Friday, January 31, 2020

This week in birds - #387

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

I photographed this Red Crossbill at Rocky Mountain National Park in late October after an early snow a few years ago. There were several of the birds in this pine tree. You may be able to discern another one just in the lower right corner. 

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So, a 30-foot section of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico was blown into Mexico by a 30-plus mph wind this week. And in other wall news, it seems that the structure is vulnerable to flash floods which are a regular feature of the "rainy" season in the desert. Consequently, it will be necessary to have large storm gates to allow the water (and, incidentally, migrants) to pass and the gates will have to be open for months. 

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The unprecedented bush fires in Australia have released about 400 million tons of carbon dioxide, effectively doubling the country's greenhouse gas emissions for the year.  

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Sadly, the story that I reported here last week has ended just as had been feared. The body of butterfly conservationist, Homero Gómez González, was found on Wednesday, two weeks after he had gone missing in Michoacán state in Mexico.

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The oldest asteroid crater yet to be discovered on the planet has been found in Australia. It is roughly 2.2 billion years old and the impact may have been instrumental in ending an ice age. 

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And in other news of our ancient planet, dozens of footprints of dinosaurs and other creatures were left in a field of lava in what is now South Africa. The footprints were made before the Gondwana supercontinent broke up some 180 million years ago. Interestingly, some of the footprints were from a tiny critter which was the ancestor of mammals. 

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The technology to prevent avian fatalities from window strikes is available. Adopting bird-friendly materials and building methods could help to prevent the deaths of many of the estimated one billion birds that die in these collisions in North America each year. 

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But, as we know, there are those among us who are perfectly okay with the incidental killing of birds. A hunter shoots a Whooping Crane thinking it's Snow Goose? No problem, no penalty. BP leaks millions of tons of oil into our Gulf waters killing untold numbers of birds, fish, and sea mammals? Not to worry BP; our federal government has your back. This administration acted this week to implement their plan to weaken the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and thereby put millions of our birds in danger. 

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It is likely that insects and other invertebrates are among the hardest hit of the creatures that have been impacted by the Australian bush fires. 

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Bats coexist with many types of viruses, including most likely the coronavirus now spreading through China and threatening other parts of the world. What is it about their immune system that allows them to do that? Though they may be able to laugh at viruses, other things are causing many bat species to become threatened or endangered, including the Little Brown Bat and the Big Brown Bat. They have their champions, though, including the Girl Scouts who want them to be the official mammal of Washington, D.C

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Albatrosses have been drafted into the battle to make sure that fishing vessels have the required transponders working so that they can be tracked. Researchers have outfitted 169 of the seabirds with radar detectors that allow them to determine if a vessel's transponder has been turned off.

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Orchids are difficult plants to protect in the wild because of their popularity with collectors that makes them targets of illegal trade, plus their habitats are being destroyed right around the world.

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Bolivian Cochran Frog, one of the "glass frog" species which have transparent bellies. 

A rare species of frog called the Bolivian Cochran frog has been found in that country for the first time in 18 years. 

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Dragonflies and damselflies look somewhat similar and might even be mistaken for each other, but they have very different methods of stalking their prey.

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If there is any good news coming from a wildfire, it might be that some plants actually do better after such fires. For example, the narrow-leafed purple coneflower of the prairie produces more seeds after a fire.

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A triumph of the Endangered Species Act has been the rewilding of the gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park which began twenty-five years ago. The reintroduction of wolves has reversed the degradation of the ecosystem in the park. And it is quite likely, according to some recent research, that some of those wolf pups in the park would retrieve your ball for you if you tossed it their way! 

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In another example of a state acting when the federal government abdicates its responsibility, New Jersey will become the first state to require that builders take into account the impact of climate change, including rising sea levels, in order to win government approval for projects. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts by Karen Armstrong: A review

Karen Armstrong, for those unfamiliar with her work, is a former nun and British writer who has written extensively on religion and religious themes. I've read and learned a lot from a few of her many books, including A History of God, to which this current book seems almost a sequel. Armstrong, who is 75, is now an ambassador for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations. 

