Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Gifts of the late April garden (Part 2)

Among the best gifts that my late April garden has to offer are, of course, the flowers. After the browns and grays of the winter landscape, the colors of the spring blossoms are a tonic for the spirit, and April is the time when many of the plants, with their fresh new growth, are at their very best before they are weighed down by the heat and humidity and drought of summer, not to mention by serving as a buffet for insects. April offers us that first flush of bloom when hope is still in the air and the perfect garden of our dreams is still possible.

April is the month when the water lilies in the goldfish pond start to bloom.

 And, of course, amaryllises are among the first bloomers in the garden. Some, like this one, are still blooming here at the end of the month.

 St. Joseph's lilies still bloom.

And the 'Red Lion' amaryllis still roars.

 This little tricycle planter was a gift from my son-in-law a few years ago, and I enjoy planting it up in the spring. This year it has lobelia, coreopsis (not in bloom yet), red kalanchoe, and a lime-colored pothos.

The yarrow is blooming.

And so is the 'Silky Gold' asclepias.

The old-fashioned petunia that reseeded itself continues to be full of fragrant blossoms.

 Many of the roses, like this 'Dortmund' are in bloom now.

 'Monkey Business.'

The climber 'Peggy Martin' lives on the side of my garden shed.

'Molineux,' a David Austin rose.

This is my antique polyantha 'Caldwell Pink,' just beginning its bloom.

Near a small sitting area close to the front door, a 'Double Radazz' Knockout is in full bloom.

 Nearby, pots of wax begonia and gazania daisies welcome visitors.

More of the dark blue lobelia helps fill a wicker planter in the sitting area. Notice the small anole on the wall above the lobelia.

 The yellow variety of the plant sometimes called the "hummingbird yucca" is beginning its bloom. It also comes in red, which is the favorite of the hummingbirds, but they will visit this one, too.

 The 'Little John' dwarf bottlebrush is beginning its bloom.

 And so is the old heirloom buddleia, a passalong gift from a friend whose grandmother once grew it. Butterflies love it.

 The gerberas in the pots by the patio are blooming.

'Hot lips' salvia.

 This is tickseed which will soon be covered in these pretty little blossoms.

 The southern magnolia gives us masses of these creamy white blossoms in late April and throughout May. Their beauty almost makes up for the mess made by the dropping leaves.

We couldn't have April without daylilies. The earliest of the early varieties have begun their bloom. This one will rebloom again later in the year.

Walking in the garden in April or simply sitting and looking can make me forget all about weeds and drought and bad insects and aching backs and knees. In these halcyon days, I can only remember the pleasure of being a gardener. Whenever I have a bad day in the future, I'll remember April and know that it will come again and that its gifts are worth waiting for.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Gifts of the late April garden (Part 1)

Those longed-for April showers never developed. Indeed, it has been an exceptionally dry April in my garden, with only about one inch of rainfall overall. Here at the end of April, I find myself already providing supplemental water right around my one-half acre garden.

In spite of all that, April really is perhaps my favorite month of the year in the garden. It's the month when many of the plants are starting their season of bloom and when plants that died back to their roots during winter are beginning to make their appearance once again. It's the month when most of the necessary pruning has been completed and things are beginning to look neat and when the gardener is still able to stay ahead of the weeds. That final one won't last for long, but, while it does, I do enjoy it.

Most of all April is a month for surprises in the garden.

At this time of the year, many of my surprises are wearing feathers. As the spring migrants pass this way headed north, we never know from day to day what we might see. Last Saturday, I caught a glimpse of something orange near my back fence and raised my binoculars to see a beautiful Baltimore Oriole, my first one of the year.

I had previously put out my oriole feeders with their oranges, jelly, and orange-flavored sugar syrup, but this bird was only interested in my suet cakes. After his long flight, he wanted something more substantial than fruit.

It's not exactly a surprise but certainly a gift to be able to watch Carolina Wren fledglings as they follow their parents around the yard, learning the ways of wrendom.

That includes learning to get water from my little backyard fountain.

One of the best gifts, especially considering my recent history with Eastern Bluebirds, came yesterday when I opened the box where my second pair of bluebirds have been nesting to gaze upon four tiny, perfect chicks. Only a few days old, they were already covered in a soft blue down, precursors of the beautiful feathers to come. The sight made my day.

But there are non-feathered surprises in the April garden as well.

I had seen that one of my milkweed plants had been chewed but I looked in vain for several days for the muncher. Finally, last Thursday, I looked at a second nearby milkweed and there he was - already a big, fat, fifth instar caterpillar. A beautiful sight! There have been very few Monarch butterflies through the garden this spring. I've only counted seven, but at least one of them left this wonderful gift.

And, as always, my plants continue to surprise me.

We had a relatively harsh (for us) winter, with several spells of extended cold that reached into the low 20s F. It was all capped off by an ice storm in March that bit back the leaves of all my perennials that had begun to emerge. I was certain that I had seen the last of a lot of my plants. In fact, I did lose a brugmansia and a hybrid datura, although most of my brugs and daturas did survive. And I was sure that the Jatropha ingererrima, the Russelia equisetiformis, the Caesalpina pulcherrina, and the bauhinia were gone for good. But the 'Pride of Barbados' (Caesalpina) and the bauhina popped out of the ground right on schedule, leaving only the jatropha and the firecracker plant (Russelia) in doubt.

A couple of days ago, I had decided that the jatropha was deader than a doornail and prepared to remove it and put an angelica plant in its place. I got my shovel and prepared to dig and positioned it for the first cut. As I put my foot on it to push it into the ground, I looked down and...
One tiny green shoot was coming up from its base! "Don't give up on me just yet. I'm still here," it said to me. So I put away the shovel and watered the plant instead, said, "Welcome back, old friend," and planted the angelica elsewhere.

After that experience, I decided to check on the firecracker plant again, and it was anticlimactic to find that it, too, was beginning to emerge from its long winter nap.

The moral here, one that I have to learn over and over again it seems, is to have patience. Also, you can't keep a good plant down!

(Part 2 of "Gifts of the late April garden" tomorrow.)      

Monday, April 28, 2014

Murder at the Savoy by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo: A review

Murder at the Savoy (Martin Beck, #6)Murder at the Savoy by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have tremendously enjoyed reading the books in this series. Up until now. I have to say that this sixth entry in the ten-book series left me scratching my head as to why they even bothered. It seemed as though the authors were simply phoning it in and were not really engaged by the story they were telling.

The "mystery" took a back seat to Sjowall's and Wahloo's exploration of Swedish society and all that (they felt) was wrong with it back in the 1960s when they were writing. Reading about the evils of the welfare state that was Sweden was interesting, at least historically, up to a point, but past that point, I frankly just felt that the writers were beating a dead horse. They were definitely beating a reader who had lost interest.

The mystery involves who shot Viktor Palmgren, a powerful Swedish industrialist, while he was making an after-dinner speech in the restaurant of the luxurious Hotel Savoy. He had just stood up to start his speech when a man walked into the restaurant and right up behind Palmgren and shot him in the head with a .22 caliber revolver. The other people around the dinner table were so shocked that they didn't realize at first what had happened and the assassin made his escape before anyone could react.

Initially, the victim survives, but then within a few hours his condition deteriorates and he dies. And so it becomes a case not just of assault but of murder.

This all happens in the southern town of Malmo. The police there are baffled and are getting nowhere with their investigation. Since Palmgren was a very big deal as a captain of industry and a major player in the international money markets, the powers that be in Stockholm are eager for an early solution to the murder. They send their main man, Martin Beck, to take over the investigation and find the culprit.

In reviewing Palmgren's background and his life, Beck finds that he was not a nice man and that there are probably any number of people who would have been happy to have him dead. But which one of them did it?

As usual, Beck is coming down with a cold and feeling miserable, and his detectives are just about the most reluctant group of investigators that you will ever find in the pages of a mystery novel. Still they all trudge on, doing their job, however grudgingly, and, finally, they do reach a conclusion and get their man. Frankly, by this point, I had a lot of sympathy for the murderer and I was sort of hoping he would get away. That's really not the reaction that a reader of a murder mystery should have.

One of the things that I have enjoyed so much in the previous books in the series has been the sly humor which the authors have slipped into the narrative from time to time, often to drive home a point. This book had very little of that. Early in the book, there was one bit that gave me a chuckle, but after that it was mostly sheer, boring routine and much attention paid to each detective's complaints about the society, about life, and about his job.

But perhaps that is just true to life and that's what the detective's lot is all about. It may be realistic, but it doesn't make for very compelling reading.  

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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Poetry Sunday: Old Wives

I often listen to the Diane Rehm Show on NPR. She almost always has interesting guests and interesting conversations with them.
Last week, one of her shows focused on poetry, since April is National Poetry Month. She had three poets as guests and they read some of their poems and recited poems that were meaningful to them.
At the end of the show, Diane read a poem by a friend of hers who was not a famous poet. Her name was Emma Jean (E.J.) Mudd and she was married to journalist Roger Mudd. She was apparently a multi-talented person, a virtual Renaissance woman. She died three years ago.
Of all the poems that were read or recited on Rehm's show, this is the one that struck a chord with me. Possibly because I, too, am an old wife.
Old Wives
by E.J. Mudd
What did we think when we promised
to love and cherish those barely known men
till death did us part – and all that?

I think what we heard was the first set of terms-
for richer, for better, in health.

Who bothered to look through the mist of tulle
at the contrary side of the vows –
for poorer, in sickness, for worse?

Who ventured a question?
How poor? In what sense poor?
How sick? Where sick? For how long?
For worse? Were there limits to worse?

Well, never mind now after all these years.
We’ve seen it from both sides now.

The point is that all of us promised we would,

And some of us actually did.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

This week in birds - #106

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

Last week I wondered whether the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks would make an appearance in my yard this spring. This week I have my answer and it is affirmative! I've only seen one so far but I hear their clear robin-like songs emanating from trees around the yard, so I'm hoping to see more and perhaps get some good pictures.


The latest Audubon magazine has a feature story on the Galveston Bay oil spill one month after the fact. The bottom line is that the long-term effects of the spill are still to be determined.


Scientists tracking the onset of spring and the bloom of flowers have found that the blooms are coming on average about three weeks earlier than what was documented by Henry David Thoreau in his observations on Walden Pond in the 1850s.


It began as a misguided effort to honor Shakespeare. In the 1890s, it was thought that it would be a wonderful idea to introduce to North America all the birds that had been mentioned prominently in Shakespeare's writings. And that is how, on one cold winter's day, sixty European Starlings came to be released in Central Park in the hope that they would breed. Unfortunately, they did.


The Blue-footed Booby, an iconic bird of the Galapagos Islands, has almost entirely stopped breeding there. The population of the birds has dropped by fifty percent over the last twenty years. Scientists are at a loss to explain what is happening although some believe it is related to a drop in the sardine population in the area.


A cave insect has been found in Brazil that has performed a sex-role reversal in its strategy for survival. The females have penises and the males have vaginas. Another remarkable feature of the insect's life is that copulation can last up to seventy hours!


The Ivanah Solar Electric Generating System in San Bernardino County, California continues to be a deadly place for birds. Surveys in March found 55 dead or injured birds, some of which showed clear evidence of singed feathers as an apparent result of "solar flux." This happened with the facility only operating at 55 percent capacity, which leads one to wonder what kind of carnage might result if it were running at 100 percent.


Scientists have tracked two male Ospreys from the region of the Anacostia River near Washington, D.C. to their winter home in South America and, now, back again to Anacostia. Both birds arrived safely within 48 hours of each other.


A recent report in the journal Nature states that years of drier conditions in the Congo River basin of central Africa has had an effect on the rain forest there. The forest is being reduced in size.


The grizzly bear population in Montana has suffered a reversal and a conservation group has sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, asking a judge to force the agency to downgrade the grizzly's status from "threatened" to "endangered."


Plans are afoot to build another wind farm in an area that is part of the endangered California Condor's expanding range. Proponents insist that the wind turbines would pose no threat to the endangered bird.


Other than that deranged freeloading rancher in Nevada, this is definitely the most disgusting story I've seen all week. The Houbara Bustard is an internationally protected species of bird native to Asia. Hunting it is banned in Pakistan, but that didn't stop a Saudi prince and his companions from killing 2100 of the birds when they went on a shooting expedition in the country.  You see, laws just don't apply to freeloading ranchers and Saudi princes. They are special.


Around the backyard:

It's been a busy week of comings and goings around the backyard. Among the goings have been the last of the American Goldfinches. I haven't seen any since last weekend, so I assume the last ones have flown.

Among the permanent residents, the big news has been the Carolina Wren family that has been exploring the yard. It is the parents and at least two babies. There may be more babies - it's hard to get the whole energetic family to sit still and pose long enough to count.

In addition to the aforementioned Rose-breasted Grosbeak, there have been at least two more migrants visiting the yard this week. On Wednesday, when I saw the grosbeak, I was sitting on my patio in the late afternoon gazing toward the back fence and the wild hedge there when I caught a flash of bright yellow. I picked up my binoculars for a better look and there in my view was a beautiful Yellow-breasted Chat. Lovely bird and one of my favorite spring visitors.

Late Friday afternoon, I was sitting on the bench by my goldfish pond when I heard a "chep" coming from the nearby redbud. I looked up to see a tiny Common Yellowthroat dressed in his shiny black mask.

I wonder what will turn up tomorrow.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Let it Go(T)

Ah, you've been so good this week, you deserve a treat. How about a mashup of a popular song and a popular TV show? It's really pretty much on point.

I'm sure you remember the song from the movie "Frozen" that won the Oscar for best original song in a movie from 2013. That's right - "Let it go."

And even if you don't watch it on HBO or read George R.R. Martin's books, you are probably at least aware of "Game of Thrones."

So, how about we put them together and come up with a new winner?

WARNING - If you haven't watched season four through the third episode or if you haven't read The Song of Ice and Fire through book three: There be spoilers here!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Butterflies of Houston & Southeast Texas by John & Gloria Tveten: A review

Butterflies of Houston and Southeast TexasButterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas by John Tveten
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A book that I have owned for many years, which I am constantly re-reading sections of, and which I refer to almost every day especially at this time of year, is Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas by John and Gloria Tveten. This is the most accessible and, at the same time, the most comprehensive guide to butterflies that I have found for this area.

The guide describes and illustrates with color pictures more than 100 species of butterflies that can be found in Southeast Texas, as well as often occurring farther afield in other sections of the state. In my many years of relying on this easy-to-use guide, it has never failed me. Every butterfly that I have come across in Southeast Texas has been found in the book.

As a habitat gardener and amateur photographer who delights in photographing butterflies, I particularly admire the work of those who photographed the butterflies for the book. They are indeed striking and, in most cases, feature both ventral and dorsal views, making identification of the critters a snap.

But it is not just the adult creatures that are featured here. There are lovely photographs of the caterpillars as well, which allow the gardener to see what it is that is munching on her plants and to be tolerant and protective of these "worms" which will some day take to the air as fully-formed colorful butterflies.

The authoritative text of the book is based on the Tvetens' lifetime of observing these flighty flutterers. They also rely upon and frequently refer to the observations of other experts in the field of lepidoptery. The text describes each species' life history, habits, flight patterns, characteristic markings, and the plants on which the caterpillars feed and on which the adults prefer to nectar.

The guide is arranged in sections featuring each butterfly family: swallowtails; whites and sulphurs; gossamer-winged, metalmarks; snout butterflies; longwings; brush-footed butterflies; satyrs, wood nymphs, and browns; milkweed butterflies; and skippers. I'm proud to say that long usage of and familiarity with the book has finally given me the skill to (almost) always know immediately to which family a new butterfly that I'm seeing for the first time belongs.

There is a general description of each butterfly family in each section that precedes the descriptions of the individual species. This includes characteristics which all members of that family share.

In addition, in the introduction, the Tvetens provide a fairly comprehensive discussion of butterfly biology. Also, in the back is a complete checklist of area butterflies with their common and scientific names and there is a list of butterfly organizations and journals and of public butterfly houses and gardens that one can visit.  

I have several bookshelves filled with field guides, habitat gardening books, and general information books about many subjects in Nature, but there is none among them that I refer to more often or that I rely on my completely for accurate and easily accessible information on this subject. It is certainly the book that I would recommend first to any amateur naturalist interested in the butterflies of this region.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Leopard Frog

While I was weeding the area around my little backyard goldfish pond last Saturday, I happened to interrupt the nap of this handsome fellow.

He is a Southern Leopard Frog (Rana sphenocephala) and he and a number of his relatives inhabit my pond and its immediate environs.

Leopard Frogs are pretty common anywhere there is shallow water. This can include lakes, marshes, streams, or backyard goldfish ponds. They are nocturnal and become active at night. Throughout the day, they generally hide among the plants, like my little friend. Sometimes, if they are startled, they will leap into the water. This guy, though, seemed too sleepy to bother.

These frogs are large and slender and can grow up to about five inches long. They can be green or brown or, as this one is, green AND brown. with the large dark spots which give them their common name.

Southern Leopard Frogs breed from March to June. Once mated, the female frogs lay egg masses of up to 4,000 eggs in shallow water, usually attached to plant stems. The tadpoles hatch from the eggs and eat algae and small organisms in the water. They transform to adult frogs by late spring or early summer.

After mating, adult frogs often wander away from water and into woods or fields, where they hide among plants or debris. They return to water by the end of summer.

They eat a wide variety of foods from algae to crickets, beetles, butterflies and spiders, and a wide variety of animals prey on them. Their enemies include herons, fish, bullfrogs, raccoons, opossums, snakes, skunks, and snapping turtles.

One of the great pleasures of having a habitat garden is getting to know the little critters that come to call it home. The Southern Leopard Frog is a welcome resident of my garden.  

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Wildflowers of Texas by Geyata Ajilvsgi: A review

Wildflowers of TexasWildflowers of Texas by Geyata Ajilvsgi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On Earth Day, it seems appropriate to consider some of the gifts that Earth gives us. One of the loveliest and at the same time most useful of these is wildflowers.

If you are an admirer of wildflowers, you know very well that you need a field guide to help you identify what you see. If you live in Texas and/or want to know about the wildflowers of this state, one of the very best guides you can pick up is Wildflowers of Texas by Geyata Ajilvsgi.

I got my copy of this book several years ago on a visit to that shrine to Texas wildflowers, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, and it has been well-thumbed over the years. It is my go-to guide for figuring out what I am seeing along the roadways and byways of the state, as well as, sometimes, in my own backyard.

There are more than 5,000 species of flowering plants identified in the state and this revised edition of the book which I own has information about 482 of the state's most common wildflower species that are found in its major vegetation zones. It is a big state and it contains at least seven distinct vegetation zones: the mountains of the west, swamplands in the east, piney woods, desert, coastal plain, the semitropical Rio Grande Valley, and the Panhandle. These zones encompass a dizzying variety of wildflowers.

The book is organized in an easy-to-use, straightforward fashion. Flowers are divided in sections by color, first of all, since that is their most obvious characteristic. There are four sections: white-green, yellow-orange, red-pink, and blue-purple. One can easily turn to the section that best describes the color of the blossoms he/she sees and thumb through it in order to locate the plant.

Within each color section, the plants are organized alphabetically by family, then genus and species. There is a color picture of the flower on the left-hand page and the right-hand page contains information about the plant's bloom period, range and habitat, its botanical description, and other information, such as its therapeutic, culinary, or other traditional uses. It really could hardly be any more practical and useful for the average reader or lover of wildflowers.    

The writer herself is a vascular plant field taxonomist, as well as a freelance writer and photographer. Her expertise and her passion for the plants is evident. She has produced a guide that is particularly useful to those of us who are amateur naturalists, who do not have extensive botanical training but who do have a sincere interest in these plants and a desire to protect their habitats in the wild as well as to use them wherever possible in our own gardens.

Personally, I have many of the wildflowers featured here in my own garden and I'm always looking for spots where I can add more of them. Since bringing this book home with me, I have depended on it to help me identify those wild plants which I can successfully incorporate into my habitat garden plan, making it an extension of the natural environment around me.  The book is as much an indispensable garden tool for me as is my favorite hoe.

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Monday, April 21, 2014

The Reverse of the Medal by Patrick O'Brian: A review

The Reverse of the Medal (Aubrey/Maturin #11)The Reverse of the Medal by Patrick O'Brian
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jack Aubrey is such a dunderhead. He really should not be allowed abroad on land without a keeper.

At sea, he is authoritative, knowledgable, decisive, charismatic, a man of action that other men delight in following. He is "Lucky Jack."

But on land, he is decidedly unlucky. He is "Dunderhead Jack," an easy mark for any scam artist.

A scam artist is just what he meets on his way home from his duties of protecting whalers off the South American coasts. This well-spoken, well-dressed gentlemen convinces Jack that he has inside information that peace is going to break out in just a few days and that certain investments in the City, made before the news becomes public, are bound to make the lucky investors a fortune. Jack, who is always only half a step ahead of bankruptcy and ruin, jumps at the chance to make his fortune. He never considers who the man is or why he might be giving him this information or if the information might have been planted by his enemies to bring him down.

It doesn't take long for everything to fall apart. Jack has only just made it home and his beloved Sophie has just returned from a trip north and they are reunited when the bailiffs show up to arrest him for manipulating the market, in effect, for insider trading. Clapped in prison and not allowed bail, it is up to his friends to try to extricate him from the mess.

His particular friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin, works tirelessly to achieve that extrication. He visits all the important people of influence who owe him favors to ask for their help in freeing Jack. But things look bleak. None of them seem to have sufficient influence to achieve what is needed. It seems certain that Jack will at least be fined and pilloried and possibly even sent to prison for an extended period. Worst of all, he could be "struck off" and lose his naval career. It is an ill omen that the judge in his case is a political creature who is bent on punishing Jack's father, the loudmouthed Radical Gen. Aubrey, through his son.

Stephen has his own worries as well. His beloved Diana has run away to Sweden with another man, because she believed, wrongly, that her husband had been unfaithful to her and had flaunted his red-headed "mistress" all around the Mediterranean. The enemies of Aubrey/Maturin strike again.

Meantime, Jack is unworried. He maintains an innocent trust in British justice, "the best system of justice in all the world." He believes that if the jury hears him tell his story, they will believe him and free him. Even when told that he will not be allowed to tell his story because of the rules of evidence, his faith is unshaken.

If Aubrey's faith in British justice is misplaced, his faith in his men, the men of the Surprise and in all the men he has served with in his long naval career is not misplaced. When he is at his lowest ebb and just about to founder in the shoals, they are his lifeboat, his shield.

This was a quick and easy read because it was all about the characters and the characters' relationships. It didn't have a lot of the nineteenth century naval jargon and descriptions of naval battles that often slow my reading of these books. It focused, in fact, on the main thing that I read the series for - the relationship between Aubrey and Maturin.

As the book ends, that relationship is at a turning point and Maturin, the spy, has just learned some very valuable information, the result of which will (perhaps) be revealed in the next book. O'Brian did have the knack for keeping his readers turning those pages - and those books.      

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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Poetry Sunday: Easter Day

Easter morning. A day that I have many fond memories of from my childhood.

My mother always got me a new dress and shoes for the day, and, usually, a special bow or sometimes a little hat for my head. New clothes were not that common in my life so I always looked forward to this chance to dress up.

Then on to church where there was, of course, a special service and special music for the day. And there would be some kind of program involving the children. A chance to perform! A chance to show off for an appreciative audience of parents.

After that, of course, came the high point of the day for us kids - the Easter egg hunt with the possibility of being the lucky one to find the Prize Egg.

Finally, home for a very special lunch, shared with company - uncles, aunts, cousins, and sometimes, when it was our turn, the preacher and his family.

Simple pleasures for simple lives.

In some parts of the world, Easter is a far more grand occasion. Oscar Wilde wrote of such grandiosity and compared it to the life of the man whom the day is supposedly all about.

Easter Day

by Oscar Wilde

The silver trumpets rang across the Dome:
The people knelt upon the ground with awe:
And borne upon the necks of men I saw,
Like some great God, the Holy Lord of Rome.

Priest-like, he wore a robe more white than foam,
And, king-like, swathed himself in royal red,
Three crowns of gold rose high upon his head:
In splendour and in light the Pope passed home.

My heart stole back across wide wastes of years
To One who wandered by a lonely sea,
And sought in vain for any place of rest:
“Foxes have holes, and every bird its nest,
I, only I, must wander wearily,
And bruise my feet, and drink wine salt with tears.”

It must be said that the present pope seems much more in empathy with the "One who wandered by a lonely sea, And sought in vain for any place of rest" and with those who still wander and seek. Most likely, he would wash his/their feet and offer him/them a place to rest.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

This week in birds - #105

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

Rose-breasted Grosbeak visitors like this pair were common in my backyard last spring. They have reached and passed the Gulf Coast in their spring migration. Will any of them show up here this year? It always seems to be boom or bust - I have a lot of them or I have none. My birdfeeders are stocked and ready and I'm hoping for "boom" again this year.


One of the big stories in science this week was the occurrence of the so-called "Blood Moon" eclipse which generated the usual prophecies of the Apocalypse from the usual suspects. But it turns out such lunar eclipses are really not that rare. They've happened many times in history without triggering an Apocalypse.


I've reported here before about brainy New Caledonian Crows learning how to use water displacement to obtain food. Now here's a video from The New York Times science desk showing one of the crows in action.


Scotland's most famous Osprey, Lady, has returned to her nesting area for the 24th straight year and has laid her 69th recorded egg. The bird has raised 50 chicks during those previous 23 years.


Four years after the explosion of Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, the cleanup is finally winding down, but the environmental damage continues and its far-reaching effects are yet to have their final reckoning. One of the latest effects documented is a dramatic dwindling of insect populations in the Louisiana marshes. Since these critters are near the bottom of the food chain, that does not bode well for those that are higher up on the chain and that depend on them.


New research confirms that forests on nutrient-rich soil are better able to absorb carbon from the atmosphere than forests on poorer soil.


The Nature Conservancy is using data garnered from eBird reports to identify spots where shorebirds stop on their migration through the California valley. They are then paying farmers in those areas to make their land more welcoming for the birds.


In another big science story this week, it was reported that NASA's Kepler planet-finding mission has found a planet which appears to be a twin, or a cousin, of Earth, in that it seems to have the right conditions to foster life. The planet was given the name Kepler 186f. As far as I know, no one has yet suggested that this is a sign of the Apocalypse.


The La Brea tar pits of California are famous for the megafauna which they have yielded up, but some of the minifauna, which has received very little attention, has proved especially interesting as well. For example, bees, which it seems are connecting California's past to its present.


Some overwintering Snowy Owls are lingering on Massachusetts beaches and that is bringing them into conflict with returning Ospreys who consider those beaches their own.


More bad news for bats: The bat-killing white-nose fungus has now been identified in at least 25 states and bats continue to die by the thousands.


Colombia is suffering through a devastating drought which is raising fears of increasingly harsh summers in the region.


Hundreds of environmental activists have been killed around the world in the past decade. South America seems to be the most dangerous region for such activists.


Around the backyard:

Scenes like this have become common around my yard again this week. This picture was actually taken during the winter of 2012, but my backyard feeders are again being mobbed by White-winged Doves. Curiously, I hardly saw any of these birds during the recent winter, but now here they are again en force.

Also curiously, the doves have been joined by a large number of Blue Jays. Now, I always have Blue Jays around but not ten or fifteen at a time like this week. And if you have any doubts, yes, ten or fifteen Blue Jays can raise quite a ruckus!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Thoughts on Good Friday: I guess I just don't understand

So...I've been thinking about that freeloading rancher in Nevada who has inspired various gun nuts to show up and instigate a standoff with federal authorities. The deal is that the man had been grazing his cattle on federal lands - i.e., lands that belong to all of us - for about a quarter of a century and never paying any of the required, relatively minimal, fees. The Bureau of Land Management had finally decided to try to collect and confiscated his cattle on the lands. And that's when the rancher and his supporters decided to bring on the guns. (And why is it that the first impulse of people like him is always to wave their guns around?) The federal authorities, not wishing to start a bloodbath, stood down and will pursue remedies by other means.

And now this old white guy with his cowboy hat and his gun is the newest hero of the right-wingnut faction of American politics and their hysterical media outlet, Fox News, which has been giving the incident the 24-hour "news" coverage and doing its best to whip up the flames of insurrection.

Now, here's the part I don't understand. This man is a thief. He has been stealing from all of us for years. Overall, it amounts to thousands of dollars. And yet he is a hero to the right who believe that he should not be punished for his breach of the law and he should not even be made to pay his fees. (And, incidentally, I wonder how that makes all the thousands of law-abiding, patriotic ranchers in the West who regularly pay their legally-required fees feel?)

Let's consider a slightly different scenario.

An impoverished black family, say a mother and two children, receive food stamps. Through some sort of error or bureaucratic glitch or even because the mother had misstated her income, the family receives $10 more in food stamps than they were legally entitled to. What would be the right-wingnuts' response to that? Would they show up en masse to protect this family from the collectors?

The rancher says that the reason he doesn't have to pay the grazing fees is that he doesn't recognize the United States government, just as certain corporations say they don't have to comply with some laws because they don't agree with them. And the right-wingers just love that! But what if a left-wing commune somewhere in the heartland of America decided on its own that the federal government is not legitimate and they are not bound by any of its laws. Would Fox News trumpet their resistance and rally people to support them?

The response of Fox News and those who live and breathe by every word emanating from that network is very much predicated on the political philosophy of the person involved in the story. Conservative, good. Liberal or progressive, bad. calls it the Clive Bundy Syndrome or why Christian Conservatives think they are above the law.

It's an interesting philosophy for a group of people who say that they follow the teachings of a man who said, "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's." Just a thought for Good Friday.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Tree Where Man Was Born by Peter Matthiessen: A review

The Tree Where Man Was BornThe Tree Where Man Was Born by Peter Matthiessen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book had languished on my bookshelf for far too long. With the recent death of author Peter Matthiessen, I was reminded of its presence, and, somewhat shamefacedly, took it down and began to read.

I had read several of Matthiessen's other books, both fiction and nonfiction, and I had always found his writing to be quite lyrical and spellbinding. That was true of The Tree Where Man Was Born as well.

Matthiessen combines his skills as a nature writer and as a travel writer here in order to vividly bring to life the East Africa that existed in the 1960s when the adventure he is writing about took place. It is a snapshot of a time and place, people, animals, and plants even, that no longer exist or else they exist in greatly changed circumstances. The countries that he names have sometimes passed into history and become different entities with different names. Tanganyika is now Tanzania, etc.

Matthiessen travels through this vast region along the Great Rift offering us his impressions of the land and the people. He writes of breathtaking landscapes and of the herdsmen and hunter-gatherers who make their livings on this land. He gives us their daily lives in rich detail and makes us respect the dignity with which they lead those lives, so very different from our own - and yet the same in essentials. Theirs was a way of life that was dying even then, fifty years ago, and it is likely that it is mostly gone today.

Much can be said as well for the animals he describes. Some of the most harrowing passages of the book, for me at least, were his dispassionate and detailed accounts of prey animals being hunted down and sometimes torn to pieces by predators. I have no stomach for this and I admit I skipped some passages and glided swiftly over others that were too painful for me to bear. But this was very much a feature of life for those living among the great company of game animals on the plains of East Africa and experiencing the wildlife spectacle of that place, and so it was essential to his telling of the story.

The writer refers to some of the famous people of whom we have all heard who were working in the area at that time - the Adamsons of Born Free fame and that famous family of anthropologists the Leakeys. He rubbed elbows with many of these individuals in his travels and met representatives from many of the different native peoples who call the area home - people like the Maasai, the Kikuyu, various groups of Bushmen, and, most interestingly, the Hadza.

Matthiessen lived for a while among the Hadza, a group whose origins were lost in the mists of prehistory. It is from their own account of their origins that the title of the book is taken:
The Hadza themselves came into being in this way: a giant ancestor name Hohole lived at Dungiko with his wife Tsikaio, in a great hall under the rocks where Haine, who is God, the Sun, was not able to follow. Hohole was a hunter of elephants which were killed with one blow of his stick and stuck into his belt. Sometimes he walked one hundred miles and returned to the cave by evening with six elephants. One day while hunting, Hohole was bitten by a cobra in his little toe. The mighty Hohole died. Tsikaio, finding him, stayed there five days feeding on his leg, until she felt strong enough to carry the body to Masako. There she left it to be devoured by birds. Soon Tsikaio left the cave and went to live in a great baobab. After six days in the baobab, she gave birth to Konzere, and the children of Tsikaio and Konzere are the Hadza. "The Hadza," as the people say, "is us."
The great baobab tree as the cradle of mankind. As an origin myth, I have to say it makes about as much sense as any other.

Matthiessen deals lightly with the political turbulence of the region. Of course, the almost fifty years since this book was written have seen even more turbulence and more degradation of the environment and amalgamation of the distinct groups of people who populated the area in the 1960s. His elegant writing is more concerned with the natural and social history of the region and, as such, he gives us a sound basis for understanding some of the events of the intervening years.

I'm glad I finally picked this book up. Matthiessen was a master of nature writing. He will be missed, but his words live on.

View all my reviews

Monday, April 14, 2014

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - April 2014

April is here at last. Even though it hasn't brought many of its promised showers so far, we welcome it and rejoice that finally a few blooms are returning to the garden.

This old-fashioned and very fragrant petunia reseeded itself in one of the beds and I let it stay. Now it brightens that corner of the garden.

This wildflower called "Philadelphia fleabane" reseeded itself in the garden last year. It is a perennial and so it came up again this year and now is featuring these delicate little blossoms which I quite like.

I like to plant marigolds in the vegetable garden. Allegedly they help to repel some harmful insects and I just like the way they look there. These bloom in the tomato bed.

And, nearby, the tomatoes bloom, too.

They call it "autumn" sage, but, in fact, it blooms all year here, including the spring.

The amaryllises, like many of my plants, are late this year, probably because of the late cold snap we had in March, but finally they are beginning to pop.

This little dianthus, 'Early Bird Radiance,' has been in bloom well over a month now.

Some of the roses are beginning to bloom and the others will be joining them soon.

Here's the 'Double Radazz' Knockout.

This is a 'Dortmund' bud. When it is fully open, it is a simple single red blossom with a pale eye - very pretty.

This is 'Old Blush,' a dependable bloomer and one of my favorites.

 And this is 'Ducher,' also a very dependable bloomer.

 'Peggy Martin' is a bit late this year but will soon be covered in these pretty little blossoms.

Some of the gerberas are beginning to open up.

 This delicate little flower is on the 'Arapaho' blackberry.

This is Calibrachoa 'MiniFamous Royal Blue.'

The variegated potato vine is really planted for its leaves but it carries these rather insignificant little white blooms throughout the year. Notice their resemblance to the tomato blossoms above? They are both from the nightshade family.

'Tangerine Beauty' crossvine that I have shown you previously is still in full bloom.

And finally, in the shade of the magnolia tree, the yellow columbines are beginning to bloom.

It is always such a pleasure to visit blogs from around the world and see what is blooming in those gardens each month. Thank you, Carol of May Dreams Gardens, for bringing them all to us each Bloom Day.

And thank YOU for visiting my garden this month. Happy Bloom Day!