Sunday, 29 April 2012

Birding in Texas

I have returned mosquito bitten and a bit tired from southeast Texas where I spent a week on a birding adventure.  This is only my second visit to the Lone Star state and I have to say that the people are very friendly there (but I am still very glad to live where I do).  I did eventually get used to being addressed as “y’all” and may have even used it a few times myself.

            My friends and I had signed up with high hopes of seeing a lot of warblers, including the Eastern species that never occur in Alberta.  We were a week too late—we did see about 20 species, including some lifers, but not in the vast numbers that we had anticipated.  It seems that migration is a bit weird everywhere this year.  The best new warblers for me were the Kentucky Warbler (a dapper yellow & black bird) and the Swainson’s Warbler (a rather dull coloured skulker that we got excellent views of twice).  Also added Prairie and Pine Warblers to my list.  (The Prairie is pictured below).

            We notched the extremely-endangered Red Cockaded Woodpecker on our very first birding day in Jones State Forest, not too far from Houston.  I couldn’t get my camera trained on those birds, but a Red Headed Woodpecker was a bit more cooperative.

            We were lucky with the Nighthawk family too.  On our morning at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, there were Common Nighthawks everywhere.

We also were alerted to a Chuck Will’s Widow on a day roost in one of the sanctuaries in High Island.

  Being a rabbit lover, I was pleased to get to know the charming Swamp Rabbit.

I was also thrilled to see my first Seaside Sparrow singing his little heart out and sounding like a cross between a Red Winged Blackbird and a Savanna Sparrow.
And it is always wonderful to see a Yellow Breasted Chat, especially one as cooperative as this one.
Although we didn’t see buckets of warblers, it was still a very good trip.  I have eaten more fried food in one week than I normally do in six months and walked around until my feet felt melded into my socks!  One of the big pleasures each day was returning to the motel to wash off layers of sunscreen and mosquito repellent.  I’m looking forward to seeing some of these birds again, as they make their way into Alberta in May.

Friday, 20 April 2012

My Unknown Sister

Her name was Roxie Jean and she was born April 8, 1960.  She was a breech birth in the days when that was a problem.  Today, her birth would be a Caesarean section and she would be my big sister.

            I often wonder what life would have been like if she had lived—what would it feel like to be the second child, rather than the first one?  My two younger sisters and I couldn’t be more dissimilar if we tried, so Roxie would probably be doing something completely different from all of us.  Once, when the three of us were scattered south to Calgary, north to Edmonton and east to Regina, my mother was heard to exclaim, “If Roxie had lived, she would probably have moved to Vancouver!” 

            For me, Roxie has always been a shadowy presence in my life.  No doubt she was more palpable for my parents.  Even 30 years later, Dad couldn’t talk about her without crying.  He had felt the heavy responsibility of organizing the funeral of his first child.  Mom wasn’t out of hospital when the funeral took place and must have always felt like she missed a significant ritual.

            For my part, I was cast in the role of beloved first-surviving child.  My father, a great fan of babies, looks absolutely besotted with me in the early photographs of the two of us.   He loved spending time with babies, his own and other peoples’.  Young mothers in the church he attended got used to having fussy infants scooped out of their arms to go spend some time with “Uncle” Harry.  How he would have loved to raise that first little girl.

            Mom enjoyed us more as adults—I wonder what things she and Roxie would have discussed over a cup of coffee?  What interests would they have shared?  Would Roxie also have been a reader and a writer?  [There’s a strong possibility of that since all three surviving daughters all are to one extent or another].

            Although I never knew my sister, she influenced my life profoundly.  Happy birthday to my big sister Roxie.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Getting acquainted with Philip José Farmer

During March, I read the first two novels of Farmer’s Riverworld series.  The basic premise is wonderful:  all of humanity (and non-human hominids), everyone who ever existed, is resurrected on a special world created specifically for them.  This world consists of one long river valley, millions of miles long, along which are groups of people from various eras of history—with some mixing.  Each area has a dominant group, a smaller infusion of another culture and a few wild cards scattered throughout.  If someone dies (accidentally or on purpose), they are resurrected the next day in some other region along the River.  The first novel, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, introduces us to these basic facts of Riverworld, how it works and what to expect.  We also learn a little about the extra-terrestrials [perhaps inaccurately known as “Ethicals”] who created Riverworld and their suspect motivations. 
            This plot is potentially brilliant—there are so many possibilities and so many directions that an author could take.  I enjoyed the first novel and could hardly wait to get my hands on the second one, The Fabulous Riverboat, which was to feature Mark Twain.  An engaging story and a great historical figure?  What could go wrong?
            Well, for me virtually everything went wrong.  From the beginning of TYSBG to the end of TFR, the plot just gets progressively more violent.  All the bad guys of history seem to be running everything (with an exception that I will get to in a minute).  Slavery and racial tensions run riot.  Call me a wide-eyed optimist, but I’d like to think that being resurrected might shake people out of their previous ways of thinking and get them looking for new ways to conduct themselves in a new world.  After all, this whole situation invalidates the old religious ways of viewing life.  Shouldn’t that shake people out of their complacency?  After all, they seem to shed their old moral codes quite easily—I would expect other world views to be at least as plastic as previously held sexual values, for example. 
            In the initial novel, we are introduced to the Nazi, Hermann Göring, who starts out as a bad guy (as you would expect), but eventually becomes a really annoying religious fanatic [from the Church of the Second Chance—once again, a wonderful name which really doesn’t live up to its potential].  As appalling as all the violence is, I found myself hoping that Göring would get popped off again, just to move him along.  As noted before, if one bad guy can make such a complete reversal, why haven’t more people changed and settled peacefully in Riverworld?
            To be fair, Farmer gave himself a big assignment.  The morality of the whole situation comes into question as the main characters in each book each have encounters with one of the “Ethicals,” who are assumed to be running the show.  Their motives for the experiment are murky [who doesn’t love a good conspiracy?] and one of them has apparently gone rogue to help the humans figure out exactly what’s going on.  But is he really helping the humans or is he manipulating them for his own purposes?  This isn’t clear by the end of the second novel.  Plus, it is difficult to write about well known historical people—perhaps I enjoyed the first book so much because I knew next to nothing about its main character, Sir Richard Francis Burton [I had to Google him to know the first thing about him].  Having no basis to judge Farmer’s treatment of Burton, I really couldn’t know how accurate or awful it was.
            An aspect I did enjoy was having a Neanderthal character feature in the first novel.  I thought the addition of non-human characters was brilliant and I would have liked to have seen large groups of Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Homo habilus, etc., also scattered along the River.   [I must confess that I have a soft spot for fiction with other human species in it].  However, it was yet another feature that could have been extraordinary and which turns out to be merely a passing novelty.  I was downright disappointed in the second novel when Farmer introduced another para-human species of a completely fictional type, the Titanothrope, a species of gigantic proportions and strength, but very little brain.  Joe Miller, as he is named, ends up being a foil for Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens.  If you are going to use well-known historical figures in your fiction, stick to historically known fossil hominids too.  I like consistency of assumptions.
            The depiction of Samuel Clemens is my main beef with the author.  I readily admit that I know very little about Sam Clemens as a real person—was he a jovial sort or was he a piece of misery?  I really don’t know, but I lean towards the former [with a good dose of acidity], but in this book, he is definitely the latter.  What I’m starting to believe was that Philip José Farmer was a piece of misery and turned all his characters into mini versions of himself—cranky!  The only truly nice guy in the whole cast of characters is Joe Millar.  It is truly ironic that he is the repository for caring, compassion, reason and common sense, since he is a mythical non-human.  Apparently Farmer didn’t believe that people could play nice.  I can’t say I blame him for his lack of faith in humanity—we are awfully good at proving that we are a violent and xenophobic species.  But, by and large, I think we can be reasonable and can co-operate when it’s needed and especially when it is in our own interests.
            Having said all of this, I will definitely read the next book in the series when I arrive at it on my reading list.  I’m still hoping to learn more about the so-called Ethicals and their motivation for creating Riverworld.  And I’m hoping that the third book will abandon the racial conflict fixation and move on to some more interesting issues [or at least issues which interest me more].  There is so much potential in this fictional situation, I have to hope that Farmer did something interesting with it before he was done.