Saturday, August 31, 2019

This week in birds - #367

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

It's that time of year again. The time when our birds begin to look decidedly...disheveled. All their old worn feathers are falling away and they are growing shiny new ones for the coming season. This molting Northern Mockingbird does not look happy about the process, but in a few weeks, he'll be well-dressed again with every feather in place. 

*~*~*~*

Tongass National Forest in Alaska is the world's largest intact temperate rainforest. Nearly twenty years ago, the federal government imposed logging restrictions on it in order to preserve it and keep it intact. The current resident of the White House has now instructed his Secretary of Agriculture to exempt the 16.7 million-acre forest from those restrictions in order to allow it to be logged. 

*~*~*~*

And in other news of our government's stewardship of the environment, the administration has proposed a plan for loosening the curbs on methane emissions. Methane is a major contributor to the greenhouse effect that is heating up our planet. It is notable that many of the companies that would be affected by this and other of the administration's plans for cutting back regulations of the environment actually have opposed those plans.  

*~*~*~*

The famous sea otters of California beaches are facing a deadly new threat to their existence and it comes from cats. Toxoplasmosis is a disease that can affect cats and now scientists have confirmed that the parasite that causes the disease, Toxoplasma gondii, is making its way from cats to the otters and is the primary cause of up to 3 percent of the protected species that are found dead.

*~*~*~*

Help could be on the way for the Great Barrier Reef from an unexpected source. A giant 150 square kilometers raft of pumice that was spewed up by an underwater volcano near Tonga is expected to make its way to Australia where it could restock millions of tiny marine organisms, including coral.

*~*~*~*

Red-billed Tropicbirds spend their summers in the Lesser Antilles and other islands of the Caribbean. Except for one.


For the past fifteen years, this lone tropicbird has made its way 2,000 miles farther north to the Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine. The bird first turned up there in 2005 and has returned every summer since arriving in May and leaving in August. Obviously, a bird with a mind of its own who really likes Maine! 

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A worldwide collection of archaeological expects has reported in Science magazine that their evaluation of past land use indicates that the onset and spread of major human change to the global environment began at least 3,000 years ago, much earlier than had been thought. 

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Heat-related deaths have increased sharply in Arizona and Nevada since 2014. The annual number of deaths tripled between 2014 and 2017 in Arizona and increased fivefold in Nevada during the same period as the planet gets hotter.   

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Seagulls are survivors. They have figured out ways to coexist with humans by taking advantage of their sloppy behavior. And they have other admirable qualities as well, mainly as devoted parents. Both male and female gulls brood their eggs during incubation.

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The Karuk Tribe of California has a plan for combating climate woes and it involves prescribed burns of forests. It's a plan that fights fire with fire as the planned burns could prevent more deadly and costly wildfires.

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This is a Weka, a flightless bird of New Zealand. It is very efficient at spreading plants to new areas by eating their fruits and excreting their seeds. But those birds that spend most of their time hanging out around humans are not as good at their jobs. The variety of fruits that they eat is less diverse and they tend to not wander as much as others of their kind.  

*~*~*~*

The oldest yet known ancestor of humankind has been found in Ethiopia. The 3.8 million-year-old fossilized skull of Australopithecus anamensis is believed to be a direct descendant of Australopithecus afarensis whose most famous member was Lucy, who made the rounds of museums a few years ago. One of my most memorable experiences at a museum was visiting her when she came to the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

*~*~*~*

Raptors are still being persecuted in Great Britain. Last year the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds documented 87 confirmed incidents, but only one was successfully prosecuted. The crime also happens in Australia where recently 76 Wedge-tailed Eagles have been found dead of suspected poisoning.

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Also in Australia, researchers have introduced three dozen hybrid captive-bred Helmeted Honeyeaters into the Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve in an attempt to prevent the critically endangered bird from dying out due to inbreeding.

*~*~*~*

The human love of hiking in the wilderness is having a devastating effect on the elk herds of Colorado.

