Sunday, May 28, 2006

Happy to be back

My daughter and I just got back from a road trip to Baton Rouge, mostly on Interstate-10. Roadside construction and repair were more or less constant from 50 miles west of Houston all the way to Lafayette, Louisiana. The drive through Houston was, for me, an especially harrowing, white-nuckle experience. Houston's perpetual road-building is a losing battle. The last time I was in Houston was four years ago, and as far as I can tell the traffic is now much, much worse, and indeed--and speaking for myself at least--would now have to be called terrifying.

There are just too many cars. And not only are there are more cars than there were four years ago, the cars are bigger. Strikingly so. I don't know the percentage of SUVs on the road, but if I had to guess I'd say 2 out of 3 passenger vehicles. (Lotsa Hummers. You don't see those much in Austin.) And of course there are huge trucks on the highway, in ever greater numbers. All drivers seem to go as fast as they can, and it is blindingly obvious to an outsider that the wider roads in which the good citizens of Houston have vested their hope of salvation from whatever circle of commuter hell they live in, will be insufficient to even come close to alleviating the congestion when the roads are finished, if they ever are.

When I got home I read that Texas has chosen this moment in the history of the planet--with world demand for oil increasing and the climate changing due to CO2 emissions--to raise our highway speed limit to 80. That's miles per hour, for any reader who may be from another country. So far it only applies to some selected portions of West Texas interstate highway, but I am sure we will be seeing 80 mph speed limit signs throughout the state pretty soon. The Governor, who wants to be re-elected, will no doubt take credit for the new speed limits, which, except among families of wreck victims, will be very popular.

For some time now I have felt like right-wing American politics has had the emotional core of a temper tantrum, as in: 4 year old child dissatisfied with life, falls to the floor weeping with indignation, bangs feet, fists, and head against an unyielding hard surface, which naturally causes pain in the body parts delivering the blows, leading to greater fury and louder outcry and redoubled efforts to make the process work. Red-state politics has that aspect.

I guess the people who drive the big SUVs imagine, somehow, that an 80 mph speed limit will make things better for them, even as they are banging their heads against the present reality of their daily drive to and from work, in which frustrated drivers enact personal dramas of reckless incivility and road rage as their increasingly desperate effort to pass the slower cars finally ends with a hard slam of brakes (and hopefully not rending metal) as they are stymied at last by the outliers of an inevitable iron wall of slowly moving and idling cars, a 50 mile stop-and-go Houston traffic jam enveloped in a pall of diesel smoke.

I know that when peak oil really does set in it will cause a lot of hardship. But sweet Jesus, maybe it will actually serve to rescue people from a life no one could actually want to live, if they could see an alternative.

Needless to say, I am glad to be home.

In a more upbeat coda, let me say I liked the LSU campus, which I had never seen. A live-oak canopy (perhaps obligatory for a southern university) shades most of the streets and sidewalks. There's a kinda bucolic campus lake circled, at least in part, with trails for walking and jogging. And I certainly liked the people I met in my daughter's academic department. We had lunch with her supervising professor, who was friendly and personable. My daughter gets along well with him, which is important.

And the search for an apartment was successful.

I took some photos of the birds on the campus lake. Below is a pair of wood ducks.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Walk in the park

This will be my last post until the weekend or maybe later. I will be driving to Baton Rouge with my daughter, who is starting the PhD program in biology at LSU in the fall, to help her line up an apartment. Sigh. I will miss her when she leaves--she has been living at home. Anyway, it will be a long drive tomorrow on I-10. The influx of New Orleans refugees has driven up Baton Rouge rents to nearly Austin levels, but as far as I can tell from Craig's list and the online apartment locators, there seems to be an adequate supply of housing. We'll see.

In the meantime, here are some photos of my walk in Searight Park today.

Painted bunting

Silvery Checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis) on an orange zexmenia (Zexmenia hispidia)

and a white tailed deer, about to leave

(click photos to enlarge)

Sunday, May 21, 2006

More backyard birds

Behind my house I have a diseased Arizona ash tree which is slowly and inevitably dying. Several big branches have already fallen down, and I think that in the next big windstorm the rest of the tree may come down completely. Several of these short-lived trees, all planted on the property at the same time, have already become part of my woodpile which, if last winter is any indication, is more in danger of slow decay as the world gets warmer, than of eventual combustion in my fireplace and wood stove. The last couple of years I have rarely lit a wood fire. But I digress.

What I was going to say was that the dying tree, latticed with deadstick branches decorated with colorful lichens--and with a only few upper branches showing any foliage--is incredibly popular with birds. Here are two.

A white wing dove

and a starling

(click to enlarge)

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Saturday dragonfly blogging

Three views of a roseate skimmer, Orthemis ferruginea

click photos to enlarge

Friday, May 19, 2006

Friday cat blogging

Grendel stretched out for a nap

Gray unsure if this is a comfortable perch

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Two herons on Onion Creek

A snowy egret going by fast

And a green heron standing still

click photos to enlarge

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Tuesday birds

Western kingbird closing in on lunch

Great-tailed grackle beside Onion Creek checking out photographer

(click photos to enlarge)

Monday, May 15, 2006

Monday bugs

The butterfly is a checkered white (Pontia protodice.) The flower is a gaillardia. Both the flowers and the checkered whites are abundant around Austin now.

This damselfly is a powdered dancer (Argia moesta) resting on a twig under a live oak canopy. Live oaks--at least those in Central Texas--lose and replace their old leaves in the spring, so it looks like autumn on the ground underneath.

(click photos to enlarge)

Friday, May 12, 2006

Not-so-wild birds of Town Lake

Swans and cygnets. Austin's Town Lake has had a self-reproducing mute swan population for many years

Mallard duck

A small boy was ineffectually throwing sticks at the duck as the boy's father looked on. The duck investigated each stick, apparently hoping it was a crust of bread. The ducks get fed a lot. Sticks would be the down side of this.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

In memory of Kay Sutherland

Born April 24, 1942. Died May 11, 2002, aged 60.

This photo was taken in August of 2001.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Yet another open letter to Senator Cornyn

I send little notes like this to Senator Cornyn every once in a while, but out of a realistic desire to increase their readership above zero, I also put them on my blog. I have never gotten a reply from the Senator or his staff.

----------the open letter----------

Dear Senator Box Turtle:

The $70 billion Republican tax break for the very rich--specifically, giving $42,000 in tax bling to millionaires like the overstuffed Halliburton stockholders who will probably only lift their snouts out of the swill at the public trough long enough to briefly belch their approval and maybe send you a bribe, excuse me, a campaign contribution--is possibly a new low for this administration, which already has reached depths never before imagined in American history, at least if we exclude the recent visionary dreams of Enron executives and, earlier, the reach of bigtime organized crime in its heyday.

Then, adding insult to injury, you and your fellow big spenders (no, I don't mean that sarcastically--a brief glance at the obscene national debt that Republican wastrels have left for our children to pay off will show you that I mean it literally) condescendingly toss some spare change to average working people.

And not very much spare change, either. Twenty (20!) paltry US dollars is the median Republican tax relief to people in the middle quintile of wage earners. But it's FORTY TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS in tax breaks for millionaires! That's just disgusting.

Can you believe it? In-freaking-credible!

Meanwhile the Republican budget proposal strips BILLIONS from housing, health care, food stamps, and child care. Well, we sure see what Republican priorities are.

I think we'd find more charity and kindness in a jar full of scorpions.

And in closing, Senator, if I may briefly address one of your obsessions, I don't care if reptiles can marry. As I understand it, most beltway Republicans have spouses anyway. That's fine. But every day I become more certain you and your kind are not ready for the responsiblities of citizenship. Have you considered leaving the Senate and retiring to Russia or China, where the cherished Republican social-darwinist millennial vision of a perfected heartless and soulless gangster capitalism has has been more fully and energetically bought into than here? I'm sure they would pay you very handsome consultation fees. Wealth would be yours that you can only dream of in an America where some laws must still be observed even by the ruling party.

You'd be happy there--and America would share in your happiness.

Your faithful constituent,

Jim McCulloch

Backyard wildflowers

Most of our wildflowers will be gone in the heat pretty soon. Yellow is the predominant color, but in the mornings in a shady corner of the yard we have some quiet blue dayflowers still blooming.

Dayflower, sometimes called widow's tears. A Commelina species.

Gaillardias are much less subdued, and much more abundant. Sometimes called firewheels.

This is an evening primrose, an Oenothera species

Afterthought: Here's a wood-sorrel growing under a runaway lady banksia rosebush. Wood sorrels belong to the genus Oxalis. I don't know which species this is.

Click any image to enlarge

Monday, May 08, 2006

Random thoughts on air conditioning

Kay and I once lived in a shack on Onion Creek which had neither air conditioning in the summer nor much in the way of heat during the winter, nor insulation at any time of year, and the roof leaked. It was not a comfortable existence. While we lived there we would commonly sweat through the sheets during the sweltering summer nights. On the other hand, we often wore coats inside during winter days while sitting close to the only space heater.

Despite the harsh terms of creekside existence, it turned out to be a happy time for us. The view was beautiful and life there took on a certain vividness it had seemed to lack during our previous preoccupations with things less real than weather and the threat of rising water.

But the sojourn on the creek was intended as a financial recovery move—the shack came to us more or less free, and given that we were renting out our house in town and had almost no expenses living by the creek, we were soon out of debt, and a time arrived when we left the shack for good. We bought a house nearby.

Several years after that, in September 2001, Kay got sick with leukemia, and died 8 ½ months later. During her illness we moved temporarily back into town to a small place offered us by a friend. It was convenient to the hospital. It wasn’t much bigger than the shack on the creek, but had some amenities. It had window air conditioners.

Kay died in May, 2002 just as it was getting really hot in Austin.

The night she died, after I got home from the hospital, I turned off the air conditioners. I didn’t turn them on again the rest of the summer. I opened the windows and bought a couple of small electric fans. There was also a ceiling fan. The ceiling fan had 2 noises, one like a dog panting and making its tags jingle, and the other like the metabolically extravagant frantic knockknock heartbeat of a small high-temperature mammal. Complicated fan rhythms orbited around one another in extended planetary cycles all night. I grew familiar with them.

I wanted to feel like I was in a real world. The heat and the epicycles of fan sounds reminded me I wasn’t dreaming, and seemed to connect me again to life as we shared it on the creek.

During the summer after she died I thought there would be a point where absence goes from a sense of “she’s missing” to a final sense of “she’s gone”. It’s the point where I imagined she would become a memory instead of a presence. But now, four years later, I find that what has happened is that I pass back and forth over that boundary daily. The four years seem to prove that forever and yesterday and now can unpredictably occupy the same moments.

Last night when watching a Woody Allen movie that I wasn’t particularly engaged with, I realized, without expecting to, that it was the fourth anniversary of the last movie Kay and I ever watched together, another movie I didn't pay much attention to. I can’t even remember the title now, or much about it. Seems like I should. Kay was very ill. We just held hands. Four days later she was dead.

In the fall after Kay's death my daughter and I moved back to the house we had been living in before Kay's illness. It’s quite a pleasant house to live in, though this comes at a price. A contemporary house has some things in common with a sensory deprivation tank. You can't hear what's going on outside, and the temperature is the same all year long. That’s fine during the day, say when I am washing clothes or sweeping the floor or sitting in front of a computer screen, but sometimes during the night I get up and sleep till morning in the hammock on the back porch, where it’s hot and I can hear the noises of the night.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Friday cat and crow blogging

Cat in the flowers

Crow in the weeds

Gray, the cat, was in the backyard among the gaillardias. The crow landed and scowled at me, and flew away.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Some dragonflies and damselflies around Austin

Dragonflies normally are larger than damselflies, and at rest dragonflies usually have their wings spread wide, whereas damselflies fold their wings back parallel with their bodies. Dragonflies usually have eyes close together, and damselflies usually have their eyes separated widely. Both are part of the order Odonata, and dragonflies and damselflies belong to separate suborders, Anisoptera and Zygoptera, respectively. Odonata Central is an excellent online source for information and photos.

The first three species shown are dragonflies, the last two are damselflies. I have posted photos of a couple of these species before, though I hope the pictures here are a little better, or at least in sharper focus, than the previous ones. I took them all in the vicinity of Onion Creek.

Common whitetail female (Plathemis lydia )

An eastern pondhawk male (Erythemis simplicicollis simplicicollis)

Here's a female of the eastern pondhawk

Blue ringed dancer (Argia_sedula)

Aztec dancer (Argia nahuana)

(click any photo to enlarge)

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

A President who will say anything

I had a recent post on the absurdity of our President telling people to sing the Star Spangled Banner only in English. My point was, basically, who does this guy think he is? Plus, it's a free country, or let us hope it still is.

But wouldn't you know it? According to ThinkProgress (quoting Cox News Service, 1/18/01) the National Anthem was actually sung in Spanish at Bush's own 2001 inaugural. The singer was Jon Secada.

Also, ThinkProgress cites Kevin Phillips for the following, from p. 142 of his book American Dynasty
When visiting cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, or Philadelphia, in pivotal states, he [Bush] would drop in at Hispanic festivals and parties, sometimes joining in singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in Spanish, sometimes partying with a “Viva Bush” mariachi band flown in from Texas.

Every day, I think no new revelation of this man's dishonesty will surprise me. But I keep getting surprised.

Cooters and sliders

Texas river cooter (Pseudemys texana)

Another river cooter, with a leaf on its shell, and two red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans)

The word cooter is ultimately African. "Kuta" means "turtle" in Bambara (now spoken mainly in Mali) and in Maninka (a major language of Guinea), and possibly in other Mandé languages.

Through a folk belief that turtles copulate for two weeks at a time, a folk etymology of cooter arose in which the back-formation verb "to coot" referred to the supposed fortnight of sexual congress, and the name of the turtle came to be thought derivative from their alleged behavior. The OED documents this usage from the middle of the 17th century. No one knows why these turtles were thought to have such prodigious tenacity in coupling. Maybe it just came from the idea that turtles were slow about everything.

But they are not slow in getting off logs when you approach. In fact, the name of their relatives close, the sliders, refers to the slider habit of moving, and moving quickly, into the water if approached. Cooters do the same.

The word slider is not quite right itself. It's more like plopping than sliding. Oftentimes I become aware of an unseen turtle by the sound of its having fallen into the water with a sound like a brick had somehow pushed itself off a log. Not a sliding noise, exactly.

There has been some attempt to regularize the terms cooter and slider in field guides and such, but in common usage both words refer--depending on where you are--to any of a wide variety of aquatic turtles. When I was growing up in Texas cooter was a word for any river turtle. (It was also an occasional human nickname. I don't know why. I knew a kid named Cooter.) I don't recall ever hearing the term slider, though I am sure it was also common in some places. Nor was I aware of any sexual innuendo involving cooters, though I have read that in recent years a cooter (turtle) festival in some little town in the south had to be cancelled because some members of the community believed the word was offensive. Though it was hard for me to figure out why from the newspaper article, I think the people who objected to it considered it a substandard word for vulva.

You can't predict the evolution of words.