Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard: A review


Ever since reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek as a young adult, I have been enamored of Annie Dillard's style of writing about Nature. Teaching a Stone to Talk first came out in 1982 and it feels like I have been intending to read it almost since that time. An e-book edition was published in 2019. At long last, I have fulfilled my intention to read and I'm very glad that I did. Better late than never.

The book comprises fourteen essays, most if not all of which have been published elsewhere but here they are in one collection. The essays are broadly about Nature but they also cover themes of time and memory, as well as touching on religion.

The first essay in the book tells of Dillard's and her husband's experience in viewing a total solar eclipse. She describes the feelings of awe and even fear that she had, in spite of the fact that she understood what was happening. Imagine the feelings of those who have experienced such an event without knowing that it will soon end and their sun will still be there in the sky. I suspect that terror is not too strong a word to apply.

The second essay in the collection is one of my favorites. It is called "An Expedition to the Pole" and it compares the experiences of polar explorers to her own experience of seeking the "pole" of religious practice; specifically, she speaks of her attempts to search for the divine in the Catholic mass. The essay goes back and forth between these two ideas as she juxtaposes the obstacles she must overcome in her search with the sometimes unfathomable decisions made by polar explorers. She finds that they actually have more in common than one might at first think.

Another favorite of mine is the essay called "Living Like Weasels" in which she describes a chance encounter with a weasel at a pond which leads her to ponder what it would be like to live a human life like a weasel.

Perhaps my overall favorites are the essays that describe her experiences in the Galapagos Islands. Those islands have always held a fascination for me partly because of their connection to Charles Darwin and to the important insights he gained there that helped him to formulate his understanding of evolution, but mainly, I think, just because they seem such a magical place with animals that have never been persecuted by humans and so have never learned fear of them. Dillard tells us of the wonder of her experiences with these animals.

The title essay of the collection, "Teaching a Stone to Talk," speaks of a neighbor of hers who actually attempts such a feat. The joke is on him because of course stones and all of Nature do talk if only we have ears to hear.

All of these essays are thought-provoking and they shine through with Dillard's care and concern for Nature. They are easily up to the standard that she set with her Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Yes, I am glad I finally got around to reading them.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Who is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews: A review


Who is Maud Dixon? She is a fabulously successful writer, author of the book world's newest sensation, a coming-of-age story about two teenage girls and a murder in a small town in Mississippi. But who is she really? No one knows except her one contact at her publishing house because Maud Dixon is her nom de plume. She chooses to ferociously guard her anonymity.  

But never mind Maud. Our main protagonist here is Florence Darrow who at age 26 is an assistant at a publishing house in New York. (Not the one that publishes Maud Dixon.) Florence is from Florida, a graduate of the University of Florida at Gainesville and she feels decidedly inferior alongside all the well-connected Ivy Leaguers that she works with. Florence is devious, amoral, and resentful. She wants to divorce herself from her past and grab hold of the life which she believes that she is meant for and deserves, namely that of a brilliant writer. The only thing that is stopping her is that she can't seem to write anything.

Florence's bad attitude seems evident in all of her relationships and that extends to her one-night stand with the manager at the publishing house where she works. She expects the relationship to be more than that and when the man makes clear to her that it was a one-off and that he's a happily married man and doesn't want anything further from her, her resentment takes a creepy form. She starts stalking the man's school-age daughters and takes pictures of them and of his wife picking them up from school. She sends those pictures to the man as a kind of threat. The result is that she is called into HR the next day and summarily fired. She is also served with a restraining order that forbids her from getting anywhere close to the family.  

Now jobless, Florence sends out feelers and applications to other publishing houses, and eventually, she gets a call. It seems that a famous writer is in need of a research assistant but the person who takes the job must be able to keep a secret and must sign a non-disclosure agreement. I'll bet you can guess who that famous writer is.

Up to this point, the book has been a straightforward character study of a conniving and unprincipled young woman; with the beginning of Florence and Maud's (real name Helen Wilcox) relationship, it becomes a battle of wits and a plot-twisting thriller. The two travel to Morocco, supposedly to research the new book that Helen/Maud is writing and this is where the real fun begins.

This is Alexandra Andrews' debut novel and she is masterful in employing misdirection, feints, and counterfeits in her complicated plot. The unsuspecting reader innocently follows the writer where she steers us, expecting one outcome and suddenly being brought up short when she realizes that things are not at all as she had been led to believe. Clever writer! She has constructed a delicious thriller that is great fun to read with only a few draggy points along the way. It is a formidable start for this writer.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Poetry Sunday: Poem to the First Generation of People to Exist After the Death of the English Language by Billy Collins

English a dead language? Well, perhaps in a world where people increasingly seem to communicate by emoji or by a series of letters which one has to consult Google's Urban Dictionary in order to understand what they mean, it may not be too far a stretch of the imagination. Certainly, Billy Collins' imagination stretches that far.

Poem to the First Generation of People to Exist After the Death of the English Language

by Billy Collins

I’m not going to put a lot of work into this
because you won’t be able to read it anyway,
and I’ve got more important things to do
this morning, not the least of which
is to try to write a fairly decent poem
for the people who can still read English.

Who could have foreseen English finding
a place in the cemetery of dead languages?

I once imagined English placing flowers
at the tombstones of its parents, Latin and Anglo-Saxon,
but you people can actually visit its grave
on a Sunday afternoon if you still have days of the week.

I remember the story of the last speaker,
of Dalmatian being tape-recorded in his hut
as he was dying under a horse-hair blanket.
But English? English seemed for so many of us
the only true way to describe the world
as if reality itself were English
and Adam and Eve spoke it in the garden
using words like snakeapple, and perdition.

Of course, there are other words for things
but what could be better than boat,
poolswallow (both the noun and the verb),
statuette, tractor, squiggly, surf, and underbelly?

I’m sorry.
I’ve wasted too much time on this already.
You carry on however you do
without the help of English, communicating
with dots in the air or hologram hats or whatever.
You’re just like all the ones who say
they can’t understand poetry
but at least you poor creatures have an excuse.

So I’m going to turn the page
and not think about you and your impoverishment.
Instead, I’m going to write a poem about red poppies
waving by the side of the railroad tracks,
and you people will never even know what you’re missing.

Friday, March 26, 2021

This week in birds - Not!

"This week in birds" is taking the day off to celebrate the blogger's husband's birthday. We'll be back as usual next weekend. In the meantime, I hope you have an opportunity to be outdoors enjoying the birds and the environment and that you will remember to take whatever action is in your power to protect them both.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen: A review


The Sympathizer who we met in Viet Thanh Nguyen's previous book has survived his time spent in a re-education camp run by his blood brother, Man. Now it is the 1980s and he and his other blood brother, Bon, are out of the camp and have made their way to Paris which is where we meet them in this book. The narrator is the only one of the two who knows that the re-education camp had been run by Man and that he is the one who was in charge of the torture which they endured there.

The narrator who describes himself as a man of two faces and two minds has a voice that demands the reader's attention and that voice mesmerizes us during the first part of this book. It is an eccentric and fractious voice that makes this story memorable and hard to put down.

We learn more about the narrator's history. We know that he was born in Vietnam and that he is half French, half Vietnamese. His father was a Catholic priest and this son has very conflicted feelings about the land of his father. France, after all, was the colonizer of his home country and as a child, he was racially abused by these colonizers speaking "in the language of Dumas, or Stendhal, or Balzac." He was humiliated by these encounters. And yet, as an adult, when he had the opportunity to flee his "re-education" he went to France. And not just any part of France but to Paris. He is both repulsed and attracted to French culture.

In France, in the second half of the book, the man of two faces and two minds becomes a drug dealer. He lives with a woman whom he calls his aunt who works in publishing and offers him entrance into the world of the left-wing French intellectuals. He quickly finds that these intellectuals have a taste for drugs and he seeks to fill their needs, or at least their desires. It's a short distance from there to becoming involved in gangland violence and to the experience of being tortured again. In fact, there are several scenes of torture in the book and they are hard to take and hard to read about. And, frankly, I felt they really didn't work that well or add anything particularly useful to the narrative. The narrator, however, approaches them with a kind of cynical humor and the assurance that the torturers cannot triumph over him because "I've lived through a re-education camp."

This is a book with multiple literary references. Voltaire and Baudelaire get their turn as do the aforementioned Dumas, Stendhal, and Balzac. The narrator reads and ponders the revolutionary ideas of writers like Sarte, Marx, and Frantz Fanon. If you remember the first book, The Sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize, you will remember that our narrator is - or was - a Communist and for a time he was a spy in America for the Communist government of Vietnam. In truth, his spying was done for his blood brother, Man. His intellectual evolution makes for a very complicated story that sometimes seems to double back on itself and to descend into mayhem. Moreover, the writing itself lends to the complication as the sentences occasionally run on for pages. 

This is a serious book that reviews some of the wrongs of history and perhaps even seeks to redress them in some way, but that does not detract from the fact that it is also highly entertaining. The book and its main character are not without their flaws, but, weighed in the balance, there is much more to like here than there is to dislike.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars     

Monday, March 22, 2021

How to Order the Universe by María José Ferrada (Translated by Elizabeth Bryer): A review


María José Ferrada is a Chilean journalist and writer of books for children. Now she has written this quirky little book for us adults. It is her first book to be translated into English and I read the translation by Elizabeth Bryer. It reads flawlessly as if its first language had been English.

Ferrada's first foray into adult fiction has a child as its narrator. At the start of the book, the child narrator who is identified only as M is seven years old and she adores her father, a traveling salesman who hawks Kramp hardware products in small towns across Chile. She is fascinated by her father's work and longs to be a part of it. Her wish is fulfilled when her father agrees to let her skip school and travel with him as he attempts to make his sales. All of this, of course, must be kept secret from her mother who would not approve and who seems to be emotionally absent from her daughter's life. Thus, M and D (the father) go on their adventures and the life of the traveling salesman becomes an alternative education for M. She learns all sorts of hardware-related information as well as about the weaknesses of the human heart and the unique moral code of the salesman. Her presence actually enhances her father's chances of making a sale as she preys on the emotions of his customers. Soon she is missing school for weeks at a time in order to be a partner in her father's work. 

At first it is not clear but gradually we recognize that these events are taking place in the time of Pinochet and things get a bit more complicated when another person joins the two in their travels. He is a photographer and he is looking for "ghosts," people who have disappeared. The photographer, known as E, is particularly interested in one disappeared person who was his best friend. Coincidentally - or perhaps not - we learn that he was also the first love of M's mother. Thus, the story which started out as a charming little tale of a father-daughter relationship takes a darker turn. E's activities do not go unremarked by the government and the story which has been moving along quickly is brought up short by a scene of horror. M, in her innocence, had been completely unaware of the darker side of Chilean society in the Pinochet era, and she struggles to understand and to find a new way to relate to her family and to the wider world.

This book though quite short and easily read in one sitting encompasses a wide range of emotions as a precocious child attempts to understand the world and to find a safe place for herself in it. Ferrada obviously understands the sensitivity of children and of the way their minds work and she excels in conveying all of this in her prose. Her writing is powerful and she draws us into M's consciousness and makes us see things through her eyes. The early part of the book reads almost like a fairy tale and it is often quite funny. The latter part as M and we as readers become aware of what is truly happening in her society and how it affects people for whom she cares is a much darker tale. The book leaves us with much to consider and that sense lingers long after we've read the final sentence.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Poetry Sunday: Lines Written in Early Spring by William Wordsworth

Spring and Wordsworth just seem to go together. While spring may be the favorite season of most Nature poets, I can't think of anyone who wrote more poems that reference spring than Wordsworth. And so, even though I have featured this poem here before, it seems worth repeating. The sentiments it expresses never really grow old or stale.

Lines Written in Early Spring

by William Wordsworth

I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

Friday, March 19, 2021

This week in birds - #443

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

The adult male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are passing through. The adult males always arrive first to be followed soon by the adult females and the immatures.


There was more progress for the Biden administration on getting its department heads in place this week. Most notably, Deb Haaland was confirmed and then sworn in as head of the Department of the Interior, the first Native American to head the department. Worldwide, indigenous people are often the most effective stewards of Nature and their leadership will be important in protecting Earth's land and water.


Many countries are making an effort to curb the trade in plastic waste, but the United States is one of the greatest contributors to the problem.


A new study of whale behavior after being attacked by whaling ships in the 19th century indicates that information about attacks was shared among the whales and that they then modified their behavior to avoid humans.


Jaguars could roam over a wider area of the United States than previously thought according to a new study. The study identified an area of land the size of South Carolina located in Arizona and parts of western New Mexico that could potentially support as many as 150 of the big cats.


Harpy Eagles are often persecuted in parts of Central and South America. A recent study identified cases of people killing the birds in eleven of the eighteen countries that are parts of their range. People shoot them out of curiosity and a desire to see them up close or because they perceive them as being a threat to their livestock.


Restoring the Environmental Protection Agency will be an uphill battle for the Biden administration. The first order of business is to get the agency restaffed. Many people have left its employment in recent years and the previous administration either allowed staffing to languish or installed people who were inimical to the mission of the EPA.


Here's a novel idea for reducing methane in the environment: Feed cows seaweed. Researchers have found that cows belch out 82% less methane if they are fed small amounts of seaweed for five months.


The coyote that had terrorized an area near San Francisco over the last eight months was caught and euthanized last week. The animal had bitten five people, including two small children, in its attacks.


Why did the amphibian cross the road? To get to a vernal pool where it can lay its eggs. At this time of the year, amphibians search for these vernal pools where they came from, but humans have made their search more dangerous by building roads in their way and they must risk their lives to cross those roads. Of course, many are squashed by traffic in the process, but caring humans volunteer to help them, ferrying them across roads to miss oncoming vehicles. (This annual effort was described by Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass which I recently read.)


And about Ireland and its snakes and St. Patrick: In fact, snakes were eradicated in Ireland during the Ice Age when the entire island was covered in ice. The snakes have never returned.


Florida might wish that its feral hogs could be similarly eradicated for they are a destructive invasive species that numbers in the millions in the state. However, they are a boon to the professional hunters that seek them out for destruction.


The wall that the previous president tried to build along the southern border of the country is in bits and pieces that really serve no purpose. They do not keep people out and they are an eyesore that causes great harm to the environment. The question now is what to do with those bits and pieces that cost over $15 billion to build, a price tag that was definitely not paid by Mexico.


Why do hummingbirds hum? Inquiring minds wanted to know and so they studied the question and came up with an answer. It's all to do with aerodynamic forces and pressure changes. 


An invasive grass is threatening the saguaro cacti, the West's most iconic cactus. The invasion of the grass has been allowed by climate change and so protecting the cacti ultimately involves fighting the warming of the climate.


This is not the kind of news we've been used to reading about wolves recently but in fact, one species of the gray wolf is doing very well indeed. It is the Mexican gray wolf whose population has just about doubled in the last five years.


One of the policies being considered by the Biden administration is the imposition of a carbon tariff on trades with countries that it deems are not doing enough to fight climate change.


Wintering owls in Weaselhead Park in Calgary have been drawing tremendous crowds of birders eager to see them and that's not really a good thing because their presence stresses out the owls.


The mountain gazelle has been hunted to near extinction worldwide, but it has found an unlikely sanctuary where it has made a bit of a comeback. On the edge of the war zone between the Syrian and Turkish border, the gazelle is actually recovering and its numbers are multiplying.


China has a climate blueprint that is intended to get it to carbon neutrality before 2060 but the dependence of some of its companies and regions on coal is making that task more difficult. 


Romania has a major conservation project underway. Its goal is to create a national park that will rival its American counterparts. Conservationists hope that it will be a "Romanian Yellowstone."


The Keystone XL pipeline has been stopped but there is another pipeline, Line 3, that would deliver climate-polluting tar sands to the United States.  Indigenous people are raising the alarm about it, claiming that it would cut through treaty territory of the Anishinaabe people, threatening wild rice, fresh water, and the climate. 


The West Coast's air quality improvements because of the pandemic were wiped out by the wildfires that swept through the area last year. The fires helped to make North America the only continent where air quality actually worsened in 2020.


In a world where news of the environment is so often bad, there is actually some progress being made. There is, after all, some hope.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

A Fatal Lie by Charles Todd: A review


In one of the more complicated plots in this long series of books featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge, he is sent to a Welsh village to investigate a death that, at first, looks like an accident. The body of a man is found in a river and he appears to have fallen from a great height. There is a nearby canal aqueduct spanning the valley, and the assumption is that he fell from the top of the structure. He is unknown to the local residents and has no identification on him. Rutledge suspects this is no accident.

The time is 1921, some three years after Rutledge had returned from the trenches of France suffering from shell shock, haunted by actions he had taken in the war, and barely able to function. It has been a struggle to get back to an appearance of normal and he is still haunted by the voice of Hamish MacLeod, the Scottish corporal whom he executed on the battlefield for failing to follow a command, but he has a talent for investigation and is a successful Scotland Yard inspector, although not a favorite of his superintendent. The superintendent generally likes to send him to remote villages to handle the cases there. Thus, he finds himself in Wales.

His first order of business is to try to identify the victim and find out what he was doing in a place where no one owns up to knowing him. His only clues are a faded military tattoo on the victim's arm and an unusual label in the man's shirt. Also, the man was quite short. Rutledge suspects that he may have been a member of the Bantam Brigade, a unit of soldiers who were under five feet and three inches tall and thus disqualified from military service because of the height requirement. His suspicions soon bear fruit as he learns that the man was Samuel Mitford, a World War I veteran who was indeed a member of the Bantam Brigade. Tracing his background, Rutledge learns that he had a baby daughter who had gone missing a year earlier, apparently having been abducted. Rutledge begins to suspect that Mitford may have been looking for the child and that is what brought him to the area where he died. He is now certain that the man was murdered and when two more people who were connected to Mitford are also murdered, he is more sure than ever.

As Rutledge goes about the countryside attempting to tie all the loose ends of his case together, we get the authors' (the mother and son team who are Charles Todd) wonderful descriptions of the little country villages and of a way of life that is beginning to fade even in 1921. There are also the tidbits of English history that are sprinkled amid the descriptions and all of this comprises one of the chief pleasures in reading this historical fiction series. (Who knew, for example, that there was a Bantam Brigade in World War I?)

The other great pleasure is the character of Rutledge, a uniquely humane and compassionate policeman who has overcome great difficulties and sorrows to achieve what he has. The authors' ability to deal knowledgeably and sympathetically with the issue of the PTSD suffered by many soldiers is one of the strengths of the series.

Todd's plots are always strong and that is the case here, too, although this one is so complicated and convoluted that one sometimes risks getting lost in the weeds. But readers who persevere will be rewarded. This may, in fact, be one of my favorite reads in all of this long series. My only caveat for others is that if you want to read the series, by all means, start at the beginning because each entry does build on past events.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Monday, March 15, 2021

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - March 2021

As you may have heard, Southeast Texas, and indeed much of the southeastern corner of the country suffered an unusual and devastating freeze in February. For several days and nights, the temperatures hovered in the teens and low twenties (Fahrenheit), an event that our gardens with their many tropical plants are not generally meant to endure. On the coldest night, the temperature actually went down to nine degrees according to the thermometer on my back porch and if it was nine degrees on my sheltered back porch, it was probably colder out in my yard. After it was all over, my garden looked as though it had been swept by fire. It was all brown and black. I wondered if I would ever see green again.

But that was then, this is now.

The redbud tree is in full bloom.

And the bees are grateful.

In a tale of two Carolina Jessamines, the jessamine in one part of the garden, on a trellis near the garden shed, was savaged by the freeze and turned into a brown collection of sticks which are still waiting to be cut back, but the jessamine next to our patio, which was obviously in a much more protected area, remained green and is now blooming.

The coral honeysuckle, a native plant, never missed a beat and bloomed right on time and just in time for the migrating hummingbirds that are beginning to show up.

The plum tree probably actually benefited from the freeze and it has bloomed like never before, giving promise that we might actually get some plums from it this year.

The little pear tree, too, is in full bloom.

The loropetalum was in full bloom when the freeze hit and I figured that would be the last of its blooms that I would see for a while. The shrub was left, like many others, a mound of brown, but a month later, here we are. Most of the leaves are still brown and it hasn't put on many new ones yet, but the blooms are back.

Some of my blooms won't be back, at least this year. My old azalea under the redbud tree was full of buds and ready to start blooming when the freeze hit. All of those buds and most of the leaves died. There'll be no azalea blossoms this year. The Indian hawthorns died and have already been removed. The yarrow was ready to bloom when the freeze came and it died back to the ground, but it's back now and soon will be ready to bloom again. Many other of my hardy perennials died back to the ground (blue plumbage, for example) but are now coming back. Give it another month and the garden should look quite different. Perhaps by then I will have finished with my cleanup and will get around to replacing some of my losses.

Wherever you garden, I hope your garden and you are flourishing. Happy Bloom Day!

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Poetry Sunday: The Racist Bone by Cornelius Eady

I remember from long ago the Vincent Price movie that Cornelius Eady writes about here and man, was it scary! Possibly not as scary though as the racist bone. But it may well be that, as Eady says, we never believe that we have it in us - the Tingler or the racist bone - until the pincers close around us. 

The Racist Bone

by Cornelius Eady

I know this is a real thing, because
When I was a kid, my big sister took me
To the Capitol Theater, in my hometown
Of Rochester, NY,

And there was a movie that afternoon,
The Tingler, which starred Vincent Price,
And what I remember best about the film
Was that it was about this extra, insect-like gland, that

We all appeared to have been born with,
But nobody but sci-fi movie scientists knew about.
If it wasn’t fed properly, it would crawl up
Your leg, and choke you to death with its claws!

Your only hope was if you saw it coming, and knew
What it was, you could scream—loud.
Which we did, when it crawled across the screen.
Then the lights blacked out, and Vincent Price

Shouted it had skittered off the screen, hungry—which it hadn’t;
The Capitol was the Black movie house—25 cents a seat,
The last drop of profit squeezed from the theatrical run.
No need to pull Mr. Castle’s hokey string and rubber model

Down the aisle for the likes of us.
In our heads The Tingler scurried, our darkest screams,
The horror we know, but won’t talk about,
From the mouth of the corpse

Like a weevil, looking for a home.
So many characters perished
In that movie—they never believed they had it in them
Until those pincers closed.

Friday, March 12, 2021

This week in birds - #442

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

Many of our avian winter visitors are beginning to move on now that spring temperatures have arrived in our area, but the Cedar Waxwings are still with us. I photographed this one in my next-door neighbor's pear tree which is just beginning to bloom. A fairly large flock of the waxwings have been enjoying a feast in my yard over the last couple of weeks. Most of the berries that they normally dine on are gone now but when our February freeze came, there were still a large number of oranges on my two orange trees. The freeze spoiled them for human consumption but that hasn't bothered the waxwings. They have been eagerly consuming the fruit. I'm just glad I didn't hurry to clean up after the freeze. Sometimes procrastination pays.


FINALLY! We have an Environmental Protection Agency director who is actually interested in protecting the environment. President Biden's nominee for the post, Michael S. Regan from North Carolina, was confirmed by the Senate this week. He has a huge job ahead of him, but he seems to be up to it. 


Wildlife advocates are cheering the Biden administration’s announcement that it will scrap a Trump-era rule that prevents the federal government from penalizing companies under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) for the unintended but preventable killing of birds. The century-old MBTA is the main law that protects migratory birds on the North American continent.


The final environmental review of the first major offshore wind project in the United States has been completed. The Vineyard Wind I 800-megawatt wind farm planned for 15 miles south of Martha's Vineyard was the first offshore wind project selected by Massachusetts utility companies to fulfill part of a 2016 clean energy law.


And speaking of wind farms, a new study reports that endangered Whooping Cranes avoid stopover sites that are within five kilometers of wind-energy infrastructure. Avoidance of  turbines can decrease collision mortality for birds, but can also make it more difficult and time-consuming for migrating flocks to find safe and suitable rest and refueling locations. The study's insights into migratory behavior could improve future siting decisions as wind energy infrastructure continues to expand.


Brood X cicadas are soon to emerge along the East Coast and from then until about July that will be a very noisy place. The noise of the cicadas annoys a lot of humans but other than that they do no harm at all and they are an absolute feeding bonanza for birds, squirrels, chipmunks, skunks, and numerous other kinds of wildlife.


A recent study shows that many species of oceanic fish are ingesting plastic. These include hundreds of species that are part of the human diet. 


Philadelphia will be a "lights out" city beginning April 1. In an effort to save the lives of migrating birds the city will be mostly dark at night from April 1 through May 31, the height of the migration season. 


Invasive zebra mussels that have wreaked havoc on the Great Lakes are often found for sale in pet shops that feature aquariums. This represents a new way for them to spread and to damage other aquatic habitats.


Warming climates in the tropical forests of Tanzania are slowing tropical birds' population growth rates and that is bad news for the ecosystem of Tanzania and for similar areas right around the world. Birds help to keep ecosystems healthy and fewer of them means it is more difficult to achieve that purpose.


Large, charismatic carnivores usually get the lion's share (pun intended) of attention when it comes to conservation efforts, but the smaller and less noticed species can be exceptionally important to the health of an ecosystem and so are particularly worthy of study and research. In the forests of Bangladesh for example, many of the smaller carnivores remain elusive in the wild and are seldom the subject of published research. 


Wolf hunting policies in some states are taking an aggressive turn, as Republican lawmakers and conservative hunting groups push to curb their numbers and propose tactics shunned by many wildlife managers. After the previous administration removed gray wolves' protected status under the Endangered Species Act, many states are increasing the number of kills they allow.


As personal protective equipment such as masks are in wide use during the pandemic, it becomes essential that the used items are disposed of in a safe manner that does not allow for harm to wildlife. The last thing we need is more pollution.


A narwhal's tusk, much like the rings in a tree's trunk, tells the story of conditions that were present when the tusk grew.


Nature-rich sites such as woods and wetlands are more valuable than land that is farmed because of the "ecosystem services" that they provide. 


Researchers at the universities of Lund and Oxford have determined that bird parents that receive help in raising their offspring live longer than birds that must provide for the kids on their own. Many group-living species do receive such help, often from the offspring from the previous year.


Red wolves seem to always be on the brink of extinction and in fact, they have been declared extinct once before in 1980. A conservation effort brought them back but now their numbers have plummeted once again and there may be only ten of the animals left in the wild.


The decline or near extinction of tourism in our year of the pandemic has been both a blessing and a curse for Earth's wildlife and wild places.


The surprise sighting of a Red-backed Button-quail in New South Wales has excited the birding community there and has given evidence of the explosion in numbers of the species that was previously considered endangered. It has now been taken off the Rarities List.


The last of Ireland’s great oak forests were gone by the end of the seventeenth century. But pockets of this ancient forest linger: on coastal headlands, on old country estates, and in remote valleys. These are among the last remnants of temperate rainforests in Europe.


European Starling murmurations can be quite amazing sights. Here are some that were recorded by an Irish photographer. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion: A review


This short book comprises twelve of Joan Didion's previously published essays, most of them published in magazines. They cover the period of her work from 1968 to 2000. Several of the pieces were written in the momentous year of 1968 and for those of us who were alive and paying attention at the time, they bring back a lot of memories. Others were written in later years, the final one in 2000. That one was about Martha Stewart. The other eleven cover a wide range of topics from Nancy and Ronald Reagan and his tenure as California governor to the Vietnam War to personal meditations such as the 1976 essay entitled "Why I Write."

In "Why I Write," she tells us that it is all to do with the sound of those three words - I, I, I. She writes, she says, "to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means." She acknowledges that she is not an intellectual, a thinker, and so the way that she orders her thoughts is the write them down so that she can "see" them and so begin to interpret the pictures that she holds in her mind. I can relate to that.

The first six essays were all first published in the "Points West" column that she shared with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in The Saturday Evening Post in the '60s. They were all written in 1968. The one that especially caught my attention was titled "Fathers, Sons, and Screaming Eagles." It was about her experience at a reunion of the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles. This was in the '60s so most of the men at that reunion were from the World War II era. Many of them had been at Bastogne, at the Battle of the Bulge, including Gen. Anthony McAuliffe who had given the famous one-word reply to the Germans who had demanded the 101st's surrender: "Nuts!" Didion talked to many of the men and found that quite a few had sons who were then in the Army and some of those sons were in Vietnam. She spoke to one father whose son was missing in Vietnam. I suppose this essay was of particular interest to me for two reasons. First, because my father had also been at the Battle of the Bulge, although not in the 101st; he was in the 3rd Army led by George Patton that had gone to the aid of those pinned down at Bastogne. And second, my husband was in the army and was attached to the 101st about the time of this reunion and Didion's essay. He spent a year in Vietnam around that time. I didn't know him then, thank goodness, but once a Screaming Eagle always a Screaming Eagle.

Didion is a fifth-generation Californian and she speaks with a Californian voice. Some of the best of these essays have a California connection. She writes of her memories of studying Milton's Paradise Lost on the train commute between Sacramento and Berkeley and tells us that she can't actually remember much about the subject she was studying but she vividly remembers the "exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco's dining car." Sensory memories are the most real to her. Another California memory is of a visit to San Simeon castle which she recounts in "A Trip to Xanadu." She says it both was and was not what she expected. She describes it as a "sand castle, an implausibility" and "a pleasure dome decreed by a man who insisted, out of the one dark fear we all know about, that all the surfaces be gay and brilliant and playful." 

Reading Didion is always a pleasure and reading the essays from long ago 1968, in particular, reminds us about her prescience on various topics. Her voice is always no-nonsense and often amusing. She draws us in and makes us feel that she is writing especially for us. It's a quality that I've noted in the past as well. My favorite Didion book is My Year of Magical Thinking which is all about loss and grief and learning to deal with all that. It was published in the year after I had lost my mother. She might have been writing to me. That ability to connect with the reader is her special talent.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Monday, March 8, 2021

Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler: A review

This is Lauren Oyler's debut novel after a career as a critic studying and explicating the novels of others. It is an innovative work that describes the way that social media has surreptitiously crept into our daily lives and, in some ways, has come to redefine our relationships with others and even the way that we think of ourselves. The relationships described include online stalking and the creation of fake identities, as well as the descent into paranoia and conspiracy theories and a kind of social disengagement and political derangement. That's quite a lot and it isn't even all; the book also includes numerous references - some of which I caught and some I probably missed - to other contemporary writers.

The narrative begins at a specific and unsettled point in time, the months between the 2016 presidential election and the inauguration of Donald Trump. Our narrator (who of course is nameless - how could it be otherwise?) is a young woman with a boyfriend who is named. He is Felix and the narrator has just discovered by snooping through his phone that he has a secret Instagram account devoted to the posting of conspiracy theories. It's a side of Felix that she never knew existed and it seems that he has developed quite a following for his posts. The narrator decides that she will break up with him but before she has a chance to act on that decision, she receives a call from his mother in California telling her that he has died in a bicycle accident in upstate New York. A little later she receives a thousand dollars, ostensibly from the mother. Why? There is no explanation.

The narrator had met Felix in Berlin where he had worked as a tour guide. After his death and the political upheaval following the election, she leaves her job as a blogger, supposedly to work on a novel, and she decides to move to Berlin. 

In Berlin, she becomes obsessed with posting on online dating apps and meeting the men that she connects with there. But all the profiles she creates are fake. The life events that she regales her "dates" with as they meet in bars and restaurants are all imaginary - fake lives, fake accounts.

Oyler is quite a funny writer and her narrator is full of irony and snark, but underneath all that is a disquieting sense that she doesn't really know how to simply be herself and relate to the world at an honest level. She doesn't really know who that self is. We meet the narrator at a moment of profound unease in our history, a time of "fake news" and "alternate facts" and in a sense, it is not surprising such a character should create her own fake persona or multiple fake personas with which to interact with a world in which she faces an appalling rise in the alt-right and the discovery that her boyfriend may have been a part of all that. 

It is also not surprising that the reader begins to apprehend much earlier than the narrator the full extent of Felix's betrayal. When knowledge comes to the narrator, the realization dawns that she has been subtly manipulated as much as she herself has manipulated those "fake accounts."

Oyler has created a clever, stylish, and droll narrative and there is nothing fake about that.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Poetry Sunday: Every day as a wide field, every page by Naomi Shihab Nye

Of all the poems I read over the past week, this was the one that really grabbed me. I hope it grabs you, too, because...

"When you paused for a poem
it could reshape the day"

Every day as a wide field, every page

by Naomi Shihab Nye


Standing outside
staring at a tree
gentles our eyes
We cheer
to see fireflies
winking again

Where have our friends been
all the long hours?
Minds stretching

beyond the field
their own skies

Windows  doors
grow more

Look through a word
swing that sentence
wide open

Kneeling outside
to find
sturdy green

glistening blossoms
under the breeze
that carries us silently


And there were so many more poems to read!
Countless friends to listen to.
We didn’t have to be in the same room—
the great modern magic.
Everywhere together now.
Even scared together now
from all points of the globe
which lessened it somehow.
Hopeful together too, exchanging
winks in the dark, the little lights blinking.
When your hope shrinks
you might feel the hope of
someone far away lifting you up.
Hope is the thing ...
Hope was always the thing!
What else did we give each other
from such distances?
Breath of syllables,
sing to me from your balcony
please! Befriend me
in the deep space.
When you paused for a poem
it could reshape the day