Monday, January 29, 2018

Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon: A review

In 1992, Donna Leon's first mystery featuring Commissario of Police Guido Brunetti was published. Since then, she has written twenty-six more, the twenty-seventh one due for publication in March. That is remarkable prolificacy of more than one book a year. If they all provide as pleasurable a read as the first one, Death at La Fenice, I can certainly understand the popularity of the series. 

This was recommended to me because I enjoy reading mystery series and several of the series that I have been following for years are ending, or else I am overtaking the writers and waiting impatiently for them to produce their next book. So I have vacancies in my reading schedule that need filling. Enter Guido Brunetti/Donna Leon.

All of these mysteries are set in Venice where the author, born in America, has lived for many years. The city itself is a major character, or at least it was in this first book. Some of the best parts of the book are the writer's descriptions of the city, its atmosphere, and its effect on people. I've noticed this is true of most of the novels that I've read that are set in Italy. Elena Ferrante's Naples springs readily to mind. Not that I'm really comparing Ferrante and Leon, two very different writers, except insofar as the sense of place in their novels is such a strong factor in their stories.

Leon's protagonist, Guido Brunetti, is a particularly attractive and likable character. He is happily married to a woman who comes from an old (and rich) Venetian family. They have two children, a teenage son and a younger daughter. Brunetti goes about his work in a very low-key, methodical manner, and the story is told through his viewpoint so we learn information and sift through clues along with him. After his work day, Brunetti goes home to his wife and family and plays Monopoly with them.

In Death at La Fenice, Brunetti is called to the famous opera house where a legendary conductor has been found dead in his dressing room after the second intermission in La Traviata, the opera that he had been conducting. It is apparent that the man had been poisoned by potassium cyanide that was in a cup of coffee that he drank. 

The show must go on, so the back-up conductor carries on with the program while Brunetti and his team get on with the investigation.

The investigation quickly reveals that, even though the dead conductor had been a talented musician of peerless reputation, as a human being he had been a particularly nasty piece of work. The deeper that Brunetti gets into his investigation, the nastier the news of the victim gets.

There is no shortage of candidates who would potentially have wanted to kill the man, from his much younger third wife to old acquaintances from his years as a supporter of the Nazis during World War II. Brunetti has his work cut out for him in trying to puzzle out just what happened and we get to follow along and listen to his thought processes.

This really was an entirely enjoyable read. Not only do the characters seem real, the plot is tight and fast-moving, and the writer displays a felicitous use of language. At one point, she refers to the "fury of frightened people," a phrase which found me nodding my head in recognition. And again, in describing a piece of music she says it is an example of the "repetitive nature of Vivaldi." Now, I do love me some Vivaldi but that phrase is just the perfect description of his music!   

I'm already looking forward to my next visit with Guido Brunetti. 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  


Sunday, January 28, 2018

Poetry Sunday: Exit by Rita Dove

I was peddling my stationary bike and looking out on a gray, dreary January day while listening to music by the Eagles, when the lyrics from one of their songs sent my mind veering off on a tangent, considering the life of a certain famous woman who shall be nameless. 

The song was "Lyin' Eyes" and the lyric that started me thinking goes, in part: "She wonders how it ever got this crazy...  Ain't it funny how your new life didn't change things? You're still the same old girl you used to be."

She's a woman whose life, at least from the outside, looks sad, tangled, and humiliating. Maybe that's not a true picture; for her sake, I hope not. But I was pondering how easy - or how hard - it might be for her to escape her situation. What she needs is a visa granting her passage out of the life she currently inhabits and into a new beginning.

And then I sat down to pick a poem for this week and this is the first thing I saw. Karma!


by Rita Dove

Just when hope withers, the visa is granted. 
The door opens to a street like in the movies, 
clean of people, of cats; except it is your street 
you are leaving. A visa has been granted, 
'provisionally' - a fretful word. 
The windows you have closed behind 
you are turning pink, doing what they do 
every dawn. Here it's gray. The door 
to the taxicab waits. This suitcase, 
the saddest object in the world. 
Well, the world's open. And now through 
the windshield the sky begins to blush 
as you did when your mother told you 
what it took to be a woman in this life. 

Friday, January 26, 2018

This week in birds - #290

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

Little Blue Heron posing for the camera. (Photo by Bob Borders.)


It's all very well to say that the planet is getting warmer, but, of course, the important thing is what it's like where you live. Did it get warmer or cooler in your city last year? Find out with this database from AccuWeather. 


