Sunday, January 15, 2017

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - January 2017

Well, it was nice while it lasted. The end of our tropical "winter" came about ten days ago when our nighttime temperatures dipped into the low 20s F for two consecutive nights. That put paid to nearly all the blooms in my garden and left a lot of blackened and mushy plants to be pruned back and made neat in anticipation of spring. At such a time, we'll take color wherever we can find it.

We find it in the indoor garden. Amaryllises gladden our hearts with their frilly blossoms - with the promise of more to come.

Violas are undaunted by cold weather.

As are their cousins, the pansies.

Then, of course, there is the reliable old Carolina jessamine for which the butterflies of January are extremely grateful.

By the goldfish pond, the pink flamingoes do their bit to provide color to the garden.

Last but not least, my bottletree blooms on in spite of everything and the Texas sage behind it retains it gray-green foliage.

Even though the predominant color of the garden this month is brown verging on black, I celebrate the brighter colors wherever they exist.

Happy Bloom Day and thank you for visiting my decimated January garden. Thank you, Carol of May Dreams Gardens, for hosting this monthly meme.

Poetry Sunday: Let America Be America Again

I've featured this poem here at least a couple of times before, but it is a favorite of mine and, frankly, it has never seemed more appropriate than now when one has reason to fear that the ideal of America may be lost forever.

Langston Hughes was an African-American poet of the 20th century, and he was well aware that America had not lived up to the ideal imagined for it by our founding documents. It is an ideal that still eludes women and minorities in this "homeland of the free." 

On this weekend when we celebrate the life of another great African-American, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and as we anticipate the inauguration of a demagogue as our president, all our hopes and all our efforts should be directed toward letting America be America again.

(The emphasis on the last three stanzas is my own.)

Let America Be America Again

by Langston Hughes (1935)

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed -
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek -
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak. 

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed! 

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean -
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today - O, Pioneers! 
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home -
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?  

Who said the free? Not me!
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay -
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O,  let America be America again -
The land that never has been yet -
And yet must be - the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine - the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME -
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose -
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,

I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath -
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain -
All, all the stretch of these great green states -
And make America again!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

This week in birds - #239

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

First-winter male Vermilion Flycatcher photographed in January at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. He hasn't come into his full glorious colors yet. When he reaches maturity, he'll be looking more like this:


Researchers at the University of Guleph have been analyzing the chemical fingerprint of Monarch butterflies in scientific collections in order to determine the areas where they originated. It is expected that this information will aid conservationists in being better able to protect the vulnerable butterfly.


Male Pectoral Sandpipers give every indication of being sex addicts. These birds that are smaller than your common city pigeon have been recorded flying as many as 8,000 miles in one month in order to have sex with as many females as possible. Some of the birds traveled to as many as 24 different breeding sites in northern Alaska in a single season.


Photo courtesy of The New York Times.

The rusty-patched bumblebee was once common across the United States but its continued existence has become extremely precarious due to the loss of habitat and the extensive use of bee-killing pesticides. It has now been granted protection under the Endangered Species Act. It is the first bumblebee and the first bee from the lower 48 states to be granted such protection. The seven other bees previously listed as endangered were all found in Hawaii.


The record for a North American Big Year in birding has been broken. No, actually it has been shattered! Four - count 'em, four - people broke the record of 749 that had been set in 2013. The four who broke the record had totals of 780, 776, 759, and 750, out of the nearly 1,000 species that visit the continent each year. When will the record next be broken? 


A recent scientific study indicates trouble for the breeding birds of the UK. Some of the species are disappearing from the area due to a potent combination of climate change and a loss of habitat to farmlands.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's conservation plan for the polar bear addresses human-bear conflicts, subsistence hunting, and oil spills but concludes that the greatest threat to the continued survival of the animal is a warming climate. 


The fourth largest ice shelf off Antarctica, called the Larsen C, has developed a giant rift which indicates that it may break in two and fall into the sea - or not. Scientists are watching with a mixture of horror and fascination to see what will happen.


The warming oceans are forcing the species that live there to move to different areas in order to find habitats that are suitable for them. In most cases, this means moving farther north. This, in turn, is forcing those humans who make their living by fishing to change their patterns, sometimes going for different prey that they haven't sought before. 


A former Army chemical depot in Oregon has been refitted to become a restored Burrowing Owl habitat. The area provides thousands of acres of suitable habitat for the little owls. But now that habitat is being threatened by a proposed solar farm.


One of the main ways that humans are altering the world is by moving species into areas where they do not normally occur. Now, a new study has mapped the movement of "alien" bird species over the past 500 years.


