Thursday, February 23, 2017

I Shot the Buddha by Colin Cotterill: A review

Dr. Siri Paiboun is one of my favorite characters from an ongoing series. The series is set in Laos in the 1970s. Dr. Siri and his wife Madame Daeng fought for many years to free their country from foreign domination and to establish a communist government that would provide justice and equality for all citizens. The Pathet Lao were ultimately successful in their struggle and the communist government was established, but it hasn't quite worked out as Dr. Siri and the others who fought for it had hoped.

Dr. Siri is now nearing eighty. After the revolution, he served for a few years as the country's coroner, but finally he was allowed to retire. However, he hasn't retired from solving mysteries and from pursuing adventure.

Siri is surrounded by a coterie, one might call it an entourage, of quirky characters, starting with his wife, the noodle shop proprietor, who assist him in his adventures. They include his former co-workers at the morgue, a Vientiane policeman, and a former member of the politburo who maintains his connections in the government. In this particular adventure, they are all involved. They all take part in different aspects of the investigation.

Siri and his wife live above her noodle shop, but Siri has a house in Vientiane that was provided for him by the government when he served as coroner. Now, he provides shelter in that house for an odd assortment of characters who live communally. This latest adventure begins when one of those characters, a Buddhist monk named Noo, rides out one day on his bicycle and doesn't return. 

Noo left a note asking for help for a fellow monk in Thailand who had run afoul of the law there. It seems that there have been three murders and the monk is accused of involvement in them. Of course, Siri and his entourage jump into action to find Noo and to solve the mystery of the murders. Along the way, they must deal with the three isms that hold sway in Southeast Asia - animism, communism, and Buddhism - and Siri will wrestle with supernatural spirits as he struggles to understand what is happening.

These books give what feels like an accurate picture of conditions in Laos in the 1970s. It is a small country poor in material goods but rich in spirit and in history, one that is struggling to establish itself on the world stage. Cotterill's cast of eccentric characters are Laotian through and through, proud of their country, although not blind to its shortcomings, and wanting it to succeed.

Spending time with these characters is always fun. Humor is very much a part of their story and one often finds oneself smiling or chuckling over their outrageous antics. This book, though, was just a little too outrageous for my taste. The plot was even more convoluted than usual and it kept heading off in strange directions that seemed completely unrelated to the main thrust of the story. I thought that the writer lost his way and couldn't quite get back on track. True, he wrapped it all up in the end, but the denouement felt strained and the story didn't "flow."

Even so, time spent with Siri is never completely wasted. He is such a charming, lovable old codger. One hopes that he has many more adventures yet to come.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars   

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Wrapping up the GBBC

The weekend of the Great Backyard Bird Count concluded on Monday, Presidents' Day. The count had participants from around the world. You can check out the reports from any area that interests you by visiting the GBBC website.

My personal count was a bit hit or miss, not my most successful GBBC experience. I was busy gardening on three of the days, so I combined gardening with bird counting and I'm sure I missed some. On the last day of the count, we had heavy rains so that put a bit of a damper (sorry!) on my counting.

Overall, I managed to find 24 species around my yard. In my best years of counting, I've had more than 30 and there were probably that many or more here this year, but they didn't show themselves to be counted. So, here's what I saw.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
White-winged Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Carolina Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Did you participate in the count? If so, what did you see?

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Redbud buds

Most of the native redbuds in the area have been in bloom for several days now, but my specimen is a variety that was purchased from a nursery. It's called 'Forest Pansy' and its blooms always come about a week later. This week the buds are popping out all over and the bees are feasting. Yes, it really is spring here!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson: A review

I first read this book many, many years ago; it must have been in the '70s. It was devastating. Reading it again this weekend, I found it, if anything, even more devastating.

The cover of the book calls it "The classic that launched the environmental movement," and indeed it is. One can trace a straight line from the publication of this book to the public outcry that led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and to the implementation of the Endangered Species Act.

Carson's book was published in 1962. It outlined in overwhelming and incisive detail the damage that was being done to Nature and to human beings (who are, after all, a part of Nature) by the profligate use of chemicals, especially DDT, to fight insects and plants that are labeled as pests and weeds.

Carson argued that those chemicals accumulated in the cells of plants and animals, working their way up the food chain and becoming more and more potent at each step along the way. Thus, at the top of the food chain, for example, animals such as Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, and Brown Pelicans received the most fearsome dosage of those chemicals; enough to kill them outright or to make them sterile, unable to produce viable young.

By the early '60s, all three of these species were well on their way to extinction. It is not an overstatement to say that Silent Spring saved them. Nor is it an overstatement to say that it saved many other species, less well known or less iconic.

Silent Spring contained a wealth of scientific data and information, but it was written for the public, for the average person with no particular scientific training but with a concern for the welfare of his/her family and the environment in which that family lived. Carson was able to make the destruction of that environment personal for her readers. She was also able to convey to them that it didn't have to be this way; that there was an alternative, a better way.

Today, informed citizens take for granted that biological control of plant and insect pests makes more sense than flooding the environment with more chemicals that will inevitably wind up in the water that we drink and the food that we eat. We understand that we are a part of Nature and that what we do to the environment, we do to ourselves. We understand it because Carson taught us. At the time that she wrote her book, none of that was clearly understood at all.

The tragedy is that Carson never lived to see the full impact that her little book had. Within two years after its publication, she was dead of cancer. But at least she lived long enough to know that the book was a success and that people were paying attention.

One has to wonder what Rachel Carson would think if she were alive today, as the EPA is given into the tender care of a man who seeks its destruction and the Endangered Species Act is under attack by those who would kill it. Would she despair? I think that she would try to find a way to communicate to her fellow citizens that the progress we have made over the last fifty years in protecting the environment and protecting ourselves is a very fragile thing and it can be easily reversed by those whose only thought is for the almighty dollar. And I think that she would urge us to continue her fight to make sure that we never have to see a spring when no birds sing.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Poetry Sunday: Fire and Ice

Brief and to the point. That's Robert Frost in this little poem. It is actually one of his most popular poems.

He considers the end of the world and the debate about whether it will end in fire or in ice and comes to the conclusion that both would accomplish the task equally well.

Fire and Ice

by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

This week in birds - # 244

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

Cedar Waxwings photographed on one of my previous Great Backyard Bird Counts. This year's count continues all weekend, through Monday, so plenty of time for you to participate. 


An avowed enemy of the Environmental Protection Agency, who would like nothing better than to see it destroyed, has been approved by the Senate as the new head of that agency. Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma's attorney general, who has made a career out of suing the EPA on behalf of gas and oil companies, will now be able to work to destroy the agency from within. Republicans refused to delay the vote on his confirmation even though a judge had ordered release of Pruitt's emails that he exchanged with oil and gas executives to be accomplished next Tuesday. I guess emails aren't important when they are written by Republicans.

Meanwhile, William Happer, the man who has been tipped as science advisor to the new president, refers to climate scientists as a "glassy-eyed cult."


The 66-year-old Laysan Albatross known as Wisdom has hatched another chick at her nest on the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Memorial.

Mama Wisdom with her new chick.


It's time to start planning your backyard wildlife garden. The Meadowlands Nature Blog gives some tips and lists resources.


In 2005, three environmental groups filed a motion with the federal government as a part of the Oroville Dam's relicensing process. They urged the government to require that the dam's emergency spillway be lined with concrete rather than remain as an earthen hillside. If that action had been taken, it likely would have prevented the risk of collapse that resulted in the emergency evacuation of some 185,000 people this week. Unfortunately, their motion was ignored.


Pesticides, paving, and higher temperatures have contributed to the drop in butterfly populations in the U.K. as they have here. Studies show that the urban populations there have declined more rapidly than the rural ones over the last twenty years. Urban populations have dropped by 69% compared to 45% for the countryside. 


But on the bright side, the California Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly, which had nearly disappeared in San Francisco is making a comeback with the help of humans and of one man in particular. Sam Wong, dubbed the "butterfly whisperer," has almost single-handedly brought the beautiful butterfly back from the brink. 


Scientists have plans for bringing the woolly mammoth back from extinction. They hope to be able to create an elephant-mammoth hybrid within the next two years. This could be the first of many "de-extinction" efforts. And is that a good idea? What do you think?


A new study of songbird dehydration and survival risk during heat waves in the desert Southwest suggest that some birds are at risk for lethal dehydration and die-off when water is scarce. The danger is expected to increase as the planet continues to heat up.


A newly discovered beetle hitchhikes by clamping its jaws around the waists of army ants and disguising itself as the ant's butt. Presumably, this also keeps the beetle from being eaten by the voracious ants.


Globalization has increased the number of species that get transported inadvertently or on purpose to places where they don't belong, thus greatly expanding the threat of invasive species.


A potential use of drones for birding places that are inaccessible or difficult to access by humans involves attaching audio recorders to them. The drones would then be directed to fly over an area, recording birdsong, thus allowing a census of that area.


Bison are returning to southwest Saskatchewan. The big animals, once almost driven to extinction, are at home on the prairies of North America, and now they will be a part of the Grasslands National Park there.  


"The Last Word on Nothing" tells us about the most massive living organism in the world - the quaking aspen tree.

Although it looks like a forest, it is really only one tree.


And "The Prairie Ecologist" tells us about the life of the single (bee) mom - native bees that lead a solitary life.


Earth's worst mass extinction happened about 252 million years ago, ending the Permian Period. It was a cataclysmic event known as "the Great Dying" in which about 90% of species went extinct. But fossil evidence from Idaho indicates that life made a relatively rapid comeback on the planet after that event. Less than two million years later, merely the blink of an eye in geologic time, there was a thriving underwater ecosystem present once again.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Why aren't you out counting birds?

Mrs. Cardinal says, "The Great Backyard Bird Count is underway. Why aren't you out counting birds?"

Yes, this is the weekend of the big count. It starts today and runs through Presidents' Day on Monday. Participating couldn't be easier. Just note the birds in your yard or in some other public or private space which you designate and then go to the website and report what you've seen.

You don't have to be an ornithologist or even an expert birder. Just be able to recognize the birds in your area by sight or by referring to a bird field guide. And if there are some you can't identify, well, you can report that, too.

This is important, because the information collected by citizen scientists, when collated, helps ornithologists to determine the winter movements of birds and the health of bird populations. Are populations declining or booming? This count will help to tell the tale.

So, get off the sofa, grab you binoculars and go out and count! You might see me because I'm heading outside right now.