Sunday, August 30, 2020

Dawn by Octavia E. Butler: A review


I don't dream about the books that I am reading - at least not dreams that I remember upon waking. But in the middle of reading this book, I found myself dreaming vividly about it one night. I was there on the great ship of the Oankali orbiting Earth somewhere beyond our moon. I was standing with one of the tentacled aliens who was showing me the view from space and I could see the "blue marble" of Earth far, far away, looking about the size of a marble. It was such an amazing feeling that when I woke up it seemed to me for a moment that it had really happened. That is the power of Octavia Butler's prose. 

She tells us of a time when Earth has been made uninhabitable for humans by a nuclear war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. (The book was written in the 1980s.) Humans who survived the catastrophe were rescued (captured?) by the Oankali, an extraterrestrial race with multiple tentacles extending from their bodies. The tentacles are described in one place as looking like Medusa's "hair." They are about as alien-looking as one can imagine. The humans were put into suspended animation and were studied by their rescuers/captors. From time to time they were awakened individually and then suspended again if they became uncooperative or obstreperous or had served their purpose. 

Lilith Iyapo has been awakened and suspended more than once, but now it is 250 years after the war that ravaged Earth and the planet is once again habitable. The Oankali plan is to send humans back to Earth to start over again and Lilith has a large part to play in their plans. 

The Oankali's benevolent plans to reseed Earth with humans is not without a price. They are genetic traders and their ultimate goal is to meld their race with humanity, creating a hybrid human/Oankali race that will forever change what it means to be human. The plan is to have "improved" humans who will not again destroy themselves.

The Oankali exist in three sexes - male, female, and Ooloi. The Ooloi have the capacity to engage in three-way mating with a human male and female, using their ability to control the human nervous system to create pleasure. The Ooloi feels every sensation that its human partners feel. If it causes pain, it feels that, too, and so it is careful not to cause pain. The Ooloi sees nothing wrong with this; it is simply a part of its nature, but as I thought about it later, I could see that it has some disturbing implications from a human standpoint. The humans are essentially captives and do not have much choice in the matter. Is this not rape, even if the person's body responds and even if the person is not hurt if that person objects? Indeed at one point, Nikanj, the Ooloi paired with Lilith, says to the unhappy male partner in their threesome, "Your words say no but your body did not."  Ewww! Humans have no choice about accepting these three-way liaisons if they want to go back to their home planet. They are in effect forced marriages.

But I digress.

After Lilith is awakened and finally becomes resigned to acceding to the Oankali plan for her, other humans are awakened. Males and females begin to pair up and group dynamics begin to assert themselves, not always in a positive way. Lilith becomes a kind of teacher and group leader who is expected to prepare the group for their return to Earth. Some males in the group resent the fact that their leader is a woman and sexism rears its ugly head.

Butler was actually brilliant at presenting this picture of the workings of the human group in all its prejudices, selfishness, and pettiness, even in a biological space ship far from Earth and even in the presence of an alien culture that is about as different from human culture as could be imagined. (For one difference, there's the lack of violence and of jealousy.) Human foibles and weaknesses assert themselves in spite of everything.  Butler presents us with very hard questions about human nature and its perfectability - or lack thereof. In the end, are the humans victims of Stockholm syndrome where they simply accept the role their captors assign to them and do what they need to do in order to survive? She makes clear that the aliens' intent, from their perspective, is entirely benign. But when does that intent become paternalistic and how much psychological and physiological manipulation is reasonable?

The narrative is never accusatory. Butler writes in a very straightforward manner, without flourishes, almost as a scientific treatise. She is careful not to present opinions, only the facts, and she lets us draw our own conclusions. No purple prose here. That careful telling, I think, is what gives the book such power. It is at once both beautiful and deeply disturbing and gives us much to think about. 

This is the first book in a trilogy and as such, it sets the stage for what is to come. It gives us all the background we need to continue the journey. And continue the journey I will. I look forward to reading more of the amazing world that Butler imagined for us.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Poetry Sunday: To the Light of September by W.S. Merwin

So here we are at the penultimate day of August. The last eight months could be eight years considering all that has occurred during them. But as the old song says, "the days get shorter when you reach September." At least in most years it seems that way. Schools are back in session in September and then there are the holidays of October, November, and December. Time seems to fly, but we'll see if that holds true in this extraordinary year.

The beginning of September means that we are getting a bit closer to the halcyon days of fall. The quality of light begins to change and occasionally one can feel just a touch of freshness in the air that promises cooler days to come. August is ending here with temperatures around 100 degrees F; we'll take all the freshness and coolness we can get.

W.S. Merwin had an appreciation of this time of year. He knew all about the advent of somewhat cooler weather and especially the changing light of September. 

To the Light of September

by W.S. Merwin

When you are already here
you appear to be only
a name that tells of you
whether you are present or not

and for now it seems as though
you are still summer
still the high familiar
endless summer
yet with a glint
of bronze in the chill mornings
and the late yellow petals
of the mullein fluttering
on the stalks that lean
over their broken
shadows across the cracked ground

but they all know
that you have come
the seed heads of the sage
the whispering birds
with nowhere to hide you
to keep you for later

who fly with them

you who are neither
before nor after
you who arrive
with blue plums
that have fallen through the night

perfect in the dew

Friday, August 28, 2020

This week in birds - #415

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

The fall migration of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds is ongoing. A male hovers over Hamelia patens (aka hummingbird bush or Mexican firebush) blossoms in my backyard. 


With wildfires raging through the western states this summer and a warming climate projected to increase the incidence of wildfires in the future, it is possible, even likely, that some of the forests that are burning will not regenerate as forests but as grasslands and shrublands, completely changing the ecology of the region.


As expected, Native American and environmental groups have filed suit to stop plans for leasing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas drilling. 


Redwood trees can live for thousands of years which must mean that they are able to withstand adversity. That includes wildfires. There were fears that the trees in an old-growth grove in Big Basin Redwoods State Park in California might have succumbed to recent fires, but it has been confirmed that most of the trees have withstood the blaze.


Miramar, a suburb of Wellington, New Zealand, has been quietly waging war on invasive predators such as rats, weasels, ferrets, possums, and stoats. Conservationists are out to rid the area of these predators as a way of protecting native birds, many of them flightless or ground-nesting. They are very near to accomplishing their goal.


Research suggests that 60% of Antarctica's ice shelves are in danger of collapse. Such a loss would accelerate the loss of the Antarctic ice sheet and would increase sea-level rise.


Researchers are finding traces of PFAS chemicals ( a group of synthetic chemicals often called "forever chemicals") in seabirds. These chemicals can damage organs and they are obviously present in the oceans of the world where these seabirds live. They have the capacity to do great harm to wildlife and ultimately to human life as well.


This is a Regent Honeyeater, a bird native to Australia. There is a captive-breeding program in progress designed to increase the threatened bird's population. Recently, a released captive-bred bird has led conservationists to a previously unknown wild flock.


Climate change is posing many problems for states like California that are mired in severe drought. How do governments, and indeed individuals, plan for a future that will be so affected by a warming climate? 


Lice are among the parasites that afflict humankind and others on land, but one might think that one would be able to escape them in the sea. Apparently, one would be wrong


Companies around the world are lining up for the privilege of mining the planet's seabeds for minerals. This could do untold damage to deep-sea life. We need an international framework to govern such explorations, one that will protect underwater life and prevent environmental harm.


"Routine flaring" from oil wells produces emissions that harm the climate and human health. Some states, like New Mexico and Texas, are trying to get a handle on the problem with new rules aimed at reducing emissions.


One of the California wildfires has destroyed a sanctuary for the endangered California Condor. The fate of several of the condors that lived there is unknown.


A bighorn ram on a cliff in Grand Canyon National Park.

Native desert bighorn sheep that live in ecologically intact areas are better able to withstand the challenges posed by climate change, according to a new study conducted by Oregon State University. 


The Associated Press has found that thousands of oil and gas operations, government facilities, and other sites have won permission to stop monitoring for hazardous emissions or otherwise to bypass rules intended to protect health and the environment. The coronavirus outbreak is given as the excuse for the loosening of regulations.


Wolverines are rare in the United States but for the first time in over one hundred years, they have returned to Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state, according to an announcement from the National Park Service.


Blue-throated Hillstar image from American Bird Conservancy.

The recently established Cerro de Arcos Reserve in Ecuador will provide critical habitat for the Blue-throated Hillstar, a hummingbird that was only discovered in 2017.


Wind turbines can be deadly for birds in flight, but a new study shows that simply painting one of the turbine blades black can reduce bird strikes by up to 70%.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

The Guest List by Lucy Foley: A review


On a remote island off the east coast of Ireland, a wedding is planned. It will unite a powerhouse digital magazine editor and a popular television star of a reality (but not really) survival series. The guest list for one of the most buzzed-about social events of the year brings together old friends, classmates, and family of the wedding couple. A professional wedding planner and her husband, a chef, are in charge of the event and it has been planned to perfection. But the plans could not have anticipated the long-buried guilty secrets and resentments that the guests will bring with them. Nor could it have anticipated that a storm would trap them all on the island. And then to put the icing on this wedding cake, a dead body turns up. And the death did not come from natural causes. Who could have wished the happy couple ill? And why?

A review that I read of this book - the one that convinced me that I had to read it - described it as a mashup of an Agatha Christie novel and a gossip tabloid. That sounded irresistible to me and it proved to be so. The book is essentially a "locked room mystery," recalling such Christie classics as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and And Then There Were None, still two of my all-time favorite Christie reads. The Guest List is closer to And Then There Were None since they both transpire on islands where a group of people are temporarily stranded. 

This particular island is a place haunted by a dark history. Add the fog and the treacherous peat bogs and you've got the perfect atmospheric location for a mystery. Moreover, as we get to know the backstories of various members of the wedding party and the wedding planner, we learn that the glittering facade often hides tragedy. Just as the sainted Agatha would, Lucy Foley provides all the clues we need throughout the narrative to solve the eventual murder that takes place. The clues hide there in plain sight. It really is a masterful bit of plot construction.

We get to know intimately the wedding planner, the bride, the groom, the bridesmaid (bride's half-sister), the best man (groom's best friend - or is he?), the "plus-one" wife of the bride's best friend, and various ushers, the groom's bro-gang from his school days. And as we get to know them, we get to dislike many of them. They really are wicked and sometimes truly nasty bits of work. The only ones who really come across sympathetically are the wedding planner, the bridesmaid, and the plus-one. And over the course of the wedding weekend, the tensions that had been sublimated by the group begin to rise to the surface and culminate is full-blown violence that finally results in the death of one of the party. Who? I won't tell. Why? Now, there is the puzzle for the reader.

That puzzle isn't fully revealed until the end of the book. Actually, the murder itself only takes place near the end. The tension for the reader of feeling certain that something bad is going to happen (and maybe having a preferred candidate for that "something bad") but not knowing what it is or when it might occur makes for a propulsive reading experience. Once I was engaged in the story, I found it really, really hard to put the book down. And when I was forced to, I was still going over the elements of the story in my mind and trying to figure out what would happen next.

This was the first book of Foley's that I've read. Color me suitably impressed. I'll be looking for other of her books to read.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Dark August by Katie Tallo: A review

Katie Tallo is an award-winning screenwriter and director who has decided to try her hand at writing a novel, a thriller. Dark August is the result. The August of the title might refer to the month when much of the action takes place or it might refer to the main character. Maybe it is meant to be ambiguous.

That character's name is Augusta but she goes by Gus. She is the twentyish daughter of two police officers both of whom are dead in tragic circumstances. Her father was shot and killed on the job. Then twelve years ago her mother was killed in what was ruled an accident. But was it? That is one of the things that haunts Gus.

Once both her parents were dead, Gus' only living relative was her great-grandmother. The woman took her in but was unable to provide the loving and attentive family that she needed. She ended up sending Gus to a boarding school and insisted that the school keep her on-campus full-time, even during holidays.  This was the way Gus grew up and she escaped as soon as she could and hooked up with the wrong kind of people, including a boyfriend who knocked her around. At a low point in that abusive relationship, she is informed that her great-grandmother has died and has left Gus her house.

Gus doesn't think twice. She takes some money from the boyfriend's wallet while he is sleeping and leaves without a word, heading for the town where her great-grandmother lived. She takes possession of the house and her great-grandmother's ancient dog, but she learns that there is a reverse mortgage on the house and that the bank will own it within three months. She starts making halfhearted efforts to get the house ready for sale and in the basement, she finds an old blue footlocker that she had as a child. In the footlocker, she finds hidden away files that her mother had been collecting before her death. The files contain evidence in a cold case that had obsessed her mother in the months before she died. As Gus looks at what she found, she becomes equally obsessed, both with the case her mother was investigating and the circumstances of her mother's death. She launches her own investigation following where the clues lead her. Then she becomes aware that people that she has interviewed in the course of her investigation seem to be having an unusual number of unfortunate accidents. She seems to have started a wildfire that someone is trying desperately to tamp down.

The narrator here is third party but the point of view is basically that of Gus. I found her character a bit off-putting and hard to warm up to, and there were certain elements of the narrative that seemed extraneous and unnecessary - such as the reappearance of the boyfriend Gus had left behind. What exactly did that random episode accomplish? Nothing that I could determine.

Nevertheless, on the whole, I found this an enjoyable read and once the elements of the story started fitting together, things became a lot clearer and more cohesive. I would recommend it as an engaging summer read that doesn't require a lot of contemplation.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Pew by Catherine Lacey: A review

It begins with a young person who has been living on the streets finding unlocked a side door to an unnamed church in an unnamed town and entering, gaining a place to sleep safely for the night on one of the pews. We know the person is young, but that is really all we know. We do not know gender, ethnicity, or where this person came from and came to be at that church at this particular point in time. The next morning, which happens to be Sunday, they are discovered still asleep on the pew as the parishioners gather for their weekly service. The family - man, woman, and two children - who are seated on the pew where the person sleeps do the Christian thing and invite the stranger to come home with them. They feed them and offer them a place to stay in their attic room. Through all of this, the stranger never speaks, although it is obvious that they hear and understand. Since they refuse to speak and reveal their name, if they even know it, the family and the town assign a name: Pew.

The seven chapters of this book cover the seven days of the week that lead up to and include the Forgiveness festival which the town holds each year. As time moves relentlessly toward that festival, the reader gains a sense of foreboding and weirdness.  The nature of the festival is menacingly unclear to us. Children's gossip references human sacrifice. A doctor, whom the family takes Pew to see when they are trying to determine sex and health of the individual, tells Pew that people tend to have more heart attacks and accidents in the week before the festival. Also, during the festival, everyone will be blindfolded. This festival begins to sound not very...festive.

In the end, Pew refuses to cooperate with the doctor and will not reveal a gender preference and so their sex, as well as ethnicity and color of skin, remain ambiguous. One of the townsfolk remarks at one point, "I don't know - you seemed darker the other day. It's weird."

"Weird" doesn't even begin to cover it! But it is also great fun as Lacey uses that weirdness to explore and reveal the oddness and hypocrisies that are rampant in this small anonymous town. Even though it is never named, various clues seem to point toward the American South as the location of it. Wherever it is, religion seems the focus of life here, and people are judged by their devoutness. And yet Lacey's narrative of this unique week in the life of this town clearly reveals that the townpeople's devoutness is at best a thin veneer. 

Racial division is very much a factor in this town as Pew initially is discovered in a White church and goes to live with a White family, but soon enough that family becomes disenchanted and passes them off to a Black reverend who actually takes Pew to the festival. The book also deals with the hot button issues of questions about trans identity and the way that society chooses to deal with trans individuals. 

There are several literary references here, including an epigraph from the works of Ursula K Le Guin and a kind of homage to Eudora Welty. I find it very interesting that Catherine Lacey was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, Welty's and my home state. (In fact, Tupelo is just a few miles from where I grew up.) I think it must be difficult to be a writer from that part of the world and not be influenced by the work of such heavyweights as Welty and Faulkner, to name only two. 

This was my first experience with reading Lacey. She is a brilliant writer and she gives us a confusing and messy fable from which we are left to draw our own conclusions. Not unlike life itself.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Poetry Sunday: Excerpt from The Cure at Troy by Seamus Heaney

In his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president last Thursday, Vice-President Biden quoted from a work by the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. I was not familiar with the poem and so I had to look it up. It is from a work entitled The Cure at Troy which was an adaptation by Heaney, written in verse, of Sophocles' play, Philoctetes. Philoctetes was a Greek master archer who was abandoned on a desert island by his fellow soldiers and countrymen and was later asked by the Greeks to return to fight in the Trojan War. The work was published in 1991 and in writing it, Heaney evidently was thinking of "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland. It seems to fit equally well our own troubles of today. It is a poem for all times.

Verses from The Cure at Troy

by Seamus Heaney   

Human beings suffer

They torture one another,

They get hurt and get hard.

No poem or play or song

Can fully right a wrong

Inflicted and endured.


The innocent in gaols

Beat on their bars together.

A hunger-striker’s father

Stands in the graveyard dumb.

The police widow in veils

Faints at the funeral home.

History says, Don’t hope

On this side of the grave

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.


So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that a further shore

Is reachable from here.

Believe in miracles

And cures and healing wells.


Call miracle self-healing:

The utter, self-revealing

Double-take of feeling.

If there’s fire on the mountain

Or lightning and storm

And a god speaks from the sky


That means someone is hearing

The outcry and the birth-cry

Of new life at its term.

Friday, August 21, 2020

This week in birds - #414

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

A Blue Jay checks out the feeding station to see if there is anything there that looks tasty.


As expected, the current administration in Washington has finalized its plans to allow the leasing of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling for oil and gas, even though scientists say it is likely there is little of the stuff available, likely not enough to make the drilling profitable. Drilling ANWR has been a Republican wet dream for more than forty years. The plans will be fought in court by conservation organizations and Native Americans like the Gwich'in people who depend on the caribou herd that lives in ANWR.


It is the middle of summer and California is burning. There are at least four factors that contribute to these summer wildfires. One of them is NOT the fact that California doesn't rake its forests.


A Japanese-owned, Panama-flagged bulk carrier, the Wakashio, has been leaking diesel and fuel oil into the pristine lagoons of the island nation of Mauritius, off the east coast of Africa. It is one of the worst environmental disasters ever faced by the nation and Mauritians have banded together to fight it and try to clean up the mess. There is increasing anger over the spill which Mauritians feel should never have happened.


A Kirtland's Warbler wears a radio tag just prior to its release. Data from these radio tags have confirmed that these warblers make previously unknown long-distance movements during the breeding season. Is this unique to these warblers or do other birds make such flights? The answer to that question would have important conservation implications for many North American birds.  


Last Sunday, an automated weather station at Furnace Creek in Death Valley, California recorded a temperature of 129.9F (54.4C). This is likely the hottest temperature ever reliably recorded on Earth.


Over the past couple of years, I have reported in this weekly roundup the ongoing efforts of the National Butterfly Center on the Texas border with Mexico to fight the encroachment by "wall builders" to build a wall on the border that would decimate the environment protected by the center. Finally, the courts allowed a privately funded group called We Build the Wall to build a wall on private land adjoining the center's lands. When the men heading up that organization were arrested for fraud this week, one could easily understand the center's executive director's sense of schadenfreude.


This tiny critter is an elephant shrew species that had been lost to science for fifty years. It is the Somali sengi and it has recently been discovered again, alive and well, by an expedition to Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.


Data from the citizen science website eBird appear to confirm that birds are already adjusting their ranges to compensate for the heating up of the planet. 


Five automakers - Ford, Honda, BMW, Volkswagen, and Volvo - have sealed a binding agreement with California to adhere to the state's stricter tailpipe emissions rules. Their action is in defiance of the current administration in Washington which wants less restrictive (or maybe no) rules.


Coastal mangrove swamps do yeoman duty in helping to protect communities and habitats from storm surges. But the conditions that worsen those storm surges, effects of climate change, are also killing the mangrove trees.


The Hyacinth Macaw, an endangered species, lives in the Pantanal wetland region of Brazil. That area has recently been devastated by the worst wildfires it has seen in decades, creating fears for the continued survival of the birds.


When you think of the Mojave Desert - if you think of the Mojave Desert - the first thing that comes to your mind is probably not fish, but, in fact, there are 52 species of fish that are endemic to that habitat.


Scientists are using some unusual partners - elephant seals - to help them map the currents of the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, information that is needed to monitor climate change.


Invasive shrubs in the northeastern United States leaf out earlier than native shrubs and keep their leaves longer. This makes them stiff competition for the native shrubs and more difficult to control, thus making this area particularly vulnerable to invasives.


Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir, is now at just 40% of its capacity because of persistent drought. Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico have signed an agreement to receive less water from the Colorado River next year, a move designed to help boost the level of the lake. 


Sawfish and their rhino ray relatives, all cousins of sharks, are among the most threatened species on Earth. Scientists are searching the waters of New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea to collect evidence as to whether the animals live there so that they can be protected.


Cities in the southeastern U.S. are already dealing with rising waters as a result of climate change. How do these communities plan for their wetter future?

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

28 Summers by Elin Hilderbrand: A review

Elin Hilderbrand really does represent the gold standard when it comes to beach novels. Last summer I read her Summer of '69 and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to reading her 2020 entry to her beach oeuvre. She did not disappoint. 

28 Summers begins in 1993. No, actually that's wrong. It begins with the ending and so we know up front that Mallory Blessing will die much too young from cancer in 2020. But after introducing us to Mallory on her deathbed, she takes us back to 1993 where it all began.

Mallory, a Baltimore girl, had been living quite unhappily in New York with her best childhood friend. Her life was going nowhere and she was looking for a way out. That way out came from a most unexpected direction. An aunt dies and bequeaths to Mallory her summer cottage on Nantucket, a cottage where Mallory had spent many happy summers growing up. She takes possession but knows right away that this will not be a summer cottage for her; this will be her permanent home.

She sets about finding a job, getting to know her neighbors, and generally making herself at home on the island. Then her brother asks her to host a bachelor party for him on Labor Day weekend. She happily assents and her brother and two of his friends, Fray his childhood buddy and Jake McCloud his fraternity big brother at Johns Hopkins, show up for the weekend. But then Fate intervenes and, the first thing we know, both her brother Cooper and friend Fray have absconded for different reasons leaving only Jake. 

Now, Mallory had long had a bit of a crush on Jake but had never spent time alone with him. They decide to go ahead with the weekend that she had planned and before the weekend is over, the two of them are in love. Unfortunately, Jake is already committed to his childhood sweetheart Ursula and he feels unable to give her up and Mallory doesn't make any demands. Instead, the two make a pact to have a "same time next year" affair. And so, every Labor Day weekend for 28 years, whatever has happened in their lives in the intervening year, Jake returns to the island and the two resume their relationship. They have no contact of any kind for the rest of the year.

Eventually, Jake does marry Ursula and they have a daughter. Mallory never marries but she has serial affairs and has a one-night stand with Fray which produces a son, Lincoln (Link).

At the start of each chapter (each chapter delineates another year's Labor Day weekend), Hilderbrand gives us a brief rundown of pop culture and the topics that were absorbing our attention in that year. This was actually one of the most interesting things about the narrative for me and it helped to anchor me in time as each year came along. 

Hilderbrand writes of thoroughly nice people. Yes, there are some minor hiccups in behavior, but at heart, her characters are people who care about others and who want to do what's right. They don't want to hurt anyone. In other words, this is escapist literature, but when were we ever more in need of an escape?

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Poetry Sunday: Midsummer by William Cullen Bryant

June 24 is the traditional Midsummer Day in the northern hemisphere, but, in fact, we have just a few days ago passed the middle summer day on the calendar, so let's stretch the point and enjoy a William Cullen Bryant poem. I can certainly relate to his line about plants fainting in the field beneath the torrid blaze of the sun and "life is driven from all the landscape brown." August in Southeast Texas seems almost unbearable and yet there are many places in the world where it is truly unbearable and getting more so as the planet heats up. Places where it is...

"As if the Day of Fire had dawned, and sent
Its deadly breath into the firmament."


by William Cullen Bryant (1794 - 1878)

A power is on the earth and in the air,   From which the vital spirit shrinks afraid,   And shelters him in nooks of deepest shade, From the hot steam and from the fiery glare. Look forth upon the earth—her thousand plants   Are smitten; even the dark sun-loving maize   Faints in the field beneath the torrid blaze; The herd beside the shaded fountain pants; For life is driven from all the landscape brown;   The bird hath sought his tree, the snake his den,   The trout floats dead in the hot stream, and men Drop by the sunstroke in the populous town:   As if the Day of Fire had dawned, and sent   Its deadly breath into the firmament.

Friday, August 14, 2020

This week in birds - #413

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

Laughing Gulls are the most common gull in this area. I caught this one standing at attention on a post at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.


The past decade was the hottest ever recorded globally, while 2019 was either the second or third hottest year ever recorded. The planet's warming is accelerating and the past six years, 2014 to 2019, have been the hottest since global records have been kept. 


In this era of social distancing, our 13 national seashores and lakeshores offer attractions featuring water and long stretches of beach that make social distancing a possibility while also offering people a chance to connect with Nature and a respite from being indoors.


Referencing a quote from To Kill a Mockingbird, a federal judge in New York invalidated rule changes by the current administration that would have allowed individuals and corporations to kill scores of birds as long as they could convince a court that they did not do it intentionally. She thus upheld the protections received by birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.


Experts at the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona repeatedly warned the Department of Homeland Security of the grave threat to rare and endangered species that would be posed by the construction of a wall on the border there. Their warnings were completely ignored and construction continues.


Large solar farms in America kill thousands of birds every year. Scientists are working to determine why this happens and how deaths can be prevented while still producing clean renewable energy.


This is the prime season for moth watching and since there are more than 11,000 species of moths in North America, there is plenty of opportunity for observing them. This compares to around 700 species of birds and 750 species of butterflies. 


Canada's last intact ice shelf, the 4,000-year-old Milne Ice Shelf on the northwestern edge of Ellesmere Island, has broken apart due to the warming climate. Satellite photos showed that about 43% of the shelf had broken off.


The current administration is revoking rules that require oil and gas drillers to detect and fix leaks of methane, the greenhouse gas that heats the planet even faster than carbon dioxide.


In 2003 the small Japanese town of Kamikatsu set an ambitious goal of being 100% waste-free by 2020. While the town made remarkable progress, it has ultimately fallen short of its goal. But it has been able to identify the problem: It's single-use plastic. We must find a way to remove this from our lives in order to achieve the ultimate elimination of waste.  


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced plans to reduce protected critical habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl. There is a 60 day period for public comments on the plan which opened on August 11.


A recent study of plant communities in the Amazonian region should help in the planning of future conservation efforts. Scientists studied the distribution of more than 5,000 woody species (trees and shrubs) in 301 plant communities scattered all over the Amazon.


Canada's westernmost province of British Columbia has more than 2,000 species of plants and animals that are endangered and at risk of disappearing; however, the province has no endangered species law to provide protection for them.


The rapid decline of U.S. bird species is being spurred by the use of deadly pesticides such as those containing neonicotinoids. These pesticides inhibit the bird's ability to successfully reproduce. Moreover, studies have found that the effects of the pesticides can linger for years after they are ingested.


Following the Chernobyl radiation disaster in 1986, much of the deserted region has become forested. In the warming climate, forest fires have become more prevalent and those fires are releasing the stored radiation into the atmosphere.


Plant species that depend on wind for pollination and seed dispersal are facing increased challenges as the warming climate forces them to shift their ranges, according to a new study.


One of the unfortunate side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an increased utilization of single-use plastics, one of the most pernicious elements in human pollution of the environment.


Large swathes of Germany's farmland are being decimated by a plague of field mice which has led to significant crop loss, according to the country's national farming association. An estimated 120,000 hectares have been stripped bare by the rodents and are now browning in a heatwave.


In a rare case of Nature taking on a manmade machine and winning, a Bald Eagle attacked a government drone flying over Lake Michigan on an environmental monitoring mission. The eagle apparently saw it either as a threat or as prey and attacked, sending the drone to the bottom of the lake.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Pleasantville by Attica Locke: A review


I read Black Water Rising, Attica Locke's first novel, earlier this year and I was eager to read this one which is a sequel. I decided not to deprive myself of that pleasure any longer.

Pleasantville, which takes its name from a Houston suburb built expressly for upwardly mobile Black people, is set fifteen years after the events of the first book. It is 1996 and much has happened in those intervening years. One notable event that has some relationship to the plot of this book was the closing of the venerable Houston Post in April 1994.  The money-grubbing, non-journalist owner decided to shut down with no warning to the employees. (If I sound bitter, it is only because I am.) So, by 1996, the Houston Chronicle is the only daily newspaper.

Much has happened in attorney Jay Porter's life as well. He has become more widely known and successful after his victory in the Cole Oil case that the previous book recounted. But his personal life is in shambles after his beloved wife died of cancer the year before. He is left to raise a teenage daughter and his younger son on his own and he doubts he is up to the challenge. In response, he has virtually given up his practice in the interim. He presently has one case pending; he is representing the community of Pleasantville in its suit regarding a chemical fire that caused severe damage. But the case seems to be going nowhere and some of his clients are beginning to question his dedication to it.

In 1996, Houston is in the midst of a mayoral campaign that pits a Black former police chief against a woman district attorney. (Like her first book which detailed the election of the first woman mayor of Houston, parts of this book are loosely based on the election of its first Black mayor, Lee Brown.) The campaign threatens to get nasty as one side employs the dirty tricks playbook, but then an unexpected event scrambles everything. A young woman disappears from a street corner in Pleasantville. She had apparently been distributing flyers for one of the campaigns. A few days later, her brutalized body is found near the railroad tracks.

The murder recalls the earlier disappearance and murder of two girls from Pleasantville. Those murders were never solved. Although the circumstances of the new murder are somewhat different, Jay Porter and his friend, who had been a reporter for the Houston Post and had covered the other murders, suspect that all three are related. But how to prove that, especially when the police seem to be dragging their feet and the Houston Chronicle barely mentions the murder? When the investigative reporter from the Post had left the building on that final day of the newspaper, she had managed to take a box of her notes with her. Among those notes are her interviews and findings regarding the two earlier murders. That provides a starting point for trying to find out what happened this time.

Jay feels bound to Pleasantville because so many of the residents are his clients and he knows the family of the girl who was killed. Then the nephew of one of the mayoral candidates (the former police chief) who was deeply involved in the campaign is arrested for the murder and the whole thing begins to smell like a political hit job. The family wants Jay to defend the young man. He feels an obligation to look into the matter and he and his team of a private investigator, the former reporter, and his office assistant get to work to try to find a way of proving their client didn't do this heinous crime.

It's fun to watch as the team goes about connecting loose ends and pulling the story together. Early on, I identified a suspect and I waited for the investigators to come to the same conclusion I had. In the end, it turned out I had been right all along! Very satisfying.

Attica Locke is an excellent writer who obviously knows Houston very well. Her explication of the political chicanery and the legal scheming and planning that goes on behind the scenes just adds another layer to an already intricate plot. That being said, I found the plot not at all difficult to follow. Locke is swiftly becoming one of my favorite writers of thrillers.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Monday, August 10, 2020

Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford: A review


Kelli Jo Ford's debut novel is set in Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and in North Texas during the 1980s oil bust and later. Ford herself is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and she draws upon her familiarity with that culture in telling the stories of four generations of Cherokee women. The primary focus of the stories is on the third and fourth generations, mother Justine and daughter Reney. We see Justine's mother and grandmother as they relate to and interact with these two characters. The narrative is constructed as a series of stories, a method of storytelling that can go seriously off the rails in the wrong hands, but Ford mostly keeps her chronicle on track by making Justine and Reney the linchpins of it. 

We meet Justine at age fifteen. She is a talented athlete but her mother won't allow her to play basketball because men would see her legs. Her mother, Lulu, is a devout Holy Roller and she makes her daughter attend church every time the doors are open. The girl must also wear the approved attire for women of that church, long skirts, long sleeves, long hair tucked up into a distinctive bun. The church is charismatic and speaking in tongues is considered the normal practice in their services. Justine rebels by hiding more modern clothing that she changes into at school and she sneaks out at night to meet a man. The man is almost twice her age and when he rapes her on their "date" Justine tells no one because she believes she will be blamed and, in truth, she thinks it is her fault because she sneaked out and met him willingly. As luck would have it, she becomes pregnant as a result of the encounter. She only belatedly realizes what is happening to her body and, again, she doesn't tell anybody. Eventually, her grandmother sees and understands.

Once Justine understands that she is going to have a baby, she becomes fiercely attached to that new life and when Reney arrives on the scene, she is like a miracle to her mother. She makes the best she can of her situation, finds a job, and plans to raise her daughter on her own, with the help of her mother and grandmother.

Fathers are mostly absent in these stories. The men who attach themselves to these women's lives are generally irresponsible losers who are either intentionally or unintentionally cruel. Justine eventually hooks up with a Texan named Pitch, who turns out to be the best of the long line of men she has slept with over the years, but that's not saying much. She moves with her daughter to Texas and that is where Reney mostly grows up.

Reney is a good student and she has an affinity for horses. She has ambitions to go to college, but when a Pell grant falls through, she ends up working at a Dairy Queen. Meanwhile, her mother holds down minimum wage jobs in factories and honky-tonks, often two or more part-time jobs at a time in order to piece together a living wage.

Reney follows in her mother's footsteps in getting involved with and eventually marrying the wrong man. But then she does something different: She comes to her senses and divorces him. She still has ambitions to go to college and she drifts out west where she does finally get a chance to go to college and where she meets a man who isn't a loser. He's a college professor and it seems as though her story might have a happily ever after as they settle in Idaho. Still, she keeps getting pulled back to her crisis-laden family in Oklahoma. 

Quite a lot happens in this narrative, but Ford tells it quietly, without embellishment. There are moments when one might wish for a little more embellishment, but Ford has her plan and she sticks to it. The book is best when it deals with those intimate moments between Justine and Reney and between those two and the grandmother and great-grandmother. The culture described by the writer felt very familiar to me. It seemed not so different from the one in which I grew up and so I felt right at home reading this book. I liked it very, very much.

There were only two things that bothered me about the book: The ending didn't really give the feeling of a climax that I wanted and there was one story (one chapter) that just felt totally out of place in the narrative. That story featured a lesbian couple who moved to Indian Country. The couple had nothing to do with anything else that happened in the book and they felt completely unrelated and extraneous. I couldn't see any purpose in this bit being included. They are mentioned briefly in one other chapter as Justine and Reney are driving north from Texas to Oklahoma ahead of an apocalyptic drought and fire. The lesbian couple is on the road as well, but they have with them a baby that they have adopted. By the time they get to Oklahoma they seem to have ditched the baby because we hear no more about him/her. The whole thing was just a jarring note in an otherwise smooth symphony and it caused me to drop one of the five stars that I would otherwise have rated the book. 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 


Saturday, August 8, 2020

Poetry Sunday: Counting Backwards by Linda Pastan

Today is my birthday. It will go into the books as perhaps the most unusual birthday I've ever had. Not because of any action on my or my family's part, but simply because of where we are in the world today.

As Linda Pastan says in her poem, I often wonder, "How did I get so old?" Where did all the years go? And like her, it's not really the age, it's the "physics of acceleration" that I mind. Time goes so quickly now. I can remember as a child complaining to my mother that time moved so slowly and she would tell me, "Just wait." It brings to mind the lyrics of an old Joni Mitchell song "The Circle Game" when a sixteen-year-old wants things to move more quickly: "And they tell him, take your time it won't be long now, till you drag your feet to slow the circle down."  

But there's no slowing the circle down and there's no fighting the physics of acceleration. As someone said recently in another context, "It is what it is."

Happy birthday to me.

Counting Backwards

by Linda Pastan

How did I get so old,
I wonder,
my 67th birthday.
Dyslexia smiles:
I’m 76 in fact.

There are places
where at 60 they start
counting backwards;
in Japan
they start again
from one.

But the numbers
hardly matter.
It’s the physics
of acceleration I mind,
the way time speeds up
as if it hasn’t guessed

the destination—
where look!
I see my mother
and father bearing a cake,
waiting for me
at the starting line.