*~*~*~*

Any change to the environment generally has its winners and its losers. In the case of climate change's effects on the ocean, there are mostly losers but there are some winners, too.


Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal: A review

J. Ryan Stradal's popular first novel was called Kitchens of the Great Midwest. This second one might well have been called Kitchens of the Great Midwest With Pie and Beer, but the title-pickers decided on the more original The Lager Queen of Minnesota

The story centers around three women, sisters Edith and Helen and Edith's granddaughter, Diana. They are part of an incredibly bland Midwestern family, and, frankly, I had a hard time distinguishing between the three as I read their stories. I kept getting them all mixed up.

The story begins with Edith and Helen growing up together. Edith early on showed an affinity for baking pies. Helen was fascinated with beer. For her sixteenth birthday, all Helen asked for was a bottle of beer. When she opened her gift from her parents and found a bottle of root beer, she had a tantrum and threw the bottle through the kitchen window. Later in the day, Edith, who by then was 21 and married, went and bought four bottles of beer of four different brands and left them for her sister in a bucket of ice in the family garage. She asked her father to deliver a note under her sister's bedroom door (where she had spent the rest of the day pouting) directing her to come to the garage. Helen found the beer and was ecstatic because she thought her father had left them for her (he was the great beer drinker in the family). Helen never told her differently.

The sisters' lives diverged and they grew apart. The great break came in later years when Helen and her husband moved back to take care of her elderly widowed father after Edith and her husband had been caring for him for years. Helen took care of him at the end of his life and influenced him to make a will in her favor, leaving the family farm to her alone. Things were already difficult financially for Edith and her family and this was like a slap in the face to her. The sisters' relationship never recovered.

Helen used the money from the farm to invest in her husband's family brewery. Their destiny was to make beer together and they became quite successful at it.

Edith and her husband continued to struggle financially as they raised two children together. Family tragedies eventually left Edith alone to raise her teenage granddaughter Diana.  

I won't bore you with all the details of the plot. Suffice to say that through a series of circumstances, Diana, too, is shown to have an affinity for brewing beer and ends up with a small craft brewery of her own. And perhaps you can see where this is all headed.

I had several problems with this book. Mainly, the characters just didn't work for me. This is a book about women and their relationships, but I felt that Stradal didn't have a real grasp on how women think or about their intellectual and emotional life. His three women characters were just too perfect and they all felt unreal. I couldn't really get interested in what was happening to them.

Another part of the difficulty was the timeline, which was just...weird. It went from the 1950s to the present day and it kept skipping back and forth with different characters, making it hard to follow.

All the information about brewing beers and all the different kinds of beers was just overwhelming. If you care about such things then I suppose it could have been fascinating to you, but I am not that person.

All in all, I felt there was a kernel of a good book in there somewhere but this iteration was simply a mess. It was not a terrible book and there were certainly parts of it that I found enjoyable, but I think I am being very generous in giving it three stars.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
  

Monday, August 26, 2019

Inland by Téa Obreht: A review

I read Téa Obreht's first novel, The Tiger's Wife, in 2011 and found it wonderfully imaginative with beautiful writing. It was set in the homeland of the author's ancestors, the former Yugoslavia, and told the story of a young doctor, a pediatrician, who had been set on the course of her life's work by her beloved grandfather. He told her stories that were based on the folk tales of the area and that incorporated the supernatural and the superstitious. They were a major influence on her life.

Now, finally, Obreht has produced a new book that is every bit as beautifully written and imaginative as her first one and it, too, contains elements of folk tales that border on the supernatural, as well as the actual historical events of the area about which she is writing. But she's no longer in Eastern Europe. Her historical fiction now takes us to the American Southwest, mainly Arizona Territory in 1893. And again she has given us some truly unforgettable characters.

