Saturday, April 17, 2021

Poetry Sunday: Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath

I'm currently reading a biography of Sylvia Plath, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark. I'll be reading it for quite some time yet for it's about a thousand pages long and I'm only up to her twentieth year when she was a student at Smith College. It is rich with the most minute details of Plath's life. She was a prolific journal keeper. She was extraordinarily explicit about her experiences. She maintained correspondences with several people who kept her letters and all of this material was available to Clark in writing her book.

I've never read very much of Plath's poetry. I did read her one novel, The Bell Jar, which I found fascinating. But of course, it was the poetry for which she was primarily famous. Clark makes reference to several of her poems in the text of her book. One that she particularly references is this one, "Lady Lazarus."

Throughout her early life, in her journals and correspondence Plath made frequent reference to suicide. It was obviously a thought that returned to her time and again and, tragically, she did eventually commit suicide in 1963 at age 30. "Lady Lazarus" is generally accepted to be an expression of her suicidal thoughts and impulses. She writes of attempts at suicide and says:

Is an art, like everything else.   
I do it exceptionally well.

Sad. If only she could have seen that living is an art, too, a more complicated and difficult one than dying. 

Lady Lazarus

by Sylvia Plath

I have done it again.   
One year in every ten   
I manage it——

A sort of walking miracle, my skin   
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,   
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine   
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin   
O my enemy.   
Do I terrify?——

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?   
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be   
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.   
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.   
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.   
The peanut-crunching crowd   
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.   
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands   
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.   
The first time it happened I was ten.   
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.   
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Is an art, like everything else.   
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.   
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.   
It’s the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute   
Amused shout:

‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.   
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge   
For the hearing of my heart——
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge   
For a word or a touch   
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.   
So, so, Herr Doktor.   
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,   
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.   
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——

A cake of soap,   
A wedding ring,   
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer   

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair   
And I eat men like air.

Friday, April 16, 2021

This week in birds - #446

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

A Double-crested Cormorant perches on a post at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast.


A recent study suggests that only about 3% of the world's ecosystems remain ecologically intact with healthy populations of all its original animals and an undisturbed habitat.


Even if we manage to drastically cut greenhouse emissions it will take time before the change translates to an improvement in the atmosphere. That is because those gases already added to the atmosphere persist over a long period of time. The decades of accumulation of such gases will take centuries to completely dissipate.


The European bison as firefighter? Maybe, at least in a manner of speaking. It seems that the bison loves to graze on the shrubs and underbrush that feed wildfires and reintroducing them to areas of the continent where they had become extinct could help in fighting or even preventing those fires.


We hear a lot about the loss of population of Northern Spotted Owls in the northwestern United States but the problem extends into Canada as well and now that country is taking aggressive measures to try to prevent the bird's extinction there.


An environmental accountant writes that Zimbabwe and Namibia have vastly overstated the value of their ivory stockpiles and he argues that the proposed sale of those stockpiles could generate further poaching


It seems like a no-brainer that planting more trees could benefit the atmosphere since trees absorb carbon dioxide and excrete oxygen. But a growing number of scientists are warning that high-profile programs aimed at planting billions of trees can wreck natural ecosystems, dry up water supplies, damage agriculture, and push people off their land. The law of unintended consequences strikes again.


Another example of how evolution works: The common foxgloves introduced to the Americas have modified their flower length over time in order to accommodate a pollinator group they had not previously known - hummingbirds. The long bills of the birds benefit from the longer flowers. In its native Europe, the plant is pollinated by bumblebees.


The right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council along with Republican governors are gearing up to fight Biden administration plans for counteracting global climate change.


The organization Shorebird Stewards has received a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation that will help it to increase protection for shorebirds and for the horseshoe crabs whose eggs they feed on.


There are thousands of abandoned oil wells that dot the Permian Basin of West Texas and New Mexico. They present a danger to humans and to wildlife but getting the oil companies to clean up after themselves is not easy.


A new report details the grave risk to endangered American rivers from dams, mining, and global heating but environmental activists say the rivers can be saved with the appropriate actions.


More and more cities are joining the "lights out" movement to turn off city lights in order to protect migrating birds. Philadelphia is one of the latest to sign on to the action.


The Biden administration is declining to shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline before federal regulators complete a new environmental analysis. This is a disappointment to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe that has fought the pipeline for years. It is, at least for now, a victory for the pipeline owners and drillers.


A livestock drug called Diclofenac was banned in Asia because its use had led to the deaths of millions of birds, but it has now been approved for use in Spain and Italy with predictable results. Rare European vultures that feed on livestock carcasses that have ingested the drug are dying. 


The New Zealand minister for climate change has announced that the country has become the first to introduce a law that will require banks, insurers, and investment managers to report the impact of climate change on their business.


Conservationists are looking for ways to reverse the damage done to the environment along our southern border by the construction of a wall.


One of the first Superfund sites in the United States remains one of the most polluted. For years, miners extracted lead and zinc from the ground beneath the Tar Creek area in northeastern Oklahoma. The resulting environmental and human health threats led the federal government to declare 40 square miles of the area a Superfund site in 1984. But 50 years after the mine was shuttered, the region’s toxic legacy still seeps from boreholes into the water and drifts in the wind from tailings piles. 


Wisconsin has lost almost as much acreage to wildfires in four months as it did in all of last year. This threatens to be one of the state's most devastating wildfire seasons as hundreds of blazes rage on.


It is hoped that a new urban wildlife refuge, the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque, will help to alleviate generations of environmental racism that has led to the pollution and degradation of the Mountain View community, home to mostly Chicano residents.


A National Weather Service station in Massachusetts was evacuated on March 31 and plans are to demolish it this month. The reason? The rising sea levels from climate change threatened to devour it.


The New York Times offers a guide to some of the best places in the country for birding during this migration season.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - April 2021

Blooms are still sparse here in my post-February freeze Southeast Texas garden, but, happily, many of the plants that I had feared had been lost have started to come back. Slowly, but they are coming back. I'm glad that I have been slow to replace them.

Meanwhile, my roses are in the pink!

My 'Old Blush' heirloom rose is beginning to blush once again.

Here's a close-up of some of its blossoms.

'Belinda's Dream' rose is just as dreamy as ever, covered in these big, squashy blooms.
'Peggy Martin' was hit hard by the freeze and seriously knocked back. I cut her way back afterward and now she is all the way recovered and just about to be in full bloom.

The pink Knockout, too, is doing its best to live up to its name.

I do actually have other colors of roses in my garden but only the pink ones are in bloom at the moment.

That yellow flowering plant next to the bottle tree in the back garden is a wildflower called Texas groundsel.

Here's a closer view. It has been in bloom for more than a month and the blossoms are beginning to fade. But its color has brightened my otherwise somewhat drab garden for all these weeks.

Speaking of wildflowers, this fleabane is blooming next to the fennel.

My amaryllis blooms were mostly victims of the freeze this year, but this one persisted and is now doing its best to uphold the family honor.

My succulent collection spent the winter in the garage. Now that they are back in place on the patio, this one is celebrating with some blooms.

Serendipity is one of my favorite gardening partners. Every year this old petunia manages to reseed itself somewhere in the garden, often in surprising places. I've noticed a few of its plants already this year and this one has begun to bloom.

Another petunia has been added this year. This purple and white pinwheel blooms in a pot near my front door entry.

Still more wildflowers. This native oxalis (violet wood sorrel) is actually a weed in my garden. It sprouts up everywhere, mostly in places where I don't want it. It loves growing among the liriope that edges many of my planting beds. But in a spring when flowers have been hard to come by, even the oxalis is welcome. 

The oxalis also found a spot by my little meditation buddy.

Even weeds can be pretty.

In previous years, my crossvine looked like this in April.

This year it looks like this. But it's alive and I do have hopes that it will eventually return to its former glory.

My first blue plumbago bloom of the year.

This yellow gerbera blooms next to a heuchera in a pot on the patio.

My first salvia to bloom this year is this purple autumn sage.

The yarrow was just about to bloom in February when the freeze came. It was killed back to its roots, but now it's back and pretending nothing ever happened.

As I was taking the picture of the yarrow by the goldfish pond, I saw this little guy in the pond, struggling to pull himself up onto the rocks, so I gave him a helping hand (or net). He soon continued on his way to take care of whatever box turtle business had brought him out on this April day.

It's not a bloom but I am happy to see my little Japanese maple tree coming back and adding its color to the garden.

There is a 40-year-old azalea that lives under the redbud tree in my backyard. When the freeze came, it was full of buds and would have been in bloom within a couple of weeks. The freeze killed all those buds and all the leaves on the plant. I thought the plant itself might be a goner, but then ever so slowly it began to put out new leaves, and then, wonder of wonders, one flower bud appeared. And here it is, fully open now, my one azalea bloom for the year, proving once again that as long as there is life there is hope and sometime there will be blooms. 

Happy Bloom Day! I look forward to visiting your April garden and seeing your blooms.

(Linking to Carol of May Dreams Gardens.)  

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue: A review


As I was reading this book, something kept niggling in the back of my mind. It reminded me of something else I had read, but I couldn't quite bring it forward. But finally, it came to me; it was The Constant Gardener by John le CarrĂ©. That book detailed the exploitation of an African country and its population by a pharmaceutical company. This present book details exploitation by an oil company. Different kinds of companies but the lack of regard for humanity was something I found quite similar.

The country in this book is never actually named. The author was born in Cameroon and grew up in a coastal town in that country but later went to college in the United States and is now an American citizen living in New York. Though she doesn't name the country, the fictional village she writes about is called Kosawa. In that village lives a young girl named Thula and her family. It is through Thula that we experience the traumatic events affecting her village.

An American oil company is drilling for oil near their village and that process is poisoning their air, water, and soil. The river that they depend on has turned to sludge. The soil will no longer grow the food they need. Worst of all, their children are dying, having been poisoned simply by breathing the air and drinking the water. Thula's younger brother, Juba "dies" but is brought back to life in his father's arms by the village's twin healers. Following this experience, Thula's father determines to go to the capital city to speak with authorities there and bring the condition of the village to their attention, even though village leaders have been attempting to do that for years. He and a few other men from the village make the trip. They are never seen again and their families cannot learn what has happened to their loved ones. Thula, her mother, and her brother are devastated. There is no response from the government.

An NGO takes an interest in the village's plight and attempts to negotiate with the oil company to improve things. They also work to provide education for the children. Thula is a gifted child who elicits their particular interest. They arrange for her to attend better schools where she impresses her teachers and when she reaches college age, she is sent to America, to New York to attend college. 

During all these intervening years, the children of Kosawa have continued dying prematurely and Thula and her age group have become activists to try to force change. From New York, she continues advising her friends back home regarding their actions and sending them money whenever she can to help finance their activities.

Mbue not only tells her story from the side of the villagers, she also explores the lives of the men who work for the oil company. These are local men from other surrounding villagers who are just trying to provide for their families and secure a better life for them. Even though they are doing the work that is despoiling the land and degrading the environment, are they the enemy? The company's executive officers are actually the ones profiting from this and it is they who could change the operations of the company. They choose not to.

Again, as I read this book, I was reminded of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and other similar environmental actions. Sadly, the country described by Mbue is governed by an authoritarian regime that has little interest in responding to populist actions. It is a tragic story that the reader feels instinctively is going to end badly for all. It is, in fact, the all too familiar story of so many parts of the world today.

Mbue is a brilliant writer. She writes this difficult narrative in a very straightforward manner with prose that goes straight to the heart. The story of Thula and her transformation from village girl to movement leader and her ultimate fate is one that will stay with me. Although there was much that depressed me about the chronicle, I am very glad I read it. I think you might be, too.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Monday, April 12, 2021

We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker: A review


British crime writer Chris Whitaker has written a book that seems to be a homage to westerns, thrillers, and coming-of-age novels. We Begin at the End, set in coastal California and in Montana, is a bit of all three. 

In 2005, we meet teenager Duchess Day Radley of Cape Haven, California, who refers to herself as "the outlaw Duchess Radley." The Radley family is haunted by tragedies the long-term effects of which they seem incapable of escaping. Thirty years before Duchess's aunt Sissy, her mother's sister, had been killed in a hit and run accident. The person held responsible for her death was 15-year-old Vincent King. Vincent was tried as an adult and sent to adult prison. His best friend, Walker (Walk), had testified against him. Walk is now chief of police in Cape Haven. In all those intervening thirty years he had maintained a connection with Vincent and now that Vincent is being released from prison, Walk goes to the prison to pick him up and bring him back to Cape Haven.

During all those years, Walk has also tried to look after Star Radley, Sissy's sister and Duchess's mother. Star and Vincent had been in teenage love and after Sissy's death and Vincent's imprisonment, Star's life went seriously off the rails. Her mother committed suicide in her grief over her daughter's death, leaving her husband Hal to take care of Star. He did his best but Star became addicted to drugs and alcohol and was victimized by a series of abusive men. Nevertheless, she was a devoted mother to Duchess and her younger brother Robin.

Vincent is not welcomed back to the community by many other than Walk. He sets to work trying to repair and restore his family home. But then tragedy strikes the Radley family again. Star is killed and who should be found at the crime scene sitting at the kitchen table in her house but Vincent, with her blood on his clothes. He tells Walk that he killed her, so the chief has no choice but to arrest him, even though he doesn't believe his confession. But he has no other explanation for what happened in that house. The only other person there was little Robin who was asleep in his room with the door locked. Duchess had sneaked out of the house on a mission of her own.

After their mother's death, Duchess and Robin are sent to Montana to live with their grandfather Hal on his ranch. It is an idyllic setting that Robin soon falls in love with but the outlaw Duchess resists. Hal is patient and kind and gives both kids all the space they need and at last, Duchess does begin to warm to him. And then tragedy strikes again.

During all this time, Walk has continued to investigate Star's death and tries to put all the pieces together, because he just does not believe that his friend killed her. As Vincent's trial nears, they call on another friend, now a lawyer but long ago Walk's teenage girlfriend, to defend him.

This plot has more twists and turns than a diamondback rattlesnake; moreover, it keeps shaking its rattles at us, often in false alarms. I confess I was not really enamored of Whitaker's style of writing here. It seemed apparent that he was attempting the style of writers of Western mystery/thrillers, but it just didn't ring true. It felt self-conscious and forced to me. The narrative was written in third person and I thought it might have been more effective if we had seen it through the eyes of the two main characters, Duchess and Walk, and if the story had been told in their voices. That being said, the story itself is very moving and I was invested in the characters' fates and hoping for a happy outcome for them. So, on the whole, not a bad read.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Poetry Sunday: Talking to Ourselves by Philip Schultz

Do you ever talk to yourself? I suppose most people do at some time. I know I do. I have a friend who says she talks to herself whenever she wants to have an intelligent conversation.  

Philip Schultz points out that even when we talk to others, we are often really talking to ourselves, organizing our thoughts, trying to sort things out, or understand something that has happened to us. 

Or maybe we are just trying to have an intelligent conversation.

Talking to Ourselves

by Philip Schultz

A woman in my doctor’s office last week
couldn’t stop talking about Niagara Falls,
the difference between dog and deer ticks,
how her oldest boy, killed in Iraq, would lie
with her at night in the summer grass, singing
Puccini. Her eyes looked at me but saw only
the saffron swirls of the quivering heavens.

Yesterday, Mr. Miller, our tidy neighbor,
stopped under our lopsided maple to explain
how his wife of sixty years died last month
of Alzheimer’s. I stood there, listening to
his longing reach across the darkness with
each bruised breath of his eloquent singing.

This morning my five-year-old asked himself
why he’d come into the kitchen. I understood
he was thinking out loud, personifying himself,
but the intimacy of his small voice was surprising.

When my father’s vending business was failing,
he’d talk to himself while driving, his lips
silently moving, his black eyes deliquescent.
He didn’t care that I was there, listening,
what he was saying was too important.

“Too important,” I hear myself saying
in the kitchen, putting the dishes away,
and my wife looks up from her reading
and asks, “What’s that you said?”

Friday, April 9, 2021

This week in birds - #445

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

A Blue-winged Teal pair paddles among the reeds at Brazos Bend State Park.


Four years ago at the beginning of the previous administration in Washington, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that manatees that had been on the endangered species list from the very beginning of that list were doing so much better that their status would be changed from endangered to merely "threatened." Fast forward to this month. In recent weeks, headlines have been trumpeting the fact that more than 400 manatees have died in just the first two months of the year, an alarming spike that’s well beyond what’s considered normal. As of March 5, the total was 435 and is still climbing. It seems it might be time to put them back on the endangered list.


Another endangered species whose status may actually be improving is the North Atlantic right whale. These whales gave birth to more calves during the recent winter than at any time since 2015. At least 17 newborn whales were spotted swimming with their mothers along the coast between Florida and North Carolina during December through March. One of the newborns later died after being hit by a boat, but the overall calf count equals the total of known births during the past three years combined.


California is on the brink of another drought and officials announced this week that the accumulation of snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Cascades was about 40% below average levels, leaving the state with insufficient snow and rain banked to replenish its groundwater supplies, feed its rivers and streams, and fill its depleted reservoirs. This announcement comes at the end of the state's wet season.


A new study points to a difference in the choice of habitats in different parts of its range as one of the reasons that Piping Plovers appear to be doing better in the New England portion of that range than they are in the Mid-Atlantic and Southern parts.


The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii has measured the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at more than 420 parts per million. This means that human-caused global warming has taken us to the halfway point of doubling the planet's preindustrial carbon dioxide levels.


How do prehistoric stones from the Wisconsin area end up a thousand miles away in Wyoming? Scientists have an answer to that question. They believe that the stones, called gastroliths, were carried there in the stomachs of sauropods.


Atlantic salmon are perilously close to extinction in the United States. Scientists say the species could be helped enormously by the removal of a few dams along their range.


The blood of horseshoe crabs is often used in biomedical research, in such areas as the development of vaccines. These living fossils are virtually unchanged from their ancestors of 200 million years ago, but they are becoming more scarce and one way of helping them would be to find a substitute for the use of their blood in research.


This is a Swift Parrot, an Australian species that may only have around 300 individuals left in the wild. The main threat to their continued existence is deforestation. Conservationists fear that plans in the works to help the birds may be too late to save the species.


As current coastlines continue to move further inland as sea levels rise, politicians seem loath to consider and make plans to address the problem.


Meanwhile, across the country, open-air waste pools near power plants, mines, and industrial farms pose safety hazards. Florida is currently facing such a problem with a giant wastewater pond in Piney Point, Florida that has appeared to be in danger of catastrophic failure which had led authorities to evacuate hundreds of people from their homes.


Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and the Biden administration are considering whether to restore the boundaries of Bear Ears National Monument in Utah to those set in the Obama administration or perhaps to even expand those boundaries as some Native Americans request. The boundaries of the monument were slashed by 85% by the previous administration.


Yet another area that could use some restoration is the Rio Grande Valley, home to a stunning wealth of biodiversity. The area is a vital natural resource that deserves to be nurtured and preserved.


Good news for the Piping Plovers in the Great Lakes area: The Chicago Park District announced this week that it will add 3.1 acres of Montrose Beach to the Montrose Dune Natural Area, a favored nesting ground for the little plovers.


It seems that the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf Coast region dodged a bullet with Hurrican Zeta last season. The hurricane nearly destroyed the Transocean Deepwater Asgard drilling platform in the Gulf. Its destruction would have resulted in an oil spill that could have dwarfed the Deepwater Horizon spill, a disaster from which we are still recovering and still discovering the damage that was done by it.  


A salmonella outbreak in eight states has been linked to bird feeders. At least 19 people have been sickened and the disease seems to have hit birds like Pine Siskins the hardest. It is important to keep your bird feeders clean and if you notice sick birds in your yard, it might be best to take the feeders down for a while. Certainly, give them a good scrub.


Molly Roberts says the Brood X cicadas are just the bugs that we need at this time.


Weather radar can be a tool to help migrating birds. It can help predict the nights when there will be the heaviest flights and humans can be encouraged to turn off lights on those nights to keep from confusing the migrants.