The Lost Art of Scripture could almost serve as a textbook for a course in comparative religions. In it, Armstong takes us on a tour of the scriptural foundations of most of the major religious thought of humans. It is a fascinating and lengthy (more than 600 pages) journey.

We visit India for the origin of the Vedas. And we revisit to pick up on variations of Hindu texts and the evolution of Jainist thought and of the beginnings of Sikhism. It is a rich and wide-ranging history that could fill - and has filled - many books by itself.

Then we see the beginnings of Buddhism. The Buddha never wrote a text and so it was left to others to gather and record his philosophy as expounded in his teachings to disciples. China was the origin of much philosophy that could be termed religious, although the Confucian and Taoist texts that are most familiar to us are not about a "God" in the Western sense; instead, they are guides about how to live a good and compassionate life. They emphasize the idea that we are to revere all life and to treat others as we would ourselves wish to be treated.

And here, Armstrong does not stop with what we might normally think of as religious texts or scripture. She includes the Greek philosophers and the ancient plays which also are instructions about living moral lives. She makes the argument throughout that God, or if you prefer right thought and righteous living, is revealed in poetry, music, love, sex, as well as religion. It is revealed perhaps most clearly in Nature itself. 

A major portion of her book deals with the origins of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and their scriptures. She traces the development of the Hebrew Bible and makes the point that scripture was not meant to be read "with eyes passing swiftly over a written page." Instead, it was to be read or recited out loud, often with rituals that included music and body movements. In this way, the words would be imprinted upon one's heart and mind and remembered. 

The beginnings of Christian scripture can fairly be traced to St. Paul and his various letters to Christian communities, although scholars believe that some of the writings attributed to him were actually written by others, including some of the most misogynist passages that continue to be used by conservatives to justify the subjugation of women. 

The contradictions in the accounts in the earliest Christian texts regarding the life of Jesus are many. A comparison of the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, is revelatory. For example, the oldest of the Gospels, Mark, does not mention the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection, curious omissions to say the least. But, of course, such contradictions are replete throughout the scriptures, including various versions of the Ten Commandments that are found in the Hebrew texts. Armstrong makes the case throughout that scripture is not to be taken literally. The reader should adopt the more inventive and mystical approach of premodern spirituality. It is wrong to try to fit it into the confines of scientific discovery or historical facts. Religion and scripture should be approached as an art form,  an invention of the human mind, just like music or painting or poetry. As such, understanding of it evolves over time. 

The understanding of Islam and its scripture, the Quran, have evolved over time. The origins of Islam emphasize compassion and justice and its bedrock gospel is that it is wrong to build a private fortune for one's own benefit; one should share one's wealth to create a society in which the poor and vulnerable are treated with respect. This is still the faith espoused by millions around the world, but, unfortunately, a few militant passages from the Quran, written at a time when the new faith was under attack and surrounded by enemies, are taken out of context by Muslim extremists as well as by Christian fundamentalists who despise them in order to transform Islam (which at its root means submission to God) into an excuse for violence and hatred.

Christianity has seen a similar evolution through the Protestant Reformation, right down to the premillennialists of today who look forward to the Rapture and being able to sit on a cloud and look down to gloat at the suffering of those left behind. It all, perhaps, harkens back to the beginnings of the Hebrew Bible which has their God repeatedly ordering genocides or, as in the Noah story, committing genocides. One would do well to once again recall Armstrong's reminder that the scriptures are an art form that expresses "the complexity of the human dilemma" and are not to be taken literally. 

I have barely scratched the surface of the material that Armstrong covers in her book, including many references to poetry and secular literature which might be taken as adjuncts to sacred scripture. It is an admirable compendium of religious thought through the ages. The narrative slowed to a crawl at times as she emphasized or sought to explain a point and I admit my eyes glazed over at times, but, on the whole, it is a very readable account for a skeptical layperson such as myself.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars             

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Poetry Sunday: Song by Edith Wharton

Occasionally one comes across a poem that says exactly what one would say if one were a poet. Here is such a poem that speaks for me. This one is for Bob.


Song
by Edith Wharton
Let us be lovers to the end,
O you to whom my soul is given,
Whose smiles have turned this earth to heaven,
Fast holding hands as we descend
Life’s pathway devious and uneven,
Let us be lovers to the end.
Dear, let us make of Time a friend
To bind us closer with his cares,
And though grief strike us unawares
No poisoned shaft that fate can send
Shall wound us through each other’s prayers,
If we are lovers to the end.
Let us be lovers to the end
And, growing blind as we grow old,
Refuse forever to behold
How age has made the shoulders bend
And Winter blanched the hair’s young gold.
Let us be lovers to the end.
Whichever way our footsteps tend
Be sure that, if we walk together,
They’ll lead to realms of sunny weather,
By shores where quiet waters wend.
At eventide we shall go thither,
If we are lovers to the end.

Friday, January 24, 2020

This week in birds - #386

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


Bald Eagles are becoming an almost common sight in our area, especially in winter. This one was photographed at Archbishop Fiorenza Park in Houston.
(Image courtesy of HoustonAudubon.com)

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It's not exactly a surprise to learn that 2019 capped the hottest decade in Earth's recorded history. The past five years are also the hottest on record.

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The massive wildfires in Australia are fueling the anger of environmentalists there who hold their government at least partially responsible for the disaster because of its climate change denialism and lack of action. The environmental movement has been energized by this anger.

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Spain's new government has declared a climate emergency, which is a step toward enacting ambitious plans to combat climate change. 

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We tend to think of earthworms as a good thing for the environment, but not necessarily when those critters are an invasive species.

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These are African Gray Parrots. They are amazing birds for many reasons, primarily related to their intelligence. But a new experiment has found that they are also capable of altruism. A parrot will help another parrot to get a treat, even though that in no way benefits the first bird. (Image courtesy of The New York Times.)

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Some trees can live for more than 1,000 years. How do they manage to do that?

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The gigantic "hot blob" in the Pacific Ocean has been instrumental in the deaths of a million seabirds in less than a year, according to new research.

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The encroachment of the more aggressive Barred Owls into the territory of Northern Spotted Owls has displaced the Spotted Owls and created a conservation crisis. Now the Barred Owls are threatening to have the same effect on California Spotted Owls

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Homero Gómez González, a well-known conservationist who has spent years protecting Monarch butterflies on their wintering grounds in Michoacan state in Mexico, has not been seen since January 13. It is feared that he has been killed because of his conservation work.

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Leatherback turtles are being forced to make exhausting journeys, in some cases nearly twice as long as usual, from nesting to feeding grounds, because of rising ocean temperatures and changing sea currents.

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What would be your guess as to the first air-breathing land-dwelling animal? If you said the scorpion, you may have hit the jackpot according to new fossil evidence.

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An assistant professor of history and environmental studies believes that our efforts to keep the Galapagos Islands pristine may instead be destroying them.

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This cute little guy is a West Virginia northern flying squirrel and his species is doing quite well, thank you, after their removal from the endangered species list in 2013. (Image courtesy of Mother Nature Network.)

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Can reforesting the planet with one trillion trees help save it? Well, it couldn't hurt. We know that trees are our allies in removing carbon from the atmosphere and one trillion can remove a lot of carbon.

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Malaysia has returned 42 shipping containers of illegally imported plastic waste to their country of origin, proclaiming that they will not serve as the garbage dump of the world. Meanwhile, China is taking steps to phase out single-use plastics.

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The State of Florida is purchasing 20,000 acres of the Everglades in order to protect it from oil drilling.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Siberian Dilemma by Martin Cruz Smith: A review

The Siberian dilemma as stated by Moscow investigator Arkady Renko is simply this: If you fall into a lake in Siberia in winter, do you stay in and die quickly or do you climb out and let the hypothermia kill you a bit more slowly? The question always is to act or not to act.