Lurie is a Middle Eastern immigrant to America, having been brought here as a child by his father. The two end up in Missouri in 1856. After a  brief hard life of trying to make a living for the two, the father dies, leaving his young child. Lurie lives for a short while with the landlady where they had been living but then she sells him to the coachman who collects dead bodies and he assists him with his work for a time. Eventually, he meets brothers, Donovan and Hobb Mattie, and they embark on a life as outlaws together. The two become Lurie's family, his "brothers", and even Hobb's death cannot separate them. Lurie continues to see Hobb, as well as others among the dead throughout his life.

The three young men make their way to the Texas Coast where they link up with an expedition that used camels as pack animals. It was headed by Edward Fitzgerald Beale, an actual historical character. Lurie felt an instinctive familiarity with the animals because of his Ottoman roots. He became a cameleer and traveled around the West for years in the company of a camel that he named Burke.

Meanwhile, in Arizona Territory, the Lark family had settled and was growing. Nora Lark is the mother of the family and it is her narrative that is told. Her husband is a newspaperman who, when we meet them, in 1893, has gone to buy water to bring to their farm. They are in a drought and water is scarce. He is overdue and the family is beginning to suffer, their available water almost gone. Soon, her two older sons also leave after a disagreement. They leave no word as to where they have gone. Nora is left behind with her youngest son, Toby, and her husband's seventeen-year-old cousin who lives with them and helps around the house. Oh, and also the shade of her daughter, Evelyn, who died at age five months many years ago but has continued to live and grow in Nora's imagination until she is now in her late teens. The cousin also communicates with the dead, or as she calls them the "other living". 

The narratives of Lurie and Nora transport us through this harsh, arid landscape and introduce us to the people of the area, the Navajo and Apache as well as the Mexicans who have lived there for centuries and ended up on the wrong side of the river when the border was established, and the narratives eventually converge in Arizona Territory in 1893. They also introduce us to the racism that always seems to simmer just under the surface of this country, occasionally boiling over. The consequences of that racism are often tragic, as they were for Nora.

This is a book that explores big ideas including the immigrant experience, the tragedy of racism, and the inevitable clash between a traditional way of life and "progress". As I was finishing up reading the book, I came across an interview that The Guardian had with the author and I was struck by a quote from that interview. Obreht said:
I thought I was writing a book set in the west in the 1890s and I didn't realize how much of it was going to align with this particular cycle that we've fallen into now. What it showed me was that cultural discourse in this country, as in many others, operates in cyclical ways. We go forward a little bit and then we fall back. We make some progress but also revert in these horrific ways to things we've been fighting against for hundreds of years. Human cruelty, human frailty, vanity, paranoia - their modalities change and maybe their tone changes a little bit from century to century, but, actually they stay the same. They're reptilian.
At least Inland and its author leave us with the hope that we may conquer the reptilian and make progress again.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Poetry Sunday: Peak Summer by Eric Nixon

We are certainly in "peak summer" here in Southeast Texas. The days are long, hot, and humid, and yet on some mornings when I first venture outside there is a breeze and a freshness to the air that promises an end to this our most unpleasant and longest season. "Hold on," it seems to say, "autumn is coming."

Peak Summer
by Eric Nixon
We’re steeped deep in summer
And everything around me
Seems to indicate it’ll never end
But still I’m spending time
Looking for the subtle signs
Trying to figure out when
We’ve reached peak summer
When the billion green trees
Start to dull ever so slightly
When the bounty of vegetables
Found at all the local farm stands
Start thinning in quantity and quality
When the Halloween candy
Appears in the supermarkets
And the Back To School! signs
Show up in the big box stores
When the sun sets a little earlier
And gets a little more noticeable
Each night, night after night
Until you start thinking about
How much daylight you’ve lost
All of the signs and all of the things
I’ve been noticing are telling me
That we’re right in the midst of
Peak summer and if I’m not careful
It’ll be completely over
And I’ll have missed it entirely
As the season folds into fall

Saturday, August 24, 2019

This week in birds - #366

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


It's not just the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that are passing through here on migration now; we're also getting Rufous Hummingbirds. I've seen females and first-year birds, like the one about to have lunch at one of my feeders, this week.  They sometimes have to contend with interlopers like that bee who is also having a sip.

*~*~*~*

The lungs of the Earth are burning. The Amazon rainforest, so essential to the production of oxygen and the sequestering of carbon dioxide, is ablaze with fires that have increased by 85% since the beginning of the year. Scientists cite three causes, all of them the result of human activity: (1) Deforestation, much of it illegal; (2.) Farming activities; (3.) Droughts that are being made more frequent by deforestation and climate change. The current president of Brazil is not inclined to do much to fight the fires since he wants to raze and develop the whole region, but he may be persuaded as various countries threaten to hold up trade deals with Brazil if it doesn't do more to protect the Amazon.

*~*~*~*

The plan by the current administration in Washington to essentially gut the Endangered Species Act has provoked plans by many conservation organizations to fight the good fight in court once again, and it has provoked editorials from newspapers around the country decrying the action of the administration. Here is one

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The triennial summit of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) convened last Saturday. It is considering greater protection for some species and will tackle disputes over some charismatic animals like elephants and rhinos, as well as some humbler ones like sea cucumbers that clean the ocean floors.

*~*~*~*

Scientists have long argued that drilling for gas and oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) would not be economically feasible, not to mention the irrevocable damage that would be done to that pristine environment. But the current administration is determined to go ahead anyway. However, they are finding that there might not be that much interest and that leases are likely to yield considerably less revenue than they have estimated. 

*~*~*~*
This little male Kentucky Warbler was recaptured and released recently at the Wehle Land Conservation Center in Midway, Alabama. The significant thing about that is that this bird had been captured and banded eleven years before. So we know the bird is at least eleven years old and that is a record for documented Kentucky Warblers.

*~*~*~*

The attempt by the administration to roll back emissions standards that were set in the Obama Administration has hit a snag. Car manufacturers are choosing to adhere to higher standards that are required by the state of California and other states that have followed its lead. 

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Using goats to clear brush and overgrown vegetation from an area is not a new idea, but ecologically friendly companies are now taking that idea and using it to provide a service and make a profit.

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Sea snakes are a diverse and poorly understood group of marine reptiles. They are threatened by development and researchers are working to gain a better understanding of them in order to save them.

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What is believed to be a first in 60 million years occurrence is taking place on the Isle of Wight. Cycads planted outdoors there have produced male and female cones as a prelude to reproducing. Botanists say the event has been triggered by a warming climate. 

*~*~*~*

Research on migrating birds shows that well-fed birds sleep better and they sleep with their heads forward, ready to take flight. Less well-fed and wearier birds sleep with their heads under their wings in order to conserve energy, but that also makes them more vulnerable to predators. 

*~*~*~*

Forest elephants — the smaller, endangered relatives of African savanna elephants — promote the growth of large trees that excel at storing carbon, according to research published in the journal Nature Geoscience. Thus, poaching them has the effect of not only disrupting the ecosystem and threatening biodiversity but also accelerating climate change.

*~*~*~*

Some of the very endangered Florida panthers have come down with a mysterious crippling disease. State wildlife officials are sharing videos of affected animals with the public in an attempt to try to identify the cause.

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Six young White-tailed Eagles have been released on the Isle of Wight in an attempt to re-establish the species in Britain. It is hoped that this reintroduction scheme will have the same success as the one that brought the eagles back to Scotland. 

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Last Sunday, I featured a poem about crickets. Now here is another appreciation of these interesting critters, musicians of the summer night.

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Climate change has both pluses and minuses for the Barnacle Geese of Svalbard. Earlier springs have benefits but they also increase predation.

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Los Angeles is planning to build the world's largest wildlife bridge over a 10-lane highway to reconnect different parts of the Santa Monica Mountain system in order to help save the mountain lions of the area as well as aid the ecosystem as a whole.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Telling Tales by Ann Cleeves: A review

Telling Tales is the second Vera Stanhope mystery by Ann Cleeves and it is every bit as wonderful as the first. Once again we are introduced to strong and believable characters and the indomitable investigator who is able to ferret out their deepest, darkest, most closely held secrets in the pursuit of her quarry.

In this instance, Inspector Stanhope is sent to Yorkshire to re-investigate a case that went badly awry. Ten years before, a fifteen-year-old girl, Abigail Mantel, had been strangled and her body left in a ditch there. The local police led by Inspector Caroline Fletcher had quickly settled on Abigail's father's lover, Jeanie Long, as the likely murderer. After all, Jeanie and Abigail had had a fractious relationship after Jeanie moved into the household and Abigail had only recently convinced her father, Keith, to toss Jeanie out. Moreover, Jeanie had been unable to provide a witness to prove that she had gone to London as she claimed on the day of the murder. She was charged, tried, and convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Jeanie never stopped asserting her innocence and she refused to accept responsibility for the death and feign regret and remorse which might have allowed her to be sent to a prison that allowed more freedom or possibly even allowed parole. Finally, despondent over the prospect of spending the rest of her life in prison, she had committed suicide. 

And then a witness came forward who was able to corroborate her alibi for the day of the murder. The witness had been out of the country and unaware of the murder.

Enter Vera Stanhope, tasked with reviewing the case and determining if there were missteps and a rush to judgment in the initial investigation.

Stanhope focuses her attention on Emma Winter who had been Abigail's best friend in the months before her murder. Emma and her family had only recently moved to the village of Elvet and, as an outsider, she had been befriended by Abigail. She had loved going to the rich home of Emma and her widowed father, so very different from her own strict religious household. Emma was on her way to that house when she discovered Abigail's body in the ditch. Later, she and her younger brother, Christopher, had watched from Christopher's bedroom window as the police swarmed the scene of the crime and as Abigail's body was removed.

Now, Emma is married to James and has a baby son. She is the very picture of a contented young wife and mother, but in fact, she fantasizes about her neighbor, a potter, as he works in his shed at night.

All of the residents of this quiet little corner of East Yorkshire seem to have guilty secrets, but are they the kind of secrets that might have led to murder all those years ago? Is the murderer still in the area or is he - or she - long gone?

Then, Christopher Winter, who has come to visit, ends up dead. He's been murdered and his body left in a ditch by the driveway to Keith Mantel's home where it is discovered by his mother, Mary.  

Because the memories of the first murder, as well as the suicide of Jeanie Long, have recently been stirred up by Vera's re-investigation, it seems likely that this latest murder is connected, but how? Trust middle-aged, overweight, shambling, blotchy-skinned Vera Stanhope in her shapeless dresses and open-toed sandals to find the answer to that question. And what a joy it is to watch her do it and to witness the final denouement where she explains it all. All the red herrings are tossed back into the sea and we are left with the flounder that tried to hide itself in the sand.

Brilliant!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Obama reading list

Former President Obama has continued his practice of sharing his summer reading list with us. It's always fun to compare his reading habits with my own to see where they overlap. His reading material tends more to nonfiction than my own, but it is refreshing to realize that he is also an enthusiastic consumer of great fiction.

His list last summer included only five books, three fiction and two nonfiction, and I had read (or planned to read) and enjoyed the three fiction and one of the nonfiction. I was gratified that we were so in sync.

This year's list contains works by eleven different writers, including, at the top of the list, the collected works of Toni Morrison, and our reading tastes are somewhat less in sync this year. I can only claim to have read one of Morrison's books, Beloved, which I read eleven years ago. I feel that I did not fully appreciate that book at the time and that I need to read it again. I would also like to read her other works.

Second on his list is The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Perhaps I will read Whitehead's works someday, but frankly, I'm just not up for it at this point. I've read the reviews of this and of Underground Railroad and I find that I just can't face the bleakness of either. That's my failing and weakness.

I'm not a big fan of short stories so it's not too likely that I will pick up Exhalation by Ted Chiang. As for Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, I read it YEARS ago, as well as Bring Up the Bodies, and I'm still waiting impatiently for her third book in the sequence. Haruki Murakami's Men Without Women is on my r(e)adar and I hope to get to it someday.

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson intrigues me and I've put it on my reading list and The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, a nonfiction book about what the internet is doing to our brains, seems like a book I need to read.  So does Lab Girl, a memoir by Hope Jahren about becoming a scientist and about her work with plants.

I'm currently reading Inland by Tea Obreht, but I'm not sure I'll ever read How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu or Maid by Stephanie Land.

So, there are six of the 11 on his list that I have read, am reading, or will likely read, plus possibly rereading Beloved and reading the other Toni Morrison books.

It makes me happy to know that President Obama still makes time in his schedule for reading and for sharing that reading with us, and it makes me long for a day when we can once again have a reader as president. 

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Poetry Sunday: Crickets by Sue Owen

Here are some of the sounds that I enjoy in the summer landscape: birdsong (of course!), frogs, cicadas, and crickets. Sue Owen, also, has an appreciation of the sound of crickets on a summer night. They inspired her poem. 

Crickets
by Sue Owen
Some summer nights you
can hear them getting all
worked up over this idea
of cheerfulness and song.
Deep in the grasses where
they hide, there is a need
to be heard in the darkness,
even if their voices are
so small they sound
like a door creaking on
its hinge, or the squeak
a drawer makes when
it opens up at last.
It seems as if the damp
air and dew are trying
to hold their song down
out of sheer gravity,
but neither dampness nor
darkness makes them stop.
In fact, the crickets like
to show off their song,
to let it lift up off
the earth the way that
all notes rise to the stars,
and float up through the
thick night, as if their
joy itself were the only light
we needed to follow.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

This week in birds - #365

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


The beautiful and sweet-singing House Finch was originally from the southwestern part of this country and down into Mexico and Central America. But through the years, it has expanded its range eastward and is now found in most of the contiguous 48 states. Where you see one House Finch you can almost certainly see another. They tend to travel in pairs and family groups. Here a pair wait for their turn at the feeder. 

*~*~*~*


The magnitude of the harm that would be done by weakening the Endangered Species Act as the current administration in Washington wants to do truly boggles the mind. This comes as there have been repeated warnings from scientists that the biodiversity on this planet is at risk and, indeed, that this ultimately poses a threat to the continued existence of humans. 


*~*~*~*


Well, that didn't take long. I reported here last week that the EPA was planning to allow usage of so-called cyanide bombs to kill wild animals. The problem is that these bombs kill indiscriminately, including any household pets that might be in the affected area and they can harm humans as well. A tremendous uproar of public condemnation followed the announcement and now the EPA has said, "Never mind! We won't do it."


*~*~*~*


Scientists have named the epoch in which we are living the Anthropocene, but where some epochs on Earth have lasted more than 40 million years, this one started just about 400 years ago and there is no indication that it may last long enough to qualify as an "epoch". Thus, some scientists are now arguing that this time dominated by humans should rather be classified as an event.


*~*~*~*


I don't usually feature opinion pieces in my roundup of environmental news, but this one by Timothy Egan about the robbery of our public lands struck me as particularly cogent and important.


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A human-sized penguin fossil from the Paleocene epoch (66 to 56 million years ago) has been found by an amateur paleontologist on New Zealand's South Island. 


*~*~*~*


Meanwhile, in modern-day news of penguins, two male King Penguins at Zoo Berlin have adopted an egg and are brooding it. Germans are watching and hoping for the hatching of the first penguin chick in the zoo in two decades.


*~*~*~*


Researchers in California are studying how coral reproduces, with the hope of being able to help give the threatened coral reefs of the world, as well as all the species that depend on them, a fighting chance at survival in a changing world.


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Since the end of civil war in Colombia, the country has thrown more resources into the fight against wildlife trafficking, especially that of songbirds. Conserving these animals is especially important to a country that is a desirable destination for ecotourists.


*~*~*~*


"The Prairie Ecologist" reminds us that grasses have flowers, too.


