Monday, April 15, 2013

The Bird

The bird above is the one that got me into birdwatching. It was the bird that made me pick up my binoculars and once I viewed those gorgeous stripes down its back, I was hooked. Birds were suddenly everywhere and I was suddenly paying attention. I'm not a good birder but I'm learning. All because of this bird.

This is a Red Bellied Woodpecker. We have a pair of them that nest in the dead tree along our creek. I heard them one afternoon and grabbed Jeff's old binoculars to see what was making the noise. It was a strange call. I followed the call and found the bird, and was struck dumb. The stripes on its back were beautiful. The red head was such a wonderful contrast. From a distance I hadn't seen half the details. After that, I started watching birds regularly. I bought a new pair of binoculars. I bought bird identification books. All because of this bird.

If you're staring at this bird and wondering about the name, notice the picture at the tail end of the post (tail-end, get it?). The Red Headed Woodpecker has a red head and plain black back. The Red Bellied Woodpecker has a red head, black and white stripes on its back...and a red belly. You can only see it occasionally. Like as it flies away. Remember that most birds were named after being shot and held in hand. A horrible way to name a beautiful bird.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Roald Dahl

There are a couple authors who impacted my childhood deeply. Walter Farley, Arnold Lobel, Dr. Seuss, Julie Edwards (Andrews), and of course Roald Dahl all wrote the kind of books that I wanted to read as a child. There are few books from any of these writers that I haven't read. And no one was better loved in our household than Roald Dahl. We each came home after listening to The BFG in school and demanded that my parent read us the rest of his books. There's something magical about that man and his mischievous books. As a child I judged him by his stories, recently I learned a little more about the man behind the writing.

I just finished a very good Roald Dahl biography called Storyteller by Donald Sturrock. I'd heard plenty of rumors about Dahl, his prickliness, his questionable past, and his even more questionable views. I'd never seen any of these in his stories, but this book did a lot to set me straight on Dahl's personality. What I encountered was a character in his own right.

I'd read Dahl's two "autobiographical" books (Boy and Going Solo) but Sturrock informs us that much of those stories were fabricated (or tweaked a bit) by Dahl to make more interesting stories. But the real story is fascinating enough. Dahl was not only a RAF pilot during World War 2 but a spy for the British in the US after the war. He seduced numerous women (some quite well known) and ended up married to a famous actress. He invented and patented a valve that saved many brain injured children after his child was involved in an accident. He raced greyhounds, married twice, and managed to father a couple children. Oh yeah and he wrote some of the best loved books of all time. A recent poll just listed him as the most popular children's book writer ever. This almost three decades after his death.

Dahl had his prickly side and loved to stir up controversy at the dinner table. But many of the rumors about his controversial views are a bit misguided. Dahl may have been controversial in his conversations but he seems tame in his actual views. He reminds me a bit of my father, who loves to see if he can rile people up. Like my dad, Dahl would play devils advocate for hours just to get a flush out of people. And that earned him a reputation for prickliness.

No matter what your view on the man, you have to give him credit for his books. As a child we listened to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, and of course The BFG. We sat spellbound as bad people got their just desserts, and good children prevailed against evil. We fell in love with his characters, his wording, and his imagination. I can still read Dahl's work and be spellbound. Even his adult fare is seductive. A prolific writer and a consummate storyteller who lived a life almost as exciting as his books.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The World, From a Different Angle

Over the last couple years I've become more and more fascinated by space. I wrote this post when NASA's budget cuts forced them to stop shuttle launches. I've started following Neil DeGrasse Tyson, an outspoken advocate for astrophysics, space, and NASA. And just in these last couple weeks I've started following Col. Chris Hadfield on Facebook.

Brazilian Farms

Hadfield is a Canadian astronaut serving as commander on the International Space Station. He's incredibly active when it comes to social media and has been posting pictures, making videos, and generally keeping us informed about what it's like up there in space. I first heard of him when I watched this video about how to make a sandwich in space. Zero gravity may be cool but it makes some tasks just a bit more difficult. I've seen videos on how to shave in space, how to sleep, and even how to clip one's finger nails. Each time I watch him glide effortless through the station it seems a tad unreal, but cool to know that people live like that.

London at Night

But it's the photos that he posts each day that make me glad I'm following him. They remind me how incredible the solar system and the Earth are. As the ISS orbits around the world, the views of Earth are stunning. Hadfield takes close up images of the cities he passes over, islands and fields, the aurora's spectacular beauty, or even better, the edge of the Earth. The first shot of his I saw was the aurora borealis, with the start of the dawn behind it. I was instantly hooked.

Auroras at Dawn

This man was not only seeing Earth from a unique angle; he was sharing it with us. And he always refers to people as "us". I recently sent him a message telling him how wonderful I felt his use of the word "us" was. He showed a picture of an area in Brazil and mentioned that about "3 million of us live there". As I read the word I realized he's talking about humans as one group. That we're all one people. And I can't help but wonder if the view up there has to impact his thinking that way. If it makes him inclusive of all human as an "us". It make me think of another astronaut that made a similar comment.

Mount Etna

"I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of 100,000 miles their outlook could be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified facade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogenous treatment. The earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied."   --Michael Collins

Perhaps seeing our Earth from outside of it, reminds these men and women of how small and insignificant our home is. I know that both the idea of a small fragile Earth and the idea of a collective human kind was repeated in every quote I read from an astronaut. Perhaps looking at the world from a different angle is all we need to unify. And if that is the case, I'm even more appreciative of Col. Hadfield's work in sharing his images of our beautiful planet with us.

All photos taken by Col. Chris. Hadfield