Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Buttonbush

When the calendar rolled around to May this year, my daughters asked me for a wish list for Mother's Day. I took advantage of their generosity by giving them a list of some plants that I wished to add to my habitat garden. They responded by gifting me with three wonderful shrubs on that list, and that's how I came to have a buttonbush.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is native to North America and Cuba. It is a deciduous shrub that can grow from five to twelve feet high and, in perfect conditions, even taller. It can spread out as much as eight feet wide. I remembered the plant with its interesting blooms growing around the fields and creek banks of my childhood on the farm and I had long wanted to add one to my garden here.

This shrub grows quite happily in full sun to part shade and in soils that range from medium moisture to quite wet. It pouts a bit if conditions get too dry. I planted mine along the back fence, far away from faucets and from ease of watering, and we did have many weeks almost completely without  rain this summer. Moreover, I was in no condition physically to do much to help the plant. I did manage to get the sprinklers focused on it a couple of times when the situation got dire. In fact, the shrub came through its drought ordeal quite well and is now putting out lots of new growth. Since it was its first year, I wasn't expecting much in the way of blooms. Mature plants are typically covered with these white ball-shaped spiky blooms in late spring and summer. My new plant actually surprised me with a good number of the blooms, and, as you can see, it is still sending out new blooms. The one on the right is several days old while the one on the left is just beginning to open up. The blooms are quite showy and they have a subtle fragrance. They are greatly loved by bees and butterflies.   

You can probably imagine how the plant got its popular name. The bloom does look a bit like a big button and the bloom matures into a hard spherical ball-like fruit that looks even more like a button. When the blossom is fully open like this one, it reminds me of a pincushion full of pins, so if I had been naming it, I might have called it pincushion plant.

 The fruiting heads persist through the winter. I'm not sure if they attract birds, but I'll have a chance to find out this winter.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Are you reading the wrong book?

I'm fairly omnivorous in my literary diet. I like to skip around the literary buffet table, consuming a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Just now I'm consuming Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow and finding it a full meal in itself.

While it's true that I read and enjoy a lot of mystery and thriller series, they are a bit like palate cleansers that I partake of between the heavier courses of my meal. But all of these "dishes," in my opinion, have their place in a balanced diet. They all contribute to a healthy, thriving mind and imagination.

There has actually been a considerable amount of scientific research done on the effects of reading on the brain. Researchers at Stanford University, in 2012, had their subjects read works of Jane Austen and they studied how the brain reacted during and after the reading. According to the literary scholar leading the project, they found a dramatic and unexpected increase in blood flow to regions of the brain beyond those responsible for "executive function," areas which would normally be associated with paying close attention to a task.

They also studied the differences that resulted between leisurely skimming and close reading of a book and found there was some increase in blood flow during skimming but it affected limited parts of the brain, while a global increase in blood flow occurred during close reading. The conclusion drawn by the researchers was that paying close attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions.

So, is that just a way of saying that reading literary fiction makes you smarter? Well, maybe.

If not smarter, then at least there is some evidence that it makes you more empathetic. It seems that when we identify with the characters in the books that we read and put ourselves in their shoes, we are learning to empathize with the real life people that we meet and to be more tolerant of their differences. For example, a study involving the reading of the Harry Potter books was able to show that identifying with the characters in those books helped to reduce prejudice.

Another study found that readers of literary fiction receive more of the empathetic benefits and improved mind function of reading than those who read pop-fiction or non-fiction. By the term “literary fiction” the researchers refer to a level of complexity in stories and their characters, rather than those genres that use more stereotypical characters and plots - like my beloved mysteries, for example.

What conclusions can we draw from this?
  • Reading Jane Austen increases the blood flow in your brain.
  • Skimming Jane Austen increases blood flow to some areas while close reading gives the benefit of more global flow.
  • Accepting the diversity of characters in Harry Potter books can help one to be more accepting of diversity in real life.
  • Of all the types of reading you can do, probably the most beneficial to the brain is literary fiction because the characters are more complex, ambiguous, and difficult to get to know. In other words, you have to work for it and that exercises your brain "muscles."
What you choose to read, then, does matter and the right words on a page can create vivid mental imagery and instill powerful emotions and maybe even make you smarter and more empathetic. They can make you think and thinking is good.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Free Fall by Robert Crais: A review

Free Fall (Elvis Cole, #4)Free Fall by Robert Crais
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A dame walks into a PI's office and gives him forty dollars and a promise of weekly payments to find out what kind of trouble her fiance, an LA cop, is in. And maybe get him out of it.

