Friday, July 31, 2015

Goodbye to July

Images of July.

Sunflower with bee.

Sunflower without bee.

Giant Swallowtail caterpillar on lemon tree.

Black Swallowtail caterpillar on dill.

A friendly spider.

And spider lilies.

A gerbera.

Another gerbera. 

And yet another gerbera.

Gulf Fritillary butterfly.

Giant Swallowtail butterfly.

Male Monarch butterfly - you can tell by the two black dots on his hind wings.

Sulphur butterfly on anisacanthus.

A green anole displaying his throat pouch to assert his territorial rights and maybe entice a mate.

A little green treefrog - just chillin'.

A southern leopard frog, chillin' in his own way.

And, of course, Bertie, the new addition to our household.

It's been an eventful month. I wonder what August will bring.

The Blue Moon cometh

The expression "once in a Blue Moon" refers to an event that is very rare - as rare as having two full moons occur in the same month. That rare event will happen tonight when the second full moon in July will rise over the horizon.

Don't expect to see an actual blue moon tonight. It'll be the same beautiful silvery orb that we see every month. An actual blue moon does sometimes occur when there are certain types of dust particles in the air, but such an occurrence is even rarer than...well, than a Blue Moon.

There are actually two accepted definitions of a Blue Moon. The one most generally used - the one that I use - is the second full moon within a month. The other definition is that a Blue Moon is the third full moon of a season when four full moons occur in that season. In actuality, that third full moon will generally be the second full moon in a particular month so the first definition seems to make the most sense.

If the weather and the clouds cooperate tonight, then take your opportunity to see this astrological phenomenon. The Moon may not actually be blue, but I can guarantee you it will be beautiful.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Rainbow's End by Martha Grimes: A review

Rainbow's EndRainbow's End by Martha Grimes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've recently been somewhat disappointed by the books that I've read in this series - a series that I have, on the whole, found very enjoyable. So, it makes me happy to report that I found Rainbow's End to be quite entertaining. Perhaps the summer heat has addled my brain, but I liked it very much.

This book is the thirteenth in the long (and continuing) Inspector Jury series. As in the last book, The Horse You Came In On, we find Jury being persuaded to take a trip to the United States to follow up on potential clues regarding the death of an American who died at Old Sarum in England. The woman was a silversmith from Santa Fe, who created amazing works in silver and turquoise. Her death at first seems to have been from natural causes or an accident, but District Commander Brian Macalvie doesn't think so.

From our previous acquaintance with Macalvie, we know that he's NEVER wrong. His instincts regarding murder are unassailable, and so when he suspects that the supposed natural deaths of three women in three different locations in England are somehow related, Superintendent Jury knows better than to dismiss his theories out of hand.

The investigation reveals that the two other women who died had visited Santa Fe in recent months before their deaths and they could have met the Santa Fe silversmith who died. On this somewhat tenuous lead, Jury finds himself winging his way to New Mexico to follow up on Macalvie's instinctive suspicions.

Meanwhile, back in England, Sgt. Wiggins is in hospital with a mysterious malady related to an electrical experiment and Melrose Plant is assigned to look in on him and to undertake certain inquiries related to the case, as well as a personal inquiry on behalf of his friend, Jury.

While he's laid up, Wiggins is brought books to read, among them Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time in which her detective solves a historical crime while flat on his back in a hospital bed. Inspired, Wiggins decides to try his hand at researching issues related to the three women's deaths in hopes of helping to solve the mystery.

In Santa Fe, Jury seeks out people who knew the dead woman, including the cousin who had gone to England to identify the body. As he talks to these people, he builds an image of a woman who was impractical and rather other-worldly, maybe a bit lazy - totally unlike the 13-year-old sister she left behind.

The sister, Mary Dark Hope, is one of Martha Grimes' typical precocious and quirky children characters. She is completely down-to-earth, practical, and self-sufficient, and, of course, she has a pet. In her case, the pet is a coyote that she raised from a pup. She tells everybody he is part German Shepherd, but nobody is fooled.

The investigation proceeds apace, involving many of our favorite characters from previous books. and slowly all the threads begin to connect, leading to a pretty exciting conclusion.

I was quite taken with Grimes's descriptions of Santa Fe and its crowded restaurants and craft shops along Canyon Road, as well as its people who devote themselves to serving the tourists who flock there. It all sounded spot on to me, an accurate depiction of the Santa Fe and the New Mexico that I remember from visits. She was particularly good at describing the desert and the quality of light that draws so many artists and would-be artists to the area.

All in all, this was a satisfying read. I'm glad to find Grimes on track once more.  

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Joe Pye Weed

It's high summer and the Joe Pye weed is doing its thing in my backyard garden.

Eutrochium purpureum, commonly called Joe Pye weed, is a herbaceous perennial member of the aster family. It is native to the eastern and northern United States and grows in the wild or in gardens from zones 4 to 9.  It requires a moderate amount of water to do well but will tolerate some dry periods, however its leaves will scorch if the soil dries out completely. Other than that, its maintenance requirements are practically nil.

Joe Pye weed can grow from 5 to 7 feet tall and spread from 2 to 4 feet. In my garden, it has reached its potential width but is not that tall - possibly four feet. It will grow in full sun to part shade. Mine is presently in part shade, but I have plans to transplant part of it to a sunnier area this fall.

Joe Pye sports its mauve pink blooms from July through September so it is at its showiest just now.

The main reason for growing Joe Pye weed is that it is very attractive to many butterflies. The flowers are somewhat fragrant. I notice the fragrance most in the late afternoon. Once the flowers are finished, they give way to attractive seed heads which can persist right into the winter.

Many people see Joe Pye as just another roadside weed but it can work well as a border plant in beds, in cottage or meadow gardens, and certainly in native plant and habitat gardens such as mine. If you are looking to attract butterflies to your garden, you will do well to give Joe Pye a place in it.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Esperanza: Hope for the summer garden

Tecoma stans, or Esperanza, has been designated as a Texas Super Star plant, meaning that it can take just about anything Mother Nature in Texas throws at it and keep on ticking, keep on performing its role as a mainstay of our summer gardens. The most common variety that one sees is the yellow form, popularly known as "Yellow Bells." I have a couple of those plants in my garden but both got pruned back severely in late spring and they haven't produced blooms yet. I also have two plants of the variety shown blooming here which is called "bronze." It has a touch of orange or rust in its bell-shaped blooms. Both varieties, the yellow and the bronze, are greatly loved by bees of all kinds. The flowers provide abundant nectar as a reward for their pollinators.

These plants generally grow 3 to 6 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide, although one of my yellow plants gets up to ten feet tall by the end of summer. In addition to lovely blossoms, the shrub also sports very attractive shiny green foliage which holds up well through the heat and drought of summer, seldom wilting even in the noonday sun. Their water requirements are low; they perform well whether or not it rains.

Esperanza is deciduous and my plants generally die back in the winter, so one shouldn't place them where winter interest is needed. They always return with a vengeance in the spring, ready to grow like Jack's beanstalk as soon as the ground warms up. They will bloom throughout the summer and fall. The flowers have a very faint but pleasing fragrance.

Esperanza is completely hardy only to zone 8b. Farther north it would need protection and could be grown in pots. In my zone 9a garden, it seems very contented.


This is one of my "Yellow Bells" from last year. It will be in bloom again later this summer, making all the local bees happy.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Poetry Sunday: A narrow fellow in the grass

Perhaps not so many people find poetry in snakes, but then the Belle of Amherst was no ordinary person or poet. Emily Dickinson wrote with empathetic feeling of the "narrow fellow." As one who admires snakes, I find her poem quite expressive of their nature.

A narrow fellow in the grass (1096)

A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him—did you not
His notice sudden is,
The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your feet,
And opens further on.

He likes a boggy acre,  
A floor too cool for corn,
But when a boy and barefoot,
I more than once at noon
Have passed, I thought, a whip lash,
Unbraiding in the sun,
When stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled and was gone.

Several of nature’s people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality.
But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

This week in birds - #166

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

The Cactus Wren is an especially raucous member of that large and raucous family.  It favors hot, dry, rocky habitats, the same kinds of places where cactus is found.  

The wren is well-named for it builds its large, untidy, distinctively wren-like nest in cacti, where it should be well-protected from most predators. Clever birds!


A study of Cooper's Hawks that is under way in New Mexico is showing that the abundance of these hawks that prey on birds is tied to the availability of prey, not exactly an earthshaking conclusion I would think. The type of prey that they favor is exemplified by birds like the White-winged Dove. This explains why I have a Cooper's Hawk year-round in my yard and I see it most often when White-wings are prevalent in large numbers.

My resident Cooper's Hawk waiting in hiding (he thinks) for an unwary dove.


National Moth Week is winding down but there is still time for you, the citizen scientist, to participate and report on the moths in your neighborhood.


More than 70 percent of pollen and honey collected from foraging honeybees in Massachusetts showed contamination by pesticides containing neonicotinoids, the type of pesticide that has been linked to colony collapse disorder. 


Bald Eagles, which had been extirpated on California's Channel Islands, have now been reintroduced there. A study of their diet found that they were preying heavily on seabird colonies on the islands in addition to taking fish. Efforts to conserve the seabird colonies have also apparently aided the eagles.


And in other eagle news, a study of White-tailed Eagles in Germany shows that they do not compete with the fishermen of the area. The types of prey which they take are not the same as those sought by humans who fish. 


The usual American summer hysteria about sharks has been fed by some unusual attacks on humans off the Atlantic coast. This latest find may provide an antidote.

This new species of shark, called a pocket shark, measures only six inches long and has been found by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists in the Gulf of Mexico. It fits easily into one human hand. In the words of The New York Times headline, "You're going to need a smaller boat!"


Snakes haven't always slithered. Their ancient ancestors had the ability to walk, as shown by a fossil snake found in a museum in Germany. This snake had four legs


Dark plumage can make birds harder to see and increase their chances of survival in certain habitats. It is not surprising then to find that darker plumage is more prevalent among birds that are found on small islands.


The orcas of Puget Sound are still endangered, but the latest count shows that their population has increased slightly.

Here's part of that increase. A baby orca leaps out of the water as shown in this picture from AP that made the rounds on the Internet this week.


Horseshoe crabs are an ancient species, older than dinosaurs, and so they have survived much that Nature has thrown their way. Their biggest challenge, though, is humans and we still don't know if they will survive us. The survival of many migrating shorebirds is linked to them, so it is important that we do everything possible to see that they do survive, for their own sake as well as for the birds.


Science continues to make progress in sequencing genomes of various animals. One of the latest to be sequenced is that strange little bird of New Zealand, the Brown Kiwi


Offshore wind farms are raising hopes for a new dawn of clean energy production in the country.


The emerald ash borer is an invasive green beetle that is laying waste to ash trees on the continent. It has spread to white fringetrees and entomologists believe its impact on them will be widespread.


Barnegat Bay's Sedge Island State Wildlife Management Area, off the coast of New Jersey, is home to 25 to 30 nesting pairs of Ospreys this summer. 


Shorebirds are well known for wandering far and wide across the planet and often turning up in unexpected places. This summer, some American shorebirds are showing up on the south coast of England. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Xibalba Murders by Lyn Hamilton: A review

The Xibalba Murders (Lara McClintoch Archeological Mystery, #1)The Xibalba Murders by Lyn Hamilton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This series was recommended to me recently because of my interest in archaeology and my love of reading mystery series. Since this is billed as an archaeological mystery series, it certainly seemed like the perfect fit.

The Xibalba Murders, the first book in the series, seemed especially promising since it is set in Mexico and involves a mystery about a Mayan artifact and archeological dig. I've been fascinated by Mayan history ever since my long ago college days when I did a research paper about that culture for my Cultural Anthropology class. And so, I settled down to read the book with some enthusiasm.

On the whole, I found the book to be mildly entertaining. There were things that I liked about it and things that I didn't like, but considered as a whole, it was okay.

What I liked about it could be summed up as the Mayan aspects. The author names every chapter after a day in the Mayan calendar and she relates the events of that day to the characteristics which the Mayans attributed to the day. That was a clever way of telling the story.

Also, throughout the book, Hamilton gives brief dissertations on various parts of Mayan mythology, especially as it relates to the Hero Twins and their battles with the Lords of Death, rulers of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld. These explanations were to the point and clearly stated, something that can be difficult to accomplish with that very convoluted mythology. They added a lot to the story and made the fascination with the potential of discovering a  previously unknown Codex, which is at the center of the plot, more understandable.

The plot itself was pretty interesting. A noted Mexican archeologist is on to what he believes will be a great discovery of a Mayan artifact. For some inexplicable reason (and this was a weakness in the plot), instead of turning to other archeologists for help, he calls his friend Lara McClintoch, an antiques dealer in Toronto, and asks her to come down to help him. McClintoch has just gone though a messy divorce and has had to sell her antiques store and divide the profits with her ex. Now, she is at loose ends and jumps at the chance to go to Mexico, to the little Yucatan town of Merida to aid her friend.

When she gets there, she receives a message from the archaeologist delaying their meeting. Soon the action heats up and dead bodies are appearing around town - the first one discovered by Lara, which in the eyes of the local police, makes her the prime suspect.

Into the mix comes a tall, dark, and handsome British-born archaeologist and his handsome and darker Mexican friend. Lara, of course, is almost immediately besotted with the Brit, which perhaps tells us everything we need to know about her judgment in men since the guy is obviously such a rotter!

Okay, here's a thought. Why do mystery writers with women as their main characters seem to always feel they have to throw in that "tall, dark, and handsome" guy as a romantic interest for the woman? Did Miss Marple ever have a love interest? I don't think so, and yet she managed to solve mysteries just fine. Unlike Lara McClintoch who doesn't really solve the mystery so much as having its solution thrust upon her.

Do you get the idea that I didn't much like Lara? Well, you would be correct in that deduction. She really came across as much too slow-witted to ever be a successful detective. I knew who the culprit(s) was(were) as soon as I met him/her and I found myself wanting to shake Ms. McClintoch as she made bad decisions at every turn. Moreover, Lara often trusts the wrong people and distrusts those she should trust. Not a good recommendation for a "detective."

Well, this was the first in the series and it wasn't uniformly awful, just kind of meh. One of the attractions of reading series is that they often get better after the initial offering, so I think I will probably read a couple more in the series to give it every chance to grow on me. Maybe Lara will wise up a bit by then.

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The summer of magical thinking

Five years ago, in July 2010, I wrote a commentary on the political discourse of that summer. Reading it today, I realize that the old adage that "the more things change, the more they remain the same" was never more true. Here's that post from July 14, 2010.


The summer of magical thinking

There are certain groups in our country who seem to honestly believe that if they say a thing is true, no matter how outlandish it is, that makes it true. That, I believe, is clear proof of a faith in magical thinking that bedevils our national discourse this summer. You might also think of it as the "Tinkerbell philosophy." If I close my eyes and believe real hard and clap just as loud as I can, then I can make it true.

Thus we have highly placed members of the Republican Party claiming with a straight face that reducing taxes for the richest people in the country will not increase the nation's deficit and that it will stimulate the economy. They make these statements in spite of the fact that all empirical evidence points to the conclusion that any tax reductions received by these people go straight into their own savings. They have no effect on the economy at large - except to depress it by increasing the deficit. Furthermore, it is self-evident to anyone who is not a complete idiot that if you reduce a country's income, while continuing to spend at the same rate, you will increase the deficit. But Republicans still insist that isn't so and that is the philosophy they will run on this year.

Then we have the case of the tea partiers. Their rallies are full of signs with racist innuendo and sometimes unmistakable racist expletives. Their ranks are virtually 100% white. Many of the groups that are their strongest supporters, both financially and with personnel, are outright racist groups - groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens, the successor to the notorious White Citizens Councils of the '60s and '70s. And yet they reject any implication that they are in any way racist. This week, when the NAACP passed a resolution calling on them to repudiate racism and the racists in their organization, this is what one of their leaders, Mark Williams of the Tea Party Express, had to say about that:

You’re dealing with people who are professional race baiters, who make a very good living off this kind of thing. They make more money off of race than any slave trader ever. It’s time groups like the NAACP went to the trash heap of history where they belong with all the other vile racist groups that emerged in our history.

No, no, nothing racist or historically incorrect in that statement. Just squint your eyes and believe as hard as you can and clap those little white hands and it will all be true.

Like I said, magical thinking. But it is very likely that both the Republicans and their cohorts, the tea partiers, will get away with it because there are not enough journalists in this country who are willing to call them out on this utter stupidity. I think it's going to be another long, hot summer of lies.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Rue the caterpillar!

On my inspection walk through of my garden a couple of days ago, I noticed that my little rue plant was looking decidedly the worse for wear. I looked for the reason for its disheveled appearance and it didn't take long to find the culprit.

And here he is - a big, fat Black Swallowtail caterpillar! It was obvious that he had been feeding on the plant, unnoticed, for several days, and he is now very near to the end of his life as a caterpillar. Soon, he'll find a place to spin his cocoon and pupate. And then, with a bit of luck, I may meet him in the garden in his new form as a beautiful Black Swallowtail butterfly.

This was a Black Swallowtail that visited my garden earlier this year. Perhaps he was an antecedent of my present-day caterpillar.

The rue will grow new leaves and the caterpillar will move on to the next stage in its development. And so the circle of life continues.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The throwaway kitten

We have lived in this neighborhood for 27 years. During those years, especially the early years, there have been a number of animals, mostly cats or kittens, that have been abandoned here or have found their way here after being abandoned. I came to think of them as throwaway kittens, a prime example of humanity's inhumanity. They were animals that had been betrayed and abandoned by the humans who should have cared for them.

We did our best to care for them and adopted many of them. When our children were growing up, hardly a spring or summer went by without them bringing another throwaway kitten home. The last of those adoptees finally died last year at the age of 16.

Four years ago, we adopted Beau and Bella who had been rescued by our younger daughter along with one of her friends when they turned up, abandoned, near that friend's house. Since then, we have not had the occasion - or the necessity - of adopting another animal. Until last week.

Last Tuesday, as I was getting ready to go to an appointment, my husband told me he had seen a kitten in our driveway earlier. As I pulled out of the driveway, I noticed that there was a kitten-shaped lump lying under the front end of his pickup. When I came back, more than an hour later, the lump was still there, so I went to investigate.

The lump was a tiny gray tabby kitten. It looked to be not more than five or six weeks old. There were no siblings, no mother anywhere in sight. It appeared to be all on its on. I'm sure it didn't get there by itself. No doubt it had had human help.

When I picked it up, I could feel that it was just skin and bones and very limp. I brought it inside and opened a can of cat food, unsure of whether or not it would be able to eat. I needn't have worried. The kitten fell on the food and, small as it was, devoured a good portion of it. Over the next couple of days, eating, drinking, and sleeping comprised its major activities.

After spending some time with him, my husband announced that the kitten had told him his name was Bertie. That made it official: He's been named, so that means he's been adopted. Beau and Bella are not amused.

By the weekend, Bertie was taking more of an interest in his surroundings, and my daughters, who were both excited at having a new "brother," came to meet him. My younger daughter weighed him on the food scale and found that he weighed 12.03 ounces. My older daughter took several pictures with her phone to record the event of their meeting.

And here's Bertie, sitting on the coffee table in our den on Sunday and wondering what all the fuss is about. Another throwaway kitten who has found a home with us.
This should never happen, of course. Please, if you have cats - or dogs - have them spayed or neutered. And if you have cats, in particular, keep them indoors. Cats who are allowed to roam can do inestimable damage to wildlife and they themselves are vulnerable to attack by dogs, other cats, coyotes (in some areas) or humans and their automobiles. The safest place for a cat is inside where he can entertain his humans and be cherished by them. The world does not need any more throwaway kittens.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indriðason: A review

Arctic ChillArctic Chill by Arnaldur Indriðason
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm being generous in giving this book three stars. Two-and-a-half would probably be closer to the mark.

I think much of my problem with the book lay with its translation which seemed particularly ungainly and clumsy. So, I guess I'm giving the book the benefit of a doubt in thinking that I might have liked it better if I could have read it in the original Icelandic.

I don't think I would have liked Inspector Erlendur any better though. Really, every time I begin to warm up to the man, he does something stupid and outrageous which just makes me want to punch him in the face. He suddenly gets hostile and angry for no apparent good reason. He is cold toward his adult children who just want him to be a part of their lives. He makes assumptions about people and evidence presented to him on his cases - assumptions which blind him to being able to see clues that are right in front of his face. Frankly, he's not a very good detective and not a very good leader of his team. It's a wonder he ever solves any mystery.

The primary mystery of Arctic Chill involves the death of a child. On a cold January afternoon, the body of a young boy, about 10 years old, is found lying in the garden area outside the apartment building where he lived. The investigation reveals that he has been stabbed. The wound from the murder weapon penetrated his liver and he bled to death. However, he was not stabbed where the body was found. He was attacked elsewhere and apparently tried to make his way home before he collapsed and died.

The murdered boy's mother is Thai and his father Icelandic. The parents are divorced and the boy lived with his mother and older brother. Erlendur immediately assumes that there must have been a racial motive behind the stabbing.

The boy's older brother is a full-blooded Thai, born in Thailand. Following the discovery of his brother's body, the teenage boy cannot be found. A search ensues. Again, Erlendur assumes that he may have been involved in the murder or that he has information about it. Eventually, Erlendur discovers him in a storage building near his mother's flat, but he is in shock and will not speak.

Erlendur and his team interview neighbors, teachers, and classmates of the murdered child, attempting to discover the reason for his death and how it happened. They make little progress.

Meanwhile, Erlendur continues to be preoccupied by another case he is handling. It's a missing person case of the type with which he is obsessed. A woman has disappeared. It is suspected that she may have committed suicide but no trace of her can be found.

In the middle of investigating the murder, Erlendur stumbles upon a possible case of child molestation that happened long ago. The alleged perpetrator was a neighbor of the murdered child and he becomes a potential suspect in the murder case. There is never any satisfactory resolution to this red herring detour.

Yes, there are red herrings and distractions galore here, but it is hard to see how any of them really contribute to the overall plot or the furtherance of the case. In the end, the solution to the mystery is more a matter of the detectives stumbling across the answer rather than actually working it out through deductive reasoning or following the clues.

Again, as it has been throughout this series, Iceland is portrayed as an insular, one might even say closed, society. The population has historically been homogenous to a very high degree. But lately, the country is receiving more immigrants, particularly from Asia, and this is causing stresses and conflicts among some elements of the population. There is considerable exploration of that cultural phenomenon in the book, particularly concerning the trials and barriers faced by the immigrants and the resentment that bubbles up from some of their Icelandic neighbors. It is an old, old story, of course, one that is certainly not unique to Iceland.  

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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Poetry Sunday: Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Searching for a poem on the theme of summer, I found the Bard himself. 

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (Sonnet 18)

William Shakespeare, 1564 - 1616

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, 
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date. 
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, 
And often is his gold complexion dimmed; 
And every fair from fair sometime declines, 
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed; 
But thy eternal summer shall not fade, 
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st, 
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade, 
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st. 
    So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, 
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Now, where I live "summer's lease" is decidedly not too short. In fact, our "summers" are sometimes six months long and quite often "too hot the eye of heaven shines." But Shakespeare surely had it right in extolling the summer of our lives. Our wish is that our "eternal summer shall not fade" but linger far into our old age. That our lives will be as pleasant as a perfect summer day.
Well, we can hope. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

This week in birds - #165

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

The Red-tailed Hawk may be the most ubiquitous raptor in North America. It lives virtually everywhere on the continent in many different types of habitats and feeds on diverse types of prey. It is almost equally at home in urban, suburban, or rural areas. It is the raptor that you most often see sitting on utility posts as you are traveling along highways and byways throughout the country, and it is perhaps the most easily identifiable raptor. Although it comes in many different color phases, from almost black to almost white, each one of them will always have that eponymous red tail.


Moth lovers, rejoice! This is your week. It is National Moth Week, July 18-26, a week set aside to celebrate these often overlooked critters. There are citizen science projects going on in which you can participate. And just in time for their week, a new family of moths has been discovered and described.


The drought along the Pacific flyway, one of the major routes for migrating birds on the continent, is having a devastating effect. Many birds are sickening and dying as they search fruitlessly for fresh water.


The endangered Tibetan antelope bears fur that is more valuable than gold. That makes it a prime target of poachers. Thus, it seemed to be well on its way to extinction, but China, which controls the Tibetan plateau that is its habitat, has exerted extraordinary efforts to protect the animal and preserve it from extinction. It now seems firmly on the path to recovery.


That invaluable website for birders, All About Birds, is launching a new and (they hope) improved version of their website in early August. They are inviting the public to try it out and leave comments about their experience. 


Ed Yong of "Not Exactly Rocket Science" writes about a beetle and bacteria that, in combination, are a threat to our favorite breakfast - and, for some people, throughout the day - drink. 


House Sparrows are one of those birds that are so common that we tend to take them for granted. If we think about them at all, it is often to curse them because of the problems they cause for some of our beloved native birds, like bluebirds. But House Sparrows are gritty survivors and they have very interesting life histories that contribute to their ability to survive.


Spiders of all kinds are some of the most valuable critters in Nature and in our backyard habitats. Thin-legged wolf spiders are among the most common of these and Bug Eric profiles them in his blog this week.


Good for forward-thinking Minnesota! The state has instituted a conservation program to try to help one of our most endangered warblers, the Golden-winged Warbler. Selective logging is designed to help preserve appropriate habitat for the bird. Loss of habitat is its greatest threat.


'Tis the season for cicadas and Cicada Mania is loving it!


A new study finds that birds that have been introduced into Hawaii do not disperse native seeds as efficiently as do the native birds that evolved with the plants.


Urban wildlife actually bring many benefits to the towns and cities where they roam, a recent scientific study argues. Most urban wildlife, especially predators and scavengers, are undervalued by society for the benefits that they provide.


The Oriental Honey Buzzard is a bird of prey and some birds of prey and scavengers are known to have at least a rudimentary sense of smell. The Honey Buzzard seems to be able to sniff out pollen balls that are traditionally put out for Asian apiaries. They home in on these pollen balls and devour them.


Scarlet Macaws have been reintroduced to Palenque, Mexico, an area of their former habitat from which they had disappeared. The reintroduced birds are adapting well and would seem to be able to survive and thrive there.


In recent years, Colombia has made strenuous efforts to preserve and protect its native wildlife. In their latest move, they have expanded the El Dorado Nature Reserve to try to conserve a population of the endangered Santa Marta Parakeet.


President Obama this week used his executive power to preserve three more areas for public landsMr. Obama designated as national monuments the Berryessa Snow Mountain in California; a paleontological site in Texas known as Waco Mammoth; and the Basin and Range in Nevada, which includes rock art dating back 4,000 years. This brings to 19 the number of monuments which he has designated or expanded during his presidency.

Friday, July 17, 2015

To read or not to read "Go Set a Watchman"

My daughter says she doesn't think she can read Go Set a Watchman, the just released first draft of Harper Lee's beloved book, To Kill a Mockingbird. Both of my daughters grew up with To Kill a Mockingbird and the image of a morally impeccable Atticus Finch. He was one of their heroes.

That heroic image was enhanced by the wonderful movie in which the sainted Gregory Peck played Finch to such perfection. It is hard to think of that image being tarnished and changed by the knowledge that the author initially had an entirely different profile in mind for Atticus Finch, and I understand that many of those who loved Mockingbird are very troubled by that. I feel quite ambivalent about it myself.

But having now read several reviews of Watchman and more about the history of how it came to be, I think I better understand what Alabama writer Harper Lee was trying to do with her first draft and why her editor in New York wanted her to change it to focus on the voice of the younger Jean Louise (Scout) Finch and her childish vision of the world and her father.

At the time that To Kill a Mockingbird was written in the 1950s and published in 1960, perhaps that was the story that we needed to hear, the story that would resonate with us. The noble white Southern man with the vision to see that people of any color should be treated with respect. That was the more palatable representation of Atticus' character and one that gave inspiration to many, including me.

There were such white Southern men, but, truth to tell, they were outnumbered by the kind of men represented by the darker version of Atticus that appears in Go Set a Watchman.

By all accounts - and, again, I haven't yet read the book, only the reviews - the Watchman Atticus seems like a much more nuanced and much more human character. That seems thoroughly normal to me, because the first version that we had of the man was what was seen by his six-year-old daughter. Most men are spotless heroes to their six-year-old daughters.

The next version that we see is from a twenty-six-year-old daughter who has left her small hometown and lived in other places in the world, most recently in New York, and she now sees her beloved father and hometown with different, perhaps clearer, eyes. She sees the warts and hairy moles that grow on the skin they present to the world. She recognizes ugly racism for what it is.

I grew up in a place not unlike Scout's hometown and have had a somewhat similar journey in life. There are things that I was not able to see about the place where I lived when I was six, because I was a child, and I lived in the protected cocoon of my family and church and community. I never questioned the view of the world that I was fed by them.

Then I grew up and learned to look at the world without those hometown-imposed blinders. I learned to think for myself, and I learned that the world vision that had been presented to me in childhood was one-sided, that I needed to open my heart and mind to other views of the world. To try to see society in its reality, not the rose-colored-glasses version.

Harper Lee supposedly based Atticus on her own father. In that way, she fulfilled the first commandment of writing: Write what you know. I suspect that the nuanced Atticus is closer to the view that the grown-up writer had of her father and perhaps the sainted Atticus of Mockingbird is closer to her childish view. Maybe they are two parts of the same whole. If Lee had written another draft later in her life, the character might have evolved and changed once more. The two parts might have meshed more closely to present the reader with an even more nuanced character.

Harper Lee is an excellent writer. I think she is also a very brave writer - braver than her New York editor perhaps. It's my understanding that the one thing she required for the long-delayed publication of Go Set A Watchman was that it be published as is, without editing. She may have feared that it would be watered down in the editorial process to make it fit better with the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird.

Yes, she has shown courage and that courage deserves to be honored and so I will read her book.