Saturday, February 27, 2021

Poetry Sunday: Away above a Harborful... by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, beat poet, playwright, publisher, and free speech activist died last week at the age of 101. As a publisher, perhaps his crowning achievement was to publish Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems in 1956. He also helped other beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs to reach readers. Ferlinghetti's most famous collection of poems was A Coney Island of the Mind which was published in 1958.

Here is one of his poems from an earlier collection, These Are My Rivers, published in 1955. I thought it was a good example of the jazzy rhythms and earthy imagery of so many of his poems. I hope you enjoy it.

Away above a Harborful . . .

by Lawrence Ferlinghetti


Away above a harborful
                                              of caulkless houses   
among the charley noble chimneypots
                  of a rooftop rigged with clotheslines   
             a woman pastes up sails
                                          upon the wind
hanging out her morning sheets
                                             with wooden pins
                                  O lovely mammal
                                             her nearly naked breasts   
                        throw taut shadows
                                             when she stretches up   
to hang at last the last of her
                                              so white washed sins   
                  but it is wetly amorous
                                                   and winds itself about her   
                     clinging to her skin
                                                   So caught with arms   
                                                                               upraised   
            she tosses back her head
                                              in voiceless laughter   
    and in choiceless gesture then
                                                 shakes out gold hair

while in the reachless seascape spaces

                           between the blown white shrouds   

         stand out the bright steamers

                                                to kingdom come



Friday, February 26, 2021

This week in birds - # 440

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

A Purple Finch and Pine Siskin feed on black-oil sunflower seeds scattered on the ground. My winter bird watching has been greatly enhanced by the irruption of Purple Finches to this area. At times I've witnessed a dozen or more at one of my feeders. In most winters I'm lucky to see one or two.

*~*~*~*

Anthropocentric as we are, we have mostly focused on the suffering of our own species in regard to our recent experience with the polar vortex, but it has been a disaster for some wildlife as well. Some more endangered species may be pushed to the brink of extinction because of it.

*~*~*~*

In other bad news related to that weather event, oil refineries, chemical manufacturers, and other industrial plants in Texas reported releasing around 3.5 million pounds of extra pollutants into the air during last week’s freezing temperatures. The Houston region accounted for one-fifth of excess emissions of toxic chemicals.

*~*~*~*

Representative Deb Haaland if confirmed as Secretary of the Interior (and it appears she will be) will not only be the first Native American to hold that post that is so important to the independence and welfare of Native American communities, she would be a notable improvement over the people who have had that position in recent years. Among other things, they have been deniers of climate change and refused to take any steps that might ameliorate it. 

*~*~*~*

There is no time like the present to become a birder. In fact, there are some advantages to birding in winter. For one thing, leaves don't obstruct your view of the birds in trees - at least in deciduous trees. And if you have a bird feeder, you are most likely to attract birds to it when food is more scarce, making them easier to view. 

*~*~*~*

Mammals in general, including our own species, are actually colonies of many species living together more or less in harmony. The latest confirmation of this comes from manatees that were found to have as many as half a million microscopic hitchhikers on their skin.

*~*~*~*

In sadder news concerning manatees, more than 300 of the animals have died in Florida waters during the first six weeks of 2021, an unprecedented toll.

*~*~*~*

A growing body of evidence suggests that a massive change is underway in the sensitive circulation system of the Atlantic Ocean, a group of scientists reported this week. The Atlantic Meridional overturning circulation (AMOC), a system of currents that includes the Florida Current and the Gulf Stream, is now “in its weakest state in over a millennium,” these experts say. This has implications for everything from the climate of Europe to the rates of sea-level rise along the U.S. East Coast.

*~*~*~*

New data now reveal where flood damage could be an existential threat. It is a looming disaster for coastal communities.

*~*~*~*

The Kazakh people of the Altai Mountains have spent centuries developing and nurturing a special bond with Golden Eagles. Even today they hunt on horseback with the eagles.

*~*~*~*

Being a conservationist in a world that does not appreciate conservationists can be a very dangerous thing. This was proved once again in January when conservationist Gonzalo Cardona of Colombia was murdered after wrapping up a census of the Yellow-eared Parrot, an endangered bird that he had helped to save from extinction.  

