Sunday, January 17, 2010


Sometimes, regardless of where we live, some of us may occasionally take for granted the notable aspects of the place that attracted us there to begin with. My baby sister, a 10+ year resident of Teton Valley, probably no longer brakes in amazement to gawk at ravens eating trash on the side of the road (like I do). I suspect Stellar's jays, antelope, and Clark's nutcrackers are to Alyssa what tufted titmice, red-tailed hawks, and coyotes are to her Missouri-bound sister. They're nice to see, they were pretty amazing to us years ago, but they're always around, part of the landscape that we now hike through for exercise. You go elsewhere to be amazed.

Rewind to the early part of the decade when I first moved to Missouri for a summer job and found myself surrounded by red-headed woodpeckers. The large, garrulous, and dapper birds came to my feeders, they ate acorns around my storage shed house, they filled the managed woodlands and even the neighborhoods in the area with their repetitive churls as they moved from post oak to white oak.

So, I guess I was a little disappointed while exploring the rest of the Ozark Highlands to learn that red-headed woodpeckers weren't the dominant woodland birds in other settings. I spent so much time in the (frequently burned) 3,907 acres I worked in that I thought the rest of the Ozarks looked just like it, so surely I'd find the same density of red-headed woodpeckers out there, too. I didn't know I was working in a reference point-landscape....

Because I was wrong on both accounts, I set out on the winter bird survey last week excited once again to hear and see red-headed woodpeckers. My colleague/birding partner mentioned earlier that day that he has so many of them in his own chert woodlands--which he burns--that when his 4 year old daughter set her stale gingerbread house on the deck after Christmas, red-headed, red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers descended on the confection like a flock of starlings in a McDonald's parking lot littered with French fries.

The winter bird survey occurred in the same place I conducted my spring/summer survey, which was notably devoid of red-headed woodpeckers (less than 10?). In fact, large groups of them didn't arrive here until July. These woodlands possess the structure, forage, and old growth trees required for breeding red-headed woodpeckers, but they don't spend the breeding season there.

Nevertheless, red-headeds are out right now in high numbers in certain parts of the Ozarks. Here, in my official (thanks to the Columbia Police Department who published lines of demarcation between high and low crime neighborhoods) bad neighborhood, one filled with big old trees, the Northern flickers, red-bellieds, downies and even the occasional hairy and pileated woodpeckers devour suet on a weekly basis, but no word from the red-headeds.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Winter Book List

I've been a lousy library patron ever since my birthday in September. It's a weekend ritual to walk a few blocks down to Columbia's fine, fine Daniel Boone Regional Library (home to a killer jazz cd collection and great wingchairs) and spend a while there looking for reading and listening material. But this year I received a healthy stack of fascinating books for my birthday, and I'm only now having to return to the library for literature purposes.

Admittedly, I received a few books that I couldn't finish reading (too disturbing, too sad, nightmare-inciting books). Of the smattering of birthday books and library books I've read since leaf fall, I can't quite rank them from best to worst because they all have great merit and value. Hooray for having well-read book-recommending friends!

Bottomfeeder, Taras Grescoe. Should be required reading for anyone and everyone who likes to eat fish. This book is a harrowing and comprehensive study of the modern fisheries and basically explains why we should learn to eat lower on the food chain. With everyone in the world touting the benefits of eating fish--and with burgeoning affluent class in China--fish populations are doomed. Farming fish and shrimp isn't sustainable and the product is toxic, loaded with chemicals and antibiotics. Very disturbing.
Zeitoun, David Eggers. From the founder of McSweeney's (who provides my friends in New Orleans with clever reading material every few months), Zeitoun is one of several books about Katrina I've received in recent years. Abdulrahman Zeitoun, owner of a fine house painting business in New Orleans, stayed in the city through the storm. Like most people who stayed, he thought Katrina was like the other storms--Hurricanes Georges, Frances, even Andrew--cause for alarm but it wouldn't cause too much trouble, maybe a power outage and wind damage. He stayed in the city to keep watch over his properties, over clients' homes (including many in my neighborhood). Zeitoun and many others survived the storm, but disaster set in when the levees broke.

Like every other book or essay written by David Eggers, the writing is engaging and well organized. He captured the character of Zeitoun and his business, one made of random souls looking for work, many times unreliable sorts but overall great workers. Zeitoun and his crews always did exceptional work. [In 2004, Zeitoun's painters came to my house and spent several weeks there chipping away at layers and layers of paint, then experimenting with sealants to protect my ancient, crumbling building. During that time, my balcony door stayed open as it always did and we became very familiar with one of the Jamaican painters who would gently tap on the door asking over and over and over if he could use the phone. "Hey mon, do you have any phone?" I guess the guy didn't have a phone and was always looking for a ride or something I couldn't provide besides the lemonade I offered]. I was able to read the book until the levees broke and Zeitoun comments (repeatedly) about all of the dogs barking wildly throughout the city--dogs trapped in houses, on roofs, tied to porches. It's still too soon, I guess, and Zeitoun is resting next to another book about the storm I can't read, One Dead in Attic by Chris Rose. Actually, I don't think I'll ever be able to deal with literature concerning dogs left behind during Katrina. It's too sad and too close.

I finally received my own copy of Jane Gooddall's In the Shadow of Man. I've read it several times, entranced by Hugo van Lawick's beautiful photographs of a young Jane with her chimpanzees and the story of a young biologist setting out into a world unknown to the rest of us. A breathtaking book that covers her early years in the jungle learning about the subject of her life's most important work. The latest edition comes with a nice introduction by Stephen Jay Gould.

I've never liked Theodore Roosevelt's imperialist policies, for what it's worth. Barring that, his contribution to the cause of conservation and land protection in light of increasing industrialization is landmark. The talented, fine writer Douglas Brinkley recently published an all-encompassing tome about Roosevelt and his work towards environmental protection. The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America is, like every other book written by Brinkley, well-researched, well-written, and a thorough account of the topic at hand. It's exhaustive, interesting, and very long.

Adrienne Mayor recently published an engaging book on Mithradates, a lesser known though highly significant enemy of Rome. She employs archaeological evidence and textual tradition to detail the life of the Hellenistic king. The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy, is a great biography of a remarkably evil man. He's up there with Tiberius, perhaps verging on the title of sociopath.

Everything is Illuminated spurred me to read everything Jonathan Safran Foer produces. His latest, published in November, 2009, concerns the horrors of industrial animal agriculture and philosophical discussions regarding vegetarianism. His book Eating Animals, the author explains, "is not a case for vegetarianism," but it sort of is. Granted, it's easy for me to plow through a book detailing the disgusting world of caged chickens and seafood "bycatch" because it merely adds more credence to my own vegetarianism. Unfortunately, I doubt that my omnivore friend who eats everything from raccoon to sandhill cranes (why?) will have the patience for this fascinating book. Of course, Foer recognizes that some omnivores are as rabid as some vegetarians about their eating practices and beliefs and allows voices from both sides equal billing. Foer is forthright in this book. My friend who eats everything and anything that moves would likely want punch the author for teaching him about the workings of industrial food production; he wouldn't want to touch chicken salad ever again. A good read. Disturbing, but worth the effort. I read it in one sitting.