It's a question faced almost daily by Renko in his job as an investigator and, even though he knows that to act is often dangerous and most likely won't accomplish anything, he can't help himself. He acts to solve crimes and bring criminals to whatever bit of justice he can achieve or, in some cases as in this tale, he acts to prevent an innocent party from being punished. He knows the system is corrupt and he is thoroughly cynical about his prospects for success, but still, he keeps trying. He keeps striving.

This time out, Renko is worried about his lover (former lover?), the journalist Tatiana Petrovna. Tatiana had headed off to Siberia in search of a story about the oligarchs who control the oil fields there. She has managed to make friends (or is it more than just friendship?) with one of the oligarchs, Mikhail Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov is also a political dissident who is running for president against Putin. Renko has tried repeatedly to reach Tatiana but she isn't responding to his calls and texts. He fears for her safety and is anxious to go and find her.

It seems serendipitous then when his boss, the prosecutor Zurin, wants to send him to Siberia to prosecute Aba Makhmud, a Chechen who is a supposed terrorist who allegedly tried to shoot Zurin. Renko is glad for the excuse to go, but Siberia is a big place and he doesn't really know where Tatiana is so finding her may be a problem. 

He interviews the young Aba and soon finds that things are not quite as reported to him, so he acts to rectify a miscarriage of justice. Then it's off to find Tatiana, which actually proves easier than he had feared. After all, she's with Kuznetsov who is a celebrity.

Then, through a series of circumstances, Renko and Tatiana, along with Renko's "factotum" and Boris Benz, another oil oligarch and close friend of Kuznetsov, and another man go on a bear hunt. It becomes a terror-filled expedition in which two are shot from ambush and killed and a bear becomes the hunter. 

As always in Smith's books, there's a bit of Russian history and politics underlying the story. We get descriptions of the Lake Baikal area and the historical prison city of Chita, as well as some of the shamanic practices of natives to that area. Smith excels at creating the atmosphere of a setting. One feels the oppressive nature of the society and the unforgiving climate of brutally freezing temperatures of a Siberian winter. I had to put on an extra sweater just to read it!

It was an entertaining book. My only real problem with it was the ending which seemed a bit rushed and truncated. But it was very nice to have Martin Cruz Smith back with a new Arkady Renko adventure after several years' absence.   

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller: A review

I enjoy reading historical fiction and Andrew Miller's book, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, came highly recommended. The book began with great promise. Set in the early 19th century during the wars between England and France, it tells the story of a British Army officer and veteran named John Lacroix.

We meet Lacroix when he is returned wounded in body and spirit to his estate in Somerset after a harrowing retreat across Spain. At this point, one is reminded of Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe series (which I loved!), but that is not what Andrew Miller is about. Instead, he brings us a kind of psychological thriller featuring a cat and mouse game with Lacroix playing the part of the mouse. At first, however, the mouse does not know that the cat is pursuing him.

Lacroix is nursed back to health by his faithful housekeeper, but he proves to be half-deaf from his injuries. Moreover, he is suffering from what we would term PTSD. Instead of returning to his regiment, Lacroix decides to head north to the Scottish islands, places he has never been and has no ties. Why does he choose this destination? There is no explanation other than that he wants to get away from war.

What Lacroix does not realize at first is that he is being pursued. While he was in Spain, we learn that he was present at the massacre of a village called Morales. The massacre was carried out by starving British troops under the command of Captain Lacroix. He was not involved in the outrage and in fact, was not aware that it was happening until it was well underway, but a vicious corporal named Calley testifies differently and the British commanders, needing a scapegoat, choose the absent Lacroix. They send Calley along with a Spanish witness named Medina to eliminate Lacroix. (Note: If you are of a certain age as I am, you will remember the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War and the role played by a Lt. Calley. This incident and the naming of this character cannot be a coincidence.)

From this point, the narrative of the book alternates between the implacable hunters and the, at first, clueless hunted. The suspense builds as we get to know more about the character of Calley, a particularly nasty piece of work. Meanwhile, Lacroix works his way through the islands until he reaches one occupied by a clan of vegetarian early hippies who believe in free love, non-violence, and no organized religion and who smoke something called "bang", apparently a 19th-century iteration of weed. Lacroix falls in love with one of their number, a woman named Emily, whose eyesight is failing and who may soon be blind. So we have a man with diminished hearing and a woman with diminished eyesight, who, in a way, complete each other.

There is a surgeon in Glasgow who may be able to help Emily, and Lacroix accompanies her on the trip to the city to have him examine and possibly operate on her eyes. While there, Lacroix unknowingly shares a bed in his rented room with Medina, one of his pursuers, but the two are like ships that pass in the night without hailing each other and Medina leaves the bed early in the morning, never realizing that he could have literally reached out and touched his quarry.  

As the story continued, it lost some of its steam for me. I can't really identify why. It just seemed to meander along without focus and I began to lose interest. So what had during its first half been perhaps a 4-star read got downgraded. 

This was my first experience reading Andrew Miller. His reputation as a writer of historical fiction is stellar, and I think this one is probably not the best example of his craft. It's not a bad book and there were passages that were enjoyable but I didn't find it to be the exciting psychological thriller that it apparently aspired to be.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Moth Catcher by Ann Cleeves: A review

During my recent struggles with health issues, I took comfort in returning to some of my guilty reading pleasures. One of the chief among these is the Vera Stanhope mystery series by Ann Cleeves. I've been working my way through this series and this is the seventh entry. So far I've found every book to be tightly plotted with well-drawn characters and plenty of social commentary and philosophical observations on human nature to go along with the puzzle of the mystery. 

And they are puzzles. I can never guess who the perpetrator is and that held true in The Moth Catcher as well.

Cleeves had a previous career as a probation officer and it seems obvious that that experience has informed her understanding of the UK criminal justice system and those philosophical observations on human nature that I mentioned. Here, she gives us the tale of two very different human beings who are brought together by their interest in moths. One is a recent college graduate, a young ecologist who has been hired by a couple to house sit and care for their dogs while they are in Australia for the birth of their granddaughter. The other is a middle-aged former teacher who is a bit of an outcast, someone who never can quite manage to fit in. They are both passionate about moths and thereby hangs a tale.

When the dead body of the young ecologist is found in a ditch by a country lane, DI Vera Stanhope is called to the scene. When she and her sergeant Joe Ashworth go to the victim's flat to search for clues, Vera stumbles upon a second body. It is that of the former teacher. What could possibly have led to the murder of these two mild-mannered, inoffensive men? Could it have anything to do with their mutual interest in moths?

In investigating the crime, Vera and her team find themselves looking into the lives and secrets of a group of hedonistic retirees who live in the quiet little community of Valley Farm. The three couples would seem to have no real connection to the victims and no motive for wishing them harm and yet Vera's unerring sense of something out of kilter leads her to take a closer look and focus her investigation there. Vera is a brilliant detective and if she thinks that something doesn't add up, it's time to recheck the calculator!

This was an entirely entertaining book to read, but I do have one quibble with the author. She insists on reminding us in practically every chapter that Vera Stanhope is a fat, somewhat slovenly woman with a bad case of recurring eczema that torments her and she's a control freak in her job. The reaction of people who meet her is always that she is a physically unattractive human being. Okay, Ann Cleeves, we get it! You don't have to keep hitting us over the head with it! The beauty of Vera is that of the mind and the indomitable spirit. Her team, who are her only real family, know and appreciate that. And so do her admiring readers.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Monday, January 20, 2020

A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: A review

This book has languished on my TBR list for quite a while and I'm not sure why I haven't read it sooner. Now that I have read it, I regret that I didn't read it the minute that I got it. It is a terrific book, the first novel by this author, but one would never guess that for it is an assured and self-confident bit of writing. Sexton gives full-bodied life to her characters without either sentimentalizing them or making them into oddities. These are ordinary people whose struggles we can identify with.

The author is a resident of New Orleans and that is where her novel is set. Part of the appeal of the narrative is that she deeply understands her city and its culture and she delivers it to us with clear-eyed descriptions which allow us to see it with all of its richness as well as its deeply ingrained flaws.

She tells her story through the lives of three generations of a New Orleans family, a quintessential New Orleans family of Creole and African-American heritage. She begins in 1944 with the love story of Evelyn and Renard. Evelyn is the daughter of a wealthy and prominent family. Her mother is Creole and her father is an African-American who worked his way out of poverty to become a respected doctor. Renard is from a poor Twelfth Ward neighborhood who works menial jobs but aspires to something better. He wants to be a doctor but the paths open to him to achieve that goal are straight, narrow, and full of obstacles. Their courtship is passionate, but it reveals all the class-based impediments to their achieving a life together. In the end, the only way that Renard can see to further his education and perhaps become worthy in the eyes of Evelyn's father is to join the military, so he volunteers for the army. Before he is shipped out to Europe, he and Evelyn make love for the first time. Of course, she becomes pregnant but she doesn't know that until Renard is in France and she chooses not to tell him. She also doesn't tell her family until her condition becomes obvious.

Their story has a happy ending in that Renard returns from Europe and is delighted with the idea of fatherhood and of being a husband to Evelyn. Their marriage is made to last, but forty years later, their daughter, Jackie is not so lucky. In 1980s New Orleans, Jackie is in love with Terry, but Terry is a crack addict who struggles to overcome his addiction. He is a pharmacist but his addictions rob him of his profession and his family of their middle-class life. Ultimately, Jackie is a struggling single mother trying to make a decent life for her son T.C. 

And it is through T.C. in 2010 that we see New Orleans and this family at their lowest ebb. It is post-Katrina New Orleans after the federal government had allowed that city to drown in the storm. The odor of mold is still in the air and the con artists and grifters have moved in to take advantage of the vulnerable. T.C., who never really knew his father, struggles with many of the same issues as that father, chief among them a police force and justice system that targets black men. Although he tries to keep himself straight and to work toward a better life, it seems to be a losing battle.

Thus we see the decline of this family from a position of wealth and prominence in the mid-20th century to just barely making it in the 21st century. Throughout the period, the fortunes of the family and, it could be argued, of the city have been hostage to racial and class prejudice. As one who loves that city, I find this reprehensible, particularly what I consider the abandonment of the city by the federal government during its time of greatest need. It's something that I can never forget or forgive. But Sexton does not dwell on this; it is simply there in the background of her story. And her bottom line is that both the family and the city endure. She highlights their courage in never giving up. With all its setbacks, it is a hopeful story and Margaret Wilkerson Sexton has succeeded brilliantly in telling it. 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars  
     

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Poetry Sunday: Mighty Forms by Brenda Hillman

I've never experienced an earthquake, but I imagine it could be terrifying. To think that the solid Earth could crack and open up and swallow structures and people. Yes, I think it would be terrifying.

But poets make poetry of anything. Brenda Hillman makes a poem about the experience of an earthquake. 



Mighty Forms

by Brenda Hillman

The earth had wanted us all to itself.
The mountains wanted us back for themselves.
The numbered valleys of serpentine wanted us;
that’s why it happened as it did, the split
as if one slow gear turned beneath us. . .
Then the Tuesday shoppers paused in the street
and the tube that held the trout-colored train
and the cords of action from triangular buildings
and the terraced gardens that held camellias
shook and shook, each flower a single thought.

Mothers and children took cover under tables.
I called out to her who was my life.
From under the table—I hid under the table
that held the begonia with the fiery stem,
the stem that had been trying to root, that paused
in its effort—I called to the child who was my life.
And understood, in the endless instant
before she answered, how Pharaoh’s army, seeing
the ground break open, seeing the first fringed
horses fall into the gap, made their vows,
that each heart changes, faced with a single awe
and in that moment a promise is written out.

However we remember California later
the earth we loved will know the truth:
that it wanted us back for itself
with our mighty forms and our specific longings,
wanted them to be air and fire but they wouldn’t;
the kestrel circled over a pine, which lasted,
the towhee who loved freedom, gathering seed
during the shaking lasted, the painting released
by the wall, the mark and hook we placed
on the wall, and the nail, and the memory
of driving the nail in, these also lasted—

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Hospital stay

If you have noticed my absence, let me explain. I've been in the hospital. I'm home now and hoping to soon be back into my usual routine. In the meantime, please keep me in your thoughts. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney: A review

I was a bit confused for the early part of this book. I couldn't decide if it was going to be a serial killer murder mystery or a heist caper. Turns out it was both and the author, whom I had not read before, skillfully wove the two stories together. In the end, everything was interconnected.

Liam McIlvanney's novel is set in Glasgow in 1969 during a brutal winter. Not only is the city having to deal with the beastly weather, it is also going through a phase of urban renewal which has devastated much of the city and left blocks of old tenements empty before their demolition. It is in these derelict tenements that over a period of months the bodies of three raped and murdered young women are found. 

The detectives at the Marine Police Station investigate the crimes. The killer is dubbed "The Quaker" based on a perception of his religiosity and those assigned to the investigation are the "Quaker Squad". (It should be noted that the novel is loosely based on the Bible John killings in the Glasgow of that period.)

The Quaker is very adept at leaving no clues behind at the scene of his atrocities and the Quaker Squad is making no progress in discovering his identity. The press, which was initially laudatory in praise of police efforts, begins to turn against them and complain that the murderer is still at large and no closer to being caught.

Enter Detective Inspector Duncan McCormack of the flying squad who is sent to Glasgow to assess the investigation, determine why there has been no progress, and find a way to quietly phase down the operation. You can imagine how popular that makes him with the investigators who have been working overtime for months to catch the killer.  

McCormack himself has secrets of his own which make him vulnerable and he is bullied by his fellow policemen. He is the classic lone-wolf detective of noir mysteries, obsessive, brilliant, and utterly committed to fulfilling the task assigned to him. As events unfold, he also becomes obsessed with finding the Quaker.

Meantime, in a sub-plot, a daring burglary is being planned and executed. The gang of thieves makes away with a fortune in jewels. One of their number, the peterman (safecracker), chooses to hole up in a derelict tenement until the heat is off and it is safe for him to get out of town. Unfortunately, the tenement he selects is where another murder victim is found and he is seen by a witness leaving the building and the witness identifies him to the police. It is just the break they've been waiting for! They've found the Quaker!

Except of course they haven't. He isn't a murderer, only the thief. McCormack is not convinced. He knows the man's record as a non-violent petty thief. The justice system grinds on with the suspect in custody, but McCormack keeps digging.

There were several things that I really liked about this book. First among them was the atmosphere of Glasgow in the 1960s. The descriptions were so vivid, I felt like I was there. Secondly, the author respected the victims of the killer. He gave them their own backstories told in their voices. We know them as human beings, not sexualized objects. Also, the character of DI McCormack; he's a complicated man, a closeted gay man who would be vilified if he were open about his own sexuality. I understand that this was the first in a planned series featuring this character. I would say that McIlvanney has made a strong beginning.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Poetry Sunday: To the Garbage Collectors in Bloomington, Indiana, the First Pickup of the New Year by Philip Appleman

Today, let us celebrate those who do the necessary work of collecting our refuse and thus keeping our neighborhoods nice and tidy. Philip Appleman wrote a poem about them. So here for the garbage collectors in Bloomington, Indiana and in my town and yours...

To the Garbage Collectors in Bloomington, Indiana, the First Pickup of the New Year


by Philip Appleman

(the way bed is in winter, like an aproned lap,
    like furry mittens,
    like childhood crouching under tables)
The Ninth Day of Xmas, in the morning black
outside our window: clattering cans, the whir
of a hopper, shouts, a whistle, move on ...
I see them in my warm imagination
the way I’ll see them later in the cold,
heaving the huge cans and running
(running!) to the next house on the street.

My vestiges of muscle stir
uneasily in their percale cocoon:
what moves those men out there, what
drives them running to the next house and the next?
Halfway back to dream, I speculate:
The Social Weal? “Let’s make good old
    Bloomington a cleaner place
    to live in—right, men? Hup, tha!
Healthy Competition? “Come on, boys,
    let’s burn up that route today and beat those dudes
    on truck thirteen!”
Enlightened Self-Interest? “Another can,
    another dollar—don’t slow down, Mac, I’m puttin’
    three kids through Princeton?”
Or something else?
Terror?

A half hour later, dawn comes edging over
Clark Street: layers of color, laid out like
a flattened rainbow—red, then yellow, green,
and over that the black-and-blue of night
still hanging on. Clark Street maples wave
their silhouettes against the red, and through
the twiggy trees, I see a solid chunk
of garbage truck, and stick-figures of men,
like windup toys, tossing little cans—
and running.

All day they’ll go like that, till dark again,
and all day, people fussing at their desks,
at hot stoves, at machines, will jettison
tin cans, bare evergreens, damp Kleenex, all
things that are Caesar’s.

O garbage men,
the New Year greets you like the Old;
after this first run you too may rest
in beds like great warm aproned laps
and know that people everywhere have faith:
putting from them all things of this world,
they confidently bide your second coming.

Friday, January 10, 2020

This week in birds - #385

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




Greater Yellowlegs photographed at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Coast.

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A conservative estimate of the number of animals killed in the Australian wildfires is over one billion.

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So it turns out that 2019 was only the second hottest year on record, just less than one-tenth of a degree Fahrenheit cooler than 2016. 

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While the apocalyptic Australian wildfires have dominated the environmental news, Indonesia has been suffering some of the worst floods in its history. At least 66 people have been killed and thousands more have been forced to flee their homes.

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Here is a listing of species declared extinct in 2019, although some of them had actually probably been extinct for years.

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And still, the good fight goes on to save species from extinction. Lebanese conservationists are working to provide protected areas for migrating birds where they will be safe from hunters and they are trying to instill in the younger generation the values of protecting endangered wildlife.

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An aquarium and an engineering firm in Massachusetts are working on a project to better protect whales by monitoring them from space. It is hoped that the project will help with the effort to save endangered right whales.

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Detroit is experiencing an invasion by magical and magnificent Snowy Owls. Lucky Detroit birders!

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There are estimated to be about 435,000 plant species on Earth. About 36.5% of them could be considered extremely rare. The rarest are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

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There are steps that could be taken to reverse the insect apocalypse. These include phasing out synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

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The shift from the use of coal to gas in the U.S. has saved more than 300 million tons of planet-heating carbon dioxide. And a study has found that the shutdown of coal facilities has saved over 26,000 lives over the period of a decade.

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A treasure trove of ten previously unknown species and subspecies of birds has been found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

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One of the world's oldest, most resilient species, the Monarch butterfly could be decimated relatively soon by climate change.

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The American Kestrel, North America's smallest falcon and once the continent's most common and widespread, is declining in numbers at an alarming rate. The reasons for the decline are not entirely clear.

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Highways are an existential threat to the genetic diversity and indeed the survival of wolverines as a species for an unusual reason: It seems that female wolverines refuse to cross them. Although young males will cross them as they seek new territories, the females will not follow. 

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New York City has conducted its first census of squirrels. It found that there were 2,273 of the critters in Central Park.

Not a Central Park squirrel enjoying its treats in my yard.