Sunday, July 21, 2019

Poetry Sunday: Personal Effects by Raymond Effects

This poem was brought to my attention by my Facebook friend, Bill Gould, who had heard it on Writers' Almanac on NPR. I looked it up and was captivated. Those last three stanzas are just perfect and priceless. I hope you agree.

Personal Effects

by Raymond Byrnes
The lawyer told him to write a letter
to accompany the will, to prevent
potential discord over artifacts
valued only for their sentiment.
His wife treasures a watercolor by
her father; grandmama’s spoon stirs
their oatmeal every morning. Some
days, he wears his father’s favorite tie.
He tries to think of things that
could be tokens of his days:
binoculars that transport
bluebirds through his cataracts
a frayed fishing vest with
pockets full of feathers brightly
tied, the little fly rod he can still
manipulate in forest thickets,
a sharp-tined garden fork,
heft and handle fit for him,
a springy spruce kayak paddle,
a retired leather satchel.
He writes his awkward note,
trying to dispense with grace
some well-worn clutter easily
discarded in another generation.
But what he wishes to bequeath
are items never owned: a Chopin
etude wafting from his wife’s piano
on the scent of morning coffee
seedling peas poking into April,
monarch caterpillars infesting
milkweed leaves, a light brown
doe alert in purple asters
a full moon rising in October,
hunting-hat orange in ebony sky,
sunlit autumn afternoons that flutter
through the heart like falling leaves.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

This week in birds - #361

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

Monk Parakeet image from

Monk Parakeets were brought to this country for the pet trade, but as so often happens, they escaped from captivity and have now made themselves quite at home in many areas of the country. They are very interesting and charming birds. Several years ago, two of them turned up in my neighborhood. I was never sure if they were a pair or just two individuals, but they lived here for well over a year, frequently visiting my bird feeders during that time. Eventually, one disappeared and then the other one was gone. I don't know if they moved on or if a predator got them. There haven't been any others colonizing this neighborhood. Yet.  


Earth just experienced its hottest June since records have been kept and is on track to break the record for July. The global average temperature for June was 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit above the norm.


The U.S. states that will be most quickly and directly affected by climate change are making the least effort to prepare. The people in those states are concerned but the politicians running the states continue to adhere to the policy of denying that climate change is occurring. Which begs the question, why do people keep electing politicians who are inimical to their interests?


And right here, right now much of the country is experiencing a dangerous heatwave with temperatures climbing near or above triple digits in some areas this weekend.


The Environmental Protection Agency, which no longer seems to be in the business of protecting the environment, says it will not ban the use of the controversial pesticide, chlorpyrifos, even though it has been linked to neurological damage in children.


A pod of nearly fifty pilot whales swam into shallow waters and some beached themselves on St. Simons Island in Georgia. Beachgoers rushed to the rescue, pushing the animals back out to sea. Three of the whales died, including one that had to be euthanized, but conservationists are hopeful that the others will survive. 


The tiny Kirtland's Warbler was once headed for extinction but, thanks to the protection of the Endangered Species Act, it has recovered and will soon be removed from the Endangered Species List. Some activists in Michigan where the bird nests are lobbying for it to be named the State Bird, replacing the American Robin.


The population of that iconic English bird, the House Sparrow, has plummeted in its own home town of London, falling by 71% since 1995. Avian malaria is suspected of being the cause of the drastic decline.


With the recent deluge provided by Tropical Storm Barry, Arkansas has become the fifth state to set a tropical storm rainfall record in the past two years.


A federal court has upheld the protections given to a rare and endangered bird, the California Gnatcatcher.


Fifty million non-native pheasants and partridges are released into the British countryside each year for the sole purpose of being shot by hunters. But, of course, not all of them are shot and the survivors are impacting the environment into which they have been artificially introduced. Now a British conservation organization, Wild Justice, is planning to sue to stop the practice.


This tiny, endangered butterfly, the El Segundo Blue, is making a comeback across Los Angeles where its habitat has been protected. 


Scientists have been surprised to find algae growing amid the snow on the sterile heights of a Chilean volcano. If it can grow there, might it also be present in other desolate worlds?


As the climate heats up, many birds are being forced into smaller habitats to find the cooler temperatures which they need. As they become confined to these areas, they are more at risk from predators.


A non-native tree, the Callery pear, aka the Bradford pear, took suburbia by storm in the 1990s. It is beautiful when in bloom and it was planted in many neighborhoods and along many streets. But beauty is as beauty does and this tree has proved to be an ugly invader. The invasive species is driving out native trees in eastern forests. Efforts are now underway, belatedly, to control it.


National Moth Week runs today through July 28. It's a time to increase our awareness of these critters and to learn to appreciate their role in Nature.


It turns out there are now two documented California Condor chicks that have been hatched in the wild this year - one at Utah's Zion National Park and one at the Grand Canyon. They are numbers 1000 and 1001 in the condor population. This represents a truly remarkable recovery since the population dwindled to 22 back in the 1980s and the remaining birds were captured and put in a captive breeding program.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Ulysses by James Joyce: A review

You know how writers sometimes seem to fall in love with a word and they use it over and over again? For James Joyce, that word was snot. In the first section of his magnum opus where we meet Stephen Dedelus and Buck Mulligan, that ugly word appears incessantly. People are snot-nosed, they carry snotrags, objects are snot-colored. Suffice to say if I had been playing a drinking game with snot as the trigger word, I would have been thoroughly soused by the time I finished this section.

It's not like I didn't know what I was getting into. I first read this book back in 2008 and the first sentence of the review that I wrote at the time was, "This was one of the most difficult books I've ever tried to read." The only change I would make to that assessment eleven years later is that it is the MOST difficult book I've ever tried to read. I did rather enjoy it that first time around, especially the last section which I think of as "Molly's soliloquy". I enjoyed the novelty of it and the knowledge that so many very intelligent critics considered this the greatest work in English literature in the 20th century. Maybe my patience has become more strained in the intervening years but this time I was mostly just annoyed by it. Starting with the word snot.

After that first section, we meet our Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, and we walk with him through Dublin on this one day in his life. It's a day in which he attends the funeral of a friend and spends much of the day imbibing and conversing with a coterie of mostly unattractive and irritating friends and acquaintances, and ends the day by taking Stephen, who has lost his living accommodation in the meantime, home with him.

That, in a nutshell, is Ulysses

What makes the book interesting is the way in which Joyce loosely followed the text of Odysseus in constructing his plot and all of the references in his book to classical works, including a very long bow to Shakespeare. One can acknowledge and admire the creativity and inventiveness of the writer and still be irritated by his work, I found.

This, of course, was one of the pioneers in the use of "stream of consciousness" in telling a story and the stream becomes a rushing torrent here. We experience it through the interior monologues of Bloom and of Molly Bloom, his wife.

Part of what bothered me about the book this time around - and I don't really remember remarking on this during my first read - was the casual racism, misogyny, and religious intolerance. Perhaps my consciousness has been raised since 2008! One must take into account the period in which a work was produced, and no doubt in the early 1900s, these attitudes prevailed in many circles, including perhaps Dublin. Still, it is jarring today.

Undoubtedly this book was and is a significant work of art, even with its bawdiness and vulgarity, and it has continued to influence other writers. Even Margaret Mitchell perhaps. One paragraph in the book begins "Gone with the wind." It goes on to talk about Tara. Did Mitchell read it and take that as an inspiration for her book?

I had promised myself that I would reread Ulysses one day, and after reading mostly light and very enjoyable books recently, I decided that it was time for a challenge. I'm glad I read it a second time. I don't think there will be a third.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars 

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner: A review

I read this novel just after reading Elin Hilderbrand's Summer of '69 and found myself occasionally mixing the two up, ascribing one of Hilderbrand's characters to Weiner. No doubt both authors would have been appalled, but there are actually some common themes. Both books could be said to be "women's stories"; the main characters are all female and the essential thrust of the stories is about young women coming of age, about coming to accept oneself, and about women's empowerment. And both books were very, very good.

Mrs. Everything tells the story of two sisters, Josette (Jo) and Elisabeth (Bethie) Kaufman. We first meet them as they are children growing up in the 1950s in Detroit and we follow them as they end up at university in Ann Arbor during its hippie period. From there Jo moves on to the oppressive atmosphere of suburban Connecticut and Bethie makes her way to a feminist collective in Atlanta, but it is what happens to these young women to impel them on to these destinations that makes up the heart of the plot.

Growing up, Jo is the wild child and the rebel who is not understood by her mother but has a loving relationship with her father. Bethie is the mother's ideal of a daughter - pretty, popular, and acquiescent. Jo, in fact, is struggling with her sexual identity and, in her teens, accepts the fact that she is homosexual. Bethie, on the other hand, has a series of boyfriends.

Then, the girls' world is turned upside down. Their father dies unexpectedly. Their mother who has never worked outside the home and never had to manage anything more complicated than the housework must go to work to support the family. Jo also finds a job as a camp counselor that takes her away from home for the summer. While she is away, in the guise of aiding the family, their father's brother begins sexually abusing Bethie. As with many young sexual abuse victims, Bethie finds it impossible to explain to her overwhelmed mother what is happening. But then Jo comes home from camp and Bethie, through sobs, manages to tell her. They make a plan for dealing with the uncle and it works!

But this is a pattern that will be repeated in their lives - Jo coming to the rescue of her younger sister.

Jo falls in love with her best friend, but they are unable to live together as a couple because of prejudice against homosexuals. Each young woman marries a man and attempts to live a "normal" life.

Through these two sisters, Weiner is able to tell the history of the women's rights movement in the '60s, '70s, and later. She also is able to fully explore the sexual awakening of a woman who came of age during a time that identifying as a lesbian would ensure that she was only able to participate in society on the fringes. Weiner's descriptions of sex between two women are particularly vivid and affecting. The sacrifices of their essential natures that these women made in order to be accepted by society are almost incomprehensible.

The story continues right to the present and even a bit beyond, and it contains tropes that will be familiar to many women who have lived through this era. Not that all woman have been sexually abused as a child or gang-raped as a young woman as Bethie was, but the societal attitudes regarding these and other occurrences will be instantly recognizable to others like me for whom the '60s, '70s, etc. may well be history but they are also part of our personal story.

I suppose Mrs. Everything is not a perfect book and a professional critic would probably find weaknesses to point out, but I was swept up in the two sisters' tale from the beginning. I laughed and cried and suffered angst right along with them, and I was sorry when I turned the last page.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

(Belated) Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - July 2019

We had internet problems yesterday and so I was not able to post an entry for Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day. Internet restored, so here it is a bit belatedly.

Full disclosure: Not all of these pictures are current but all of these plants are currently blooming in my southeast Texas (zone 9a) garden.

Crinum: Milk and wine lilies. 


My dinner-plate-sized hibiscus. 

Joe Pye weed, which isn't a weed at all but a native plant that pollinators love. 

Anisacanthus wrightii, flame acanthus.


 Echinacea: Purple coneflower.


Duranta erecta: Golden dewdrop.

 Almond verbena: Unobtrusive flowers with a heavenly scent.

 'Pride of Barbados,' one of my favorite summer bloomers.

Hamelia patens, aka Mexican firebush: Blooms for most of the year and is much favored by hummingbirds and all kinds of pollinators, like this bee.

 Crinum: 'Ellen Bosanquet.'

The ubiquitous crape myrtle - wouldn't be summer without 'em!

Texas sage: Its blooms are triggered by rain and we've had plenty of that so far this summer. 

 Cypress vine: An old-fashioned garden favorite of hummingbirds. And of me.

 And, last but not least, my ever-dependable blue plumbago.

Thank you for stopping by. I hope you'll leave a comment so I'll know you were here. And thank you, Carol of May Dreams Gardens, as always, for hosting this monthly meme. 

Happy (belated) Bloom Day to all!

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Poetry Sunday: No Name by Emily Berry

Scrolling through a collection of poems, looking for one to feature in this week's post, I came across this one that I had never heard of by a poet with whom I was unfamiliar. I was intrigued by the poem's name and I read on. I liked what I read and so here it is without explication or commentary. I hope you like it, too. 

No Name

by Emily Berry

What can I tell you? It was a summer that seemed to be
making history — their personal history — almost before
it began, and they stood back slightly, still in it, but
observing it, saying “the summer this,” “the summer that,”
all the while it was going on. They became obsessed with
a fountain, for example, one they walked past each day,
how abundantly it would reach upwards and yet be pouring
back down itself the whole time — all winter this fountain
had been dry, not saying a word. What more can I tell you?
Oh, everything — like how they would walk home in
the evenings when the light was soft, anything bad sliding
off them, and they would feel owned, completely owned,
in a good way, by the air, which would touch them constantly,
sometimes urgently, sometimes lightly, just to let them know
it was there, and they would think maybe this is what being
alive is, when they saw how complicated a tree was and how
it wanted them looking at it and saying this, how the color
of a particular flower at this particular moment was redder
even than the life force, whatever that is, if you could open
it up and get right down inside it, if you could put your mouth
to it and become as red as that rose even, it was still redder
than that, and they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves
so they wouldn’t do anything except listen to the songs in their
heads which were sad ones like nearly all good songs and watch
this feeling rolling in, sunshine or rain, we don’t know yet,
it’s a good one, it’s the best one, though it has no name.

Friday, July 12, 2019

This week in birds - #360

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

This is a Black Vulture, one of the two species of vultures that I see circling in the skies over my neighborhood every day. The other is the Turkey Vulture. The two are differentiated by the color of the skin on their heads. The Black Vulture's is black, as you see, and the Turkey Vulture's is red. These are part of Nature's clean-up crew. They perform a valuable service in keeping the Earth clean and preventing disease.


One of the features of tropical storms and hurricanes in this era of climate change is that they are a lot wetter. Barry, the storm that is now bearing down on the Louisiana coast, is expected to dump 10 to 20 inches of rain on the already saturated land and that could cause some extreme flooding. Of course, our area dealt with this issue when Hurricane Harvey hit and dumped up to 50 inches of rain in some places. Some of those places are still recovering from that storm. Let us hope that Louisiana gets luckier. 


The current administration in Washington is intending to approve the use of the pesticide Sulfoxaflor for use on a wide variety of crops. This pesticide is suspected of causing harm to bees. Beekeepers in the U.S. lost 40% of their hives during the past year and pesticides are believed to be one of the causes of the losses.


The repetitive call of the Whippoorwill is a sound that denotes the coming of spring in the north, but those calls are getting scarcer and scarcer as the species declines over a wide area of its range.


Volunteer counts of butterflies in Ohio have revealed some alarming numbers. It appears that butterfly numbers have fallen by as much as one-third over the last two decades.


This is an artist's reconstruction of an Elektorornis chenguangi, an extinct species of songbird that lived during the Cretaceous period some 99 million years ago. One of the birds was discovered partially entombed in amber and so we have a good idea of what they looked like. Note the elongated middle toe. Scientists believe the birds may have used that toe to extract insects from their hiding places in holes or under bark.


The once-threatened Peregrine Falcon has made a remarkable recovery since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring and brought our attention to the deadly effect DDT was having on our wildlife. The result was the banning of DDT and the passing of the Endangered Species Act and establishment of the EPA. In places like Minnesota where the Peregrine was once wiped out, the birds flourish today and they have had a very successful nesting season.


Wildlife crossings, bridges over or under highways where wildlife can pass without the threat of being run down by automobiles, obviously benefit the safety of the animals but they help ensure the safety of humans as well.


The critically endangered right whales have been dying in record numbers but there are high-tech fishing tools that could help to protect them.


Have you seen Snowball, the dancing Sulfur-crested Cockatoo? He's become an internet sensation and he has given scientists new perspectives on the origins of dance and why humans or cockatoos do it. 


Audubon has released a new report on the disappearance of North American grassland birds and what can be done to protect them in a climate-vulnerable landscape.


As ice caps and permafrost thaw in the warming climate, ancient life long held in stasis by the ice is being resurrected. Organisms from simple bacteria to multicellular organisms are being awakened to a new life.


Coyotes have returned to San Francisco after being absent for several decades and a photographer is capturing their return and adaptation to the life of the city.


Coral reef clownfish won't lay their eggs if the light is too bright. This is just one more example of how light pollution can have such a devastating effect on Nature.


One way seabirds manage competition is to forage for food at different depths in the ocean. For example, Guillemots and Razorbills dive much deeper for their food than do Puffins so even though they live in the same areas, they do not compete.


The presence of the California Condor chick at a nest in Zion National Park in Utah has now been confirmed. If it survives until it is able to fly - probably in November - it will be the first condor chick to fledge in the park.