Elvis Cole is just the kind of quirky private investigator who can't say no to a beautiful woman and so he takes the case. It turns out that the fiance is in a lot more trouble than his client or Elvis could possibly have imagined, and the result is another fast-paced tale that just dares the reader to be able to put it down.

Within the confines of a typical violence-ridden Robert Crais plot, the author manages to tackle and address a number of controversial issues in Free Fall. He gives us a look at life in South Central LA with its gangs and, in some instances, an unspoken complicity between the gangs and the police. We see police brutality at its sickening worst and the cover-ups that are all too often the police's knee-jerk reaction to such brutality. 

Dirty cops and ruthless gangs are at the center of the engaging tale that Crais weaves and he constantly surprises us with the unexpected twists and turns which his plot takes.

As Elvis begins his preliminary investigation, he realizes pretty quickly that this case may be a bit much for him to handle on his own and he calls in his big guns, aka Joe Pike, his partner and gun shop owner. From that point on, the body count rises precipitously as it tends to do whenever Pike is on the scene.

Somehow though, no matter how the dead bodies pile up, Cole and Pike always come out smelling like a veritable rose garden. Achieving this requires a lot of help from their contacts on the police force and in the DA's office, but those contacts know that these are two righteous dudes who are always on the side of the angels and so they give their help unstintingly.

Moreover, Cole and Pike seem to have this knack for running into like-minded people in their community, people who will help them achieve their high-minded aims. People such as the former marine drill sergeant, now martial arts teacher in South Central who is appalled by the violence wracking his community and itching to get into the fight to clean it up.

This is the fourth in Robert Crais' Elvis Cole series and it has been a fun read so far. This book was no exception. It worked perfectly well for light summer reading, in spite of the dark story that it tells. In the end, the angels prevail and justice - well, a very rough justice - is served.

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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Poetry Sunday: Late Summer

Summer is beginning to wind down, even here in the subtropical South. Temperatures that hovered around 100 degrees F. for interminable weeks now top out at a more moderate 85 - 90 on most days. 

The rains have returned, even before it is autumn on the calendar, and so we don't feel so parched any more. 

The days are noticeably shorter and the sun sets much farther south than it did only a month ago. 

Already, a few leaves are yellowing and sprinkling the ground. That sprinkle will soon become a flood.

It is the interregnum between the summer's rule and the coming reign of autumn. It is late summer.

Late Summer

by Jennifer Grotz

Before the moths have even appeared
to orbit around them, the street lamps come on,
a long row of them glowing uselessly

along the ring of garden that circles the city center,
where your steps count down the dulling of daylight.
At your feet, a bee crawls in small circles like a toy unwinding.

Summer specializes in time, slows it down almost to dream.
And the noisy day goes so quiet you can hear
the bedraggled man who visits each trash receptacle

mutter in disbelief: Everything in the world is being thrown away!
Summer lingers, but it’s about ending. It’s about how things
redden and ripen and burst and come down. It’s when

city workers cut down trees, demolishing
one limb at a time, spilling the crumbs
of twigs and leaves all over the tablecloth of street.

Sunglasses! the man softly exclaims
while beside him blooms a large gray rose of pigeons
huddled around a dropped piece of bread.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

This week in birds - #221

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

Dicksissels are birds of the prairie and grasslands and they don't often make an appearance in my yard, but occasionally one will drop in and, if I'm lucky, I manage to record the event with my camera. Even if the pictures aren't very good. 

This one hung around for several minutes, feeding on the ground under the backyard feeders.

Lovely little bird. It's always a treat to see one.


This week marked the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and there were special events at parks around the country to mark the event. Americans love their national parks. America's elected representatives in Congress, not so much. The congressional budgeting process leaves the park system chronically underfunded and unable to maintain the parks as they should be as jewels in the crown of the nation. A challenge for the next hundred years will be to change that and, also, to attract a more diverse group of visitors to the parks. At present, the overwhelming majority of those visitors are white.


Equally important to the nation and even more important to the wildlife is the National Wildlife Refuge system. The 10,000 Birds blogger has information about the system and its comprehensive conservation plans.  


President Obama celebrated the NPS's birthday on Wednesday by designating the Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine as a national monument. Also this week, the president expanded the Papahānaumokuākea marine national monument off the coast of Hawaii, making it now more than twice the size of Texas. The move quadrupled the size of the site, which was originally designated by George W. Bush in 2006 and was declared a World Heritage site in 2010.


One of "the cutest little animals in America," the American pika, is struggling to survive as summers get hotter and drier. The little animals are vanishing from the American West as their habitats are lost to climate change.
Photo by Arndt Sven-Erik/BBC
American pika, the charming cutie - will it survive?


When I was growing up, the Yellow-rumped Warblers in the eastern part of the country where I lived were called Myrtle Warblers. Farther west, they were known as Audubon's Warblers. Then the American Ornithological Union in its wisdom lumped them all together as Yellow-rumps. Well, now on further review and study, that lumping is being reversed. It seems there is sufficient difference in the DNA of the two populations to classify them as two separate species. Meanwhile, another study has shown that the Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warblers are 99.97 percent alike genetically and their differences seem to be due to dominant and recessive pairings of gene variants.


The Italian wall lizard was introduced to the streets of New York some 40 - 50 years ago, probably as escapees from pet stores. The lizard has thrived and now that it has made it there, it will test the theory that it can make it anywhere. It's moving out of the city and has recently been seen in Greenwich, Connecticut. 
Photo by Colin Donahue
Italian wall lizard photographed in Connecticut.


Stokes Birding Blog reports that the fall migration of the Common Nighthawk has begun and tells how and when to look for them in your area.


Bats, as we know, have a lot of challenges to their continued survival, but they also have some devoted friends who are working to ensure it. One of them is Joseph D'Angeli, the "Batman without a Cape" of New Jersey. 


The most persistent threat to the continued existence of the Northern Spotted Owl is now the encroachment of the more aggressive Barred Owl into its breeding territories. The effort to save the Spotted Owl now focuses on controlling the Barred Owl


The endangered mountain yellow-legged frog of California is threatened by that state's drought and wildfires.


Audubon reports that the survival of the endangered Saltmarsh Sparrow is in doubt because of the rising ocean waters and shrinking habitat that result from climate change.


There is a widely held assumption that biofuels are inherently carbon-neutral, but a new study challenges that hypothesis. It showed that biofuels, in fact, increase heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions.


There was exciting news from the world of astronomy this week when scientists announced that they had detected a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest neighbor to our solar system. It appears that the planet exists in that sweet spot known as the "Goldilocks zone" where things are not too hot and not too cold but just right for the possible existence of life forms.


A new study just published in the open access journal PLOS ONE indicates that Golden Eagles are likely more abundant in undeveloped areas with elevated landscapes.


Researchers from Stockholm University report that a Bosnian pine (Pinus heldreichii) growing in the highlands of northern Greece has been determined to be the oldest known living tree in Europe. The tree was dendrochronologically dated to be more than 1,075 years old.

Photo by Dr. Oliver Konter
They named it Adonis.

Friday, August 26, 2016

A Hero of France by Alan Furst: A review

A Hero of FranceA Hero of France by Alan Furst
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alan Furst's heroes are ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times and circumstances. The Polish Officer, possibly my favorite of his, comes to mind. Or it could be The Foreign Correspondent. Or any one of a dozen or so other ordinary people whom he has made the center of his engrossing tales of the Resistance movement in Europe, and especially in France, during World War II.

This time he takes us to France, to Occupied Paris in the spring of 1941. The ordinary person at the center of his story goes by the nom de guerre Mathieu, and he is the leader of a Resistance cell that has as its objective the aiding of British airmen who are shot down or forced to land in France after bombing runs over Germany. They must first find these men, then hide and care for them, getting them medical care when needed, and finally get them out of the country, often through Spain, and back to England where they can continue to aid the war effort.

Mathieu has a small but remarkable cadre to assist him in this enterprise, none more remarkable than a woman of exceptional courage called Chantal. All the members of this group - a butcher, the proprietress of an occult shop, a professor of anthropology, a Jewish nightclub owner who caters to German officers, a Macedonian smuggler, a teenage courier, ordinary people all - are motivated by their love of country and for the ideals which it embodies: fraternity, equality, liberty.

During this time, the Germans, of course, are hard at work trying to stamp out the Resistance and they do find some French who will cooperate with them and give them information. They are particularly eager to destroy Mathieu's hardy band because it has been very successful in getting the airmen out of the country. To that end, a German police inspector named Otto Broehm is reassigned from Hamburg to Paris and he becomes Mathieu's main adversary. Broehm has little love for the Nazis but he is a good policeman and he knows how to apply leverage on people to get them to give him information.

Furst does a marvelous job throughout of rendering the somber and high-risk atmosphere of the period. He does it simply by describing the scenes - the blackout curtains, the silence of streets where there are no vehicles, a woman who uses vanilla extract as perfume because nothing else is available (in Paris!), the scarcity of everything, the furtiveness that had become a way of life. He does this is in a straightforward, "just the facts" reportage manner. No fancy flourishes here; just simple language to tell the story of simple, decent people.

It is quite a feat of realistic narrative as Furst details the skills needed to carry out the work of the Resistance; skills in finding safe hiding places, forging identity documents and travel papers, procuring clothing and disguises, finding couriers for messaging and means of transportation, as well as escorts for guiding the airmen to safety. And, of course, somehow finding lots of money to pay for all those things and for bribing nosy officials.

As the months go by, Mathieu and his team were called upon not only to get downed airmen out of France but to help get sabotage agents into the country. The stakes and the tension get higher, but Furst never falters in telling the story of these ordinary people and their extraordinary courage. 

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Throwback Thursday: A Feast for Crows

Continuing to reprise my reviews of the George R.R. Martin series A Song of Ice and Fire for "Throwback Thursday," we've now come to my least favorite book of the series.

Number four, A Feast for Crows, just didn't have the oomph of the first three books. Although much of the action was drenched in blood, the author didn't seem to have his heart in the telling of it. It was merely a pallid shadow of what we had come to expect. At least that was my opinion.


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire #4) by George R.R. Martin: A review

"A Lannister always pays his debts" is a refrain that we saw often repeated throughout the first three books of this series. But once Tyrion Lannister paid his debt owed to his father Lord Tywin near the end of A Storm of Swords, he disappeared and he did not reappear at all in volume four. That is unfortunate since he is easily the most interesting character created by George R.R. Martin in this epic saga, but that's only part of the problem with A Feast for Crows.

Also among the missing here are Jon Snow (except for a short bit at the beginning), Daenarys Targaryen, and most of the far-flung remaining Starks. Arya and Sansa do appear but they feel tangential.

In fact, most of the characters in this book, many of them new ones that we hadn't heard from before, seem tentative and incomplete. They are not people who engage our attention and sympathies.

And the blood! My god, the blood and gore! The incessant and incredible cruelties perpetrated on these characters is both mind-blowing and revolting. I cannot count the number of characters who have their ears sliced off in battle. (Martin really seems to have an obsession with his characters losing their ears and noses.) The grossest of wounds are described in great and loving detail and yet the writing just seems stilted and without the passion that pervaded the earlier books. I think that lack, again, can be traced back to the colorful characters that are missing here.

Most of this story involves Cersei and her evolution into the mad bitch queen that one could see coming a couple of volumes back. She is one more testament to the proposition that absolute power corrupts absolutely. 

A more interesting evolution has been that of her twin, Jaime. Having been maimed and humbled in the last book seems to have given him a clearer perspective on the world and a more sympathetic view of others. Dare I say that he has transformed from villain into hero? He shows definite heroic tendencies here especially in his dealing with Brienne, the Maid of Tarth.

Brienne, though, is a problematic character for me. She is a female knight who swore to Lady Catelyn Stark that she would find her daughters and return them to her. After reaching King's Landing with Jaime, she also gave him her oath that she would find Sansa Stark and keep her safe. And yet, as she wanders across the face of Westeros seeking Sansa and getting nowhere, she seems to have very little idea or plan for doing what she has pledged to do. In fact, she seems just a bit slow and dense, not a happy or safe combination in the dangerous world of the Seven Kingdoms. One just knows she is never going to find Sansa, because we KNOW where Sansa is and Brienne isn't headed there. One senses that Brienne may be a forever wanderer and that things will not end well for her.

There is an author's note at the end of this book explaining that the characters with whom we had bonded in the first three books will return in the fifth volume, A Dance With Dragons. Let us hope that Martin's robust muse returns as well and that he gives us better writing in the next entry. 

Ah, well, when you are writing an epic story of thousands and thousands of pages, I guess you should be allowed a few mediocre ones.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Bird berries

White beautyberries.

Purple beautyberries. (Those blue blossoms peeking through are blue plumbago which lives next to the beautyberry.)

Golden dewdrops (Duranta erecta).

All of these berries provide sustenance for the birds through fall and into winter, if they last that long. They are especially loved by American Robins and Northern Mockingbirds. They are wonderful plants on their own, even if the birds didn't like them, but the fact that they help to feed the feathered visitors to my garden makes them even more valuable.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

We're number one!

The Guardian's headline was appalling, but not really surprising to anyone who has been alive and paying attention in Texas for the past few years:
Texas has highest maternal mortality rate in developed world, study finds
The story that followed gave the shocking facts.

A report in the September issue of the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology gives details of a study by researchers from the University of Maryland, Boston University's school of public health, and Stanford university's medical school. The study found that the rate of Texas women who died from complications related to pregnancy doubled from 2010 to 2014 to 35.8 deaths per 100,000 births in 2014. This represents a maternal mortality rate higher than any other state and higher than any other country in the developed world. 

Yes, we're number one - in women's deaths from the complications of pregnancy.

The report stated that the doubling of mortality rates in the study period was hard to explain "in the absence of war, natural disaster, or severe economic upheaval." But, in fact, there is a war raging in Texas. It is the war against women's health options being waged by the right-wingers who control state government here.

This government has drastically reduced the number of Texas' reproductive health care clinics. At the time that the rise in deaths began, in 2011, for example, the state legislature cut $73.6 million from the state's family planning budget of $111.5. That cut forced more than 80 family planning clinics to shut down across the state. The clinics that survived this cut managed to provide services to only half as many women as before.

Then, of course, there is the state government's well-documented attempts to utterly destroy all Planned Parenthood clinics in the state. They eliminated Planned Parenthood from Medicaid funding that provides poor women with preventive health care. In one fell swoop, they wiped out the main - and, in some cases, only - source available to those women for cancer screenings and contraception. 

Texas is a big state and it is a long way to anywhere here. Closing all those clinics meant that 130,000 women could no longer access the care they needed, or else that they would have to travel long distances to access it - very difficult to do when you are poor to begin with and trying to hold down a job and perhaps care for two or three children. 

And the wrongheaded and downright cruel decisions of our state officials continue. This month Texas' health department allocated a precious $1.6 million of the $18 million that the state budgets for low-income women's family planning to an anti-abortion group that does not even provide basic health services! One shudders to imagine what the maternal death rate here might be like in another couple of years.

A follow-up op-ed that appeared in The Guardian after that initial story had this headline:
Politics is killing mothers in Texas   
For a political party and a state government that brags about its "family values" and its concern for "the health of the mother," this headline and the commentary that follows it testify to the stunning hypocrisy embodied in those Texas boasts.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Purity by Jonathan Franzen: A review

PurityPurity by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Purity is the legal name of the central character of this book and moral purity as a concept seems to be the philosophical idea which the author wants to explore through his characters and their stories. He does it at great length in this interesting but rather ponderous novel.

(Full disclosure: I originally rated the book at a four-star read, but after sleeping on it overnight, I dialed it back to three stars. I think a bit of editing, trimming down some of those long passages that seem to go on forever repetitiously and to no great effect at advancing the plot, would have definitely made it a four-star.)

Purity Tyler, by the time we meet her as a young college graduate, has adopted her school nickname, Pip, as the name that she goes by. This Pip does not have any great expectations. She's in a dead-end job, burdened by crushing college debt and a lack of direction.

She is also burdened by a lack of knowledge about her family history. She was raised in a tiny cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains by a mother who borders on the insane and who will not tell Pip who her father is or even her (the mother's) real name. At some point, she had taken on a false identity for reasons that Pip cannot even fathom and she is completely paranoid about being discovered. But why? We have to read a few hundred pages before we get to the bottom of that particular mystery.

In addition to Pip and her mother, there are at least three other main characters in the story.

There is Andreas Wolf, originally from East Germany before the Berlin Wall fell. He is now in Bolivia running something called the Sunlight Project, a Wikileaks-type operation. In fact, Andreas is very envious of and competitive with Julius Assange and with Edward Snowden over the attention that their leaks and whistleblowing garner. He is a self-obsessed and manipulative character, who is apparently irresistible to women. Once he has had an affair with a woman, she stays loyal to him forever!

We also meet Tom Aberant, who runs an online investigative journalism magazine from Denver. He is the opposite of Wolf, a serious journalist who is quiet and unassuming but fiercely dedicated to his craft. 

Tom has an associate who is also his lover, Leila Helou. Leila is married to a famous author who is a paraplegic and she divides her time between the house where her husband lives and the home of her lover.

What do all of these characters have in common? Where do their stories intersect? There is a long-ago murder involved, but Pip is the key, and we have to do a considerable amount of reading to make all the connections.

This is a novel about secrets and lies and the damage they can do, particularly to relationships between parents and offspring. It's about manipulative, self-absorbed people who are so frightened of revealing themselves that they can never have truly intimate relationships with other human beings. So, even though there are moments of humor, Purity reveals an essentially melancholy view of life.

Franzen uses the narrative method here that is familiar from his previous books, The Corrections and Freedom; namely, he gives over large swaths of the story to each character, so that we hear Pip's, Tom's, Andreas', Leila's, and even Pip's mother's tale from each of their own perspectives. This includes, as it did in Freedom, the private autobiography of one of the characters. As a method of storytelling, it reminds me most vividly of the leisurely pace of the 19th century novel. That's not necessarily a bad thing - there's a reason why Anthony Trollope is still read and enjoyed - but it does tend to result in fat books that could have an alternative life as a doorstop.

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Poetry Sunday: The Afterlife

I've mentioned here before my admiration for the poetry of Billy Collins, one of our former poet laureates. He has been called "the best loved poet in America" and that may be right.

His poetry is deceptively simple and is always infused with his wry sense of humor and quirky way of seeing. I feature his poems here fairly often. And now, here's another one.

The Afterlife


by Billy Collins
While you are preparing for sleep, brushing your teeth,
or riffling through a magazine in bed,
the dead of the day are setting out on their journey.

They're moving off in all imaginable directions,
each according to his own private belief,
and this is the secret that silent Lazarus would not reveal:
that everyone is right, as it turns out.
you go to the place you always thought you would go,
The place you kept lit in an alcove in your head.

Some are being shot into a funnel of flashing colors
into a zone of light, white as a January sun.
Others are standing naked before a forbidding judge who sits
with a golden ladder on one side, a coal chute on the other.

Some have already joined the celestial choir
and are singing as if they have been doing this forever,
while the less inventive find themselves stuck
in a big air conditioned room full of food and chorus girls.

Some are approaching the apartment of the female God,
a woman in her forties with short wiry hair
and glasses hanging from her neck by a string.
With one eye she regards the dead through a hole in her door.

There are those who are squeezing into the bodies
of animals--eagles and leopards--and one trying on
the skin of a monkey like a tight suit,
ready to begin another life in a more simple key,

while others float off into some benign vagueness,
little units of energy heading for the ultimate elsewhere.

There are even a few classicists being led to an underworld
by a mythological creature with a beard and hooves.
He will bring them to the mouth of the furious cave
guarded over by Edith Hamilton and her three-headed dog.

The rest just lie on their backs in their coffins
wishing they could return so they could learn Italian
or see the pyramids, or play some golf in a light rain.
They wish they could wake in the morning like you
and stand at a window examining the winter trees,
every branch traced with the ghost writing of snow.

(And some just smile, forever on)

Personally, I like the image of the "female God, a woman in her forties with short wiry hair and glasses hanging from her neck by a string." Now there's a God I could relate to!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

This week in birds - #220

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

This is the time of year when we expect to start seeing migrating Rufous Hummingbirds, like this juvenile from last year. So far I haven't seen any this season, although we have several Ruby-throated Hummers in the yard just now. I have cleaned, filled, and rehung all my nectar feeders just in case, and there are plenty of Hamelia blossoms for them to feed on, as well.  


The major environmental story of the week has been the massive flooding that has hit Louisiana due to torrential rains. Although climate scientists always caution us that we shouldn't attribute any one weather event to the effects of climate change, it's hard to deny that the warming climate is having a rather disastrous effect on weather such as this flood and the earlier one in West Virginia, as well as events related to weather like the wildfires in California.  Meanwhile, none of these stories get the attention they deserve from the national press because they are in all Donald Trump, all the time mode. Even the Olympics struggle for attention.


As you may have heard, in this 100th anniversary year of our national park system, there is a move afoot in Congress to give it all away. "Privatize everything!" is the rallying cry of a certain segment of our elected representatives. One of the wildlife refuges that they are trying to give away is in Puerto Rico. The authorization to do that was snuck into a supposed aid package for the island. Jamie Williams explains why that is such a bad idea.


Surprisingly little is known about the world's bat species. We do know that bats in the eastern part of North America have been facing devastation from a fungal disease in recent years, but, in fact, bats all around the planet are facing extinction from a variety of causes.


Research continues to expose the calamitous effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on the environment. The deadly pesticides have now been linked to the decline in population of native bees.


Darwin postulated that people, moles, horses, porpoises and bats all shared a common ancestor that grew limbs with digits. Its descendants evolved different kinds of limbs adapted for different tasks. But they never lost the anatomical similarities that revealed their kinship. On Wednesday, a team of researchers at the University of Chicago reported on research that shows that our hands share a deep evolutionary connection not only to bat wings or horse hooves, but also to fish fins.


Speaking of fish, here's a rather weird fish story: A piranha with human-like teeth is showing up in the Great Lakes, likely dumped there by aquarium owners who tired of them. The fish are sparking new concerns about the effects of invasive species on the lakes. 


A new study from the University of Colorado Boulder found that female Barn Swallows from North America and from the Mediterranean, although essentially the same species, are turned on by different traits in their males. They all seem to like the brick red breasts but have differing reactions to the length of their mates' tails. 


We know that plastic trash in the ocean is a major problem, that it is lethal to many of the animals that live there. Here's news about a project that may help to clean it up. 


Climate change is an overarching threat facing our national parks and the National Park Service is making contingency plans to be able to deal with it.


So, there is this bipedal bear in New Jersey. Yes, it is a black bear that walks on two legs and it has been observed by residents around Oak Ridge, New Jersey for the past two years. The bear's two front legs have apparently been maimed in some unknown fashion, and he has developed the upright posture as an adaptation. He has sparked a fierce debate about whether he should be captured and taken to an animal sanctuary to live out his life or whether he should be left alone since he seems to be thriving.


Everything we've read about coral reefs recently has been bad news. Well, here's some good news: A giant coral reef in a remote island lagoon halfway between Fiji and Hawaii that was declared dead in 2003 is now alive and thriving once again. Researchers are now on a quest to find out why this reef came back to life in the hopes that the knowledge might help them aid other suffering coral reefs.


Ecologists fear any plan to build a wall between Mexico and the United States as such a structure would be devastating to the ecosystem that we share with our neighbor. It would be particularly destructive to the large mammal population, including some endangered species.  


Rising temperatures in the ocean are leading to increases in a bacteria called Vibrio, which can cause fatal illness in people who eat shellfish from those waters or who swim in them.


Citizen science projects in all fields of scientific research are very popular. Enthusiastic amateurs in the field get to make observations and report them to the professional scientists as a way to contribute to the expansion of knowledge. They have a long history in this country, going all the way back at least to Thomas Jefferson. Citizen participation improves science; the more data the better.

Friday, August 19, 2016

World Photo Day

My blogging friend, Alana of Rambling with AM, clued me in to the fact that today is World Photo Day. It's a project that encourages photography enthusiasts around the world to upload their photos to the site, showing the images of their world. What a wonderful idea!

This is an event that began in 2010 and, since then, thousands of photographers from around the world have uploaded thousands of images that show perspectives of their world. Anyone who wants to participate has to first create an account and then will be able to upload their photographs.

Anyway, considering that it is World Photo Day started me thinking about my photographs and possibly sharing some of them with you. I usually show you pictures of my garden or of birds that I've seen, but here are just a few from one of my favorite trips that we took a couple of years ago to Big Bend National Park in West Texas.

The park features a stark and rugged but beautiful landscape with mountains, desert, and views into Mexico across the Rio Grande River. I took hundreds of photos. Here are just five.

A vista featuring desert and mountains with some of the desert-loving plants in the foreground. 

This "window" in the mountains shows the view into Mexico on the other side.

This formation is called "donkey ears."

Santa Elena canyon with the Rio Grande flowing through it.

Then, of course, there is this handsome hunk, not a native to this landscape, but doesn't he look right at home?

We had a wonderful trip to Big Bend and West Texas. The only bad thing about it was that it was too short.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Throwback Thursday: A Storm of Swords

For "Throwback Thursday," I'm continuing with the rerunning of my reviews of the books in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, which I read beginning in December of 2011. This is number three in the series, A Storm of Swords.


Monday, December 26, 2011

A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire #3) by George R.R. Martin: A review

This series just gets darker and darker. George R.R. Martin continues to show no compunction about killing off his characters. Of course, he's got about a million of them so there are plenty to spare!

The clash of the kings continues in this volume. The five contenders for power in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros wage their wars across the face of the land and no one is safe or secure.

Robb Stark still rules in the North and has not yet lost a battle.

The execrable Joffrey Lannister still sits on the Iron Throne most recently occupied by his putative father, Robert Baratheon.

Robert Baratheon's brother, Stannis, has been defeated and disgraced but still hangs on to his army and still plays the game of thrones. Meanwhile, Stannis' and Robert's other brother, Renly, is dead, possibly the victim of witchcraft.

And, across the sea, Daenerys of the House Targaryen, mistress of the only three dragons in the world, makes her way slowly westward, vowing to reclaim the Iron Throne that she considers rightfully hers.
In the north, beyond the Wall, Jon Snow is learning that keeping the chastity vow of the Night Watch is not always an easy thing.

The remaining members of the Stark family still are scattered and, in some cases, unaware of the fate of each other. Arya is in the wild, on the run, sometimes a captive but always moving onward to...where? 

Sansa remains a hostage of the Lannisters in King's Landing and she will become even more tightly tied by marriage to that family. 

The Lannisters also are seeing changes in their fortunes. Tyrion serves as Hand of the King at the behest of his father, while Jaime is himself a hostage of war in Riverrun. Both Tyrion and Jaime show some unexpected depth and complexity of character in this entry and one wonders where that is leading.

The action and the momentum switch back and forth among these powerful families and who can say where it all will end?

Martin is a master of keeping the action moving and the suspense high and providing that shock that the reader least expects. This book was over 1100 pages long and yet it seemed all too brief to me. Which is why I will now be moving right along to A Feast for Crows, the next entry in this epic series.