Sunday, January 31, 2016

Poetry Sunday: Frost at Midnight

Helen Macdonald, author of the best-seller H is for Hawk, said in an interview that I read with The New York Times that this is her favorite poem, so, of course, I had to look it up and read it. I can certainly understand why it would be her favorite. It's a lovely poem.

The voice of the poem seems to be the poet himself and that voice speaks a quiet and personal restatement of the enduring themes of English Romanticism. We see the effect of Nature on the imagination; the relationship between children and the natural world; the contrast between liberating country life and that in the city; and, finally, the relationship between adulthood and childhood, as the adult remembers his past. 

The imagery is striking and will be instantly understood by any parent who has ever stood by his or her baby's cradle and watched the child sleep. 

Frost at Midnight

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
'Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,

Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.

                      But O! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger ! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man's only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor's face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger's face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!

         Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

         Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the night-thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

This week in birds - #191

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

Kinglets are cute and very active little birds. They are really tiny, not much bigger than our most common hummingbirds. There are two species that are endemic to North America. We don't have either of them here in Southeast Texas as a permanent resident, but we always look forward to the return of at least one of them in the fall. It's one of my favorite winter residents.

And here it is - the little Ruby-crowned Kinglet. He's traveling incognito, keeping his ruby crown hidden, as he usually does unless he's disturbed or displaying it for a potential mate. Note the white eye ring and wing bars. 

This is his cousin, the Golden-crowned Kinglet, which I photographed (not very well, I admit) at Big Bend National Park in West Texas. Note the prominent white eye stripe. They are known to wander throughout much of the eastern United States in winter, but I've never personally seen one in this area.

Birders and other lovers of our national parks and wildlife refuge system are rejoicing that the armed occupation of Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon appears to be almost over. The leaders of the uprising have been arrested, with, unfortunately, the death of one of their misguided crew. Those under arrest will be denied bail until all of their followers have vacated the refuge. Their leader has appealed to them to pack up and go, but some are still occupying the refuge's visitor center. The refuge is considered a crime scene and will continue to be closed until the investigation is wrapped up and evidence gathered. Then the cleanup can begin, damage can be repaired, and the refuge can be made ready for its spring visitors - both feathered and human. 


I have reported here at various times over the years on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's project of using ultralight aircraft to lead young human-reared Whooping Cranes from Wisconsin on their fall migration to Florida. The idea was to establish an eastern flock of the endangered birds to guard against the species being wiped out by some catastrophe with the Canada/Texas wild flock. The project started in 2001 and has had very limited success. It is expensive and the FWS has decided that it can no longer support it after the most recent flight. If the project is to continue, it will have to be financed privately.


Northern Bobwhites are one of the prairie species that have been declining precipitously in recent years. Conservation efforts have focused on trying to reestablish them in their former habitats and some of those efforts are bearing fruit. It was reported this week that the birds that have been reintroduced in New Jersey are surviving and, indeed, thriving, offering hope for the bird's future. 


A new comprehensive bipartisan(!) energy bill is being debated in the Senate. It is meant to update the nation’s power grid and oil and gas transportation systems to address major changes in the ways that power is now produced in the United States. It's probably just as well that Ted Cruz is otherwise occupied and not around to filibuster it.


Solar and wind energy have enormous up sides, but their down side is that they can cause harm to some animals, especially those that fly. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has to decide just how much harm is permitted before the energy entity must pay a fine and/or make adjustments in the way it is operating. The FWS had planned to issue 30-year permits for such companies, establishing how many Bald and Golden Eagles they could kill before facing penalties. Conservationists went to court on behalf of the eagles to stop that permitting system and this week the eagles and the conservationists won. The FWS will have to come up with another plan.


The genome of the 'Alalā (Hawaiian Crow) has been successfully sequenced, which will aid conservationists as they attempt to reintroduce the bird to the wild.


Who knew that New Jersey has a diamondback terrapin hunting season? In fact, they do, but it has been cut back because of fears that it was too severely impacting the population of the animal.


One might imagine that green spaces in metropolitan areas are not that important to wildlife populations, but one would be wrong. In fact, such spaces contribute quite substantially to wildlife diversity and the ability of wildlife to survive and thrive among us.


A genetically unique pod of Alaskan orcas seems headed for extinction because it has not been able to reproduce since the Exxon Valdez oil spill more than two decades ago.


White Storks are opportunistic birds that have learned to take advantage of what humans provide. Many of the birds are now overwintering at garbage dumps or fish farms instead of migrating to their traditional wintering grounds.


A banded Lesser Black-backed Gull photographed last January at Daytona Beach, Florida, has been photographed there once again this week.


A U.S. Appeals Court has ruled that Snowy Owls near Kennedy Airport in New York can be killed if they are deemed to pose a threat to human air travel.


Winter, it seems, is not coming. In fact, winter may be dying. Warm Arctic storms are unfreezing the North Pole with temperatures 55 degrees (F) above normal for January.


More than 20 years ago, the San Francisco Estuary Institute, a nonprofit scientific advisory group, began an ambitious effort to guide the restoration of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. But the scientists there soon ran into a huge, unanticipated question: What should the restored terrain look like, and how should its natural systems function? The ecology of the place had been so compromised that it was virtually impossible to answer that question. They have had to resort to historical documents and pictures to try to determine what their steps should be in restoring the place.


Environmental change is just one more challenge that birds must face and overcome in order to survive. Those birds with diverse migration strategies appear to have an advantage in coping with those changes.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Confession by Charles Todd: A review

The Confession (Inspector Ian Rutledge, #14)The Confession by Charles Todd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's 1920 and World War I is now well in the rear-view mirror, but Inspector Ian Rutledge is still suffering some of the effects of shell-shock (as PTSD was called in those days). He's getting stronger though, and it was refreshing in this 14th entry in Charles Todd's series to find him much closer to normal and able to function at a higher level than he has previously.

He is still haunted by the voice of Hamish, the young Scots soldier under his command that he had had to execute for failure to obey orders on the battlefield. But Hamish seems a somewhat more benevolent spirit at this point. Perhaps he is beginning to meld into Rutledge's own personality and become simply the voice of his conscience.

This story begins with a man walking into Scotland Yard and confessing to the murder of his cousin five years earlier, but it is a murder that has never been reported and there is reason to suspect that it may not really have happened. The man who makes the confession is dying of cancer and is taking morphine as a pain killer. Rutledge suspects that his mind may be affected by his medication, but the man insists that he wants to clear his conscience before dying.

Although Rutledge can find no record of a murder or an unclaimed body that could be the victim of the crime the man has confessed to, he is intrigued by the story and decides to take a road trip with his sister to the village in Essex where the confessed murderer grew up and where the "murder" may have occurred. There, he finds a very insular, unfriendly village that seems intent on discouraging visitors or newcomers. It seems apparent that the people there are desperately trying to hide some secret. But what? And does it have anything to do with the so-called murder? Rutledge can find no evidence and no reason to actually believe the confession he has been given.

Then, less than two weeks later, the alleged killer's body is found floating in the Thames, a bullet wound to the back of his head, a woman's locket around his neck. Rutledge learns to his dismay that the man had given him a false name. He is really someone else entirely, but he does have connections to the man whose name he had used.

Rutledge's investigation takes him back to that unwelcoming village and he begins uncovering some of the shameful secrets which the villagers have tried to keep. In doing so he discovers a long pattern of violence and multiple unsolved disappearances and murders which may have some connection to the latest killing.

We walk with the good inspector as he follows the evidence which often seems to twist and turn back upon itself. It's a complicated plot, and at some point in reading it, I put all of the characters in a line-up in my mind and said who is the most unlikely to be the culprit? And sure enough, it turned out to be him! Maybe I'm catching on to Charles Todd's tricks.

Inspector Rutledge still moons a bit over his lost love and the reader wonders whether Todd will ever actually give him a significant love interest. Moreover, back at the office, Rutledge's nemesis Superintendent Bowles ("Old Bowels" to his subordinates) has suffered a heart attack and is in hospital and things are much calmer and running smoothly in his absence. It appears that we may get a new superintendent. Perhaps one who is not prejudiced against our troubled inspector and who will finally give him the credit that he deserves..

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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Bleeding heart liberal

I admit to being a lifelong bleeding-heart liberal. Yes, I'm the one who adopts stray cats and gives whatever money I can manage to a variety of causes in support of downtrodden and forgotten members of society; the one who supports politicians on the left who have plans for and a record of making life better for ordinary people; the one who wants to save the Earth and all its endangered species and ensure that women and girls are educated and able to control their own bodies and lives; the one who wants to stop global warming and make sure everyone has safe water to drink. My heart bleeds for all these causes and on some days my heart despairs that my causes will ever win the day.

And when I do despair, I remember one of my favorite bleeding-heart liberals. He lost one of the most lopsided elections for president in our history, but he was a great man who never stopped fighting for the causes he believed in, a man who inspired many of my generation to believe that we could build a better society. When he died in October of 2012, at the age of 90, I wrote this blog post in tribute.


George McGovern, bleeding-heart liberal

George McGovern
1922 - 2012
George McGovern was always a hero of mine. He was a war hero, a decorated bomber pilot in World War II, who understood the costs of war, and always tried to stop his country from rushing headlong into ill-conceived testosterone-driven military adventures. He spoke out against what he considered the tragic mistake of the American war in Vietnam and he opposed the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. He was a man who was firm in his convictions and never backed away from them, even when it might have been politically advantageous to do so.
When he was derided by conservatives for his liberal ideals that endorsed a progressive federal government that would protect the weak and vulnerable and expand economic opportunity to everyone, he continued to stand strongly for those ideals. As a senator, he championed civil rights and anti-poverty bills. He helped to expand food stamp and nutrition programs. Even after he left government, he continued to write and lecture about those liberal values. In a recent book, he wrote:
During my years in Congress and for the four decades since, I've been labeled a 'bleeding-heart liberal.' It was not meant as a compliment, but I gladly accept it. My heart does sometimes bleed for those who are hurting in my own country and abroad. A bleeding-heart liberal, by definition, is someone who shows enormous sympathy towards others, especially the least fortunate. Well, we ought to be stirred, even to tears, by society's ills. And sympathy is the first step toward action. Empathy is born out of the old biblical injunction "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

Indeed, he wore the label "bleeding-heart liberal" proudly, as a badge of honor.

McGovern has now left us, at the age of 90. He had a long and productive life, a life of service to his community, state, and country; not a life of amassing great piles of money. He will be remembered by many as the man who lost disastrously to Richard Nixon in the presidential race in 1972. It's interesting to speculate how the world might have been different had he won. Interesting maybe, but pointless. History moves relentlessly onward.

In an interview in 2006, McGovern spoke about his view of our country:  

I still think this is the greatest country on Earth. It must be great, because we make these horrendous mistakes, but we bounce back. I saw this country survive the Great Depression through the 1920s and 1930s, when I was growing up. I saw us not only survive, but win World War II, when we had to come back from almost nothing. I see this country slowly awakening to the environmental threat and doing something about it. It must be a great place. (My emphasis.)
It might be a summation of the history of our country: We make these horrendous mistakes, but we bounce back. It's comforting to hear that reassurance from a man who lived through so much of it.

George McGovern was a man who loved his country and always tried to serve it. He was a man strong enough to be undeterred by the derision of lesser men. He was a bleeding-heart liberal, a shining example for us all to try to live up to. I consider one of the most righteous votes I ever cast the one I cast for him for president in 1972. He remains a hero to me.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Backyard Nature Wednesday: House Finches

House Finches are permanent residents in our area, but they are not everyday visitors to my yard or to my feeders.

Like many songbird species, the females are not as brightly colored as the males.

A very brightly colored male and his more drably marked mate visit one of my feeders.

I love hearing the musical song of the House Finches as they flit about the trees in my yard and they are always welcome visitors to my feeders when they choose to drop in for a snack.

In winter, we also occasionally get visits from the House Finch's close cousin, the Purple Finch, but it has been years since I actually saw one of them at one of my feeders.

Even though these two finches are not regular visitors to my backyard feeders, that doesn't mean that I'm lacking for finches these days.
Pine Siskins and American Goldfinches crowd my backyard feeders, along with one lone House Sparrow, earlier this week.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Bones to Pick by Carolyn Haines: A review

Bones To Pick (Southern Belle Mysteries)Bones To Pick by Carolyn Haines
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I felt the need of something light and fluffy to read as an antidote to the winter doldrums. There's not much that is lighter or fluffier than Carolyn Haines' Southern Belle mystery series. I have been occasionally reading the entries in this series for a while, maybe one or two a year, and so I decided to grab the next one, Bones To Pick, and settle down for a cozy reading experience.

Sarah Booth Delaney had failed in her attempts to break into the acting profession in New York and had returned home to the Mississippi Delta town of Zinnia about a year ago. Since then, she has stolen her best friend's dog, decided to become a private investigator, set up a PI business with her best friend as partner, engaged in a series of hot and heavy short-term romances, fallen in love with the (married) county sheriff, solved several murders, saved the family home from bank foreclosure, and acquired a horse and a hound. Yes, it has been a busy year.

Dahlia House, the Delaney family home, has a ghost - a haint, to use the proper Southern expression - named Jitty. In life, she was the nanny of Sarah Booth's great-great-grandmother; in death, as a haint, she is Sarah Booth's boon companion who dresses in period costumes and watches over her, never leaving the family home. She gives Sarah Booth raunchy advice on her love life which is Jitty's main concern. She is very anxious for Sarah Booth to get married and start reproducing so that there is another generation of Delaneys to keep Dahlia House going.

Now, Sarah Booth is called to the scene of a brutal murder. A young woman had her face pushed into the mud in a cotton field and was held there until she smothered - this after having been hogtied and dragged for a distance behind a pickup.

The murder victim, it turns out, is the author of a recently published tell-all memoir that named names and told the dirty little secrets of some of the most prominent and powerful families in the Delta, any one of whom would have been happy to see her dead. The list of potential suspects is long.

The night before the victim was murdered, she had had a very loud, heated, and public argument with her partner at the local watering hole. On scant evidence, her life partner, a woman named Allison, is arrested on suspicion of her murder. Allison's parents have disowned her because of what they consider to be her scandalous life, but her brother, Humphrey, hires Sarah Booth to prove his sister's innocence.

Sarah Booth and her friend and partner, Tinkie, proceed with their typical convoluted investigation, which mostly involves visiting local clubs, bars, and restaurants and talking smack with the patrons. As usual they utilize the services of their good friend, the local newspaper's transexual society columnist, CeCe. The trio's conversations are all bitchy good fun as they dish the dirt on the local high and mighty members of society, one of whom may be a murderer.

Almost by accident, Sarah Booth and Tinkie uncover the information that the murder victim had received threatening notes, and then, additionally, they stumble upon the fact that other people who had died "accidentally" had received similar notes before their deaths. Is there a serial murderer loose in the Delta?

At length, the investigators discover that all of these victims were linked in some way to a school for young ladies, the Carrington School, that specializes in turning out the perfect Southern Belles to cater to their well-born husbands' every desire. And, surprise, surprise, the headmistress of the school is in town for the wake and funeral of the murder victim, one of her "girls." Hmm...I wonder if there could be a connection.

As usual, there is a lot of angst going on in both Sarah Booth's and Tinkie's personal lives, as they attempt to solve yet another murder. But we know how all of this is going to end - with their fledgling detective agency wreathed in clouds of glory once again. Reading these books is a guilty pleasure of mine, but the emphasis is on pleasure.

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Monday, January 25, 2016

Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin: A review (updated with slight editing)

Even Dogs in the WildEven Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rebus is back and all's right with the world.

I have followed Ian Rankin's famous detective since his beginnings back in the late '80s, and, in my opinion, he only gets better with age. That's the thing about Rankin's writing; he has allowed Rebus to age naturally, so he's now in his sixties. A few years ago, like another famous Edinburgh writer who tried to get rid of his even more famous detective, his creator tried to write him into the sunset when he faced mandatory retirement from the Lothian and Borders Police.

Rankin went on to write other books featuring other detectives, but Rebus kept creeping back in. He proved to be hard to put out to pasture. He came back to work on old, cold cases; he unretired when the rules about retirement changed; he retired again; and now he's working as a consultant - just like that other "consulting detective."

Many things have changed in Rebus' beloved Edinburgh since those early books. For one thing, the populace had a chance to vote to remove themselves from the United Kingdom, but they chose to stay instead. And it's no longer the Lothian and Borders Police of Rebus' heyday. Now it is Police Scotland, a modern name for a modern police force. But regardless of the name change, the police keep finding that they need a man with Rebus' skills, and his protege, Siobhan Clarke, takes every opportunity to use him on her cases.

In this instance, we have what might be a serial killer. First a man who had years before won the lottery was killed. Then a famous lawyer was battered to death in his home. There doesn't seem to be any connection between the two men, though.

The next incident is the real head scratcher. Someone takes a shot at that famous Edinburgh gangster "Big Ger" Cafferty. The bullet misses him, leading to uncertainty as to whether it was a serious attempt to kill him or perhaps was only a warning. Called by neighbors to investigate, Siobhan Clarke and her team are refused entry to Cafferty's home. He insists there was no gunshot. Clarke calls Rebus who has a long history with Cafferty, and soon the game is afoot.

Rebus discovers that "Big Ger" had received a warning note just like one that had been received by the lawyer before his murder. But Cafferty maintains that he has never had any connection with the lawyer. The police are stumped as to a motive. Plus, did the lottery winner also receive a note? None has been found and yet there are similarities between the two murders that make police think they are connected.

The relationship between Rebus and Cafferty is one of the more interesting and complex in detective fiction. Cafferty is Moriarty to Rebus' Holmes. Rebus spent his career at Lothian and Borders trying to put his nemesis away, and he did manage to do it for a short while. But then Cafferty was released from prison because he was thought to be dying. Once out, he made a miraculous recovery.

Over the years, the two have come to a kind of grudging respect. They are both arch enemies and long-time drinking mates. But even though they've been known to share a pint down at the pub, Rebus never forgets which side of the line he is on, and if he had a chance to send Cafferty away again, he would do it.

Some of the sharpest and funniest dialogue of the story comes in conversations between Rebus and Cafferty and between Rebus and Clarke. In both instances, these are well-developed characters that Rankin's faithful readers know intimately and it is a joy to read their interactions. But I think even readers who are brand new to the series could enjoy this book. It could work as a stand-alone as well as the 20th entry in a well-loved series.

The distinctive features of Rankin's writing include intelligence, humor (sometimes very dark), characters one can identify with, and intensely observed crime story plots that are never quite what they seem at first. He always manages to bring in current events and societal concerns to his stories. This time the plot turns on long ago sexual abuse of boys in a state-run home and the changing face of organized crime in Scotland.

And always the city of Edinburgh itself is one of the characters in Rankin's novels. Moreover, we can count on lots of visits to Rebus' home away from home and office where he conducts much of his business, the venerable Oxford Bar. For long-time readers, it's like coming home again. 

Incidentally, I enjoyed Rankin's shout-out to one of his fellow writers. In one of the scenes when Clarke and Rebus are on stake-out together, Clarke is reading a book. It is Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. It could well be a metaphor for Rebus - he keeps coming back.

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Sunday, January 24, 2016

Poetry Sunday: Wolf Moon

Wolf Moon rising.
In the lexicon of Native Americans, the full moon in January is known as the Wolf Moon. It is a time of hunger, when food is scarce and the wolves howl plaintively. Chris Lane caught the spirit of the Wolf Moon and gave it voice in his poem. 

Wolf Moon

by Chris Lane

Though no longer amongst us
Their tradition and spirit lingers on
Like the names associated with 
Each month's new full moon 

A reoccurring theme in the cycle 
When months are measured by moons returning
A practice common among indigenous peoples

In the month of January
A great moon rises slowly 
And at night the Wolf pack howl out plaintively
For food is scarce and the wolves are hungry

To the First Peoples - The Wolf is brother 
And only a brother can feel the pain of his brother's hunger
That is why the Native Peoples name January “Wolf Moon” in their brother's honor

Now to a museum, all too soon -The Tipi (tepee, teepee) has gone
Whilst within a reservation the Wolf Pack are free to roam

As for their spirit - It is running free 
And cannot be captured, best to let it be

Your Brother, The Wolf never was your enemy

Saturday, January 23, 2016

This week in birds - #190

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

Ring-billed Gull in flight over Galveston Bay.

The big news of the environment this weekend is, of course, the big snowstorm that is covering most of the eastern United States and bringing things pretty much to a standstill over the most densely populated area of the country. No doubt there will be snowballs on the floor of the Senate next week.


Meanwhile, scientists at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that 2015 was the planet's hottest year on record, easily breaking the record set just one year earlier. 


A new species of bird has been identified in northeastern India and adjacent parts of China. It is a member of the thrush family and has been named the Himalayan Forest Thrust. The bird had previously been lumped in with the Plain-backed Thrush of that area, but it has now been established that they are actually different species.


Matthew Wills of "Backyard and Beyond" has published a very thoughtful essay on the illegal occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by armed insurrectionists. The people of Oregon are fed up with the whole situation and their governor has called for the terrorists to be removed. There is increasing concern about the damage that they are doing to the refuge as well as to the economy of this already poor area.


Data collected by eBird citizen scientists has been used to create an animated map showing the migration of birds from South to North America and back again. It is fascinating, mesmerizing even.


And speaking of citizen science, Discover magazine has an appreciation of it, revealing just some of the things that it is good for and has helped to accomplish.


And here's another use of citizen science: The "Birds and Windows" citizen science project has been busy collecting data on bird collisions with windows in residential areas. The aim is to identify factors affecting those collisions and perhaps help to prevent them.


We are not alone and there's no way we ever can be; no reason why we should even try. We are colonies of life forms at best and so are our houses. A recent survey of 50 houses in North Carolina identified some 10,000 species of arthropods present. There was an average of 93 arthropods per home. The vast majority of these were totally harmless and, in many cases, actually beneficial to humans. 


The Obama administration will impose increased efficiency standards on residential air conditioning systems. The standards will save an enormous amount of energy over 3o years of sales.


Conservationists in Ireland are fighting against a proposed change in rules that would allow hedge cutting in August and vegetation burning in March during times when rare birds are nesting in the area.


Selective logging in California has been proposed as a way of helping to increase the water supply there, but a new study released this week shows that the proposal got it all wrong. There would also be a high price to pay in terms of water quality, forest biodiversity, and even public safety.


There is concern everywhere about declines in bird populations. That includes Britain where a new study shows that the decline in breeding bird populations there is continuing.


A research team is studying Sandhill Crane migration at New Mexico wintering locations. Satellite transmitters are affixed to the cranes and provide 12 GPS fixes per day and last 3 to 5 years. The study began solely on the cranes’ wintering grounds in the Middle Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico but has since expanded. (The picture of the pair of cranes was taken at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico.)

"Bug Eric's" always interesting blog about the world of insects has some fascinating images and information about cuckoo wasps. 


Here's yet another example of a normally benign species that can become deadly when introduced to an area where it doesn't belong. This time it is our North American goldenrod. It has been introduced to Europe and Asia and has become an invasive species, taking over many fields and crowding out native species. This has had a detrimental effect on those native species of insects that depend on the disappearing plants, such as bees, butterflies, and ants, in some cases actually causing their death.   

Friday, January 22, 2016

It's Friday: Here are some kittens, puppies, and babies for you

What a week. 

The execrable Palin family is crowding into our consciousness once again, with the matriarch leading the way with her word-salad endorsement of Donald Trump for president and her blaming President Obama for her son's drunken domestic violence. Personal responsibility, anyone?

The presidential campaigns are heating up which means that the nonsense meter is rising higher. The National Review has belatedly decided that maybe it has been a mistake for conservatives to clutch the viper Trump to its bosom. Trump supporters have responded as Trump supporters do.

On the other side of politics, some liberal voices like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Paul Krugman have had the temerity to criticize some of the pronouncements and policies of Saint Bernie, generating frothing at the mouth and some truly unhinged attacks by his supporters who believe that the man can do and say no wrong. 

Enough! Let's take a break from all that. Here's an emotional and intellectual palate cleanser for you. Kittens, puppies, and babies - what could be a better start to a happy weekend?

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal: A review

Kitchens of the Great MidwestKitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fans of reality TV might possibly recognize the name of the author. J. Ryan Stradal is the producer of some of the more popular entries in that genre, shows like "Ice Road Truckers" and "Deadliest Catch," both of which my husband has watched over the years. I'm not a fan of reality TV myself; I prefer my TV shows to be unreal.

I am a fan, though, of Stradal's writing. Kitchens of the Great Midwest is his first novel and it is a winner. He shows great originality and a sure touch for the development of characters and a character-driven plot.

The structure of this book reminds me very much of another book that I dearly loved, Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. As in Olive, we get to know the main character of Kitchens by seeing her through the eyes of other characters. Plus, the physical descriptions of both Olive and Eva Thorvald, the main character here, are somewhat similar. Both are tall and physically imposing women.

We meet Eva first as a baby, just a few months old. Her father is a foodie and she is the apple of his eye (Pun intended!). He looks forward to introducing her to the glorious foods that he loves.

Her mother, on the other hand, has come to the realization that she does not want to be a mother and she abandons her daughter and husband, running off to New Zealand with a dashing sommelier. Father and daughter settle into the routine of single parenthood, in this case with assistance from the father's brother and his partner. When the unimaginable happens and the father dies of a heart attack, the uncle and his wife take over as parents. Eva never remembers the birth father who loved her so much.

Though she doesn't remember him, she has inherited his love of food, along with a once-in-a-generation palate. She is a food prodigy and as she grows, her gastronomic talents are honed to perfection until, by the time she is in her late twenties, she has gained remarkable renown throughout the Midwest and even farther afield as a chef.

Eva's character is developed through eight chapters as we see her first through the eyes of her adoring father and then through a female cousin, a teenage boyfriend, an envious rival, several ancillary characters that she meets during sojourns in the kitchens of various restaurants, and, in the final chapter, through the eyes of that birth mother who abandoned her. In only one chapter do we see things from Eva's point of view, when she is almost eleven and is enduring the taunts of some truly hideous bullies at her school.

Throughout the novel, the characters move through several sites in the Midwest, from Minnesota to Iowa to Chicago to Wisconsin and the Dakotas. It's a region that the author seems to know very well and he conveys its zeitgeist perfectly. He also gives us a quirky and often quite amusing perspective on the modern phenomenon of the foodie culture, as well as an insightful view of the role that food plays in the creation of a sense of community and identity. All in all, this is a very sensual reading experience.

However, the sensuality of it was not always pleasurable.

For me, the word snot is one of the ugliest and most offensive in the English language. I couldn't possibly explain why. It is simply my visceral reaction to the word. Stradal seems to love it. Maybe it has something to do with his experience in reality TV. He lovingly describes snot running down the face of a character, snot collecting on the shirt of a character after it has run down her face and then rubbing onto the shirt of another character when he hugs her. He even describes snot-colored food (lutefisk)!

That kind of literary tic - the overuse of a particular word - is the sort of thing that grates on my reading nerve endings and can totally put me off a book. Nevertheless, I persevered and was rewarded with a mostly enjoyable reading experience. Kitchens of the Great Midwest has received much critical acclaim and it is well-deserved. It is a remarkable first novel. 

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Attracting beneficial insects

Beneficial insects, the good guys of the insect world, are a gardener's best friend. They are an organic pest patrol that hunts down and destroys many of the insects that damage or destroy our ornamental plants and our food crops. Moreover, many of them do double duty as pollinators, helping along the essential link in the life cycle of our plants.

How do we attract these beneficial insects? The same way we attract birds or amphibians or other wildlife to our yards - we provide them with the things that they need; food, water, shelter, a place to lay their eggs and allow their young to develop into adults. 

For many of these insects, that means planting the plants that they need to feed from or on which they lay their eggs. Mother Earth News has a extensive list of these useful plants. It's also extremely important to provide them with a source of water. But more and more gardeners are attempting to attract and encourage these insects by providing them with human-built shelters.

I've written here before about my experience with this mason bee habitat, seen here in its pristine condition. After several years out in the weather... devolved into this. That didn't bother the bees. They continued to use it.

I decided, though, that, esthetically, my old bee house was no longer an asset in my garden and it was time to replace it. When asked for a Christmas wish list, I put insect habitat on it, and one of my daughters came up with this:  

Wow! Now that's what I call I call a five-star insect hotel. Not only does it have all those round holes and tubes to give various native bees a place to nest, but those lower spaces are supposed to give ladybugs and other beneficial beetles a place to go. The instructions say to put a pine cone in that lower left spot to give the ladybugs the kinds of tight spaces they like to crawl into.

That vertical slot in the middle is supposed to give butterflies a place to rest or hibernate. I have some doubts about whether it will ever be used, but I feel pretty confident that the other spaces will be utilized. I look forward to seeing it crawling with insects!

There are squeamish people, I am told, who are completely repulsed by six-legged creatures and they squash every one that comes within swatting distance. Those people need to get over themselves! We live in an interdependent environment. Insects, for the most part, are our friends and partners. We need to protect and encourage the good guys in whatever ways we can.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Hillary Clinton is still my hero

Those readers who have followed the blog for a while will probably be aware of my sentiments regarding Hillary Clinton. I admire her tremendously and have written about her here on several occasions. I supported her campaign for the presidency in 2008 and I support her again in 2016.

I support her because I believe she is the most qualified person in the race for the presidency. Indeed, I believe she is the only person in the race, on either side, who is truly prepared to be president.

She's currently, of course, in a tightening primary race with Sen. Bernie Sanders, Independent, of Vermont. Throughout the campaign, Secretary Clinton has put forth detailed plans on many issues that concern Democratic voters. More recently, Sanders, too, has announced his plans for handling some of those issues, particularly health care and financial reform.

I'm not an economist and I don't pretend to be able to fairly judge the merits of these respective plans. But my go-to guy on economics is a Nobel laureate in economics and he has written extensively on the announced plans of the candidates and has praised Clinton's plans as practical and workable. 

Today in his blog, The Conscience of a Liberal, he wrote a bit more about Sanders and his announced programs. Paul Krugman writes:
On finance: Sanders has made restoring Glass-Steagal and breaking up the big banks the be-all and end-all of his program. That sounds good, but it’s nowhere near solving the real problems. The core of what went wrong in 2008 was the rise of shadow banking; too big to fail was at best marginal, and as Mike Konczal notes, pushing the big banks out of shadow banking, on its own, could make the problem worse by causing the risky stuff to “migrate elsewhere, often to places where there is less regulatory infrastructure.”
On health care: leave on one side the virtual impossibility of achieving single-payer. Beyond the politics, the Sanders “plan” isn’t just lacking in detail; as Ezra Klein notes, it both promises more comprehensive coverage than Medicare or for that matter single-payer systems in other countries, and assumes huge cost savings that are at best unlikely given that kind of generosity. This lets Sanders claim that he could make it work with much lower middle-class taxes than would probably be needed in practice. 
Sanders' followers have vociferously touted his "plan" (as Krugman calls it) to get to single-payer health care for all. It's a sexy "plan" that excites many in the liberal base as the next new thing, and many are always waiting to clamber on board the bandwagon of the next new thing. I think if we had our druthers, all of us would prefer a single-payer system, but the truth, as once again Krugman points out, is that it's not going to happen anytime soon.
To be harsh but accurate: the Sanders health plan looks a little bit like a standard Republican tax-cut plan, which relies on fantasies about huge supply-side effects to make the numbers supposedly add up...if the political theory behind supporting Sanders is that the American people will vote for radical change if you’re honest about what’s involved, the campaign’s evident unwillingness to fully confront the issues, its reliance on magic asterisks, very much weakens that claim. 
Nothing Sanders has put forth has persuaded me that he is ready to be president, and I seriously doubt that he could stand up to the Republican attack machine. At present, that machine is doing everything it can to support him because they prefer to run against him, but the moment he gained the nomination, it would turn all of its fury on him.

On the other hand, we do have a candidate who can survive the right-wingers' fury. We know that because she has done so for twenty-five years. 

On June 27, 2012, as Clinton was ending her run as Secretary of State, I wrote a blog post about her entitled "Hillary Clinton, my hero." Nothing has changed. She's still my hero.


Hillary Clinton, my hero

There is a long and very positive piece in The New York Times Magazine about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton entitled "Hillary Clinton's Last Tour as a Rock-Star Diplomat."  I read it with some avidity since Clinton is a hero of mine, one of the people that I admire most in the world.

I am certainly not unique in being a Clinton-admirer. She is the most admired woman in this country, topping that list year after year and is arguably the most admired woman in the world.

There are good reasons for all that admiration. Wherever life has taken her, Clinton has always worked to make the world a better, safer, more equitable place, especially for women and children. She has taken up the cause of women and children around the world and made elevating their status a prime aim of her professional life.

By all accounts, she has been relentless in pursuing her passion for women's and children's rights. Everywhere that she goes in the world as Secretary of State - and she goes everywhere! - that cause is always part of her agenda. She is ever on the lookout for ways in which the lot of the common women in the countries where she visits can be advanced and, in her dealings with heads of state and diplomats, she is not shy about bringing these topics up and making them a part of the negotiations.

Improving the lot of women in developing countries often means paying attention to the most basic of human needs. Things like making access to clean water easier or providing ways of cooking food that do not pollute houses and the atmosphere and make families sick. Or making sure that women and children have access to health care and that women can have the means to limit the numbers of their children. Our Secretary of State is attuned to such commonplace needs and makes them a part of her writ. After all, there are rock-solid data that show that the key to improving society as a whole lies in improving the lives of women. As a rising tide lifts all boats, the rising status of women raises the status of all humanity. Not everyone in the world of politics and international relations accepts that truth, of course, but Clinton does and she is its most effective ambassador.

Clinton has said that she will end her term as Secretary of State with the end of President Obama's first term, regardless of the outcome of this year's election. I would very much hate to be the person who tries to fill her shoes when she goes.

It will be interesting to see what the next act of Hillary Clinton's life will be about. She has certainly earned a rest if that is what she wants, and, indeed, she may want that for a while. I suspect it will be a short while.