Sunday, January 20, 2019

Poetry Sunday: When Death Comes by Mary Oliver

We lost Mary Oliver last week. She died at the age of 83. She was a prize-winning poet who wrote of the natural world, and she was one of the most popular of modern poets. Her poetry is very accessible and that is not a bad thing. 

This is actually one of her most famous poems and it could serve as a summation of her life. At the end of that life she could well and truly say that she did not "end up simply having visited this world."

When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom; taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

This week in birds - #337

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

A Snowy Egret poses atop a post near Galveston Bay. Note his "golden slippers," a definitive field mark of the species.


Certain politicians in our country will tell you that there is no such thing as global warming because it is cold here now. Those politicians are unable to see beyond their own backyard. Much of North America is experiencing very cold temperatures this weekend, but in the southern hemisphere, Earth is burning. In Australia, for example, they've had record temperatures recently of almost 122 degrees F which has had devastating effects on Nature. Millions of birds, bats, and fish have died as a direct result of the heat. Moreover, wildfires are widespread and farmers are experiencing crop failure.


Meanwhile, a scientist who studied the Puerto Rican rainforest returned there after 35 years to find that 98% of ground insects had disappeared and along with them the birds that depended on those insects for food.


Oceans had their hottest year on record in 2018 as global warming continues to accelerate with the result that Antarctica is now shedding ice six times faster than it did in 1979. Along the East Coast of North America, these changes have made flooding more routine


University of British Columbia researchers have discovered that the population of Northern Goshawks that exists on the little archipelago of Haida Gwaii possess a unique genome cluster which makes them distinct from others of their kind. Only about 50 of the birds exist so their survival is in doubt.


The wall which the administration wants to build along our southern border would destroy the National Butterfly Center which is home not only to an amazing array of butterflies but also to at least 200 native bee species


Although red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1980, a new study of a pack of wild dogs in Galveston County on the Texas coast has found that the animals possess red wolf DNA. They are obviously not purebred wolves but are thought to be hybrids of coyotes and wolves, with possibly some dog thrown in for good measure. 


Meanwhile, in other canid news, the golden jackal, once barely known in Europe, is now spreading rapidly there and outnumbers wolves at this point. 


Species of birds that live in mountainous areas are moving ever higher as the climate warms. A recent study showed that birds in the Andes were heading uphill in an attempt to keep pace with warming temperatures and would soon run out of room. It’s the latest example of how species are on the move as they struggle to adapt to climate change. 


A bird whose native habitat ranges from the coniferous forests of northern Asia west through Russia to Finland has been quickening birders' pulses in South Los Angeles recently. A vagrant Red-flanked Bluetail, the first ever seen in California, has chosen to reside there - at least temporarily - just south of the 10 Freeway. 

Los Angeles' latest celebrity, the vagrant Red-Flanked Bluetail.


And in other vagrancy news ('tis the season for it), a European Robin has turned up in Peking. the robin is common and taken for granted throughout much of Europe, but it is a rarity in Peking and birders have poured in from far and wide to have a look at it. The bird has been dubbed a "Brexit refugee"!

 The little "refugee" requesting asylum in Peking.


Since the EPA no longer protects the environment, it's up to the people who live there to do it. That is happening in Louisiana where a group of activists led by native matriarchs is fighting a battle to stop a pipeline which they fear would lead to pollution of the precious water of the area.  


The Billion Oyster Project is an effort to rebuild oyster reefs in the waters around New York City. It has been ongoing since 2014. Oysters are natural filters and so will help to clean the waters. 


Spring is coming sooner not only to the Virginia coast, but to the entire North American Coastal Plain, a region that stretches along the sea’s edge from Texas to Massachusetts and birds are nesting earlier. In one corner of that plain, around Virginia Beach, the Yellow-crowned Night Herons are nesting some three weeks earlier than they have traditionally.


Lichens are complex composite organisms, made up of fungi living together with microscopic algae. Now a study reveals they may be even MORE complex than previously thought


The new chairman of the Natural Resources Committee in the House of Representatives, Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona), promises stricter oversight of the Department of the Interior in all of its operations. That will be a refreshing change from the lack of oversight for the past two years.  

Friday, January 18, 2019

A blast from my past: The myth of exceptionalism

I was looking at the record of traffic on my blog this week and I saw that this post from five years ago was getting some notice. Why now? I've no idea. But rereading it, it seems just as accurate and important now as I obviously considered it back then. Also quite ironic considering our current circumstances. What do you think?


Friday, September 13, 2013

The myth of exceptionalism

"It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."   - Vladimir Putin in New York Times op-ed

Russia's Vladimir Putin made a big splash this week with his op-ed  piece in the Times in which he lectured the United States and President Obama about the "need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression." Of course, he doesn't mention here the fact that Russia has vetoed any effort by the Security Council to address the two year old crisis and civil war in Syria. 

He goes on to piously discuss democracy as an ideal toward which countries are moving at their own speed, with the implication being that countries must be allowed to work out their destinies without interference from the outside, even, I guess, when those countries enact such undemocratic laws as the recent Russian acts which discriminate against homosexuals.  

It's hard - impossible really - to know if Putin himself actually wrote this op-ed or if it was written by the public relations firm he employs, but perhaps it doesn't really matter. No doubt it fairly represents the opinions of the man himself. As such, the hypocrisy of the piece is truly staggering, coming from a man who has been a chief obstructionist of peaceful negotiations of many conflicts in the world, as well as a man who runs a very illiberal and undemocratic regime in his own country. 

Nevertheless, if one merely takes the op-ed at face value, there are certain statements that make sense and with which a reasonable person can agree. One of those is the quote with which I opened my blog post.

For a long time, it has irked me almost beyond endurance to hear jingoistic American politicians talking about "American exceptionalism," which some of them do at every possible opportunity. Their clear implication is that this is a country which was established by some Outside Power, usually a long-robed, long-bearded, all-powerful Judeo-Christian God, and that the country continues to be watched over and protected by that Outside Power, in a way that is not true of any other country in the world. Indeed, it is an article of faith among certain fundamentalist right-wing politicians and their followers that we stand outside and are immune from the flow of history. All of that is so much hogwash.

In fact, this country was established by human beings, brilliant but flawed human beings, who were willing to put their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor on the line to bring it into being. They were human beings who were acutely aware of the lessons of history and who would never for a moment have presumed to believe that they or the country they were creating were immune from and could not learn from those lessons. 

In short, the idea that the United States of America is exceptional and stands outside of the flow of history is a myth and a dangerous myth at that. We are subject to the same natural laws as any other people, any other government. Our system of government which has worked well enough for over two hundred years inevitably contains the seeds of its own destruction. From time to time, those seeds sprout and grow as they are doing now with the refusal of certain elements in our society to live by the tenets of democracy. 

So, I would agree with Putin's statement that it is dangerous to see ourselves as exceptional. We need to accept that we are a part of history and are not immune to its forces. Perhaps this would give us the dash of humility we need to be effective citizens of the world.    

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: A review

I found myself grinning and sometimes chuckling my way through this tale of a serial killer in Lagos. Does that make me a bad person?

The description of the book on Goodreads is: "Satire meets slasher in this short, darkly funny hand grenade of a novel about a Nigerian woman whose younger sister has a very inconvenient habit of killing her boyfriends." That pretty succinctly sums it up. But it is actually much more than that.

It is, at its heart, a story about family dynamics and loyalty. It is a cleverly written satire, full of dark humor and social commentary that is elegantly disguised. But, basically, it is the story of the love and devotion of two sisters.

We see things from the point of view of Korede. She is a nurse and a neat freak and she seems to lead a fairly normal life. She is well thought of on her job at the hospital in Lagos and is in line to be named head nurse. She has a crush on a young doctor called Tade and she hopes that he will notice her and realize they are soul mates. She is the older sister and the plain one in the family.

Ayoola is the younger sister and she is flirty, charming, and gorgeous. She is noticed wherever she goes and men fall all over themselves trying to get her attention. Unlike Korede, she has no shortage of boyfriends, but when she tires of a beau, instead of breaking up with him, she kills him. Then she calls on Korede to help her dispose of the body. So far, this has happened three times and Korede has learned via the internet that with the third murder, one is considered to be a serial killer. 

But what led the two sisters to this point? We learn that they grew up with an autocratic and abusive father who regularly beat them with a cane. Their mother had retreated into an Ambien-induced fugue and was unable to protect them. Finally, when the girls were teenagers, the father was preparing to beat them one day and reached for his cane and he fell and hit his head on a glass coffee table. The girls watched as his life drained away, then they woke their mother and told her. It isn't entirely clear whether the man slipped or was pushed but I have my suspicions.

At any rate, Korede managed to deal with the tragedy and at least feign normality. Ayoola, too, successfully feigns normality; no one ever looks beyond her beautiful face and body. But, in fact, she is a sociopath. 

The two sisters continue to live with their mother and lead their separate lives but then one day, Ayoola turns up at the hospital to visit her sister and Tade sees her and immediately falls under her spell. Korede's worst fear is realized when they start a relationship. Will this one end like the others? Korede must find some way to prevent it.

This was just great fun to read from beginning to end. It was well-written and the quirky characters were fully developed by the author. It certainly has a unique premise and I found the plot thoroughly addictive. I was sorry to see it end.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars   

Monday, January 14, 2019

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - January 2019

Welcome to Bloom Day in my zone 9a garden near Houston, Texas. If you visited here on December Bloom Day, you'll find that most of what I have to show you today are the same plants that were in bloom then. We haven't had any below freezing temperatures since then, so the garden is much the same.

In fact, we haven't had any below freezing temperatures since early November, just before that month's Bloom Day. Our winter so far has been quite mild with our nighttime low temperatures usually in the 40s F, occasionally falling into the high 30s. What we have had is rain and plenty of it. Heavy rainfalls of two to four inches have been fairly common, leaving my yard in a bit of a soggy mess and giving me a good excuse to stay inside and read. But pruning time is fast approaching; time to prune those fruit trees and vines and many of my shrubs, including the roses. So, soon I'll have to don my Wellies and slog my way out to  do my duty. Some gardening chores just can't be postponed.

We grow purple oxalis mainly for its colorful foliage, but I am quite fond of its sweet little blossoms as well. It blooms when the weather is chilly so it is really in its element at this time of year. When summer comes, it generally dies back to the ground only to come out again when cooler fall weather arrives.

The firespike that was blooming in December is blooming still.

The 'Darcy Bussell' rose still sends out occasional blooms.

As does the 'Julia Child'.

And the pink Knockout is flowering now as well.

Next to the goldfish/frog pond the white yarrow is beginning to bloom.

And the gerbera daisies continue to add a bit fo color to the garden.

And, of course, there are still plenty of pansies and violas.

Lots of pansies.

And violas.

And more violas.

And mixed pansies and violas.

The herb feverfew is in bloom. It is a medicinal herb and the name tells you what it was traditionally used for. Personally, I just enjoy the little blooms.

The Cape honeysuckle is always knocked back by the mildest of freezing temperatures, but so far there's been nothing to discourage it and it blooms on.

I had hoped my daffodils and snowdrops might have been in bloom by now, but no such luck. Maybe by February.

I hope your January garden is thriving. I look forward to visiting it. Don't forget to visit our host, Carol of May Dreams Gardens, to see a list of all the gardens participating this month.

Happy Bloom Day!

Past Tense by Lee Child: A review

Lee Child is now up to number 23 in his Jack Reacher saga. I've previously read four of the books, the first three plus number 14. I'm never going to read the other eighteen in order to get to Past Tense, so I've utterly given up on my rule of reading series books in order. Life is too short.

But I'd heard some good things about this latest one and I needed a non-demanding read as a palate cleanser so I decided to go with it.

As in all the books (I guess), we find Jack Reacher on the road and on the move. This time he's starting out in Maine and his destination is San Diego, but on a whim, he decides to go through Laconia, New Hampshire. The town was where his father was born and grew up and he's never seen it. He researches the town records, with help from a city employee, to find where the Reachers might have lived and heads out to find the site and walk the ground where his forebears lived.

Meantime, in another part of the county, a young Canadian couple is also on the move, headed to New York. But their vehicle is about to quit on them and they look for a place to spend the night. They find an out-of-the-way - WAY out-of-the-way - motel. It might as well have a sign out front saying "Bates Motel." They check in, but will they ever check out?

These two story lines proceed on parallel tracks until, finally, they converge near the end. The "Jack track" features several violent encounters between Jack and various bad guys. They always come at him in groups, usually four or five in a pack, and they are formidable. Jack himself is 6'5" and is immensely skilled and powerful. As a former military policeman for the Army, he is very experienced in dealing with unruly characters. Child always describes these encounters in loving detail, often going on for pages. He obviously knows his audience and what his keen admirers expect from him. After reading through the first couple of such experiences in this book, I admit I skimmed rather lightly over the others.

I remember reading somewhere recently that somewhere in the world someone buys one of Lee Child's Jack Reacher books every 13 seconds. That is mind-boggling and yet I don't seriously doubt it. These books are incredibly popular and I can understand why. They are easy to read and they are full of action for those who require that in a book. The plots move quickly and the reader can count on the good guys coming out on top, no matter how tough those bad guys might be. 

Which brings up another question in my mind. I wonder what the body count is for all the characters dispatched by Jack Reacher over the years. Has anybody ever taken the time to total up? It would be interesting to know.

Lee Child has perfected his formula and I bet he could write one of these thrillers with one hand tied behind his back. They may not be much of a challenge any more, for him or the readers, but for what they are, they are fun reads. Past Tense was no exception.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Poetry Sunday: Mending Wall by Robert Frost

I've featured this poem here before but it has been almost five years. Time to bring it out again. It seems appropriate for this moment.

The story is this: Two neighbors - in New England, naturally - meet at a given time to repair the stone wall between their two properties. The wall may have been damaged by the freezing and thawing of the ground underneath it or the damage might have been done by thoughtless hunters, but now there are gaps that need to be mended. 

As the two talk, we see two philosophies about walls. One neighbor opines, "Good fences make good neighbours." But the other asks a very pertinent question: "Why do they make good neighbours?"

And he goes on:

   Before I built a wall I'd ask to know 
   What I was walling in or walling out, 
   And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall, but there's no persuading his neighbor.  

Mending Wall

by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbours."