Sunday, March 31, 2019

Poetry Sunday: Looking For Each of Us by Linda Gregg

Linda Gregg was an award-winning American poet. She died last week at age 76, and since I didn't know her work, I thought I should get acquainted and introduce her to you. Here is one of her poems.

Looking For Each of Us

by Linda Gregg

I open the box of my favorite postcards   
and turn them over looking for de Chirico   
because I remember seeing you standing   
facing a wall no wider than a column where   
to your left was a hall going straight back
into darkness, the floor a ramp sloping down   
to where you stood alone and where the room   
opened out on your right to an auditorium   
full of people who had just heard you read   
and were now listening to the other poet.   
I was looking for the de Chirico because of   
the places, the empty places. The word   
“boulevard” came to mind. Standing on the side   
of the fountains in Paris where the water   
blew onto me when I was fifteen. It was night.   
It was dark then too and I was alone.   
Why didn’t you find me? Why didn’t   
somebody find me all those years? The form   
of love was purity. An art. An architecture.   
Maybe a train. Maybe the shadow of a statue   
and the statue with its front turned away   
from me. Maybe one young girl playing alone,   
hearing even small sounds ring off cobblestones   
and the stone walls. I turn the cards looking   
for the one and come to Giacometti’s eyes   
full of caring and something remote.
His eyes are loving and empty, but not with   
nothingness, not for the usual reasons, but because   
he is working. The Rothko Chapel empty. A cheap   
statue of Sappho in the modern city of Mytilene   
and ancient sunlight. David Park’s four men   
with smudges for mouths, backed by water,   
each held still by the impossibility of what   
art can accomplish. A broken river god,
only the body. A girl playing with her rabbit in bed.   
The postcard of a summer lightning storm over Iowa.

Friday, March 29, 2019

This week in birds - #347

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

The American Robin is the harbinger of spring in some places but around here they are present throughout the year and their nesting season has begun.


Farther north, large flocks of robins are showing up in yards as their spring migration is well underway. In the 1800s, these flocks would have been fair game for hunters. Thankfully, that is no longer the case and robin numbers are increasing.


Communities in California where the superbloom of wildflowers has taken place are still having to deal with large numbers of tourists, some of whom are quite thoughtless and destructive. Some have even landed in helicopters which have flattened the wildflowers around their landing spots.


Scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2017 wrapped up a comprehensive analysis of the threat that three widely used pesticides present to hundreds of endangered speciesBut just before the team planned to make its findings public in November 2017, top political appointees of the Interior Department, which oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, blocked the release and set in motion a new process intended to apply a much narrower standard to determine the risks from the pesticides. Leading that intervention was David Bernhardt, then the deputy secretary of the interior and a former lobbyist and oil-industry lawyer and now the nominee to become Secretary of the Interior. 


Native trees that provide the canopy for shade-grown coffee trees are much better at providing support for migrating birds than trees that are non-native.


We think of feather mites on a bird as being destructive and, indeed, heavy loads of mites can be, but the tiny critters can also be helpful to their hosts because they eat bacteria and fungi that grow on the feathers, thus helping to keep the feathers clean.


Most managers of urban forests in America do not have adequate plans for dealing with the effects of climate change.


It seems that the amphibian apocalypse is even worse than previously believed. More than 500 frog and salamander species face possible extinction from a deadly fungal disease.


The coal industry may struggle to stay viable in coming years but will it decline fast enough to make a difference for the climate?


Flooded rice fields are favorite spots for Snow Geese and other migrating water birds to stop to rest and feed during their travels.

Thousands of Snow Geese on a flooded rice field in Sacramento Valley in California in 2014.


Losing species to extinction or extirpation is not only a tragedy for that species, but it can also be a serious problem for the ecosystem from which it comes. Anytime a species disappears from an ecosystem, it creates an imbalance which can be detrimental to other species as well.


The waterbirds that winter in Ireland have decreased in number by 40% in less than twenty years.


Chemical dispersants that are used to clean up oil spills have been shown to be harmful to marine wildlife, response workers, and local residents and yet the EPA continues to allow their use.


How and why did animals come up with metamorphosis as a survival strategy? A new theory proposes the idea that it was to give animals greater access to food.


Culling invasive mammals such as rats and feral cats can save vulnerable island species. It is estimated that such a move could save up to 10% of all endangered birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles.


It isn't often that a new species of whale is discovered, but that, in fact, has happened. It is a species of baleen whale that has been named Omura's whale, after Hideo Omura, a prominent whale biologist. The whales are seldom seen but seem to be widespread throughout the tropical waters.

Omura's whale image courtesy of The New York Times

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Cherokee America by Margaret Verble: A review

Cherokee America is the name she was given at birth but she is known to family and friends as Check. This is her story.

It is 1875 in Cherokee Nation West (now Oklahoma) and Check is about to become a widow. She had married a white man and they raised five sons together after their first baby, a daughter, died. Now the two oldest boys are in their late teens and are considered men. Of the three younger boys, the youngest is a two-year-old toddler. Check and her husband are successful and wealthy potato farmers but now her husband is dying from a disease that is never explicitly named but seems to be stomach cancer. Check's time is spent mostly caring for him as the two older boys must take increased responsibility for the farm.

In addition to the family, a black couple who are the family cook and handyman live as part of the household and are treated as part of the family. Besides these characters, there is a mind-boggling number of others that we must get to know and keep all the relationships in mind in order to follow the story. It is a story that includes full-blooded Cherokees, half-bloods, blacks, and whites. Part of the story is how all of these mixed races live together in the community and how the various relationships play out and are informed by the racial makeup.

One of the things that I really liked about the book was its exploration of these relationships. Another thing that I especially liked was the fact that the author wove in so much of Cherokee history and culture into the narrative.

The narrative contains multiple plotlines which make it a challenge to summarize. There are murder and mayhem and missing people, including a child's disappearance which turns the community upside down, and there are heroics and selfishness, humiliation and acts of kindness. Through it all, the plethora of characters makes it sometimes hard to follow. But there is also simply the day-to-day happenings of life on the farm. All in all, it's a lot to take in, but mastering the cast of characters and their relationships makes it all a bit easier.

This is a sprawling tale of complex familial relationships and alliances and diverse cultures and through it all our guide is Check. We experience things through her eyes. She is a vivid and sympathetic character and we learn in the author's afterword that she is based on a real historical figure, as are a few of the other characters.

I had not read Margaret Verble before but I am impressed with her writing. This was a story that could have veered out of control, but Verble kept to her narrative and told a complicated tale in an understandable and relatable way. One of her previous books, Maud's Line, was a contender for the Pulitzer Prize. I can easily see this one following in those footsteps.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima: A review

A reader who was expecting a lot of drama and excitement from this spare and slender (less than 200 pages) novel would be sorely disappointed. It is a narrative of a year in the life of a recently separated young mother and her two-year-old, turning three-year-old in that year, daughter. It is a meditation on what it was like to be a single parent, a woman, in postwar Japan. The time frame of the novel is not mentioned but it can be assumed to be the '70s. The book was published in 1978.

The book explores this young mother's coming to terms with her new life, learning to stand on her own two feet and become independent. It also details her relationship with her young child and the surprising fact that she sometimes leaves the sleeping child alone in her apartment at night while she goes out to run errands. As a mother, this seemed appalling to me and I wondered if it really was accepted practice at the time or if it simply was a product of the writer's imagination.

While the cultural context is certainly identifiably Japanese, the introspective nature of the narrative and its exploration of the isolation and loneliness of the single mother would resonate with many from diverse cultures who have experienced that situation.

The chronology of the narrative is not always straightforward. The author sometimes shifted into reverse to make a point and that was occasionally confusing.

The mother and daughter live in a light-filled apartment in Tokyo. The light is so bright that the protagonist sometimes has to squint and yet she often feels surrounded by darkness and uncertainty as she tries to make her own way in the world.

Meantime, her estranged husband has moved in with another woman and does not contribute to the support of his daughter. In fact, he shows very little interest in the child. The mother is assisted by her own mother and she has reliable daycare for her daughter while she is at work. But while it may take a village to raise a child, this village does not seem to include the child's father as a resident.

I was a bit perplexed by this precocious child's conversational abilities which seemed quite advanced and sophisticated for a two- to three-year-old. I don't think I've ever met a child of that age who was able to carry on such a conversation, so I had a hard time envisioning that.

But what I really liked about this novel were the writer's descriptions of the qualities of light and of color. She painted vivid pictures which made it easy to imagine the scenes. Of course, I was reading the novel in translation and so I must acknowledge here the skill of the translator, Geraldine Harcourt, in rendering those images into English. The collaboration of writer and translator was itself a work of art.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Poetry Sunday: Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou

I've actually featured this poem before but it's been a few years and I think it is time for it again. It is, after all, still Women's History Month and what better way to celebrate that than a poem by a woman. A phenomenal woman. 

Phenomenal Woman

by Maya Angelou

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size   
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,   
The stride of my step,   
The curl of my lips.   
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,   
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,   
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.   
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.   
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,   
And the flash of my teeth,   
The swing in my waist,   
And the joy in my feet.   
I’m a woman

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered   
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,   
They say they still can’t see.   
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,   
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.   
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.   
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,   
The bend of my hair,   
the palm of my hand,   
The need for my care.   
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Friday, March 22, 2019

This week in birds - #346

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

The vanguard of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird migration has been passing through this week. The adult males, like the one above, arrive first. Later, the adult females and first-year birds will appear.


There has already been severe flooding in the Midwest this spring, but scientists warn that this is likely only the beginning. They are predicting unprecedented levels of flooding in the coming months that could imperil as many as 200 million people. Scientists say that climate change is responsible for more intense and more frequent extreme weather that contributes to the surging flood waters. 


A new data analysis by the Associated Press shows that in the last twenty years the country has been twice as likely to have record-breaking heat in summers as it is to have record-breaking cold in winters.


A new study of white-tailed deer numbers in the eastern U.S. indicates that the arrival and establishment of coyotes in the region has not caused an appreciable decline in the species.


An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted last month shows that climate change is an issue of concern to the public. Nearly two-thirds of those polled indicated that the Republican attitude toward climate change was "outside the mainstream" and that Democratic positions are "in the mainstream." 


This week a federal judge ruled that the Interior Department violated federal law by failing to take into account the climate impact of its oil and gas leasing in the West. The ruling temporarily blocked drilling on 300,000 acres of leases.


The hobby of birding is booming, but, unfortunately, it remains mainly a hobby of white people. Efforts are underway to encourage more diversity in birding and there have been promising results. 


The biggest spring migration in years of Monarch butterflies has been passing through Texas recently. Unfortunately, the milkweed has not yet gotten a growth spurt. The plants in my yard only have a few leaves and I watched one day this week as three migrating Monarchs hovered over them looking for a place to lay eggs. I need to visit the nursery and see if I can find some fully grown plants. 


Melting glaciers on Mount Everest have recently exposed the bodies of climbers who perished there and whose bodies were subsequently entombed in ice. I suppose that is one advantage of global warming.


Elephants are increasingly coming into conflict with humans in agricultural areas. Often the problem is that the areas that are being farmed have minerals that are needed as a part of the elephants' diet, or else the fields lie on the animals' route to those minerals.


First-year birds of some species are known to assist their parents in raising a new brood. This may happen more often when sufficient mates are not available. The Brown-headed Nuthatch is one such species.

  Brown-headed Nuthatch at a feeder in my backyard.


Canada clear cuts a million acres of its boreal forest every year, and a lot of that wood is used in the making of toilet paper.


Thousands of fossils dating from over 500 million years ago during the huge burst of diversity of life on Earth known as the Cambrian Explosion have been unearthed in China.


Illegal killing of Hen Harriers continues to be a big problem in the U.K., particularly around grouse moors. The harriers prey on the grouse and so do humans. Humans do not like the competition.


A recent study suggests that global forests are absorbing more carbon dioxide as atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations increase, but they are unable to keep up with runaway CO2 emissions.


A wet winter has resulted in a super bloom of poppies in Southern California. The remarkable bloom can actually be seen from space and it has drawn so many tourists that at least one town has been forced to bar access to one of the most popular areas for visitors.

Image courtesy of The Guardian.
All that yellow on the mountains is millions of poppies in bloom.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid: A review

I have not read Taylor Jenkins Reid before, although she had written five books previously, to some acclaim. If this book is an indication of her talent, then I definitely need to be reading more of her.

The format of the book is that of an oral history/television documentary. One character speaks, giving a perspective of some event, then another character speaks with his/her perspective. And on and on until all relevant characters are heard from. It is a highly effective way of telling this particular story.

And this story is about the formation, the road to fame and riches, and ultimately the breaking up of a very successful 1970s band called The Six. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll - it is all here in abundance. One wonders at some points how anyone ever made it out of that decade alive.

Daisy Jones is an L.A. girl, a fixture on the club scene of the late sixties. Estranged from her family, she lives a wild life, fueled by drugs, as a groupie to various rock stars, but she also has a voice and a talent for writing lyrics and she dreams of becoming a rock star on her own. She sings at the Whiskey a Go-Go and she begins to get noticed.

A band that is beginning to get noticed around the same time is The Six, led by the charismatic Billy Dunne. Billy is a talented songwriter and singer, but he has a drink and drugs problem like so many of his contemporaries. His girlfriend, Camila, gets pregnant, and that really puts Billy into a tailspin for a while. He's not ready to be a father. But as the birth of his baby draws near, he realizes he cannot face this little person as a drug addict. He goes to rehab and gets himself clean. Finally, when his daughter is three months old, he is ready to meet her.

Billy's was a rare (in the world of rock music) successful rehab, mainly because of the willpower of Camila in staying with him and supporting him and because of his love for her.

The strength of Camila is one of the anchors of the band and of this story and it is matched by the strength - of different kinds - of the other women in the story. Daisy Jones, Karen from the band, even the peripheral female characters, they all have their own unique strengths and they are unafraid of showing that strength and standing on their own two feet, asking nothing from anyone. What woman wouldn't love such badass female characters! 

Both Daisy Jones and The Six really take off in the world of rock music when the two of them come together and Daisy and Billy combine their songwriting and singing talents. They combine to produce the top album of that era and for a while, the band is at the pinnacle of fame and the music charts. But, of course, it can't last.

The trajectory downward is precipitous as the band breaks apart with everyone going in their own directions. How and why this came to be is the story that the interviewer and maker of the "documentary" wants to tell. Just who that interviewer/producer is is revealed only at the end of the narrative. I admit I didn't see it coming.

Jenkins has said that the hardest part of writing this book was writing the lyrics for the songs, several of which are included at the end of the book. They're not bad.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Monday, March 18, 2019

Friends in High Places by Donna Leon: A review

Donna Leon has a new book in her Guido Brunetti series. It is the 28th book in the series. It opened on The New York Times best sellers list. 

It sounds interesting and I would really like to read it, but I am committed to reading the books of the series in order and I'm only up to number nine. At the rate I am going, it will be years before I can legitimately read number twenty-eight.

On the bright side, that means that I have a lot of entertaining reading ahead of me. My pleasure in reading this series has increased with just about every book I have read. That trend continued with Friends in High Places, published in 1999.

This book once again features the pervasive corruption that is so much a part of Venetian society, at least in Leon's fictional Venice. Commissario Brunetti receives a visit from an official from the Officio Castato, the registrar of buildings in Venice. He is there to determine if there was a permit for the construction of Brunetti's apartment on the top floor of a historical building. 

After the visit and Brunetti's inability to provide any documentation, nothing further is heard from the office for months and Guido and his wife Paola consider what levers of influence they might be able to pull to stave off hostile action by the bureaucracy. Will they have to bring in the big guns of Paola's father, the very wealthy and well-connected Count? Thus we see the irony that even the upright and very honorable Commissario is willing to employ extralegal means to protect his family and home. It's the Venetian way.  

Then one day, Brunetti receives a phone call from the Officio Castato official at his office, but the call is not in regard to his apartment. Instead, the official, Rossi, wants to discuss with him something that he has discovered, something that evidently involves illegality. The phone call is cut short and Rossi is supposed to call Brunetti back but he never does. Then Brunetti learns that Rossi has been found dead after apparently having accidentally fallen from some scaffolding outside a building. 

Brunetti has questions about the "accident" because he knows that Rossi was deathly afraid of heights and he doesn't believe that he would ever have willingly gone onto the scaffolding. He determines to investigate further and in so doing he opens the lid on an unsavory brew of official corruption, drug dealing, unprincipled money lenders, and petty thuggery. 

In seeking a resolution, Brunetti once again has the assistance of the indispensable Signorina Elletra, a wizard with the internet back when the internet was still in its infancy and when Brunetti himself was still learning how email worked. And once again we get to visit with the Brunetti family as they sit down each day to one of their simple but delicious meals, all described in loving detail. Good stuff! A fun read.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars   

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Poetry Sunday: For a Coming Extinction and Place by W.S. Merwin (with update)

(Update: There is a lovely remembrance of Merwin in the NYT opinion section of March 19. Here's a link.)

We lost another great poet last week. W.S. Merwin died at his home in Hawaii on Friday. He was 91.

Merwin was not once but twice named as poet laureate of the United States. He was also a winner of the National Book Award and of two Pulitzer Prizes. 

In addition to being a poet, he was an environmental activist who cared deeply about conservation issues. His poetry often reflected those concerns. Here are two such poems.

The first is a kind of request for forgiveness from those animals, represented by the gray whale, that we have sent to The End. In the fourth stanza, he lists some of those other animals and asks that the whale add his voice to theirs and "Tell him that it is we who are important." Not a very humble way to ask for forgiveness, is it? Rather hubristic. And human.  

The second one strikes quite a different note. It speaks of the end of the world (for humans) and of how the poet would want to spend that day. He would plant a tree:

 in the earth full of the dead
 and the clouds passing

 one by one
 over its leaves

I admit I love that image of the tree that lives on when we are gone.

For a Coming Extinction

by W. S. Merwin

Gray whale
Now that we are sending you to The End
That great god
Tell him
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing

I write as though you could understand
And I could say it
One must always pretend something
Among the dying
When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks
Empty of you
Tell him that we were made
On another day
The bewilderment will diminish like an echo
Winding along your inner mountains
Unheard by us
And find its way out
Leaving behind it the future
And ours

When you will not see again
The whale calves trying the light
Consider what you will find in the black garden
And its court
The sea cows the Great Auks the gorillas
The irreplaceable hosts ranged countless
And fore-ordaining as stars
Our sacrifices

Join your word to theirs
Tell him
That it is we who are important



by W. S. Merwin

On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree

what for
not the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit
is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time

with the sun already
going down

and the water
touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing

one by one
over its leaves

Saturday, March 16, 2019

This week in birds - #345

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

The Cedar Waxwings are still with us. They are generally the last of our winter visitors to head north and will likely be here for another month at least. The flock in our neighborhood is smaller than in recent years, numbering, at a guess, somewhat less than a hundred birds. The flocks do usually get bigger as spring progresses and birds from farther south join up with the ones who have spent their winter here. 


The Guardian has a guide to America's five new national monuments, one of which - the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home in Jackson, Mississippi - has particular meaning for me.


An Interior Department official speaking to a group of companies in the oil exploration business last month lauded our president's skill at sowing "absolutely thrilling" distractions that keep the public's attention away from the administration's efforts to open up large portions of the Atlantic to oil and gas exploration. And so we trade our birthright for one shiny object after another.


Costa Rica has a green new deal plan that could serve as a model for other countries and provide an example of a positive approach to the massive problem of human-caused global climate change.


Male Painted Bunting image courtesy of Audubon.

The Painted Bunting is such a gaudy bird that one would think it would be easily tracked and monitored, but, in fact, its migration route and where it spends winters is a bit of a mystery. Scientists are employing tiny geolocators attached to the birds to try to solve that mystery.


The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) is a treaty meant to ensure that trade does not imperil the survival of threatened and endangered species. However, over a quarter of the species threatened by commercial trade, including songbirds like the Black-winged Myna, are not protected by the treaty.


The Prairie Ecologist writes about what we know about managing soil carbon in prairies. Apparently, it isn't enough.


A lesser-known but rather spectacular migration of colorful butterflies is taking place in California. A massive swarm of a billion or so Painted Ladies has been passing through southern California. For most, the destination is Oregon but some go farther north. 

A Painted Lady on lantana blossoms in my own backyard.


The fight against encroaching invasive species of plants must be taken to each yard and garden. Many such plants are introduced to the ecosystem because they are planted in landscapes by householders and their landscapers.


Vision is the most important sensory system for birds, and it is more highly developed in birds than any other vertebrate, including humans. 


More than 1,200 species of birds, mammals, and amphibians worldwide face almost certain extinction without conservation intervention, according to new research. 


Many Native American tribes do not have legal recognition by the federal government and must struggle to maintain their cultural heritage and to protect their lands and ecosystems. California is a leader in seeking to address the problem.


On Friday, the government moved to allow more oil and gas drilling, mining, and other activities on land protected for the threatened Sage Grouse. Such activity would almost certainly disrupt the struggling species' breeding and further threaten its continued existence. 


Elizabeth Hargrave has a passion for birds and for game playing. She put the two together and invented a board game called Wingspan. The game was published Friday by Stonemaier Games and is available to the public. The game's scientific integrity is based on information collected by eBird.


Mowing or pruning back milkweed during the growing season increases its bushiness and makes it more useful for Monarchs and other milkweed butterflies that depend on it.


I gave up on broadcast news three years ago. I no longer listen or watch - I get my news through other trusted sources. And here's one of the reasons why I find broadcast news utterly useless: Climate change is an existential threat to this planet. You would think that a "news" organization might take note of that. In fact, the coverage of the problem by radio and television news is getting worse. Much worse. In 2018, climate change coverage decreased by 45 percent over the previous year! By this time next year, it won't even get a mention.