Saturday, July 29, 2006

You can't go home again, but you can go back and be a tourist

Yesterday in the 100° heat I drove with my mother to the small town of Devine in south Texas, where she went to high school and met my father, and where we--my mother, my sister, and I--lived with my grandparents on their farm during the 2nd world war while my father was away in the Navy. My grandparents, who were originally from Oklahoma, had gone from Oklahoma to the Texas Panhandle during the Depression, and then, as the Dust Bowl worsened, they bought a small irrigated farm near Devine with the last of their savings. They built an adobe house there.

It took them 20 years to go broke on the farm in Devine.

In the meantime, during the War, not knowing that times were hard, I was happy living on the farm. The only thing bad about the farm from my point of view was the black widow spiders, glossy black, round and shiny with glistening red hourglasses on their bellies, in the corners of the the outhouse and in the gloom a couple of feet below the seat. I was afraid of the spiders and would piss by the arroyo instead of using the privy. But my grandparents made me shit in the outhouse. I would squat over the hole so that I had no bodyparts hanging down in spider territory. We had neither electricity nor running water. There was a hand-dug well 50 feet from the back door.

(I wrote an earlier, much longer piece about about both my grandfathers and a bit about life in Devine as I remember it in this story a year or so ago, but I didn't talk much about the farm. )

All in all, the farm was a wonderful place to be a little boy, if we discount the spider situation, but my mother had to work in a cannery a few miles away to help out with money. On our excursion yesterday she said everybody in Devine was poor except for the banker and a couple of other people, so being poor was not a stigma. But money was very hard to come by. When we lived on the farm I was aware that my father was not around, but only vaguely conscious that my mother was away working a lot of the time. While she was gone I would help my grandfather out with the farm chores, or at least that was my view of what I was doing. Mostly he would let me tag along while he did a lot of hard work. I remember him shoveling muck out of irrigation ditches, wearing overalls and a pith helmet, muttering under his breath. I would have been happy to get in the mud and shovel stuff out of the ditch, but he wouldn't let me. But he would let me hold on to the plow handle behind the mules.

Toward the end of the War my grandfather traded in his mules for a tractor. I remember riding on the back of the tractor with my grandfather when someone came running out to announce the news that Roosevelt had died. Everybody was upset. I thought Roosevelt must be someone they knew, but they said he was the President. In those days we had real presidents.

Anyway, my mother and I drove around in Devine yesterday, and she told me what had been in the buildings that are now boarded up, and who had owned them. She pointed out the abandoned icehouse on the other side of the railroad track that still divides the town in half. I suddenly remembered going into the icehouse as a boy, which was startlingly cool in the otherwise inescapable summer heat, when we would get big blocks of ice, which in my memory are still enormous, which were hefted with ice tongs into some kind of blanket to minimize melting while being carried back to be chipped into smaller blocks for the icebox at home. I think they would deliver ice to my other grandfather's house. He lived in town. But farm people must have had to come in to get it.

There are times you realize you are getting along in years, when you have personal memories of stuff like this. Great black locomotives enveloped in steam and and smelling of coal smoke at the depot not far from the icehouse still inhabit some core part of my being. The guy who wrote the Little Prince and Wind Sand and Stars, I forget his name, once said that when someone dies a world dies with him. Who will remember steam locomotives and ice houses when we are gone?

So we saw the sights of Devine, and then (after a side-excursion to find the graves of several of my great-uncles and my great grandmother) we drove by the farm, which is hardly recognizable. The adobe house has been replaced by a brick one, and the big oak tree in the back yard is much smaller, partly because of the loss of a couple of limbs, but more likely because of the change in my own stature. That was the oak tree my grandfather danced Kiowa dances under, and sang in Kiowa as he danced. I still think of it as a kind of sacred tree, and was happy it was not dead, even though it is smaller than it was. The San Augustine grass under the tree had been planted by my grandparents 70 years ago.

We talked at some length to the lady who lives there. Her parents bought the place from my grandparents. She told us at length about her disagreements with her brother who had surreptitiously gotten their alzheimer-afflicted mother to sign the property over to him. She was indignant. She was still taking care of their mother and her brother is suddenly the owner of the place. I found myself interested in her inheritance story, and sympathetically indignant as well, like I still had some connection to the farm. I guess I do.

She did remember some of the things we mentioned about where things on the farm used to be, and told us what had happened to them. The well had caved in. The pond out back still has water in it, despite the dry weather. The small barn in back had fallen down. She invited us into her house, which was pleasant inside, and somehow seemed like the house I remembered from 60 years ago. She said that one adobe wall had been incorporated as a wall of the new house. We met her mother, the old lady with Alzheimers, who smiled at us. The room seemed incredibly familiar. For a brief moment I felt like I was back in our house on the farm.

This is a good part of the old downtown in Devine. The street runs parallel to the railroad track, which is just to the left out of the frame. There used to be another row of businesses on the other side of the tracks.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The silence of the sheep

I don't know how long it will stay up on youtube, but this is amazing. If it gets taken down I will put up the transcript instead, but you have to watch it to get the full effect--it's completely dumfounding.

Tony Blair, who for all his deficiencies of morality and judgment is capable of holding his own during question time in the House of Commons, must suffer the pangs of hell during these appearances, when he must stand by with a polite smile paralyzing his face as Bush descends further with every syllable into banality, bathos, non-sequitur, Orwellian doubletalk, and finally an incoherence so painful it's like watching a man hit himself in the head with a hammer.

The awful silence of the audience must surely indicate the unease of the press corps being forced, once again, into looking squarely at that which they cannot write about, the brute and inescapable horror of the most powerful man in the world being a raving, incoherent madman, a demented clown who has forgotten he is garbed in motley and whiteface and has a red rubber nose, a greasepaint theologian who is engaged with desperate intensity in explaining the ultimate but simple key to the mind of the infidel: y'know, they hate freedom. Then, a trimphant honk of the red rubber nose, as his eyes search the crowd with a hopeful and expectant "y'know?". Silence.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

A selection of recent dragonfly photos

A neon skimmer. Photo taken near Onion Creek, Austin.

A wandering glider a couple hundred yards from Slaughter Creek in Austin.

A blue dasher near a freshwater pond behind a motel in Port Aransas.

I'm not quite sure about this one. My best guess is that it is a five-striped leaftail, but it could be a four-striped leaftail or one of the forceptails. It's near Onion Creek in Austin.

A very fine red saddlebags in Port Aransas.

All photos can be enlarged by clicking on them.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Random recent nature photos

As Texas became drier at the end of the last glaciation, we were left with some isolated wetland plants in unlikely places. We have a few surviving pockets of dwarf palm (Sabal minor) here in central Texas. These palmettos (from the Spanish palmito, little palm) are more typical of Florida and Louisiana than Texas. Here is a deer in the palmettos.

Here is a Needham's skimmer, photo taken at Port Aransas.

Sandwich terns at Port Aransas.

And here is the Texas great white shark, closing in on its prey, also at Port Aransas.

(click photos for larger view)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Bread and butter issues of diplomacy

I was struck by George Bush's curious idea of diplomacy, revealed in the now-famous open-mike slip-up, when he said with his mouth full of bread and butter to the waiter at his table, Tony Blair, that "they need to get Hezbollah to stop this shit."

It's unclear who "they" are. Commentators have suggested Kofi Annan or Vladimir Putin or Syria or Iran. After I listened to Bush make that remark over his shoulder in his offhand fratboy manner to Blair, I once again realized what a vacant, dangerous fool our president is. Whoever Bush was talking about, the fact that the head of the United States government expects that somehow, somewhere, someone needs to address the problem, and that that someone was not Mr. Bush, is unsettling. You'd think I'd get used to being unsettled by now.

There is a widespread wish-fulfillment belief that whatever stupid things Bush may say or do, that behind the curtain grownups are actually running the country--that if Bush is the organ-grinder's monkey, then Dick Cheney, he of the Bell's-palsy-esque snarl and the hair-trigger shotgun, is the guy cranking the barrel-organ. That's not reassuring and as far as I can tell it's not true.

Bush is after all the President, and he is always at pains that no one should forget it.

People have often remarked on Bush's apparent authority issues, his truculence and belligerence, his conflation of bargaining with weakness and compromise with personal defeat, his inability to admit error, to change direction, or in any way snap out of a 5-year long temper tantrum which is all the more unseemly in that the tantrum is not a product of his failing to get his way, but rather of his awareness that some of us disagree that his way should be gotten. All of these personal flaws not only render good government at home difficult, they guarantee disaster abroad, as we see in Iraq, and increasingly in Afghanistan, where Bush once could have declared mission accomplished (well, except for the unresolved matter of bin Laden) and not have been laughed at.

And now, of course, since Bush refuses to negotiate with our enemies, and need not negotiate with our remaining friends, when he can wave a piece of buttered bread at a hand-wringing Tony Blair who will nod and grin agreeably, we are left with no possibility of being an honest broker ourselves (or even a dishonest one,) in the current Lebanese troubles, and the world is left with no broker of any kind who could make a difference. Mr. Bush refuses to talk to Hezbollah, or to Syria, or to Iran, or to Hamas, or as far as I can tell, to the Israelis. Instead Mr. Bush talks--with a mouth full of food--to Mr. Blair, whose fear-grimace in photo-ops with Mr. Bush has now become so familiar. Presumably Bush expects Blair to relay the orders from the White House to the vaguely designated "them" who will then--do what?

For all of the flaws of the Clinton White House, I miss a guy who was actually competent and who actually understood what diplomacy was about, and whose diplomacy really did something that at least in a small way--a way that could have been a beginning--ameliorated the conflict between Israel and its neighbors.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Birds and alligators at Port Aransas

Once again I have failed to bring back any good close-up photos of the roseate spoonbills on the Texas coast. The picture below was taken about 300 yards out, and cropped and blown up. But it gives you a feel for how they look in the distance.

The cormorants were closer at hand, all engaged in active gular flutter in the heat. It looks like panting, but is actually a rapid forcing of air in and out of the mouth, so as to flutter the cheeks, or the bird equivalent of cheeks. The _Online Birds of North America_ says that it cools adult cormorants effectively, though young birds have to stay in the shade or die. I would have tried to use the video function of the camera to capture the fluttering movement, but I was hoarding camera memory for a multi-day trip. So at best you might detect a slight throat blur in the still photo.

Shortly after I took the previous photos, a large alligator, about 9 or 10 feet long, came swimming--very slowly, as alligators do--out of the marsh up to the place where I was standing with several other birdwatchers, a bird observation walkway that extends out into the cattails. The alligator gazed at us with interest, but we were out of reach. Alligators have large eyes. I had for some reason assumed they did not see well, but obviously they do. Here's a close-up of an alligator eye looking at the photographer.

Finally, here's a willet on the beach.

(click photos to enlarge)

Addendum: In response to a comment, here is an additional photo to clarify which way the alligator above is facing.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Monday miscellany

Here are two dragonflies on the same ragweed stalk. The top one is a halloween pennant, and the lower one an immature male roseate skimmer. I wish they had been close together so I could upload a bigger image, but I think this is about as close as they get--I suspect the skimmer had intentions of eating the pennant, which in fact flew away right after I took the shot.

Here's a tiger swallowtail on a buttonbush flower

(Click to enlarge)

I'll be back Friday

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Zhaozhou's bridge

The Zhaozhou Bridge crosses the Xiao River in the Hebei Province of China and is supposedly the country's oldest standing stone bridge, and maybe the oldest arched stone bridge in the world. It was built during the Sui dynasty about 600 AD by an architect named Li Chun. It is also known as Safe Crossing Bridge (anji qiao), and the Great Stone Bridge (dashi qiao). The bridge is 167 feet long and 30 feet wide, and the middle span is 123 feet across. In the old days horses crossed the bridge, burros crossed the bridge, idlers then as now leaned on the wall and watched the boats, spat in the water and dropped things over the parapet. Cars probably cross the bridge nowadays. Everyone comes and goes. Fish rise to slick boils in the water and then muscle down into the dark. Swallows scribe forgotten geometries in the air around the bridge. The bridge is made out of rock and mortar and is now fourteen hundred years old. The arches are an engineering marvel, but a simple wooden bridge would have done the job in the Sui dynasty, and a concrete bridge would suffice today.

