Sunday, August 31, 2014

Poetry Sunday: The Ordinary

A summer dragonfly.
The ordinary days of the long, hot summer, the season of the dragonfly, are coming to an end. Leaves are already beginning to fall, harbinger of the season to come. 

But still the grass grows and must be mowed and still the dragonflies follow in the mower's wake. Summer maintains it grip and will not go quietly. When it is gone, these ordinary days and hours will be remembered with love. 

The Ordinary

It's summer, so
the pink gingham shorts,
the red mower, the neat rows
of clean smelling grass
unspooling behind
the sweeping blades.

A dragonfly, black body
big as a finger, will not leave
the mower alone,
loving the sparkle
of scarlet metal,
seeing in even a rusting paint
the shade of a flower.

But I wave him off,
conscious he is
wasting his time,
conscious I am
filling my time
with such small details,
distracting colors,

like pink checks,
like this, then that,
like a dragonfly wing
in the sun reflecting
the color of opals,
like all the hours
we leave behind,
so ordinary,
but not unloved. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

This week in birds - #123

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

A Black-crowned Night Heron searches for food among duckweed covering the water. The Black-crowned is less frequently seen here than its Yellow-crowned cousin, so it is always a treat to be able to capture one with the camera.


We know that our bodies are host to any number of tiny organisms with whom we share a mostly symbiotic relationship. From the perspective of these organisms, we are a distinct universe.

Among the tiny creatures that live with us are two species of facial mites and it seems that almost everyone has them. They are probably crawling around your eyebrows as you read this - and among mine as I type it. They are not very attractive creatures but they are benevolent. A case could be made that they are our best friends!


Organisms that are distinctly not benevolent cause problems for some species of birds - specifically finches. Conjunctivitis is a plague among some populations of House Finches. Surprisingly, research has shown that most species do not get sick from this disease, but the House Finch is extremely susceptible to it for some reason. In some places it is simply referred to as "House Finch disease."


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recently announced a new interpretation of the Endangered Species Act which will limit its reach and make it more complicated for species to receive the protection provided by the Act. One is tempted to wonder just whose side the FWS is on.


A new study shows that golden orb-weaving spiders that live in urban areas grow bigger and produce more offspring than their country cousins.


Birds can travel a long way on migration and, depending on where they stop, can evolve into distinct species or populations within species. A study of the beautiful little Wilson's Warbler, a frequent visitor to my backyard during migration, revealed that there are six distinct populations of the bird present in North America.


Another very interesting study shows that birds' songs and their feather colors can be changed by the birds' exposure to mercury contamination. These birds can be important environmental barometers revealing the health of the biosphere.


Three conservation groups and a leading lepidopterist have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to give the Monarch butterfly "threatened" status under the Endangered Species Act so that it can be given additional protection. Many scientists and ordinary observers (like myself) have become alarmed at the drastic decline in population of these butterflies in recent years and at the threats they face from pesticides and from the farming practices prevalent in the Midwest. Many believe the only hope for the beautiful insect is for the FWS to step in and provide protection.


The U.S. Forest Service has issued a tentative ruling that salvage logging may proceed in the area of 2013's Rim Fire near Yosemite. This is causing consternation among conservation groups because of the presence of Northern Spotted Owls in the area. It is likely that the groups will sue to stop the plan.


Iceland's seabird colonies are vanishing, with massive die-offs of chicks this breeding season. The cause seems to be a warming climate and ocean which has changed the nature of the food available to the birds. A similar phenomenon has occurred along the North Atlantic coasts of North America.


One of the biggest problems for conservation today is that it ignores some 95% of known species on Earth. Most of these species are invertebrates or micro-organisms and so are easily overlooked, but they are the backbone of all the biosphere.


A court in North Carolina has upheld protections given to breeding colonies of shorebirds at Cape Hatteras. The decision essentially prevents off-road vehicles from riding roughshod over the nests and nestlings.


The Egyptian Goose has been officially added to the American Birding Association's checklist of birds. The exotic geese have established a breeding colony in Florida.


The Common Raven, like many birds, is expanding and changing its range in response to a changing climate. It is now seen in New York City and may be nesting there.


Coastal Louisiana is drowning. It is losing the equivalent of about a football field of coastline every hour. That's sixteen square miles a year. This is due to a combination of the topography of the region and human activity which has decimated the barrier islands and other natural obstructions that protected the land from the sea. Most of the damage is being done by the activities of petroleum companies and since the government of Louisiana is in thrall to those companies, it is doubtful that anything effective can be done anytime soon to stop the erosion. And soon enough it will be too late.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The week that was

It has been another thoroughly awful week in what has been a spectacularly terrible summer of news events so far. Thank Mother Nature it is coming to an end. At least the season is. The nature of humankind probably guarantees that the bad news will continue, but perhaps we'll have some more pleasant weather to ameliorate its effects.


The Middle East continues to be the Middle East. Syria and Iraq continue to be Syria and Iraq, and ISIL/ISIS continues its campaign to dominate them both as well as the rest of the region. They see it as their Allah-given right, just as some sects in this country see it as their God-given right to dictate to the rest of us how we should live. (Really, wouldn't it be wonderful if all of these fundamentalists could just be isolated to one corner of the world and allowed to slug it out?)

ISIL/ISIS, of course, commits really horrific acts, including beheading people while distributing the video of it to the world and, apparently, burying people alive. Their totally perverted interpretation of Islam tells them that they can do whatever barbaric thing they wish to anyone who isn't an adherent of their particular sect.

Unfortunately, the United States must bear some of the responsibility for the uprising of this group, because of the principle of "You broke it, you own it." We broke that region when we manufactured an excuse for invading Iraq and securing "regime change." Our government sowed the wind and continues to reap the whirlwind and no doubt will for years to come.

Meanwhile, the architects of that phony war go unpunished and live out their lives in comfort while the victims of the war - the members of the military who fought it and the Iraqi civilians who were just trying to live their lives - continue to suffer. One wonders when the arc of the universe will bend toward justice in this case.


Back in this country, it was another week of people shooting each other. The most egregious example of that was a nine-year-old girl at a shooting range in Arizona who shot her instructor. With an Uzi. With the parents standing by.

In what universe is it okay for a parent to hand their nine-year-old daughter a submachine gun to play with?

Of course, the NRA was all over it with their tweet about seven ways kids can have fun at shooting ranges. Presumably one of those ways was not shooting one's instructor.

I wonder, would these people accept ANY limits to people wielding guns? Would they, for example, defend the right of a two-year-old to have an Uzi?


In another troubled part of the world, Ukraine, the stealthy invasion by Russian troops continues and Putin continues to deny that it is happening.

One of the most bizarre aspects of this story from an American viewpoint is that some of the radical right-wingers in our country wish that we had Putin in charge here. They are great admirers of what they consider his decisive action.

These are some of the same people, by the way, who want to impeach President Obama for acting by executive order, bypassing Congress. Consistency, thou art not a Republican!


We also learned this week - not that there had ever really been any doubt - that the Republican Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Koch Brothers. It will be very interesting to see whether the recordings of various Republicans sucking up to these guys in their meeting with them will have any effect on the races where they are candidates. Or are Americans so apathetic and cynical that they no longer care that their candidates are bought and paid for by billionaires who definitely do not have their interests at heart?


And then, of course, there is Ferguson, Missouri. Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager who was shot multiple times by a policeman sworn to serve and protect the community, was buried this week. His funeral was attended by thousands who never knew him but who wanted to express their outrage at what happened.

The Ferguson police department continued its not very subtle campaign of attempting to destroy Brown's reputation and a new recording came to light of the sound of shots being fired at the time of the killing of this young man.

A grand jury is considering the facts of the shooting - at least the facts that are presented by what, from this distance, appears to be a totally biased district attorney's staff. Frankly, it seems depressingly unlikely that there will ever be justice for Michael Brown, just as there has been no justice for Trayvon Martin or countless others before him.

Racism and the targeting of black people by the police continue to be a stain on the conscience of this country. One would like to believe that we would all be in agreement that the stain should be removed, but a brief excursion into the world of social media this week would instantly have disabused one of that fantasy. If there is one thing that is certain, it is that there will be more Michael Browns and Trayvon Martins.

And so it goes.  

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Out of Range by C.J. Box: A review

Out Of Range (Joe Pickett, #5)Out Of Range by C.J. Box
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

C.J. Box has always portrayed his hero Game Warden Joe Pickett as a paragon of virtue. He's not necessarily the sharpest tool in the box but he's always squeaky clean - at least in his intentions. Out of Range gives a slightly new twist to his character.

Pickett's friend and fellow game warden, Will Jensen, is found dead in his state-owned house in Jackson, Wyoming. The cause of death was a gunshot to the head and the weapon is lying by his side. It appears to be a clear-cut case of suicide. It is made more clear-cut by the fact that Jensen had been acting crazy and very much out of character for several months before his death.

The Teton district that was Jensen's charge was an epicenter for many environmentalist causes, as well as an elite playground for the rich and powerful - including a certain vice-president who makes a cameo appearance here. It is about as different from the sleepy little town of Saddlestring, where Joe Pickett hangs his hat, as a place can be. It is a potentially big step up when Pickett is selected to run the Teton district, at least on a temporary basis.

Leaving Saddlestring and his family behind, Joe drives to Jackson in his beat up old pickup. Immediately on arriving, he feels himself completely out of place there and over his head.

As he takes up his new post, he reviews Will Jensen's notebooks and finds that the last one is missing. He begins searching for it and also searching for an explanation as to why Will would kill himself. He soon begins to wonder if he really did. He finds that no autopsy and no toxicology tests were done on the body. Furthermore, the body has been cremated. It all seems highly suspicious.

Joe becomes even more suspicious when he learns that Will was being pressured by a local high-powered, well-connected developer to sign off on a "good food" planned village that he was hoping to build. The problem was his "village" would disrupt migration routes for elk and grizzly bears.

Joe meets the developer who begins pressuring him as well. He also meets the developer's wife and feels an instant electric attraction to her, an attraction he soon finds is reciprocated.

Meanwhile, wife Marybeth has been left at home with their two daughters, including one who is now a rebellious teenager. She has them plus her job to deal with and the family has been receiving scary anonymous phone calls. Joe had asked his friend Nate to keep an eye on the family in his absence and he does. Sheridan, the teenage daughter, thinks he is keeping a little too close an eye on her mother and Marybeth seems to enjoy his company maybe just a little too much. It looks like the Pickett marriage may be sailing into some rough waters.  

Joe carries out his duties in his typical bumbling fashion, but, of course, as always he manages somehow to reach the right conclusions and to ensure that a kind of rough justice is done.

I found this fifth in the Joe Pickett series to be an interesting read. The writing is not particularly scintillating. It sort of bumbles along much like Joe, but somehow it manages to get to the right place in the end.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Two beautyberries

I have two varieties of beautyberry in my garden.

The purple variety, which is the kind that is seen in Nature.

And a white cultivar.

Now, in past years, I have found that the birds in my yard generally wait until a bit later to start hitting the beautyberries for their daily snacks. They would usually exhaust the softer elderberries and the pokeberries which I also have in my garden before they started on the beautyberries. The beautyberry is a harder fruit and it will last longer on the shrub, right into winter. That's mostly when I've noticed birds eating them in past years. But this must be a particularly delicious year for these berries because the birds are already devouring them with great relish.

Also, in the past, the birds usually started with the white berries and stripped all of them before they moved on to the purple. Not this year. They are showing a distinct preference for the purple. Mockingbirds, robins, cardinals, grackles, even wrens and chickadees have been observed eating them. So far, I haven't noticed a single bird eating the white berries.

But they sure love the purple ones! Especially the mockingbirds.

And the robins.

I don't think these berries are going to last until winter this year.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear: A review

Among the Mad (Maisie Dobbs, #6)Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's Christmas Eve 1931 in Maisie Dobbs' world, more than ten years past the end of the Great War that was to "end all wars."

The war goes on though for so many of those who participated in it. Millions of men and women who were grievously wounded either physically or psychologically - or both - continue to struggle with their wounds and with trying to make a place for themselves in the world. Maisie Dobbs' work as a psychologist and investigator often seems to bring her into contact with these desperate people and that is the case once again in Among the Mad.

It begins with Maisie walking down a London street with her assistant Billy Beale, on their way to meet with a client. Suddenly, Maisie gets one of her premonitions. She orders her assistant to go back as she walks forward toward a disabled man sitting on the street. He has one missing leg and the other injured and Maisie feels the distress coming from him. As she approaches him with her arm outstretched, he detonates a hand grenade, blowing himself up and injuring some of those on the street. Luckily, Maisie is not seriously injured but she is deeply affected by the event.

The next day the prime minister's office receives a letter threatening a massive loss of life if the writer's demands are not met. Curiously, the letter mentions Maisie's name which leads her to be investigated by Scotland Yard's elite Special Branch. She is cleared and then seconded to the Special Branch as a part of the team investigating the letter and trying to prevent a terrorist attack on the city.

While Maisie is involved in this case, she is also trying to help Billy, whose wife has descended fully into the abyss of melancholia following the death of their small daughter several months before. She is finally deemed to be a danger to herself or her two living children and she is committed to an institution for the care of the mentally disturbed, but this particular institution turns out to be a chamber of horrors and Maisie and Billy work to get her moved to a more humane facility.

Meanwhile, an incident at a veterinary facility results in the death of several dogs from some sort of chemical attack and this is followed by the killing of a number of birds by, apparently, the same means. Further letters received at Special Branch warn that the next victims will be human. And, indeed, a young government official is then killed. The letter writer warns that the next event will be a mass killing.

Maisie and the rest of the team race to find the writer of the letters and to stop him before he can accomplish that killing. They each follow different leads and Maisie investigates those who have been involved in research into chemical warfare. Her inquiry leads her into the world of shell-shocked men, a world of the darkness that she first encountered as a nurse during the war.

Jacqueline Winspear once again explores the theme that she has adopted as her main topic in this series, which is that of the treatment of those who fight a country's wars when they return home, often battered and damaged, from those wars. It was an issue after the First World War and every war since and it is still an issue today. We can read it in the headlines of any of today's newspapers. Winspear, through her character Maisie Dobbs, is an advocate for the humane treatment of such victims of man's inhumanity. These novels seem very timely in that regard and they give us pause to think about how far our treatment of shell-shock - now called PTSD - has come in a hundred years. Or not.  

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon: A review

(Note: This summer I'm featuring some of my old book reviews that have not been posted here before. This is a book that I read in March 2009 and my review of it was published on Goodreads on March 4, 2009. Although I read it in winter, it would be a good - and quick - read for summer.)

Gentlemen of the RoadGentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is circa 950 C.E. in the Caucasus Mountains area, the Khazar Empire.  Zelikman, the Frankish scarecrow of a man, and Amram, the Abyssinian former soldier, both Jews and brothers under the skin, make their way in the area by serving as blades for hire, thieves, bamboozlers - whatever happens to come their way.  They are, in fact, Gentlemen of the Road or, as Chabon says he first titled the work, "Jews with Swords."

This is a short novel full of Chabon's trademark sardonic style of writing.  I had previously read The Yiddish Policemen's Union and thoroughly enjoyed it and I was anxious to try out his latest work.  I was not disappointed.

Zelikman and Amram are quirky and attractive characters, full of humor, much of it sarcastic.  Their tale hangs upon their half-unwilling drafting into the service of escorting and defending a prince of the Khazar Empire whose family - a royal family of the empire - had been killed and his father displaced as ruler by the prince's uncle.  The prince, who has many secrets, burns with the desire for revenge and Amram and Zelikman are drawn into his plots.

This is a swashbuckling adventure that compares favorably with many of the past's most famous and beloved buddy adventures.  The twist at the end is something that I might have seen coming, but it was delicious nonetheless.  It is a page-turner of a book, one that goes quickly and ends before the reader wants it to - a fun read.

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Poetry Sunday: These are the days when Birds come back

A robin taking "communion" at a beautyberry shrub in my backyard yesterday.

Birds are always on the move it seems. North, south, moving with the seasons or with the climate or the availability of food and water. The fall migration is already well under way now and the birds are passing through my backyard on a weekly or daily basis.

The American Robin, though, has been here all along and has raised his family here this summer. Just this past week he has been escorting a new family around the garden, teaching them where to find food.

One place that many of my backyard birds find food these days is at the beautyberry shrubs. No one enjoys them more than the robin as he shows in the picture above, receiving his communion wafer and wine in the form of purple berries.  

These are the days when Birds come back—

by Emily Dickinson
These are the days when Birds come back—
A very few—a Bird or two—
To take a backward look.

These are the days when skies resume
The old—old sophistries of June—
A blue and gold mistake.

Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee—
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief.

Till ranks of seeds their witness bear—
And softly thro' the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf.

Oh sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze—
Permit a child to join.

Thy sacred emblems to partake—
Thy consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

This week in birds - #122

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

Redhead Duck, photographed on our autumn trip to Big Bend National Park in West Texas two years ago. Some of these beautiful ducks winter in our area and they will soon be winging our way once again in their fall migration.


The ongoing extreme drought in the West has resulted in the loss of some 63 trillion gallons of groundwater, scientists estimate. That, in turn, has had the effect of causing the surface of the earth in those areas to rise about 0.16 inches over the last eighteen months.


Ospreys returned to Cumbria in England in 2001, after an absence of about 150 years. Now, a pair have produced chicks at a nest in Roudsea Wood Nature Preserve in Cumbria. Since Ospreys return to the same nest year after year, it is hoped that this will be a new beginning for the birds in that area of their former range.


Beetles are among the most diverse and interesting of insects. "Beetles in the Bush" has a fascinating post, with pictures, of the intimidating-looking staghorn beetle


There is a myth about magpies that they are inexorably drawn to shiny objects and will steal them if they can. Some scientists set out to test that myth and found that it seems to be entirely false. In fact, it appears that magpies are afraid of shiny objects!


The Bird Ecology Study Group has some beautiful pictures of a Southeast Asian bird, the Purple Swamphen. It is closely related to our own summer visitor, the Purple Gallinule


As a gardener who tries to use native plants whenever possible in her garden, I was interested in this article in the Chicago Tribune. It seems that some of the cultivars that are sold as "native" are not so native after all and do not necessarily have the characteristics that we are looking for in that plant. However, some cultivars do. The message here, I guess, is "Buyer beware!" One should attempt to educate oneself as much as possible before purchasing such plants. 


A Bronx resident has reclaimed an area that was once reduced to an open-air drug market along a weed-choked street and has created a bird sanctuary. It is also a sanctuary for the people of the area. What began as a private project has now been taken over by the Parks and Recreation Department. It is called the Dred Scott Bird Sanctuary because as the daughter of its founder, Troy Lancaster, said, they all "worked like slaves without pay" in creating it. Where drug dealers once reigned, Wild Turkeys are now sometimes seen. Never doubt that one person with a dream and persistence can make a difference.


Glossy Ibises are occasionally seen here, although they are not as common as the very similar White-eyed Ibis or the common White Ibis. But they are also seen in Europe, especially around the Mediterranean. Now, the climate seems to be pushing them farther north. This summer a pair were seen building a nest in Frampton Marshes in the UK. Although they completed the nest, they never laid eggs. It is possible they were a young and inexperienced pair, but it is hoped they will have better luck in another year.


Rainforest frogs seem to be under attack on every front these days. In India, they face challenges to their existence because of the selective logging that is going on in forests there.


There are only 114 Hawaiian Crows left in the world. They are extinct in the wild, but scientists conducting a captive breeding program that hopes to someday reestablish a wild population announced that they have hatched nine chicks at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Facility on Hawaii Island.


What would you imagine that a wasp mantisfly would look like? It's an insect that carries the name of three distinct species. Well, it is a unique and interesting critter and "Bug Eric" found one at Colorado Springs recently and he is excited to tell us all about it.


Sometimes attempting to save an endangered species can mean killing some of the animals that prey on them or encroach on their territory - as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently doing with Barred Owls that have moved into the territories of Northern Spotted Owls in the Northwest. Now, some Double-crested Cormorants along the Columbia River in Oregon will suffer that same fate as scientists try to save the endangered salmon on which they love to feed.


When scientists were able to sequence the genome of the chicken in 2004, they found that the species did not have the gene for tasting sweets. Other birds, it seems, also lack that proverbial "sweet tooth." Except for the hummingbird. Although they, too, lack the particular gene that relates to the tasting of sweets in other species, they have developed other means of being able to taste sugary stuff. They love nectar and that sugar water that we put out for them. The sweeter the better!   


Friday, August 22, 2014

The last days of summer

Days are getting shorter. Just a month ago, at 7:00 in the evening the setting sun would still be above the tops of the tall pine trees that spread across the western horizon prospect from my backyard. Today, by 7:00 the sun will be well behind those trees, just about down to their bases. 

Moreover, the sun has started on its long trek to the south for winter. After reaching its northernmost point in the sky several weeks ago, the sun is now several degrees farther south, looking from our planetary perspective. And so the seasons change.

There's only a month left in this season, but it is likely the most miserable month for us. The heat and humidity now are just about unbearable for outdoor activities of any extended period. And the plants which must stand out there all day under the broiling sun are looking wilted and tattered, much the worse for wear. A few leaves are already dropping, harbinger of the deluge to come.

The bottom line for gardeners is that it is almost impossible to keep the garden looking good at this time of year and some of us just surrender and wait for the cooler days of fall. The main attraction in the garden these days is the wildlife but even they are rather quiet. Except for the cicadas, of course.

Most of the backyard birds are still molting and they tend to be fairly silent during this period, almost as if they are embarrassed to call attention to their disheveled appearance. Silent though they are, there are plenty of them around, both adults and juveniles.

Just this week, I've seen a pair of robins escorting a couple fledglings around. There's been a whole tribe of wrens, including four or five fledglings, scouring the shrubbery for bugs. 

A young Carolina Wren looking for a snack in a 'Pride of Barbados' shrub.

And the yard is virtually overrun by cardinals. In the late afternoon when the cardinals come to the backyard feeders, one can see twenty or more of the beautiful birds of all ages as they gather for their late day snack.

A molting male Northern Cardinal eyes a feeder containing sunflower seed.

I can't say how many hummingbirds are in the yard these days. They zip around so fast that I can't count them, but I know there are at least three.

Most of the hummers that I am seeing now are Ruby-throated males like this one sitting just outside my office window.

I see posts on other birding blogs of hummingbird feeders that are being visited by large numbers of the little birds, and I wonder, how do they do that? Maybe my birds are just especially intolerant, but they will not share. If another bird comes around while one is feeding, the chase is on. They do not peaceably feed together. Admittedly, the chases are very entertaining, but it would be nice if they would all sit down for a meal together. At least then I could count them!

There are also plenty of butterflies in the garden in these last days of summer.

The little yellow Sulphur butterflies are ubiquitous in the garden at this time of year.

Milkweed is not just for Monarchs and Queens; Pipevine Swallowtails like it, too.

Gulf Fritillaries are very active at this time of year and they love these flame acanthus blossoms.

A Giant Swallowtail nectars on milkweed.

I've mentioned here before that the numbers of green anoles in my backyard are down this summer compared to previous years. It's likely that the cold snaps last winter reduced their numbers. Last summer they seemed to be everywhere, but this year I can sometimes walk through the garden without seeing a single one.

There is one little guy that I can count on seeing regularly though. He's my patio buddy.

Just about any day that I sit on my patio I'll see him there, checking the pavers for insects.

And, of course, displaying his impressive throat pouch for all to see.

He's looking around to see if anyone noticed his display.

The plants in the backyard are looking rather sad as summer winds down, but the critters are always entertaining.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Dirty Duck by Martha Grimes: A review

The Dirty DuckThe Dirty Duck by Martha Grimes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Superintendent Richard Jury of New Scotland Yard is visiting a friend in Stratford-on-Avon and hoping for an encounter with the intriguing Lady Kennington whom he met in the last book in the series, The Anodyne Necklace. His friend Melrose Plant is in town, too, along with Aunt Agatha, seeing Shakespeare plays and waiting - in Agatha's case - for some visiting cousins from America.

It is summer and the town seems full of visiting Americans, including a group traveling with Honeycutt Tours. This particular group, however, does not stay intact for very long. After having a drink at a pub called "The Dirty Duck" one night, one of the tourists, Gwendolyn Bracegirdle from Sarasota, Florida, is killed in a public restroom behind a church. Her throat is slashed ear to ear and another slash rents the body from sternum to pelvis. There are no clues and Miss Bracegirdle was a quiet sort who did not seem to have any enemies.

The local constabulary take advantage of the fact that they have a Scotland Yard Superintendent in town and ask for his help in investigating. Jury reluctantly agrees - without informing his superiors in London.

Soon, though, all of the police have as much as they can handle because a second member of the tour, a seventeen-year-old beauty from Georgia named Honey Belle, is killed in the same manner. There doesn't seem to be anything to connect the two victims other than the fact that they were both with the same tour group.

Meanwhile, another member of the group, a young boy, has gone missing. He is Honey Belle's stepbrother, James. He has been known to disappear and reappear before so no one is concerned at first, but days go by and he doesn't turn up. It appears the police may have a kidnapping on their hands in addition to two murders.

But that is not to be the end of it all. Honey Belle's mother, James' stepmother, makes a trip to London and there she, too, is killed in the same way as the other two women. As the body total climbs, Jury gets assistance from D.S. Wiggins and his friend Melrose as they race to find a murderer, a missing boy, and attempt to protect the other members of the tour group who may be in danger.

Finally, a man on the tour, a Christopher Marlowe fanatic, is also killed - once again by being slashed. It seems the killer may be branching out from targeting only women.

After the last killing, Jury begins to put it all together. He develops a theory that perhaps only one of the victims was a true target and the others were only window dressing. Red herrings, as it were. The trick is to figure out which one was the target. That may lead him to the motive and to the murderer.  

The Dirty Duck is another wonderful stroll through the villages of England and, in this case, along the streets of London as well. It is written with Grimes' typical light touch and is full of interesting characters, which, of course, include a couple of charming and precocious kids and a couple of cats who play their roles. It is a lovely lazy summer read that whets the appetite for more in this series. I suspect I'll be cracking open the next Richard Jury novel on my Kindle very soon.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Joe Pye Weed

Eutrochium purpureum, "Joe Pye weed" with beautyberry in the background.

Joe Pye weed is an herbaceous perennial in the aster family that is native to the eastern and northern United States. It can grow from five to seven feet tall and spread from two to four feet wide, so it is best to give it plenty of room.

The plant is in bloom from mid to late summer. The one in my backyard is not quite in full bloom yet but is almost there. The blooms are mauve pink when fully opened. They can be quite showy and they have the added attraction of having a slight vanilla fragrance. The flowers give way to attractive seed heads which will persist right into winter.

The plants can be propagated through stem cuttings. It is best to cut them back to the ground in late winter and let them regenerate in the new growing season.

People often think of this plant as only a roadside weed and do not consider it as an ornamental for their gardens, but those, like myself, who like to use native plants in their gardens and who plant to attract butterflies and other wildlife know it to be a very valuable addition to their mixed ornamental borders, generally at the back of those borders.

This plant can take full sun to part shade. Mine is in part shade and it thrives there. It requires little water and is very hardy with no real disease or insect problems that I have discovered.

If you need a tall showy plant that will attract many different varieties of butterflies, you might consider giving Joe Pye a spot in your garden.


Frog Music by Emma Donaghue: A review

Frog MusicFrog Music by Emma Donoghue
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This story is based on an actual event that happened in San Francisco in the summer of 1876 - the never-solved murder of a young cross-dressing frog hunter named Jenny Bonnet. Emma Donaghue takes the bare bones of that case and fleshes it out to detail an interesting and plausible tale of just how and why this murder happened and who may have been responsible.

That summer in San Francisco was a terrible time. The city was in the grip of a record-breaking heat wave, but its misery was increased exponentially by a smallpox epidemic which was terrifying the populace and making them wary of interacting with each other.

We meet Blanche Beunon, French immigrant, a burlesque dancer and whore who was the support of herself and her two "fancy men," Arthur and Ernest. All three had formerly been performers in the circus in France, but after Arthur, who was a trapeze artist, had a fall which injured his back, they all came to America. In San Francisco, they lived a bohemian life.

The birth of a son threatened to interfere with that bohemian life and with Blanche's career, but the problem was solved when Blanche's madam arranged for the child to be cared for on a "farm." Blanche continued dancing and whoring and supporting the two men in the manner to which they had become accustomed. The caregiver of the baby, P'tit Arthur or just P'tit, brought the baby to visit its mother occasionally, but Blanche never bothered to visit the place where the baby was being kept.

Then Blanche met Jenny Bonnet and everything changed.

Their meeting was bruising. Jenny was riding her high-wheeler bicycle on the street and collided with Blanche who was walking. They got to talking and Blanche was intrigued by this woman who dressed as a man and who hunted frogs that she delivered to local restaurants for her living. Blanche learns that Jenny is a notorious character around town who has been arrested for dressing as a man, but she is a natural charmer who seems to have friends everywhere. Jenny goes to Blanche's apartment, meets Arthur and Ernest, and learns that Blanche has a son who is now one year old. She asks questions about where the child is and those questions trigger a suspicion in Blanche.

Blanche seeks her son and finds him being warehoused with countless other babies, kept in a crib all day long. She grabs the baby and leaves.

Having a baby with her, of course, upsets the order of her life with Arthur and Ernest and soon everything falls apart. Within a matter of weeks, Blanche's world is turned upside down as Arthur, Ernest, and P'tit have disappeared and she is on the run with Jenny. While she and Jenny are staying at a hardscrabble railroad saloon on the edge of the city, an attacker shoots through the window of their bedroom one night and kills Jenny.

Blanche tries to figure out who shot Jenny and whether the bullet was actually meant for her and shooting Jenny was a mistake. At the same time, she is obsessed with finding and recovering her son, but she is left penniless and without resources for either investigation.

Emma Donaghue makes Blanche a believable character. Although I found the tale a bit difficult to get into at first, by the latter chapters, my interest was fully engaged and I was curious to see how this very unconventional woman's life would play out. Moreover, I wanted things to end happily for her and especially for P'tit.

The events detailed here of so many damaged women and children, as well as desperate paupers and arrogant millionaires, combine to make an unexpectedly lyrical and riveting tale. It takes a very talented writer to be able to do that.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Finger Lickin' Fifteen by Janet Evanovich: A review

(Note: This summer I'm posting some of my old book reviews here - reviews that were published on Goodreads but never before here. This one appeared on Goodreads on August 4, 2009 as I was beginning to fall out of love with the Stephanie Plum series.)

Finger Lickin' Fifteen (Stephanie Plum #15)Finger Lickin' Fifteen by Janet Evanovich
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So what's with Evanonvich's sudden obsession with farts?  And why is it that only one of her characters performs this most human of functions?  It seems like on every third page of this book Lula lets go another big one.  Always Lula.  Obviously, it is supposed to be hilarious.  Now if RANGER let go a big one, that would be truly hilarious!  Oh, I forgot.  Ranger is perfect.  He doesn't fart.

And herein lies my problem with this book.  Yes, it is another quick, funny trip through the whacked-out landscape of the underbelly of Trenton as seen through the eyes of Stephanie Plum.  It has all the touches we've come to expect.  Stephanie and Morelli are on the outs so there isn't much hot sex this time - only implied and/or interrupted hot sex with Ranger and/or Morelli.  But everything else is here - the crazy skips, the wacky friends, the insane Grandma, the longsuffering Mom and Pop Plum, the exploding cars.  Still, I found it oddly unsatisfying.

Analyzing it, I decided that the source of my discomfort is the fact that Lula has become the butt (pun intended) of all jokes.  She seems to exist as nothing more than a cartoon character, someone at whom we are supposed to laugh knowingly and indulgently, secure in the knowledge that we would never do anything that buffoonish.

She is a fat, black, loud former prostitute who lives to eat fried chicken and have sex.  In other words, she is a cardboard stereotype of the kind that we see in so many movies and sitcoms.  I understand that these entire books are peopled by stereotypes and that we are not meant to take them seriously.  And yet...I am particularly offended by Lula. Not because I am a fat, black, loud former prostitute who lives for fried chicken and sex, but maybe, mostly, just because we share the same race - human.

I believe most sincerely though that most fat, black, loud former prostitutes have more to them than this series would indicate, and would it kill Evanovich to give this character a little depth?

Oh, well, I suppose I'm spitting in the wind.  As long as these books continue to sell millions of copies and wind up on the top ten of the New York Times best sellers, why should Evanovich change her formula?  I probably wouldn't either.      

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Poetry Sunday: Mending Wall

There are two sides to a wall or fence and two ways of viewing the efficacy of such a structure. Robert Frost understood both and expressed both in his poem "Mending Wall."

Mending Wall


Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbours."


"Good fences make good neighbours." That is one opinion. But "Why do they make good neighbours?" 

Before we build a wall, shouldn't we ask to know what we are walling in or walling out, and to whom we are likely to give offense? After all, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." Nature herself, I think.  

Saturday, August 16, 2014

This week in birds - #121

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

One of the most widespread raptors in the country - or indeed on the continent - is the magnificent Red-tailed Hawk. It is the hawk that most people will have in mind if they simply say "hawk."  It is the one that all of the big hawks (the buteos) are compared to. This hawk comes in many different color phases from very pale to almost black, but each of them has some things in common, including a white speckled V-shaped mark on the back and a streaked belly band on a lighter belly. And, of course, every one of them has that characteristic which gives the species its name.
Yes, they all have that red tail. It's the thing that makes this one of the most easily recognizable hawks among a class of birds that can often be quite confusing.


Another bird that is very widespread across the continent in summer is the Chimney Swift. I've often mentioned here that it is one of my favorite summer visitors. I love watching the fast-flying little cigar-shaped birds zipping around the skies over my yard on a late summer afternoon. We have left our chimney uncapped and so we have the little birds roosting in it and most summers nesting in it. (No, it's not a problem.) 

Anyway, it's good to know that the swifts can make themselves right at home in a variety of environments. Even in very urban settings. Even in New York City! All it takes is an open chimney or some similar structure where they can nest or roost. And they repay us by scouring the skies of insects.


Gardeners are often revolted by hornworms on their plants and tend to take lethal action against them, but if they can just bring themselves to leave the critters alone, Nature will often take care of them. They are favorite hosts for parasitic wasps that lay their eggs on the caterpillars. The eggs turn to larvae which then devour their hosts. "Beetles in the Bush" has pictures and more information about the process.  


Populations of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo have declined precipitously in the western part of the country. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering giving the bird "threatened" status under the Endangered Species Act. The proposal would designate critical habitat for the bird in nine western states.


Bats are essential to the pollination of many plants that we depend on, and many species are voracious devourers of insects. What would be the consequences if bats should become extinct on this continent? The widespread destruction of bats by a disease known as white-nose syndrome may not yet rise to the level of extinction but it is most certainly a "bataclysm," even if one of which most people seem blissfully unaware.


Bats may not be the most beloved of creatures, but vultures may get even less respect. And yet they are the essential sanitary crew that helps to keep our world clean. If they were not on the job, we would have a much less pleasant environment. But they face persecution in many parts of the world. This is especially true in Africa where some species have declined by as much as 98 percent in some locations.


Little Penguins are, as you might expect from the name, the smallest of the various penguin species. They live in Southern Australia, New Zealand, and the Chatham Islands. They are very social animals and a new study of the birds shows that they forage together, search for food in groups, and apparently synchronize their movements in search of prey.


The global sea level could rise as much as 37 centimeters in this century due to the discharge of ice from Antarctica caused by the warming of the climate.


The non-avian dinosaurs, as well as many other less well-known or less charismatic species, died out in a global catastrophe some 66 million years ago. It's known to scientists as the fifth extinction and indeed it came close to extinguishing life on Earth. But the deeply wounded planet rebounded. To understand just why and how we need to understand the plants that survived. The Cenozoic garden - basis of the resurrection of life on the "Big Blue Marble."


The New Jersey Institute of Technology had planned to test drones at Cape May this summer, but that has been blocked by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which feared the tests might endanger Piping Plovers and Red Knots, both of which are threatened species. The tests will be allowed to proceed in November once the birds have migrated. 


Good news about Grey-breasted Parakeets. A hitherto unknown population of the critically endangered bird has been discovered in Brazil.


Scientists are worried about the effects of the severe drought in California on the millions of migrating birds that pass through the state. It is unclear if there will be enough food and water to accommodate the fall migration this year.


Some of the giant sequoias of the Sierra Mountains have lived on Earth for 2,000 to 3,000 years, but will they be able to adapt to a warming planet? Scientists are looking for ways to help the trees survive.


"Shark Week!" The headlines and the television commercials scream it at us every year at this time. What is this fascination that the creatures seem to hold for many humans? Unfortunately, that fascination has not been enough to protect these top predators of the seas. The populations of many of the species have been declining for years. But now there seems to have been a bit of a turnaround. The state of sharks, 40 years after Jaws, shows signs of improving. Maybe we won't need a bigger boat after all!

One of my all-time favorite movie scenes. And now I've had an excuse to play it again!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - August 2014

Mid-August is the hottest part of summer for us in Southeast Texas. In addition, all our lovely showers from spring and early summer seem to have ended and suddenly things are very, very dry. I've had to deploy the sprinklers to keep some of my plants from succumbing to the heat and dry conditions.

Even so, in spite of hostile conditions, August has its blooms. Here are some of them.

In the little pond, the water lilies are blooming. Those pellets surrounding the blossom are food for the goldfish.

Also in the pond, the pickerel weed is going strong.

And beside the pond, the swamp hibiscus that we call Texas Star is sending out its daily blooms.

The 4 O'clocks are full of their blooms as well.

The almond verbena with its small blossoms that carry a big fragrance that scents the entire section of the garden where the big shrub lives.

Even though it has been dry, the humidity has been high and that has been enough to keep the Texas sage in bloom.

In the veggie garden, most of the vegetables have pooped out in the heat but the okra just gets stronger and more prolific. 

August is brugmansia blooming time.

And it is datura blooming time.

The milk and wine lilies are past their prime now, but this picture, taken a few days ago, shows them in their full beauty.

The Philippine lilies also are now a bit past their prime but have bloomed gloriously this month. 

The cypress vines that reseed themselves every year are going strong and providing lots of their tiny trumpet-shaped blossoms for the butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds that love them. 

Porterweed has been a reliable bloomer this summer.

And so has the cosmos. The bumblebees are grateful!

You can see why the common name for this plant is "flame acanthus." Its blossoms do indeed look like little tongues of flame.

Pink purslane brightens its corner of the garden.

The butterfly ginger is in full bloom now.

Camphor weed is just beginning its long bloom time.

It has not been a good year for roses in my garden. Most of them have not done well at all, but I can always depend on the old 'Caldwell Pink' roses to give me lots of blooms.

The evergreen wisteria is filling up with these wine-colored blossoms.
Summer is beginning its long wind-down period as it slips inexorably toward autumn, but as it's winding down, we still enjoy the bright colors of the many flowers that we gardeners live for. I hope your garden is giving you lots of color on this Bloom Day. Thank you for stopping by my garden.

Don't forget to visit Carol at May Dreams Gardens as she once again hosts Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day.