Conservationists at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland are attempting to save the unique ecosystem of the marsh that exists there by literally raising it to escape the rising sea waters. This is accomplished by dredging and adding the dredged materials to the marsh to raise its level. 


The White-winged Crossbill is the "bird that never goes home." It is a nomad that is constantly in search of a supply of the cones of spruce and other evergreens that make up the greatest portion of its diet. A single bird can remove and eat as many as 3,000 conifer seeds in a day.


"Bug Eric" tells us about an interesting beetle that goes by the common name of Garden Carrion Beetle, but, in fact, carrion is not a part of its diet.


Clearcutting ancient trees in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska would seem to make little sense ecologically, climatically, or economically, and yet it continues. It is the last national forest in the country with an industrial old-growth clearcutting program. 


Amphibians are disappearing from ecosystems all around the world. As species become extinct, their absence has a domino effect throughout their former habitats. The species that they devoured - mostly insects - have a population boom and the species that ate them - e.g., reptiles - have a population crash. Soon the whole system is out of balance and fading.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: A review

This is another of those books that I've long intended to read but somehow never got around to. My resolution for 2017 is to rectify some of that neglect.

The Woman in White is in the grand tradition of the densely plotted Victorian novel. It is, in fact, downright Dickensian or Jamesian in its wordiness. Modern readers who have not been exposed to the circuitous descriptions and verbiage of such writers may falter over its 600+ pages. But lovers of the language may find themselves drooling, as I did, over its skillful use.

The story starts with a young drawing master, Walter Hartwright, encountering a mysterious woman dressed all in white as he walks along a moonlit London road. The woman is in distress and asks for directions which Walter gives her and sends her on her way. Soon after, he hears a policeman asking if anyone has seen the woman, who, he says, has escaped from an asylum. Walter keeps quiet and the policeman's search is unsuccessful.

Walter has been engaged to teach drawing to two young ladies at Limmeridge House in Cumberland; Laura Fairlie, fair, gentle, pretty, guileless orphan whose guardian is her uncle, the hypochondriac/narcissist Frederick Fairlie, and Marian Halcombe, Laura's elder half-sister and companion, dark, strong-willed, intelligent and resourceful.

Over the next few months, Walter and Laura fall in love, but Laura has already been promised (by her deceased father) to Sir Percival Glyde, Baronet, and she is determined to honor that commitment. Marian, understanding the impossible situation, advises Walter to leave the country to get over Laura. With the help of a friend, he secures a position with an archaeological expedition headed to South America. 

Laura, much to her sorrow, marries Glyde. It is clear from the beginning that Glyde is a villain, although it isn't certain at first just what his villainy entails. 

When the honeymooners return from a trip to Italy, they have Count and Countess Fosco in tow. Count Fosco is Glyde's closest friend and his wife - surprise, surprise! - is Laura's aunt, who was estranged from the family over the matter of a bequest.

It soon becomes clear that both Glyde and Fosco are "embarrassed" financially and their only hope of redeeming themselves is to call on Laura for a loan from her inheritance. Her husband attempts to pressure her into signing papers that would authorize the funds, but, with Marian supporting her, she refuses.

How can the nefarious duo get the funds they need? Well, if Laura were dead...

Collins' complicated plot over the next few hundred pages explicates very clearly the inequality in law of women and men at that time. A woman was under the control of her father or her guardian until she married and, once married, she was under the thumb of her husband. A married woman could hardly do anything without her husband's consent. She had little recourse in the courts of the time. 

Willie Collins was trained in the law and he understood this very well. He created a strong and empathetic female character in Marian Halcombe and yet, resourceful as she was, she had little hope of combating the villainous Glyde and Fosco without the manly assistance of Walter Hartwright. Perhaps I was particularly sensitive to this theme, having just completed reading The Bell Jar, but it seemed to me that this book could be read as a 19th century feminist treatise.

Collins effectively uses the multiple narrator strategy of telling his story by offering witness statements from all of the principal characters, much as would happen in a court of law. In spite of its length, its complicated plot and its 19th century verbiage, this is a real page-turner of a book. I found it hard to put down and I could not wait to see where the twists and turns of the plot would take me next. 

As an early example of the mystery novel, with Walter Hartwright standing in as the everyman detective, this sets a high bar for later writers of such novels to reach. Indeed, this has been included on some lists of the greatest novels of all time, and I would not argue with that assessment.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars     

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Throwback Thursday: Reality shrugged

The opening of Congress this week brought to mind a blog post that I wrote back in 2010. Specifically, it was December 30, 2010, just over a month after a Republican majority had been elected to Congress. 

There was much anticipation about what that majority would do with its power. Of course, at that time, there was still a Democratic majority in the Senate and a Democratic President as checks on the worst impulses of that Congress. Today, those impediments have been removed.

Republican philosophy has remained unchanged in the interim, except perhaps to become even harder and more extreme. Once again one can only say, God help us.  


December 30, 2010

Reality Shrugged

The intellectual hero of the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives is Rep. Paul Ryan. He is hailed by the Washington media as a Very Serious Person, someone who thinks long and deeply about all things related to the national debt. He is said to have a Plan for reducing the deficit and putting the government back in the black.

His Plan involves reducing Social Security benefits, gutting Medicare and Medicaid, repealing the Health Care Reform Act, in short, stripping away what meager social safety net is left to the vast majority of Americans who do not make over $200,000 a year and who do not have golden parachutes to see them through their old age. He would then give additional tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires. This then is what passes for Very Serious Thinking, for Intellectualism, among our national media and within today's Republican Party.

It was with some bemusement that I read the other day that Ryan's intellectual hero and muse is Ayn Rand and that he requires all his staffers to read Atlas Shrugged, Rand's final novel about a dystopic America in which the profit motive is the ultimate good, the ultimate salvation of society. That explains a lot I guess.

Ryan's devotion to Rand and her ideas brought to mind a quote that I first read in Paul Krugman's blog, "The Conscience of a Liberal", but the source of the quote seems to be Kung Fu Monkey.

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.
Paul Ryan and his ilk, it seems to me, are living a childish fantasy that has engendered a lifelong obsession with unbelievable characters like John Galt, leaving them emotionally stunted, lacking in compassion or empathy for real people, and unable to deal with the real world. And these are the people who will be leading the House of Representatives for the next two years. God help us.

Would that Ryan had instead fallen in love with Frodo and Sam and Aragorn and Gandalf. At least he would have learned the meaning of friendship and self-sacrifice and working together for the common good. As it is, when faced with the reality of Ryan and his profit motive philosophy in power for two years, one can only...shrug.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Making the garden great again

Our honeymoon of tropical winters without freezing weather ended last weekend. Actually, it had ended a couple of weeks before that when temperatures tippy-toed slightly to the freezing mark and a degree or two below, but this time the old mercury in the thermometer sank like a stone right through that barrier and went straight on down to the low 20s. It was territory that my garden had not visited in a few years. It left its mark.

The Cape honeysuckle was still in full bloom and feeding the passing hummingbirds and butterflies when the low temperatures hit. Now its bright orange blossoms are frostbit and turning brown along with the leaves. And the bright little Sulphur butterflies that sipped from them all day long will have to find other sustenance.

The clumps of lemon grass were just about to bloom, but the cold put the kibosh on that. Last year, these clumps grew right through winter, never slowing down, but this year I'll be cutting them back and letting them grow afresh from the roots.

The Hamelia patens (hummingbird bush) succumbed to our first bit of cold weather a few weeks ago and now there is nothing left but brown stems and blackening leaves.

The big old split-leaf philodendron that lives by my back porch can tolerate some pretty cold weather, but two consecutive nights of temperatures in the low 20s were too much for it. There's nothing left but a pile of mushy leaves.

Well, I could go on with these sad pictures, but I don't want to depress you too much. A walk around the garden these days is enough to dishearten the staunchest gardener, except...

Every dead plant is an opportunity! 

And, in fact, all of these plants that I've showed you are not dead. They are in retreat at the moment, resting and storing their energy to burst forth and reclaim their rightful places in the spring. But there will be a few plants in the garden that will not be returning and that will have to be replaced. Moreover, there are a handful of others that I've grown bored with over the years and I've decided to either rid myself of them or to reduce the space they are given in my garden. 

Now comes the opportunity. In spite of the difficult times ahead when I'll be pruning and digging and moving plants and, in some cases, removing plants, I will now have a chance to try new plants, especially new perennials. Perennials are the backbone of my garden and new and improved ones are being introduced every year. There are several that I've been longing to try but didn't have room for. Now I will!

In addition, there are all those bright and beautiful annuals that can create wonderful focal points in the garden. Maybe I can tuck some of them in this year, too.

My frozen plants, then, are not the disaster that they look. They are merely a temporary setback. This is my chance to make my garden better than ever. To try new and improved perennials and brighter and better annuals. It is my chance to make my garden great again!

As the seed catalogs continue to pile up day by day, I will have plenty of tools to get me started.

There is joy in the garden, even in planning the garden, and even in the darkest days.