Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens: A review

I have some familiarity with crawdads and I can tell you categorically that they do not sing. But this book does. Oh, does it ever!

It sings of the strength of character of an abandoned child able to survive alone in Nature. It sings of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of loneliness. It sings of the coming of age of that child and her growth into a brilliant self-taught field naturalist and successful author. Mostly it sings of the wonders of Nature and its power to teach and sustain and heal the wounded spirit.

On another level, this is a murder mystery and that is how it begins.

In 1969, two boys riding their bikes along the marshes of the North Carolina coast come upon the body of Chase Andrews, half submerged in water and hidden by the marsh grasses. The body is underneath an abandoned fire tower and appears to have fallen through an opening at the top of the tower more than 60 feet up.

When the sheriff comes to investigate, he finds that there is no trace of how Chase got there - no footprints, no tire tracks, nothing to show how he came to the tower and nothing to show that anyone else was there. But the position of the body seems to indicate that he had fallen backwards from the tower. Was he pushed? The sheriff thinks it likely.

From there, we flash back to 1952 to a shack in the marshes where the Clark family lives. At this point, there are a mother, father, son, and daughter. There had been three older children but as soon as they were able they left to get away from their brutal drunken father.

One day, while the father is gone, the brutalized mother (Ma in the narrative), still bearing bruises from her latest beating, packs her shabby cardboard suitcase and leaves. Six-year-old Catherine Danielle, aka Kya, watches her mother walk down their lane and disappear into the world. She never sees her mother again.

That leaves the child with her brother Jodie and her father (Pa). Jodie hangs around for a while but as soon as he can, he, too, leaves. 

Pa is seldom home for long. He receives a disability payment from being injured in World War II, barely enough for them to survive, but he gambles and drinks most of it away. He stays away from home for longer and longer periods and finally he's gone for good. Kya, by then ten years old, is left alone and must learn to survive. 

Alone, she learned to trust the land, the marsh.
“Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn't know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.” 
The people who lived in the marshes were looked down upon by the white residents of towns like nearby Barkley Cove. They were considered "marsh trash" and were treated with the same prejudice as were the black residents of the area. Kya had to find a way to exist and get what she needed to live on the edges of such an unforgiving society. How she does it makes for mesmerizing, painfully beautiful reading. 

Kya does find some allies and friends, among them the owner of the store where she used to sometimes go with her father to get gas for his boat. He is a black man called Jumpin'. He and his wife Mabel do all they can to help this lonely white child who they recognize has been abandoned. 

And then there is Tate, a teenaged boy who had once been a friend of Jodie's and had played with Kya as a child. He befriends Kya, teaches her to read and starts her on the road to becoming an acclaimed naturalist. He also becomes her first love.

But mostly her friends are the birds and other animals of the coastal marshes, most especially the gulls that she delights in feeding. They are the inhabitants of the places "where the crawdads sing," out there beyond all human society where Nature reigns supreme.

How all of this background links up with that body found under the fire tower is the meat of this story. It is a memorable story with memorable characters, masterfully written by a woman who obviously understands the connections in Nature. 

Delia Owens is a wildlife scientist who, with her husband, has previously written three bestselling nonfiction books about African wildlife. This is her first book of fiction. I hope it will not be her last.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars  

Monday, August 27, 2018

Don't Eat Me by Colin Cotterill: A review

I did not enjoy reading this book. It was not that the writing was bad; it was more than adequate, up to Colin Cotterill's usual standards. It was not that I didn't like the characters; Dr. Siri Paiboun and his merry band of disrupters in mid-1970s Laos are among my favorite characters in today's fiction and they were all present here, although Dr. Siri was much less prominent than he is in many of the books in the series. No, my problem with the book was its subject matter.

I don't have many rules about what I will or won't read. I tend to be pretty eclectic in my choice of reading materials. But there are a few things that I try to avoid, simply because reading about them is so painful for me. Chief among these subjects are the torture, murder, and trafficking of animals and children. It is such crimes that are at the heart of Don't Eat Me

You can't say I wasn't forewarned. The prologue features a young woman locked in a crate with starving civets with predictable results. When all that is left of the woman - essentially her skeleton - is later found propped up next to a monument in Vientiane, that is the starting point of the mystery that Siri and his coterie must solve. 

The investigation, commanded by the new head of police Inspector Phosy, leads rather quickly to discovery of a major operation of trafficking in exotic animals, animals that are brutalized in captivity, a large percentage of them ending up dead before they reach their supposed destinations. There's also a side operation in the trafficking of young children for the sex trade. They are treated no better than the animals.

Phosy, in his new job, has been hard at work trying to root out corruption in the police force. He's fired people, put some in prison, and is hiring new people whom he can trust (he hopes) as quickly as he can. Now he has this huge investigation to conduct with a force that is, at most, half reliable.

Of course, he also has his volunteer force, the Siriacs. They save the day, as they always do.

A parallel plot line has Siri and his old friend Civilai coming into possession of a modern movie camera, which neither knows how to operate, and planning to film a Laotian version of War and Peace, which will, of course, win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. 

I read this series for the humor and there are usually plenty of laughs or at least smiles and chuckles engendered by the plots. Not so much this time. Indeed, with such a serious main subject, the usual humor might have seemed a bit offputting. In a heartfelt afterword, the author offers more perspective on animal and human trafficking in Southeast Asia. It's a topic that he is obviously passionate about and is trying to do his bit to bring to the world's attention. I salute him for that. Still, I could not find this book as enjoyable a read as the Siri books usually are. Truth is, I rushed through it as fast as I could.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Poetry Sunday: In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is a contemporary American poet who often uses metaphors from the natural world in her poems. I've featured several of her poems here before but never this one. In this summer of wildfires, it seems particularly apropos as she describes a forest being devastated by fire and then in her last couple of stanzas relates that to the human experience. 

In Blackwater Woods

by Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars
of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,
the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

This week in birds - #317

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

The warblers, like this little Wilson's Warbler, are passing through on their fall migration. Even though our temperatures here are still in the high 90s every day and summer shows no signs of releasing its grip, the birds are feeling the urge to head south. They know fall and winter are coming.


As Interior Secretary Zinke prepares to open Grand Staircase-Escalante to mining, experts and business owners say tourism income far outweighs the potential from fossil-fuel extraction. In fact, income from tourists visiting national monuments and other public lands is a vital part of the economy in the communities where they are located. Spoiling those lands by opening them up to oil exploration is potentially taking money out of the pockets of the local inhabitants.


The Houston Astros played the Seattle Mariners last Monday through Wednesday. As I tuned into the game on Monday night, I was amazed to see the haze on the field. At first I thought it was fog, but then I learned it was smoke from wildfires in California and British Columbia and I was appalled. If that is what late summer is like in the Northwest in 2018, what will it be like 10, 20, 30 years from now as conditions worsen?


And it's not just our lungs that are endangered by the smoke. Increasingly, science is suggesting that psychiatric problems can be worsened by air pollution and high temperatures. Such conditions may increase the risk of mental illness and suicide.


The oldest and thickest sea ice in the Arctic has started to break up, opening waters north of Greenland that are normally frozen, even in summer. This phenomenon – which has never been recorded before – has occurred twice this year due to warm winds and a climate-change driven heatwave in the northern hemisphere.
Ultimately, an economy built on the extraction of fossil fuels is an "extinction economy" which, like this summer's wildfires, consumes everything in its path and leaves devastation behind. Only look at the mountains in Appalachia that have had their tops removed to get to coal.
A recent report in the journal Science revealed research that shows that the key to ants' efficiency may be idleness. In a study of fire ants, the researchers learned that 70 percent of the work of building a tunnel was done by 30 percent of the ants. The rest were slackers.
Photo of Pileated Woodpecker courtesy of Audubon.Org.
The largest woodpecker still surviving in North America is the Pileated. (We must assume that the larger Ivory-billed is extinct although some still hold out hope that a few survive in some remote southern swamp.) What are its chances of surviving when its larger cousins, the Imperial and the Ivory-billed have fallen by the wayside? Pretty good, as it turns out. The Pileated, for one thing, is a more adaptable bird and studies have shown that it is well able to survive as long as tree cover remains as much as 20 percent. My own observations would tend to confirm that. The big birds thrive in my mostly suburban neighborhood which does still retain quite a lot of tree cover.
The Rio Grande River is considered one of the most endangered rivers in North America. It provides drinking and irrigation water to 6 million people and 2 million acres of farmland on both sides of the river. The United States and Mexico need to come to an agreement on how to utilize and protect the river. That is made very difficult in today's political climate. 
The lemurs of Madagascar are in crisis. Conservationists warn that at least 95 percent - 105 species - of the island's beloved primates are at risk of extinction.
It was a scene of carnage; in August 2016 more than 300 reindeer had huddled for warmth on a mountaintop in Norway where they were struck by lightning, killing them all in one stroke. But out of their deaths came some valuable research. Scientists studied how the decomposing bodies, visited by hundreds of scavengers, could contribute to greater plant diversity in the area. Their results were published this week in Biology Letters
It seems we are getting better at saving seabirds after oil spills. New techniques for cleaning the birds are giving better survival rates.
Twenty prominent scientists from a range of institutions are calling on California governor Jerry Brown to include tropical rainforest conservation in the state's cap and trade regulation. The Global Climate Action Summit will be held next month in San Francisco.
It's not been a good year for Maine's Atlantic Puffins. Many of their chicks are taking too long to fledgeYoung birds on Seal Island and Matinicus Rock are taking nearly 50 percent longer to fledge due to a shortage of prey, likely stemming from a nearly two-degree increase in sea-surface temperatures around these remove islands.
A new climate study claims that summer weather patterns are increasingly likely to stall in Europe, North America and parts of Asia. That explains why Arctic warming is making heatwaves elsewhere more persistent and dangerous. The study shows that rising temperatures in the Arctic have slowed the circulation of the jet stream and other giant planetary winds which means high and low pressure fronts are getting stuck and weather is less able to moderate itself.
Farmers who have depended on honeybees to pollinate their crops are looking for alternatives as those bees are under siege and declining. The are finding that native bees are very efficient pollinators and a lot less finicky than the non-native honeybees. 
In a limestone cave nestled high above the Anuy River in Siberia, scientists have discovered a human hybrid, the 90,000-year-old bone fragment of a female at least 13 years old whose mother was Neanderthal and whose father belonged to another branch of ancient humanity known as the Denisovans, according to an analysis of DNA discovered inside the fragment. This is further confirmation of the widespread interaction and interbreeding of Neanderthals with other groups of early humans which was once thought most improbable.  

Friday, August 24, 2018

Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin: A review

I've been reading a number of debut novels recently and most of them have been enjoyable reading experiences. It really is quite remarkable how many talented writers there are out there who are just getting started in their careers. It seems that we are living in a golden age of fiction. Lucky us!

And now here comes another first novel and it, too, is a winner. There were a lot of things that I really liked about James A McLaughlin's Bearskin

His protagonist is originally from Arizona but is on the run from the Sinaloa drug cartel and, because of a scanty background in science, has managed to secure a job as the caretaker of a remote private forest preserve in the Virginia Appalachians. Some of my favorite passages in the book come from this caretaker's (Rice Moore aka Rick Morton) observations of the ecological system in which he works. I found those observations particularly interesting because these are the flora and fauna that I grew up with and which were my first loves in Nature, and the writer's descriptions of them were spot on. From spotted salamanders to orb weaver spiders to skunks and deer and vultures and chickadees, I loved reading about these things which were the stuff of Rice/Rick's everyday life. In this sense, McLaughlin's writing reminded me quite a lot of Nevada Barr. It reveals the same environmental ethic. 

Listen to how he writes of the giant trees that make up the forest:
"The giant trees were like dormant gods, vibrating with something he couldn’t name, not quite sentience, each one different from the others, each telling its own centuries-long story. On the forest floor, chestnut logs, dead since the blight, had rotted into chest-high berms soft with thick mosses, whispering quietly. Something called out and he turned to face a looming tulip tree, gnarled and bent like an old man, hollowed out by rot, lightning, ancient fires. 
His skin tingled.”
My skin tingled just reading that.

At a certain point in the narrative, Rice/Rick goes into the forest chasing bear poachers who are illegally killing black bears and removing their gallbladders and paws for the Asian market, leaving the rest of the body to rot. He stays in the forest for days, without food, barely sleeping and this deprivation of nourishment and sleep induces in him a kind of hallucinatory state. He has a mystical experience in which he seems to be flying. It reminded me of Carlos Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan. Rick (we'll call him that since that's what he currently calls himself) seems to recreate Carlos's experience with peyote and mushrooms without resorting to the use of those substances.

Rick's interactions with the local residents are intermittent and tinged with a threat of violence, not least because we learn that the previous caretaker, a woman, had been beaten, gang raped, and left for dead. Most of the people that he meets seem ignorant and brutish. He remarks on their attitude toward the rich natural environment in which they live:
“He found it puzzling that so many rural people were hostile to, even terrified of, the place where they lived. It wasn't just that hard-working country folk had no time for the precious concerns of the effete urban environmentalists, what amazed Rice was how you could spend your whole life physically immersed in a particular ecological system and yet remain blinded to it by superstition, tradition, prejudice. Out west, it was ranchers' holy war on predators and their veneration of Indo-European domestic animals they husbanded on land too dry to support them. Here in the Appalachians, you saw rugged country men who refused to walk in the woods all summer because they were scared of snakes.”
Yes, I know people like that and it's only a small part of their belief system based on fear. 

So, my favorite parts of the book were the descriptions of Nature and Rick's interactions and responses to the natural world. I was somewhat less impressed by the mystery/thriller part of the narrative, and there were one or two unexplained holes in the plot or characters that were introduced and seemed important, only to vanish. (Whatever happened to that mushroom picker?) But, on the whole, this was a creditable effort. I don't know if McLaughlin planned this as the first in a series, but there's plenty of material there if he wants to go that route.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Throwback Thursday: Claire of the Sea Light review

I haven't done a "Throwback Thursday" for a while, but recently, while researching something else on the blog, I ran across this review that I had done back in 2014. It was a wonderful book. Its setting in Haiti, connections to Hispaniola, hurricanes, people persevering through tragedy resonated with me in the present even as it had back then. Have you read this book? If not, maybe you should.


Monday, May 12, 2014

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat: A review

Claire of the Sea LightClaire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Claire of the Sea Light is a book as luminous as its title. Edwidge Danticat's 2013 novel about the little seaside town of Ville Rose in her native Haiti is a hypnotic read and I was mesmerized from the first scene.

Ville Rose has an air of magic about it, yet it is a town where tragedy is an everyday part of life. The story begins with a tragedy. A poor fisherman out on his boat in the early morning is swamped by a rogue wave as his friend, Nozias, another poor fisherman watches from shore. The man and his boat disappear beneath the wave.

We learn that Nozias would usually have been out in the early morning with his friend but he had delayed putting out to sea on this day. It is his daughter's seventh birthday. If he had gone out, he, too, would have been swamped and would have left his daughter an orphan.

Claire Limyè Lanmè - Creole for Claire of the Sea Light - is that daughter. Her mother, also named Claire, died giving life to her and on each of her birthdays, her father takes her to visit her mother's grave.

The novel has Claire Limyè Lanmè at its center, but really it is about the town of Ville Rose. We meet several of the residents of the town, many of them poor like Nozias and his daughter but some few of them slightly better off. We hear them tell their stories and we see Claire Limyè Lanmè through their eyes. It is only at the end of the novel that we finally see things through Claire's eyes.

An important character in Claire's story is Madame Gaelle, the proprietor of the local fabric shop. Her life, too, has been touched repeatedly by tragedy. Her husband was killed on the day that her daughter was born. Later, that same much adored daughter was also killed in an auto accident. Madame Gaelle is weighed down by sadness.

It so happens that on the day that Claire was born and her mother died, her father took her to Madame Gaelle who was still nursing her own daughter. She gave Claire the first nourishment in her life and so there is a connection there. One of many actually.

Nozias lives in fear of leaving his daughter an orphan or not being able to care for her and he seeks someone who might take her and raise her in safety and be able to give her a better life. He thinks that someone might be Madame Gaelle and he negotiates with her over the years to get her to accept Claire into her home so that he can leave and look for a better job.

Finally, on the momentous night of Claire's seventh birthday, another day of tragedy in Ville Rose, Madame Gaelle agrees to take her. But before this can happen, Claire runs away.

That is the bare bones of this story, but the flesh of it is so much richer and is told with a lyricism that brings home to the reader the mysterious connections of all the people of this town: the schoolmaster; the radio personalities; the gang members; the undertaker/mayor; the maids and housekeepers; the schoolmaster's son returning from diaspora in Miami; and many others. We get to know them all and learn their secrets and their sorrows. We learn what it means to be a parent, a child, a neighbor, a lover, or a friend in Ville Rose. And in addition to those human relationships, we see the connections between humans and the natural world, a world that is never far removed from ordinary life in this town.

I admit I was not familiar with the writing of Edwidge Danticat before reading this book, but after reading it, I am in awe of her talent. I have never been to Haiti and yet I feel that I know it and its people so much better now.

I was interested to see that Danticat wove into her story elements of the environmental disaster which is so much a part of the problem of poverty in Haiti. The cutting of the trees has opened the country up to flooding, washing much needed topsoil into the sea, and devastating the habitat of many animals and plants. All of this, of course, has a domino effect which has as its end result the further impoverishment of the human society.  It is a vicious cycle which the population so far has been unable to break.

The feeling of tragedy that pervades this book was further enhanced by the knowledge that it was written just before and during the time of the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country. Ville Rose would have been right in the middle of that.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

There There by Tommy Orange: A review

The title comes from Gertrude Stein's famous assessment of Oakland, her home town: "There is no there there." As one of the characters in this book discovers the statement was not really a putdown of the city; it was simply her way of stating that the place where she had grown up didn't really exist any more. Everything had changed, as, in fact, everything does over time. But in Tommy Orange's telling there is plenty of "there there" in Oakland.

It's the town where Orange grew up as well and where there is apparently a thriving community of Native Americans. They are "Urban Indians" in Orange's (who is himself an enrolled member of the Cherokee and Arapaho tribes) characterization. In his prologue he says, "We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls, we know the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread."

That same searing prologue gives a catalog of atrocities committed against Natives since the coming of Europeans to the continent. It makes for very tough reading but it gives context to the present day people and to the psychological and pathological effects of centuries of abuse and degradation.

Orange describes his "urban Indians" as "present tense" people. It is sometimes difficult for them to see themselves as connected to their history. As one character says, "I feel bad sometimes even saying I'm Native. Mostly I just feel I'm from Oakland."

Orange writes about a dozen Natives who live in or are connected to the city and who are moving toward the Big Oakland Powwow to be held at the Oakland Coliseum. He uses the multiple perspective, telling the story as seen and experienced by each of his characters. The chapters are short vignettes from each character.

At first, I had a difficult time with the story in that I could not see how all these different people and their experiences were connected except by the city. I decided to read some reviews to perhaps find guidance. Luckily, I found a review by Colm Toibin in The New York Times Book Review and in that review, I found this paragraph:
"Within the cacophony of voices in this book and the many short chapters each told from the perspective of one of the characters, the structure is not only dictated by the sense of identity these characters share, but by the fact that many of them will meet at a great powwow to be held in Oakland. Thus they are all, as in Chaucer, pilgrims on their way to a shrine, or as in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, an extended family crossing the landscape." (My emphasis.)
And with that, the figurative lightbulb lit up over my head. Having only recently reread As I Lay Dying, I could easily see these people as the Bundren family writ large. After that I didn't worry about establishing relationships; I knew everything would link up eventually.

And so we follow each character as he or she looks toward the powwow and prepares to participate or to attend as an observer. One woman looks forward to seeing her three grandsons who she had given up to her sister because she realized her addiction made her unable to properly care for them. A man is hoping to meet his father whom he has never seen. A woman who was adopted by white people may meet both her parents whom she does not know. A young man who learned to dance by watching YouTube videos plans to dance at the powwow and hopefully win a prize. And then there are the criminals who are hoping to rob the powwow. They will all come together in a dazzling denouement and none of their lives, if they survive, will ever be the same. All of these lives are touched in some way by alcoholism or addiction and by the lack of a father.

I don't know how to even begin to do justice to this book. It is subtle and complex and powerful, just as are the lives of the people it describes. Even when he is relating the most mundane events, the writer gives the narrative a timelessness and feeling of authenticity that one only finds in great literature. This is an amazing book and I hope it will be widely read. 

The most amazing thing of all about the book may be that this is Tommy Orange's first.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Monday, August 20, 2018

Mid-summer in the backyard

It has not been a good year for butterflies in my backyard, a backyard that in previous years has teemed with the colorful insects. I blame the weather primarily for this absence. We've had relatively wet conditions throughout much of the year. Not that we've had heavy, torrential rains except on a couple of occasions but in most weeks we have had at least some rain. That may have made it difficult for some butterflies to reproduce. Even the butterflies that are normally ubiquitous in my yard have been scarce this year.

That includes beauties like the Gulf Fritillary, usually one of the most numerous of its kind here throughout the summer.

It also includes the little yellow butterflies called sulphurs, such as this Dogface Sulphur. In the past, they've been so omnipresent that we take them for granted and stop noticing. Until they aren't there.

Last year, throughout the year, I had a constant stream of Monarchs passing through and uncountable caterpillars on my milkweed plants like the one this female is enjoying. This year, until recently, I've seen very few Monarchs and none of their caterpillars.

And of the Monarch's cousin, the Queen, I don't recall seeing one all year.

In the last couple of weeks, the numbers have picked up a bit with fritillaries and sulphurs leading the way. I'm seeing quite a few swallowtails and skippers and more of the Monarchs now, so I have hopes that the year will end on a more positive note for butterflies.

Meantime, some other critters are having good years.

Dragonflies, for example. They seem to thrive on the weather we've had this year. Every time I step outdoors I encounter one or more.

And cicadas, of course. Nothing ever seems to slow them down. Their "songs" are the background music for a hot August afternoon.

But maybe the happiest of all critters this year have been the frogs, like this Southern Leopard Frog sitting on a lilypad in my goldfish pond. The frogs have expressed their happiness by reproducing. Prolifically!

These are just a few of the thousands of tadpoles currently inhabiting my little pond. I assume they are progeny of the leopard frogs, but there are other species of amphibians around the yard and some may be their offspring.

If you look a little closer, you may be able to see that some of these tadpoles have minuscule rear legs. They are on their way to becoming froglets. It takes several weeks from their hatching to actually becoming froglets able to live outside of the pond. 

If all the tadpoles in my pond actually become frogs, my backyard is going to be knee deep in frogs!

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Poetry Sunday: The Second Coming by W. B. Yeats

William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet who was a giant on the literary scene of the 20th century. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923. This is one of his most famous, most quoted poems. It seems particularly apt in a time when there is uncertainty as to whether the center will hold and "the worst are full of passionate intensity."

The Second Coming

by W. B. Yeats (1865 - 1939)
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, 
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Friday, August 17, 2018

This week in birds - #316

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

There hasn't been much hummingbird activity around the yard this summer. In recent years, we've generally had a Ruby-throated Hummingbird nesting here but apparently not this year. But fall migration has started and the first wave came through this week. Early in the week, I saw three of the tiny birds tussling over the Hamelias (Mexican firebush) and other flowers in the backyard. There were probably more around, but I was able to count three. By the end of the week, they appeared to have moved on. I saw only one in the yard on Friday, but I expect more will be coming through soon.


Exposure to air pollution, especially particulate matter, is a leading driver of heart disease and stroke, lung cancer, and respiratory infections the world over. It is the sixth highest risk factor for death and contributes to up to seven million deaths each year.


Another week and another extreme weather event. In the southern state of Kerala in India, well over 300 people have died already as a result of the worst monsoon flooding in nearly a century.


And in regard to another extreme event, the raging wildfires in California, Interior Secretary Zinke assured us this week that, contrary to scientific opinion, global climate change had nothing to do with the fires. Instead, he said the fires have been worsened by environmentalists fighting against more logging of forests. Simple solution: Cut down all the trees and there won't be any fires.


The Great Black Hawk is a neotropical raptor that normally ranges from coastal Mexico down to eastern Argentina, but earlier this year one was documented on South Padre Island in Texas and now another one has turned up in Maine. Most astonishingly, a careful examination of pictures of the birds has convinced at least some ornithologists that it is the same bird. Obviously, this bird has a yen to see the world.


Voters in the State of Washington will have an opportunity to decide whether to institute a carbon tax in this fall's election. Alaska, surprisingly enough, is also considering whether to implement such a tax to help offset loss of income from fossil fuel extraction.


Coelacanth photograph from The Guardian.

Coelacanths, a fish that existed before dinosaurs, were thought to be extinct until a living specimen was caught off the African coast in 1938. Today, only 30 of the fish are known to exist off the east coast of South Africa and there are fears that a new oil exploration venture in the area could jeopardize their continued existence. 


In 2013, a chemical explosion at a plant in West, Texas, killed thirteen people. In the wake of that disaster, rules were strengthened and made stricter for operators' risk management plans. The current EPA was trying to delay implementation of those rules for at least two years, but an appeals court in Washington, DC ruled this week that the EPA must enforce the strengthened rules.


The toxic "red tide" algae bloom continues to kill Florida wildlife and threaten tourism in the state. This year 267 tons of marine life have washed up on the shores of the state, killed by the toxic algae.


A survey of birds in northern New Mexico has found declining population of many species. The birds are being affected mainly by loss of habitat due to prolonged drought, hotter temperatures, and bark beetle outbreaks that kill the piñon-juniper forests that the birds depend on.


Under a court order and settlement in New York, New York State Parks will move a feral cat colony from Jones Beach State Park where it imperiled endangered Piping Plovers that nest in the area.


A federal judge in Montana has ordered the U.S. State Department to do a full environmental review of a revised route for the Keystone XL oil pipeline that was approved by the current administration, possibly delaying its construction and dealing another setback to TransCanada Corp.


The orca mother that had carried her stillborn baby with her in the waters off Washington state for more than two weeks finally relinquished the body this week and returned to her pod. It has been three years since an orca in the area has birthed a surviving calf. 


As animals adapt to life in cities, are they becoming smarter? They are certainly learning new strategies for survival. A prime example is the wild fishing cats of Colombo, Sri Lanka.


Native North Americans kept and bred Macaws more than 1000 years ago as far north as New Mexico.


Speaking of smart animals, a French historical theme park has been training Rooks, a member of the Crow family, to retrieve litter at the park. The birds will be rewarded whenever they bring bits of litter to their handlers.

Mr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal: A review

This series was recommended to me since I enjoy historical mysteries and I decided to give it a whirl.

Maggie (Margaret) Hope is the daughter of English parents who was raised in America after both her parents (presumably) were killed in an auto accident. She had an English grandmother, mother of her aunt and her father, whom she only knew when she was a baby and whom she didn't remember. But when the grandmother died in the late 1930s, she left everything to Maggie, who by then was a college graduate and looking forward to continuing her education in graduate school. She was forced to delay her plans when she had to go to England to sort out the estate.

Two years later, it is 1940 and England is on the brink of war. Maggie is living in the old family home with some other young women as renters. One of the young women is an American named Paige whom she knew in college. The estate still is not settled and Maggie is slowly making a life for herself in England.

Winston Churchill becomes prime minister. The young woman - of course it is a woman - who is assigned as his typist is brutally murdered as she is going home one night during blackout. A new typist is needed and Maggie Hope gets the job, even though she is supremely overqualified and is a mathematician not a typist/stenographer.

At some point, Maggie feels the need to visit the graves of her parents. (Yes, she's been there for a couple of years and hasn't felt this need before.) She goes to the cemetery and easily found the grave of her mother. But there was none for her father. She asked a groundskeeper who told her no one by that name was buried there, but that a mysterious man used to bring flowers to her mother's grave, although he hasn't been there for some time. Could it be that her father, the brilliant mathematician, is still alive? And if so, why has he not contacted her in all these years? Maggie is determined to find the answer and that eventually leads her into all kinds of peril. 

In an afterword, the writer explains that her character of Maggie is actually informed by memoirs of women who served in that role during the war. Perhaps it is because of this that the narrative is filled with historical details which make for interesting reading. (For example, I learned what "barrage balloons" were.) 

The book actually started out quite strongly and I was enjoying the read, but then the writer just kept throwing in more and more complications. It's not just Nazis, it's also the IRA. Maybe Maggie's father is alive but he's crazy. No, he's just pretending to be crazy; it's his MI-5 cover story. More and more characters are added to the mix until it is almost impossible to keep up with who's who. And if both of her children are actually alive, why did Maggie's grandmother leave her entire estate to Maggie? We have coders and codebreakers, Bletchley Circle and MI-5 on every street corner and through it all, including the falling bombs, the ordinary Englishman/woman "Keeps Plodding On."

Then came the climax which turned out to actually not be the climax. In fact, the book went on and on and on after the original denouement until I wanted to say, "Yes, we know all that. Now wrap it up already!" 

Knowing when and how to end a narrative is an art and one that a lot of very good writers struggle with. It's particularly common, I think, with first books which this one is. In the end, the long goodbye caused me to reassess what I had originally thought would be a four-star read. I subtracted a star and if I had been brutally honest, I probably should have subtracted two.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars    

Thursday, August 16, 2018

A natural woman

Carole King by way of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, 1942 - 2018.

Thank you, your majesty. I needed that. RIP.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - August 2018

Welcome to my zone 9a garden in Southeast Texas. Here are some of my plants that are blooming this month. If you visited my garden on July Bloom Day, you will have seen many of them before.

 Tropical milkweed.

 Texas sage. Its blooms are triggered by rainfall and since we've had a fairly wet summer, this large shrub has been in bloom for much of the season.

 Butterfly ginger.

 Portulaca, aka moss rose.


 Evergreen wisteria, a late summer to early fall bloomer. 

 Blue plumbago, usually one of my most dependable bloomers, has not done as well this year. I don't think it has liked our weather.

 The muscadine vines have been very happy and are full of grapes.


 This is a pale pink gomphrena called 'Pinball.' It has carried a profuse load of blooms right through the summer.

 Four o'clock.

 Rudbeckia 'Goldstrum,' aka black-eyed Susan.

 The beautyberry shrubs are loaded with berries - both the traditional purple... 

 ...and the white cultivar.

 The large almond verbena shrub is covered in these unpretentious but wonderfully scented blossoms. They perfume the entire side of the garden where they live.

 A few of the daylilies are reblooming.

 Pentas, a butterfly favorite.

 Native sunflowers.

 I have these little marigolds in beds scattered all around the garden.

 The summer phlox is well past its prime but some of the plants are still blooming.

 The pomegranate tree is full of these fruits.

 Justicia orange flame.

 The basil flowers are still nourishing the bees.

 Coral vine. Its heaviest bloom is in the fall.

 Joe Pye weed, a native plant that I love to grow.

 The purple coneflowers have been disappointing this year, perhaps due to the weather. They were glorious last year.

 Anisacanthus (flame acanthus) with bee.

 Duranta erecta, aka golden dewdrop, so called for the yellow berries it develops after the blooms are done.

 Hamelia patens, Mexican flame bush, a hummingbird favorite.

These dinner plate-sized hibiscus blossoms only last for one day, but they are spectacular while they do.

That's it for this Bloom Day. I hope you enjoyed your visit. Don't forget to visit our host, Carol at May Dreams Gardens and see a list of all the other gardens that are participating in this month's meme.

Happy gardening and happy Bloom Day to all.