*~*~*~*


Extreme climate change has arrived in the United States, regardless of what the deniers say. The Washington Post has an interactive map whereby you can check what the average temperature rise in your area has been.


*~*~*~*


"10,000 Birds" has a post about the economic impact of birding on national wildlife refuges. The influx of birders to an area helps to create local jobs.


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It is estimated that there are less than 1,000 of these flowers, called purple fringeless orchids, in the state of Virginia, but recently a group of citizen scientists there discovered a previously unknown colony of the plants.

*~*~*~*


Introduced forest pests are cutting a swath of destruction across the forests of America. Scientists estimate that as much as 40% of forests are threatened


*~*~*~*

The waterwheel is a carnivorous plant that is a native to Australia, Africa, Asia, and Europe, but it is facing extinction in most of its native habitat. However, it has found its way into New York's streams and they may represent its best chance for survival. 

*~*~*~*

Many bird species are known as prodigious travelers in migration. Add to that list the Northern Wheatear. Tracking devices have revealed that these birds that spend their summers chasing insects in Alaska travel all across Asia and Europe in migration to spend their winters in Africa. It's a trip of some 9,000 miles, perhaps the longest of any songbird.  

Friday, August 16, 2019

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok: A review

Searching for Sylvie Lee is a tragedy wrapped in a mystery. Sylvie Lee is the older daughter in a family of Chinese immigrants to America. Her life in this country and with her parents has been complicated. When the family first came to America, the parents soon realized they were not equipped to take care of baby Sylvie because both had to work to survive and they had no family here to help them. So, they sent Sylvie back to her grandmother who had emigrated to The Netherlands and was living with a cousin and her husband there. Sylvie spent the first nine years of her life in the care of her grandmother.

Only then did her mother return to The Netherlands to claim her and take her back to America. By then, her parents had had a second daughter, Amy. Part of the bargain for having Sylvie rejoin her family was that she would help to care for Amy. But that was okay because she adored Amy and Amy adored her.

Sylvie had many problems to overcome, but she became a super-achiever. She was a Princeton undergrad and got an M.B.A. at Harvard before going on to a very successful career. She married a man from a rich family, a family which bought the newlyweds an apartment in Manhattan as a wedding gift. Sylvie was living the golden life.

Amy, meantime, was a bit of a late bloomer and was trying to find herself and decide what to do with her life. Their parents both continued to work hard. Then, a call came from The Netherlands. Grandma was dying. The family, especially Sylvie, needed to come if they wanted to say goodbye. Ma wanted to go and see her mother but Pa insisted that she stay. In the end, only Sylvie made the trip to see the people she had lived with for nine years and to be with her grandmother.

But while she is there and after the death of her grandmother, Sylvie disappears. She had packed her bags and the family assumes that she has returned to the United States. Only when Amy speaks to them asking about her sister do they begin to realize that Sylvie is missing.

This story is told to us by three narrators: Sylvie, Amy, and Ma. As we hear their different perspectives, it slowly becomes obvious that the family did not know Sylvie at all. They did not understand the torments she went through to make a successful life and they did not know that that life had fallen apart. Her marriage had failed and she had lost that high-powered job she had. She was hanging on by her fingernails but had not felt able to confide in anyone.

And so the idea of searching for Sylvie takes on a double meaning; Amy goes to The Netherlands and searches for her sister's physical being, but the search also involves uncovering who that sister really was. No spoilers here, but the mystery is all about secrets and the lies we tell ourselves and those close to us. Does anyone ever really know another human being? 

Jean Kwok is a gifted writer. This is her third book but the first one of hers that I've read and I found it quite engrossing. There was one thing that bothered me and that was the conversations between characters. Perhaps the conversations were meant to capture the difficulty of conveying the essence of a language such as Chinese or Dutch translated into English, but they just seemed stilted and a bit offputting to me and that hindered my enjoyment of the narrative. Other than that rather minor quibble, I found nothing to complain of in a very absorbing read.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
   

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - August 2019

What's blooming in my zone 9a Southeast Texas garden this August? Here's a look.

Sunflowers, of course.

Crape myrtles, ditto.

Wedelia, a rampantly growing ground cover.

 Coral vine.

 Crinums.

 Hamelia patens, aka Mexican firebush or hummingbird bush.

 Lantana.

 Ornamental potato vine.

 Vitex, aka chaste tree.

 Evergreen wisteria.

Autumn sage, Salvia greggii.

 Butterfly ginger.

 Jatropha.

Texas sage, blooms of which are triggered by rain, or, in this case, the sprinkler.

 Esperanza, aka yellowbells.

Ruellia 'Chi Chi'.

Blue plumbago.

 Turk's cap, 'Big Momma'.

 Rudbeckia 'Goldstrum'.

 'Pride of Barbados'.

 Cestrum.

 Milkweed.

 Cypress vine.

 Justicia 'Orange Flame'.

 Water lily.

What's blooming in your garden this month? If you leave a comment, I'll be able to visit and find out!

Thanks to Carol of May Dreams Gardens for this monthly meme and happy Bloom Day to all.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Marilou Is Everywhere by Sarah Elaine Smith: A review

Here is yet another remarkable first novel. Sarah Elaine Smith is a published poet and I think it shows in the vivid prose of this book, but this is her first work of fiction. It is a work of empathy and compassion for the flawed characters within it. Even when they behave badly or stupidly, their creator enfolds them in her generous understanding and, with that, she encourages her readers toward the same attitude. "See?" she seems to say, "they are only human and they are doing the best they can, just like all of us."

Her narrator is a 14-year-old outsider named Cindy Stoat. Cindy lives with her two older brothers, Virgil and Clinton, in a ramshackle house in rural Pennsylvania. The father is absent. They have a mother but she comes and goes and is seldom on the scene. The electricity has been turned off because of unpaid bills. They are basically on their own and frequently hungry.  They live a feral existence. (Shades of Where the Crawdads Sing!) 

They have neighbors named Jude and Bernadette Vanderjohn. Jude is the teenage daughter of Bernadette. When Jude was fourteen and Virgil was a senior in high school, they were a couple. They called themselves Marilou and Cletus. Now Bernadette has descended into alcoholism and has only a tenuous grasp on reality. Jude is a popular teenager with a wide circle of friends. When she disappears after a weekend with some of those friends, her mother doesn't even realize she is gone. Her friends miss her and call the police but the trail is already cold.

Virgil takes it upon himself to check on Bernadette daily and, after a while, Cindy goes along with him. She is overwhelmed by the riches contained in Bernadette's house, especially books. She had been an inveterate reader of catalogs because they were all that were available to her. Now she has access to actual books! Riches beyond her wildest imagination.

Then a strange transformation begins. The confused Bernadette starts mistaking Cindy for Jude. Finally, Cindy plays along with her and pretends to be Jude.

But what of the real Jude? What has happened to her? Is she even still alive? That is the mystery at the heart of this story. And what will happen to Cindy and her brothers if the mystery is solved?

Smith had me from the very first of this novel right through its ending. Her prose gives the reader entry into this strange but tender world. From the beginning, we feel a part of it and we understand Cindy's feeling of being an outsider and never quite being good enough. We understand her longing to be like Jude and finally to be Jude. It is, as I said in the beginning, a remarkable accomplishment in a first novel.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Poetry Sunday: Small Kindnesses by Danusha Lameris

My older daughter brought this poem to my attention last week and it proved to be just the antidote I needed for a week of truly horrible and depressing events. As I read it, I could feel the gloom lifting just a little and leaving that crack by which the light gets in, as Leonard Cohen once wrote.

I think, in the end, if there is anything that will save us as a species, it might be those small kindnesses that we do for each other; the things that we do automatically without thinking because we know in our deepest heart of hearts that they are the right things to do. Because "Mostly, we don't want to harm each other", and that sentiment may be "the true dwelling of the holy". 

Treasure those acts and those moments.

Small Kindnesses

by Danusha Lameris

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”