*~*~*~*

A group of 28 pilot whales that had become stranded on a New Zealand beach notorious for such strandings was successfully refloated and swam back out to sea this week.

*~*~*~*

Beavers are considered to be nuisance animals by some people but they can play an important role in helping to maintain a healthy environment. They have their champions in the Tulalip Tribes of Washington's western corner who are trapping and relocating the animals to their lands.

*~*~*~*

Lead shot poisoning can be deadly to wildlife and that is why lead shot is outlawed in many places. Unfortunately, hunters do not always abide by these laws. That is the case in Greece where dozens of Flamingos in a northern Greek lagoon have died recently from lead shot illegally used by hunters in the area.

*~*~*~*

Monarch butterfly visiting almond verbena blooms before the freeze.

The number of Monarch butterflies that reached their winter resting grounds in central Mexico decreased by about 26% this year, and four times as many trees were lost to illegal logging, drought, and other causes, making 2020 a very bad year for the butterflies.

*~*~*~*

From the better late than never department, Facebook announced on Thursday that it will add a new section to its platform to debunk common climate change myths as it expands its nascent battle against disinformation. The social media giant said that it is expanding its climate change information hub to include a section that will feature facts that rebut the common fallacies.

*~*~*~*

Who knew that mayonnaise could be a miracle cure for turtles that have been oiled and have ingested tar? Well, Israeli conservationists treating endangered green sea turtles have made that discovery. Feeding the turtles mayonnaise helps to clean out their digestive tracts after the tar has been removed from their tracheas.

*~*~*~*

Hudsonian Godwits migrate from Alaska to Chile in the fall to escape cold winter weather. They take refuge in the coastal wetlands there. They find plenty of food there and a place to rest before it is time to make that long flight back to Alaska in the spring.

*~*~*~*

In another remarkable migration story, this Iceland Gull was recorded by the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation in their annual Florida Winter Shorebird Survey. Iceland Gulls typically nest in Canada, and it is rare for one to be found as far south as Florida in winter.  

*~*~*~*

Freshwater fish are under threat, with as many as a third of global populations in danger of extinction, according to a recent assessment. Populations of migratory freshwater fish have plummeted by 76% since 1970, and large fish – those weighing more than 66 pounds – have been all but wiped out in most rivers. The global population of megafish is down by 94% and 16 freshwater fish species were declared extinct last year.

*~*~*~*

The Black-browed Babbler, shown here, had not been seen in Borneo for 180 years until last October when one was found in Indonesia's South Kalimantan province. Prior to that, the only evidence that the species had ever existed was found in a stuffed specimen. More than 1,700 bird species live across the archipelago of Indonesia, with many remote islands not well surveyed by scientists despite the region’s riches that inspired Alfred Russel Wallace’s theories of evolution 170 years ago.

*~*~*~*

Happily, a new survey of the critically endangered Bahama Oriole has shown that the number of the birds that exist is much greater than was previously thought. It is believed that the overall population of the birds may be in the thousands rather than fewer than 300 as had been shown in a previous census.  





Thursday, February 25, 2021

Light in August by William Faulkner: A review

 

“. . .in August in Mississippi there’s a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall, it’s cool, there’s a lambence, a soft, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times. It might have fauns and satyrs and the gods and---from Greece, from Olympus in it somewhere. It lasts just for a day or two, then it’s gone. . .the title reminded me of that time, of a luminosity older than our Christian civilization.” - William Faulkner writing of Light in August

I try to read at least one Faulkner book every year if only to remind myself of where I come from. Light in August certainly accomplishes that. 

I have read a number of Faulkner's books, some of them multiple times, but I had never read this one before. Most of his books deal in some way with the racism that was pervasive in the Mississippi that he knew, but often the references are oblique or are buried in the narrative and not highlighted in any way. That isn't the case with Light in August. In this book, he dives explicitly headfirst into the dominant role that racist attitudes play in the everyday life and conversation of the White characters in his story and those attitudes become a major part of the story. He writes honestly about those attitudes and he uses language that is offensive and sometimes hard to read. It is meant to be. Racism is offensive. This book was published in 1932, but in the 1960s and 1970s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement when I was growing up there the language had not changed and attitudes had not softened.

Light in August certainly features some of Faulkner's most memorable characters. The first one that we meet is Lena Grove, a young unmarried White woman from Alabama. When her family finds out that she is pregnant, they throw her out and she takes to the road, headed to Jefferson, Mississippi, where she has reason to believe that the father of her child, a man she knows as Lucas Burch, may be working. Lena walks and sometimes people on the road in mule-drawn wagons give her lifts and occasionally other people along the way give her help, a place to sleep, and food. But she is indefatigable in her pursuit of the man who she believes will marry her and remove the stigma of unmarried pregnancy. She does finally make it to Jefferson and goes to the planing mill where she thinks Burch works but she finds the man working there is actually Byron Bunch.

Disappointed though Lena is, she should have thanked her lucky stars. Byron Bunch is a much better and more honorable man and he is determined to help this unfortunate woman. As they talk, Bunch mentions a man who had worked at the mill, and in his description of him, Lena recognizes her Lucas Burch. Only this man is known as Joe Brown. 

Joe Brown no longer works at the mill. He is living in a cabin with a man named Joe Christmas and the two Joes are bootleggers. The cabin where they live belongs to a woman named Joanna Burden. She lives in the big house next door. She and Joe Christmas are involved in a sexual relationship.

Joe Christmas is a mixed-race person. He is actually one-eighth Black but that is enough to make him Black in the eyes of those who know his heritage. He has been called hateful names since childhood, a childhood that was spent in orphanages and foster homes. He was first placed in a White orphanage, but as soon as his racial heritage was discovered at age five he was hurriedly placed in a foster family named McEachern. His foster father is a brutal man who whips and beats Joe for no reason. He manages to survive that upbringing but he is a twisted, self-loathing individual who can't seem to find a place in the world. For the most part, he passes as White except for a short stint in Chicago in a Black community, but he is not at home anywhere. 

The adult Christmas, in addition to his relationship with Joanna Burden, is friends with the Reverend Gail Hightower, a defrocked Presbyterian minister who lives on the edges of Jefferson society. Joanna Burden herself is also at the edges of that society because of her background. Her family is from the eastern U.S. and has a history of being abolitionists and supporters of rights for Black people. Joanna carries on that tradition by befriending and aiding her Black neighbors and by supporting Black colleges with her financial contributions. Her legal affairs are handled by a Black lawyer in Memphis. All of these facts are marks against her as far as her White neighbors are concerned. They essentially ostracize her.

Faulkner renders all of these disparate characters in such striking and compelling detail. We understand and empathize with each of them - except maybe Lucas Burch/Joe Brown who had no redeeming characteristics as far as I can tell. Moreover, the unique stories of each of the characters are presented in such a way as to reveal the tragic, lonely, and sometimes violent lives they have lived. We are able to contrast, for example, the lives of Lena Grove and Joe Christmas, both of whom in their own way have been treated badly and outcast by society. Lena Grove represents the triumph of hope and optimism over harsh reality. She never loses faith that her Lucas is going to save her and her child from lives of shame and degradation, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Joe Christmas, on the other hand, has lost all faith of any kind. He sees all the world, with the possible exception of Gail Hightower, as his enemy, even Joanna Burden who had fed him and welcomed him into her bed. They must be overcome, with violence if necessary. Or maybe even if not necessary. When Joanna Burden is murdered and her house burned and Joe Brown is found at the scene, he has the presence of mind to denounce his housemate, Joe Christmas, with the only word that is sure to confirm his guilt for the White residents of Jefferson and is likely to send a lynch mob of angry White men to kill him. 

Faulkner's impressive prose here delineates a society that is rife not only with racism but also misogyny. Witness the treatment by that society of a Lena Grove and a Joanna Burden. But in contrast to all the truly awful men characters, we also have the example of the honorable Byron Bunch, who against all reason, fell in love with Lena Grove and dedicated himself to helping and protecting her and her child, even as she sought the unworthy man who had abandoned her. Perhaps he, too, represents the triumph of hope over reality. And perhaps that is the soulful message that the writer intends to convey to us in the end: There is a possibility of renewal among the degeneration. There is a light, a lambence that comes with a foretaste of coolness amid the heat of life. It doesn't last long and we mustn't miss it when it happens.

As I Lay Dying remains my favorite Faulkner novel, but this one might run a close second.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars     

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer: A review

 

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a trained botanist who, as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, is also a firm believer in the indigenous wisdom that values the other beings with whom we share this planet, both plant and animal. She particularly embraces the idea that plants with their long history of living on Earth have much to teach us, that they are in fact our oldest and best teachers. The Native American consciousness acknowledges our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world and the generosity of Earth in providing everything that we need to live.

"In the indigenous view, humans are viewed as somewhat lesser beings in the democracy of species. We are referred to as the younger brothers of Creation, so like younger brothers we must learn from our elders. Plants were here first and have had a long time to figure things out. They live both above and below the ground and hold the earth in place. Plants know how to make food from light and water. Not only do they feed themselves but they make enough to sustain the lives of all the rest of us. Plants are providers for the rest of the community and exemplify the virtues of generosity, always offering food. What if Western scientists saw plants as their teachers rather than their subjects? What if they told stories with that lens?"

Kimmerer tells stories through that lens. She makes the persuasive argument that her training as a botanist and her beliefs as a Potawatomi citizen are not inimical. The indigenous beliefs about plants and animals are based firmly upon observation and historical experience and so they are rooted in scientific tenets. The recurring theme of her writing is that responsibilities and rights go hand in hand and cannot be considered separately. Moreover, it is important to respect all species for each has its place and its role to play in the environment.  

As a student, Kimmerer found that her indigenous consciousness was not always appreciated by her professors. As she discussed her thesis before a panel, when she expressed her thoughts and curiosity about why asters and goldenrod grow together and are so beautiful together, her interviewers saw her as silly. But when she went back to study their complementary growth pattern, she found that the plants attracted more bees when they grew close together. The purple and gold of the flowers were attractive to the pollinators. And so there was actually a scientific basis for the indigenous wisdom.

Likewise, there is a scientific basis for the indigenous wisdom in "Three Sisters" farming. Native Americans had learned to grow corn (maize), beans, and squash (pumpkins) - the three sisters - together. This was the foundation of their agriculture. The corn provided a vertical scaffold for the beans to climb. The beans produced nitrogen in the soil that helped the other plants grow. The large leaves of the pumpkins helped to shade the roots of the other plants from the hot summer sun. And the products of the three plants provided what was needed to nourish the farmers who planted and cared for them. Thus we have a reciprocal relationship. 

The book is full of stories and observations like this and it also acknowledges that modern Western life does not indulge in a reciprocal relationship with Nature. Ours is a selfish relationship that takes and takes and does not give and that is the source of many of the problems that face our world, from pollution and inequality of available resources to climate change. It is enough to make one despair. And the author, though essentially optimistic does occasionally give in to despair. After one particularly trying day, she walks near a pond on her property at night.

"'Weep! Weep!' calls a toad from the water's edge. And I do. If grief can be a doorway to love, then let us all weep for the world we are breaking apart so we can love it back to wholeness again."

If only we could.

One more quote from the book sums it all up.

“Action on behalf of life transforms. Because the relationship between self and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.”

Even if we don't necessarily understand it all, we can do what we can, however small it may seem, to "heal the earth" and trust that the earth will heal us. 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Poetry Sunday: Snow Day by Billy Collins

There have been a lot of "snow days" over the past ten days or so, even in places that don't usually have snow like here in Southeast Texas. Even though the weather brought hardship because our state's power grid was not prepared for it, many kids still found joy in the white stuff. For many, it was the first time they had ever seen snow.

Billy Collins writes of a snow day when the schools are closed and the girls "whispering by the fence" are plotting ways to have fun in the snow.  

Snow Day

by Billy Collins

Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,   
its white flag waving over everything,
the landscape vanished,
not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,   
and beyond these windows

the government buildings smothered,
schools and libraries buried, the post office lost   
under the noiseless drift,
the paths of trains softly blocked,
the world fallen under this falling.

In a while, I will put on some boots
and step out like someone walking in water,   
and the dog will porpoise through the drifts,   
and I will shake a laden branch
sending a cold shower down on us both.

But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house,   
a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow.   
I will make a pot of tea
and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,   
as glad as anyone to hear the news

that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,   
the Ding-Dong School, closed.
the All Aboard Children’s School, closed,   
the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed,
along with—some will be delighted to hear—

the Toadstool School, the Little School,
Little Sparrows Nursery School,
Little Stars Pre-School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School   
the Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed,
and—clap your hands—the Peanuts Play School.

So this is where the children hide all day,
These are the nests where they letter and draw,   
where they put on their bright miniature jackets,   
all darting and climbing and sliding,
all but the few girls whispering by the fence.

And now I am listening hard
in the grandiose silence of the snow,
trying to hear what those three girls are plotting,   
what riot is afoot,
which small queen is about to be brought down.



Friday, February 19, 2021

This week in birds - #439

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

This Spotted Towhee is having a drink at Davis Mountains State Park in West Texas.

*~*~*~*

The weather disaster that has afflicted Texas over the last several days was thoroughly predictable and in fact, was predicted after the last severe cold we had here ten years ago. But our independent power grid which is not allowed to share energy with the other two power grids in the country had not heeded the warnings to prepare for extremely cold weather, and so it failed, and people suffered and died. It failed, not because of frozen wind turbines (although some did freeze), but primarily because of frozen pipelines that had moisture in them.

*~*~*~*

The extremely cold weather was deadly not just for humans but also for the sea turtles that make their way to Texas shores at this time of year. About 3,500 of the turtles were rescued this week and taken to South Padre Island Convention center to be kept warm and safe.

*~*~*~*

Another disaster, the coronavirus pandemic, caused the cancellation of this winter's count of the Texas wintering flock of endangered Whooping Cranes.

*~*~*~*

Although construction of the wall along our southern border has been stopped, there is still a considerable mess that had been made by the construction that had already taken place and it needs cleaning upThe damage to people, ecosystems, and communities that had been caused by the construction continues to mount and poses one more problem for which the Biden administration must try to find a solution.

*~*~*~*

This tiny three-week-old animal being held by the scientist is the first to be cloned from an endangered species native to North America. It is a Black-footed Ferret and her name is Elizabeth Ann. Her birth offers hope for bringing needed genetic diversity to the endangered species.

*~*~*~*

Stormwater runoff is generally wasted but if it as well as other precipitation were collected, it could become an important water resource.

*~*~*~*

Poisoning, habitat loss, and persecution are causing Andean Condors to become increasingly scarce. The latest Red List update of vulnerable and endangered species designates the birds as vulnerable

*~*~*~*

The previous administration had limited the consideration of climate change in environmental reviews. The rule that instituted that restriction has now been revoked by the Biden administration.

*~*~*~*

DNA analysis of coyote bites on humans in the Bay Area around San Francisco has confirmed that the bites were all caused by a single coyote. There have been attacks on four people all within a two-mile radius. Police and wildlife officials are attempting to capture the animal.

*~*~*~*

The situation in Texas and surrounding states caused by stresses on the power grids due to unusual extremely cold weather is another warning for our future that we need to prepare for the drastic changes that can be brought about by climate change. Let us hope that government officials pay more attention to this warning than they have to all of the ones in the past.

*~*~*~*

This is a Redwing which is a European species not normally found in North America, but one is paying a visit to Maine this winter and causing the hearts of all the birders in the region to beat just a little faster as they make haste to add it to their life lists.

*~*~*~*

The fishing cat of Asia has webbed feet and a tail that acts as a rudder. It frequents mangroves and wetlands in search of its prey, but it is made vulnerable by the loss of those habitats.  In West Bengal, a conservation effort is underway that hopes to help save the unusual cat.

*~*~*~*

Himani, a snow leopard that had done much to help save her species, has died at the age of 17 at the Cape May County Zoo in New Jersey. She had reared four litters of cubs at a time when snow leopard breeding success was rare.

*~*~*~*

Research has shown that oceanic shark and ray populations have declined by as much as three-fourths since 1970. The main culprit in the decline seems to be industrialized fishing.

*~*~*~*

A study recently completed in Europe and North America indicates that the composition of wintering and breeding bird communities changes in line with global warming. However, wintering bird communities are considerably faster at tracking the changing climate compared to breeding communities.

*~*~*~*

It appears that Oregon's wolves may be dispersing into California and establishing packs there. Wolves can range across hundreds and even thousands of miles once dispersed from their original pack, but once they mate and establish their own pack they tend to stay in a defined area.

*~*~*~*

Sunflower seeds, especially black-oil sunflower seeds, are a favorite with many different species of birds that frequent our feeders. The only problem with them is that the birds shell them to get at the hearts and the shells tend to pile up and can make an unsightly mess. But it is possible to purchase sunflower seed hearts, already prepared for the birds and one birder highly recommends that option. 

*~*~*~*

There have been several stories in the press recently about mammals that show a fluorescent glow under UV light. Another one has been identified to have that trait. It is the springhare, with joins the platypus and other mammals that share this distinction. 




Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Survivors by Jane Harper: A review

 

I had been looking forward to Jane Harper's next Australian mystery and so I pounced on this one as soon as it was published. It did not disappoint.

Harper's books are often set in some of the bleakest places Australia has to offer, such as the Outback. This one takes us to Tasmania, to a little town on the coast called Evelyn Bay. It is the town where Kieran Elliot grew up and where twelve years before he was involved in a tragedy that changed his and several other lives forever. 

Since then he had moved to Sydney and made a new life for himself with his girlfriend, Mia. They now have a young baby daughter. But Kieran and his family have been drawn back to Evelyn Bay and all the memories it holds by the needs of his parents. His father, Brian, is suffering from dementia, and his mother, Verity, is no longer able to care for him at home. He will have to go into a care home that is able to deal with his problems. Kieran is there to help with the transition.

When Kieran meets some of his old mates at the Surf & Turf, all the bad memories from twelve years ago are brought back. Back then he had been infatuated with Olivia and they would meet in a cave on the coast for hanky-panky. One day they met there oblivious to the fact that high tide was coming and although Olivia made it out, Kieran was trapped and in danger of being drowned. Olivia put out a distress call, and Kieran's brother and his brother's best friend who were out in their boat turned to try to rescue him. The boat foundered in the huge wave and both men were killed. 

Meanwhile, a 14-year-old girl named Gabby was also out there somewhere and was trapped by the wave. Her body was never found, but her backpack washed ashore, and she was presumed drowned. Kieran was finally able to scramble out and lived to blame himself for his brother's death. So did many others, including the young son of his brother's friend who died with him. 

The tragedy of the three deaths was almost more than the town could bear.  When Kieran returns to the town years later, the son of his brother's friend is now working at the Surf & Turf and his resentment of Kieran has not lessened. Working alongside him at the pub is a young woman named Bronte who also happens to be Olivia's roommate. The next day, Bronte's body is found along the shore. She had been murdered. Was her death somehow related to the deaths from years ago? She was new to the town and appeared to have no enemies. Who would have wanted to kill her?

Harper develops her narrative with care and at times I was flummoxed, wondering how does all of this connect? But in the end, it did and I appreciated her multi-layered characterizations and the realism with which she depicted a family and a town struggling with grief. The broken lives, especially that of Kieran, were described so honestly and genuinely that one could easily relate to the pain which they felt. When a visitor to the town provides an explanation that offers some reprieve to Kieran's pain, it also offers a sigh of relief for the reader. 

The ending, not to give away any spoilers, is emotional and utterly heartbreaking. But perhaps the town of Evelyn Bay as well as Kieran and his family can finally heal.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Red Pill by Hari Kunzru: A review


If you remember The Matrix, you may remember that the blue pill would give you a happy, if illusory, life, whereas the red pill would allow you to see the world as it really is. Reality versus happy fantasy: That was the choice. The title of this book is Red Pill and yet throughout much of the book, it seems as though our unhappy and unnamed narrator may have ingested the blue pill, although it certainly hasn't made him happy. But he definitely seems to be living in a fantasy world. 

Our narrator is an essayist and teacher, a husband and father, living in comfort in Brooklyn. At least it should be comfortable, but he is suffering from an unspecified dread that has rendered him unable to write. His writer's block is complete and it begins to extend to other parts of his life. He imagines that he would be unable to protect his family should calamity arise. And calamity seems always just over the horizon. When he receives an invitation to a fellowship at a Berlin think tank, it seems like an answer to his problems. Surely in the rarefied atmosphere of a think tank, he will be able to write. He looks forward to a few months of relative isolation and peace and his wife is more than happy to see him go.

Unfortunately for our narrator, the think tank does not turn out to be what he had imagined. The visiting scholars must all work in a shared space and they have assigned seats at every meal. What they produce during their time in the workspace is closely monitored and logged. The narrator had looked forward to isolation and being able to work on his own. That's not the way this place works. Soon he begins to believe that he is being watched by hidden surveillance cameras in everything that he does. Paranoia becomes his default position.

In Berlin, he meets a man named Anton who happens to be a showrunner for a television cop show called "Blue Lives." His interaction with the man turns into a humiliating experience for him and the narrator, who is convinced that Anton is part of the surveillance of him, begins to stalk the man which takes him even farther down a rabbit hole into alt-right message boards and conspiracy theorists. By this point that blue pill has taken him far into fantasy land. The narrative continues in this vein until the narrator eventually ends up in a psychiatric hospital. Afterward, the narrator is able to take up his life in Brooklyn once again and the story ends in November 2016 at a party meant to celebrate Hillary Clinton's victory.

There were parts of this narrative that seemed absolutely brilliant to me and other parts that were a bit clunky. In other words, I found the book a bit uneven. On the whole, I enjoyed it. Kunzru really is quite a talented and creative writer. His background is in journalism and that seems to have afforded him an unsparing view of our current politics which is on full display throughout this book. The sense of dread that is pervasive throughout the narrative seems a result of that. The narrator's sense of dread persists and we are forced to admit that, even though one may be paranoid, it doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Poetry Sunday: How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

It's Valentine's Day, so let's have a love poem. This is actually one of the most famous and also a personal favorite. It says it all really and quite succinctly.

How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Friday, February 12, 2021

This week in birds - #438

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

A Lesser Goldfinch joins Pine Siskins at a feeder station in Davis Mountains State Park in West Texas. 

*~*~*~*

La Niña has really done a number on our typically mild winter in Southeast Texas. We got cold in December and it has pretty much stayed cold since. Usually, we have a few days in there where we have to have the air conditioner on. Not this winter! The next few days are expected to be brutally cold and forecasters are saying we could get into single digits Monday night and Tuesday morning. We have lived here for thirty-three years and I've never seen single digits before. Sadly, I expect to lose quite a few plants in my garden. There's just no way I can protect them all and the garden isn't planned around weather this cold.

*~*~*~*

The annual Great Backyard Bird Count is happening this weekend. Citizen scientists around the world are observing and counting birds and reporting their findings to the website. I spent some time today watching the feeder in my front yard and counted thirteen species - twelve kinds of songbirds and one Cooper's Hawk attempting to feed on them. You can participate, too. The more the merrier! 

*~*~*~*

Researchers studying the impact of conservation actions since the landmark 1992 Rio Earth Summit say that at least twenty-one species of birds and seven mammals have been saved from extinction through direct human intervention. Let it never be said that conservation actions are not worth taking.

*~*~*~*

Research has found that fossil fuels have caused at least 8.7 million deaths in the single year of 2018. Pollution from power plants, vehicles, and other sources was responsible for one in five of all deaths in that year according to a detailed analysis.

*~*~*~*

The New York Times has a simulation showing how the movement of Earth's tectonic plates has brought about the current configuration of the continents over the last billion years.

*~*~*~*

Activists from the Navajo Nation are pursuing an equitable energy economy for the Nation from the rise and fall of the coal economy.

*~*~*~*

The world's biggest owl is the Blakiston's Fish-owl, endemic to Russia and parts of Asia. The owl's population is declining due to habitat loss and climate change but it will not go gentle into that good night if the dedicated conservationists trying to save it have their way.

*~*~*~*

Costa Rica has a proud history of protecting its natural heritage and it is putting protection of its mangroves at the forefront of its commitments to the Paris accord on climate change.

*~*~*~*

A Republican congressman from Idaho has laid out a framework for the removal of four dams from the Lower Snake River and investing to restore the Columbia River system to health. The price tag would be around $33.5 billion.

*~*~*~*

Mushrooms are some of the most fascinating of Earth's denizens. They do the important work of transforming trash into something useful and often beautiful. 

*~*~*~*


*~*~*~*

One of the persistent attempts to degrade environmental protections taken by the previous administration was the gutting of protections from mining for the Sage-grouse. A federal judge has now overturned that attempt, so the habitat of the bird is protected for now, but more is needed.

*~*~*~*

One of the most urgent needs in regard to environmental equity for poor communities is to ensure sources of clean and affordable water.

*~*~*~*

Nepal and Namibia might not seem like they have a lot in common, but they do have this: They are both conservation success stories.

*~*~*~*

Here's a look at the final miles of the Mississippi River, that bisector of our nation, as it makes its way into the Gulf of Mexico. 

*~*~*~*

As the environment is degraded and compromised, the quality of human life declines along with it. So when we protect the environment, we are really protecting ourselves.

*~*~*~*

Wolverines are beautifully adapted to survive harsh Arctic winters, but can they adjust fast enough as those winters become warmer due to climate change?

*~*~*~*

New research suggests that allergy seasons are becoming longer because of the changing climate. Not only is the pollen season longer but there is more pollen in the air. 

*~*~*~*

Another unfortunate effect of climate change is that the population of Canada Jays in southern Ontario is decreasing because their food sources are being compromised

*~*~*~*

Moreover, the wild rice that has for generations been such an integral part of the Ojibwe culture is disappearing from the landscape because of the changing climate.

*~*~*~*

Wisdom has done it again! The world's oldest known banded wild bird, a Laysan Albatross who is at least 70 years old, has hatched her chick on Midway Atoll

*~*~*~*

And finally, Margaret Renkl gives us a happiness of bluebirds. This is a picture of one of them visiting her yard.






Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah: A review


Kristin Hannah is the hugely popular author of at least twenty books, many of which are best sellers. I had never read any of them. I'm not sure if Firefly Lane is typical of her writing, but it is essentially a love story between two best friends. It follows the history of their friendship, begun in high school, for thirty years.

Kate Mularkey is the least popular girl in her school. In 1974, she is the nerd with glasses that everybody ignores. Then Tully Hart moves into the house across the street. Tully is the absolute opposite of Kate. She is the coolest girl in school and everybody wants to be her friend. But something terrible happens to Tully at a party one night and when she goes home, she happens to meet her neighbor Kate. Still distraught from her experience, she confides in Kate and Kate is sympathetic and comforts her. On the basis of this shared moment, the coolest girl in school chooses the most unpopular girl in school to be her friend. And soon they are best friends and inseparable. In high school, they come to be known as TullyandKate. They are thought of as a single unit.

Tully's dream is to become a television news anchor. She is single-minded in the pursuit of her dream and she pulls Kate into it. She assumes that Kate also wants to be a television news reporter and she promises that when she is hired, Kate will be hired also and they will work together. Kate, ever eager to please, goes along with the dream. And finally, when Tully is hired at a television station, Kate is secured a job there, too. And that's where they both meet John, a producer. Kate falls in love with him, but he only has eyes for Tully.

Tully continues to pursue her dream. Nothing can stand in the way of her pursuit. She has no time for love. She has serial sexual relationships, including a one-night stand with Johnny but none of this is serious. The only thing serious to her is her career.

Kate's dream is no longer to be a television journalist. She wants love, marriage, a family, but she can't admit it to Tully. Until finally she does and finally, the man she loves returns her love. They marry and settle down together and Kate's dream comes true.

Meantime, Tully's dream also comes true. She becomes an anchor on network news and eventually gets her own popular talk show. Through it all, she and Kate remain best friends and Kate's husband is the producer of her show. It's all in the family, so to speak.

The narrative continues to follow TullyandKate through the '80s, '90s, and 2000s through all their triumphs and tragedies, the joys and heartbreaks. It's not always smooth sailing for the friendship. They do have their disagreements and fallings out, but in the end, they are always there for each other. The book starts as a coming-of-age story and evolves into a lifelong love story between two best friends. It is essentially chicklit. While it has some nice moments in the portrayal of the friendship, I, frankly, began to feel manipulated by a writer who seemed to be guiding me toward the emotional highs and lows that she was trying to achieve in her readers. I don't like being manipulated.

Most readers of this book seem to absolutely love it. I found it tiresome and clichéd at times, although it also had its redeeming qualities and was rather successful in fulfilling the writer's goals. I wavered between a three and four-star rating and, as usual, ended up being generous.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars