Saturday, September 30, 2017

This week in birds - #274

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

Whooping Cranes will soon be leaving, or already have left, their summer home in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada to make the cross-continent flight to their winter home on the Texas Coast. They will find a changed landscape when they get here. Hurricane Harvey made its landfall dead center on their habitat. But there may be a bright spot to that story. The fresh water that Harvey dumped into the bays and wetlands that the cranes frequent may have the effect of renewing them and increasing the population of blue crabs, the birds' preferred food. Safe travels, big birds. Hunters, put those guns away! 


The governor of Puerto Rico has warned that, without sufficient aid to rebuild, many Puerto Ricans, perhaps up to a million, may leave for the mainland. This would strain job markets, housing, and government services in the cities to which they move. This may be only a preview of climate-fueled migration to America, the kind of thing which many parts of the world have been dealing with for years.


Meanwhile, the National Resources Defense Council is giving the very sensible warning that governments at all levels, from local to national, need to take into account sea-level rise and the increase in extreme storm events when they do their disaster planning. Unfortunately, when you have governments that deny that the sea is rising and that hurricanes are getting fiercer, it will be difficult to get that sensible planning done. 


We focus on the damage done to humans by the superstorms, but wildlife also is suffering. In the wake of the series of storms that flattened the Caribbean islands, the surviving wildlife there is exhausted, disoriented and vulnerable. The status of several endangered species there is still not known. Conservationists were excited this week to find eight of the endangered Barbuda Warblers alive during a one-day survey of their habitat.

Barbuda Warbler photo by Andrea Otto.

It is not yet known how the Puerto Rican Parrots in the wild fared. (I told you about those that survived in a safe room in an aviary last week.) The El Yunque National Forest where they lived was virtually destroyed


One thing that could help Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands in the future would be the use of more renewable energy to produce electricity. In its present state, it is estimated that it will be months before the electrical system will be back on-line there. 


More than 38 percent of the neotropical parrots in the Americas are threatened by human activities. Degradation and loss of habitat and capturing the birds for the pet trade are the main culprits that are putting the birds on the road to extinction.


The Black Rail is a shy bird that frequents marshes and it is threatened by the destruction of those marshes due to a rising sea. Saltmarsh Sparrows are threatened by nest predation and also by the rising sea that destroys their marsh and forces them to move further inland.


As the administration in Washington continues its wrecking ball approach to all environmental protections, California goes its own way with environmental and climate actions. Moreover, several states follow its lead, all of which provides some small hope for our future.


What is the difference between a grasshopper and a locust? "Bug Eric" gives us the scoop


The clever European Tiger Moth has developed two separate chemical defenses to repel different kinds of predators. Whether you are a bird or an ant or a human, if you take a bite out of one of those moths you will get a very nasty surprise.


The calls of Gentoo Penguins differ from one geographical location to another. The "words" are the same but the inflection is different - somewhat like the difference between a Boston accent and a southern accent.


Our current national government wants to drastically ramp up offshore drilling for gas and oil. In pursuit of that aim, they want seismic surveys along the mid-Atlantic coast, regardless of any harm that could be done to marine animals in the area. Ironically, the companies profiting from performing these seismic surveys for this "America First" administration will be foreign!


A recent expansion of the water treaty between the U.S. and Mexico will provide years of certainty for both animals and humans on both sides of the border who depend on the Colorado River for their water.


Darwin's Frog photo by University of Zurich.

It now appears very likely that Darwin's Frogs will be wiped out by an emerging infectious disease caused by a fungus. Fungal diseases are currently among the the greatest threats to the continued survival of all amphibian species.


Play is a learning tool for both human and animal babies, and a new study reveals that playfulness by New Caledonian Crows and Kea Parrots is the way that they learn to use tools for getting food. Maybe we all need a bit more play in our lives. 

Friday, September 29, 2017

Is banning books still a thing?

Every year the American Library Associate designates the last week in September as Banned Books Week. It is a week to celebrate the freedom to read and to acknowledge that there are still people who would abridge that freedom. As explained on the ALA website, "Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community — librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers — in shared support of the freedom to seek and express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular."

Not infrequently, today's "unorthodox or unpopular" ideas become tomorrow's norm and I suppose that is what the would-be book banners are so afraid of, but, the truth is, it is impossible to stamp out ideas, especially in a relatively free society such as ours and in this day of unfettered access to social media. Trying to ban ideas is like playing whack-a-mole; you stamp it out here and it pops up in a dozen other places.

These days, most of the books that the ALA reports as being challenged are books for children and young adults, as you can see if you visit the site that lists the ten most challenged books for 2016. If you look at the reasons that these books were challenged, you'll find that three of the challenges were because of LGBT characters or content; two were due to having transgender children as characters; three were due to what the complainers saw as the sexually explicit nature of the content; one was due to criminal sexual allegations against the author (Bill Cosby); and one was due to language that the complainers found offensive.

I'm sensing a theme here. There were, for example, zero challenges (at least in the top ten) of books for violent themes. I guess there were no violence-themed books published in the country last year or at least parents aren't worried about their children being exposed to violence. Nope, it's all sex, sex, sex!

Of course, historically, books could actually be banned and their sale forbidden. Thankfully, that doesn't really happen today, but a list of the ten most commonly banned or challenged books for the past is eye-opening indeed:

  1. 1984 by George Orwell - Reasons: pro-communism ideas, sexuality.
  2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain - Reason: racism.
  3. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger - Reasons: offensive language, unsuited for certain age groups.
  4. The Color Purple by Alice Walker - Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for certain age groups.
  5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald - Reasons: reference to drugs, sexuality, and profanity.
  6. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou - Reason: sexually explicit.
  7. Lord of the Flies by William Golding - Reasons: profanity, sexuality, racial slurs, and excessive violence.
  8. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck - Reasons: offensive language, racism, violence.
  9. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey - Reasons: profanity, unsavory theme, sexuality, and racism.
  10. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee - Reasons: offensive language, racism.  
I am proud to say that I have read eight of these "unsuitable books"; somehow I missed The Catcher in the Rye and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but I'll get to them one of these days. I don't think I've been damaged by reading any of them, although I will admit that some unsettling scenes from Lord of the Flies are burned into my consciousness forever. 

What is most puzzling to me about the reasons for complaints about these books, many of which are considered classics, is the charges of racism against The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird. Surely, shining a light on racism is not the same thing as advocating racism.

But the same could be said of any of the reasons that people give for wanting to ban books. Disseminating and discussing ideas is not the same thing as advocating them.

"Words Have Power" as my blogger friend, Alana, pointed out in her eloquent post earlier this week and those with closed minds fear that power.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders: A review

This is a book about the conflict between science and Nature/magic. It is also a book about the ethics of intervening to affect human affairs, either individually or the race writ large, even when the affecting agent means well or thinks he/she/it does.

Charlie Jane Anders tells the story as seen through the eyes of two characters, Patricia Delfine and Laurence (never Larry!) Armstead. They are both misfit kids who meet at school and become close as the two outcasts in their juvenile society.

Patricia is a dreamy child who loves Nature and loves going into the woods. Laurence is a science nerd who would probably never go outdoors if he could avoid it. Their friendship is challenged by demands from their respective families and from academia, but it faces even greater challenges because of their natural instincts and abilities. Patricia is a witch who can practice magic and talk to the birds. Laurence is a wizard of a different kind - a tech wunderkind who invents a time machine that can jump him two seconds into the future.

As I began reading this book, I worried that I had gotten myself into something extremely unpleasant. These children have terrible childhoods. Their parents are clueless and their peers are all sadistic bullies. Their teachers and school administrators are simply concerned with keeping everyone in line. Why would I put myself through reading 300-400 pages of this?

Fortunately, Anders performs her own time travel magic and transports the reader forward, first by seven years and then ten, to a time when Patricia and Laurence are young adults who have survived their tormentors.

The time is the near-future and the two young people are reunited after years of estrangement and rekindle their friendship as their world faces catastrophe. Cataclysmic storms and earthquakes threaten to tear the planet apart. Apocalypse looms and Patricia and Laurence search for ways to use their respective powers to help the situation and avert disaster. But their efforts bring them into conflict and threaten to create disaster on another scale.

With considerable sensitivity and complexity, Anders explores the ethical conundrums and philosophical issues faced by the proponents of science and of magic as they must decide how or if they should act. In fact, they are the same conundrums and issues that we face today. 

This brings me to perhaps my favorite quote from the book which comes from Ernesto, a member of the witches' faction:
We would not "break" nature if we spent a million years trying. This planet is a speck, and we are specks on a speck. But our little habitat is fragile, and we cannot live without it. 
In other words, we won't destroy the planet but we may destroy our habitat and make the planet unlivable for our species. 

And that reminds me to my favorite George Carlin quote:
The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles … hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages … And we think some plastic bags and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet isn’t going anywhere. WE are!
...The planet’ll be here and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas.
Charlie Jane Anders has written a wise sci fi fantasy for our times. The message that I take from it is that we had better find a way for science and Nature to work together if we don't want our planet to shake us off like a bad case of fleas. 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Wednesday, September 27, 2017


My social media accounts have been filling up over the last few days with angry screeds from "friends" who have been encouraged by our president to rage against the idea of athletes exercising their First Amendment rights to peacefully protest injustice. Typically, on Facebook, they post a picture of themselves surrounded by flag images stating "I stand!"

I fully respect their right to express their opinions, but I confess that I have a few questions about their sincerity. 

You see, many of these same people have in recent months been filling up my social media news feeds with images of Confederate flags and Confederate generals, angrily denouncing anyone who would argue that the public display and aggrandizement of these artifacts is inappropriate. And, of course, there have been the impassioned reimaginings of the Civil War as a defense of "states' rights" not slavery and of Robert E. Lee as a "good" slave owner whose slaves actually loved him. And now these same people are preaching to us about how we should "respect the flag"!

All I can say is, if you believe that any of this outrage is on behalf of the flag, you haven't been paying attention. 

I grew up in Mississippi. Racial prejudice was in the very air that I breathed when I was growing up. It wasn't something that was ever discussed or debated. It was simply the accepted norm. In my teenage years, as I looked at the world around me and began thinking for myself, I could see the effects of that prejudice and how it created what Professor James Silver of the University of Mississippi wrote of as "the closed society". (Mississippi: The Closed Society by James W. Silver) Dissent was discouraged and stifled; the state's citizens - at least its white citizens - engaged in groupthink.

I see that same kind of groupthink on a much larger scale among a segment of American society today. They follow their leaders blindly without questioning or thinking for themselves. They attack anyone who thinks differently. And once again, I believe, the bedrock of today's groupthink is that same racial prejudice and xenophobia that I witnessed as a child.

Bottom line: Their anger isn't about disrespect to the flag. After all, kneeling in front of the flag is hardly disrespectful. No, their anger is about black athletes having the temerity to protest the injustices that black men and boys and sometimes women (Yes, I remember you, Sandra Bland!) suffer at the hands of police every day. Hardly a month goes by that we don't hear of another unarmed African-American citizen being killed in a questionable traffic stop or other police action.

So, forgive me, Facebook friends, if I question the sincerity of your R-E-S-P-E-C-T for the F-L-A-G. I see it instead as your D-I-S-R-E-S-P-E-C-T for people who you see as the "other" and, perhaps even more significantly, your disrespect for the Constitution.

I respect the flag. My bad knees would hardly allow me to kneel in front of it, so I guess I'll continue to stand. But more importantly, I stand for the Constitution.   

Monday, September 25, 2017

A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré: A review

As a fan of John le Carré's George Smiley books of many years ago, I was intrigued to read in reviews of his latest book that he was getting the old gang together one last time. How could I possibly resist? Answer: I couldn't, so I immediately let this book jump the queue on my TBR list.

The book is relatively short, at around 300 pages, and is a quick read for that reason and simply because le Carré's prose flows so smoothly. Potential readers should be aware though that, in order to enjoy this book, one really does need familiarity with those earlier Smiley books, because the action in this one harkens back to those days when the Cold War was at its coldest and a physical wall was being built through Berlin to shut off contact with the West.

The time is the present and the British Secret Service, otherwise known as the Circus, is in an uproar over the possibility of being sued by three children of people who died because of their work with the Circus. In order to defend - or insulate - themselves from such a lawsuit, they are reviewing the old files of cases that the dead were involved in, particularly one of Smiley's projects, Operation Windfall.

Meanwhile, in Brittany, Smiley's colleague and disciple, Peter Guillam, is living out his years of retirement on the family farmstead, along with a younger woman friend and her child. Into this bucolic scene drops a letter from the Circus summoning him to London for the purpose of reviewing files and telling the lawyers what he knows about what happened, lo those many years ago.

Peter finds that the present generation of spies in London has no memory of the Cold War and no appreciation of the choices that had to be made in those fraught days. He is pretty much the charming cad that he always was and a master of obfuscation, but in the end he finds its expedient to more or less cooperate with their investigation.

Much of the action of the book is told in flashbacks and in reviews of Agency notes and memos from the relevant period. We get to read the notes and memos as Peter does and they are fleshed out by his memories of events and people. I felt very nostalgic being once again in the company of Smiley, Alec Leamas, Toby Esterhase, Percy Alleline, Jim Prideaux, Peter Guillam, and, yes, Bill Haydon.

The characters are the strongest part of the story; the plot doesn't quite live up to their strength. Nevertheless, it is such an unadulterated pleasure to once again sit at the feet of the master. No one can match le Carré in the writing of the spy novel. I guess you can count me as an addict. I would rush to read anything that he writes in this genre. 

Even if this was not among his best efforts, it was still a thrill for me. Even le Carré's mediocre stuff is better than most writers' A game.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Poetry Sunday: Sonnet 29 by William Shakespeare

Just because I love it... 

And dedicated to the love of my life.

Sonnet 29

by William Shakespeare

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
       For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
       That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

This week in birds - #273

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

A female Downy Woodpecker enjoys a meal of suet from the bottom of the cage.


One of the notable and scary things about this season's hurricanes has been the way that they have quickly intensified. Often that intensification has come just before landfall, with disastrous results for the communities that have been in the way of that landfall. The reasons for the rapid intensification, or explosion as some call it, are not entirely understood, but climatologists believe that the unusually warm ocean waters have played their part in feeding the storms.


Puerto Rico, hit by Hurricane Irma and then completely devastated by Hurricane Maria, was already suffering environmental calamities. The storms worsen those and create additional public health problems, especially in poorer areas of the island.


The Puerto Rican Parrot is an endangered species that has been under protection for five decades. As Maria bore down on the island, the keepers of 230 captive parrots at the aviary in El Yunque National Forest were charged with making sure that the birds survived the storm. They did. They rode out the storm in a hurricane safe room, as they have many times before.


The endangered Snail Kites of Florida did not fare so well. All 44 nests of the birds around Lake Okeechobee were destroyed in the storm.


A recent DNA sequencing study of American oak trees has shown that they had a common ancestor in the northern part of the continent about 45 million years ago. That single species has given rise to 220 different species and two distinct lineages - the red oak and the white oak.


The Winter Finch Forecast is out and the prediction is that there will not be much movement southward by finches this year because there has been an excellent cone crop in the boreal forests where they spend their summers. Since there is plenty of food, there is no reason for them to leave home. The Northeast and the states nearer the Canadian border will see some movement, but here along the southern coast and throughout much of the country finch sightings will likely be few.


For 51 years, the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland has been central to the efforts to save and increase the population of the critically endangered Whooping Crane. Now, that project is ending because funding for it has dried up. The research center will continue with other important projects, but its flagship program, the one it was known for, will be no more.


The report that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke completed on the status of national monuments has been leaked, and it is just as bad as we suspected. It would modify at least ten of the sites, shrinking the boundaries of four of them. And all of the public lands would be subject to what the administration calls "traditional uses," by which they mean grazing, coal mining, logging, and commercial fishing.


Photo courtesy of Audubon.

This is the 'I'iwi, or Scarlet Honeycreeper, a native Hawaiian honeycreeper which, like many Hawaiian birds, is threatened by loss of or degradation of habitat and by the effects of climate change. This bird was once one of the most common in Hawaiian forests. Now the 'I'iwi will be given protection as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. It is hoped that this will be the first step to its recovery.


The future of the oldest tree species on Earth is in peril because of climate change. The bristlecone pine needs to move its range northward and into the mountains in order to survive, but the trees, which can live for 5,000 years, must compete with other trees in that habitat and cannot seem to move fast enough to escape the danger.


The ABA Blog continues the fight to save the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge on the Texas/Mexico border from the ill-conceived idea of a wall built through the middle of it. They urge everyone who loves wildlife and wild places to speak out against the project. With all of the catastrophic news of earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires over the last several weeks, this story has sort of gotten lost in the shuffle, but it's still out there and it still needs to be stopped!


At the West Coast Wildlife Center in New Zealand, a 23-year project to save the Kiwi, the country's most iconic animal, is underway. Operation Nest Egg takes Kiwi eggs from the wild, incubates them, and raises the chicks until they are big enough to fend for themselves before releasing them back into the wild. This has had the effect of increasing and stabilizing a population that has been at risk.


Agents who signed on with the EPA to investigate complex environmental crimes are instead being assigned to give 24/7 protection to the head of the agency, Scott Pruitt, something which no other EPA head has required. This is having a detrimental effect on the agency's ability to investigate environmental crimes - which may be the whole point.


Bird migration has long mystified the humans who observed it, but, thanks to modern technology, we are getting more and more data to begin to understand it. One of the surprising facts learned is that many small songbirds eschew overland routes and instead strike out over open oceans to reach their destinations. 


The California Condor is a success story. In 1987, the last remaining 22 birds in the wild were all captured and taken to San Diego and Los Angeles zoos to be bred in captivity. Thirty years later there are roughly 450 of the huge birds with the 10-foot wingspan. This includes about 270 in the wild in California, Arizona, Utah, and northeastern Mexico. The birds still face danger, especially from mercury and lead poisoning, but the slow and steady climb in the population is a very hopeful sign.      

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

In Plain Sight by C.J. Box: A review

And now for something completely different - a western mystery.

It has been three years since I last read one of C.J. Box's Joe Pickett mysteries, so it was time for me to check in once again on the Saddlestring, Wyoming game warden and his family. This is the sixth book in the series and here's a caveat for potential readers: Don't read this book until you've read the previous five; you will be lost. 

Joe is still the game warden in Twelve Sleep County but that's one of the few constants in this story. The old sheriff of the county, Joe's nemesis, is gone. There is a new sheriff in town and he has quickly become another Pickett nemesis, mainly because he seems incapable of caring about or upholding the law.

Joe's old supervisor, who had helped shield him from some of the bureaucratic minutiae and infighting that he hates, is gone. There's a new head of his department who has taken over the direct supervision of his Twelve Sleep game warden, with an eye to "getting the goods" on him so he can finally push him out.

His friend and ally, Nate Romanowski, is out of the picture - at least at the beginning of the book. Various law enforcement agencies are looking for him, especially the FBI. Joe doesn't know his whereabouts and hasn't heard from him, but before Nate absconded, Joe had promised to feed his hawks and he still honors that promise.

Joe's wife, Marybeth, has started a successful accounting business, which is a good thing because Joe's job doesn't pay much. Their two daughters are growing up and Marybeth is saving for their college education.

In Plain Sight finds Twelve Sleep County in turmoil because the matriarch of the most powerful family in the county, the Scarletts, has gone missing. Opal Scarlett had spent her life setting her sons against each other and now the two older of them are at war over who will control the vast family ranch holdings. The prevailing opinion regarding Opal's disappearance is that one or the other of her sons has killed her and disposed of the body, but the local sheriff doesn't seem to be too eager to investigate.

Meanwhile, a ghost from Pickett's past (which is why you need to read those earlier books) is stalking the family. A series of violent acts involving the killing of wild animals Joe is sworn to protect and leaving the carcasses on or near their house is distressing to the family. Joe searches his memory to try to think who would do such a thing, but he doesn't have a clue.

Box does a good job of describing the Wyoming landscape and the isolation of the inhabitants. His Joe Pickett is a multifaceted character. He first presents as a rather bumbling, ineffective upholder of the law, but there is more there than meets the eye and, as one of the other characters opines, it is dangerous to underestimate him.

The plot moved along at a good pace which kept me turning the pages. There's not a lot of nuance in the characters; they are either good or evil. On the whole, I found this to be an interesting reunion with the Picketts and the ending of the book left me wondering what's going to happen next, so I don't think it will be another three years before I pick up the next one.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 


Monday, September 18, 2017

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta: A review

Mrs. Fletcher is Eve Fletcher, a 46-year-old divorcee whose adored son, Brendan, her only child, has just left for his freshman year in college, leaving her with the proverbial empty nest. In her loneliness, she casts about for something that will bring meaning to her life.

It's not as if "empty nest" means an empty life. Eve has a satisfying job as the executive director of a senior center. She has friends and interacts daily with her staff and with the seniors who come to the center, but she definitely feels that something is missing.

She signs up at the local community college to take a course on Gender and Society at night. The course is taught by a fascinating transgender instructor and the other students are an interesting mixed bag of personalities and life experiences at all stages of life. Eve becomes engrossed in new avenues of thought that are opened up for her by the course.

At some point, after Brendan leaves for college, she receives an anonymous text message: “U R my MILF!” Who would have sent her such a message and why?

Thinking of MILFs leads her into thinking of porn and soon she finds herself watching porn on the internet every night. She is especially obsessed with a particular lesbian MILF site. She can't stop watching! She is quickly becoming addicted to web porn and her fixation threatens to spill over into her real life in unexpected and embarrassing ways.

Meanwhile, Brendan, the jock and aspiring frat-boy, is finding that college does not live up to his sex-crazed expectations. He was expecting to pursue a hard partying lifestyle, but a few weeks into the college year, he finds himself lost at sea. He is floundering in all of his classes and he finds that his attitude of smug white-dude privilege and chauvinistic ideas about sex do not find favor with the female students with whom he comes in contact.

In short, as the autumn progresses, both mother and son must face the consequences of bad decisions and mistakes they have made. 

Perrotta presents his characters' conundrums with a wry humor along with sharp social commentary. He deals with the various permutations of sexuality and identity with a provocative and always witty frankness.

This is, on one level, a very funny book, but it is much more than that. Perrotta gives us an unflinching look at some of the darker corners of modern society and how we deal with our fellow men/women/humans. And even as he presents his perspectives with humor, he leaves us with a lot to ponder in our more sober moments. 

Overall, I found this to be a quick read, because once I got started, it was hard to put down. I was completely engaged by the story.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars  

Giant of the Senate by Al Franken: A review

I was reading a column by James Fallows in The Atlantic yesterday in which he referenced this book. He said that this is the kind of book that Will Rogers would have written if Will Rogers had been in the Senate. High praise indeed!

And probably true.

My husband and I had been listening to the audible version of the book over the last couple of months whenever we had some free time or were spending more than just a few minutes in the car. It began to seem as though we were never going to finish it. But perseverance had its reward and we finally did hear it right up to its end this week.

I don't mean to make it sound like listening to it was a chore. It wasn't. Al Franken is a very funny fellow, even though he says that, being in the Senate, he's had to learn to tone down the funny or jettison it altogether. It seems that constituents don't want a funny man as their representative; they want someone who takes them and their problems seriously and who shows that through his actions.

After a career of more than thirty years in comedy, though, it wasn't easy for Al to make that transition. His first instinct is always to see the humor in any circumstance and to handle tense situations by diffusing them with a joke. That being the case, it would seem like politics would be a very uncomfortable fit for him.

And the way he describes it, it was definitely uncomfortable at first. He ran for senator in Minnesota in 2008 after the death of his friend Paul Wellstone whom he had admired as a senator and revered as a human being. He ran against an incumbent senator who waged a pretty nasty campaign against him. When the votes were finally counted, the two were in a virtual tie and it would take eight months, the longest recount in history, to sort it out.

But, in the end, Al Franken was the new senator from Minnesota.

He applied himself to learning the ropes, learning how to be an effective senator, how to be "a workhorse, not a showhorse". To that end, he steered clear of the national press, whose main concern seemed to be leading him into saying something funny.

He made the effort to connect with his fellow senators, Republicans as well as Democrats. His portraits of some of these senators and his tales of his interactions with them are some of the most interesting and the funniest parts of the book.

He is very gentle with his fellow senators, with one exception. That one exception gets a chapter all of his own. It is, of course, Texas' very own Ted Cruz. Franken writes:
The problem with Ted isn’t that he’s humorless. It isn’t even his truly reprehensible far-right politics. No, the problem with Ted—and the reason so many senators have a problem with Ted—is simply that he is an absolutely toxic coworker. He’s the guy in your office who snitches to corporate about your March Madness pool and microwaves fish in the office kitchen. He is the Dwight Schrute of the Senate. 

And elsewhere:
I like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz.  
It's an emotion that many of us Texans completely share. 

Al's efforts to become a serious and effective senator were evidently successful in the eyes of his fellow Minnesotans. The freshman senator who had barely squeaked by in his first election won reelection in a landslide in 2014.

Al Franken is passionate about the issues that are important to him. Most importantly, he is passionate about making the lives of people better. Since I am in agreement with him on most of these issues, I found his autobiographical narrative (he narrated his own book) often uplifting and optimistic but sometimes thoroughly depressing and totally disheartening, as for example when he wrote about the presidential campaign of 2016.

Moreover, the nuts and bolts of just how government works and what it takes to get something accomplished in Congress can be mind-numbingly dull and tedious. But Al approaches it all with his sense of humor still intact. He's going to have to work a lot harder if he wants - as his staff has directed him - to eradicate it altogether. Here's hoping he never succeeds. 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Poetry Sunday: Far Afghanistan by James Taylor

My poem of the week this week is a song lyric.

I have felt the need for comfort music lately and when I think of comfort music, the first artist I think of is James Taylor. James and I have a long history together and when I've needed him, his voice has never failed me.

I love his old songs, of course, the songs that he wrote in his 20s and that I listened to in my 20s and have continued to listen to through the years, but recently I've also been listening to some of the newer stuff, including an album from 2015 called "Before the World".  That's where I found this song.

We are coming up on the 16th anniversary of the war that we have conducted in Afghanistan. And what has changed in all those years? What have all our efforts produced? What has been made better by all the blood that has been spilled there?

This lyric may not exactly qualify as "comfort music" but it certainly expresses things that it is hard for those of us who are not James Taylor to express.

Far Afghanistan 

by James Taylor

Back home Indiana, we just learn to get along
Civilized and socialized they teach you right from wrong
How to hold your liquor and how to hold your tongue
How to hold a woman or a baby or a gun
But nothing will prepare you for the far Afghanistan
You can listen to their stories and pick up what you can
You listen to their stories maybe read a book or two
Until they send you out there, man you haven’t got a clue

Oh the Hindu Kush, the Band-e Amir, the Hazara

They tell you a tradition in the hills of Kandahar
They say young boys are taken to the wilderness out there
Taken to the mountain alone and in the night
If he makes it home alive they teach him how to fight

They fought against the Russians, they fought against the Brits
They fought old Alexander, talking ‘bout him ever since
And after 9/11 here comes your Uncle Sam
Another painful lesson in the far Afghanistan

I was ready to be terrified and ready to be mad
I was ready to be homesick, the worst I’ve ever had
I expected to be hated and insulted to my face
But nothing could prepare me for the beauty of the place

No matter what they tell you all soldiers talk to God
It’s a private conversation written in your blood
The enemy’s no different, badass holy wind
That crazy bastard talks to God and his God talks back to him

Saturday, September 16, 2017

This week in birds - #272

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

A male Wood Duck is right at home swimming among the grasses in a marsh.


Among all the other problems caused by Hurricane Irma in Florida was the massive overflow of raw sewage, highlighting the dangers of an aging infrastructure amid the increased flooding caused by the effects of climate change. The sewage has created a public health issue as well as potential damage it does to the greater ecosystem.


Meanwhile, back in Houston, testing organized by The New York Times found that floodwaters there are contaminated with bacteria and toxins that can make people sick. One would think that such testing would be organized and warnings to the public given by the EPA or even by our state environmental quality agency. Apparently, you would be wrong. It is indeed a new world that we live in.


Of course, it wasn't just humans and animals who live on land whose lives were disrupted by the hurricanes. On a Texas City beach on the Texas coast after the storm passed, this strange creature was found after having been washed ashore.

After a lot of speculation and wild guesses, it was identified as a fangtooth snake-eel (Aplatophis chauliodus), an animal that lives quietly in burrows on the bottom of the sea and darts out occasionally to feed. So there it was, placidly living out its life somewhere in the Gulf, and then along came Harvey.

Incidentally, when I first heard about this and saw the picture, I was reading The Essex Serpent, so the picture will always be my image of the "serpent". 


The National Audubon Society is keeping track of how the hurricanes have affected birds and birding sites. They are on the ground in Texas where they have found that in spite of the damage done, coastal ecosystems are tough and resilient. In Florida and the other states affected by Irma, as well as in the Caribbean, Audubon is also present and recording and analyzing the damage done.


City life is tough on fledgling birds. A lower percentage of birds hatched there manage to make it through their first year. But if they do, they are tougher and more impervious to the effects of stress and more likely to survive into the future. 


The International Union for Conservation of Nature has released its annual "red list" of endangered species. Some once-common species like North American ash trees are now on the list. The ash trees are there because of the depredations of the emerald ash borer beetle, an invasive insect.


There's good news for another endangered species. In Australia, another population of the Night Parrot has been located, leading to hopes that there may yet be other pockets of population of the elusive bird that have not yet been discovered. 


Heliotropism is the tendency of a plant to seek to sun, to grow in the direction of the sun. This can be observed especially in flowers such as the sunflower that tend to track the sun through the sky each day. How all of this happens is an interesting phenomenon for the study of scientists.


De-extinction of species that have long been extinct, or even of those recently extinct, continues to be a hotly debated issue. Although it is theoretically possible to bring species back, the real question is, should they be brought back?


An experiment involving the playback of birds' songs has found evidence of as many of 21 tropical avian species that have been previously unknown.


We know that plastic that winds up in our oceans is a huge environmental problem that does untold damage. Here is visual proof of the disruption the Nature of such refuse.

California-based Nature photographer Justin Hofman recently captured this image of a tiny seahorse gripping a Q-tip in the waters off Indonesia. A newborn seahorse would normally latch onto a blade of grass. This one has been fooled into mistaking a manmade plastic implement for its natural perch.


More hurricane related news: The ABA blog has information about some very unusual sightings of birds, particularly seabirds like Sooty Terns that were blown inland by Hurricane Irma.


A volunteer-run study of Cooper's Hawks in Seattle has been going since 2003 and finds that the birds are doing well there. This year they have documented 40 nests in the city. 


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts surveys to track and analyze the outdoor activities engaged in by Americans. Their latest survey shows that 86 million people engaged in watching wildlife in 2016, an increase of 20 percent over 2011. Meantime, the number who engage in hunting animals continues to decline.


To close on a positive note, there is very good news concerning the black-footed ferret, an animal that was once thought to be extinct. Several years ago, a few of the animals were found living and they have now been introduced into some of the areas where they previously existed. This year, wildlife biologists in Wyoming have spotted the first wild-born black-footed ferrets in 35 years on a ranch outside of Meeteetse, where they were reintroduced just last year. This is a heartening indication for the future survival of the species.

Black-footed ferret photo by USFWS. Live long and prosper, little guy. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - September 2017

I didn't get to participate in Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day hosted by Carol of May Dreams Gardens in August, first because I was otherwise engaged at the time and second because I really didn't have much to show anyway. Now here we are in September and there's probably even less to show, but I'll give you a peek at what I've got.

In the interim, of course, we had a bit of excitement when Hurricane Harvey came calling. He was actually relatively gentle with my neighborhood. We had no destructive winds and we only got 24 inches of rain. Two feet of water is less than half of what some areas got. But even a "gentle" hurricane was no fun for my garden.

Plants that were in bloom at the time had their blooms shredded and knocked to the ground by the pounding rain. Several shrubs and perennials had many or most of their leaves knocked off and a lot of the leaves that were left quickly turned yellow. In short, it left the garden in a mess and, since I've been busy with other projects recently, more than two weeks later it is still in pretty much of a mess.

But enough with the moaning and groaning. Here's what is still blooming.  

Looking like the burning bush of fables, Hamelia patens, aka Mexican firebush or hummingbird bush, never skipped a beat. It is undaunted by hurricanes or drought. When the shrub is in full bloom, as it is from early summer until first frost, it can truly look like a bush on fire.

If it is September, it must be time for the asters to be in bloom

The candy-striped flowers of the milk and wine lilies keep popping up throughout summer and fall.

I love the daisy-like blossoms of the ground cover wedelia. It makes me happy just to look at them.

The tiny blue flowers of bindweed (Convolvulus) close up by mid-day, but while they remain open, they have a cooling effect.

Lantana is another tough plant that is a butterfly attractant.

This pink crape myrtle continues to bloom all summer long. It lost a lot of leaves in the storm, but, oddly, the fragile-looking flowers stood up well.

The weird little flowers of porterweed don't look like much to humans but butterflies find them really beautiful

Butterflies like this Painted Lady. Apparently it is Painted Lady season because there have been a lot of them in the garden this week.

The yellow cestrum is another shrub that had a lot of leaves knocked off or yellowed by the storm, but it still sports quite a few of these blossoms.

The old canna still has a few blooms as well.

On one of the bare branches of the yellow cestrum, this red skipper dragonfly was sunning itself.

The Duranta erecta has been covered in these golden berries that give the plant its popular name of "golden dewdrop". These berries are greatly loved by birds and you can probably see that a lot of them have already been stripped off by the hungry critters.

The Duranta still carries a few blooms as well. They are very attractive to butterflies of all kinds.

The beautyberries virtually glow, as they wait for hungry birds to find them.

On the muscadine vines, the grapes are beginning to turn color.

It's still summer for another week and the summer phlox still have a few blooms left.

Yellow milkweed in flower.

The 'Pride of Barbados' shrub has been in bloom since early summer and its flowers still hang on and are still visited by Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies.

Another shrub damaged by Harvey's hard rains was the blue potato bush, but it still manages to produce a few of its pretty blossoms.

This butterfly ginger bloom looks distinctly bedraggled but the butterflies and hummingbirds don't mind.

Observers report an increase in the number of Monarch butterflies this summer and here is another pair, perched on my crape myrtle tree, doing their part to ensure the continuation of their species.

The dwarf ruellia, 'Katie', blooms on.

Turk's cap blossoms are a favorite of migrating hummingbirds.

In the little goldfish pond, the water lilies continue to send out the occasional pretty flower.

I look forward to my walk around the garden each day to see which hibiscus is in bloom. Today it was this one.

I'm so glad you decided to spend some time in my garden this Bloom Day. I hope both you and your garden are flourishing. 

Happy gardening!