Sunday, November 18, 2018

Poetry Sunday: Duty by Natasha Trethewey

Natasha Trethewey is a much honored American poet who has twice served as the nation's poet laureate and who received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2007. Trethewey was born in Mississippi and grew up in the South, the daughter of an interracial marriage. Her father was a white Canadian emigrant, a poet and professor. Her mother was a black social worker from Mississippi. Much of her poetry explores the lives and challenges of being a black person in the South.

She has a new collection of poems just published called Monument which tells of American history, personal history, and the lives of people who are often overlooked by history and poets. It has received quite a bit of critical acclaim.

This is a poem from an earlier collection, published in 2014, but it also addresses American history and her personal history. The last line here about history that links us but "renders us other to each other" I find inestimably sad.


by Natasha Trethewey

In the portrait of Jefferson that hangs
        at Monticello, he is rendered two-toned:
his forehead white with illumination —

a lit bulb — the rest of his face in shadow,
        darkened as if the artist meant to contrast
his bright knowledge, its dark subtext.

By 1805, when Jefferson sat for the portrait,
        he was already linked to an affair
with his slave. Against a backdrop, blue

and ethereal, a wash of paint that seems
        to hold him in relief, Jefferson gazes out
across the centuries, his lips fixed as if

he's just uttered some final word.
        The first time I saw the painting, I listened
as my father explained the contradictions:

how Jefferson hated slavery, though — out 
        of necessity, my father said — had to own
slaves; that his moral philosophy meant

he could not have fathered those children:
        would have been impossible, my father said.
For years we debated the distance between

word and deed. I'd follow my father from book
        to book, gathering citations, listening
as he named — like a field guide to Virginia —

each flower and tree and bird as if to prove
        a man's pursuit of knowledge is greater
than his shortcomings, the limits of his vision.

I did not know then the subtext
        of our story, that my father could imagine
Jefferson's words made flesh in my flesh —

the improvement of the blacks in body
        and mind, in the first instance of their mixture
with the whites — or that my father could believe

he'd made me better. When I think of this now,
        I see how the past holds us captive,
its beautiful ruin etched on the mind's eye:

my young father, a rough outline of the old man
        he's become, needing to show me
the better measure of his heart, an equation

writ large at Monticello. That was years ago.
        Now, we take in how much has changed:
talk of Sally Hemings, someone asking,

How white was she? — parsing the fractions
        as if to name what made her worthy 
of Jefferson's attentions: a near-white,

quadroon mistress, not a plain black slave.
        Imagine stepping back into the past, 
our guide tells us then — and I can't resist

whispering to my father: This is where
        we split up. I'll head around to the back. 
When he laughs, I know he's grateful

I've made a joke of it, this history
        that links us — white father, black daughter — 
even as it renders us other to each other.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

This week in birds - #329

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

I photographed this Spotted Towhee on the grounds of the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute and Nature Center in West Texas last March. Those ruby red eyes are mesmerizing.


The devastating wildfires raging in California are creating problems not only for those whose homes have been destroyed or who have lost loved ones in the flames. The smoke from the fires is affecting air quality in the region. The air was so thick on Friday that it ranked among the dirtiest in the world. The fires are being fed by the driest vegetation ever measured in Northern California so late in the year. The dry vegetation is the result of an exceptionally hot and dry summer and that, in turn, can be traced back to the changing climate that continues to heat up. 


On Friday, the current president announced his intention to nominate a former coal lobbyist to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.


The petrochemical industry anticipates spending a total of more than $200 billion on factories, pipelines and other infrastructure in the United States that will rely on shale gas. Construction is already underway at many sites. The building spree would dramatically expand the Gulf Coast’s petrochemical corridor (known locally as “Cancer Alley”) and establish a new plastics and petrochemical belt across states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. All of this is very bad news for a world already drowning in plastic.


A new study has revealed that birds in the Andes are moving up the mountains to get to a cooler climate and escape the hotter conditions below, but there's only so far that the birds can go. What will happen when they've reached the limit of appropriate habitat?


A study of beetles has revealed one possible contributing factor to the worldwide loss of insect population. It seems that heat waves affect the insect's ability to reproduce by reducing male fertility.


On the other hand, it seems it takes more than a category 4 hurricane to discourage the spotted seatrout from reproducing. On August 25, 2017, when Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas coast with 145 MPH winds, it passed over the spawning grounds of the seatrout which were in the midst of mating. Undeterred, they just got on with it! 


Meanwhile, research has confirmed that climate change is increasing the strength of hurricanes and making them more destructive. Scientists predict that rainfall from hurricanes could be increased by a third and wind speeds boosted by 25 knots if global warming continues.


Evening Grosbeaks are stunningly beautiful birds and seeing a flock of them is a never-to-be-forgotten experience. I have vivid memories of the winter when thousands of the birds descended on our yard in northeast Texas. They are known to be enthusiastic winter wanderers, though I've never seen them this far south. They have been visiting in New Mexico recently, however. Maybe there is hope for us this winter.

  Evening Grosbeak photographed by Sarah Nelson in northern New Mexico.

Scientists behind a major study that claimed the Earth’s oceans are warming faster than previously thought now say their work contained inadvertent errors that made their conclusions seem more certain than they actually are. Two weeks after the high-profile study was published in the journal Nature, its authors have submitted corrections to the publication. Because when scientists make errors they point it out and correct it.
Buried beneath a half mile of snow and ice in Greenland, scientists have uncovered an impact crater of an asteroid large enough to swallow the District of Columbia. It is the first impact crater found under Earth's ice sheets. The finding suggests that the giant iron asteroid smashed into what is today a glacier during the last ice age, an era known as the Pleistocene Epoch that started 2.6 million years ago. When it ended only 11,700 years ago, mega-fauna like saber-toothed cats had died out while humanity had inherited the Earth.


Maybe size really doesn't matter. At least to House Sparrows. There has been a hypothesis around for a while that the larger the black bib of a male sparrow the higher his status in the flock. Now an international team of researchers has knocked holes in that hypothesis, showing that there is really no evidence to support it.


The Yellowstone National Park that will be visited by future generations is likely to be quite different from the one that we know and love because of the effects of a warming climate. 


Reintroducing big cats, like tigers, to areas where they have been extirpated requires a lot of preparation and education of the local population to teach them how to live with the animals once again. 


One approach to helping the critically endangered red wolf increase population is to introduce captive bred pups into wild-born litters to be fostered. The Fish and Wildlife Service has done this successfully in some cases.


The Willow Warbler is a tiny bird and yet it has one of the longest migration routes for a species weighing ten grams or less. It typically flies more than 8,000 miles to reach its destination. Birds never cease to amaze me. 

Friday, November 16, 2018

Godsend by John Wray: A review

This novel is different from any that I can ever recall having read. It is a coming-of-age story, but it is no ordinary coming-of-age story.

John Wray was inspired to write his book by the story of the young American, John Walker Lindh, who became known as the "American Taliban." Lindh was captured as an enemy combatant during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, but he was a rather pitiable character who had apparently been originally inspired by idealism and a desire to study Arabic, for which purpose he had traveled to Yemen. Somewhere along the way he became radicalized and went to aid the Taliban in Afghanistan and he had the misfortune to still be there when the Saudi-led attack on the United States occurred.

Wray's main character is an idealistic 18-year-old from Santa Rosa, California, who makes a plan to travel to Peshawar, Pakistan, to study Islam at a madrasa. So far, not so different from Lindh, but there is one very important difference: She is a young woman.

Aden Grace Sawyer was an outsider, a loner. She had only one real friend. Her parents were separated and she lived with her mother, a hopeless alcoholic. Her father, who had been unfaithful in the marriage and had moved out, was a secular scholar of Islam. Aden despises her parents and her life and seeks to escape. She feels empty and wants something to fill her life with purpose. She becomes intrigued with the idea of studying Islam and devoting herself to the "struggle," and with her friend, Decker, develops the plan to go to Pakistan.

They get financial help for the trip from their local mosque and Aden shaves her head, binds her breasts with an Ace bandage, and secures a supply of pills to stop her menstrual cycle. As a woman, she could not study at the madrasa and so she will be a man. This may remind you of Isaac Bashevis Singer's story of Yentl, the rabbi's daughter who disguised herself as a boy in order to study at yeshiva. I find the parallels both revealing and ironic.

Once the two adventurers arrive at the small rural madrasa where they will study, they must choose new names. Aden takes the name Suleyman, which was also the name - or similar to it - that Lindh adopted and she begins her training.  It begins with learning the suras of the Qur'an by heart and progresses on to actual military training. Through a series of events, she ends up on the front lines of battle in Afghanistan just prior to the attacks of 9/11.

Aden/Suleyman is never completely trusted by the militants. They see her as something exotic. She is constantly in fear of being found out and knows the fate that would await her if she is.

The men continue to be suspicious of her and don't seem to know what to make of her, but she does become close to one of them, a leader who may, in fact, have known her secret.

Wray writes very convincingly about Islamic theology and about the religious fervor that motivates his characters. This is, in some ways, a religious thriller with the main character experiencing the terror of potential discovery. The writer makes this terror palpable and it is obvious that he has spent some time mastering the subject of life in Afghanistan and Pakistan and warfare as it is practiced there. He makes it all very real for the reader and he builds the tension to an intensely devastating ending.

I don't remember where I first heard of this book, but I was intrigued by its premise and immediately put it in my reading queue. I'm very glad I did. It's a book and an ending that I won't soon forget.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day - November 2018

Welcome to my zone 9a garden in Southeast Texas where we had our first light freeze of the season last night. The temperature barely dipped below the freeze mark but it was enough to turn many of my garden plants to brown mush. I had proactively taken my succulents and a few other potted plants to the garage to protect them, but those that were in the ground were on their own.

This freeze was actually a few weeks early. Our normal average first freeze date is December 10. Does this portend a colder than usual winter like we had last winter? We know that our weather patterns are changing but it is not yet entirely clear how they are changing or to what extent. Time will tell.

The cold night did not affect my roses that were in bloom.

'Lady of Shallott.'

'Peggy Martin' blooms profusely in spring but she also gives us some secondary blooms in the autumn.

'Julia Child.'

The freezing temperatures nipped the tips of some of the petals of this 'Belinda's Dream' bloom but it was mostly unaffected.

However, a lot of my plants looked like this porterweed today. It'll have no more blooms to feed the butterflies this year.

The Hamelia patens shrubs were frostbitten on top but the leaves nearer the ground were still green. All the blooms were gone, though.

When I knew cold weather was coming, I took some pictures over the weekend. This was the lantana then.

And here it is on Wednesday. Like the Hamelia, the bottom portion of the plant was not affected and the leaves are still green.

Which is probably good news for this caterpillar which was still feeding on the leaves today.

This red dahlia was blooming beautifully on the weekend. No more.

And the marigolds have been at their absolute best over the last couple of weeks.

Looking at marigolds in bloom always makes me happy.

Turk's cap was a bit frostbitten but still in bloom today.

And so are the chrysanthemums.

More chrysanthemums.

The Cape honeysuckle won't last long if we get much colder weather, but so far so good.

And, surprisingly, the blue plumbago was not affected. Apparently, the micro-climate where it lives stayed above freezing.

This 'King Humbert' canna was just about to bloom, but it won't now.

My few purple echinaceas are hanging in there.

And the few leaves still hanging on my little Japanese maple have turned this brilliant shade of burgundy. Nice to have some color still in the garden.

Thank you for visiting and participating in Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day and thank you Carol of May Dreams Gardens for hosting us.

Happy Bloom Day and happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Clockmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton: A review

Kate Morton's gothic tale of a haunted house encompasses over a hundred and fifty years of the house's history and a bewildering plethora of characters who have lived in it or whose lives have been touched by it.

It all kicks off in the summer of 1862 when a talented young artist named Edward Radcliffe travels with an entourage of friends in tow to a house called Birchwood Manor, located on the banks of the Upper Thames. The plan is that they will spend a relaxing month in the house, but before that month is over their best-laid plans have gone seriously awry. One woman has been shot dead, another one has disappeared, and a valuable family heirloom has gone missing. These events will haunt the next century and a half.

In the present day (2017) we meet Elodie, an archivist of the estate of a Victorian activist and reformer named James Stratton. We learn that Elodie is the daughter of a famous deceased cellist and that she is engaged to someone named Alastair whom we never actually meet but whom all evidence indicates is a controlling jerk.

One day at her work, Elodie discovers an old leather satchel that contains the sketchbook of the painter Edward Radcliffe. The book has a sketch of a house which is the spitting image of a house described to her by her mother (the now deceased cellist) in stories that she told her when Elodie was a child. There is also a sketch of a beautiful woman wearing a famed pendant known as the Radcliffe Blue. She is unsettled by these images and longs to see the house in the sketch.

She travels to Birchwood Manor where she hopes to solve a mystery about her mother's life...

Then the story veers away from Elodie and we learn more about Radcliffe and his model Lily and then all the other extensive cast of characters who have been a part of the house's history and by the time we return to Elodie a few hundred pages later (the book is 512 pages long) I had just about forgotten who she was.

The narrative continues on several parallel tracks and I found that very confusing. It didn't need to be that way, but there was no indication at each chapter's beginning as to whose story was being told. Thus, I would be reading along believing I was reading about one character when suddenly jolted to the awareness that it was someone else entirely. That annoyed me.

Moreover, new characters who proved to be central to the story continued to be introduced throughout the book. It was just too much. I think the book would have benefited from fewer characters and a tighter focus on the main story. None of the characters particularly excited my sympathy. Perhaps the titular character came closest, but the exposition of her tale was so interspersed and interrupted by all those other tales that I found it disconcerting.

All that being said, there is still much to like about the book. There is a rich amount of historical detail of the various periods that relate to the house's tale. Morton's prose is vividly descriptive and one can easily "see" the scene she is describing and feel the suspense that is evoked by events. But although the plot was interesting, I just couldn't find the characters all that engaging and I turned the last page with a sigh of relief.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Poetry Sunday: Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I, the War to End All Wars. We've been at war almost constantly since then.

World War I produced some wonderful writers, including poets. One of those poets was Wilfred Owen.

Owen was born in 1893 and he served in those awful trenches among the mud, the blood, the gas, and the other horrors of that war. And still he found time to write poetry.

He died in France on November 4, 1918, just one week before the Armistice. This poem was published posthumously. The title of the poem comes from a line from the Roman poet Horace: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori," translated as "It is sweet and honorable to die for one's country." 

How much sweeter it would have been to live for it.

Dulce et Decorum Est

by Wilfred Owen, 1893-1918
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

This week in birds - #328

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

A whole gang of winter visitors made their first appearance of the season in my backyard this week. 

They were led by the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a wonderful little bird that is often the first of our winter residents to show up. I've never actually been lucky enough to photograph one of these birds with that red crown exposed so I stole this one from

I also stole this photo of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher from the same source. None of my pictures from previous years were good enough. 

The first Eastern Phoebes of the season were very vocal around the neighborhood this week. (And this is my photo from a previous year.)

I took this picture of a Red-breasted Nuthatch the last time I had them visiting in winter two years ago. They don't get this far south every year, but it seems that this year we've hit the jackpot. I've been hearing them calling around the yard all week. 

It's looking like this may be a very good year for our winter visitors.


A federal judge has issued a repudiation of the current administration's decision to allow the disputed Keystone XL oil pipeline to proceed, saying that the administration failed to present a “reasoned explanation” for the move and “simply discarded” the effect the project would have on climate change. To which I say, "Well, duh!" "Reasoned explanations" are not this administration's stock in trade.


And in other news from the judiciary, a federal judge in North Carolina gave a reprieve and may have saved the critically endangered red wolf, at least for the moment. He ripped the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency's management of the last red wolf population in the wild, saying that an agency sworn to uphold a congressional mandate to preserve the animals violated it over and over, and even gave private landowners the right to shoot them. The judge ruled that a temporary injunction issued against Fish and Wildlife’s shoot-to-kill authorization in 2016 during the Obama administration is permanent. The agency must prove that a wolf is a threat to humans or livestock before it can make a decision to take its life.


The Mandarin Duck that has been visiting Central Park has created a ripple effect among the public, increasing their awareness of birds in general. This week a non-birder blogger went looking for the duck. He didn't find it, but he found lots of other birds and is now on eBird with his life list. Thus, a birder is born!


With Democrats now in Control of the House of Representatives, the new chairwoman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee is likely to be Texas Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson. She is a former chief psychiatric nurse which will make her the first House science committee chair with a science background since the 1990s.


In 2016, President Obama designated the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in U.S. Atlantic waters, protecting this critically important winter breeding and foraging habitat for Atlantic Puffins and 19 other species of seabirds. Commercial fishing groups filed suit to reverse the designation but a federal court has now ruled against the fishing groups and dismissed their complaint. Good news for the Atlantic Puffins whose acceptable habitat continues to shrink. 


In the past, sperm whales (like Moby Dick) have been resident primarily in the southern oceans of the planet, but several species of whales are moving farther north as the oceans warm and now a sperm whale has been sighted in the Canadian Arctic.


Life in the city can be tough. It tends to favor those that can be bold, even aggressive. That's true of birds, as well. A study of various chickadee species showed that dominant species of birds (Black-capped Chickadees, for example) are better able to survive and be successful in urban circumstances.


A survey of Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has found an incredible 660 species of bees living there. The area has a rich diversity of flowers and plant life that feed the bees. Utah's nickname is " The Beehive State"; it seems the title is well-earned.


The United Nations biodiversity chief warns us that losing the planet's biodiversity could be a means of signing our own death warrant. We could be documenting our extinction as a species. The collapse of ecosystems could eventually make our world uninhabitable for humans. Thus, by protecting biodiversity we protect ourselves.


Meanwhile, national parks continue to be at risk from the administration's energy agenda. Oil and gas development could permanently damage millions of acres of ecologically and culturally important public lands.


The declines in shorebird population can be directly linked to increased predation and nest destruction from the effects of global warming.


A study which appears in the journal PLoS One this month, suggests that people of color, especially Native Americans, face more risk from wildfires than whites. It is another example of how the kinds of disasters exacerbated by climate change often hit minorities and the poor the hardest. It's not necessarily that they live predominantly in those areas affected by such disasters but that often they do not have the means to quickly escape.


Birds don't read signs well so they may ignore the one that says "Butterfly Garden" and just barge on in. In fact, many of the requirements that butterflies have are the same as what birds need so they tend to like similar spaces


What do you know about Blue Jays? They are one of those ubiquitous backyard birds that we tend to take for granted, but an in depth study of the birds can reveal their hidden secrets. It is no secret, however, that jays are very intelligent birds.


Finally, here's a new citizen science project for you, one that we all can participate in. It's called Never Home Alone and it's aim is no less than to count all the arthropod species - insects and spiders primarily - that share our living space. Those in charge of the project are hoping to get at least 10,000 observations of arthropods from the public. Well, you are part of the public, so why not participate?