Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes: A review

The Noise of TimeThe Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Julian Barnes takes the well-known facts of Dimitri Shostakovich's life and gives it all back to us in a fictionalized version of the conversations in the composer's own head. In doing this, he manages to give us the debates about the enduring importance of the composer's music and his relationship with the Soviet regime.

Was the music worthy of being mentioned in the same breath with Stravinsky and Prokofiev, or was he merely a second-rater?

Was he a coward who caved to Stalin and compromised his artistic principles in order to maintain a comfortable life, or was he a brave dissident, who, even though he lived in constant fear for himself and his family, still managed to communicate his defiance to the world through his music?

The Shostakovich that Barnes gives us is, in fact, a complicated human being who comprises both sides of those arguments. He may be one of the great Russian composers of the 20th century who sometimes wrote second-rate stuff. Perhaps he was a coward, but he managed to survive and keep his family safe during the persecutions of the Stalin era when so many of his friends and fellow artists were disappearing without a trace.

Barnes structures his tale around three major events in Shostakovich's life: his denunciation in Pravda after Stalin attended and disapproved of his much-acclaimed opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" and his subsequent implication in an assassination plot; his humiliating trip to America where he was seen by many as a Soviet stooge; and, finally, after he had survived Stalin, in the Khrushchev era, being forced to join the Communist Party. During all this time, from 1936 until the 1970s, although he and his family were never physically harmed, he was under constant threat of violence. The psychological torture must have been almost unbearable. He was constantly forced to walk the tightrope between maintaining the integrity of his music and keeping those in power appeased.

The mind of Shostakovich is, unsurprisingly I think, a claustrophobic place. We are privy to his internal dialogues as he reflects on his predicament and his personal history and the lives of all those - especially the women - who are or have been close to him and whose fate may hang in the balance on his choices, his actions.

Julian Barnes is such an elegant writer. Every word is meaningful in his narrative and, in the end, he has given us not only an illuminating portrait of a complicated man, but also a stunning insight into the tumultuous and dangerous society that was the mid to late 20th century Soviet Union.

Moreover, he also offers us a meditation on the meaning of art. He writes:
Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake.

"Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time." And that is, in the end, the value of art to society.

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Monday, May 30, 2016

Dust by Martha Grimes: A review

Dust (Richard Jury Mystery #21)Dust by Martha Grimes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Back to one of my guilty reading pleasures as a break from some of the more serious reading I've done lately. Martha Grimes' Richard Jury series fits the bill for that. I must say though that this time the reading was more guilt than pleasure. Guilt, as in "Why am I wasting my time reading this?"

This is the 21st entry in this series. We are nearing the end. I believe there are a couple left, although Grimes may write more. In such a long series, one expects hits and misses. I would put this one more on the "miss" side. In the end, I gave it a VERY generous three stars, mostly for old time's sake; in actuality, it probably deserved two-and-a-half at best.

The first problem with the book is its plot. A young man is shot to death on the balcony of his room at a trendy Clerkenwell hotel. The body is discovered by young Benny Keegan who is working at the hotel. Benny and his dog Sparky once saved Richard Jury's life and Jury is a friend so Benny calls him. So, even though it's not technically a Scotland Yard case, Jury comes to the scene and gets involved.

And, boy, does he get involved! We learn before he goes to the scene that he is having an affair with Dr. Phyllis Nancy, the pathologist, but when he arrives at the murder scene, he meets Inspector Lu Aguilar of the Islington police who is in charge. Inspector Aguilar is a looker. Moreover, she is originally from Brazil and is a hot-blooded, passionate, Latin woman, whom Jury takes to his apartment and has raucous, furniture-destroying, neighbor-disturbing sex with, straight from the crime scene. And his bed is not even yet cool from his night with Dr. Nancy! This is not the Richard Jury I've come to know over the past 20 books and I did not like him very much.

Neither did I like the portrait of the hot-blooded Brazilian inspector painted by Grimes. Really, Martha? Stereotype much?

Anyway, back to the murder victim who seemed to have been an inoffensive and quite generous rich guy, patron of the arts, who had no enemies. Who could possibly want him dead?

The convoluted plot which Grimes spins reaches back to World War II and long smoldering hatreds, but it seems to take forever to develop and it is only close to the end that we begin to get a glimmer of an inkling as to what might have precipitated the murder. Even then, it seems most unlikely.

There is a secondary plot line involving the works of Henry James. The murder victim had recently been the resident caretaker of the National Trust's James property in Rye, Sussex, a place called Lamb House where James lived and wrote what are considered his three best books. Jury, as per usual, enlists the aid of his friend, millionaire Melrose Plant, to go to Lamb House and take over the caretaker's post until a new one can be selected, and to keep his eyes and ears open and see what can be learned. In that capacity, Plant finally supplies the key that opens up the solution to the case.

Speaking of Plant naturally brings up the little village of Long Piddleton where he lives and which is where we first encounter him in this story. Long Piddleton and the louche group of Long Piddletonians, Plant's friends, who gather at the Jack and Hammer at 11:00 and 6:00 every day to drink copious amounts of booze and speak ill of all their neighbors. I confess I used to find them amusing but now I am thoroughly bored with them and irritated by them. Do they serve any purpose in life other than getting drunk and making fun of people? It doesn't seem so.

So, what did I like about the book? Well, the children and the animals. Grimes is always at her best when writing about them. Cyril the Cat is still a star and I still like Melrose Plant even though I'm annoyed by his entourage. And Sgt. Wiggins, who has grown on me over the years. I enjoyed the Henry James references that I was able to understand. Unfortunately, I'm not that familiar with his work, having only read a couple of his books, and perhaps if I were better read in the oeuvre, I might have enjoyed this book more.

Nah. Probably not.

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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Poetry Sunday: Memorial Day

Lest we forget...

Memorial Day

by Joyce Kilmer (1914)

"Dulce et decorum est"

The bugle echoes shrill and sweet,
 But not of war it sings to-day.

The road is rhythmic with the feet
 Of men-at-arms who come to pray.

The roses blossom white and red
 On tombs where weary soldiers lie;

Flags wave above the honored dead
 And martial music cleaves the sky.

Above their wreath-strewn graves we kneel,
 They kept the faith and fought the fight.

Through flying lead and crimson steel
 They plunged for Freedom and the Right.

May we, their grateful children, learn
 Their strength, who lie beneath this sod,

Who went through fire and death to earn
 At last the accolade of God.

In shining rank on rank arrayed
 They march, the legions of the Lord;

He is their Captain unafraid,
 The Prince of Peace . . . Who brought a sword.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

This week in birds - #208

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

Black-crowned Night Heron fishing at Brazos Bend State Park.

The Zika virus poses a significant threat to public health and safety and our Congress has responded to that threat just about as you might expect if you've been paying attention over the last ten years. Instead of appropriating more money for research and developing vaccines and therapies to fight the disease, it voted to loosen EPA pesticide rules. If this vote stands, it will allow more pesticides into our waterways and ultimately our drinking water and very likely would do little to actually contain the virus. 


The catastrophic offshore oil spills which occasionally happen get big headlines, but, in fact, even small amounts of oil in the water can be devastating to seabirds and other sea life. Seabirds exposed to even a dime-sized amount of oil can die of hypothermia in cold-water regions, and research suggests that chronic pollution from many small oil spills may have greater population-level impacts on seabirds than a single large spill. 


The emerald ash borer is a devastating pest from China that has wiped out millions of trees in Europe and North America. The USDA is fighting back with parasitic wasps. The little wasps are natural parasites of the borers and millions of them have been released into wooded areas in 24 states to try to slow the pest's progress.


The government-sanctioned shooting of thousands of cormorants on the Columbia River has led to as many as 16,000 of the birds abandoning their nests on East Sand Island in the river, leaving eggs or young to be eaten by predators such as seagulls, eagles and crows. The shooting had been authorized to try to protect the imperiled Columbia River salmon. And the law of unintended consequences strikes again.


The Pinelands Preservation Alliance, advocates for New Jersey's Pine Barrens, offers ten points to be considered when deciding on tools to be used to manage state forests.


House Wrens can get a bad reputation with birders because they are known to evict other cavity-nesting birds to take possession of the space. Hannah Waters in Audubon argues that we mustn't judge the birds' actions by standards of human morality. They are simply responding to their survival instinct.

Hmmm...does this mean I have to rethink my attitude toward House Sparrows?


A Unesco report on the Great Barrier Reef warns that its condition is "poor and deteriorating" and that it is "assailed by multiple threats." The Australian government has tried to suppress the report for fear it will adversely affect tourism.


At least 13 Indonesian bird species are threatened with extinction because the birds are being illegally trapped for the pet trade.


Despite fierce protests from environmental groups battling to save a World Heritage site, Poland has started logging in the ancient Białowieża forest, which includes some of Europe’s last primeval woodland. The forest is also home to the continent's largest mammal, the European bison.

Picture courtesy of The Guardian.
A small herd of European bison and the forest that is to be logged.

The East Coast's Saltmarsh Sparrow is disappearing from its home and could be headed for extinction in as little as 50 years, say scientists whose work could help protect the little birds. The bird is being threatened by a rise in sea levels and by construction along the coasts where it makes it home. 


The Totten Glacier of East Antarctica holds back more ice than any other, but scientists say it is fundamentally unstable and could eventually collapse in the warming waters, drastically raising the world's sea levels.


Little Penguins are the only penguin species currently extant in Australia, but some 18 million years ago, things were quite different. At that time, Australia was home to a giant penguin that stood 4.2 to 4.9 feet tall, which is bigger than the biggest penguin alive today, the Emperor.


In Canada, a rare parasitic wasp that had been being considered for endangered status has been found in several colonies on New Brunswick beaches, making it unlikely that it will have to be protected at this time. 


Researchers recently reported that a threatened species of Arctic seagull, the Ivory Gull, had made a colony in an unusual place— on an offshore iceberg. This is the first report of these gulls breeding on an iceberg.


The Trust for the Public Land advocates for parks in neighborhoods across the nation and ranks urban areas according to the access that their residents have to parks. Their latest rankings show the top five as Minneapolis, St. Paul, Washington, Arlington County (Virginia), and San Francisco.  Houston didn't make the top 100 list which surprises me a bit because it does have lots of parks.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Random Friday thoughts

I confess I have not closely followed the Baylor sex crimes scandal and its aftermath which resulted in the demotion of Kenneth Starr and the firing of their football coach this week. Another instance of privileged college athletes being allowed to rape and assault women without suffering consequences, in fact being protected by the powers that be at their universities? Ho hum. Such things only happen on days ending in y. To afford each such felony the outrage which it deserves would mean that I am in a constant state of outrage. My sincere apologies to the innocent victims of these crimes but I simply can't live my life like that.

Still, even though I've followed the story only tangentially, like many others in Texas - and, I suspect, elsewhere - I was surprised when Baylor fired its winning football coach this week, for, contrary to what you may have heard, evangelistic Christianity is not the number one religion in Texas; football is. To have one of that religion's successful and honored priests ousted is almost unheard of. Perhaps Baylor's board finally remembered that it is supposed to be a "Christian" university and that maybe, just maybe, that should come before the mindless worship of football.

And then there is Kenneth Starr, their former president/chancellor now "demoted" to chancellor, who did nothing about the crimes that were occurring right under his patrician nose. If you are old enough, you will certainly remember Kenneth Starr from the '90s and his Inspector Javert-like pursuit of President Bill Clinton. Just a few days before the excrement hit the fan this week, there was a story in The New York Times about how, now, all that "unpleasantness" is forgotten and Starr has only praise for Clinton. And if you believe the timing of that story was a coincidence, then you are just too naive for our modern culture.

So Clinton engaged in consensual sex with someone outside his marriage. Starr ignored reports of brutal sexual assaults on his campus and offered no support to the victims. But it's all good because now he's been "demoted." Too bad he couldn't be impeached.



Yes, you can now have Hodor "hold the door" for you. All you have to do is purchase one of these Hodor doorstops. Isn't entrepreneurism wonderful?


Dahlia Lithwick is one of the reasons I go to the Slate website every day. She writes mostly about the Supreme Court, but occasionally she covers more political subjects as well. She is unabashedly liberal and this week she took her fellow liberals to task for some of their behaviors in the current presidential campaign. Her clear-eyed analysis is worth reading.


And one of the reasons I watch television is see Samantha Bee's take on the world. I really wish she were hosting one of the four-nights-a-week Comedy Central fake news shows, preferably "The Daily Show," but I'm just grateful that at least we get to see her once a week on TBS.

You haven't seen her show "Full Frontal" you say? Well, here's a taste - last Monday's episode.

(Update May 28: Sorry, the video has now been taken down. You'll just have to take my word for it: it's a good show!)


Rain, rain, give me a break!

It's been an inordinately rainy spring here - roads flooded and closed, many homes flooded, lives lost. At our house, the inconveniences have been much more minor but still annoying.

Last month, around April 15, we got more than 14 inches of rain over a few days. We continued to get regular showers, some heavy, since then. And now Mother Nature is at it again. We got at least seven inches overnight and the monsoon continues. My poor garden!

The garden had just begun to recover from its April drenching when this new round of floods started. When it dries out a bit, I'm going to have to bring in the big guns to help with the weeding. Those weeds are going to be out of control.

I did manage to hobble out to the garden (strained hamstring, which is a whole 'nother story I won't bore you with) one day this week and took a couple of pictures before the new rains came. I'll leave you with those.

Another new daylily has started blooming.

The feverfew in the herb garden has been going crazy with blooms this spring.

In the past, my Justicia 'Orange Flame' has flowered mostly in the fall, but it got an early start this year. It can flower throughout the year.

You can see how it got the name 'Orange Flame.'
Happy Memorial Day weekend and if you are in the Houston area, try to stay dry!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith: A review

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos: A NovelThe Last Painting of Sara de Vos: A Novel by Dominic Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As sometimes happens with books that I end up liking very much, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos gave me problems at first. The writer intertwines three separate stories from three separate places and centuries: 17th century Netherlands, 1950s New York, and 2000 Sydney. Each chapter transported the reader to a different time and place and I just found that annoying at first. Just as I was beginning to get to know and care about one character, I would be whisked off to another continent to meet some stranger. But by book's end, I was into the writer's rhythm, and his method of telling the story seemed thoroughly natural and organic. I couldn't imagine it being told in any other fashion.

In 1635 Amsterdam, we meet Sara de Vos. Sara represents a fictionalized amalgam of several Dutch painters of that golden age. It was a time when guilds reigned over public life and endeavors in the region. To be able to participate, one needed to be a member of a guild, but in the early 1600s, it was unheard of for a woman to be admitted to a guild for master painters. Sara was the first to be admitted to the Guild of St. Luke's in 1631.

Sara was married to another painter and they had a young daughter. They lived in extreme poverty but managed to eke out a living. Then the daughter fell ill with the plague and died four days later. Sara's husband had borrowed money which he could not pay back. Faced with debtor's prison a year later, he ran away, leaving Sara behind. She sold everything they had and went to work for the wealthy old bachelor who was her husband's creditor in order to pay off the debt. This turned out to be a happy placement for her, but she virtually gave up painting - except for a couple more works which we will encounter in the 21st century.

In 1950s New York, the inheritor of what is thought to be the only extant painting by de Vos, a winter landscape scene called "At the Edge of a Wood," is a patent attorney living a quiet life with his wife. The de Vos painting hangs over the bed in his master bedroom. At some point, apparently during a party that they give (although it is never entirely explained), the painting is stolen and a forgery is put in its place. The forgery is so good that the absence of the original is not noticed for months.

That forgery had been painted by an Australian graduate student in art history named Eleanor Shipley. She is doing her dissertation on 17th century women Dutch painters and is particularly fascinated by de Vos. Her decision to paint the forgery is one that will haunt her for more than forty years.

In Sydney in 2000, Ellie Shipley is a celebrated art historian and professor and she is curating an exhibit of female Dutch painters. She is shocked and appalled when both versions of "At the Edge of a Wood," the original and her forgery, are acquired as a part of the exhibit. All of her guilt over her long ago crime comes flooding back and she is faced with an ethical conundrum.

Dominic Smith weaves these three threads of his story together in a masterful way. In the process, he manages to educate us about art and the demands of the artistic life, the history of the Netherlands, as well as the life lessons that can be learned from decisions made in the past.

The main lesson seems to be that deceits of the past can continue to cast long shadows into the present. The past is never really dead; it isn't even past.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Borage

Borage is an ancient herb that is native to the Middle East. Long ago, it was used as an enhancement for bravery and courage. It is an annual which grows quickly. It can get up to a foot or more wide and up to two feet tall with broad, hairy leaves. All parts of the plant are cucumber-flavored and, except for the roots, all have culinary or medicinal uses. It is a free-flowering plant that will reseed itself and may reappear in the garden from year to year. 

This plant is full of buds and is just about to burst into bloom.

Maybe you can't really tell from this picture but when the blooms open, they are shaped like a five-pointed star which gives the plant one of its common names, starflower.

Borage is a very easy plant to grow and is useful for the butterfly garden. It's very attractive to pollinators of many kinds. Borage is sometimes planted with strawberries in order to attract bees and increase the yield of fruit.

Traditionally, borage was used to treat many ailments, including such things as kidney problems. Today, it has only limited medicinal uses, but the seeds are a source of linolenic acid, a substance which is an essential part of a healthy human diet.

This old-fashioned plant also has few uses as a culinary herb these days, but the cucumber-flavored leaves can be used in teas or other beverages, and the pretty little flowers are sometimes used in decorating salads or they can be candied and used in confections. The flowers are also a staple of potpourris. Bees which feed on the flowers produce some very tasty honey.

If you want to get into growing herbs and want something that is not at all fussy and is pretty as well, you might want to give borage a try.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Just for grins

Is your week dragging? Do you need a chuckle? Did the Chewbacca Mom not do it for you? Maybe this will make you smile.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart: A review

The Crystal Cave (Arthurian Saga, #1)The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had my Arthurian period like many readers. There was a time when I found the legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and Merlin irresistible.

The period when I was most susceptible to these stories happened to coincide with the time of greatest popularity of the Lerner and Lowe musical adaptation of them, known as Camelot. Come to think of it, maybe that wasn't a coincidence. How I loved that musical!

At any rate, it had been a number of years since I paid a visit to Camelot, but when Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave was recommended to me, I was intrigued. In spite of the reading I had done concerning the legends, I had never read Stewart's work. Obviously, that was a serious oversight on my part.

Stewart was an excellent writer and she pulls together all the threads of the Merlin origination story and weaves them into a page turner of a tale.

Merlin was the bastard child of a Welsh princess. His mother never told him, or anyone, the name of his father. As a child, he lived with his mother at his grandfather's court, but he was an outcast, without status or friends.

As he got older, he enjoyed wandering the hills on his own and one day he found a strange cave and met the even stranger man who lived there, Galapas. Galapas was old and wise and had the gift of "seeing," as did Merlin although he hardly knew it at the time. Galapas became his teacher and he had other tutors as well who educated him in languages, math, and engineering as well as medicine and religion. And, of course, magic.

Perhaps Galapas' most important lesson for Merlin was this: "The gods only go with you if you put yourself in their path. And that takes courage." Merlin learns the truth of that and learns to be open to the gods and always put himself in their path.

The student grows in knowledge and power and, following the death of his grandfather and the ascension of a king who is even less kindly disposed toward him, he runs away from home and ends up on the shores of Less Britain which is under the control of the exiled king Ambrosius.

Ambrosius' brother is Uther, who will one day be known as Uther Pendragon and will father yet another bastard child who will be named Arthur and given into the care of Merlin. But all of that is still in the future.

In the meantime, Stewart shows us Ambrosius attempting to bring the peoples of Britain together under one king and the parts that Merlin and Uther play in his grand scheme.

Merlin's renown grows throughout the land until he is seen as a great wizard, able to see into the future and to affect how that future evolves.

The stories here are very well known and yet Stewart manages to make them seem fresh. She weaves together historical details and myth in a wonderful tapestry that finally reveals to us the whole colorful picture. Her writing is vividly descriptive and makes the reader feel as though she is there by Merlin's side as he works his "magic." Indeed, not just Merlin but all of the characters, including relatively minor ones, were well-developed and one felt empathy for them.

This book was published in 1970 and yet it did not feel dated. It was as timeless as Merlin himself, perhaps still sleeping somewhere in his crystal cave, waiting to be called by Arthur to wake and defend the beloved kingdom once again. 

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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Poetry Sunday: Among Women

"What women wander?" I think we each do in our own way. 

These days I wander mostly while seated with a book in my hand or while dreaming while weeding my garden as my mind flies off in many directions. 

Maybe your wandering takes another form. Whatever works for you."Women wander as best they can." 

Maybe men do, too.

Among Women

Related Poem Content Details

What women wander?
Not many. All. A few.
Most would, now & then,
& no wonder.
Some, and I’m one,
Wander sitting still.
My small grandmother
Bought from every peddler 
Less for the ribbons and lace
Than for their scent
Of sleep where you will, 
Walk out when you want, choose
Your bread and your company. 

She warned me, “Have nothing to lose.”

She looked fragile but had
High blood, runner’s ankles,
Could endure, endure.
She loved her rooted garden, her
Grand children, her once
Wild once young man.
Women wander
As best they can.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

This week in birds - #207

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

King Rail photographed at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.


The North American Bird Conservation Initiative, a joint project of the governments of Canada, the United States, and Mexico, has released its first-ever conservation vulnerability assessment for all 1,154 native bird species that occur on the continent. Of that number, 432 qualified for the Watch List, indicating species of highest conservation concern based on high vulnerability scores across multiple factors.


And here is the list of all 432 North American bird species that were found to be at risk of extinction. You'll find some familiar names there, such as the Golden-cheeked Warbler, Lesser Prairie-Chicken, and Bachman's Warbler


People are stupid as my husband often reminds me. It's sort of his string theory of humanity - the theory that explains everything. But surely none are stupider than people who go to national parks and insist on "rescuing" wild animals. The most recently publicized case was that of the tourists at Yellowstone who "rescued" a bison calf which they thought looked "cold." They put it in their car, separated it from its mother and when park rangers tried to reintroduce the calf, the mother rejected it. Ultimately, the rangers had the choice of letting the calf starve or euthanizing it. The calf was euthanized. 

Please! When you go to a national park or wildlife refuge, enjoy the animals from a distance; do not interact with them. If you see something about an animal that distresses you, report it to a ranger and let the trained staff handle it. If, indeed, it needs handling. The baby bison didn't.


India is experiencing a terrible heat wave which is exacerbated by drought. On Thursday, temperatures in Phalodi, in the deserts of Rajasthan, reached 123.8 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest recorded temperature in India.


Citizen Science projects have become an integral part of the study of birds as well as other wildlife. One of the unexpected benefits of such research has been to reveal the diversity of wildlife in urban areas. It is truly amazing how many species have learned to coexist in environments planned and built for humans.


Eastern tent caterpillars are a pest to farmers trying to grow fruit trees and they seem particularly plentiful this year. But the farmers have an important ally in the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. The bird considers those caterpillars a particularly tasty treat and is not put off by their sticky webs. I have also seen Great Crested Flycatchers returning to such a web throughout the day to catch caterpillars to take to their nestlings, until they have actually completely depleted and destroyed the web. Those webs are like a fast food stop for them. 

Photo by Johann Schumacher, courtesy of The New York Times.

The very elegant Yellow-billed Cuckoo, scourge of web caterpillars.


The huge bills of Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills of the Kalahari Desert serve more purposes than securing food or building nests. They also act as heat radiators, releasing heat from the body to help keep the bird from getting too hot.


The blogger at "Bourbon, Bastards, and Birds" explains the "one bird theory," as in, "Is the bird seen in Arkansas today the same one that was seen in Texas yesterday? Is it just one bird, or more?"


The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow is one of America's most endangered birds. A captive-breeding program hopes to reverse its road to extinction, and conservation history was made on May 9 when the first chicks from the program hatched.


The bison has been named as our national mammal, joining the Bald Eagle as our "national bird" and the oak as our "national tree." The move was celebrated by some conservation groups, but others claim that this merely glosses over what is serious mismanagement of the last of truly wild bison herds and they argue for a different approach.


The Conservation Law Foundation is suing Exxon with a novel complaint regarding its terminal in Everett, Massachusetts. The New England advocacy group claims that the company is knowingly putting local people at risk in the face of imminent climate risks due to rising sea levels and storms that could someday wash the Everett terminal away—storage tanks, impoundments, oil stockpiles, rickety docks, contaminated soils and all.


The changing climate is giving signs that the usefulness of the great dams in the West may have run its course. Here's an argument for unplugging the Colorado River, removing the Glen Canyon Dam.


Ecologists have discovered previously unknown cedar trees that are hundreds of years old living on the high cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment. 


The drying up of the Salton Sea as a result of prolonged drought is a tragedy for the fish and other water creatures that live there, but it also has dire implications for the migratory birds that normally stop over in their flight and feed on those creatures while they rest.


Pictures and information about the insects of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are featured at a new website run by Montana State University. I just browsed through the photos. Wonderful! 

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Strings of Murder by Oscar de Muriel: A review

The Strings of MurderThe Strings of Murder by Oscar de Muriel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Supercilious prig. Those are the words that came to mind when I considered how to describe Inspector Ian Frey. Frey is the son of an aristocratic English family in 1888 London. He's essentially a ne'er-do-well; he failed at law school and then found he didn't have the stomach for medical school.

Finally, he found a niche with Scotland Yard CID where he discovered that he actually had a talent for detecting. But then the Jack the Ripper murders paralyzed London with fear and stymied Scotland Yard which was unable to solve the crimes. The bureaucratic answer to the public's concern was to fire people. Ian Frey's boss who had supported him was forced to resign and the "new broom" at the head decided to sweep Frey away as well.

The Prime Minister, however, had other plans for him. He tapped Frey to go to Edinburgh to assist in an investigation there. It seems that there may be a Jack the Ripper copycat killer on the loose and Frey is deemed to be the one to help catch him.

Frey is appalled. "Edin-bloody-burgh" is the back of beyond in his foppish, privileged world, its citizens barely civilized. He is further outraged when he learns that he will be assigned to a department that investigates possible supernatural phenomena. This will be his cover. He will be under the supervision of the department's head, Inspector Adolphus "Nine-Nails" McGray.

McGray is complete confirmation of Frey's prejudices against all things Scottish. He is loud, shabbily dressed in tartan (obviously not a gentleman!), prone to flashes of violence, open to the possibility of supernatural causes, and speaks English with a heavy Scottish brogue that makes him virtually incomprehensible to Frey. Moreover, McGray sees Frey as a pretty boy dandy, an unserious man about town who will only get in his way. He resents London foisting its unwanted inspector on him.

How will these two opposites ever work together? Will they ever be able to get past their dislike of each other to actually investigate and solve a crime?

The crime is pretty horrific. A talented violinist has been murdered in Jack the Ripper fashion in a closed and locked (from the inside) room at his home. His body was ripped open and most of his entrails removed. On the floor where his body was found, an occult symbol possibly signifying devil worship was sketched.

But that is hardly the end. Soon the body count mounts as more violinists are murdered and their bodies desecrated in similar fashion. All of them were a part of the known circle of acquaintances of the first victim. They were all basically men who lived quiet lives and seemed to have no enemies. What is the connection and who would want them dead?

There are few clues and the two detectives must overcome their antipathy and work together to try to catch the murderer and save their own jobs. The rancorous interactions between the two finally settle into a kind of grudging understanding and respect, helped along by the arrival of Frey's housekeeper in the city and her putting the house where they both live in order. It just takes a woman's civilizing touch!

This was Oscar de Muriel's first crime thriller. It was fast-paced, well-plotted, although there were few if any (at least I didn't find them) clues sprinkled throughout that would have led the discerning reader to be able to solve the crime. The denouement was indeed a surprise. Nevertheless, I thought de Muriel was very accomplished at recreating the sights, scenes, and smells of Victorian Edinburgh. His imagery was vivid and well-expressed and the characters of Frey and McGray were developed nicely, allowing the reader to eventually see that the men are not exactly what they appear on the surface. There's a bit more to them than that and it augurs well for a future working relationship, should de Muriel decide to give us more.

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Thursday, May 19, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Oh, just turn down the thermostat and forget it!

NASA recently released climate data showing that last month was the hottest April yet on record. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will soon release data for the past twelve months that will show that those months broke all records for high temperatures.

So, I looked back at what I was blogging about six years ago and experienced a flash of deja vu. I might have written this today. Truly, the more things change, the more they remain the same...


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Oh, just turn down the thermostat and forget it!

NASA is out with another report on the climate. Their data on the earth's temperature show that the last 12-month period is the warmest on record. In addition, April 2010 was the hottest April on record and March 2010 was the hottest March on record. Furthermore, taken together, January, February and March this year set records as the hottest of that three-month period on record. NASA now predicts that a new record 12-month global temperature will almost certainly be set in 2010. This has all happened, or is happening, in spite of the "moderate negative effect of the reduced solar irradiance."

So, during this period, there has been reduced solar irradiance which should have meant that the earth would be cooler. Instead, we've recorded the hottest temperatures on record. Gee, I wonder how that could have possibly happened?

But...but, 1998 was cooler. And all those purloined emails from scientists in England - didn't they prove that the data was dodgy and that scientists just made it all up? Besides, there were snowstorms in the Northeast last winter. Doesn't that prove the earth is cooler?

1998 was an anomalous year and only one year. Every year since then has been one of the hottest on record. The purloined emails only proved that scientists are human but did not call into question any of the data. Snowstorms happen in winter. If it starts snowing in the Northeast in July and August, then the deniers might have a case. Or not.

What can we do about this? Just turn down the thermostat and forget it? Shouldn't we be trying to affect the policies of our country to address the monumental problem of climate change and all the related problems that it brings? There is a bill before the Senate now, a far from perfect bill, but then most bills that manage to get brought up in that imperfect body are. Imperfect, but it's a start. Perhaps we can begin with that and build on it.

Meantime, the news media in this country could do us all a favor and do its job by reporting the data from NASA, instead of engaging in the kind of he said/she said polemics that they usually employ. Just the facts, media. Just report the temperature data. Everyone is entitled to form his or her own opinion, but there is only one set of facts. Why don't you report them for a change?

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Backyard Nature Wednesday: I remember Mama

My mother died on the first day of spring in 2004. I've often ruminated on the unfairness of that - that she should have died on the first day of the season she loved best.

My mother was a gardener, you see, and she looked forward to spring as the time that her garden would begin again. She spent winter poring over seed catalogs and planning what she would plant. She was a farm wife and her emphasis and most of her energies were always spent on the vegetable garden. As a farm family, we grew most of our own food. But she also grew some flowers and other ornamentals as food for the soul. I have essentially reversed her gardening practices, growing mostly ornamentals with a few vegetables on the side.

I often think about my mother when I'm gardening. I sometimes feel that she is very close, looking over my shoulder and maybe shaking her head at my stupidity. I think of her most often when I'm working on some of the old-fashioned plants that she grew. 

Plants like four o'clocks. When I was very little, my mother grew four o'clocks by our back porch steps and I often played there next to them. I must have been no more than five or six years old when I first started noticing how their blooms would only open up late in the day. Throughout the rest of the day, they remained tightly closed. That seemed somehow magical to me, but I wondered why the blooms would be open only at night when there was no one around to enjoy them. Of course, much later I understood that this was the strategy the plant had developed to get itself pollinated. It opened its flowers at night to feed the creatures of the night, things like moths and bats, and their symbiotic relationship worked perfectly.
My mother also grew a few roses. The pride of place in her garden belonged to a big red rose and an equally large white one. I don't know their names. Every Mother's Day when we went to church, my mother would clip one of the red roses and pin it on me as a corsage. She would take one of the white roses and pin it on herself. She explained to me that the red rose symbolized that my mother was living and the white rose showed that her mother was dead. My mother had lost her own mother at age twelve. I never understood what a terrible loss that was for her until very much later in my life.

Of course, everyone grew the old tawny day lilies, called ditch lilies because, in fact, they have naturalized and grow wild in and around ditches all over the South. My mother grew them, too. Much later, after I had married a Texan and moved here, I dug some of those ditch lilies from her garden and brought them here. They remind me of her every time they bloom.

A couple of years before she died, my mother gave me some cypress vine plants from her garden. I planted them next to the fence that surrounds my veggie garden and they have grown there ever since. They are annuals but they reseed profusely and every year there are more of them. Want some cypress vine plants? 

The tubular-shaped blossoms of the cypress vine are perfect for attracting hummingbirds. Butterflies also love them.

And petunias, of course. My mother always grew petunias and they had the most wonderful scent, unlike so many of the modern varieties that seem to have no scent at all. My mother also gave me my start with these petunias, and, like the cypress vines, they reseed themselves every year, sometimes in the most astonishingly unlikely places - like the crack in a concrete walkway.
Gardening is an arduous, sweaty, exhausting activity, but it is also meditative and a transcendental exercise that allows us to connect with Mother Earth, and, if we are lucky enough to have had a mother who gardened, with our own physical mothers. I'm very glad that I finally learned that. One of my deepest regrets is that I didn't listen more carefully when my mother was trying to impart her gardening wisdom, but I'm grateful for what little I can remember. Thanks, Mama.