came to America and populated the two great continents from the Arctic all the way to Tierra del Fuego has always fascinated me. So, I was interested to see the report of a new study of the DNA of early inhabitants that came out this week. The study indicates that those early inhabitants split into two distinct groups over 13,000 years ago and that they later merged once more.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Overstory by Richard Powers: A review

Trees compose the overstory on Earth; the rest of us lesser creatures and plants compose the understory. We humans in our arrogance and hubris designate ourselves as THE sentient beings. Little do we ken the emotional, intellectual, and social life of trees. We are only beginning to have the smallest inkling of how dependent we are - all of life is - on them.

Early in Richard Powers wonderful, monumental novel, there was this quote: 
"That's the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them, unseen. Right here, right next. Creating the soil. Cycling water. Trading in nutrients. Making weather. Building atmosphere. Feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count."
Our root problem is, once again, our hubris. We see ourselves as at the pinnacle of all creation and we can't fathom the idea of something greater than ourselves.

Trees, after all, are plugged in to the Earth itself. Their roots run deep and touch the living heart of the planet. Moreover, trees communicate with each other. They form communities that support each other. If a tree is under attack, it may call on that community for assistance. Otherwise, trees compete with each other for their livelihood and they take care of their offspring, even, in some instances, giving up their bodies as nourishment for those offspring. But trees are long-lived. Many live hundreds, even thousands, of years and their time frame reference is very different from that of humans. So, even though we are ancient relatives and trees do essentially everything that humans do, they do it more slowly; so slowly that we, in our frantic pace, cannot see it.

Richard Powers is not the winner of a genius grant for nothing and he must know that people will not read a novel about the lives of trees and so, in The Overstory he gives us people and tells the story of the trees through their interactions with these people.

We meet the Hoels, Norwegian immigrants in the mid-west who plant an American chestnut, that magnificent and doomed tree of the eastern U.S. They document the tree's growth with pictures taken on the 21st of each month. It becomes an inter-generational family project. 

Chinese immigrants, the Ma family, have a connection to the mulberry tree. It's a connection that pulls the oldest daughter Mimi Ma, a respected engineer, back into the company of trees in her later life.

There is Douglas Pavlicek, Vietnam War veteran. When he is shot down during that war, his life is saved by falling into the limbs of a centuries-old fig tree. Meanwhile, the son of Indian immigrants, Neelay Mehta, has a much less happy encounter with a Spanish oak in California.

Most endearing for me was the outsider (these are all outsiders) Patricia Westerford. She has a hearing and speech impediment and, as a child, she didn't fit in anywhere, except with her father, who taught her about plants and soil and many of the creatures of the understory. He trained her to look, to really see and she grew to become Dr. Pat Westerford who spent years alone in forests doing her research. Initially, she was mocked by her peers for her discovery of the sentience of trees but later she became celebrated for those discoveries. And later in life, she meets Dennis, a misanthrope like herself, someone who finally understands her and with him, she learns that a successful marriage can mean only one hour a day spent together.

These are just a few of the human protagonists that we get to know. There are a dozen or more in all. One might be excused for at first thinking of this book as a series of short stories about these people, but it is so much more than that. Eventually, all of them are connected, even as trees in a forest are connected, and their stories merge in ways that we, with our limited vision, could not have foreseen.
"The world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people..."
Well, Richard Powers has done the impossible. He has made the contest for the world compelling by showing it to us through the lens of the struggles of little, relatable human characters. The science is all there but it is translated and dished out to us in understandable bits. Brilliant!

I hope this book finds an audience. It needs to be read. Understanding it might just save our world. Not the planet - the planet will be fine - but our world, the world of human beings which, in the end, depends upon the continued survival and beneficence of trees.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars   


Monday, May 28, 2018

Dressed for Death by Donna Leon: A review

A dead body is found in a field near a slaughterhouse in Marghera, near Venice. At first glance, it appears to be one of the prostitutes who work the area around the abbatoir. But on examination, it turns out to be a man dressed in a woman's red dress and underwear and red silk shoes. The victim has been beaten about the head and face so badly that he is rendered unrecognizable.

When his gender is discovered, the assumption becomes that he is a transvestite prostitute and the investigation of the death at first proceeds on that theory. But you know what they say about assuming things...

It is the middle of August when all of this happens, vacation time for Italians. Commissario Guido Brunetti and his family have plans to escape the oppressive heat of Venice for two weeks on a refreshing trip to the mountains where, even in mid-summer, sweaters are required. Then he gets "the call." He has been assigned to head the investigation of this appalling murder. His wife and children go on to the mountains without him and he is stuck in the steamy, suffocating atmosphere of Venice trying to, first of all, learn the identity of the murder victim and then find out who killed him and bring that person to justice.

As the investigation proceeds, the body count mounts and Brunetti must once again wrestle with the corrupt bureaucracy of Italy where powerful people are able to buy the police and ensure the outcomes that they desire from government offices. Hmm...that does hit a bit too close to home. 

Brunetti, of course, will not be bought. He is an upright and honorable man who loves his wife and children and goes home at night to eat peaches and read from Tacitus' Annals of Imperial Rome. While his wife is gone, he cooks wonderful, healthy meals for himself and cleans up after himself. What a man!

I really like the characters of Brunetti and his family. This is the third book in the series and the third one I have read and I find my affection for the characters growing with each installment.

That being said, this particular entry was not my favorite. I think I was put off in part by the constant references to the oppressive heat and humidity. I do know something about oppressive heat and humidity. It's late May here and our daily temperatures in Southeast Texas hover in the upper 90s F with humidity to match. Working in the garden for an hour requires a complete change of clothes when one comes inside else one drips all over the floor and furniture. So, yes, I do understand the pervasiveness of that particular climatic feature and how it dominates every other consideration, and I can understand that the author felt the need to continually refer to it. I guess I just found that a bit of overkill since I was living it every time I stepped outside. Another reader might have a completely different reaction.

Donna Leon is a very good writer and this was certainly not a bad book. It's just that, on the whole, I found it a bit bland. 

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Poetry Sunday: Losses by Wesley McNair

Losses are a part of life and how we deal with them, one could argue, says just about everything anyone needs to know about the kind of person we are. 

I love the images of Wesley McNair's poem about loss, particularly the part about the widower who "can't stop reaching for the other side of the bed" until finally one odd afternoon...  
"watching something
as common as the way light from the window
lingers over a vase on the table, or how the leaves
on his backyard tree change colors all at once
in a quick wind, he begins to feel a lightness,
as if all his loss has led to finding just this."

Loss can teach us, if only we are open to learning.


by Wesley McNair

It must be difficult for God, listening
to our voices come up through his floor
of cloud to tell Him what’s been taken away:
Lord, I’ve lost my dog, my period, my hair,
all my money. What can He say, given
we’re so incomplete we can’t stop being
surprised by our condition, while He
is completeness itself? Or is God more
like us, made in His image—shaking His head
because He can’t be expected to keep track
of which voice goes with what name and address,
He being just one God. Either way, we seem
to be left here to discover our losses, everything
from car keys to larger items we can’t search
our pockets for, destined to face them
on our own. Even though the dentist gives us
music to listen to and the assistant looks down
with her lovely smile, it’s still our tooth
he yanks out, leaving a soft spot we ponder
with our tongue for days. Left to ourselves,
we always go over and over what’s missing—
tooth, dog, money, self-control, and even losses
as troubling as the absence the widower can’t stop
reaching for on the other side of his bed a year
later. Then one odd afternoon, watching something
as common as the way light from the window
lingers over a vase on the table, or how the leaves
on his backyard tree change colors all at once
in a quick wind, he begins to feel a lightness,
as if all his loss has led to finding just this.
Only God knows where the feeling came from,
or maybe God’s not some knower off on a cloud,
but there in the eye, which tears up now
at the strangest moments, over the smallest things.

Friday, May 25, 2018

This week in birds - #305

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

Clapper Rail with chick, photographed at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.


Every single month since February 1985 has been warmer than normal, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That's 400 months in a row. Anyone born after that month has never experienced a “cool” month for Earth, let alone a normal one.


Just to underline that point, dozens of people have died recently in Karachi, Pakistan from a suffocating heat wave that has paralyzed the city. On Monday, a temperature of 111.2 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded in the city, which is often referred to as a concrete jungle because it lacks large areas of plants or trees. And that, of course, is part of the problem. 


A long-delayed study of how rising sea levels might damage national parks has finally been released by the National Park Service after charges of scientific censorship.


Feral cats do inestimable damage to wildlife around the world, but Australia has found a way to protect some of their endangered species. They have built a cat-proof fence surrounding a 94 square kilometer sanctuary.


Image from Bird-the-Rock blog.

Purple Gallinules are wonderful birds that have become fairly common in wetlands around Southeast Texas, but you wouldn't exactly expect to find one in Newfoundland! The thing about birds, though, is that they have wings and those wings will sometimes take them to some very unexpected places. This one has certainly given the birders of Newfoundland something to cheer about recently.


The current administration in Washington is proposing to loosen federal hunting regulations in national parks in Alaska. The practices which were banned by the Obama Administration but which now would be allowed would include: taking any black bear, including cubs and sows with cubs, with artificial light at den sites; harvesting brown bears over bait; taking wolves and coyotes (including pups) during the denning season (between May 1 and August 9); taking swimming caribou; taking caribou from motorboats under power; taking black bears over bait; and using dogs to hunt black bears. Hunters would be able to shoot bear cubs and wolf pups in their dens.


According to a new study, it is likely that the asteroid that destroyed the dinosaurs also killed off tree-dwelling birds because the trees were destroyed. The researchers postulate that ground-dwelling birds survived the apocalypse and lived to generate the diverse avian species that we see today.


Light pollution is a serious problem for birds in North America because the lights can throw birds off their migration routes at night when many birds, especially small songbirds, migrate. And some of the brightest spots in this country are not the cities but oil and gas fields. The Revelator has a map that shows where the bright spots are.


In 2006 a team of paleontologists in Utah were examining the fossils of a large dinosaur when they discovered beneath its foot a tiny skull unlike anything they had seen in the areaNow, scientists have found that the fossilized cranium belonged to an ancient relative of modern mammals that once scurried around North America some 130 million years ago. The new species, called Cifelliodon wahkarmoosuch, is a member of an extinct group of animals known as the haramiyids, which some researchers think bridged the transition between reptiles and mammals.


Scientists in Europe have been studying White Storks with cellular tracking devices and, based on the data they have accumulated, they are able to predict which storks will migrate to Africa in autumn and which will remain in Europe.


Atlantic Puffins that breed in the Farne Islands have shown a drop in population that is concerning conservationists.

Atlantic Puffins on Farne Islands, image from BBC.


The most ancient bird species found had teeth. Why did succeeding avian generations lose them? A new study argues that it was Nature's way of reducing the time it took birds to form and mature in the egg, thus reducing the time to hatching


The Prairie Ecologist makes an argument for making species identification of plants more accessible to the masses. I second his motion!


Lead poisoning of birds and other wildlife continues to be a major problem around the world. This is primarily a problem for the "clean-up crew", the scavengers that consume carcasses of animals shot by hunters and left in the wild. It is an especially concerning problem in parts of Africa that are the habitat of endangered species of vultures. 


Coyotes are easily North America's most successful canid. They have conquered the continent and are now found in even the most unexpected places, including cities. And now they are heading south to colonize new areas. In 2010, they crossed the Panama Canal Zone and now they appear to be headed farther into the South American continent.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Nowhere to Run by C.J.Box: A review

After successively reading two relatively long and dense literary novels with complicated plots, I felt the need for something simple and undemanding. I thought of C.J. Box's Joe Pickett series.

This is actually the tenth book in that series. Hard to believe I've read that many; they all sort of elide together in the memory.

I like Joe Pickett and his family. He's an honorable man trying to do a job that he loves and believes is important. His wife and daughters are believable people with whom the reader can empathize. 

In the last novel, the Picketts learned that the foster daughter who they thought was dead was very much alive and living in Chicago in rather desperate circumstances. They brought her home but she has many problems emanating from her hard life and she is a disruptive influence in the family, constantly at war with her two sisters.

Joe had been sent away from his home and family for a year to be the temporary game warden in Baggs, Wyoming. At the beginning of this book, he's in his last week of that assignment and looking forward to going home. Somehow the reader suspects that this is not going to go off on schedule.

The first part of this book is a nail-biting thriller in which Joe comes up against two seemingly superhuman mountain men (brothers) who have been terrorizing the region and, most importantly from Joe's point of view, breaking game laws. When he tries to hold them accountable for their breaches of the law, their ruthless and violent nature is revealed. They follow him as he leaves their camp, eventually attacking him and his horses. They kill the horses, wound him, and take all his supplies. He's left with nothing but his service weapon and the clothes on his back.

Of course, Joe is used to surviving in the wild, so, in spite of his serious leg wound, he continues on his way down the mountain, even as he's being tracked by a pack of wolves - wolves that aren't supposed to be there. 

Eventually, he happens upon the cabin of a recluse woman who dresses his wound and shelters him. But then the crazy brothers, who are friends and protectors of the woman, show up and Joe has to escape out a back window and later watches from a distance as the three burn the cabin.

Okay. So far the story was an exciting, page-turning read, as we wonder how Joe is going to escape from another fine mess he's gotten into. But then the narrative takes a turn and becomes essentially a right-wing libertarian screed. Government bad! Mountain men good! Even when they terrorize the neighborhood and destroy other people's property, slaughter wildlife, attack a game warden just trying to do his job, and eventually kill at least four people. They just want to be left alone! And being left alone to do as one pleases is the highest good in this philosophy.

A great proponent of this philosophy is Joe's friend, Nate Romanowski, and most of the arguments for it are spoken by him, as were, in the last book, the arguments regarding denial of human-caused climate change. He finds a soul mate in the woman recluse on the mountain, both of them great fans of Ayn Rand, and we are treated to their admiring discussion of Atlas Shrugged and their denigration of European socialism. 

One suspects that C.J. Box, too, is an admirer of Ayn Rand and that his writing is influenced by her. He manages to get those arguments against government and any kind of regulation into every one of his books, and always - ALWAYS! - the law enforcement authorities from the local sheriff to the FBI are corrupt and only out to thwart the work of the only honorable man, Joe Pickett. Joe Pickett who strongly objects to being referred to as "the government man," even though that's exactly what he is.

I don't know. The plot of this book has holes that a herd of pronghorns could run through and I'm beginning to lose patience with Box, but then I've never read Atlas Shrugged so before I write him off completely, maybe I should read it. At the same time, I would encourage him to study the benefits of European socialism a little more closely and with an open mind.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars      

Monday, May 21, 2018

Macbeth by Jo Nesbo: A review

Shakespeare's Macbeth is his shortest tragedy and one of his shortest plays. Jo Nesbø's Macbeth, which is the latest in the Hobarth Shakespeare project in which modern writers are invited to reimagine one of the bard's works, goes on and on and on for nearing 500 pages of dense prose. It took me a full week of reading whenever I had the opportunity to finish it. Admittedly, I was occupied with other things as well, but still.

But the description of the book as 500 pages of dense prose is not meant to imply that it is in any way boring or not worth the trouble. In fact, it is a bit of a page turner in the Nesbø tradition of tightly plotted thrillers, but it is not an easy read.

Nesbø sets his reimagining of the classic in 1970s Scotland in a city that is never actually named but a couple of the reviews that I've read have inferred that it is Glasgow based on the description and the evidence presented. Apparently, Glasgow in that period was a pretty grim place fighting loss of jobs and rise in drug abuse with all the attendant problems that those two facts would suggest.

This Macbeth is told as a crime noir tale. This is a city that has been led by corrupt men out for their own empowerment and enrichment. It is mired in a mud made of that corruption that has encouraged gangs and drugs and the debasement and cheapening of human life and dignity.

In his play, Shakespeare didn't spend much time on the backstories of his characters. Nesbø, in contrast, is very interested in the psychology of the characters and he gives us a pretty complete picture of how these people came to be who they are. We learn, for example, that Macbeth and Duff (Macduff), who are now policemen, were orphans who grew up together in an orphanage. They were friends who looked out for each other, even to the point of one of them committing a murder to protect the other.

Lady, Macbeth's wife, was raped and became pregnant at age 13. She was unable to care for the baby, whom she named Lily, and dashed the child's brains out rather than see her suffer. This is the blood of the original sin that stains her hands and that she continually tries to wash away. She, almost inevitably it seems, became a prostitute and, from that position, the owner of a swanky casino, which was where she met Macbeth.

At the beginning, Nesbø's Macbeth is a good policeman in a corrupt system, doing his best to uphold the law and rid his city of crime. But soon enough his hunger for the power and success that promotion in the department will bring leads to his corruption. He becomes addicted to power as to a drug, but he's addicted to actual drugs as well.

The drug which here is called "brew" entraps Macbeth as it has so many of his fellow citizens. The entrepreneur who produces it, Hecate, becomes all powerful, in effect ruling the city. Hecate is opposed by a motorcycle gang that does its own drug dealing called the Norse Riders. These forces vie for control of the city.

So, as we expect, Duncan is killed, Banquo is killed but continues to haunt Macbeth, and the blood flows freely. Almost everyone in this story is ethically compromised in one way or another and yet the ending that Nesbø gives us offers a sliver of hope that if the brave stand together they can defeat the dark forces that seek to overwhelm them. It is a story that is relevant for our times. Perhaps our times are not so different from those of Shakespeare after all.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars