Sunday, September 22, 2019

Poetry Sunday: Democracy by Leonard Cohen

Offered without comment except to say I can only hope, because "I love the country but I can't stand the scene".


lyrics by Leonard Cohen 

It's coming through a hole in the air,
from those nights in Tiananmen Square.
It's coming from the feel
that this ain't exactly real,
or it's real, but it ain't exactly there.
From the wars against disorder,
from the sirens night and day,
from the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It's coming through a crack in the wall;
on a visionary flood of alcohol;
from the staggering account
of the Sermon on the Mount
which I don't pretend to understand at all.
It's coming from the silence on the dock of the bay,
from the brave, the bold, the battered heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It's coming from the sorrow in the street,
the holy places where the races meet;
from the homicidal bitchin'
that goes down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve and who will eat.
From the wells of disappointment
where the women kneel to pray
for the grace of God in the desert here
and the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State!
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on.
It's coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It's here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it's here they got the spiritual thirst.
It's here the family's broken
and it's here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It's coming from the women and the men.
O baby, we'll be making love again.
We'll be going down so deep
the river's going to weep,
and the mountain's going to shout Amen!
It's coming like the tidal flood
beneath the lunar sway,
imperial, mysterious,
in amorous array:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Sail on, sail on ...

I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can't stand the scene.
And I'm neither left or right
I'm just staying home tonight,
getting lost in that hopeless little screen.
But I'm stubborn as those garbage bags
that Time cannot decay,
I'm junk but I'm still holding up
this little wild bouquet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

This week in birds - #370

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

A Long-billed Curlew walks along the beach in Galveston.


An alarming analysis published in the journal Science this week reported that the number of birds in North America has fallen by 29 percent since 1970. That means that there are 2.9 billion fewer birds in our skies than there were only 50 years ago. As the head of the National Audubon Society stated, this represents a "full-blown crisis". It is not only the endangered species that are in trouble, even more common robins and sparrows have had steep losses in this period.


The Winter Finch Forecast is out and it is predicted that this will not be an irruptive winter for those birds. It seems this has been a good year for the conifers in Canada and the North and it is likely that the birds will be able to find the food they need there without having to fly farther south.   


The attempt by the current administration in Washington to build a wall along our southern border threatens to damage or destroy archaeological sites there. It's unlikely that these wall-builders care much about archaeology.


The ongoing effort to reestablish grizzly bears in the Northern Cascades could be complicated by the administration's changes to the implementation of the Endangered Species Act.


A Marine Protected Area (MPA) has been designated for the waters around Ascension Island, a UK Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic. This will be part of a massive MPA planned to include St. Helena and Tristan da Cunha Islands, as well. These islands are sometimes referred to as the "Atlantic Galapagos".


We know the devastating effects hurricanes can have on humans and their structures, but what about their effects on Nature? Birds, for example. Birds are very resilient creatures and when a hurricane has a catastrophic effect on a species, it is usually because that species has already been pushed to the brink by human activities.


It is unclear whether insects are buzzing around more often and in greater numbers recently or if weather radar is simply becoming more efficient. What is clear is that swarms of insects are showing up as undulating blobs on weather radar screens around the country.

Those blobs are not rainstorms, they are actually images of swarms of dragonflies caught by the National Weather Service radar in Cleveland.


Wilderness areas help to protect biodiversityThe global conservation community has been urged to adopt a specific target of protecting the world's remaining wilderness areas to prevent large scale loss of at-risk species. 


Most plants on the prairie have very deep roots, but a recent study indicates that those deepest roots are not used for bringing water to the plants, so what the heck are they used for, the "Prairie Ecologist" wonders?  


80,000-year-old Neanderthal footprints found in France are helping archaeologists to fill in some of the gaps in knowledge about the culturally and socially complex lives of our closest extinct human relatives.


A nesting Magpie recently proved to be a deadly menace in Australia. These birds vigorously defend against anything that they see as a threat to their nests, swooping on the perceived interloper and pecking at it. Unfortunately, a 76-year-old man on a bicycle recently was perceived as such a threat and was swooped on by the nesting Magpies. He swerved off the road trying to avoid them and crashed into a fence post, suffering severe head injuries. He later died of those injuries.


Greater Sage-Grouse numbers have been falling drastically across the West. Montana recently reported that its population of the birds has fallen by 40 percent over the past three years. 


A small population of the ‘Alalā, the Hawaiian Crow, has been reintroduced to their native habitat and they are learning to live in the wild. A pair of the birds actually built a nest this spring and the female sat on the nest while the male fed her, in the way of these crows. Ultimately the nest was unsuccessful, but scientists see it as a hopeful sign that the birds are acclimating. 


The effects of global warming are disrupting the breeding activities of grassland birds like the Little Bustard, a vulnerable European species.


Tennessee, like many other states, has instituted the practice of allowing wildflowers to bloom unmolested along the verges of its highways as a way of providing sustenance for butterflies and pollinators. I'm happy to say that Texas is a pioneer in this effort. The rights-of-way beside our roadways are glorious in their beauty during wildflower bloom seasons.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Last Book Party by Karen Dukess: A review

This is another book that falls in the "beach fiction" category. I seem to have read several of those this summer. That wasn't really planned; it just sort of happened that way. 

For this one, the year is 1987. We head out to the Truro section of Cape Cod where most of the action takes place, but we start in New York where 25-year-old Eve Rosen is a bright young editorial assistant at a publishing house. It is a dead-end job and she is bored, so when she has an opportunity to leave it and take a position as a research assistant for the summer for Henry Grey, a well-regarded New Yorker writer, she jumps at the chance. Grey and his poet wife, Tillie, spend their summers in a Truro bungalow that is a magnet for writers and intellectual types. Their handsome son, Franny, also spends time there. And the bungalow is where Eve's new job will take place. 

We learn that Eve is a wannabe writer herself, but she hasn't actually finished a story in years and she hasn't had anything published since college. She has a younger brother who is a math prodigy and he is considered the genius in the family, a genius who suffers from some psychological issues. He absorbs their parents' interest and concern and Eve's talents are not valued by them. They seem to be waiting for her to find some man to marry who will take care of her. But for now, they will permit her to live with them at their home on Truro while she pursues her summer job with Henry Grey.

Eve becomes infatuated first with Franny and then with Henry, which makes for some awkwardness. Henry proves to be very seductive with thoroughly predictable results, while his wife is off pursuing her own pleasures. Meanwhile, the couple continues planning their big end of summer book party where the guests come dressed as a favorite literary character and everyone gets to try to guess who they are. The choice of a character to impersonate can tell much about how the person sees him/herself. Or not, in some cases. All of the action of the summer seems pointed toward that party. 

Dukess' book is full of literary references and she evidences a real love of many of the classics of literature. She also shows a love a language, although I did find one example that set my teeth on edge. She referred to someone "honing in" on a subject. One sees that more and more and my online dictionary even says it is an acceptable alternative to "homing in". Well, it isn't acceptable to me! It's just wrong and annoying.

I was interested in the plot of this novel and its depiction of the book scene, but in the end, it seemed to me that there was not much there there. At least, there wasn't much that contained a fresh perspective. And after I finished and thought back on the story, I realized that none of the characters had really engaged my interest. They just didn't make much of an impression on me. On the whole, the book was a light beach read, something that can hold the attention for the afternoon but is not destined to be remembered and savored.  

My rating: 3 of 5 stars 

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Travelers by Regina Porter: A review

When I opened Regina Porter's book and found at its beginning a list of 33 characters, I was immediately tempted to close it up again and reach for another book in my reading queue. But the book had been highly recommended as my "kind of book", one that I was sure to enjoy, so I persisted and immersed myself in this generational story.

All of those 33 characters turned out to be members of or connected to two families, one black and one white, and the story is a portrait of race relations in America beginning in the Jim Crow era of the 1950s and ending during Barack Obama's presidency in 2010. Moreover, as well as traveling through time, the characters travel around the world in the space of these decades. Buckner County, Georgia is central to the story, but various characters spend time in New Hampshire, New York City, Los Angeles, Vietnam, Brittany, Berlin, and the list goes on. Over time, the families become blended and interconnected through love/sex/marriage until the differences hardly seem to matter anymore. If they ever did.

The story hops and skips through time, never taking a linear course. There is no beginning, middle, and end as such. Everything blends together - like the families - over time. The story washes over the reader and finally, when one is able to view it as a whole, patterns emerge. Because of the structure of the story, it is almost impossible to summarize the plot. (Is there even a "plot"?) These characters drift together and apart through the North and South, suffering tragedies and the occasional triumph but mostly just existing in what we might call "normal lives". Porter's tale is essentially one of ordinary people who are looking to make a meaningful connection in life, one that will help them feel less alone.

I found that the proliferation of characters was never really a problem for me. If I ever began to feel confused about a particular relationship, I simply kept reading and soon I was able to make the connection I needed. Porter's writing made that easy. Her prose borders on the poetic at times. It is occasionally leavened with humor but is always filled with empathy and caring for her very human characters.

All in all, I found this another remarkable debut novel. Porter has written an intimate family portrait that could be about any of our families. It was an engrossing read. I'm glad I persisted.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - September 2019/Poetry Sunday

Once again Carol of May Dreams Gardens is hosting Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day for us and I am happy to welcome you to my zone 9a garden just northwest of Houston, Texas. 

Our plentiful rains of the spring and early summer are a faded memory here in mid-September. We have transitioned into a very dry late summer, as we hope for the respite of autumn rain - preferably not accompanied by a hurricane. Most of my plants are looking a bit worse for wear as they endure the long, hot, dry days, but many still manage to produce blooms to brighten the garden.

 September is time for asters.

 And more asters.

The purple oxalis has been resting for much of the summer but now it is producing blooms again.

 The gaudy flowers of the crape myrtles continue - in watermelon red...

 ...and in pink.

 Esperanza, aka yellow bells, reaches for the sky.

 The blue plumbago plants are a bank of blossoms now.

 Even Joe Pye weed has decided to have another go at blooming.

The milkweed has done well but has had very few Monarch visitors this summer. And I've seen no eggs or caterpillars.

 The jatropha has had perhaps its best summer ever.

 And the 'Lady of Shallott' rose has been a winner.

On the fence that separates the front and backyards, the evergreen wisteria has been blooming its heart out.

 Even the Rudbeckia 'Goldstrum' still has a few blossoms.

 And so does the vitex that has bloomed beautifully all summer.

 The Hamelia patens, aka Mexican firebush, is in its glory now.

 And the oleander still sends out a few flowers.

 In the goldfish pond, a single water lily bloom hides among the leaves.

Firespike sends out more blooms as the weather gets cooler, but it is getting a head start now.

They bloomed in early spring but even now that they are dry the blossoms of the hydrangea are still beautiful.

 In fact, I like them just as well now as when they were new and fresh.

 'Pride of Barbados' is past its main flush of blooms but still has a few.

And they are very attractive to butterflies like these Giant Swallowtails. 

In other non-blooming news from the garden:

 The Meyer lemon crop is coming along nicely.

 As are the Mandarin oranges.

Many of the white beautyberries have already been devoured by hungry birds. 

But never mind. There are still plenty of the purple ones left. 

The golden dewdrop berries of Duranta erecta are already being eaten by the birds as well.

Earlier this summer, my little Japanese maple lost most of its leaves to a fungal disease. Undaunted, it is now producing a second crop.
 Just in time to drop them in the fall.

And in the goldfish pond, there is a new contingent of tiny goldfish, just added after the last of my old fish succumbed a few months earlier. And the goldfish have as their companions lots of these tiny tadpoles. Yes, the frog population of my garden seems to be doing quite well.

 And that makes my little buddy happy!


September brings a beauty of its own and dreams of the seasons to come...

September Flowers

by Joseph Narusiewicz

September wild flowers grow free
Purple, yellow, lavender, all beam joy
Fall is starting to turn the sumac
A walk can be such a wondrous trip

The air is crisp and vibrant
Touches of red show in the maples
Geese land in slews and ponds
Oaks seem so noble and strong

Hills filled with lush life
Songs of an autumn moon
Radiant sun brings azure blue
Birch and elm reach for love

Greens of summer still rule
This path has many wild flowers
The lake will soon freeze
Meadows will cover with snow

Rain has made everything vibrant
Moss and pine trees grow mellow
Mushrooms glow with sunlight
Soft breezes make the leaves dance

Blue birds gather on a fallen tree
Squirrels gather their acorns
Great Cottonwoods loom like giants
Old logs, field grass, daisies

I sigh amidst the September flowers

This week in birds - #369

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

Three immature Brown Pelicans stand on a road in the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. Both Brown and White Pelicans are present in the refuge.


Every year on September 11, there are two soaring beams of light turned on over Lower Manhattan as a tribute to those that died in the attack on this date in 2001. Unfortunately, these lights are deadly for birds, bats, and insects that are confused by them and can circle around them until they are completely exhausted. A tribute that kills thousands of migrating birds does not seem an appropriate way to remember those who were lost that day.


There are now places on Earth that have already heated up past the 2 degrees Centigrade that climate scientists say represent a danger point and these zones are growing. 


We know that the asteroid that hit the Gulf of Mexico off of Yucatan 66 million years ago was the beginning of the end of the Mesozoic Era and the dinosaurs. But now, by drilling into the Chicxulub crater, scientists are getting a better idea of just what happened after impact. 


Beekeepers are suing the EPA over the agency's approval of the use of pesticides that harm bees. The lawsuit, filed this week in the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, names the agency and its administrator, Andrew Wheeler, as defendants.


Meanwhile, a new study published in Science magazine indicates that exposure to neonicotinoid pesticides may be contributing to steep declines in songbird populations. The researchers found that White-crowned Sparrows that were so exposed lost weight and delayed their migration, unlike birds that did not have that exposure.


Extreme weather events have displaced a record seven million people from their homes during the first seven months of this year. This puts 2019 on a pace to be one of the most disastrous in almost two decades.


The "Prairie Ecologist" takes us butterfly hunting.


Two newly discovered species of electric eel pack a pretty hefty jolt at 860 volts. While not strong enough to kill a healthy human, it is certainly sufficient to get the attention of the scientists who handle them in their studies. 


Antarctica has only one known native insect - the Antarctic midge. The midge spends more than half of its life frozen. The scientists who study them are hoping that understanding the insect's survival strategy might have implications for managing human health issues.


The latest pick to run the Fish and Wildlife Service follows the trend of former industry lobbyists being selected to run government agencies. The nominee, Aurelia Skipwith, previously worked for agricultural giant Monsanto as well as other agricultural businesses.


New Jersey has been trying to re-establish a population of Bobwhite Quail, which had been extirpated there, in the state. They are looking at making bigger releases of the bird to try to help the process along.


It is feared that a new heatwave "blob" may be developing in the Pacific Ocean that could cause deadly algae blooms and kill sea lions and other marine mammals like a similar phenomenon that occurred in the same area in 2014-2016.


The current administration in Washington plans to scrap the Obama-era definition of what qualifies as "waters of the United States" under the Clean Water Act. It would return the country to the standards put in place in 1986Critics say the rollback will speed the conversion of wetlands and headwaters, which provide critical habitat for wildlife and support the nation’s drinking-water supply.


The bright colors of poison dart frogs serve a purpose; they are a warning to predators to steer clear of them. A study shows that the differences in markings matter, but that in spite of those variations, the differently-marked frogs thrive.


Birders can make their yards more welcoming for migrating birds - or indeed for permanent resident birds - by planting native plants that provide food for them and by encouraging the insects which are devoured by birds. A balanced ecosystem is the best way to welcome the birds.

Friday, September 13, 2019

A Better Man by Louise Penny: A review

This is the fifteenth in Louise Penny's Three Pines Armand Gamache mystery series. She produces a new one, regular as clockwork, every summer. Her multitude of fans, among whom I count myself, await them impatiently. 

The bane of long series like this one is that their plots tend to become formulaic and predictable. Somehow Penny has avoided this. Each new entry seems to break new ground and deal with the current state of the world. In A Better Man, she explores as she has not before the deep physical and psychological damage that domestic violence does in long-term effects on the personalities of victims. And she examines the damage that the unbridled hate expressed through social media does to the fabric of society. 

Moreover, it is not just the human on human violence, both physical and psychological, that play an important role in this plot; the violence of Nature is the backdrop of it all. It is April, "the cruelest month", and Quebec is experiencing catastrophic floods such as it has not seen before. The little village of Three Pines watches as its meandering Bella Bella River becomes a raging torrent and threatens to wash the village away. The villagers fight to save their homes with sandbags to hold back the waters and backhoes to divert some of the floods.

Meanwhile, of course, crime does not take a holiday. 

After the events of the last book, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache had been demoted and suspended for nine months. No longer the head of the Surete du Quebec, he had been offered the position of head of Homicide Division, a position he held many years before. It was intended as an insult and humiliation and they were sure he wouldn't accept. After all these years, little do his enemies understand Gamache. 

As this book begins, it is his first day back on the job as head of Homicide, sharing the position with his son-in-law Jean-Guy Beauvoir who has resigned and will be leaving the Surete in a couple of weeks. He's not only leaving the Surete, he's leaving Canada. He and his growing family are moving to Paris.

On this first day, Gamache learns from one of the officers of a report of a missing woman. The distraught father had contacted the officer, whom he knew, to ask for her help. His daughter was married to a man who abused her and now she has disappeared. The father is sure that something terrible has happened.

As the investigators begin their work, they find themselves jumping to an easy conclusion as to what might have happened. It seems so obvious to them all that the husband must have done something to her. We see them not approaching the investigation with open minds but seeking to find evidence that will prove their theory. 

Then as the flood continues, the body of the woman is found tangled in the roots of a tree along the riverbank. It becomes a potential murder investigation.

There are multiple twists and turns and red herrings in this plot. I despaired of ever figuring out whodunit, but in the end, it all came together and made a kind of sense.

As always with a Penny book, this provided a pleasant read. Opening one of her books is always a bit like visiting old friends. My only complaint really is that she lays it on a bit thick with the descriptions of the decency and open-heartedness of all the villagers, even Ruth the irascible poet and her duck, and she often recapitulates events of previous books for those who haven't read them. (Are there even such people?) It becomes a bit tiresome for us old Three Pines hands. But that is a minor quibble.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars