Friday, February 28, 2020

This week in birds - #391

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

A Northern Shoveler pair basks in the bright sun of a mild winter day in a South Texas wetland.


Today a federal judge in Idaho voided nearly one million acres of oil and gas leases on federal lands in the West. He ruled that the federal government had limited public input on those leases and that that was "arbitrary and capricious". The leasing policy had been challenged by environmental groups trying to protect the habitat of the Greater Sage-Grouse.


Also this week, conservation groups filed a legal petition challenging the federal government's plan to allow 3,500 new gas wells in southwestern Wyoming. The gas wells would block the migration route of pronghorn antelopes, a route they have traveled annually for six thousand years. The petition alleges that the wells were approved without properly analyzing potential harm to the antelope and to the Greater Sage-Grouse that shares the pronghorn's habitat.


JP Morgan Chase has announced that it will stop approving loans for companies pursuing new fossil fuel drilling in the Arctic Circle. This follows a similar move announced by Goldman Sachs. The financial institutions have received pressure from Democratic lawmakers and environmental groups to take this action. 


The abnormally warm Alaska summers are resulting in changes in coastal ecosytems that are causing fish populations to migrate and some dieoffs of seabird populations. Moreover, warming waters are making shellfish toxic, disrupting a way of life for Native Alaskans who have earned their living by fishing.


A story that went viral regarding a toy poodle being carried off by a hawk in Pennsylvania is most likely a mistake. The dog (who has been found and reunited with his owner) weighs 6.5 pounds and even the largest raptors in the area can only carry around 4 pounds.


California's new law regulating groundwater goes into effect this year. It will have a significant impact on the state's agricultural practices and on rural communities and endangered wetlands. The regulation was put into place in response to concerns about the effects of drought and additional drilling of wells to get water.


More dam removal this time in Delaware. So far, one dam blocking the migration route to the spawning grounds of several species of fish has been removed on Brandywine Creek and plans are for all ten of the remaining dams to be removed or modified over the next three years.


The problem of electrocution killing raptors is being tackled in New Jersey. That has become one of the top killers of Bald Eagles there.


Want to save the world? Then you might just try planting some native plants in your yard. It will help the insects on which the survival of the food chain depends.


A major effort to expand development of Canada's oil sands has collapsed amid investor concerns over oil's future and political fault lines between economic and environmental priorities.


The devastating fires in Australia have been followed by heavy rains and flooding compounding the extremes of environmental disasters.


For the second straight year, the number of Monarch butterflies wintering in the West is critically low.


Los Angeles' mountain lions are penned in by the freeways and facing extinction but a new wildlife crossing offers hope that they may be able to escape their prison.


Raptors that feed from higher in the food chain have higher mercury levels in their bodies.


Are whales' sense of direction disrupted by sunspots? There is some evidence that this may be the case and that it may contribute to some of the beaching incidents.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Awakening by Kate Chopin: A review

I saw a reference to this book in The New York Times recently and it jogged my memory. I had actually wanted to read the book several years ago, but I guess newer and shinier books distracted me from that goal and I never got around to it. Well, it's time.

The Awakening was published in 1899 and it was controversial from the beginning. It was not outright banned but it was censored and denounced as immoral because it depicted a woman's sexual desire in a frank manner. It further outraged critics because it told the story of a woman who was not fulfilled by the roles of wife and mother and who chafed at the social constraints that the roles forced upon her. She wanted to be free and did not consider herself a "mother-woman". Rather, as the narrative states, she was "fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way" and she did not constantly devote herself to their care.

The protagonist is Edna Pontellier. She and her husband, Leonce, and their two boys live in New Orleans and spend their summers on Grand Isle. However, Leonce is often absent on business and Edna is left with the children. She has servants who help her, none of whom are ever named. The nursemaid, for example, is referred to throughout as the "quadroon" and a young girl who is a maid is called the "young black maid".

Edna acknowledges that Leonce is the best of husbands, but she is restless and unhappy and not entirely without cause it seems. When her husband is at home, he spends most nights gambling at the casino and comes home around midnight after Edna is in bed asleep and expects her to wake up and listen to his conversation. On one such occasion, he is frustrated because Edna is unresponsive and he goes to the boys' room to check on them. He comes back and informs Edna that one of them has a high fever and calls her a bad mother. She hurries to check on the boy and finds him perfectly well with no fever. She returns to her bedroom and finds her husband fast asleep.

That's when I might have dumped a bucket of ice water on him, but Edna's response is to go and sit on the balcony and weep. The writer describes her whole being as overcome by a vague anguish. This incident seems rather representative of their relationship.

Edna finds comfort in her female friendships and begins to see herself as an individual who has the agency to control her own life. She seeks fulfillment through artistic expression and on Grand Isle in the absence of Leonce, she becomes infatuated with a young man. He seems to return her interest, but then he announces that he is going to Mexico. Edna is dazed and distressed by the news.

There is another young man on Grand Isle named Robert Le Brun, who has something of a reputation for the number of women he has romanced. Edna finds herself charmed by him as well and responds to his sexual advances. He is finally able to satisfy her desires.

While her husband continues to be away on business, Edna decides to send their children to their paternal grandparents for a visit. For the first time, she is unencumbered by wifely or motherly duties. She is able to freely indulge her impulses, her passion. And for this, critics of the time and some even today would condemn her for "abandoning" her children and being selfish. Of course, no one condemned the father for never being present for his children.

We see Edna awakening to her own identity and self-consciousness, to the wonders of her own body. She finds strength in her love of Nature, in her relationship with her friends, and in her art. And we realize that she will not be able to go back to the life of her pre-awakened self. She will never be able to tolerate that role again, and yet society offers her no other. The only way she will ever truly be able to break free is in death. And so it does not surprise us when that is the route she chooses. She walks into the Gulf and swims far out until she is past the point where she will be able to return.

The Awakening has been hailed as a great feminist novel. It gave a clear-eyed focus to issues faced by women and we still see women facing some of the same issues and judgmental attitudes more than one hundred years later. Edna was able to find her epiphany in acknowledging her own feelings and thinking her own thoughts. In this way, she was able to follow the lodestar of her own pleasure away from the suffocating strictures of patriarchy and onto a new and freer path.

Her story ended in tragedy, as I guess it had to given the times in which it was written. But still, she serves as an example and as a heroine to many modern women readers who admire her ability to break free of society's bonds.

Chopin's novel is well written. The language is sometimes archaic, but then it is over 120 years old. She never earned much recognition or success for the book in her short lifetime. I think she might be surprised to find it still being read today.

There are several short stories that finish out the book. They are all essentially in the same vein as the novella. Together, they stand as the attestation to Chopin's acclaim as a feminist writer.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars       

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Through a Glass, Darkly by Donna Leon: A review

Time for a trip to Venice to see what's happening with Commissario Guido Brunetti. It is spring in Venice and Guido is enjoying the early greening of the vegetation and the soft, sunny days of the season. He takes every opportunity he can to escape from his office at the Questura and bask in the sensual vernal pleasures.

But, of course, as always happens, work has a way of interfering with Guido's pleasure.

In this instance, it starts with his assistant Vianello asking him to intervene in a case in which a friend of his who is an environmental activist has been arrested during a protest. It turns out there really is no case against the man, Ribetti, and he is released. But as they are leaving the police station they encounter the man's father-in-law, Giovanni De Cal, who is the owner of a glass factory in Murano. De Cal despises his son-in-law and is furious with him for being arrested. He takes Ribetti's environmental activism as a personal affront. He accosts his son-in-law and threatens him, as he has been known to do before.

It's not clear whether De Cal is a man who would actually act on his threats of violence, but soon after, his night watchman is found dead under suspicious circumstances next to one of the factory furnaces. The night watchman had believed that harmful chemicals in the soil and water had been responsible for the disability of his little daughter and he had been investigating the soil and water around the glass factories to try to prove his theory. Had De Cal or the other owners considered him a threat that they had to get rid of?

We know from experience that any case that Brunetti investigates is going to uncover a morass of corruption, both public and private, and that happens once again here. It turns out that some of the Murano glass factories, including De Cal's, have been evading regulations that were put in place to ensure that they were not poisoning the soil and water and inspectors had not discovered the infractions. It was left to people like the night watchman to ferret out the information and make it known. But the challenge for Brunetti is to prove that the man was murdered instead of dying by accident, or, failing that, to at least hold the factories accountable for their pollution and the danger they pose to public health.  It's a tall order especially when the owners of the factories have powerful political allies, but Brunetti and Vianello are seasoned warriors in the battle with Italian bureaucracy.

I found the plot of this entry in the Commissario Brunetti series to be particularly interesting and well-done, and I learned quite a bit about the ancient art of glass-making in the process of reading it. The characters, as usual, are well-drawn.  Donna Leon has done a good job of keeping this long-running series fresh and entertaining.  On the whole, I count this as one of the better reads in this series.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars   

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Poetry Sunday: February by Margaret Atwood

Winter is winding down where I live, but it seems to be readying one last blast for us. We are expecting some quite cold temperatures this week as February ends.

Margaret Atwood understands February:

   February, month of despair, 
   with a skewered heart in the centre.

And she understands cats and life:

    It’s all about sex and territory, 
   which are what will finish us off 
   in the long run.

Here is Atwood's take on February.


by Margaret Atwood

Winter. Time to eat fat
and watch hockey. In the pewter mornings, the cat,
a black fur sausage with yellow
Houdini eyes, jumps up on the bed and tries
to get onto my head. It’s his
way of telling whether or not I’m dead.
If I’m not, he wants to be scratched; if I am
He’ll think of something. He settles
on my chest, breathing his breath
of burped-up meat and musty sofas,
purring like a washboard. Some other tomcat,
not yet a capon, has been spraying our front door,
declaring war. It’s all about sex and territory,
which are what will finish us off
in the long run. Some cat owners around here
should snip a few testicles. If we wise
hominids were sensible, we’d do that too,
or eat our young, like sharks.
But it’s love that does us in. Over and over
again, He shoots, he scores! and famine
crouches in the bedsheets, ambushing the pulsing
eiderdown, and the windchill factor hits
thirty below, and pollution pours
out of our chimneys to keep us warm.
February, month of despair,
with a skewered heart in the centre.
I think dire thoughts, and lust for French fries
with a splash of vinegar.
Cat, enough of your greedy whining
and your small pink bumhole.
Off my face! You’re the life principle,
more or less, so get going
on a little optimism around here.
Get rid of death. Celebrate increase. Make it be spring.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

This week in birds - #390

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

Purple Martin image courtesy of All About Birds website.

The Purple Martins are back. They began arriving back in our area around the end of January. First to arrive are the scouts, adult males like the one in the picture above. The adult males are followed by the adult females and first-year birds. The martins are among the first of our summer residents to return to the area and they are generally among the first to leave. Most of them are gone from here by July 4. In the eastern part of the continent, martins are now entirely dependent on nest boxes erected by humans, a tradition that goes all the way back to early Native Americans. In the west, the birds still sometimes nest in natural cavities.


In this election year, it is worth noting that a majority of Americans surveyed said that dealing with climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed ranked protecting the environment as a leading policy priority. However, this masks a deep partisan divide on the issues with Democrats overwhelmingly citing the issues as important and Republicans much less concerned. 


Extreme weather made news in widely separated areas of the globe this week. Britain has been battered by two successive big storms that have dumped torrents of rain and have caused flooding, landslides, and misery in many parts of the country. Meanwhile, in Mississippi, heavy rains in the central part of the state have swamped the Ross Barnett Reservoir north of Jackson and the overflow has pushed the Pearl River over its banks, forcing evacuations. 


Throughout the South, spring is arriving weeks early this year, encouraging plants to wake up and to bloom. This could be a problem since the area is still vulnerable to late frosts for a few more weeks.


Temperatures are steadily rising around the world, but the trend isn't spread evenly geographically or throughout the seasons. The cold places on Earth are heating up much faster than the warmer spots and the winters are warming up faster than summers. This is creating a cascade of unpredictable impacts in communities throughout the country.


Restoring the Bobwhite Quail to the Chesapeake Bay area has had an unexpected benefit for the conservation of the bay itself.


There are areas of the Appalachians that have been devastated by "mountaintop removal" by energy companies trying to get to the minerals underground. Such practices completely destroy the ecosystem of the locale, but scientists are now recommending a way to restore that ecosystem. Essentially, it involves planting trees. Lots of them.


And speaking of restoration, Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon has given her support to a plan to remove four dams from the Snake River in order to help preserve and increase the salmon runs.


A five-year study of the impact of reintroducing beavers to the English countryside has concluded that the benefits of such a plan outweigh any problems that might be created. 


A well-preserved frozen bird carcass that was found in permafrost in Siberia has been determined through DNA testing to be a Horned Lark. The bird is from 46,000 years ago. 


Africa has long been a thunder and lightning hotspot, but with the planet heating up, the continent is experiencing bigger and more frequent and severe lightning storms, like the one that recently killed four rare mountain gorillas in Uganda. 


As the assault on clean water regulations continues at the federal level, some states will be hit harder than others by the effects of the removal of the environmental safety net.


Black-throated Blue Warbler photo by Kyle Horton.

A study of the Black-throated Blue Warbler confirms that the little bird has shifted the timing of its spring and fall migrations over the past fifty years.


Increasing periods of drought and rising temperatures are decreasing the flow of the Colorado River, a 1,450-mile waterway on which millions of people depend.


As the EPA finalizes plans to roll back rules that cut the emissions of mercury and other toxins, utility companies are opposing the changes as unnecessary and unreasonable.


A recently published genetic study of bats in the Philippines indicates that there may be more species of those critters there than was previously believed.


A scientific model suggests that birds have been migrating for much longer than had been thought. It seems that they were migrating during glaciation periods and that their migrations shifted with climate change. 

Friday, February 21, 2020

Nothing More Dangerous by Allen Eskens: A review

"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

It often seems that we are afflicted with an epidemic of sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity in our public life these days, but Allen Eskens reminds us that this is not a recent development. The ignorance/stupidity movement has deep roots in our society.

He takes us back to 1976, to the little town of Jessup, Missouri and shows us life there through the eyes of fifteen-year-old Boady Sanden. Boady is a freshman in high school and has been enrolled by his mother in St. Ignatius High School, the local private Catholic school. He left behind all of his friends in the public school he had attended and he is an outcast in the new school. He is either ignored or bullied by the St. Ignatius kids.

Boady lives with his widowed mother (his father died in an accident when he was five years old) who works as bookkeeper for a drywall hanging company. They live next door to a mysterious man named Hoke who moved in about ten years before. Even living next door to him for ten years they know little about his history but he is a kind and intelligent man who serves as a kind of surrogate father to Boady, teaching him skills that he needs in life and also gently guiding him on an ethical path.

Boady and his mother and Hoke are all white and the community where they live is rife with racial hatred against black people. Jessup even has its own group of wannabe Ku Klux Klanners called CORPS (Crusaders of Racial Purity and Strength). When an African-American woman named Lida Poe who was the bookkeeper for the area's biggest employer disappears along with about one hundred and eighty thousand dollars of the company's money, the stage is set for conflict and suspicion. Moreover, when the Minneapolis headquarters of the company sends an African-American manager to sort things out at the Jessup factory, the CORPS faction is outraged.

The new manager moves with his family to Jessup and into a newly renovated Victorian house just next door to Boady and Hoke. It turns out that the family consists of parents and a son just Boady's age and, although the two boys get off to a shaky start, they soon bond as friends and become inseparable, sharing adventures in the woods adjacent to their homes. Their relationship had a To Kill a Mockingbird vibe for me with Hoke as a stand-in for Atticus Finch. (We finally learn that Hoke was a defense attorney in his previous life.)

On one of their adventures in the woods, the boys make the gruesome discovery of a body buried under a log. Lida Poe had not left town with embezzled money after all. 

The story then becomes a murder mystery, which the local sheriff, an ambiguous character - is he a good guy or a bad guy? - seems not too eager to investigate. The reasons for that may have something to do with the fact that he is related to some of the CORPS members.

This is essentially a coming of age story with very relatable characters as the protagonists. It is well-written with the plot and the motives for certain characters' actions revealed slowly over time. The plot is constructed in such a way to keep the reader's interest and to keep those pages turning. It was a pleasurable reading experience. I had not read any of Allen Eskens' books before, but the man can write. My only complaint is that the plot did seem a bit derivative, but it tells an important story and reminds us of the truth of that quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars   

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anaparra: A review

In a slum in an unnamed city in India, something terrible is happening. Children are disappearing and the police can't be bothered. After all, the people who live in this slum are the poorest of the poor. They are worthless in the eyes of society, so why should the police exert themselves on their behalf? Frantic parents beseech the police and offer them whatever bribes they can scrape together to try to get them to act. But none of the children are found and others keep disappearing.

Nine-year-old Jai lives in this slum with his older sister and hardworking parents. He is an indifferent student at the local over-crowded public school. His best friends are Pari, a whip-smart girl who loves studying, and Faiz, a Muslim boy who works hard to help his family. (No doubt any resemblance to Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley is purely coincidental. Or maybe not.)

When the first child disappears, it is a boy from Jai's school, a neighbor of his. Jai is addicted to true crime shows on television and he has learned (he thinks) investigation techniques from watching those shows. He decides that since the police are not acting, he will do some "detectiving" on his own. He engages Pari and Faiz in his scheme and they wander around the community searching for clues.

Then another child from their school disappears. And the toll continues to mount.

At first, the lost children are all Hindu, and religious hatred being what it is, Muslims are suspected as the culprits. Eventually, the police do actually arrest a Muslim man on scant (read no) evidence and throw him into jail where he languishes. As more children go missing.

The Purple Line of the book's title is the railway that runs through the slum. Jai steals some money from his mother and he and Faiz go on a rail trip with the excuse of looking for clues. But they find no trace of any of those who have gone missing.

There seems to be no pattern to the disappearances. The children range in age from five to sixteen and are both boys and girls. What could be the purpose of their vanishing? Could it be, as Faiz suspects and Jai wants to believe, a djinn who is playing tricks?

This is an incredibly troubling story to read because it is based on fact. As the author explains in her note, some 180 children disappear without a trace in India each year. A former journalist in that country, she had reported on the disappearances and had attempted twenty-eight years before to write this novel but it just never came together. In the intervening years, she wrote other books, but this one continued to niggle at her memory and conscience until finally, she was able to complete it. She did so brilliantly in my opinion. 

Her most brilliant stroke was in making the nine-year-old Jai and his friends her main focus. Seeing the disappearances through the eyes of these children gives them added poignancy and lets us see just how confusing the world can be to such children.

In addition to the crimes against children, the writer also brings home to us, if we needed to be reminded, the powerlessness of women and of the lowest class in India. And in one particular chapter, she gives us a glimpse of another horror that is too often visited on the women and girls of India: that of brutal gang rape. She makes clear to us the terror that girls and women feel if they must be out on the streets alone, particularly at night, but even in broad daylight. As I said, this is a very disturbing read.

The writer did an excellent job of description in setting the scene of events. I felt myself there in that slum and living as the slum-dwellers live, and my overwhelming reaction was disgust with the filth, the ever-present choking smog, the lack of privacy. And also empathy for these people who are, after all, my brothers and sisters who have no choice but to live like this. I also felt white-hot anger at the uncaring bureaucracy, particularly the police who are unworthy of that name. But also, there is admiration for the strength of the people, their sense of community as they try to help and support each other, their resilience in the face of tragedy. The children, especially, are undaunted and confront their world with humor and swagger and a conviction that they are important and that things will turn out all right. In other words, they are like children everywhere. 

I think Anaparra's twenty-eight-year wait was worth it. She has delivered a gem.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Poetry Sunday: Winter: Tonight: Sunset by David Budbill

Winter sunsets can be particularly colorful and impressive and they can remind us of how lucky we are to be here, to be alive at just this moment and to be able to enjoy a sunset. David Budbill celebrates such a moment in this poem.

Winter: Tonight: Sunset
by David Budbill
Tonight at sunset walking on the snowy road,
my shoes crunching on the frozen gravel, first
through the woods, then out into the open fields
past a couple of trailers and some pickup trucks, I stop
and look at the sky. Suddenly: orange, red, pink, blue,
green, purple, yellow, gray, all at once and everywhere.
I pause in this moment at the beginning of my old age
and I say a prayer of gratitude for getting to this evening
a prayer for being here, today, now, alive
in this life, in this evening, under this sky.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - February 2020

Spring may not have quite sprung in my zone 9a garden outside of Houston but it is definitely peeking over the windowsill and bringing with it quite a few blooms. 

 This is the antique rose 'Old Blush'.

 And the 'Peggy Martin' rose.

The daffodil Narcissus tazetta

 Leucojum aestivum.

 The cyclamen have been blooming all winter.

 As have the violas, aka Johnny-Jump-Ups.

And the pansies.

 My waxed amaryllis plants finally bloomed after three months. I don't think I'll be purchasing any more of these. I prefer potted varieties.

The Carolina jessamine, Gelsemium sempervirens, has bloomed gloriously all month.

 Turk's cap, Malvaviscus arboreus, is an ever-bloomer.

Plectranthus 'Mona Lavender'.

Purple oxalis, Oxalis triangularis

Loropetalum chinense

 Solanum luxum, ornamental potato vine.

 I recently bought this 'Bright' hibiscus at one of the big box stores. I planted it.

 And a couple of days later I checked on it and this is what I saw. Yes, there were actually two separate plants in the pot. Two for the price of one.


 And more dianthus.

 Snapdragons, Antirrhinum majus.

Lonicera sempervirens, coral honeysuckle 'Major Wheeler'.

As in most recent winters, we have a female Rufous Hummingbird making itself at home in our yard. She is very grateful for all the blooms, especially the honeysuckle and also for the feeder filled with sugar water that supplements her diet. 

How are things in your garden as winter winds down, or as summer winds down if you are in the southern hemisphere? The changing of the seasons is always an interesting time for gardeners. In my own garden, I'm finishing up with pruning and winter cleanup, moving several of my plants to areas where I think they will be happier, and adding some new plants to the garden. It's good to be out and about and getting my hands dirty again.

Happy gardening and happy Bloom Day to all, especially to our host, Carol of May Dreams Gardens.

Friday, February 14, 2020

This week in birds - #389

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

A windblown American Goldfinch visits a crape myrtle still bearing its seeds. Goldfinches and other members of the finch family love these seeds and spend a lot of time in winter munching on them and later spreading the seeds around the yard. In recent winters, our backyards have been alive with goldfinches and sometimes their cousins, Pine Siskins. Not so much this year. I have only seen very small flocks of the birds in my yard. The same goes for Cedar Waxwings. Instead of flocks in the hundreds that we've had in past years, there are flocks in the tens this year. Is the warming climate encouraging them to stay farther north in winter?


This is the weekend of the Great Backyard Bird Count when birders report the location, species, and numbers of the birds that they observe. It's a way for citizen scientists to participate in helping scientists to track where the birds are in mid-winter. It's fun and free and here's how you can participate


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officially announced that January 2020 was the hottest January on record with a global temperature averaging 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th-century average. NOAA's records go back for 141 years.


And in Antarctica where the record for one day's hottest temperature (65 degrees F) was set just last week, that record has now been broken with a temperature of 69.3 degrees F on February 9. 


A hotter Antarctica is bad news for many of the penguins that live there, including the continent's most numerous species, Chinstraps. Scientists say that Chinstrap Penguins nesting on Elephant Island number less than half as many birds as were there fifty years ago. They believe that climate change is a big factor in the decline. 


Wolf OR-54 image by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Sad news regarding the female gray wolf originally from Oregon that had traversed some 8,700 miles in northern California and Oregon in the last two years looking for a mate. Conservationists searching for her after her tracking device went silent have located her carcass. The circumstances of her death are being investigated.


And even more sad news about an endangered species: Four mountain gorillas have been killed, apparently by a lightning strike, in Mgahinga National Park in southwest Uganda, according to conservationists.


Elsewhere in Africa, the bad news is locusts. Unseasonable rain linked to a climate-change-driven event in the Indian Ocean has created perfect conditions for the swarms of locusts and they are invading Ethiopia and Kenya by the billions. 


A new study by University of Miami researchers confirms that the toxic reach of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico extended much farther than has previously been acknowledged. I don't think that will be a surprise to anyone who lives near the Gulf Coast.


This is an image of a hummingbird called the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest. The population of the species is vanishingly small. It lives in the northernmost mountain range in Colombia, which it shares with the indigenous Kogi tribe that has called the area home for centuries. Both the people and the bird are imperiled


Some of the world's most endangered mammals live on the island of Madagascar. They are lemurs and the main danger to their continued survival is loss of habitat. One species in particular, the ruffed lemur, seems to be especially affected by human activities that are degrading the habitat.


Big discoveries by the fossil hunters: (1) A tyrannosaur that is older than T. Rex and other famous members of the family was found in Canada. The bones were actually found some time ago and sat in a drawer in a museum until they were recognized for what they are. The bones are 79.5 million years old. (2) And then there is the recent find of the fossils of car-sized turtles that once roamed in what is now Venezuela and Colombia.


A Yemeni birder and wildlife photographer who had lived in New York for twenty-two years and had faithfully reported to yearly check-ins with immigration officials was summarily deported on January 28 without allowing him to contact his family or his lawyer. He went to the scheduled check-in and was not allowed to return home or to contact anyone.


Grizzly bear deaths have increased dramatically in the millions of acres in and around Glacier National Park. Trains, cars, and poaching have all contributed to the fatalities raising concerns about the future of the grizzly population in the area. 


In addition to all the other devastation caused by Hurricane Dorian to the Bahamas, a significant amount of damage was done to the coral reefs in the area.


Voters are saying that climate change is one of their major issues this year. The Climate Leadership Council hopes to use that expressed concern to prod politicians to institute a carbon tax. Carbon dioxide emissions comprise most of the greenhouse gases that are warming the Earth and these economists, politicians, and corporate executives believe they can get agreement from all sides to address the problem in this way. To which I can only say, good luck with that. 

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Weather by Jenny Offill: A review

I had been looking forward to the publication of this book since I first read about it a few weeks ago. I had preordered it on my Kindle. When it was delivered this week, as luck would have it, I had just finished reading another book and so I pounced on it.

I read Weather essentially in one sitting, something I almost never do. True, it is a short book, just over 200 pages and it was raining outside that day and so my other preferred activities were limited. But the main reason for the quick read is that the writing is propulsive. Each paragraph or section leads one inexorably to the next. 

The format of the narrative is somewhat like a diary. Each entry could almost be seen as discrete, standing on its own, and yet each entry also encourages the reader to read on, to see what is coming next.

The narrator of the novel is Lizzie Benson, who abandoned her graduate studies to take care of her drug-addicted and depressed brother. She never returned to those studies, but with the intervention of one of her previous professors, she obtained a job as a college librarian, in service of which she becomes a fount of useless (or maybe extremely useful) information. For example, various survival strategies; such as did you know that you can use a can of oil-packed tuna to generate two hours of light if you don't have a candle? And you can still eat the tuna afterward! 

Lizzie is married to Ben, a gentle classics scholar, a PhD who makes educational video games for a living and who finds joy in reading the Stoics. Lizzie and Ben live in New York and they have a son named Eli who is in first grade at a predominately East Asian public school.

Also integral to Lizzie's life are her brother, Henry, who she is still trying to save and her mother who lives in another city but drops strong hints that she would like to live in the same city as her children, possibly in the same apartment with her daughter. Her hints are ignored. And then there is Sylvia, the professor who helped Lizzie get her job and who is now a well-known public intellectual for whom Lizzie does some work in dealing with social media. 

These are the people who mainly comprise Lizzie's universe. Her narrative addresses her relationships with them. That narrative is sardonic and insightful, darkly funny and often laced with paranoia. 

The time of the novel is the present. Much of the action takes place after the 2016 presidential election and the paranoia grows in direct proportion to national events and the feeling that the center cannot hold. There is anxiety about climate change and the rise of right-wing autocrats in the world, including in this country. Lizzie and Ben start looking for a "doomstead," some place where they can escape from the horrors that seem increasingly sure to overtake us. Canada, perhaps?

I find it almost impossible to sum up this novel or to adequately describe its sardonic humor. Maybe it's something that you just have to experience to appreciate it. All I can say is I loved the book and I highly recommend to anyone who may be feeling a little worried and insecure about the direction in which world events appear to be headed. Jenny Offill understands.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars