Saturday, January 30, 2021

Poetry Sunday: February by Edith Nesbit

We have made it through January and Monday the calendar turns to February. Edith Nesbit vividly describes this month which is still mostly brown and gray.

The trees stand brown against the gray,
The shivering gray of field and sky;

It's still winter, even here, but by the end of this month things will begin to green up and spring will be right around the corner. 

February

by Edith Nesbit

The trees stand brown against the gray,
The shivering gray of field and sky;
The mists wrapt round the dying day
The shroud poor days wear as they die:
Poor day, die soon, who lived in vain,
Who could not bring my Love again!

Down in the garden breezes cold
Dead rustling stalks blow chill between;
Only, above the sodden mould,
The wallflower wears his heartless green
As though still reigned the rose-crowned year
And summer and my Love were here.

The mists creep close about the house,
The empty house, all still and chill;
The desolate and trembling boughs
Scratch at the dripping window sill:
Poor day lies drowned in floods of rain,
And ghosts knock at the window pane.

Friday, January 29, 2021

This week in birds - #436

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

Black-necked Stilts foraging at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast.

*~*~*~*

President Biden has stopped the construction of the wall along the southern border, but it will take a major effort to remediate the cultural and environmental damage that was done by the construction carried out by the previous administration.

*~*~*~*

Billions of cicadas like this one have spent seventeen years underground and now they are set to emerge all across the eastern United States bringing swarming numbers and loud mating calls to major towns and cities.

*~*~*~*

Monarch butterfly populations in the west have declined by 97% since the 1980s and in the east, they are not much better off, down 80% in the last fifteen years. There are ways we can help, one of which is planting milkweed, their host plant, but research indicates there is a right and wrong way to do that.

*~*~*~*

"The Prairie Ecologist" has information to share about milkweed pollination.

*~*~*~*
Great Blue Heron spreads its wings to enjoy a bit of sun.


In British Columbia, the Great Blue Herons are deliberately building their nests near the nests of Bald Eagles that are among their worst enemies. The reason? Even though the herons lose some chicks to the eagles, the eagles keep other predators away.


*~*~*~*

When and where were wolves first domesticated and started on their journey to becoming dogs? Some evidence suggests that it may have been in Siberia by the ancestors of Native Americans.

*~*~*~*

A new study that combines global ice loss from all sources reaffirms that it is on a pace to drive the worst-case scenario projected for sea-level rise.

*~*~*~*

Three years ago, the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow was thought to be on its last legs and near extinction, but today there is hope for the little bird. With the help of dedicated conservationists, it has made a remarkable comeback that many feared was impossible. 

*~*~*~*

Unfortunately, the news is not that good for oceanic sharks and rays. They have declined by more than 70% since 1970. The main cause is overfishing and bycatch.

*~*~*~*

Tens of millions of migrating western birds depend on two areas as stopover sites according to new research. California's Central Valley and the Colorado River Delta are critical to the birds of the Pacific Flyway.

*~*~*~*

Federal officials, showing how rapidly the Biden administration is overhauling climate policy after years of denial under the previous administration, aim to free up as much as $10 billion at the Federal Emergency Management Agency to protect against climate disasters before they strike. The agency, best known for responding to hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, wants to spend the money to pre-emptively protect against damage by building seawalls, elevating or relocating flood-prone homes, and taking other steps as climate change intensifies storms and other natural disasters.

*~*~*~*

New rules protecting herring may also help to protect one of the birds that depend on them, Maine's favorite bird, the Atlantic Puffin.

*~*~*~*

The Fish and Wildlife Service is failing miserably in its duty to protect the habitat of the endangered Florida panther. The source of that failure appears to be politics. The agency appears to have been somewhat compromised by the lack of concern of the previous administration in Washington for the welfare of endangered species.

*~*~*~*

In regard to the attempted insurrection on January 6, we are learning more about the connection between the insurrectionists and climate deniers and other extremist groups such as an Oregon group called Timber Unity.

*~*~*~*

Harpy Eagles are one of the planet's most spectacular birds and also one of its most elusive. It generally avoids areas of human disturbance and it appears that its range is actually somewhat smaller than has previously been supposed.

*~*~*~*

One of the Executive Orders signed by President Biden mandates a review of how the previous administration reduced the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah. It is almost certain that the monuments will be returned to their original size.

*~*~*~*

It seems that northern right whales may be experiencing a population explosion. At least fourteen new calves have been observed off the southeastern United States coast this season.

*~*~*~*

The world's rarest turtle may not be headed for extinction after all. A Swinhoe's softshell turtle discovered in Vietnam has now been confirmed to be female, offering hope that the species may be saved.


Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Jack by Marilynne Robinson: A review


I had not read any of the books in Marilynn Robinson's acclaimed Gilead series prior to this one. In fact, I had never read anything by her. So I have no way of knowing if this is typical of her writing, but this novel just jumps right in, without any explanation or introduction, to a scene of a man and a woman walking on a street and having a philosophical/theological discussion. We don't know who these people are, where they are, or what time period they are living in. Moreover, once this first section finishes up, the narrative moves on to another scene of these same two unknown characters in a cemetery at night. It develops that the man, who is apparently a vagrant, had gone there to sleep, whereas the woman, for whatever reason, was visiting the cemetery when the guard locked the gate for the night and she was unable to get out. They meet up and they spend the night together wandering the cemetery and once again having their esoteric philosophical/theological discussion. Even after this quite long section we still don't know who they are. At this point, frankly, I was strongly tempted to throw the book across the room and move on to something else. I do not enjoy reading blind, not knowing who or what I am reading about. But, true to my code of finishing what I have started, I kept reading, and eventually, the narrative did circle back and reveal a bit about the identity of these philosophers.   

The man is John Ames Boughton (Jack) and he is actually from Gilead, Iowa. He is the prodigal son of Gilead's Presbyterian minister. He has been in trouble of one kind or another since his teen years. He is a liar and a thief and has spent some time in prison, ironically for a theft that he did not commit. He has cut off any connection with his loving family, but his brother, Teddy, learned where he was and he sends him money occasionally. It's what helps Jack keep body and soul together. He is now in St. Louis and that's where all of the philosophical talks have taken place. Jack is White.

The woman is Della Miles. Her father also is a minister in Memphis where she is from. In fact, he is a bishop of the A.M.E church there. Della is Black. She is a teacher at a high school. Her family is extremely proud of that fact. Teaching is an honorable and honored profession in her community. She is close with her family and members of the family sometimes come to visit (and check on) her.

The inevitable happens. These two people with so much in common in their backgrounds and with a mutual love of philosophical questions and poetry fall in love. They are occasionally able to spend time together at Jack's bare apartment or at Della's comfortable one when her roommate is out - the roommate who seriously disapproves of this relationship. We are never explicitly told what the time frame is but we can deduce that it is sometime after World War II and before the Supreme Court decision in the Loving vs. Virginia case in 1967 because miscegenation laws are still in force and are still enforced. Jack lives in terror that they will be arrested and tried, especially that Della will be arrested and tried because the law would deal most harshly with her. 

Della's roommate lets her family know about her new relationship and members of the family come to visit her and attempt to dissuade her from continuing to meet Jack. First, her Aunt Delia and then her sister, Julia, come to town to talk her round and they also meet Jack and emphasize to him the danger that he is putting Della in, but, of course, he already knows that. None of their persuasion works; not that Jack won't try to stay away from her but that Della will not allow it. She continues to seek him out. The two eventually "marry," not in the eyes of the law, of course, but they consider themselves married (at least Della does) in the eyes of God.

Once I got past my annoyance with the beginning of the book, I found quite a lot to like about it. The writing really is beautiful. Marilynne Robinson seems to be of a philosophical bent herself and I gather she has written several essays that explore such subjects as the relationship between science and religion. So I guess all those philosophical discussions that her characters had were her way of addressing these interests in fiction. The story that she tells is fraught because of the times in which these people lived when interracial relationships were not just frowned upon but were actually illegal. And yet the love that these two people share in some ways insulates them from the world and certainly, in Jack's case it redeems him and makes him a better person. 

I read somewhere that this will be the last in the Gilead series, which, if true, seems a shame since the ending of this story leaves us hanging. It would be nice to know how the love story turns out.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

  
 

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Call for the Dead by John le Carré: A review


I had planned to reread some of John le Carré's books this year even before his recent death, but his passing clinched it for me. I decided to start with this one, which is the first in his George Smiley series. As I got into reading it, I realized I had not actually read this particular book before. No matter.

Le Carré meticulously describes George Smiley. He is short, somewhat fat, wears glasses, is past middle age, in fact, close to retirement. He is the absolute living embodiment of the anonymous man. You would never give him a second look.

He is (was) married to the beautiful Lady Ann Seacomb, and he can never quite figure out how that happened. Why would such a woman be interested in him? But Ann has never been faithful to him, and when we meet George, she has abandoned him and gone off with a Spanish race-car driver. 

George is a member of England's foreign service. He is a spy, but his job currently is mostly pushing papers.

An anonymous letter had been received at the Foreign Office alleging that an employee named Samuel Fennan had been a member of the communist party as a student before the war. This is during the 1950s when the "red scare" is going strong. George is assigned to investigate Fennan. He interviews him and is convinced there is no there there, and he assures Fennan that the investigation is over and the file on him will be closed. He is shocked when he learns the next day that Fennan is dead of apparent suicide with a note by his body that says his career is finished and he can't go on. George suspects all is not as it seems and determines to look into the death.

From this point, the narrative becomes something of a murder mystery, because, of course, the suicide was not a suicide. George doggedly pursues the truth, even after he is attacked and nearly killed. We also meet George's colleagues, Inspector Mendel, Peter Guillam, and his boss Maston, as well as some old acquaintances that keep turning up. The case that George and his colleagues investigate turns out to be more complicated than first appeared on the surface. There's an international espionage ring to contend with.

George Smiley is pretty much the opposite of James Bond. Bond is all action and not much intellect; George is all cerebral and hardly any action. Fans of the Bond series might not be entertained by this. But in fact, the George Smiley character is probably a lot closer to the reality of what it is to be a spy.  

This was le Carré's first novel, published in 1961, and it is not as polished as his later work. The plot is relatively uncomplicated, but the characters are well-described and one can easily visualize them. It was a promising start for a new writer and I look forward to following his career in the later books in the series.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The King at the Edge of the World by Arthur Phillips: A review

In 1591, Mahmoud Ezzedine is content in his role as the trusted doctor to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. He has a wife whom he loves and a young son whom he adores and a profession that gives him satisfaction. He would happily spend the rest of his years in this life, but then he is jolted out of his existence.

The sultan receives a letter from Queen Elizabeth of England requesting his help in the religious conflicts - Protestant vs. Catholic - of the day. The sultan decides to send a diplomatic mission to England to assess the situation. It is rumored that Elizabeth is ill and may die. It is determined that the sultan's doctor should be a part of the mission. Much as he might wish to, there is no way that Ezzedine can refuse the assignment.

Ezzedine finds England dirty and underdeveloped as compared to the advanced Islamic society. His one pleasure in the country is getting to know and becoming friends with an English doctor with whom he shares his knowledge about various herbs as treatment for disease.

Eventually, the main body of the diplomatic mission returns home, an event to which Ezzedine had eagerly looked forward, but at the last minute, he is left behind. Even though he is nominally a free man, he finds himself being passed around like a gift from one "master" to another.

Years pass and Elizabeth's condition only worsens. She is old, ill, and childless. It is almost treason to dare to think that she might die and yet what will become of England if she does die? There is no clear heir to the throne.

The most likely heir is King James VI of Scotland, but there is a problem with that. Protestantism is ascendant in England since Henry VIII and although James professes to be Protestant, there is some suspicion that the claim is not sincere. His mother and his family historically were Catholic. He represents a break with that tradition - if indeed he is Protestant.

One of Elizabeth's spymasters, Geoffrey Belloc, a veteran of the religious wars, devises a plan for sussing out the truth of James' convictions. To achieve his purpose, he enlists Mahmoud Ezzedine, and once again Mahmoud has a new master. And that's how he ends up in cold, wet, primitive Scotland with the king at the edge of the world. If he succeeds in his task, he is promised he can go home again. He will do just about anything to be able to go home to his wife and son.

I found this book to be quite a treat to read. It is character-driven historical fiction at its best. The character of Mahmoud reveals a deeply humane and complex man and the narrative is engaging and intelligent. The book wrestles with questions of faith and identity. Why, for example, would people who all claim to be Christian, be willing to kill each other over different interpretations of a text? It is a mystery still after more than four hundred years. And, of course, such deadly religious conflicts continue in many parts of the world today.

My only real problem with the book is the ending. The reader hopes for, if not necessarily a "happily ever after," at least a positive resolution to Mahmoud Ezzedine's situation. But the ending is utterly ambiguous and unsatisfactory in my view. Other than that, it was a great read.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 


 

Poetry Sunday: The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman

The young poet, Amanda Gorman, whom most people probably had not heard of before, practically stole the show at the inauguration on Wednesday. Her poem that she shared with us seemed just about perfect for the day. Moreover, her appearance at the event caused her two books, not even published yet, to zoom to the top of the best sellers list on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I think the young woman may have a future in poetry. Here is that remarkable poem in its entirety. (The emphases are mine.)

The Hill We Climb

by Amanda Gorman

When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade
We've braved the belly of the beast
We've learned that quiet isn't always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it
Somehow we do it
Somehow we've weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished

We the successors of a country and a time
Where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one
And yes we are far from polished
far from pristine
but that doesn’t mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect
We are striving to forge a union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another
We seek harm to none and harmony for all
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried

That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid
If we’re to live up to our own time
Then victory won’t lie in the blade
But in all the bridges we’ve made
That is the promised glade
The hill we climb
If only we dare
It's because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy
And this effort very nearly succeeded
But while democracy can be periodically delayed
it can never be permanently defeated

In this truth
in this faith we trust
For while we have our eyes on the future
history has its eyes on us
This is the era of just redemption
We feared at its inception
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power
to author a new chapter
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves
So while once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was
but move to what shall be
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation
Our blunders become their burdens
But one thing is certain:
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
and change our children’s birthright
So let us leave behind a country
better than the one we were left with
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,
we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one
We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west,
we will rise from the windswept northeast
where our forefathers first realized revolution
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states,
we will rise from the sunbaked south
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
and every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it

Friday, January 22, 2021

This week in birds - #435

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

Willet photographed at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast.

*~*~*~*

President Joe Biden was inaugurated on January 20 and immediately issued a flurry of executive orders several of which made environmentalists who have spent the last four years fighting a holding action very happy. As he had pledged, his first act was to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord. He also rescinded the construction permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which was a bit of a poke in the eye for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who has been a staunch defender of the project. He also directed federal agencies to review all the previous administration's decisions over the past four years that were "harmful to public health, damaging to the environment, unsupported by the best available science, or otherwise not in the national interest.” Reversing those harmful decisions will take time, but a start has been made.

*~*~*~*

President Biden also paused drilling for fossil fuels on public lands including the leasing of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an action which had been a last-minute effort of the previous administration.

*~*~*~*

It will probably come as no great surprise to you to learn that the same lawmakers who denied the legitimacy of the November 3 election are also deniers of human-caused climate change. They live in a fact-free bubble.

*~*~*~*

A pair of Whooping Cranes at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast.

The Whooping Cranes that winter on the Texas coast have benefited considerably from conservation efforts in the area.

*~*~*~*

Another reversal of the prior administration's policies that urgently needs to take place is a strengthening of the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, both of which were seriously curtailed in the last four years. 

*~*~*~*

Our new president has an ambitious plan to tackle the problem of climate change on many fronts and he may find that the public is now more aware of the problem than it was ten years ago in the Obama administration and they are more likely to approve of actions to address it. 

*~*~*~*

And here are some ideas on how that should be accomplished.

*~*~*~*

There are the remains of a unique underwater 60,000-year-old cypress forest off the coast of Alabama and efforts are underway to have the site protected by designating it a marine sanctuary.

*~*~*~*

Jaguars were extirpated in the Iberá Wetlands in northeastern Argentina some 70 years ago. But now they are back. A female and her two cubs have been released in the area. It's all part of a grand scheme for rewilding the area by reintroducing several species that were driven to extinction in the area.

*~*~*~*

Offshore wind power seems set to take off as a source of renewable energy but it does pose hazards for wildlife. Researchers say that it needs continued study and better regulations to control the damage.

*~*~*~*

An invasive weed, Parthenium hysterophorus, has been accidentally introduced to many parts of the world, but now two beetles - one a leaf-feeder and the other a stem-borer - have been found to control the weed biologically.

*~*~*~*

The newly enlarged no-fishing zone around the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia has greatly benefited the Gentoo Penguins that winter on the island.

*~*~*~*

The new administration is installing climate change experts in all departments of the federal government. The president has entered office with the largest team ever to combat global warming and is expected to institute a broad-based plan to address the problem.

*~*~*~*

The pandemic has paused one of the world's longest-running wildlife studies, that of Michigan's Isle Royale wolves. The study has run continuously since 1959 but has now been put on hold to protect scientists and support personnel from possible exposure to the virus.

*~*~*~*

Scientists say that US military sonar has been linked to whale beachings in the Pacific. They have called for the activity that harms the whales to stop.

*~*~*~*

A federal appeals court on Tuesday struck down the previous administration’s plan to relax restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, paving the way for President Biden to enact new and stronger restrictions on power plants.

*~*~*~*

Rufous Hummingbird at my backyard feeder. We have at least two of the birds spending the winter with us.

However, a Rufous really should not be in Virginia in January, but that is exactly where one has been found and banded. And that, of course, is delighting birders in the area. 


Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar: A review

 

This book had not been on my radar at all until I read President Barack Obama's annual list of the best books of the year. This title appeared as one of his favorites. That was a sufficient recommendation for me and I put it on my list. As I started reading it though I found myself very confused. I had understood that it was a novel and yet it read exactly like an autobiography/memoir. Had I been mistaken? But there it is right on the cover - "a novel." I looked at Goodreads and discovered that I was not alone in my confusion. A number of other readers had thought they were reading a memoir.

The book, in fact, reads like a series of personal essays. The essays illustrate different aspects of the narrator's personality and background, a background many parts of which he shares with the author. Both are American-born writers, playwrights who have won a Pulitzer Prize. Both identify as part of the Muslim world and culture, even though neither is devoutly religious.

The narrator who had labored in relative obscurity, always on the edge of penury, had suddenly become a part of the cultural elite upon winning the Pulitzer Prize, and just as suddenly he is presented with extraordinary financial and sexual opportunities. He is swept off his feet by all these opportunities and eager to partake in the fullest, as he rubs elbows with celebrities and billionaires. He is made rich himself by a sudden windfall from a shady investment, which only increases his access to the sexual buffet. Consuming from that buffet ultimately gave him a case of syphilis.

But before all that, the narrator is the child of Pakistani immigrants and his view of America was formed by his childhood in Milwaukee and by his liberal arts education. His father, who is one of the most interestingly drawn characters in the novel, is almost jingoistic in his Americanism. He is a famous cardiologist and in the 1980s he is called in to treat a New York billionaire named Donald Trump. Trump charms the doctor and involves him in some of his real estate deals. He gets The Art of the Deal and keeps it in his living room, but like many blinded by its author's fame, he loses money on those real estate deals. His family's fortunes fall but even so, years later, when Trump runs for president, the cardiologist is a rabidly devoted supporter. After Trump becomes president, it is only slowly and with reluctance his former cardiologist admits what he is and disowns his support of him.

By 9/11/01, the narrator is living in New York and experiences the attack on the city in a personal way. Like thousands of others, he queues up to give blood as a way of showing his support. As he waits in line, he is unmercifully harassed by an Islamophobic man and to his utter shame, he wets himself in terror. Afterward, in order to protect himself from further attacks, he steals a crucifix pendant at a Salvation Army store and he wears it for several months. Years later when he confesses that to his Pakistani-American girlfriend, she is shocked. She could never wear a cross, she says. Instead, her family bought flags.

In 2008, the narrator and his father travel to Abbottabad in Pakistan to visit relatives. At the home of his uncle, the uncle lectures him about the "tactical genius" of the 9/11 attacks. He speaks of a Muslim philosophy that is based on the principles espoused by the Prophet Muhammad. It is one that integrates its military and political aspirations. The narrator disagrees with his uncle, but as a guest in his home, he finds it prudent to hold his tongue. His father is appalled by his brother's view and afterward, he harangues his son about how different and, in his words, how terrible the son's life would have been if his father had not emigrated to America. It is, of course, in that same Abbottabad three years later that Osama bin Laden was killed by American Special Forces. 

It is almost impossible for me to sum up this book in any meaningful or coherent way. It is a series of anecdotes that, in the end, create a vision for us of what it is like to grow up Muslim, to live as Muslim in America, especially in post 9/11 America. The wound inflicted on the Muslim community by that event has been deep and long-lasting. These are people for whom America was their home and who only aspired to be good citizens and live in peace. Suddenly their lives were thrown into turmoil and their dreams of belonging were tarnished in some cases for good.

As I finished reading the book, the confusion that I had felt at the beginning had dissolved. I could not imagine the story having been told in any other way. It is a very moving narrative and offers us a clear-eyed view of the stressful contradictions that are a part of American Muslim life. I came away from it with, I think, a much better appreciation of the pressures and anxieties endemic to those lives. Thank you, Ayad Akhtar.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Poetry Sunday: Something Told the Wild Geese by Rachel Field

The migration of birds has always been a mysterious thing. Although much more is understood of it today than was in the past, we still wonder, how exactly do they know when it is time to go? 

There are a lot of wintering geese here in January but soon enough, in a few weeks, something will tell them to head north again. And just like that, they will be off.

Something Told the Wild Geese

by Rachel Field 

Something told the wild geese
It was time to go,
Though the fields lay golden
Something whispered, “Snow.”

Leaves were green and stirring,
Berries, luster-glossed,
But beneath warm feathers,
Something cautioned, “Frost.”

All the sagging orchards
Steamed with amber spice,
But each wild breast stiffened
At remembered ice.

Something told the wild geese
It was time to fly.
Summer sun was on their wings,
Winter in their cry.


Friday, January 15, 2021

This week in birds - #434

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


Vermillion Flycatcher photographed at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast.

*~*~*~*

One really has to feel for the new Biden administration. What a mess they are being left with and where do they even start to clean it up? The transition team says the damage to the government's ability to address climate change has been even greater than they realized and now they will be starting from scratch to reverse all that in order to meet the administration's goals.

*~*~*~*

2020 was effectively tied with 2016 for the hottest year on record. The New York Times has a global map that illustrates where the hottest of the hot spots on Earth were.

*~*~*~*

Even so, greenhouse emissions from the U.S. actually decreased by about ten percent last year. This is almost entirely due to the effects of the pandemic, but if it could be sustained it would help the country achieve its goal for reducing emissions.

*~*~*~*

The current administration may have just sounded the final death knell for the endangered Northern Spotted Owl in the northwest. They have opened up three million acres of the bird's protected habitat for logging. Many wildlife biologists fear the species cannot survive this action. Can the action be reversed? It is one more challenge for the Biden administration.

*~*~*~*

One of the really positive effects of the pandemic has been that interest in birding and similar outdoor activities has increased. How wonderful it would be if this interest could be sustained and grown.

*~*~*~*

Officials at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park have announced that several of the gorillas there have tested positive for the coronavirus, becoming the first apes in the nation known to have become infected. Apparently, the gorillas are experiencing relatively minor symptoms.

*~*~*~*

2021 might just be the year when offshore wind power finally begins to live up to its promise.

*~*~*~*

A small group of King Penguins has colonized Martillo Island off the coast of Argentina, nesting grounds of Gentoo and Magellanic Penguins. It is uncertain whether the colony will be able to sustain itself.

*~*~*~*

We know that insects are in trouble. Their numbers are declining drastically all over the planet. If we don't do something to save them, our species could soon be in serious trouble as well. The National Academy of Sciences has eight suggestions of how individuals can help the insects, ultimately helping themselves.

*~*~*~*

An ambitious new tracking system will allow scientists to track scores of different species of animals from space. The resulting data should shed important light on the mysteries of animals' movements.

*~*~*~*

There are glaring inequities in our system of energy production and switching to renewables will not necessarily change that. It is important to consider "energy justice" as the first order of business as plans for the transition to renewables are made.

*~*~*~*

It has been quite cold here recently and the birds have been hungry. Led by the finches - American Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, Purple Finches, as well as the usual House Finches - activity at my feeders has been constant. It has been a challenge to keep them filled. As greater numbers of birds congregate at feeders in the winter, it is important to keep those feeders clean in order to guard against the transmission of salmonella. Pine Siskins, in particular, seem to be especially susceptible to the disease. 

Cleanliness is next to godliness for birds. Got to keep those feathers clean even when the temperatures are in the 30s. This Pine Siskin is having a bath in my little fountain.

*~*~*~*

Emus do not seem to be at great risk from climate change. Emu populations are projected to continue to be fairly stable even with the effects of climate change; however, the greater threat to them is urbanization and losses from feral predators.

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Dredged sand from the New Jersey Intracoastal Waterway is being used to help restore saltmarsh habitats where the threatened Saltmarsh Sparrow nests. These areas are subject to increased flooding because of the rise in sea level. Using the sand to help raise the saltmarshes just a bit higher should help to prevent some of that flooding. 

*~*~*~*

Finally, there is some good news about the status of a midwestern bird, the Interior Least Tern.  Thirty-five years of legal protection and habitat restoration have brought the bird back from the brink of extinction. The species has now recovered sufficiently to be removed from the Endangered Species List.






Wednesday, January 13, 2021

World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil: A review


A challenge I have set for myself in 2021 is to read more nonfiction books. This book was my first effort at achieving that challenge. 

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the American daughter of immigrants. Her mother is Filipina and her father is Indian. When she was growing up, her family moved around quite a bit in this country and she got to know different regions of the country well. She was always interested in the natural world and she was able to observe and gain some insight into it. She learned enough to realize that she preferred to live in an area where winters were not quite as harsh as in some of the eastern and midwestern areas where she had lived. It was for this reason that, as an adult, she turned her gaze southward. And that is how she and her husband and their two young sons ended up in Oxford, Mississippi, where she is a professor of English and writing at the University of Mississippi. Nezhukumatathil is a poet who has published four collections of poems to some renown. 

Now she has given us this short book of a collection of nature essays that is just a bit more than that. Interwoven into her observations and appreciations of catalpa trees, fireflies, narwhals, newts, Cactus Wrens, and saguaro cactus are reflections on her own existence and on her experience of growing up as a "brown girl" in America. She experienced the feelings of not belonging, of being "other," and of searching for a place that she can feel is her perfect forever home. She relates this most vividly in her observations of the red-spotted newt. This little newt wanders the forest floor looking for the perfect pond, the one where it can feel at home. When it finds it, it stays there.

The essay which I found most affecting was the one about fireflies. She talks of the fireflies she remembers from her childhood and bemoans the poverty of experience of so many children today who don't see them, even if they are all around. I, too, remember those fireflies of childhood and playing outside on late summer evenings with their lights flashing all around me. It was a magical time of day and I, too, am sad that so many of today's children will never experience that.

She writes of the Cactus Wren that builds its nests in the saguaro cactus, a good protection against most predators.  And then there is the whale shark that she encountered while scuba diving, a giant fish swimming with its mouth wide open as to filters food into its system. Even though intellectually she knew it wasn't going to eat her, it was hard to not feel fear as the critter brushed by her. She writes of monarch butterflies, flamingos, peacocks, and cassowaries, and all of these she relates to some aspect of her own story. After all, we, too, are a part of Nature.

This is just a lovely little book of memoir and reflections on the natural world. It was a wonderful respite for me from the news of the day. I am very glad I read it.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars