Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari: A review

Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari's book about the history of our species has been on the best-seller list for some 62 weeks and counting and for most of that time, it had been my intention to read it. I finally got around to it this week. Better late than never, or maybe better late, full stop. Now that the initial hubbub about the book has died down, perhaps it will be easier to approach it clear-eyed without prejudice. 

The first thing to be said about the book is that Harari writes engagingly. He writes for a general audience and he manages to make millions of years of history and development of our species understandable. He has his theories about how we came to be the dominant species on the planet. Are they correct? And are we really the dominant species on the planet? That's something the reader has to decide for herself, but it's always best to keep an open mind and realize that there are other possibilities.

Most of Harari's book is devoted to Homo sapiens, even though the genus Homo has existed for about 2.4 million years and Homo sapiens has only existed for about 150,000 years. He gives short shrift to those 2.3+ million years that came before except to acknowledge that there were many different species within the genus during that period and that more are being discovered, especially in Southeast Asia, every year. Still, as a species filled with its own self-importance and woefully ignorant about others, it is only natural that a writer would spend over 90% of his "History of Humankind" on our one species.

Once Harari focuses his attention on Homo sapiens, the history begins to move at rocket speed. A species that began as hunter-gatherers goes through a number of "revolutions" that transforms us into the modern creatures that we are. The first was the agricultural revolution that changed us from hunter-gatherers to farmers. That happened only 11,000 years ago, so for most of our history we were hunter-gatherers and Harari makes the argument that our bodies are still in that phase, and our failure to acknowledge that is the source of some of our modern ailments. (Hello, paleo diet!)  

The next "revolution" happened only 500 years ago - the scientific revolution. That, in turn, triggered the industrial revolution of about 250 years ago, which led to the information revolution of 50 years ago. And that has led to the biotechnological revolution which has only just begun and, in Harari's estimation, could be the end of sapiens, as we are replaced by bioengineered post-humans who can live forever. Thus has time sped up. What will be the next revolution? Has it already begun?

There's a lot to think about here. The author, for example, thinks that the agricultural revolution that started all this was a bad bargain for humankind. Farmers ended up working longer and harder hours than the hunter-gatherers ever did and their diet was worse and living conditions more crowded, bringing an increased risk of disease. If only we'd stuck to being hunter-gatherers we'd be a lot happier and healthier. But then I wouldn't be typing this on my Apple keyboard and there probably wouldn't have been a book published called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Or any book. 

I enjoyed reading the book and I found a lot to agree with Harari about, but in the end, I was a bit put off by some of his over-the-top conclusions including his assertions that liberal humanism and various political philosophies are, in fact, religions. "All humanists worship humanity," for one example, does not strike me as an accurate assessment.

The book was published in 2015 and there was one sentence in it that brought me up short and reminded me, as if I needed a reminder, of just how much things have changed in only four years. In a discussion about racism, he wrote:
"White supremacy remained a mainstream ideology in American politics at least until the 1960s."
If only it had ended in the 1960s. Let us hope that we are not witnessing our final "revolution".

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Poetry Sunday: The Road by Dana Gioia

Do you ever feel that you have missed your life by being too busy looking for it? We sometimes are so busy looking to the future that we forget to live in the present. And then one day we look up and all that time has passed us by. We have passed the milestones unaware. Dana Gioia knows that feeling.

The Road

by Dana Gioia
He sometimes felt that he had missed his life
By being far too busy looking for it.
Searching the distance, he often turned to find
That he had passed some milestone unaware,
And someone else was walking next to him,
First friends, then lovers, now children and a wife.
They were good company–generous, kind,
But equally bewildered to be there.
He noticed then that no one chose the way—
All seemed to drift by some collective will.
The path grew easier with each passing day,
Since it was worn and mostly sloped downhill.
The road ahead seemed hazy in the gloom.
Where was it he had meant to go, and with whom?

Saturday, July 27, 2019

This week in birds - #362

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

An American Bittern at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge hides in plain sight by pretending it's just another blade of grass. It will even sway in place to give the illusion of being moved by the wind. 


The temperatures in southeast Texas have been surprisingly moderate for July this past week. We even had one night when the low temperature was 66 degrees - unheard of at this time of year. But elsewhere in the world, the temperatures have not been moderate at all. Europe is experiencing a record-breaking heat wave. Paris recorded its hottest temperature ever on Thursday at nearly 110 degrees Fahrenheit and the heat was no less intense in much of Europe. 


In spite of the federal government's denial of the reality of climate change, many states and cities are forging ahead with plans to combat it. California is the leader in the effort. This week it was announced that they had struck a deal with four automakers to produce automobiles that are more fuel-efficient in coming years. By 2016, Ford, Honda, Volkswagen, and BMW of North America will produce vehicles that will get nearly 50 miles per gallon of gas.


Meanwhile, as Los Angeles makes plans to make itself more climate-resilient, it must deal with a problem that was generated over seventy years ago: groundwater polluted by World War II-era industries.


Florida, it seems, has become a hotbed of songbird snatching. Law enforcement has discovered a thriving underground business of trapping songbirds around Miami for the pet trade or for singing competitions. This is a direct violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that protects all native birds.


Jordan has found a unique way to dispose of decommissioned military vehicles. They are sinking them to the seabed of the Red Sea in order to form the basis for an artificial reef. Plans are to have an underwater museum where people can view the activities of sea creatures on this reef. What a wonderful way to beat swords into ploughshares.


Even though the Kirtland's Warbler is sufficiently recovered to remove it from the endangered list, it will still require careful monitoring and the efforts of conservationists to ensure that its recovery continues.

Kirtland's Warbler image from audubon.com.
This is the beauty that was almost lost to the world.


We are only beginning to understand the complex relations of the community of trees in a forest, how they communicate with and aid each other. Botanists in New Zealand have discovered "The stump that didn't die"; a kauri tree was cut down and only the stump remained, but that stump continued to live. The stump lives through a complex network of aid from surrounding trees.


There is evidence that birds, while still in their shells, can identify and respond to parental alarm calls and can pass that warning on to nearby eggs.


The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has just declared a monkey called Miss Waldron's red colobus "possibly extinct". The species has not been officially documented to exist in more than four decades. Still, some conservationists are not ready to give up on it and will continue looking. 


River Terns are disappearing from China. The birds nest on sandbars and their disappearance seems to be related to the disappearance of appropriate habitat. Efforts are being made to protect remaining colonies of the birds.


A rare butterfly that has largely disappeared from the East Coast has found an unlikely haven at the Fort Indiantown military base in Pennsylvania. During summer you can sign up for guided tours to see the Royal Frittilaries in a grassy field there.


What makes heat waves particularly dangerous is the fact that it doesn't cool down sufficiently at night. Nighttime temperatures are rising faster than daytime temperatures and that's difficult for our bodies to adjust to.


One thing that might aid in ameliorating soaring temperatures is restoring peat bogs. Peat bogs absorb carbon, thus helping to regulate temperatures.


Species that might otherwise go undetected in streams can be identified by collecting environmental DNA.


A new study indicates that six major U.S. cities along the East Coast are emitting as much as two times the amount of methane into the air as has been estimated by the EPA.


And more evidence of the power of Nature: The Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island in New York was closed in 2001, at which time it contained more than 150 million tons of New York garbage. Since that time the area has been completely reclaimed by Nature.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert: A review

“After a certain age, time just drizzles down upon your head like rain in the month of March: you’re always surprised at how much of it can accumulate, and how fast.” (From City of Girls.)
When we first meet Vivian Morris, a considerable amount of time has drizzled down upon her head. She is in her nineties and she is in the process of giving an account of her life to someone named Angela. Who is Angela? We have no idea and don't learn the answer to that question until near the end of the novel. We only know that she is a woman who has asked Vivian for an explanation of her relationship with the woman's father. To give that explanation, Vivian goes back to what is the beginning for her: New York in 1940 when she was 19.

Nineteen-year-old Vivian had proved to be a great disappointment to her parents. She had flunked out of Vassar, having never attended her classes and failed every one. Sent home in disgrace, her parents soon weary of her and she is sent off to New York to live with her Aunt Peg. This is fortuitous for Vivian. Aunt Peg is a generous and accepting person who has no expectations of Vivian and so is not disappointed by her. She owns and runs a small flamboyant but crumbling theater called the Lily Playhouse where she puts on shows for the locals featuring showgirls, dancers, and a whole cast of unconventional and charismatic characters. Vivian is entranced.

Maybe Vivian couldn't make it at Vassar, but she is not without talent. In fact, she has a skill that is very valuable to a theater company; she is a talented seamstress, having been taught by her grandmother. She quickly finds her niche with Aunt Peg's doughty troupe and becomes a favorite with the showgirls for whom she fashions fabulous costumes.

When the group learns to their astonishment that Vivian is still a virgin, they make a plan for her deflowering. That results in the funniest scene in the entire book which has plenty of moments of humor. But the deflowering of Vivian certainly stands as the comic high point. 

Following that Vivian enters full tilt into the reckless lifestyle of the showgirls, a life of sex, booze, and nightclubs. She utterly abandons herself to this life but is finally brought up short when she finds herself in a menage a trois with a showgirl friend and the husband of the star of the theater's hit show, "City of Girls". Unfortunately, Walter Winchell has pictures! Once again, Vivian goes home in disgrace. 

This time, she does make an effort to fit into the life that her parents expect of her, but it's hopeless, and anyway, Aunt Peg needs her costume-maker back. America is now in the war and Aunt Peg has a contract with the military to provide entertainment.

Eventually, after the war, Vivian and a friend open a bridal boutique and this woman who never marries and never wants to marry makes a successful career of fashioning bride's dresses. And all this time, she has a constant stream of lovers, none of whom seem to make a particularly vivid impression on her. The important relationships in her life are her friendships with women and with Aunt Peg and her lesbian partner Olive (a wonderful character!) who become the loving and accepting parents for Vivian that she didn't have growing up.

And then she meets - actually re-meets - the man who will be the love of her life. He is an injured war veteran who was burned over 60% of his body and bears those scars, plus he suffers from PTSD and cannot bear to be touched. Ironic that this woman for whom sex is such an important component of her life falls in love with a man with whom she will never be able to have a sexual relationship. And yet her love for him and his for her is strong and deep.

There were parts of this book that irritated me, but ultimately the story of a solitary and strong, if conflicted, woman who chose to live her life as she saw fit outside the norms that were expected of women in her era proved to be a very worthwhile read. It's not just about licentious sexual freedom, it's about an independent woman making a life for herself in the manner that she chose and doing the best that she can to live an ethical life without hypocrisy. And that's a worthy goal that many of us have for ourselves.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Sunday, July 21, 2019

Poetry Sunday: Personal Effects by Raymond Effects

This poem was brought to my attention by my Facebook friend, Bill Gould, who had heard it on Writers' Almanac on NPR. I looked it up and was captivated. Those last three stanzas are just perfect and priceless. I hope you agree.

Personal Effects

by Raymond Byrnes
The lawyer told him to write a letter
to accompany the will, to prevent
potential discord over artifacts
valued only for their sentiment.
His wife treasures a watercolor by
her father; grandmama’s spoon stirs
their oatmeal every morning. Some
days, he wears his father’s favorite tie.
He tries to think of things that
could be tokens of his days:
binoculars that transport
bluebirds through his cataracts
a frayed fishing vest with
pockets full of feathers brightly
tied, the little fly rod he can still
manipulate in forest thickets,
a sharp-tined garden fork,
heft and handle fit for him,
a springy spruce kayak paddle,
a retired leather satchel.
He writes his awkward note,
trying to dispense with grace
some well-worn clutter easily
discarded in another generation.
But what he wishes to bequeath
are items never owned: a Chopin
etude wafting from his wife’s piano
on the scent of morning coffee
seedling peas poking into April,
monarch caterpillars infesting
milkweed leaves, a light brown
doe alert in purple asters
a full moon rising in October,
hunting-hat orange in ebony sky,
sunlit autumn afternoons that flutter
through the heart like falling leaves.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

This week in birds - #361

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

Monk Parakeet image from allaboutbirds.com.

Monk Parakeets were brought to this country for the pet trade, but as so often happens, they escaped from captivity and have now made themselves quite at home in many areas of the country. They are very interesting and charming birds. Several years ago, two of them turned up in my neighborhood. I was never sure if they were a pair or just two individuals, but they lived here for well over a year, frequently visiting my bird feeders during that time. Eventually, one disappeared and then the other one was gone. I don't know if they moved on or if a predator got them. There haven't been any others colonizing this neighborhood. Yet.  


Earth just experienced its hottest June since records have been kept and is on track to break the record for July. The global average temperature for June was 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit above the norm.


The U.S. states that will be most quickly and directly affected by climate change are making the least effort to prepare. The people in those states are concerned but the politicians running the states continue to adhere to the policy of denying that climate change is occurring. Which begs the question, why do people keep electing politicians who are inimical to their interests?


And right here, right now much of the country is experiencing a dangerous heatwave with temperatures climbing near or above triple digits in some areas this weekend.


The Environmental Protection Agency, which no longer seems to be in the business of protecting the environment, says it will not ban the use of the controversial pesticide, chlorpyrifos, even though it has been linked to neurological damage in children.


A pod of nearly fifty pilot whales swam into shallow waters and some beached themselves on St. Simons Island in Georgia. Beachgoers rushed to the rescue, pushing the animals back out to sea. Three of the whales died, including one that had to be euthanized, but conservationists are hopeful that the others will survive. 


The tiny Kirtland's Warbler was once headed for extinction but, thanks to the protection of the Endangered Species Act, it has recovered and will soon be removed from the Endangered Species List. Some activists in Michigan where the bird nests are lobbying for it to be named the State Bird, replacing the American Robin.


The population of that iconic English bird, the House Sparrow, has plummeted in its own home town of London, falling by 71% since 1995. Avian malaria is suspected of being the cause of the drastic decline.


With the recent deluge provided by Tropical Storm Barry, Arkansas has become the fifth state to set a tropical storm rainfall record in the past two years.


A federal court has upheld the protections given to a rare and endangered bird, the California Gnatcatcher.


Fifty million non-native pheasants and partridges are released into the British countryside each year for the sole purpose of being shot by hunters. But, of course, not all of them are shot and the survivors are impacting the environment into which they have been artificially introduced. Now a British conservation organization, Wild Justice, is planning to sue to stop the practice.


This tiny, endangered butterfly, the El Segundo Blue, is making a comeback across Los Angeles where its habitat has been protected. 


Scientists have been surprised to find algae growing amid the snow on the sterile heights of a Chilean volcano. If it can grow there, might it also be present in other desolate worlds?


As the climate heats up, many birds are being forced into smaller habitats to find the cooler temperatures which they need. As they become confined to these areas, they are more at risk from predators.


A non-native tree, the Callery pear, aka the Bradford pear, took suburbia by storm in the 1990s. It is beautiful when in bloom and it was planted in many neighborhoods and along many streets. But beauty is as beauty does and this tree has proved to be an ugly invader. The invasive species is driving out native trees in eastern forests. Efforts are now underway, belatedly, to control it.


National Moth Week runs today through July 28. It's a time to increase our awareness of these critters and to learn to appreciate their role in Nature.


It turns out there are now two documented California Condor chicks that have been hatched in the wild this year - one at Utah's Zion National Park and one at the Grand Canyon. They are numbers 1000 and 1001 in the condor population. This represents a truly remarkable recovery since the population dwindled to 22 back in the 1980s and the remaining birds were captured and put in a captive breeding program.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Ulysses by James Joyce: A review

You know how writers sometimes seem to fall in love with a word and they use it over and over again? For James Joyce, that word was snot. In the first section of his magnum opus where we meet Stephen Dedelus and Buck Mulligan, that ugly word appears incessantly. People are snot-nosed, they carry snotrags, objects are snot-colored. Suffice to say if I had been playing a drinking game with snot as the trigger word, I would have been thoroughly soused by the time I finished this section.

It's not like I didn't know what I was getting into. I first read this book back in 2008 and the first sentence of the review that I wrote at the time was, "This was one of the most difficult books I've ever tried to read." The only change I would make to that assessment eleven years later is that it is the MOST difficult book I've ever tried to read. I did rather enjoy it that first time around, especially the last section which I think of as "Molly's soliloquy". I enjoyed the novelty of it and the knowledge that so many very intelligent critics considered this the greatest work in English literature in the 20th century. Maybe my patience has become more strained in the intervening years but this time I was mostly just annoyed by it. Starting with the word snot.

After that first section, we meet our Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, and we walk with him through Dublin on this one day in his life. It's a day in which he attends the funeral of a friend and spends much of the day imbibing and conversing with a coterie of mostly unattractive and irritating friends and acquaintances, and ends the day by taking Stephen, who has lost his living accommodation in the meantime, home with him.

That, in a nutshell, is Ulysses

What makes the book interesting is the way in which Joyce loosely followed the text of Odysseus in constructing his plot and all of the references in his book to classical works, including a very long bow to Shakespeare. One can acknowledge and admire the creativity and inventiveness of the writer and still be irritated by his work, I found.

This, of course, was one of the pioneers in the use of "stream of consciousness" in telling a story and the stream becomes a rushing torrent here. We experience it through the interior monologues of Bloom and of Molly Bloom, his wife.

Part of what bothered me about the book this time around - and I don't really remember remarking on this during my first read - was the casual racism, misogyny, and religious intolerance. Perhaps my consciousness has been raised since 2008! One must take into account the period in which a work was produced, and no doubt in the early 1900s, these attitudes prevailed in many circles, including perhaps Dublin. Still, it is jarring today.

Undoubtedly this book was and is a significant work of art, even with its bawdiness and vulgarity, and it has continued to influence other writers. Even Margaret Mitchell perhaps. One paragraph in the book begins "Gone with the wind." It goes on to talk about Tara. Did Mitchell read it and take that as an inspiration for her book?

I had promised myself that I would reread Ulysses one day, and after reading mostly light and very enjoyable books recently, I decided that it was time for a challenge. I'm glad I read it a second time. I don't think there will be a third.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars 

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner: A review

I read this novel just after reading Elin Hilderbrand's Summer of '69 and found myself occasionally mixing the two up, ascribing one of Hilderbrand's characters to Weiner. No doubt both authors would have been appalled, but there are actually some common themes. Both books could be said to be "women's stories"; the main characters are all female and the essential thrust of the stories is about young women coming of age, about coming to accept oneself, and about women's empowerment. And both books were very, very good.

Mrs. Everything tells the story of two sisters, Josette (Jo) and Elisabeth (Bethie) Kaufman. We first meet them as they are children growing up in the 1950s in Detroit and we follow them as they end up at university in Ann Arbor during its hippie period. From there Jo moves on to the oppressive atmosphere of suburban Connecticut and Bethie makes her way to a feminist collective in Atlanta, but it is what happens to these young women to impel them on to these destinations that makes up the heart of the plot.

Growing up, Jo is the wild child and the rebel who is not understood by her mother but has a loving relationship with her father. Bethie is the mother's ideal of a daughter - pretty, popular, and acquiescent. Jo, in fact, is struggling with her sexual identity and, in her teens, accepts the fact that she is homosexual. Bethie, on the other hand, has a series of boyfriends.

Then, the girls' world is turned upside down. Their father dies unexpectedly. Their mother who has never worked outside the home and never had to manage anything more complicated than the housework must go to work to support the family. Jo also finds a job as a camp counselor that takes her away from home for the summer. While she is away, in the guise of aiding the family, their father's brother begins sexually abusing Bethie. As with many young sexual abuse victims, Bethie finds it impossible to explain to her overwhelmed mother what is happening. But then Jo comes home from camp and Bethie, through sobs, manages to tell her. They make a plan for dealing with the uncle and it works!

But this is a pattern that will be repeated in their lives - Jo coming to the rescue of her younger sister.

Jo falls in love with her best friend, but they are unable to live together as a couple because of prejudice against homosexuals. Each young woman marries a man and attempts to live a "normal" life.

Through these two sisters, Weiner is able to tell the history of the women's rights movement in the '60s, '70s, and later. She also is able to fully explore the sexual awakening of a woman who came of age during a time that identifying as a lesbian would ensure that she was only able to participate in society on the fringes. Weiner's descriptions of sex between two women are particularly vivid and affecting. The sacrifices of their essential natures that these women made in order to be accepted by society are almost incomprehensible.

The story continues right to the present and even a bit beyond, and it contains tropes that will be familiar to many women who have lived through this era. Not that all women have been sexually abused as a child or gang-raped as a young woman as Bethie was, but the societal attitudes regarding these and other occurrences will be instantly recognizable to others like me for whom the '60s, '70s, etc. may well be history but they are also part of our personal story.

I suppose Mrs. Everything is not a perfect book and a professional critic would probably find weaknesses to point out, but I was swept up in the two sisters' tale from the beginning. I laughed and cried and suffered angst right along with them, and I was sorry when I turned the last page.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

(Belated) Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - July 2019

We had internet problems yesterday and so I was not able to post an entry for Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day. Internet restored, so here it is a bit belatedly.

Full disclosure: Not all of these pictures are current but all of these plants are currently blooming in my southeast Texas (zone 9a) garden.

Crinum: Milk and wine lilies. 


My dinner-plate-sized hibiscus. 

Joe Pye weed, which isn't a weed at all but a native plant that pollinators love. 

Anisacanthus wrightii, flame acanthus.


 Echinacea: Purple coneflower.


Duranta erecta: Golden dewdrop.

 Almond verbena: Unobtrusive flowers with a heavenly scent.

 'Pride of Barbados,' one of my favorite summer bloomers.

Hamelia patens, aka Mexican firebush: Blooms for most of the year and is much favored by hummingbirds and all kinds of pollinators, like this bee.

 Crinum: 'Ellen Bosanquet.'

The ubiquitous crape myrtle - wouldn't be summer without 'em!

Texas sage: Its blooms are triggered by rain and we've had plenty of that so far this summer. 

 Cypress vine: An old-fashioned garden favorite of hummingbirds. And of me.

 And, last but not least, my ever-dependable blue plumbago.

Thank you for stopping by. I hope you'll leave a comment so I'll know you were here. And thank you, Carol of May Dreams Gardens, as always, for hosting this monthly meme. 

Happy (belated) Bloom Day to all!

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Poetry Sunday: No Name by Emily Berry

Scrolling through a collection of poems, looking for one to feature in this week's post, I came across this one that I had never heard of by a poet with whom I was unfamiliar. I was intrigued by the poem's name and I read on. I liked what I read and so here it is without explication or commentary. I hope you like it, too. 

No Name

by Emily Berry

What can I tell you? It was a summer that seemed to be
making history — their personal history — almost before
it began, and they stood back slightly, still in it, but
observing it, saying “the summer this,” “the summer that,”
all the while it was going on. They became obsessed with
a fountain, for example, one they walked past each day,
how abundantly it would reach upwards and yet be pouring
back down itself the whole time — all winter this fountain
had been dry, not saying a word. What more can I tell you?
Oh, everything — like how they would walk home in
the evenings when the light was soft, anything bad sliding
off them, and they would feel owned, completely owned,
in a good way, by the air, which would touch them constantly,
sometimes urgently, sometimes lightly, just to let them know
it was there, and they would think maybe this is what being
alive is, when they saw how complicated a tree was and how
it wanted them looking at it and saying this, how the color
of a particular flower at this particular moment was redder
even than the life force, whatever that is, if you could open
it up and get right down inside it, if you could put your mouth
to it and become as red as that rose even, it was still redder
than that, and they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves
so they wouldn’t do anything except listen to the songs in their
heads which were sad ones like nearly all good songs and watch
this feeling rolling in, sunshine or rain, we don’t know yet,
it’s a good one, it’s the best one, though it has no name.

Friday, July 12, 2019

This week in birds - #360

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

This is a Black Vulture, one of the two species of vultures that I see circling in the skies over my neighborhood every day. The other is the Turkey Vulture. The two are differentiated by the color of the skin on their heads. The Black Vulture's is black, as you see, and the Turkey Vulture's is red. These are part of Nature's clean-up crew. They perform a valuable service in keeping the Earth clean and preventing disease.


One of the features of tropical storms and hurricanes in this era of climate change is that they are a lot wetter. Barry, the storm that is now bearing down on the Louisiana coast, is expected to dump 10 to 20 inches of rain on the already saturated land and that could cause some extreme flooding. Of course, our area dealt with this issue when Hurricane Harvey hit and dumped up to 50 inches of rain in some places. Some of those places are still recovering from that storm. Let us hope that Louisiana gets luckier. 


The current administration in Washington is intending to approve the use of the pesticide Sulfoxaflor for use on a wide variety of crops. This pesticide is suspected of causing harm to bees. Beekeepers in the U.S. lost 40% of their hives during the past year and pesticides are believed to be one of the causes of the losses.


The repetitive call of the Whippoorwill is a sound that denotes the coming of spring in the north, but those calls are getting scarcer and scarcer as the species declines over a wide area of its range.


Volunteer counts of butterflies in Ohio have revealed some alarming numbers. It appears that butterfly numbers have fallen by as much as one-third over the last two decades.


This is an artist's reconstruction of an Elektorornis chenguangi, an extinct species of songbird that lived during the Cretaceous period some 99 million years ago. One of the birds was discovered partially entombed in amber and so we have a good idea of what they looked like. Note the elongated middle toe. Scientists believe the birds may have used that toe to extract insects from their hiding places in holes or under bark.


The once-threatened Peregrine Falcon has made a remarkable recovery since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring and brought our attention to the deadly effect DDT was having on our wildlife. The result was the banning of DDT and the passing of the Endangered Species Act and establishment of the EPA. In places like Minnesota where the Peregrine was once wiped out, the birds flourish today and they have had a very successful nesting season.


Wildlife crossings, bridges over or under highways where wildlife can pass without the threat of being run down by automobiles, obviously benefit the safety of the animals but they help ensure the safety of humans as well.


The critically endangered right whales have been dying in record numbers but there are high-tech fishing tools that could help to protect them.


Have you seen Snowball, the dancing Sulfur-crested Cockatoo? He's become an internet sensation and he has given scientists new perspectives on the origins of dance and why humans or cockatoos do it. 


Audubon has released a new report on the disappearance of North American grassland birds and what can be done to protect them in a climate-vulnerable landscape.


As ice caps and permafrost thaw in the warming climate, ancient life long held in stasis by the ice is being resurrected. Organisms from simple bacteria to multicellular organisms are being awakened to a new life.


Coyotes have returned to San Francisco after being absent for several decades and a photographer is capturing their return and adaptation to the life of the city.


Coral reef clownfish won't lay their eggs if the light is too bright. This is just one more example of how light pollution can have such a devastating effect on Nature.


One way seabirds manage competition is to forage for food at different depths in the ocean. For example, Guillemots and Razorbills dive much deeper for their food than do Puffins so even though they live in the same areas, they do not compete.


The presence of the California Condor chick at a nest in Zion National Park in Utah has now been confirmed. If it survives until it is able to fly - probably in November - it will be the first condor chick to fledge in the park.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Summer of '69 by Elin Hilderbrand: A review

I actually remember the summer of '69. I remember the excitement of watching on a black and white television screen as Neil Armstrong took his "one small step" into history, fulfilling President Kennedy's promise that we would go to the moon in that decade. I remember it and so it's hard for me to think of a novel about that time as "historical fiction" and yet I suppose that is what we must call Elin Hilderbrand's Summer of '69. It was, in fact, fifty years ago this summer.

In addition to being historical fiction, this is what I would call a great summer read, a great beach book even. After all, much of its action takes place on the beaches of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, places about which Hilderbrand seems to write instinctively. One feels that she knows them well.

Kate Levin, the wife of Boston lawyer David, takes her family to her mother's Nantucket beach house every summer for three months, but in '69 some members of that family are missing. Her busy husband is only able to join the family on weekends. Her beloved only son, Tiger, has been drafted and recently sent to Vietnam. Her oldest daughter, Blair, is heavily pregnant and unable to travel. Her second daughter, Kirby, has taken a job on Martha's Vineyard at a hotel frequented by people like Ted Kennedy. This leaves Jessie, her youngest, as the only child to absorb all of Kate's anxieties and worry. It promises to be a very unpleasant summer for Jessie.

Jessie is a marvelous character. The story really belongs to her and we see it primarily through her eyes. She turns thirteen during this summer and her body, her perspectives, and priorities are changing. Much too fast it seems at times.

Hilderbrand shifts her perspective from one character to another, but always it comes back to Jessie. The Levin family relationships prove fractious. Kate's mother, David's mother-in-law is tyrannical and dictatorial. And over all of the relationships spreads Kate's dread of receiving notification from the Army and knowing that she will never see her son alive again and her desperate attempts to find someone with influence who can get her boy home.

And so we spend this momentous summer with this somewhat dysfunctional but ultimately loving family and we watch as they navigate what is for them a very stressful season but one in which Jessie grows and learns about life. The most important things that she learns are facts about her family. She learns that her adored father and her mother are also human beings in addition to being her parents. Even her autocratic grandmother is a human being with her own needs and desires. One has reason to hope that Jessie will herself be a very wise human being.

This is a thoroughly undemanding read about an ordinary family with whom I could easily identify and about a time in our country's history that I can look back on almost fondly today, although at the time it was fraught with anxiety and hard to see the way forward. Hilderbrand is a very talented writer and the plotting of her novel was skillful and it kept the action moving, making it hard for the reader to put the book down. Her adeptness as a writer was also borne out in the development of her characters. I have nothing negative to say about the book. It was, in my estimation, the perfect summer read!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars