Sunday, February 23, 2020

Poetry Sunday: February by Margaret Atwood

Winter is winding down where I live, but it seems to be readying one last blast for us. We are expecting some quite cold temperatures this week as February ends.

Margaret Atwood understands February:

   February, month of despair, 
   with a skewered heart in the centre.

And she understands cats and life:

    It’s all about sex and territory, 
   which are what will finish us off 
   in the long run.

Here is Atwood's take on February.


by Margaret Atwood

Winter. Time to eat fat
and watch hockey. In the pewter mornings, the cat,
a black fur sausage with yellow
Houdini eyes, jumps up on the bed and tries
to get onto my head. It’s his
way of telling whether or not I’m dead.
If I’m not, he wants to be scratched; if I am
He’ll think of something. He settles
on my chest, breathing his breath
of burped-up meat and musty sofas,
purring like a washboard. Some other tomcat,
not yet a capon, has been spraying our front door,
declaring war. It’s all about sex and territory,
which are what will finish us off
in the long run. Some cat owners around here
should snip a few testicles. If we wise
hominids were sensible, we’d do that too,
or eat our young, like sharks.
But it’s love that does us in. Over and over
again, He shoots, he scores! and famine
crouches in the bedsheets, ambushing the pulsing
eiderdown, and the windchill factor hits
thirty below, and pollution pours
out of our chimneys to keep us warm.
February, month of despair,
with a skewered heart in the centre.
I think dire thoughts, and lust for French fries
with a splash of vinegar.
Cat, enough of your greedy whining
and your small pink bumhole.
Off my face! You’re the life principle,
more or less, so get going
on a little optimism around here.
Get rid of death. Celebrate increase. Make it be spring.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

This week in birds - #390

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

Purple Martin image courtesy of All About Birds website.

The Purple Martins are back. They began arriving back in our area around the end of January. First to arrive are the scouts, adult males like the one in the picture above. The adult males are followed by the adult females and first-year birds. The martins are among the first of our summer residents to return to the area and they are generally among the first to leave. Most of them are gone from here by July 4. In the eastern part of the continent, martins are now entirely dependent on nest boxes erected by humans, a tradition that goes all the way back to early Native Americans. In the west, the birds still sometimes nest in natural cavities.


In this election year, it is worth noting that a majority of Americans surveyed said that dealing with climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed ranked protecting the environment as a leading policy priority. However, this masks a deep partisan divide on the issues with Democrats overwhelmingly citing the issues as important and Republicans much less concerned. 


Extreme weather made news in widely separated areas of the globe this week. Britain has been battered by two successive big storms that have dumped torrents of rain and have caused flooding, landslides, and misery in many parts of the country. Meanwhile, in Mississippi, heavy rains in the central part of the state have swamped the Ross Barnett Reservoir north of Jackson and the overflow has pushed the Pearl River over its banks, forcing evacuations. 


Throughout the South, spring is arriving weeks early this year, encouraging plants to wake up and to bloom. This could be a problem since the area is still vulnerable to late frosts for a few more weeks.


Temperatures are steadily rising around the world, but the trend isn't spread evenly geographically or throughout the seasons. The cold places on Earth are heating up much faster than the warmer spots and the winters are warming up faster than summers. This is creating a cascade of unpredictable impacts in communities throughout the country.


Restoring the Bobwhite Quail to the Chesapeake Bay area has had an unexpected benefit for the conservation of the bay itself.


There are areas of the Appalachians that have been devastated by "mountaintop removal" by energy companies trying to get to the minerals underground. Such practices completely destroy the ecosystem of the locale, but scientists are now recommending a way to restore that ecosystem. Essentially, it involves planting trees. Lots of them.


And speaking of restoration, Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon has given her support to a plan to remove four dams from the Snake River in order to help preserve and increase the salmon runs.


A five-year study of the impact of reintroducing beavers to the English countryside has concluded that the benefits of such a plan outweigh any problems that might be created. 


A well-preserved frozen bird carcass that was found in permafrost in Siberia has been determined through DNA testing to be a Horned Lark. The bird is from 46,000 years ago. 


Africa has long been a thunder and lightning hotspot, but with the planet heating up, the continent is experiencing bigger and more frequent and severe lightning storms, like the one that recently killed four rare mountain gorillas in Uganda. 


As the assault on clean water regulations continues at the federal level, some states will be hit harder than others by the effects of the removal of the environmental safety net.


Black-throated Blue Warbler photo by Kyle Horton.

A study of the Black-throated Blue Warbler confirms that the little bird has shifted the timing of its spring and fall migrations over the past fifty years.


Increasing periods of drought and rising temperatures are decreasing the flow of the Colorado River, a 1,450-mile waterway on which millions of people depend.


As the EPA finalizes plans to roll back rules that cut the emissions of mercury and other toxins, utility companies are opposing the changes as unnecessary and unreasonable.


A recently published genetic study of bats in the Philippines indicates that there may be more species of those critters there than was previously believed.


A scientific model suggests that birds have been migrating for much longer than had been thought. It seems that they were migrating during glaciation periods and that their migrations shifted with climate change. 

Friday, February 21, 2020

Nothing More Dangerous by Allen Eskens: A review

"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

It often seems that we are afflicted with an epidemic of sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity in our public life these days, but Allen Eskens reminds us that this is not a recent development. The ignorance/stupidity movement has deep roots in our society.

He takes us back to 1976, to the little town of Jessup, Missouri and shows us life there through the eyes of fifteen-year-old Boady Sanden. Boady is a freshman in high school and has been enrolled by his mother in St. Ignatius High School, the local private Catholic school. He left behind all of his friends in the public school he had attended and he is an outcast in the new school. He is either ignored or bullied by the St. Ignatius kids.

Boady lives with his widowed mother (his father died in an accident when he was five years old) who works as bookkeeper for a drywall hanging company. They live next door to a mysterious man named Hoke who moved in about ten years before. Even living next door to him for ten years they know little about his history but he is a kind and intelligent man who serves as a kind of surrogate father to Boady, teaching him skills that he needs in life and also gently guiding him on an ethical path.

Boady and his mother and Hoke are all white and the community where they live is rife with racial hatred against black people. Jessup even has its own group of wannabe Ku Klux Klanners called CORPS (Crusaders of Racial Purity and Strength). When an African-American woman named Lida Poe who was the bookkeeper for the area's biggest employer disappears along with about one hundred and eighty thousand dollars of the company's money, the stage is set for conflict and suspicion. Moreover, when the Minneapolis headquarters of the company sends an African-American manager to sort things out at the Jessup factory, the CORPS faction is outraged.

The new manager moves with his family to Jessup and into a newly renovated Victorian house just next door to Boady and Hoke. It turns out that the family consists of parents and a son just Boady's age and, although the two boys get off to a shaky start, they soon bond as friends and become inseparable, sharing adventures in the woods adjacent to their homes. Their relationship had a To Kill a Mockingbird vibe for me with Hoke as a stand-in for Atticus Finch. (We finally learn that Hoke was a defense attorney in his previous life.)

On one of their adventures in the woods, the boys make the gruesome discovery of a body buried under a log. Lida Poe had not left town with embezzled money after all. 

The story then becomes a murder mystery, which the local sheriff, an ambiguous character - is he a good guy or a bad guy? - seems not too eager to investigate. The reasons for that may have something to do with the fact that he is related to some of the CORPS members.

This is essentially a coming of age story with very relatable characters as the protagonists. It is well-written with the plot and the motives for certain characters' actions revealed slowly over time. The plot is constructed in such a way to keep the reader's interest and to keep those pages turning. It was a pleasurable reading experience. I had not read any of Allen Eskens' books before, but the man can write. My only complaint is that the plot did seem a bit derivative, but it tells an important story and reminds us of the truth of that quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars   

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anaparra: A review

In a slum in an unnamed city in India, something terrible is happening. Children are disappearing and the police can't be bothered. After all, the people who live in this slum are the poorest of the poor. They are worthless in the eyes of society, so why should the police exert themselves on their behalf? Frantic parents beseech the police and offer them whatever bribes they can scrape together to try to get them to act. But none of the children are found and others keep disappearing.

