Thursday, June 30, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Crazy neighbors

I live smack dab in the middle of one of the most conservative, i.e. right-wing, counties in Texas, which means it is one of the most conservative counties in the country. It's very frustrating in so many ways, but most of the time, things rub along pretty amicably. 

And then something happens that makes one question just what kind of neighbors one has. Such an event occurred almost five years ago, at the end of 2011.


Friday, December 30, 2011

Crazy neighbors

A few miles from where I live, a house burned last week. It was what the local newspaper called "a historic homestead" that had been in the family of the man who owned it since 1927.

The house burned to the ground even though the fire department was on the scene. The firemen were unable to get near the house because it contained an estimated 100,000 rounds of ammunition! As the fire spread, the ammunition started exploding and popping in all directions, making it dangerous for the firefighters to approach and so all they could do was stand and watch it burn.

According to the newspaper, not only did the house contain all that ammunition, it also had 30 to 40 family guns inside! Thirty to forty "family" guns? Were these people planning on starting their own army?

The craziest thing about this story is that, in the gun-worshiping culture that is Texas, this is not even considered an aberration worthy of note. The headline in the paper said "Fire destroys historic family home" and you had to read the whole story to find out about the guns and ammunition. This is what passes for normal where I live.

Just makes me wonder what some of my other neighbors might be hiding behind those walls.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Milk and Wine lilies

Milk and Wine lilies are large crinums that have bright white blossoms with showy burgundy stripes. They are staple parts of a classic Southern garden.

Now, my garden isn't exactly classic, but my Milk and Wine lilies are a colorful part of my summer garden and this is the time when they are at their showiest.

Gardeners often receive Milk and Wine lilies as passalong gifts from other gardeners, but I actually got my start of them from the Southern Bulb Company, a company that specializes in saving and propagating traditional Southern bulbs, of which crinums are perhaps the most traditional. 

Crinums come in many different sizes and shapes. Their main colors are red, pink, and white. There is a favorite saying among gardeners that "No crinum has ever died," and it seems almost true of these hardy plants. They thrive as far north as zone 7, some types as far as zone 5. They can flower several times a year, most often after a heavy rain, but they are also able to survive through periods of drought, which makes them just about the perfect plant for the unpredictable summers here.

You won't often find bulbs of these plants for sale at your local nursery, but if you don't have someone who can pass one along to you to get started, I can certainly recommend the Southern Bulb Company as a source. There are other reputable mail order sources that sell them as well.

Crinums, and especially the Milk and Wine lily, are very satisfying plants to grow, because they are beautiful and easy to grow, requiring almost no care. They are a real favorite in my garden.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart: A review

The Hollow Hills (The Arthurian Saga Book 2)The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have set myself the goal of reading Mary Stewart's Arthurian Saga series this summer. This is the second book in that series.

Once again we see events through the eyes of Merlin the Enchanter, as he narrates the story for us. We begin with Merlin traveling through the Mediterranean area after having safely delivered the baby Arthur into the keeping of those who will protect and raise him over the next several years.

When Arthur is six years old, Merlin feels the call to return to England and to take up his own task of teaching and protecting the child. He finds Arthur strong and healthy and growing into the kind of human being that he had hoped to see; the kind of man who can be a brave, just, and benevolent king.

The story of Arthur is so well-known, so ingrained in our cultural consciousness, that it seems pointless to spend space here on exposition. Stewart has taken those well-known facts, both historical and legendary, and has woven them into a tale of prophecy, magic, and valor.

It's also a tale of jealousy, spite, hatred, and death. These latter characteristics are often traceable to the female characters in the story, who seldom come off as having a positive impact on events. Indeed, even the mention of one of the female characters often seems to portend shadows and disaster in the visions that Merlin has of the future.

In relating the saga of Arthur and Merlin, Stewart does manage to reveal to us the diversity of people who made up the population of Britain in the days of - what was it? - the fifth century C.E.? If Arthur ever existed, and Stewart argues that there must at least have been a prototype, then that is probably the time period in which he lived.

Of course, Arthur and his story have strong Welsh roots, but there were many other cultures that contributed to the lore. From the "Old Ones," the people of the forest, to the Picts, the Saxons, the descendants of Roman soldiers, and others, this was a very diverse group of people. Moreover, they worshiped many different gods and Merlin pays proper homage to them all. It was particularly interesting to me to see the way that the author integrated all of them into the story.

Stewart tells the story in a relatively straightforward way, without trying to manufacture suspense. After all, we know what's going to happen before it happens, so why should she bother to try to fool us?

Throughout the body of the work, the author gives ample foreshadowings of the conflicts and betrayals that are to come. Although Merlin is able to see into the future, there are things which he simply cannot change.

Stewart was a very good writer and her creation of the settings of the story and the atmosphere were particular strong points both in The Hollow Hills and, previously, in The Crystal Cave. I would expect that to continue throughout the series.

Near the end of The Hollow Hills comes the death of Uther Pendragon and the anointing of Arthur as the High King. Now, on to the glory days of the establishment of Camelot and to everything that came after.

View all my reviews

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Poetry Sunday: Country Summer

As one who has spent many summers in the country, I found the imagery of this poem especially evocative.

Country Summer


Now the rich cherry, whose sleek wood, 
And top with silver petals traced 
Like a strict box its gems encased, 
Has spilt from out that cunning lid, 
All in an innocent green round, 
Those melting rubies which it hid; 
With moss ripe-strawberry-encrusted, 
So birds get half, and minds lapse merry 
To taste that deep-red, lark’s-bite berry, 
And blackcap bloom is yellow-dusted. 

The wren that thieved it in the eaves 
A trailer of the rose could catch 
To her poor droopy sloven thatch, 
And side by side with the wren’s brood— 
O lovely time of beggar’s luck— 
Opens the quaint and hairy bud; 
And full and golden is the yield 
Of cows that never have to house, 
But all night nibble under boughs, 
Or cool their sides in the moist field. 

Into the rooms flow meadow airs, 
The warm farm baking smell’s blown round. 
Inside and out, and sky and ground 
Are much the same; the wishing star, 
Hesperus, kind and early born, 
Is risen only finger-far; 
All stars stand close in summer air, 
And tremble, and look mild as amber; 
When wicks are lighted in the chamber, 
They are like stars which settled there. 

Now straightening from the flowery hay, 
Down the still light the mowers look, 
Or turn, because their dreaming shook, 
And they waked half to other days, 
When left alone in the yellow stubble 
The rusty-coated mare would graze. 
Yet thick the lazy dreams are born, 
Another thought can come to mind, 
But like the shivering of the wind, 
Morning and evening in the corn.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

This week in birds - #212

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

Another of my favorite backyard birds, the Red-bellied Woodpecker. You can see just a tiny glimpse of his eponymous belly in this shot.


Citizen science projects have been proved to be a very effective way to collect massive amounts of data that can be collated and analyzed to discern patterns that aid scientists in drawing conclusions and planning actions. Now the National Audubon Society is instituting a new pilot project aimed at tracking how birds are changing their ranges in response to climate change. Initially, participants will be counting Mountain, Eastern, and Western Bluebirds in their wintering and breeding seasons.


In addition to all the other negative effects of the UK's Brexit vote, it could potentially be extremely detrimental to funding of scientific research in the country. 


The Center for Biological Diversity has compiled a new "Systematic Review of Bird Recovery under the Endangered Species Act." Their analysis reveals that 85% of continental United States birds protected under the ESA increased or stabilized their population size since being placed on the list. In other words, the ESA works! That is just one more reason, if you needed one, for Americans to be very careful with their votes in November. There are those who will be on the ballot who would gut or scrap the act if given the opportunity. 


Mountain lions are coexisting with humans in many suburban locations, perhaps most notably in California. Research shows that, even though there may be deer available for the taking, those suburban lions tend to feed most often on raccoons or domestic cats. (And that is another reason to keep your cat inside and safe.)


Northern Bobwhites are one of the many grassland birds whose population has been under severe stress and that has been declining for years. But the birds are being reintroduced to parts of their former range and that project has been pretty successful. One of those successful reintroductions has been in the Pinelands of New Jersey.


Did you know that this week, June 20-26, is National Pollinator Week? When most people think of pollinators, they probably think of honeybees, but the category is comprised of many diverse species. The large native bee shown here is only one. There are also butterflies, moths, bats, ants, and hummingbirds, to name only a few. Be kind to your pollinators - don't spray insecticides or other potentially harmful chemicals around your home and garden.  After all, the world would be very hungry without them.


I have a secret bird passion - I love vultures! I think they are very cool birds. Moreover, they are among the most useful (to humans) of all bird species, helping to keep the land clean and free of disease and pestilence. There are three vulture species endemic to North America: the Turkey Vulture, the Black Vulture, and the California Condor. Audubon has some tips that will teach you how to recognize all three


Black bears are becoming more widespread on the land and are more often coming in contact with humans. Recently, for example, there have been two sightings of the animals in Middlesex County, New Jersey.


Clever Cockatoos! Cognitive biologists studying the tool-related decision making in Indonesian Cockatoos discovered that the animals seemed to carefully ponder their choices, assessing details such as the differences in quality between two food rewards and how to use the available tool as a means to obtain the out-of reach food.


Researchers have discovered that the skin of amphibians might hold the secret to treating antibiotic-resistant diseases, so maybe we should be doing more to protect those critters and ensure their continued existence. And, perhaps, our own. 

When Emperor Penguins disappear from an area in Antarctica, it may not be an ominous sign. It could be simply mean that they have moved elsewhere. Researchers have established that the birds move all around the frozen continent, making one circumpolar breeding population.


Did you know that there are such things as fishing spiders? Well, SpiderBytes will be happy to tell you all about them. What a world of marvels we live in! If there is a niche, Nature will have found a way to fill it.


House Sparrows were first introduced to North America in Brooklyn, NY, in the 1850s, as part of the great importing mania that swept the eastern seaboard in that period. That act had far-reaching and disastrous consequences for many native hole-nesting birds, such as bluebirds, and resulted in the Great Sparrow War of the 1870s. The sparrows won.

"Don't blame me! I didn't ask to come here! A human brought me."


This winter's strong El Niño helped to replenish the Sierra Nevada snowpack so vital to the water supply in drought-ridden California. Even so, it wasn't enough and the best scenario is that it will likely take until 2019 to return to pre-drought levels, according to a new analysis.


Cities across the continent can do much to aid the ecosystem merely by using native plants in public landscapes and by doing everything possible to encourage their use by private landowners. These plants are the backbones of healthy, thriving habitats.  

Friday, June 24, 2016

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley: A review

Before the FallBefore the Fall by Noah Hawley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Noah Hawley. Now, why did that name seem so familiar? Google had the answer, of course. He's the writer/producer/showrunner of the wonderful FX series, Fargo, which I have thoroughly enjoyed now for two seasons. Who knew that he was also a novelist?

Well, maybe you did, but I didn't.

Before the Fall is, apparently, his fifth book and it is a winner, maybe even one of those summer reading blockbusters that happen every so often. It has a compelling plot, interesting characters, and is the essence of a page-turning thriller.

The story is this: One August night in 2015, a private plane takes off from Martha's Vineyard, carrying eleven people; the head of a major cable news network (obviously based on Fox News) and his wife, daughter and young son; his friend, a soon-to-be indicted business executive/dirty money launderer and his wife; the "body man" security guard of the TV executive's family; the pilot, co-pilot, and a flight attendant; and a last minute addition to the passenger list, a failed middle-aged painter named Scott Burroughs who may now actually be on the brink of success and fame. Only eighteen minutes into its flight, the plane, which had been serviced and checked only the day before, crashes into the Atlantic.

In the dark sea, one passenger surfaces among flames and wreckage. Scott Burroughs has survived the initial disaster, but for how long? How far is he from shore and which way is that? Can he swim for it or will he die of hypothermia? He tries to orient himself.

Then, among the debris, he hears a child crying. He tries to locate the direction of the sound and swims toward it and finds the only other survivor - the four-year-old son of the television executive and his wife.

Scott takes the boy onto his back. At some point, the clouds clear enough for him to see the stars and he is able to determine the direction of the shore and he starts to swim toward it, even though one of his shoulders is dislocated.

We learn that bodies of water have played large roles in Scott's life. His beloved sister drowned in the cold waters of Lake Michigan. He remembers that when he was a boy, one of his heroes was the bodybuilder Jack LaLanne, and that he had once watched on television as LaLanne pulled a boat through the waters from Acatraz to the California shore. After that, he was inspired to become a long distance swimmer himself, and although for many years he had not practiced those skills, recently, he has tried to get back into shape and again become a swimmer. He calls on that muscle memory as he struggles to pull himself and the child to shore.

On one level, this book is about that crash and the struggle to survive, but it quickly moves into larger issues that seem to be an inevitable part of modern catastrophes as seen through the lens of the 24/7 cable news media's way of covering such events; namely sensationalizing the situation, drawing false conclusions, and hounding the victims. Thus, Scott Burroughs, initially hailed as a hero for his actions, is soon being demonized by a Bill O'Reilly type on the cable news network of the deceased TV executive as a philanderer who was probably having an affair with the executive's wife and who may have been responsible for the plane's crash. Or maybe he was a terrorist, radicalized by ISIS. We speculate, you decide.

Things begin to spiral out of control as investigators continue to try to meticulously piece together the truth of what happened and to recover the bodies, but, of course, cable news has already created its "truth" and has no patience to wait for the facts.

The construction of this story, as we slowly get the backstories of all of the passengers and crew and the chief investigator of the crash, builds the suspense brilliantly. It certainly made me eager to turn the page to see what happened next and made it very hard for me to put the book down.

The only negative thing that I have to say about the book is that the ending was maybe a little too pat and not entirely satisfactory, although it is certainly an ending that I think most of us, probably including the author, would wish for a cable news personality whose game is making a blood sport of other people's tragedies. But that is a very minor quibble. If you are looking for a fast-paced summer read that might also make you think about our modern society, this just might be your cup of tea.

View all my reviews

Thursday, June 23, 2016

LaRose by Louise Erdrich: A review

LaRoseLaRose by Louise Erdrich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Louise Erdrich is a national treasure. That's my considered opinion. Every book of hers that I've read has shone with the light of a transparent power, a use of language that is deceptively plain but rich and transformative. Like her Native American ancestors, it seems that she has taken from the anglo culture and language that which she can use, but she has retained the best parts of her heritage that help her to make sense of those things and to keep them from overpowering the sensibilities of the unique society from which she came. She does it all again in LaRose, her latest novel.

LaRose is the third book in a sort of loose trilogy that started with The Plague of Doves, continued with The Round House and now reaches (perhaps) a conclusion with this book. Or perhaps there will be more books set in this community of the Indian reservation, a place where different characters and their ancestors recur and where the past seems a part of the present. As Faulkner said, "The past is never dead. It is not even past." It was true in Faulkner's books and it is true in Erdrich's books, as well.

The title character of this current book is a young boy, five years old when we meet him, who is descended from generations of female LaRoses. He is the fifth in a line of LaRoses in his family and, in time, we meet them all. Soon after the beginning of the story, we go back to 1839 and the first LaRose, who was sold to a white man who raped her. Ultimately, she played a part in his murder, and she achieved a happier future, finding love, romance, marriage, and family. But she also suffered for many years with tuberculosis and when she died in the care of white scientists, those scientists stole her bones and put them on display. Generations of her family fought to have those bones returned to her community.

But back to the fifth LaRose, who is five years old in 1999 when fears of Y2K - remember that? - were abroad in the land.

LaRose's father goes hunting one day and finds the buck that he wishes to kill to feed his family. He sights the animal with his rifle, but as he pulls the trigger, there is a blur between him and the deer and the deer runs away. He has hit something but it wasn't the buck. To his horror, he finds that he has shot a child. It is Dusty, the five-year-old son of his best friend and neighbor and the playmate of his son, LaRose.

LaRose's father is a home health aide, a beloved and respected member of his community, but the question which the book asks is, can a person do the worst thing possible and still be loved? This man has done the worst thing possible in killing an innocent child. Can his community forgive him or will he be ostracized?

He searches for a way to make atonement and finds a possible answer in the traditions of his people. He convinces his wife that they must give their own son to the parents of the dead child as a replacement for that child. (Erdrich notes in her postscript that such transfers did occasionally happen.)

The transfer is made and LaRose becomes a kind of ambassador between the two families, working to alleviate the suffering of both. He has the gift of healing and of seeing into the world where the spirits of the dead dwell, and the act of sharing this special child sets in motion a chain of events that will, in the end, transform the lives of all it touches.

In her last book, The Round House, we saw the workings of revenge/justice. In LaRose, Erdrich explores the other side of that coin - forgiveness. She answers the question of whether a person can still be loved after doing the worst thing possible with a resounding "Yes!"

There are so many rich and wonderful characters in this book. I cannot even attempt to mention them all here, but Erdrich's writing makes splendid use of all those multiple voices in telling this story. We get to know each of them and to respect them as individuals and as part of a larger community that values and cares for them, even the ones with messed up lives, usually ruined by drugs and/or alcohol.

Erdrich brings us her unique perspective of a culture which the larger American society has sought in its worst moments to annihilate. She shows us that that culture is still standing, still nurturing its people, and that we are all richer for it.

View all my reviews

Monday, June 20, 2016

Happy summer solstice/strawberry full moon

This date marks the unusual coinciding of two astronomical phenomena: the summer solstice and the strawberry full moon.

Although it has felt like summer for weeks now, the solstice actually arrived this afternoon at 5:34 Central Daylight Time. Temperatures here were above 90 degrees Fahrenheit at the time, but in some places in the Southwest, they were well above 100 already. It looks to be another record-breaking three months of temperatures.

For the first time since 1967, the summer solstice came on the same date as the full moon, known this month as the "strawberry moon" according to Algonquin tradition. The tribes gave names to each month's full moon and since June's came at the height of the season when strawberries were harvested, it naturally became the strawberry moon.

The moon actually attained 100% fullness this morning at 6:02 our time, almost twelve hours before the summer solstice, but if the skies are clear where you live, you can still enjoy the beautiful full orb tonight. It will be the last time that the full moon and the summer solstice coincide until 2062. I think perhaps I had better take this opportunity! 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Poetry Sunday: Father

I believe that poet Edgar Guest must have had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek when he wrote these lines!


by  Edgar Guest

My father knows the proper way 
The nation should be run; 
He tells us children every day 
Just what should now be done. 
He knows the way to fix the trusts, 
He has a simple plan; 
But if the furnace needs repairs, 
We have to hire a man. 

My father, in a day or two 
Could land big thieves in jail; 
There’s nothing that he cannot do, 
He knows no word like “fail.” 
“Our confidence” he would restore, 
Of that there is no doubt; 
But if there is a chair to mend, 
We have to send it out. 

All public questions that arise, 
He settles on the spot; 
He waits not till the tumult dies, 
But grabs it while it’s hot. 
In matters of finance he can 
Tell Congress what to do; 
But, O, he finds it hard to meet 
His bills as they fall due. 

It almost makes him sick to read 
The things law-makers say; 
Why, father’s just the man they need, 
He never goes astray. 
All wars he’d very quickly end, 
As fast as I can write it; 
But when a neighbor starts a fuss, 
’Tis mother has to fight it. 

In conversation father can 
Do many wondrous things; 
He’s built upon a wiser plan 
Than presidents or kings. 
He knows the ins and outs of each 
And every deep transaction; 
We look to him for theories, 
But look to ma for action.


And to all my readers who are fathers, especially my number one reader, Bob ...

Saturday, June 18, 2016

This week in birds - #211

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

Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus), iconic bird of dry lands in the West, but often seen in our somewhat wetter area as well. I photographed this one in Big Bend National Park in West Texas.


This year is smashing climate records right around the planet. So far seven climate records have been set in 2016 and since last October, every single month has been the hottest on record.


In what Australian researchers say is the first documented extinction of a mammal species due to human-caused climate change, rising sea levels have wiped out a rodent that lived on a tiny outcrop in the Great Barrier Reef. The long-tailed, whiskered creature, called the Bramble Cay melomys, was considered the only mammal endemic to the Great Barrier Reef.


In good news for the critically endangered California Condor, it was announced that more chicks hatched and survived in the wild than the deaths that occurred in 2015; thus, the overall population count increased. The total in the wild is now believed to be 270.


Imagery from drones and satellites has confirmed that illegal logging is occurring in one of the most important Monarch butterfly overwintering areas, the Sierra Chincua in Mexico. This presents a significant danger to the already stressed butterfly population.


In the news this morning was the story of a Colorado mother who fought off a mountain lion that had attacked her five-year-old son in their back yard near Aspen. Both mother and child escaped with non-life-threatening injuries. Authorities found the lion still in the area and a forest service officer killed it. The animal was believed to be either injured or ill. Such attacks on humans by a healthy lion are almost unheard of. 


The San Cristobal Vermilion Flycatcher of the Galapagos Islands has recently been determined, based on a search of museum samples, to be a genetically and morphologically distinct species, different from its nearest relatives. Not that any of that will matter to the bird which has not been seen since 1987 and is believed to be extinct.

Our own Vermilion Flycatcher, this one photographed at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Coast, looks very much like its presumably extinct cousin from the Galapagos.


A Garganey, a very rare visitor from Eurasia, has been exciting birders visiting the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in western New York State. This species of duck has only a few previous scattered records throughout eastern North America. 


The removal of a dam in the Wynants Kill, a Hudson River tributary, has succeeded in restoring more than a quarter mile of spawning habitat for river herring – reviving a historic spawning run for the first time in 85 years. The project is the first of its kind in the Hudson River estuary and signals the potential for other such projects.


A report released by the Energy Department on Friday states that coal production in the United States has plummeted to levels not seen since a crippling coal strike 35 years ago. In recent years, the industry has been plagued by bankruptcies as power utilities increasingly moved to replace coal with cheap natural gas and renewable sources, like solar and wind energy. Coal was once the dominant source of the nation’s electricity generation, but consumption of the fossil fuel has declined by nearly a third since its peak in 2007.


In Peru, an isolated valley carved into the landscape by the Marañon River, has served as an evolutionary proving ground for the divergence of traits and the emergence of new avian species.


The Oystercatcher is a shorebird that might normally be found nesting on a rocky beach, but in the UK, at least some of the birds have made the transition to nesting on the flat roof of a school or other such public building. This has facilitated the spread of the species to new areas.


Climate change, habitat destruction, and extinctions are not new phenomena for Earth. It has all happened before, thousands of years ago, and humans may have been partly to blame for many of those changes, too, according to a new study published Friday in Science Advances. The study shows that the arrival of humans in Patagonia, combined with a changing climate, led to the extinction of many species of megafauna about 12,000 years ago in the southern portion of what is now South America.


Carbon dioxide has been steadily rising since the start of the Industrial Revolution, setting a new high year after year. Now there’s a notable new entry to the record books. The last station on Earth without a 400 parts per million (ppm) reading has reached it. In the remote reaches of Antarctica, the South Pole Observatory carbon dioxide observing station cleared 400 ppm on May 23, according to an announcement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Wednesday.


Many of the world's vulture species are teetering on the brink of extinction. Audubon magazine has a roundup of the various methods and efforts that are being employed to try to save these essential birds.


Spiders are our friends, as I think most gardeners are aware, but, admittedly, there are some spiders whose bite can cause humans some serious problems. One of those is the brown recluse. SpiderBytes blog has information on how to identify the brown recluse. Personally, I think the most important information for anyone encountering a spider is to just leave it alone. If you don't bother it, it won't bother you. Live and let live.