So as it happens 300 years after the bridge was built a monk was visiting a zen teacher called Zhaozhou (who got his name because he lived in the town of Zhaozhou where the bridge was.) The visitor was unimpressed. Not much to see here, said the monk, it's not the bridge I was expecting. Zhaozhou said that's right. The monk then experienced doubt, and a question came into his voice. Some say he asked for more information on the bridge. Zhaozhou may have said you are standing on it. Or he may have said you get from here to there on it.

Zen students have studied this story for over a thousand years.

Here is a photo of the bridge, from a Chinese tourism site.

There is a legend that a magician built the bridge during a single night, and that it was tested by a pair of gods who crossed over it, one with the sun and the moon in a sack, and the other carrying five mountains in a wheelbarrow. The magician saved his handiwork by leaping into the water under the bridge and holding it up. Depictions of the bridge in Chinese art tend to show the magician standing in the water under it, holding it up as the heavenly quality assurance team passed over it.

Though it needed some help holding up that load, the bridge has in fact withstood many floods and earthquakes, the latest earthquake being a magnitude 7.2 tremor in 1966.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Snowy egret at work

A 1.7x teleconverter brings this bird up close

(click for larger view)

Friday, July 14, 2006

Friday cat blogging

Gray under a rusty lawn chair

(click to enlarge)

The Nature of Paleolithic Art

I've been reading a book called The Nature of Paleolithic Art, by R. Dale Guthrie. This reading choice springs from an interest I have had all my adult life in Native American rock art, some of which is not that different from European cave art of the old stone age, which is what Guthrie's book is primarily about.

I don't know about other readers, but I am afraid I come away with a strange and weirdly idyllic picture of roving bands of mostly monogamous big-game hunters with anachronistic New England town meeting virtues, who were strong and brave and resourceful, much like moose-hunting Alaska lifetime members of the NRA, and all of whose children were above average ("quality kids," I believe, is Guthrie's term--and raising quality kids is a contribution of the ice-age womenfolk, lest anyone think by the nearly total absence from his book of a discussion of half of humanity then and now, that he scants their contribution), and whose adolescent boys were playful, risk-taking, sexually obsessive teenagers very much like our own except for the fixation on large herbivores and a tendency to explore deep caves and put their handprints on the walls. Plus they had a susceptibility to romantic love only rediscovered in the European middle ages,

But I think he wants to say something about human nature. Usually biological-determinist statements of human nature end up leaving us feeling a bit stranded and out of luck in a world that we can easily see has moved beyond our adaptations, in this case in a non-paleolithic world where we are guided by a human-nature overadapted to a world that is utterly and completely gone. Hyperspecialization has its drawbacks, as we see with our big game hunter minds in the agricultural/industrial/postindustrial world of the past 10k years, a world possibly ours for a few more decades. (It's true that some peak oil and/or climate change catastrophists present a very convincing picture of a return to our hunter origins--though if so there will certainly be no big game left to hunt--as our only alternative to dying out altogether as a species.)

He paints a nice picture of a world without war. But there is no way to know. Lack of depictions of war in rock art 30,000 years old is not really evidence of lack of war. Indeed if we have chimps who go to war, and presumably did before ice-age humans existed, not to mention a steady record of war in the past 10,000 years, one can't really rule it out for his hunters as firmly as Guthrie does.

Guthrie argues for an odd biological determinism where the heritage of the ice age world turns out to be everything that is the best in human nature today. And in his view what is best in human nature today is found preeminently among guys who hunt, especially guys who hunt big game in the north woods, as our author himself does.

Well, I dunno. I mean, look, if the big-game hunting phase of human existence left us with a genetic impulse towards certain behaviors, it stands to reason that at least some of those behaviors would be grievously ill adapted to the present world, another tragic case of a sadly overspecialized species now in the wrong niche, promoted above our level of competence.

And it's hard not to notice that much of our behavior is indeed very ill-adapted to our long-term well-being, if not our survival as a species. For example, the adolescent excesses of risk-taking, which he attributes to our big-game-hunter genetics, and our adolescent tendencies to violence--which paradoxically, he is at pains to insist are not a big-game-hunter genetic heritage-- are not the most adaptive traits for successful life in our present world, as evidenced by the relative greater success of military recruitment ads on this very demographic.

But he may be right that some of the behavioral leftovers of the ice age constitute the better part of our nature as humans. But I find it hard to place a desire to go kill moose foremost among the worthy traits that have been left to us in our DNA. Hunting, to be fair to Guthrie, is in his view really an expression of creativity, which he seems to think is ultimately our foremost heritage from the old stone age. I admire creativity as much as the next guy, but I don't really think hunting is necessarily either a cause or a major expression of that virtue. I am inclined to guess, and on the basis of his own evidence, that the best and still-very-adaptive genetic leftover of the paleolithic is an occasional tendency for human cooperation, which can also call for great creativity, as we can see when that creativity fails us, as in the diplomacy of the Bush Administration.

But I digress.

And cooperation seems prior to hunting anyway. Without it successful big game hunting would have been difficult if not impossible. Imagine trying to kill a large savannah animal with a spear, by yourself. You gotta have some help. Otherwise you'd never even get near to it, much less finish it off. Hopefully, cooperation, whether genetic or learned, may do us some good in these latter days, at least among populations that still exhibit it.

I have to say the book is poorly organized and digressive--but who am I to fault anyone for that? Some of the digressions come out of nowhere and go nowhere, like his view that a spiritual impulse is adaptive, but that superstition is not. Um, OK.

Then we have the idea that hunters commune with the animals they kill. Well, the hunter may spiritually commune with the gut speared bison, but the bison--and I'm just guessing here--is communing with fear and pain, not the hunter. Romantic nonsense, in other words. I used to hunt, when I was an adolescent, and I didn't commune with the animals I hunted any more than someone who orders a big mac communes with the ground beef he eats. I think modern-day hunters who buy into this are fooling themselves, at best, and as for the hunters of the ice age, if we are honest we have to admit knowing little about what they actually thought.

I thought the book contained a lot of interesting ideas, most of them marred by a certainty that outruns the evidence.

But then who doesn't display that vice on occasion?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Wednesday bug blogging

This is a swift setwing. These are medium sized dragons that let me get pretty close. So I take pictures of them a lot.

Here is an immature male roseate skimmer. As he gets older he will turn rosy purple...

...if he is not eaten by a robber fly like this one. Robber flies are even more predatory than dragonflies, and often catch and eat bugs, including dragons, larger than themselves. This robber is about an inch long.

Widow skimmers are common but hard to approach with a camera. I was happy to get this photo of a female.

This red saddlebags landed on a stick in my yard.

(click photos for larger view)

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Sunday miscellany

Wild petunias, Ruellia nudiflora, abundant in mixed hackberry forest near Onion Creek

Swan and ugly ducklings on Austin's Town Lake

Horses on land belonging to my wife's sister

Common sunflower, Helianthus annuus, abundant all around Austin now.

(click any photo to enlarge)

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Neon skimmers and a queen

Walking in Slaughter Creek park today, I was not taking many photos, though the weather was pleasant and the park is scenic, because there were no birds, animals, or bugs to take pictures of. At least at first. But I found one dragonfly at rest, and it was a female neon skimmer, Libellula croceipennis, which was very cooperative about photos. I think these are a little sharper than the previous photos I have put up of the same species, so I am posting three of them. Plus I ran across what I first thought was a monarch on a sunflower, but it turns out to be a queen butterfly, which I am posting also.

Neon skimmer against the sky

Same dragonfly viewed from behind

...and a close view

Here is a queen butterfly, Danaus gilippus, on a sunflower

Click any photo for a larger view

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Searight Park in July

Rain interrupted my Independence Day walk in Searight Park in far south Austin, but here are several photos of the park and its wildlife from the day before. The 350 acre park is popular for its 18-hole frisbee golf course (technically "disc golf" because of dog-in-the-manger trademark restrictions on the use of the term frisbee), to which a surprising number of people are seriously devoted. The players, mostly young men, come equipped with small brightly colored frisbees and determined expressions. Their objective is to land their frisbees in a metal basket on a pole. Except for the frisbee golf course the interior of the park is largely unvisited at this time of the year, because of the heat and humidity. The trail photos below may give you some hint of this.

Searight Park squirrel, Sciurus niger

Park trail

Another park trail

Windblown green heron

(Click photos for larger view)

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

A Fourth of July look at patriotism

What is patriotism, really? Eymologically, it is the love of the Fatherland. Well, you know where I can go with that, but I won't bother.

The emotional intensity of whatever it is we call patriotism probably derives from something basic in our genetic heritage. We are social animals, after all. For several million years, our primate and hominid forebears lived in small groups, and no doubt an intense loyalty to those groups was necessary for human survival. But instinctive loyalty to a group of family and friends who protected one another from leopards and roving marauders is a very different thing from that same instinct turned to witless support for a series of immoral wars, and all manner of terrible abuses of human dignity at home and abroad, sold to us because those wars, and those abuses, are the policies of the nation-state you or I happen to have been born in, and come to us wrapped in the flag and decorated with magnetic yellow ribbons you can stick on your SUV.

This is a country which has always talked the talk--read the Declaration of Independence for proof of that--but rarely walked the walk. "All men are created equal." I believe that myself, but it was written by slave-owners who wouldn't dream of letting women or propertyless men vote.

We are all entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--unless you were a person kidnapped in Africa and brought here to work in the fields, or unless you were one of the Native Americans killed or ethnically cleansed in vast numbers, or unless you were one of several hundred thousand Filipinos murdered to extend an American empire to the Pacific, or unless you were one of about two million Vietnamese who died in our phase of the Indo-China war, or unless you were one of the half million Iraqis who died--and no one really seems to contest this figure, strangely enough--in the first five years of our embargo in the 1990s as a result of being deprived of food, medicine, and clean water. Or unless you are one of the 30,000 to 120,000 Iraqis--the figure is contested, but no one contests its lower bound--who have died in our current cloud-cuckooland war, or one of 2500 American soldiers who have also died--though George Bush was careful not to tell them or their loved ones the real reason the men in the White House felt it expedient for these soldiers to perish--in the service of reelecting George Bush and extending Republican power into an indefinite future.

Ah, but yes, in fairness, there are good things about America. Those are the reasons why I live here, and pay taxes, and in general obey the laws. Among those good things I include the openness, friendliness, kindness and generosity of many of its people. I include the stunning physical beauty of much of this country, especially the mountain West (which, again in fairness, I have to point out that Mr. Bush is destroying as fast as he can). There are still many people in America who actually believe, in a meaningful way--not just in the hollow, sham rhetoric of the Fourth of July--in the vision of human dignity and equality and justice expressed so well, albeit hypocritically, in the Declaration of Independence.

In fact I sometimes sentimentally think those people are the best people in the world. Unfortunately they do not hold political power in this country. They are not the people making the jingoist speeches, and appealing to the rawest and worst of human emotions to justify whatever wars and infamies the men in the Monkey Palace are presently hatching, or beating the drum for whatever social-Darwinist vision these same men have of a city on a hill where greed, self-interest, public and private looting, and the the corresponding and necessary diminishment of the human soul needed to make such a state of affairs happen becomes a given in public life, and doing so through propaganda technologies that Goebbels could only dream of.

So as usual, I'll pass on the Fourth of July. I'll go for a walk today, maybe take some pictures of birds or dragonflies, for a restorative reminder that there is a world not yet completely paved over by the mall-builders and the highway engineers. This evening I may read a book. My daughter wants me to read Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, which sounds complicated and ambivalent, maybe a good antidote to rhetorical certainties, which could of course include my own.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Badly named ducks

Black-bellied whistling ducks, splashing around

...or maybe they are just standing around

Duck overhead

Don't ask me why they are called black-bellied whistling ducks. Their bellies are brown, not black, and if they whistle I have not heard them do it. When I first started birdwatching they were called black-bellied tree ducks. I suppose the name was modified because they are more commonly found in shallow ponds, as you see in two of these photos, than in trees.

I think they should be called orange-nosed ducks. Their beaks are the vibrant orange of traffic warning cones.

These photos were taken south of Austin. We are near the northern edge of their range. Our ducks nest here, but migrate south to Mexico for the winter.

(Click any photo for a larger view.)