Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A good guy without a gun

We've all heard and read the mantra of the National Rifle Association and their rabid supporters that says that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, the implication being that the good guy with a gun will shoot the bad guy with a gun. Crisis over.

Not necessarily. James Shaw didn't have a gun when he rushed and disarmed a man with an AR 15 rifle who was shooting up the Waffle House in Nashville. The man had killed four people and seriously injured others. Who knows how many might have died if James Shaw hadn't had the courage to act?

Maybe I've missed them but I haven't seen or heard any statements from the NRA or the usual suspects, including the tweeter-in-chief, lauding Shaw for his courageous action. Perhaps it's because once he got the gun away he didn't use it to shoot the attacker. Or maybe it's because he just doesn't fit the profile of the "heroes" in the fables they tell themselves. 

James Shaw, an ordinary man who "just wanted to live." (Image from The New York Times.)

Yes, sometimes what it takes to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with his bare hands. And courage.

Hat tip to Nick Anderson.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Pale Criminal by Philip Kerr: A review

"When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it." - Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett was the master of noir and Philip Kerr seemed determined to follow in his footsteps. But his series featuring gumshoe Bernie Gunther is set not on the mean streets of LA but on the meaner streets of Berlin in the era when National Socialism held sway. This second book in the series is set in the fall of 1938, the period leading up to the terror of Kristallnacht. 

I read and reviewed the first book in the series, March Violets, in 2012 and I had intended to read more but just somehow never got around to it. Then I read last week that Kerr had recently died, although he was only in his early 60s. That was just the nudge that I needed to get back to Bernie Gunther and see what was happening with him. 

What was happening was that he had taken on a partner in his private detective business. Their business consisted mostly of trying to find missing persons, as people had a way of frequently disappearing in the Berlin of 1938. But in his most recent case, he had been hired by a rich widow to find out who was blackmailing her. One night, while working on the case, his partner has a house under surveillance, and someone manages to surprise and kill the partner. In the words of that philosopher Sam Spade, Bernie needs to "do something" about it.

Before Bernie is able to do much, he is approached by KRIPO, the Berlin criminal police, to come back to work for them and help them find a serial killer. The killer is abducting teenage girls, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, perfect specimens of Aryan womanhood and raping and killing them in the most brutal manner. KRIPO had tried to frame an innocent Jew for the murders but that all went awry, much to their embarrassment, so now they need a good and unbiased detective to find out what really happened.

Bernie is induced to take the KRIPO job and the search is on for a sadistic killer.

Kerr methodically builds his plot line, including much historical background of the period. It is interesting to see the police and ordinary citizens going about their business during months in which we now know that the tension was building toward the outbreak of violence that came in November. We also follow the reports of "negotiations" between Germany, England, and France, and Germany's ultimate takeover of the Sudetenland. 

Kerr presents his protagonist Bernie Gunther as non-racist and anti-Nazi, but Bernie could certainly not be described as an enlightened character. He is casually homophobic and misogynistic. He can't seem to address a woman without undressing her in his mind and imagining himself embraced by her thighs. He tolerates a certain amount of violence by the policemen under his supervision. There's no such thing as civil rights of the accused in Nazi Germany.

Bernie is, in short, a man of his times and one recognizes that the author appears to have made a conscious choice not to whitewash his characters. He presents them, warts and all, in the context of the brutal society in which they lived and by exploring their reactions to the events of their times, he is able to trace that society's descent into madness. There is a lot to digest here and much to give us pause, I think, about our own society.

I did find it somewhat irritating that the characters speak in their own period tough-guy patois, using jargon which one can only struggle to understand within the context of the action. I suppose using this language adds a certain amount of verisimilitude, but often I just find it distracting.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Poetry Sunday: Remember by Joy Harjo

I was actually looking for a poem for Earth Day when I ran across this poem and as often happens, it spoke to me. It said, "Pick me! Pick me!" And so I did.

I had frankly not heard of this poet, but I was struck first of all by the fact that she was born on my father's birthday, May 9, and secondly by the fact that she is a Native American woman. Some of the most evocative and meaningful (to me) poetry that I've read in recent months has been written by Native American women.

Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 9, 1951, and is a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation. In 2015, she received the Wallace Stevens Award, given for proven mastery in the art of poetry. Here is her poem that spoke to me.


by Joy Harjo

Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.

Friday, April 20, 2018

This week in birds - #300

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

It's warbler season again and here's a Wilson's Warbler, a regular visitor to my backyard on spring migration.


Pity the poor Texas hornshell, a sleek green-grey mussel that once thrived in the Rio Grande watershed, its habitat stretching from southern New Mexico down into the arid Texas borderlands. Unfortunately for the hornshell, its habitat happens to overlap with rich deposits of oil and gas. Amid a long-term decline in its range, the Obama administration in 2016 proposed to declare the mussel an endangered species. Upon taking office, however, the current administration changed tack. A top Interior Department official, Vincent DeVito, has delayed federal protections for the species at the behest of fossil-fuel industry groups, one of several examples of this agency's willingness to prioritize the needs of petroleum industries with business before the government over the needs of threatened species.


When birds collide with human structures, the bird is most often the loser. It is important to understand bird behavior in order to plan ways to reduce the risk to them posed by human development.


In response to almost universal criticism, the Interior Department will drop its plans for steep increases in entrance fees for national parks. Instead it plans to implement a $5 per vehicle increase effective June 1.  


In Georgia, scientists are testing an antifungal agent called B23 that is derived from wild pineapples in an effort to combat white-nose syndrome, the disease that has been devastating America's bats. It has shown some effectiveness in fighting the fungus that causes the disease and scientists are hopeful.


There is more hopeful news regarding bats, or at least one species of bat. The lesser long-nosed bat is one of three bat species in the United States that feeds on nectar. Its existence was threatened and it was placed on the endangered species list in 1988, but now it has recovered sufficiently that it is being removed from that list


Ryan Zinke, the Interior Secretary has been diligent in removing protections from public lands that had been instigated by previous administrations, but not so much in his home state of Montana where protections for public lands are popular. In that state, he has refused to give the fossil fuel companies what they want. He denies, of course, that his home state is receiving special treatment.     


The last remaining herd of caribou to roam the forty-eight contiguous United States is believed to be effectively extinct. Only three animals are known to have survived the recent winter, and all are females.


Zimbabwe is truly a birder's paradise. It is home to one of the greatest concentrations of birds of prey to be found anywhere in the world. The birds can be found among the towering rock formations and thick forests of Matobo National Park, which is home to more than 400 species of birds.


The heat wave of 2016 was devastating to the coral of the Great Barrier Reef. A new study estimates that as much as 30% of the coral died in the catastrophic heat.


Microscopic analyses of tiny diamonds imbedded in a meteorite that exploded over the Nubian Desert in Sudan a decade ago have led scientists to conclude that they were formed deep inside a lost planet that once circled the sun in the early solar system.


A plan to pump water from aquifers under the Mojave Desert would likely destroy Bonanza Spring, a life-giving source of water for wildlife in the desert. 


In last week's roundup, I reported on efforts to save the fragile ecosystems of the Louisiana coastline from rising seawaters. This week, scientists unveiled an enormous 10,000 square foot model of the Mississippi Delta that shows just how they hope to accomplish this. 


The Northern Bobwhite, like many birds of the grassland, has been declining in population and is in danger of losing its fight for continued existence, but it is getting some help from humans. There are many programs in place to reintroduce the bird into areas where it had disappeared. One of those is in New Jersey. The state's reintroduction plan has been a success and an expansion of it is under consideration. 


Entomology Today reports on "A Day in the Life of an Urban Entomologist."  These entomologists work in environments that are drastically modified by human beings.


The Interior Department has made it clear this week that it is sapping the strength of a century-old law to protect birds, issuing guidance that the law would not be used as it has been in the past to hold people or companies accountable for killing migratory birds. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act will no longer apply even after a catastrophic event such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that destroyed or injured up to a million birds. Companies and individuals are essentially free to kill birds without consequence, as far as the agency charged with protecting our environment is concerned.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley: A review

Having recently finished reading N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy which featured stone humanoid creatures called stone eaters, I was well-prepared to meet Natasha Pulley's Peruvian markayuq, humanoid creatures that give every appearance of being stone statues. Gradually it becomes apparent that the markayuq are actually capable of movement and that they are guardians of a sacred forest. They are treated like Christian saints by the villagers in the area where they exist. The villagers bring offerings to them and pray to them. But all of this is far along into the story told in The Bedlam Stacks. The beginning is something else altogether.

It is 1859 when we meet Merrick Tremayne on the family estate in Cornwall. He is - or has recently been - an employee (actually a smuggler) of the East Indian Company until he was caught in the middle of the Opium Wars in a battle near Canton where his leg was injured so badly that he almost lost it. Now, he's back home with his brother, Charles, on the sprawling, crumbling estate called Heligan. He's able to walk with the aid of a cane, but he is far from recovered.

Strange things are happening at Heligan. A tree explodes, setting off small fires, and a stone statue that overlooks Merrick's and Charles' father's grave appears to move. When Merrick mentions the moving statue, Charles threatens to have him committed to an asylum, where their mother is already in residence. 

The estate is virtually bankrupt and Charles, insisting that Merrick must earn his way, secures a post for him as a parson in a nearby village. It appears that he may have no choice but to accept, until his old employer comes to the rescue with a scheme to send him to Peru to secure cuttings from the cinchona trees from which quinine is made. There is a serious outbreak of malaria in India and quinine is desperately needed.

Merrick initially turns down the assignment with the response that he is physically unfit for such a trip, but then his old friends Clem and Minna Markham show up to persuade him. Clem will lead the expedition and all that will be required of Merrick is to get the cuttings and deliver them safely to India. Easy peasy, as my kids used to say.

Most of the action in the book takes place in Peru in a village called New Bethlehem or Bedlam to which Merrick has a familial connection. His father and grandfather had been there before him.

The Bedlam Stacks are actually volcanic obsidian formations around which the village is built. The priest of the village is named Raphael and he is charged with guiding the Markham/Tremayne expedition. Curiously, there is a salt line barrier between the village and the nearby forest and everyone is forbidden from crossing that line. Anyone who does cross it will be killed, as several previous expeditions have learned to their sorrow. The one person who is able to freely cross the line and return safely is Raphael.

Raphael is an interesting character, probably my favorite. The growing friendship between him and Merrick is one of the most compelling plot lines in the story. It becomes particularly important when Markham proves himself to be an overweening jerk. But I mustn't give too much away...

This is a book that is hard to categorize. It is part historical fiction, but has elements of a thriller and of science fiction or fantasy; however, at its heart it is the story of a unique friendship. The book starts slowly and the parts that take place in Cornwall are a bit confusing at first, but once we arrive in Peru, the action quickly picks up speed. The prose is beautiful and the descriptions of landscape make the reader feel as though she is there. All in all, a fascinating read. 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Saturday, April 14, 2018

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - April 2018/Poetry Sunday: A Prayer in Spring by Robert Frost

A Prayer in Spring

by Robert Frost

OH, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfil.


Robert Frost certainly appreciated the pleasures of spring - the flowers, the happy bees, perfect trees, and the darting bird. Including the hummingbird, that "meteor that thrusts in with needle bill, and off a blossom in mid air stands still."

The pleasures of spring are many, but few are greater than the return to the garden of flowers with their bright colors.

The parade of April flowers in my garden is led by the amaryllis and the rose.

My first amaryllis to bloom this year.

Closely followed by this beauty.

And soon to be followed by this one.

And, of course, the roses. This is another view of 'Peggy Martin' which I had featured in my last Wednesday's post. 

'Julia Child.' She looks almost good enough to eat!

'Belinda's Dream,' a longtime favorite of mine.

'Lady of Shalott,' a David Austin rose that I planted last year. I've been very pleased with her.

This is an unknown rose. It came up as a volunteer in the garden and I assume it may have come from the root stock of one of the grafted roses. I quite like its small, loose petaled red blossoms. 

This is 'Christopher Marlowe,' another Austin rose planted last year. It has been in almost constant bloom except for a brief rest during the coldest part of winter.

At one time I had several Knockout roses in the garden, but a couple of years ago, they were struck by a disease that laid waste to them. This was the only survivor. It seemed to have a natural immunity and it is still healthy and blooms profusely.

'Darcy Bussell,' another favorite of mine.

The loquat tree bloomed during winter and now it still sports a few fruits.

This is a weed called oxalis which infests my garden, but it is such a pretty weed that I can't bring myself to try to eradicate it. Anyway, it disappears once the weather heats up. I do grow the purple cultivar on purpose, but it isn't in bloom at the moment.

And then there is this weed, hanging over the fence from my neighbor's yard. I wage war against it every spring. It is Japanese honeysuckle. It smells and looks lovely, but it is highly invasive and will crowd out native plants if given half a chance. No matter how pretty it is, DO NOT PLANT THIS PLANT!

Plant this one instead. This is native coral honeysuckle.

The pomegranate tree has never been so full of blooms as it is this year.

Marguerite daisies.

The poppies are mostly gone now, but this one continues to send out some blooms.

Pentas, a butterfly favorite.

Salvia greggii, red variety.

Salvia greggii, raspberry variety.

Next to the goldfish pond, the white yarrow is blooming.

Aquilegia canadensis, red columbine.

The oakleaf hydrangea will be in full bloom in a few days.

The old magnolia tree is beginning its bloom. In the past, it reliably bloomed in May, but now it seems to start earlier every year.

My garden continues to awaken from its winter sleep. Almost every day, I find another plant that I thought I might have lost to the cold is making its appearance once again, even some of the dahlias that I planted last year! Each new day is an adventure.

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

And how is the adventure going in your garden this April? 

Friday, April 13, 2018

This week in birds - #299

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

A trio of Wild Turkeys that I photographed at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Coast.


Planting native plants instead of exotics in the garden has become something of a movement among gardeners in recent years and there are good reasons for it. As far as the gardener is concerned, a native plant is adapted to the environment and is more likely to survive and do well. But native plants also are more likely to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects and those insects in turn attract birds, amphibians, and reptiles that feed on them. It's a win, win, win. You can't beat that! 


If you were attending - or watching on television - the Minnesota Twins opening day game against the Seattle Mariners, you might have gotten more than you were expecting when a Bald Eagle landed on the shoulder of Mariners starting pitcher James Paxton. If you just saw the picture without the context, you might have thought the eagle was trying to abduct Paxton! Well, actually it wasn't a wild eagle, it was a tame, trained eagle who was part of the opening day ceremonies, but he became confused. There is an explanation, of course.  


A new study published this month in in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences makes the case that maintaining biodiversity is an important tool for staving off extinction.


The Gulf Stream, the warm current in the Atlantic that has historically caused dramatic changes in climate, is experiencing an unprecedented slowdown because of the effects of a warming climate and may be less stable than had been thought. This could have dramatic and severe consequences for the climate.


The Kirtland's Warbler is one of those success stories of the Endangered Species Act. Once headed for an early extinction, the bird has made a good comeback. So good in fact that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to remove it from the endangered list. The agency is now taking public comments on the proposal.


North American climate boundaries are shifting because of climate change. Scientists have recently determined that the boundary between the humid eastern part of the continent and the arid west is shifting eastward. It is a change that could have significant implications for farming in the mid-western area.


The Eastern indigo snake is the country's largest native snake and it is an apex predator. It feeds on other snakes - snakes that, in turn, feed on birds. So reintroducing the indigo snake to areas where it no longer exists could help songbirds since it would prey on one of their predators


Sea turtles return to their birthplace beach to lay their eggs, but how do they do that? How do they find the exact beach where they themselves hatched? They use Earth's magnetic fields. Clever critters! 


Moths are the Lepidoptera that work the night shift. They are more abundant and diverse than daytime-flying butterflies and they deserve more attention than they get.


I was utterly delighted to learn this week that I share this world with a turtle that has a punky green Mohican "hairstyle" and that can breathe through its genitals!

Image from The Guardian.

And here it is. It is the Mary River turtle that is found in Queensland, Australia. Isn't it wonderful? The bad news is that it is endangered and is featured on the list of most vulnerable reptile species as compiled by the Zoological Society of London.


Atlantic Puffins have beaks that are fluorescent and glow under UV lights. 


Satellite imagery confirms the drastic retreat of two large glaciers on Greenland's northwest coast. 


The Hihi is a sugar-lapping bird of New Zealand that, like many others on the island nation, is threatened with extinction. Part of the problem with the Hihi is its small population leading to inbreeding and dodgy sperm which makes breeding even more difficult. Scientists are studying the problem for the best way to help the bird survive.


Rapidly rising seawaters are threatening Louisiana's vanishing wetlands. There is a plan to redirect the Mississippi River to assist in rebuilding some of the wetlands, but there may not be time left to save the threatened lands from the fast rising seas.


Many, probably most, serious birders are obsessive listers, but what of those who are somewhat - um - less obsessive? Birders like myself. I love birds and I love watching birds and, yes, I do keep a life-list. Sort of. Matthew Miller is a birder after my own heart and he writes about "Birding For People Who Do Not Like Lists."