We know that our cast off plastic has become a major pollutant of our oceans, but now it turns out that those bits of plastic can also carry infections. And those diseases are helping to destroy the coral reefs. 


It has long been known that animals living in colder regions of the world tend to have larger bodies. But does a warming planet mean that animals will adapt by getting smaller? That is one conclusion of a new study published in The Auk which theorizes that birds may become smaller as an adaptation to hotter climates.


The latest Red List of Threatened Species lists 222 species of birds that are now considered critically endangered, putting them one step above extinction. Overall, 13 percent of the world's bird species are now considered threatened.


At a time when most park staff were furloughed because of the government shutdown, tourists on snowmobiles went into off-limits areas at Yellowstone National Park, getting much too close to geysers including Old Faithful. 


The first wolf in a hundred years has been verified in Belgium. This is just the latest sign of the swift repopulation of Europe by the predator. Last year a breeding pack of wolves was documented in Denmark, the first in that country for 200 years.


The endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker is endemic in this area and nests a few miles from my home. In other parts of the South, it persists but survival is still a struggle. It is being aided in North Carolina by a program called Safe Harbor that was set up by the Fish and Wildlife Service to encourage private landowners to take steps that would benefit the little woodpecker.


The last verified sighting of the Eastern Cougar subspecies occurred some eighty years ago and now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has officially declared the animal extinct and has removed it from the endangered species list.


The cabbageworm is the caterpillar of an imported butterfly commonly called the Cabbage White. It is a bane of the vegetable gardener's world. One way to discourage it has been to take advantage of what had been thought to be its territorial instincts, but new research indicates that those instincts are not as strong as had been thought. So, gardeners who eschew the use of pesticides may have to find other ways of combating the pest.  


A study in the Sacramento area has shown that songbirds, unsurprisingly I think, show a distinct preference for native oak trees rather than non-native imported trees. 


The struggle continues to save the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge from the plan to build a border wall straight through the heart of it. A rally against that plan will be held at Alamo, Texas on January 27.  


Photo by Roger Eriksson.

Piping Plovers are a small endangered shorebird and a recent Michigan State University study indicates that changes are needed in management strategies if the bird is to be saved from a growing predator population.


The wolf population of Isle Royale National Park in Michigan now stands at two. There have been calls by the research group that studies the wolves to bring in other animals from the mainland to boost the numbers and help maintain the balance of the prey animals like the moose. 


A world registry of invasive species has been launched amid concerns that governments are not doing enough to tackle the rising threat to biodiversity of globalization. It is hoped that the new catalog – unveiled in the journal Scientific Data on Tuesday – will become a pillar of international efforts to fight extinction alongside the “red list” of endangered species.


Elephants, it turns out, are very scared of bees and conservationists are using that fear to try to steer the animals away from potentially deadly conflicts with humans. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

1984 by George Orwell: A review

In 1984, the world has been carved up between three superstates: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. In Oceania, which includes the Americas and Great Britain, there is a province called Airstrip One and in that province (formerly Great Britain) is the city of London where the action of the novel takes place.

The three superstates are essentially identical in their societies and forms of government, and so, of course, since they have no differences, they are perpetually at war with the aim of controlling all the face of the Earth. Oceania's foe may be Eastasia this week and Eurasia next week, but the war itself never ends.

Oceania's political ideology is called Ingsoc in Newspeak, the English language as reinvented by the government. The government is overseen by an entity called Big Brother, whom no one ever sees, and the ruling class is the Inner Party which seeks to stamp out individualism and independent thinking with their Thought Police whose duty is to root out and punish "thoughtcrimes" (Newspeak).

Below the elite Inner Party members are the Outer Party members who are the middle class of society. This comprises the bureaucrats who serve in four different government bureaus: the Ministry of Peace, which deals with war and defense; the Ministry of Plenty, dealing with economic affairs, rationing, and starvation; the Ministry of Love, in charge of law and order, as defined by torture and brainwashing; and the Ministry of Truth, which is in charge of news, entertainment, education, art, and propaganda. The protagonist in 1984, Winston Smith, works in the Ministry of Truth (Minitrue in Newspeak).

Finally, at the bottom of the heap of society are the proles (proletariat), representing 85% of the population. They are the uneducated working class.

As we get to know Winston Smith, we learn that he is not an admirer of Big Brother and that he is seeking a way to rebel against the constraints of the totalitarian government. In the face of omnipresent surveillance by the government, this is almost impossible. Miraculously, Winston is able to meet and fall in love with Julia, a woman who works in the fiction department at the Minitrue, and their relationship supplies the impetus to try and resist Big Brother. 

But their efforts are for naught. They are caught and taken to the Ministry of Love (Miniluv) where they are tortured, brainwashed, and eventually renounce each other. Considered "cured," they are released back into society. The last chilling words of the novel, referring to Winston, are: 
”But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
Reading 1984 in 2018 America is a surreal experience. It often seems that one is reading a newspaper rather than a novel published in 1949. Big Brother's slogans seem eerily familiar.

  • "War is peace": Oceania engaged in perpetual war as a distraction for the populace. It was a way of giving the population a common enemy and so keeping peace - or at least order - in the country. Our country has been at war since 2002, with no end in sight, and it is considered sacrilege, treasonous even in some quarters, to suggest that we should be spending money elsewhere - our crumbling infrastructure, for example - to make our country stronger. Distraction complete.
  • "Freedom is slavery": If people have freedom to act and think and control their bodies, they will make bad decisions, become enslaved by vices, be ruled by sentiment and emotions. This, the Party said, was slavery. If the Party controls bodies and actions, it actually sets people free, i.e., they don't have to think for themselves. Think of the strenuous efforts currently being made to control what women are able to do with their bodies and how they make choices about their health care.
  • "Ignorance is strength": People were encouraged to accept as fact everything that the Party told them, without using rational thinking. They must believe and never question! If Big Brother tells you black is white and 2 + 2 = 5, believe it! After all, Big Brother would never lie. And anyway, who needs science or math? Who needs data and observable truths when you have "alternate facts"? Why should we need rational thinking when we have the benevolent "1 percent" (who only have our best interests in mind) to run things?
When I read this book in my youth, I was somewhat bemused by Orwell's theme. Today, I find it frightening and depressing. He was prescient in so many things. It is not a fun read, but it is certainly one that we should take seriously in the present political climate.
“The best books... are those that tell you what you know already.”

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Recommended reading

I do read other things besides books. Here's a bit of what I've been reading lately, some of which you might find interesting.

  • Philip Roth announced his retirement from writing in 2012. He was near 80 at the time. Six years later he has stuck to his retirement pledge, but that doesn't mean he's stopped observing with the eyes of a writer or that he's quit having opinions about what's happening. He shared some of his thoughts with The New York Times.
  • More from The Times: I always look forward to Gail Collins' columns, at least partly because she usually manages to find some humor in things even at the darkest times. In a column this past weekend, she argued that even though Hillary Clinton lost, the future is hers: "It’s 2018, a big election year, and women are going to be running everywhere. We’re sort of astonished by the numbers, but not by their ambition. They’ll be elected to city councils, state legislatures and Congress and hardly anyone will give their gender a second thought. That’s Hillary’s gift."
  • Margaret Atwood is always worth listening to and it seems that she's never been more popular, what with the successful adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale for television and now Alias Grace as well. To The Guardian, she denied that 2017 was her fault and says, "I am not a prophet. Science fiction is really about now."
  • Texas saw its maternal mortality rate more than double between 2010 and 2014, as the state closed more than half of its abortion clinics and severely cut funding for Planned Parenthood. Thanks to Texas and a few other states with strong “pro-life” lobbies, mostly in the South, the US now bears the ghastly distinction of having the highest maternal mortality rate of all the world’s wealthy democracies. Barbara Ehrenreich argues that those who claim the mantle of pro-life are actually pro-death.
  • Zadie Smith has a lot of fans and some of them are famous. She answered questions from some of them, as well as some unfamous people, for The Guardian.  
  • Here's a mind-numbing but mesmerizing read. Once I started, I found I had to go straight through to the end, but I warn you it is appalling and you need a strong stomach. 
  • If you feel the need of a rinse-off after that, Jill Abramson tells us that even after the year we've just been through, there is still hope amid the horror
  • Finally, Elena Ferrante has started writing a weekly column for The Guardian and her first column is about first love.
Since I have given up broadcast news because of its vacuousness, I find that I spend a lot more time reading in order to keep up with what's going on in the world and that the world is a more interesting place. 

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Written World: How Literature Shaped Civilization by Martin Puchner: A review

In the beginning was the word and the word created everything that came after. Today we live in The Written World, a civilization shaped by literature.

In this fascinating book, Martin Puchner takes us on a trip through time to show us how the world that we know today was brought into being by story-tellers. The stories that they told were first shared through an oral tradition, handed down from one poet/singer, such as Homer, to another. The need to preserve the stories and pass them on helped lead to a system of writing and finally to methods of printing and distributing those printed texts. Inexorably, step by step, the first texts printed with wooden blocks have led us to digital "printing" and the Kindle on which I read this book. More than four thousand years of world literature have brought us to this.

Puchner explores the ways in which literature has created our modern civilization by introducing us to the foundational texts and the visionaries that have been central to that creative force. Through sixteen chapters, he details the stories of sixteen of these foundational works.

The beginning was more than four thousand years ago in Mesopotamia with the Epic of Gilgamesh. It was printed in cuneiform on clay tablets and was discovered in the mid 19th century by Austen Henry Layard near what was thought to be the site of the ancient city of Nineveh and is today the city of Mosul, Iraq. It told the story of the king Gilgamesh and the wild man Enkidu who became his friend. At the center of the story was the tale of Utnapishtim, the survivor of a great flood which covered the earth. This was the antecedent and precursor of all other great flood stories. 

From this first great epic, Puchner moves on to Ezra's Hebrew Bible to Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and to the teachings of the Buddha, of Confucius, Socrates, and Jesus, all of whose teachings were collected and written down by others and all of whom helped to shape the societies in which they lived.

Finally, we get to the first great novel in world literature, The Tale of Gengi, which was written by a Japanese woman known as Murasaki, and from there to the story of Scheherazade and her One Thousand and One Nights.  

I was particularly interested in Puchner's exploration of literature in the New World, specifically that of the Maya. It is in many ways a tragic story. So much of Mayan literature was lost to destruction by the Spanish conquerors and most particularly by Diego de Landa who burned many of the codexes. But it is also a story of the courage and determination of the Maya who managed to hide and save some of their heritage, including their own great foundational text, the Popul Vuh

We also meet the creator of the modern novel form, Miguel Cervantes, and learn that he may have been the first victim of intellectual property theft when literary pirates published a fake sequel to Don Quixote. Cervantes engaged in a long and costly fight to protect his creation.

There is also the compelling story of an epic tale of West Africa called Sunjata. Like Homer's Iliad, it was preserved in an oral tradition, possibly for centuries, before it was finally written down. 

Puchner moves us swiftly on through world literature from Benjamin Franklin to Goethe to the Communist Manifesto and even to the present time. He visits Derek Walcott, a few years before his death, and discusses his great epic, Omeros, a foundational text for the Caribbean.

And finally, he discusses J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter stories and shows how she, too, used the form of the foundational text in creating these stories.

This summary barely scratches the surface. I found this book completely captivating. Puchner keeps the narrative moving with chronicles of the inventions which accompanied each advance in literature, as well as the philosophical, political, and religious ideas that sprang from that literature. For the dedicated reader, this book goes far toward explaining why we read and why we cannot imagine a world without books.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Poetry Sunday: Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats

The book that I was reading last week referenced this poem and so I had to go back to the source and read it once again. I had first read it long, long ago in another lifetime in my English literature class. It didn't have a lot of meaning for me then; it was just words. These days it is a lot more relevant to me.

Yeats wrote it when he was around 60 years of age and he was, perhaps, beginning to feel some of the aches and pains of "old age." He was writing metaphorically about the spiritual journey of one seeking eternal life and the work of the imagination that is required to continue as a vital individual even when the heart is "fastened to a dying animal" (the physical body). He says that aging is "no country for old men," or as a modern philosopher has stated it, "Aging is not for pussies the fainthearted!"   

Sailing to Byzantium

by William Butler Yeats

That is no country for old men. The young 
In one another's arms, birds in the trees, 
—Those dying generations—at their song, 
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas, 
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long 
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies. 
Caught in that sensual music all neglect 
Monuments of unageing intellect. 


An aged man is but a paltry thing, 
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless 
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing 
For every tatter in its mortal dress, 
Nor is there singing school but studying 
Monuments of its own magnificence; 
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come 
To the holy city of Byzantium. 


O sages standing in God's holy fire 
As in the gold mosaic of a wall, 
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre, 
And be the singing-masters of my soul. 
Consume my heart away; sick with desire 
And fastened to a dying animal 
It knows not what it is; and gather me 
Into the artifice of eternity. 


Once out of nature I shall never take 
My bodily form from any natural thing, 
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make 
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling 
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake; 
Or set upon a golden bough to sing 
To lords and ladies of Byzantium 
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

This week in birds - #289

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

We don't get Pine Siskins (seen with one lone American Goldfinch) here every winter. Last winter I didn't see a single one. But this week we have had some unusually cold weather with temperatures in the teens on a couple of nights, and all of a sudden there they were! Pine Siskins at my bird feeders along with all the other finches, sparrows and warblers. In fact, before this week, I had not had very many birds at my feeders this winter, but with the super cold weather, they were looking for an easy meal where they wouldn't have to expend energy to obtain it. And I was happy to provide it.


On Thursday, NASA scientists ranked 2017 as the second-warmest year since reliable record-keeping began in 1880, trailing only 2016. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which uses a different analytical method, had ranked it third, behind 2016 and 2015. The numbers were somewhat unexpected because last year had no El Niño, a shift in tropical Pacific weather patterns that is usually linked to record-setting heat and that contributed to record highs the previous two years. In fact, last year should have benefited from a weak version of the opposite phenomenon, La Niña, which is generally associated with lower atmospheric temperatures. Instead, it ranked with the hottest years on record.


In spite of the warming climate, in the northern hemisphere recently, the weather has been unusually cold. Even here in the South. In fact, temperatures were so cold Wednesday morning that the 64-degree Gulf of Mexico was literally steaming. Meteorologists call it “sea smoke” but it’s the exact same science as a boiling pot of water or your steamy breath on a cold day. Cold, dry air meets warm water; water evaporates into air until it can’t hold any more; water vapor condenses and steam forms.  


The Christmas Bird Counts in Southern California this season will give clues as to how birds react after wildfires. The area covered by the Ventura count had at least half of its count section burned by wildfire, so it should be especially interesting.


In May 2015, over a period of three weeks, two-thirds of the world's endangered saiga antelopes, some 200,000 animals, suddenly dropped dead. Since then, scientists have been trying to figure out why. It turns out that the culprit was a bacterium that is normally harmless, but in warm and humid conditions, it turns deadly, and the places where these animals died were unusually warm and humid in May 2015. One more warning from Nature as the planet heats up.


More on the warming front: Alaska is rapidly heating up and some climate scientists suspect that the warmer temperatures there are contributing to the extremely cold temperatures experienced this winter in the lower 48 states. This is because the north/south temperature difference is one of the main drivers of the jet stream. The jet stream creates the high- and low-pressure systems that dictate our blue skies and storminess while also steering them. Bottom line: It is steering colder weather south. Of course, scientists being scientists, others disagree with this analysis. 


In the area where the Glines Canyon Dam was removed from the Elwha River in Olympic National Park, birds are helping to restore the landscape by carrying and dropping seeds of native plants there.  


More than three-quarters of the members of a federally chartered board advising the National Park Service have quit out of frustration that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had refused to meet with them or convene a single meeting in the past year. The resignation of 10 out of 12 National Park System Advisory Boardmembers leaves the federal government without a functioning body to designate national historic or natural landmarks. It also underscores the extent to which federal advisory bodies have become marginalized under the present administration. Sadly, this Interior Secretary may be doing irreparable damage to our system of public lands. At best, it will take years to repair the damage already done. 


Nate Swick asks, "Are Snow Buntings North America's hardiest songbird?" A long-term study has shown that they are perfectly adapted to survive extreme cold. A question for the future may be, how fast can they adapt to warming temperatures?


Post-wildfire logging can be inimical to the needs of the endangered Northern Spotted Owl because it reduces the number of snags which they prefer. 


In spite of their devastated landscape, continuing power outages, and destroyed buildings, birders in Puerto Rico banded together to do Christmas Bird Counts as usual. The final results of the counts may provide a clearer picture of the status of the birds there.


A new NASA study confirms that the spike of methane in the atmosphere correlates closely with increased fracking to extract petroleum products from the ground.


Other new studies are underway to track how climate change is affecting freshwater lakes and rivers


"The Prairie Ecologist" wonders why bison historically behaved the way they did, wandering over the prairie. There's a fairly well-accepted theory. The PE offers an alternative.


Invasive non-native predators have been a bane for New Zealand and for many islands. A determined effort to eradicate them has borne fruit. Since a park in Wellington got rid of those predators and fenced out rats, stoats, and other such critters, rare indigenous birds have returned to the city.


Image courtesy of The New York Times.

Count the meadow vole as one creature who appreciates a blanket of snow to insulate him from the cold.


Ever wonder why geese and other large birds often fly in a V-shaped formation in migration? Wonder no more! 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Rat Catchers' Olympics by Colin Cotterill: A review

Dr. Siri Paiboun and his posse are on the loose again, headed for another adventure. This time in Moscow at the 1980 Olympics.

Dr. Siri and his wife Madame Daeng, nurse Dtui, and Siri's best friend Civilai are all drafted to accompany Laos' Olympic athletes as managers, medical personnel, or chaperones and to travel with them to the great event. Laos had never competed in the Olympics before, but, in 1980 when the games were held in Moscow, many countries, including the United States, boycotted them because of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan; consequently, the Soviet Union had invited many smaller countries to participate and fill out the bill. Laos enthusiastically agreed.

Not that the little nation had many Olympic-caliber athletes or even the smallest hope of taking home a medal. They were just delighted to be asked.

In the end, they were able to put together a rifle team from their military, boxers, and a track and field - well, mostly track - team. Their enthusiastic supporters loudly cheered their every move and became something of a phenomenon among the Olympic audience.

It's all great fun until Siri begins to sniff a distinct odor of rat. He suspects that one of the Olympians is not who he says he is and he fears a conspiracy and a potential assassination. Liasing with his policeman friend, Phosy, back in Vientiane, he tries to get to the bottom of things, but the picture gets murkier and murkier.

Then, one of Laos' boxers is arrested for murder. A woman in whose company he had been seen is found brutally killed and an "Asian" was seen leaving her apartment, and as Madame Daeng says, "Asians is Asians," meaning that to Russians they all look alike.

Siri and his gang are sure that the boxer is innocent, but how to prove it to the Soviets?

Through all of this, the games continue and the Laotian contingent continues to compete and their cheering section continues to whoop it up on their behalf.

Meantime, the news from Vientiane is not good and Siri is more sure than ever that something big is being planned and not a good thing.

It is always a pleasure to be in the company of Siri and his friends. They are a quirky bunch of cynical misfits but they are true to their culture and, in their own way, faithful to the ideals of the revolution that they fought for.

Dr. Siri is in his 80s now but doesn't seem to be slowing down at all. Let's hope there are many more adventures to come and I hope to be there to read them all!

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - January 2018

Zero. That's the number of blooms in my garden this month. In my zone 9a garden in Southeast Texas, it is definitely Garden Bloggers' No Blooms Day. 

Much of the garden looks very much like this clump of lemongrass. It isn't dead; it's only sleeping. But it is sleeping very soundly at the moment.

The reason for all this brownness is that we've actually had winter this winter. In our last winter, we had two days of below freezing temperatures. The winter before that we had NO days of freezing temperatures. So far in the winter of 2017-18, we've had THREE TIMES as many days of freezing weather as we had had in the last two years combined. And we are expecting more temperatures in the 20s Fahrenheit this week. All of that and we actually had snow on one day in early December. This qualifies as a harsh winter for us. (Don't laugh, all you Northerners!)

This is all I can show you in the way of "blooms" this month.

The white yarrow by the pond still has buds and looks like it might actually provide a bloom soon. 

Likewise the Carolina jessamine - only buds so far.

In the wildflower bed, the sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), whose identity I was confused about last Bloom Day, is still sending out its sweet little blooms.

Fortunately, there are other things for me to look at in the garden. Birds, for instance.

House Finch.

Pine Warbler.

Red-bellied Woodpecker.

And, of course, American Goldfinches.

My garden is resting and so have I been, but that's about to change. It's cleanup time, beginning with some pruning this week. Got to get ready for all that new growth. Spring comes early here and it quickly morphs into summer.

But meanwhile, for a little time, I can sit on my favorite bench and meditate with my favorite little buddy.

He's not bothered about winter!

Happy Bloom Day! I hope you have blooms where you are and thank you for visiting my bare, brown garden this month.

Don't forget to visit Carol of May Dreams Gardens as well and see all of those gardens that do have January blooms to show you.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Poetry Sunday: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost

It just seems the perfect poem for the middle of January when much of the continent is covered in snow.

We are well past the "darkest evening of the year" now, or at least the darkest evening of the season. Every day the light lasts just a bit longer, but still we have "miles to go" before spring arrives.

And let us not be distracted by the lovely woods - we have "promises to keep." Let us resolve to keep them.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

by Robert Frost (published 1923)

Whose woods these are I think I know.   
His house is in the village though;   
He will not see me stopping here   
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

This week in birds - #288

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

A couple of Snow Geese foraging for food at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.


2017 was the third warmest year for the contiguous United States since record keeping began in 1895, behind 2012 and 2016, and the 21st consecutive warmer-than-average year for the U.S. (1997 through 2017). The five warmest years on record for the contiguous U.S. have all occurred since 2006.


Moreover, with three strong hurricanes, wildfires, hail, flooding, tornadoes and drought, the United States tallied a record high bill last year for weather disasters: $306 billion. The U.S. had 16 disasters last year with damage exceeding a billion dollars, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Monday. That ties 2011 for the number of billion-dollar disasters, but the total cost blew past the previous record of $215 billion in 2005.


Noise pollution from oil and gas drilling in western deserts is being blamed for disrupting the reproduction of birds and causing Western Bluebirds to hatch fewer chicks than they historically did.


Outbreaks of botulism among waterfowl have become more frequent and widespread in recent years, causing scientists to study the cause. The botulism has been linked to warming waters and the growth of algae, yet another effect of global warming.


The first year in office of the current administration has been a boon for the coal industry, with the  rolling back of regulations on coal-fired power plants and withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate change agreement. It seems that the administration has been following a blueprint from the coal industry, specifically a wish list of environmental rollbacks that Robert E. Murray of Murray Energy gave the president just weeks after his inauguration. This, after he had donated $300,000 to the inauguration.


The use of rat poison to control pests at marijuana farms in California is having a detrimental effect on the endangered Northern Spotted Owl as well as other predators in the area. When they capture and eat rats or mice that have been poisoned, they ingest the poison in the carcass, which can result in their death. 


"The Prairie Ecologist" celebrates the diversity, beauty, and secret lives of grasshoppers.


North America's fresh waterways are becoming saltier and that could create big problems. Cities dump ice-melting salt on their roadways in winter and when the ice melts and runs off into streams, it carries that load of salt with it, eventually making rivers and streams saltier and more alkaline with harmful effects on the greater ecosystem. 


Too many Florida panthers are being killed by encounters with traffic. The animals are unable to reproduce fast enough and in sufficient numbers to offset these unnatural deaths, all of which makes the endangered species even more endangered


A federal appeals court in San Francisco has upheld a plan by wildlife officials to kill invading Barred Owls in order to study the effect on the endangered Spotted Owl. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Wednesday that the experiment by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service didn't violate a federal law protecting migratory birds. The court says that law doesn't prevent killing one species to advance the scientific understanding of another. In recent years, the more aggressive Barred Owls have expanded their range and moved into the territory of the more timid Spotted Owls. The USFWS arrived at the plan to kill some of the Barred Owls as a means of protecting the endangered species. 


A rare Ivory Gull from the Arctic was discovered and documented at Lake County Fairgrounds in Grayslake, Illinois last week. These birds are not often seen south of their Arctic home.  


"The Afternoon Birder" has a project going to warm the heart of any birder/reader. She's planning a "Big Year" of reading about birds. She will read at least twelve books, one per month, about birds and birding.


Last week, the administration announced plans to open up virtually all of America's coasts to oil drilling leases.  After complaints from Florida's Republican governor Rick Scott, Interior Secretary Zinke announced that Florida would be exempted from this dramatic expansion of drilling. Now, other governors and attorneys general concerned about drilling and its potential effect on the environment, beaches and tourism industry, which is worth billions of dollars, are asking why Florida is so special and vowing to wage a fight against new drilling, in court if necessary.


North America and much of the northern hemisphere has experienced extremely cold weather in recent weeks, but, in fact, these cold snaps are much less common than they used to be and they are warmer on average. Scientists say that a cold spell like this one is 15 times rarer than it was just a century ago.


Under new rules that went into effect this month, Ohio has taken the drastic step of outlawing the sale and distribution of 38 species of destructive, invasive plant species. The list will limit plant selection available to nurseries and landscape artists, but it’s a small price to pay compared to the cost of having to instruct professional landscapers and the public that some species do more harm than good.