Nine-year-old Jai lives in this slum with his older sister and hardworking parents. He is an indifferent student at the local over-crowded public school. His best friends are Pari, a whip-smart girl who loves studying, and Faiz, a Muslim boy who works hard to help his family. (No doubt any resemblance to Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley is purely coincidental. Or maybe not.)

When the first child disappears, it is a boy from Jai's school, a neighbor of his. Jai is addicted to true crime shows on television and he has learned (he thinks) investigation techniques from watching those shows. He decides that since the police are not acting, he will do some "detectiving" on his own. He engages Pari and Faiz in his scheme and they wander around the community searching for clues.

Then another child from their school disappears. And the toll continues to mount.

At first, the lost children are all Hindu, and religious hatred being what it is, Muslims are suspected as the culprits. Eventually, the police do actually arrest a Muslim man on scant (read no) evidence and throw him into jail where he languishes. As more children go missing.

The Purple Line of the book's title is the railway that runs through the slum. Jai steals some money from his mother and he and Faiz go on a rail trip with the excuse of looking for clues. But they find no trace of any of those who have gone missing.

There seems to be no pattern to the disappearances. The children range in age from five to sixteen and are both boys and girls. What could be the purpose of their vanishing? Could it be, as Faiz suspects and Jai wants to believe, a djinn who is playing tricks?

This is an incredibly troubling story to read because it is based on fact. As the author explains in her note, some 180 children disappear without a trace in India each year. A former journalist in that country, she had reported on the disappearances and had attempted twenty-eight years before to write this novel but it just never came together. In the intervening years, she wrote other books, but this one continued to niggle at her memory and conscience until finally, she was able to complete it. She did so brilliantly in my opinion. 

Her most brilliant stroke was in making the nine-year-old Jai and his friends her main focus. Seeing the disappearances through the eyes of these children gives them added poignancy and lets us see just how confusing the world can be to such children.

In addition to the crimes against children, the writer also brings home to us, if we needed to be reminded, the powerlessness of women and of the lowest class in India. And in one particular chapter, she gives us a glimpse of another horror that is too often visited on the women and girls of India: that of brutal gang rape. She makes clear to us the terror that girls and women feel if they must be out on the streets alone, particularly at night, but even in broad daylight. As I said, this is a very disturbing read.

The writer did an excellent job of description in setting the scene of events. I felt myself there in that slum and living as the slum-dwellers live, and my overwhelming reaction was disgust with the filth, the ever-present choking smog, the lack of privacy. And also empathy for these people who are, after all, my brothers and sisters who have no choice but to live like this. I also felt white-hot anger at the uncaring bureaucracy, particularly the police who are unworthy of that name. But also, there is admiration for the strength of the people, their sense of community as they try to help and support each other, their resilience in the face of tragedy. The children, especially, are undaunted and confront their world with humor and swagger and a conviction that they are important and that things will turn out all right. In other words, they are like children everywhere. 

I think Anaparra's twenty-eight-year wait was worth it. She has delivered a gem.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Poetry Sunday: Winter: Tonight: Sunset by David Budbill

Winter sunsets can be particularly colorful and impressive and they can remind us of how lucky we are to be here, to be alive at just this moment and to be able to enjoy a sunset. David Budbill celebrates such a moment in this poem.

Winter: Tonight: Sunset
by David Budbill
Tonight at sunset walking on the snowy road,
my shoes crunching on the frozen gravel, first
through the woods, then out into the open fields
past a couple of trailers and some pickup trucks, I stop
and look at the sky. Suddenly: orange, red, pink, blue,
green, purple, yellow, gray, all at once and everywhere.
I pause in this moment at the beginning of my old age
and I say a prayer of gratitude for getting to this evening
a prayer for being here, today, now, alive
in this life, in this evening, under this sky.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - February 2020

Spring may not have quite sprung in my zone 9a garden outside of Houston but it is definitely peeking over the windowsill and bringing with it quite a few blooms. 

 This is the antique rose 'Old Blush'.

 And the 'Peggy Martin' rose.

The daffodil Narcissus tazetta

 Leucojum aestivum.

 The cyclamen have been blooming all winter.

 As have the violas, aka Johnny-Jump-Ups.

And the pansies.

 My waxed amaryllis plants finally bloomed after three months. I don't think I'll be purchasing any more of these. I prefer potted varieties.

The Carolina jessamine, Gelsemium sempervirens, has bloomed gloriously all month.

 Turk's cap, Malvaviscus arboreus, is an ever-bloomer.

Plectranthus 'Mona Lavender'.

Purple oxalis, Oxalis triangularis

Loropetalum chinense

 Solanum luxum, ornamental potato vine.

 I recently bought this 'Bright' hibiscus at one of the big box stores. I planted it.

 And a couple of days later I checked on it and this is what I saw. Yes, there were actually two separate plants in the pot. Two for the price of one.


 And more dianthus.

 Snapdragons, Antirrhinum majus.

Lonicera sempervirens, coral honeysuckle 'Major Wheeler'.

As in most recent winters, we have a female Rufous Hummingbird making itself at home in our yard. She is very grateful for all the blooms, especially the honeysuckle and also for the feeder filled with sugar water that supplements her diet. 

How are things in your garden as winter winds down, or as summer winds down if you are in the southern hemisphere? The changing of the seasons is always an interesting time for gardeners. In my own garden, I'm finishing up with pruning and winter cleanup, moving several of my plants to areas where I think they will be happier, and adding some new plants to the garden. It's good to be out and about and getting my hands dirty again.

Happy gardening and happy Bloom Day to all, especially to our host, Carol of May Dreams Gardens.

Friday, February 14, 2020

This week in birds - #389

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

A windblown American Goldfinch visits a crape myrtle still bearing its seeds. Goldfinches and other members of the finch family love these seeds and spend a lot of time in winter munching on them and later spreading the seeds around the yard. In recent winters, our backyards have been alive with goldfinches and sometimes their cousins, Pine Siskins. Not so much this year. I have only seen very small flocks of the birds in my yard. The same goes for Cedar Waxwings. Instead of flocks in the hundreds that we've had in past years, there are flocks in the tens this year. Is the warming climate encouraging them to stay farther north in winter?


This is the weekend of the Great Backyard Bird Count when birders report the location, species, and numbers of the birds that they observe. It's a way for citizen scientists to participate in helping scientists to track where the birds are in mid-winter. It's fun and free and here's how you can participate


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officially announced that January 2020 was the hottest January on record with a global temperature averaging 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th-century average. NOAA's records go back for 141 years.


And in Antarctica where the record for one day's hottest temperature (65 degrees F) was set just last week, that record has now been broken with a temperature of 69.3 degrees F on February 9. 


A hotter Antarctica is bad news for many of the penguins that live there, including the continent's most numerous species, Chinstraps. Scientists say that Chinstrap Penguins nesting on Elephant Island number less than half as many birds as were there fifty years ago. They believe that climate change is a big factor in the decline. 


Wolf OR-54 image by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Sad news regarding the female gray wolf originally from Oregon that had traversed some 8,700 miles in northern California and Oregon in the last two years looking for a mate. Conservationists searching for her after her tracking device went silent have located her carcass. The circumstances of her death are being investigated.


And even more sad news about an endangered species: Four mountain gorillas have been killed, apparently by a lightning strike, in Mgahinga National Park in southwest Uganda, according to conservationists.


Elsewhere in Africa, the bad news is locusts. Unseasonable rain linked to a climate-change-driven event in the Indian Ocean has created perfect conditions for the swarms of locusts and they are invading Ethiopia and Kenya by the billions. 


A new study by University of Miami researchers confirms that the toxic reach of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico extended much farther than has previously been acknowledged. I don't think that will be a surprise to anyone who lives near the Gulf Coast.


This is an image of a hummingbird called the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest. The population of the species is vanishingly small. It lives in the northernmost mountain range in Colombia, which it shares with the indigenous Kogi tribe that has called the area home for centuries. Both the people and the bird are imperiled


Some of the world's most endangered mammals live on the island of Madagascar. They are lemurs and the main danger to their continued survival is loss of habitat. One species in particular, the ruffed lemur, seems to be especially affected by human activities that are degrading the habitat.


Big discoveries by the fossil hunters: (1) A tyrannosaur that is older than T. Rex and other famous members of the family was found in Canada. The bones were actually found some time ago and sat in a drawer in a museum until they were recognized for what they are. The bones are 79.5 million years old. (2) And then there is the recent find of the fossils of car-sized turtles that once roamed in what is now Venezuela and Colombia.


A Yemeni birder and wildlife photographer who had lived in New York for twenty-two years and had faithfully reported to yearly check-ins with immigration officials was summarily deported on January 28 without allowing him to contact his family or his lawyer. He went to the scheduled check-in and was not allowed to return home or to contact anyone.


Grizzly bear deaths have increased dramatically in the millions of acres in and around Glacier National Park. Trains, cars, and poaching have all contributed to the fatalities raising concerns about the future of the grizzly population in the area. 


In addition to all the other devastation caused by Hurricane Dorian to the Bahamas, a significant amount of damage was done to the coral reefs in the area.


Voters are saying that climate change is one of their major issues this year. The Climate Leadership Council hopes to use that expressed concern to prod politicians to institute a carbon tax. Carbon dioxide emissions comprise most of the greenhouse gases that are warming the Earth and these economists, politicians, and corporate executives believe they can get agreement from all sides to address the problem in this way. To which I can only say, good luck with that. 

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Weather by Jenny Offill: A review

I had been looking forward to the publication of this book since I first read about it a few weeks ago. I had preordered it on my Kindle. When it was delivered this week, as luck would have it, I had just finished reading another book and so I pounced on it.

I read Weather essentially in one sitting, something I almost never do. True, it is a short book, just over 200 pages and it was raining outside that day and so my other preferred activities were limited. But the main reason for the quick read is that the writing is propulsive. Each paragraph or section leads one inexorably to the next. 

The format of the narrative is somewhat like a diary. Each entry could almost be seen as discrete, standing on its own, and yet each entry also encourages the reader to read on, to see what is coming next.

The narrator of the novel is Lizzie Benson, who abandoned her graduate studies to take care of her drug-addicted and depressed brother. She never returned to those studies, but with the intervention of one of her previous professors, she obtained a job as a college librarian, in service of which she becomes a fount of useless (or maybe extremely useful) information. For example, various survival strategies; such as did you know that you can use a can of oil-packed tuna to generate two hours of light if you don't have a candle? And you can still eat the tuna afterward! 

Lizzie is married to Ben, a gentle classics scholar, a PhD who makes educational video games for a living and who finds joy in reading the Stoics. Lizzie and Ben live in New York and they have a son named Eli who is in first grade at a predominately East Asian public school.

Also integral to Lizzie's life are her brother, Henry, who she is still trying to save and her mother who lives in another city but drops strong hints that she would like to live in the same city as her children, possibly in the same apartment with her daughter. Her hints are ignored. And then there is Sylvia, the professor who helped Lizzie get her job and who is now a well-known public intellectual for whom Lizzie does some work in dealing with social media. 

These are the people who mainly comprise Lizzie's universe. Her narrative addresses her relationships with them. That narrative is sardonic and insightful, darkly funny and often laced with paranoia. 

The time of the novel is the present. Much of the action takes place after the 2016 presidential election and the paranoia grows in direct proportion to national events and the feeling that the center cannot hold. There is anxiety about climate change and the rise of right-wing autocrats in the world, including in this country. Lizzie and Ben start looking for a "doomstead," some place where they can escape from the horrors that seem increasingly sure to overtake us. Canada, perhaps?

I find it almost impossible to sum up this novel or to adequately describe its sardonic humor. Maybe it's something that you just have to experience to appreciate it. All I can say is I loved the book and I highly recommend to anyone who may be feeling a little worried and insecure about the direction in which world events appear to be headed. Jenny Offill understands.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars      

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins: A review

Mexico is my next-door neighbor. I live in an area that is made immeasurably richer culturally by Mexican immigrants and people of Mexican heritage. My neighbors, friends, and, yes, employees are some of those people. For those reasons, I was particularly interested to hear about this book. And then shortly after I first heard of it, it seemed the book world exploded along a strict dichotomy of opinions; either it was a "new American classic" or it was a rank example of cultural appropriation and whitewashing.

At that point, I tried to distance myself from all the hoopla about the book. I wanted to read it myself and make up my own mind.

By now it seems that the plot of the novel is perhaps too well known to have to recount it here, but briefly: Lydia Quixano PĂ©rez is a bookstore owner with a comfortable life in Acapulco, living with her husband who is a journalist and her beloved son, Luca. One day a man comes into her bookstore and purchases some books that are among her favorites. They get into a conversation about literature and eventually bond and become friends over their mutual love of books. What naive Lydia fails to realize is that her new friend is the head of a drug cartel that is terrorizing the city. Her husband writes about these people and as a result of that writing, members of the cartel invade a quinceanera celebration at their home and kill sixteen members of Lydia's family, including her husband and mother. Only Lydia and Luca escape the carnage by hiding in a bathroom. Realizing, somewhat belatedly, that their lives are in danger, Lydia makes the decision to head north to join the flow of migrants to the United States. The greater part of the novel relates that journey with all the horrors and tragedies experienced or witnessed by Lydia and Luca.  

The great objection to the novel, I gather, is that the author is not Mexican and does not seem to have any real connection to that culture. She even addresses this herself in her author's note, wherein she also details the research that she did.

I guess I don't really understand the cultural appropriation complaint. Isn't this what writers do? Yes, I do know the dictum "write what you know" but this would certainly limit the scope of many writers. Are they not allowed to use their imagination and research? Are white people not allowed to write about brown people? Are brown people not allowed to write about white people? Can one only write about something one has personally experienced? Can only survivors of the Holocaust write about the Holocaust, for example? That just seems like a specious argument to me.

What one can legitimately complain about is the quality of the writing which is plodding and uninspired. Cummins' research does not seem to have clued her in to the richness and complexity of Mexican society. It is a country that certainly faces social and political challenges, but it is not defined by those challenges. The drug cartels exist. Violence exists. But there is so much more to Mexico than that. It is a great and diverse country, our neighbor and friend. We would do well not to forget that.

I don't doubt that this writer made a good faith effort to tell a story that she felt strongly about. The fact that, in her storytelling, she relied on so many stereotypes is perhaps the best indication of the limits of her research and of her ability to truly identify with the characters about whom she is writing. The result is that the reader - at least this reader - can never really believe in and empathize with the characters.

So, in the end, I could not agree that this is "the new American classic". On the other hand, I didn't consider it completely awful. It had its moments. What I do consider appalling is that the publisher has apparently canceled the writer's book tour because of fears of violence! Really? Is that what we've come to? It's a book, people! Buy it or don't buy it. Read it or don't read it. There are a number of books out there that I would vociferously disagree with, but it would never occur to me to threaten violence even against the most odious authors or to try to get their book tours canceled. I guess I'm just too nice.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars       

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Poetry Sunday: Where's that thing by John Kenney

I laughed out loud when I read this poem last week. It sounds so familiar. It's just like some of the conversations my husband and I have. Does anyone else have conversations like this?

Where’s that thing?
by John Kenney
Where’s that thing?
you ask me
looking in the cabinet above the stove.
The new one or old one, I reply,
fairly sure you know what I mean.
Old one.
Under the sink.
It’s not there.
Just look.
I’m looking.
Look under that stuff.
It’s not here.
The other stuff.
Wait. You mean the green one?
No. Blue. I think it’s blue.
Oh. That’s in the drawer.
I checked the drawer.
Did you check behind the plastic thing?
We’re talking about the same thing, right, the one with the
   weird top?
Of course.
Wait. Here it is.

Friday, February 7, 2020

This week in birds - #388

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

It's bluebird season. This female Eastern Bluebird is checking out a potential nesting site. Pairs are already nesting or they are searching for a place to raise their chicks. They and the Carolina Wrens and Carolina Chickadees like to get an early start on nesting. Early birds get more caterpillars to feed their families.


Coming off the warmest January on record, Antarctica is now breaking heat records as well. On Thursday a temperature of 65 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded, making it the hottest day on record for the continent. 


More sad news from the Monarch butterfly sanctuary in Mexico: A second activist has been found dead there. He had disappeared on January 27 and his body was found on top of a hill this week. He was covered in bruises and had a serious wound to his head. The illegal loggers in the area are suspected of being implicated in this death as well as the earlier one.


The current administration has finalized plans to allow mining and energy drilling on nearly a million acres of land in southern Utah that had been protected as part of a major national monument. However, there does not appear to be much interest from energy companies in drilling or mining in the area.


New research has shown that the backyard feeding of Eastern Bluebirds can have a major impact on reducing the parasitic nest flies that feed on their nestlings.


A maker of the pesticide chlorpyrifos which has been linked to brain damage in children has announced that it will stop producing it by the end of the year.


Bumblebee on anisacanthus blossoms in my backyard.

Bumblebees just cannot catch a break. Already beset by the use of pesticides in the ecosystem and the loss of habitat, it seems that they are especially vulnerable as well to the effects of climate change. Hot temperatures are contributing to their decline.


Andean Condors are being illegally poisoned by livestock owners who incorrectly believe that the big birds are a threat to their living animals. Condors do not attack living animals; they are scavengers that feed on dead carcasses.


It's not only birds that are disoriented by bright lights at night. Fireflies are having a problem finding mates in areas that are lighted at night. The insects find their mates by responding to the potential mate's flashing light. The artificial lights interfere with that communication.


Europe has experienced a forest revival. Approximately 40 percent of the European Union's landmass is covered by trees. That's a good thing, except for the fact that it makes the continent more vulnerable to forest fires, especially in a climate that is heating up.


Overharvesting and habitat loss are contributing to the disappearance of many of the world's freshwater megafauna species.


In the Dominican Republic, an experiment involving playback of seed-eating birds' songs has shown that using such playbacks can bring the birds into an area and help with the dispersing of seeds and replanting of that area.


The platypus has certainly earned its title as the world's strangest mammal. It may also become one of the world's scarcest as it struggles against habitat loss, predation by feral cats, and now climate change and wildfires.


Chemicals released into Florida's Everglades by hurricanes, fires, and other disruptions can linger in the delicate ecosystem for years. 


Lonesome George was the name given to what was thought to be the lone specimen of a particular Galapagos tortoise. George died in 2012 and the species was thought to be extinct. But recently scientists have discovered about 30 of the giant tortoises that are at least partially descended from presumed extinct species, including that of George's.


Butterfly wings must have suitable temperatures in order to function properly. Recent research shows that the insects are able to regulate their wing temperatures through both structural and behavioral adaptations. 


Peru has pledged to create a giant new marine reserve of 19,300-square-miles around a range of 93 submarine mountains that are home to some 1,100 species.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende: A review

"A long petal of the sea" is a phrase that Pablo Neruda employed in a poem describing his homeland, Chile. Isabel Allende appropriated it for the title of her book and she heads each chapter of it with a quote from one of Neruda's poems. Neruda even appears as a character in this historical fiction novel. At times, he seems to overwhelm the story.

At the heart of the narrative though is the story of Victor Dalmau and Roser Bruguera and it begins in Spain in 1939.

In the 1930s the Spanish Civil War is raging. Victor lives in Barcelona with his parents and brother, Guillem, and with Roser who is a poor child who was a piano student of Victor's father. She showed great promise and when she was abused by her family, the Dalmaus took her in. In time, Roser fell in love with Guillem and by the time he joined the republican forces fighting against Franco, she was pregnant with his child. Victor was not inclined to join the fight. Instead, he was studying to be a doctor. But in time he was drawn into the fight anyway in order to provide medical care to the wounded. 

As the republican forces are inexorably vanquished, half a million Spanish refugees flee Franco and most of them head north to the French border. Among them are Victor, the heavily pregnant Roser, and his mother. By this time, his father is dead and even though he hasn't told Roser and his mother, so is Guillem, having been killed in battle. Roser and the mother are in the care of a friend of Victor's who will guide them to the border, while Victor continues to tend the wounded along the way. Soon, the mother slips away, unwilling to be a hindrance to their escape. Roser and her guide continue.

France has set up concentration camps at its border to intern the refugees. Roser ends up in one of those camps, but she manages to get word out to a friend of Victor's who takes her to Perpignan to a Quaker family who provides shelter for her and her baby son. In the concentration camps, nine out of every ten children die.

Unknowingly, Victor is also trapped in another part of the same concentration camp where Roser was, but eventually, he escapes and traces her to her refuge in Perpignan. And there their fortune changes.

Pablo Neruda is a diplomat from Chile assigned to France. He is in sympathy with the refugees from Spain and he convinces the president of Chile to offer asylum to some of them, in spite of opposition from the Catholic church and other rightwingers in his country. Neruda ultimately arranges for the outfitting of a ship called the Winnipeg to carry 2000 Spaniards to his homeland. Victor, now married to Roser after finally telling her of the death of Guillem and learning that the only way they can travel together is if they are husband and wife, gains passage for himself, Roser, and the child.

The refugees receive a warm welcome in Chile and over time they become productive citizens of their new country. Victor completes his medical training and becomes an acclaimed and respected cardiologist. Roser's contributions are as an accomplished pianist and teacher and an organizer of musical societies and groups. Their marriage that began with fraternal obligation has evolved into a love match. They are happy.

Then comes the popular election of Salvador Allende, a Marxist, to the presidency and the subsequently plotting by fascists with the aiding and abetting by the C.I.A. to overthrow his government. A short three years later it happens and the country descends into chaos. And soon Victor is thrown into another concentration camp to be tortured. Roser, who was out of the country at the time of the coup, is spared.  

Isabelle Allende tells this story in a very straightforward, linear fashion (which frankly is a relief after so many of the books I've read recently have jumped around back and forth in time sometimes making them difficult to follow) and that somehow lends it more power. It reads almost like a journalist's report of events. After the brutal Pinochet comes to power in Chile, and Victor eventually is sprung from the concentration camp, he and Roser are refugees again, this time in Venezuela, where once again they receive a friendly welcome and are able to make a life for themselves. But they long to return to Chile.

Actual historical facts and people underlie Allende's narrative and it seems almost ripped from today's headlines. Once again we see countries, including our own, creating concentration camps at their borders to keep desperate refugees out. And yet, states and communities that actually are able to welcome refugees benefit greatly from their contributions. But that is an outcome that fascists will never accept.

I was swept along by the story of Victor and Roser, their two-time experience as refugees and their ultimate triumph over all adversities. If I were a professional critic, no doubt I would find things to complain of concerning the book, but as an amateur in every sense of the word, I found it a very satisfying and rewarding read.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars