Monday, September 17, 2018

Presidio by Randy Kennedy: A review

Lee Child did not steer me wrong. I read his glowing review of Randy Kennedy's first novel in the Times and knew that I had to read that book. 

He did not exaggerate. Presidio is a terrific example of Texas noir, with an engaging and somewhat unexpected main character who is a professional car thief.

The novel is set in the Staked Plains and borderlands of West Texas in the early 1970s. Among the best things about the book - among a wide choice of very good things - were the photograph-like descriptions of that arid and spare but beautiful landscape of flat plains rolling into mountains, and country roads where you can see for miles and miles. It's a landscape marked by the occasional nodding pump jack, long before the coming of the wind farms that dot the area today. The 1970s were another country; a country without the internet and cell phones and being constantly connected to the outside world; a country where the border between Texas and Mexico is an amiable line of traffic over a wooden bridge where people come and go more or less at will to work or to buy and sell. It's a country that Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry have traversed successfully in many books. Now, Randy Kennedy adds his name to that list.

Troy Falconer is Kennedy's protagonist. He is a vagabond who has been on the road for many years, earning his way as a thief. Specifically, as a car thief. He steals cars, usually from motel guests, often taking their belongings from the motel room as well. He has perfected his technique over several years and has never been caught. He never keeps any car for long, swapping each one for a different vehicle at his first opportunity.

As we meet Troy, he is returning to the rural West Texas town where he grew up to help his younger brother, Harlan. Harlan's wife had recently absconded with all of the money that he had. Not much to be sure, but he wants it - if not her - back. Troy is there to help him find the wife and get the money. 

When they head out on the trail of the wife, Harlan's old truck doesn't get them far and Troy's skills as a car thief are immediately pressed into service. He steals a station wagon at a convenience store and the two men head south. What they don't realize at first is that there is a third person in the station wagon. Ten-year-old Martha Zacharias, a Mennonite girl from Mexico, currently living in Texas with her aunt, whose car it was, was lying down on the back seat of the vehicle when it was stolen. She stays quiet and they don't realize she is there until one night, while the men are sleeping outside, she attempts to drive the station wagon away. When they discover her, she demands that they take her to El Paso where she can meet her father. They compromise on taking her as far as Presidio and buying her a bus ticket to El Paso.

The narrative of their trip south is interspersed with the narrative that introduces Martha's family and background and a remarkable set of notes that Troy has written and leaves in the glove compartments of the vehicles he drives. The notes are styled as "Notes for the police" and they consist of a kind of journal of his explanation of what he has done and how he came to be the person that he is. (The first line of the book is: "Later, in the glove box, the police found a binder of notes.") These notes also include some darkly humorous stories of his time on the road and some of the people he has encountered along the way. It is through the notes that we get to know Troy and Harlan and their now dead father and we learn what happened to their mother.

The propulsion of the plot is the brothers' flight to the border with their accidental kidnap victim, looking over their shoulders all the way, expecting to see the police. The plot moves almost organically and those pages keep turning almost by themselves as everything converges at Presidio for the final denouement.

It's hard to believe this is Kennedy's first novel. It is a very accomplished effort with characters that seem real enough that one could reach out and touch them, a landscape with an aridity that one can taste on the tongue, and a plot filled with a comedy of errors that somehow doesn't seem fanciful at all. 

All of which brings to mind a line from Troy's "notes": "Just because a story isn't real doesn't mean it isn't true."

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Poetry Sunday: September Tomatoes by Karina Borowicz

Pulling up those last tomato plants always seemed a bit sad to me. They were planted with so much hope and high expectations in the spring and nourished all through the long summer months, but now their "whiskey stink of rot has settled in the garden" and it is time for them to go to the compost pile.

I had never heard of Karina Borowicz but she is a prize-winning poet from Massachusetts and she must be a gardener because she understood so well the regret I feel about those last tomatoes of September when she wrote this poem back in 2013. 

That last verse about her great-grandmother and the girls of her village pulling flax may seem out of place, but I know what she means. Their actions seem to "turn the weather," change the seasons. Pulling out September tomatoes has the same meaning for us. And it worked; after all, in a few days it will be fall.

September Tomatoes

by Karina Borowicz

The whiskey stink of rot has settled
in the garden, and a burst of fruit flies rises 
when I touch the dying tomato plants. 

Still, the claws of tiny yellow blossoms
flail in the air as I pull the vines up by the roots 
and toss them in the compost. 

It feels cruel. Something in me isn’t ready
to let go of summer so easily. To destroy
what I’ve carefully cultivated all these months. 
Those pale flowers might still have time to fruit. 

My great-grandmother sang with the girls of her village 
as they pulled the flax. Songs so old
and so tied to the season that the very sound
seemed to turn the weather.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - September 2018

Recent rains have kept me and my camera out of the garden but this morning the sun came out and I was finally able to get out and record some of what is growing - some of it even blooming - in my garden this September.

No blooms here. The muscadine grapes are well on their way to ripening and the mockingbirds keep close watch on them. The purple ones don't last long.

The Duranta erecta sports its "golden dewdrops" - at least the ones the birds haven't got to yet.

My little Satsuma tree is heavily loaded with fruit.

And so are the purple beautyberry shrubs.

The 'Pride of Barbados' still has a few blooms.

But most of its blooms have already matured and ripened into seeds. The shrub is full of these "beans" and if I don't remove them, my yard will be full of little volunteer 'Pride' shrubs next year.

All of these plants with their loads of fruit say that summer is ending and autumn is almost here. And not a moment too soon for me.

The little 'Pinball' gomphrenas have been covered in little pink blooms all summer long.

Salvia farinacea (blue salvia) has come on strong in the last couple of weeks.

This fuchsia-colored angelonia has perked up, too, since the temperatures have moderated a bit.

My coral vine harbored dreams of world domination and threatened to start by covering my backyard this summer. I had to cut it back severely about a month ago to discourage its over-exuberance and that caused it to pause in blooming for a while, but it has stopped its pouting now and is beginning to bloom again.

'Big Momma' Turk's Cap has many, many blooms, a boon to the passing hummingbirds.

I find the blossoms of porterweed quite weird in appearance, but that doesn't bother the butterflies which love them.

And next to the porterweed is a plant beloved by bees - basil.

My crape myrtles are winding down but they still have a few watermelon-colored blooms.

The almond verbena, on the other hand, shows no signs of winding down. It is covered in these sweetly scented blossoms.

The tropical milkweed carries a few blooms and I occasionally see Monarch butterflies visiting them but I've yet to see any eggs or caterpillars this year.

The bronze fennel is blooming, too, and I planted it mostly for the swallowtail butterflies that use it as a host plant, but I've seen no caterpillars munching on the plant.

A pretty pink waterlily bloom is mostly hidden by overarching leaves.

The wedelia has loved our rather wet summer and has responded with a growth spurt and a bloom spurt.

Purple oxalis in its pot on the patio has a few blooms.

The tiny blooms of Tradescantia 'purple heart' go mostly unnoticed.

This lantana has been a magnet for butterflies recently. Naturally, there were none around when I went to take this picture.

The blue plumbago took a long time to hit its stride this year, but lately it has been looking happier.

The Hamelia patens is ablaze with blooms, food for the hummingbirds.

Nearby, a few of these daylilies still bloom.

Like many of the plants in my garden, the pentas are showing the stress of our long summer but they still bravely send out their blooms.

All over the garden, the fungi are on the march!

These little mushrooms growing next to one of the weed-choked beds in my resting vegetable garden look almost good enough to eat. Hmm...

This is yet another type of fungi,  seen half in shade from the redbud tree and half in bright sun.

And then there are these interesting little guys growing near the north side of the house. I wish I were more knowledgable about fungi and could actually identify all of these mushrooms.

Finally, this bromeliad was supposed to be a houseplant, but then my naughty cats chewed every single leaf on the plant! And then threw it all up, of course.  I decided the only way to save the poor plant was to send it out into the world, so it now sits near my front door entry.

One week until fall starts. I am ready!

Thank you for visiting my garden this month. And thank you, Carol of May Dreams Gardens, as always.

Happy Bloom Day!

Friday, September 14, 2018

This week in birds - #320

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

Baltimore Orioles have been reported to be passing through the area on migration, but I can't claim to have seen or heard one. I generally see them during spring migration but seldom during late summer and fall. I photographed this one in my backyard in spring.


As Hurricane Florence lashes the coast of North Carolina, it is somewhat ironic to recall an action taken by the Republican led North Carolina state legislature a few years ago. North Carolina's long, low-lying coastline is considered one of the most vulnerable areas in the U.S. to sea level rise, and in 2012, the state's Coastal Resources Commission predicted that sea levels along the coast could rise by as much as 39 inches over the next century. The legislature didn't like that science and so they passed a law against it! They banned any policies based on such forecasts and mandated that the state could only use historical data in its predictions of sea level rise.


Whooping Cranes introduced in the Midwest and taught to migrate by following an ultralight from Wisconsin to Florida are still migrating south on their own now but they sometimes end up far from the area where they were originally led to spend their winters.


The Rio Grande is North America's second longest river and it is running dry. Drained by farmers, divided by treaty, feuded over in courtrooms and neglected when not pumped and drained, the Rio Grande is at once one of America’s most famous rivers and one of its most abused. A conservation plan is desperately needed.

I took this picture of the Rio Grande and some of the rugged country around it in 2012. You can see that in places it is just a narrow stream.


Some young birds stay with their parents and help them raise their next brood. Why do they do that? Are they simply altruistic? A new study from Lund University in Sweden shows that they actually benefit from these actions. Young birds who help their parents are more successful parents themselves when they do breed. 


A juvenile narwhal that strayed far from its Arctic home has apparently been adopted by a band of beluga whales. He has been filmed swimming and playing with the belugas and seems to be accepted as "one of the boys."

The narwhal is the gray guy, second from the upper right. Belugas are white.


Parrots continue to amaze us with their reasoning powers. Researchers in Germany have discovered that they are able to trade tokens for food.


Scientists are trying something new in the battle to take plastics out of the ocean: A massive floating barrier launched off the coast of San Francisco will aim to collect five tons of plastic debris each month from what is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area the size of France.


The King Rail and the Clapper Rail have been found to hybridize in Virginia.


The earliest example of a drawing made by a human has been found on a rock in South Africa. The drawing has been dated to 73,000 years ago.


A new study of grassland birds found that baby birds of different species leave the nest at different times of the day.


In perhaps the most unsurprising headline of the week, we learned that former EPA director Scott Pruitt is in talks to take on his next job as a "coal consultant." This was of particular interest in Oklahoma where he is expected to eventually run for governor or for U.S. senator. 


In much greater numbers than usual, hundreds of gray and harbor seals are dying along the New England coast. Their deaths are being attributed to viruses related to distemper and the flu. 


Elephant birds were the largest birds ever known to have existed on Earth. They've long since been extinct and now prehistoric humans are suspected of having a part in that extinction. Fossilized elephant bird bones found on Madagascar have telltale marks on them that indicate they were butchered for food. The bones have been dated to about 10,000 years ago, which also means that humans were on Madagascar earlier than previously believed.


A recent paper published in the Environmental Research Letters by a team of scientists from China and Brazil details how global warming and the resultant heating up of the oceans is changing rainfall patterns.


Let's end on a happy note, shall we? Here's a link to some of the finalists in this year's competition for the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards. And here's even more great wildlife pictures. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen: A review

"Science itself, however precise and objective, is a human activity. It's a way of wondering as well as a way of knowing. It's a process, not a body of facts or laws. Like music, like poetry, like baseball, like grandmaster chess, it's something gloriously imperfect that people do. The smudgy fingerprints of our humanness are all over it." - David Quammen in The Tangled Tree
In The Tangled Tree, popular science writer David Quammen gives us the history of a field of study called "molecular phylogenetics." 

Have I lost you already? Well, hang with me a bit longer; this is actually pretty interesting.

In the late 1970s, a research team at the University of Illinois announced that they had identified a "third domain" of life. This "domain" was made up of single-cell microbes which they called archaea. They were genetically distinct from what were then the only two recognized lineages of life: prokaryotes, which include bacteria, and eukaryotes, which include plants and animals. This team was headed by Carl Woese, who Quammen calls "the most important biologist of the 20th century you've never heard of." (Even more interestingly for me, the team included as his chief assistant George Edward Fox, then a post-doctoral researcher and soon to be a researcher in biochemistry at the University of Houston, where he still serves.)  

Quammen spends a lot of time describing the life's work of Woese, who, in his telling at least, was the guiding force behind the discovery. Woese was undoubtedly a major contributor to the science of molecular phylogenetics, which essentially describes how evolution occurs at a molecular level and is not just vertical between parents and children but can also be horizontal (between species) through something called "horizontal gene transfer" (HGT). Unfortunately, late in life Woese turned into a bit of a crank who harbored resentments over slights - for example, the fact that he was overlooked for the Nobel Prize.

Science is a human activity and humans are notably imperfect.

One of the most intriguing offshoots of this new science for me is what it does to the old concepts (at least since Darwin) of species, individuals, and the evolutionary tree of life.

First of all species: We think of species as being discrete, separate, identifiable. In reality, each "species" is a mosaic of species. Each living being is not so much a species as a community of species which live together in symbiotic relationships.

Which brings us to the individual: Humans, for example. By the estimate of one research group, each human body contains 37 trillion human cells and 100 trillion bacterial cells! (Another study puts the ratio closer to 1/1.) We are host to other fellow travelers as well - nonbacterial microbes like virus particles, fungal cells, archaea, and other teeny bits of life. And all of these play their role in helping us to function. In helping us be human. These "others" that are a part of us make up an estimated 1% - 3% of our body mass.

And about that tree: As Darwin drew it, it has distinct branches and twigs, but this isn't really how evolution works. In fact, the branches and twigs are all tangled and grown together, so that one species - human, for example - may be composed of more than 10,000 actual species living in our guts, our hair, our mucus membranes, our skin...

Have I blown your mind now?

This is truly an amazing story and Quammen does a commendable job of telling it in a way that can be (at least partially) understood by a reader with scant scientific training. He also gives us the personalities of the scientists who pioneered the new field, but one could argue that he is too gentle with them at times. Woese did turn quite paranoid late in life and grew to hate Charles Darwin, feeling that Darwin was hogging all the acclaim that he (Woese) deserved. And then there was Lynn Margulis, one of the women researchers who featured prominently in the book. She made important contributions early on, but she, too, turned quite dark at the end of her life, becoming a 9/11 truther. Quammen tends to present these as sort of lovable quirks of personality.

Still, a fascinating book, divided into mercifully short chapters which make it easier to absorb. Moreover, each chapter ends in something of a cliffhanger that makes you want to keep turning those pages. And so I did and was surprised when it ended at 65% on my Kindle. The rest is all acknowledgements, notes, and bibliography.  

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Monday, September 10, 2018

A remarkable woman

The contributions of women to scientific research and resultant breakthroughs are frequently overlooked or their importance downplayed. This has undeniably been a continuing theme throughout history. 

One of the most egregious examples was that of Rosalind Franklin. Franklin, using X-ray crystallography at King's College in London, was able to obtain images of DNA which allowed James Watson and Francis Crick to create their famous double helix model. Franklin unfortunately died from cancer in 1958 at age 37 and when the Nobel Prize was awarded to Watson and Crick in 1962, Franklin was not mentioned even though at that time there was no rule against awarding the prize posthumously. 

I've been pondering this recently because I've been reading a book called The Tangled Tree by David Quammen, a book which details the history of the struggle to understand evolution at the molecular level. Again, women have participated in the research and, in some cases, have made significant discoveries but often seem to have garnered little recognition for it. So, I was particularly thrilled to read about Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

Burnell was the first to discover pulsars. While poring over literally miles of data from a new radio telescope she helped to build, she spotted a faint and unusual signal: repeating pulses of radio waves. She recognized that this was not interference from human activity but was actually something that had not been seen before. The radio waves were coming from a source that moved across the sky at the same speed as the stars, meaning that, like them, it appeared in the same position at a time that advanced by four minutes each day. That, and other quirks of the signal, ruled out a source on Earth. Burnell reported her discovery to her PhD supervisor, Antony Hewish. When the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded for that discovery in 1974, who do you suppose received it? If you said Antony Hewish, you get a gold star!

Burnell never complained, although many of her colleagues did. Over the years, she has been honored in numerous ways for her work. In fact, she says, “I feel I’ve done very well out of not getting a Nobel prize.” 

And now, she has done very well indeed. A panel of leading scientists has chosen her to receive the Breakthrough prize in fundamental physics for her landmark work. The financial prize that goes along with the award is $3 million!

Bell Burnell is a Quaker who lives simply and has said that she doesn't need $3 million, so she is donating it to help students underrepresented in physics to study the subject she has devoted her life's work to. Not only is she a brilliant scientist, she is a role model for others and an inspiration to those of us who sometimes despair of our species.