The serious nature of air pollution did not truly hit me until a family wedding in Austin, Texas in the late 90's. That year the pollution was so severe that older family members were warned by their doctors not to attend. As a kid from the suburbs, I didn't have to deal with the reality of "bad air" that millions of people in the urban cores breath day in, day out. As a person of faith, I began to awaken to the manifest injustice of suburban commuters contributing more than their fair share to pollution, from the tailpipe and the power plant. What had been a mere academic awareness suddenly turned visceral.
Support for the Clean Power Plan
Autumn Birds in the Backyard Habitat
The Yellow-rumped Warblers and Dark-eyed Juncos have been back and enjoying our back yard for several weeks now. This year, the warblers have decided to trust our bird bath - we've frequently seen them drinking and bathing over the past several weeks. While the Blue Jays have still been coming round, and we've had several sightings of Orange-crowned Warbler and Ruby-Crowned Kinglet this fall, I hadn't seen a Bewick's Wren in quite some time. Thus I was delighted to see this guy a few days ago. The light isn't very good, and the window is a bit dirty, but the ID is clear.
Bewick's Wren foraging in a crapemyrtle
All of these birds are coming around because we've provided habitat for them: water, food, shelter. While native plants provide the most diverse and beneficial habitats, some non-natives can also play a meaningful role in our backyard habitats. For a few years I dismissed the non-native crapemyrtle as showy but useless. That is, until I saw Gold Finches eating their seeds in the front yard last year.
In this photo, notice that clump of leaves next to the bird. You can kind of tell that there are webs there. Many people would find the web unsightly. But to a Bewick's Wren (and many others), it is buffet full of delectable spiders, caterpillars, and other protein-filled bugs. This little guy was hopping from clump to clump, pulling tasty morsels from their depths. I love seeing and hearing the Bewick's Wren and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, who also frequently dine on crapemyrtle pests, so for me those little clumps of web and leaf are no less attractive than any store-bought feeder.
Dark-eyed Junco on the patio
Yellow-rumped Warbler Bathing
Mid-June, Mid-Afternoon Birding at Sam Houston Trail Park
On Friday, the flood waters were fully receded on the Elm Fork of the Trinity River. With only a trace of rain on Saturday, I noticed on Sunday afternoon that the Elm Fork had returned to a flood warning. The Army Corps must have released water from one of the upstream lakes again. Quickly airing-up my tires, I raced down to Sam Houston Park in the hope of crossing the recently revealed causeway and seeing whom I could find on the levee-side of the lake. Alas, I was already too late. But the hour spent at the tantalizingly-small open (to bikers & peds) part of Sam Houston was well worth it the ride.
This year, the Least Tern pair has been a regular on the Valley Ranch side of the levee. Apparently they have been spending time on the river-side of the levee as well. Least Tern and spec of a Barn Swallow:
The wildflowers out here are never fantastic, but they are here. And mostly over the hill at this point. This is one of the remaining clasping-leaf coneflowers (in yellow; big green thing unknown). Shockingly there were still a few Texas bluebonnets blooming in another patch (got lazy with the camera).
As I left the causeway-area and began to make my way around the meadow, I wondered where all of the flycatchers had gone. Then I spied this Western Kingbird, unconcerned by the petroleum pipeline below him. For some reason there were no Scissortail Flycatchers on this side, though plenty on the neighborhood side of the levee. Eventually I found two Eastern Phoebes and a second WEKI as well.
While photographing the Kingbird, a short bit of birdsong familiar yet unplaceable floated toward me. Then this cluster of Gallardia, one of my favorite wildflowers, caught my eye a short distance down the path. Can you find the dragonfly in there?
Approaching the flowers, two songbirds suddenly popped into my field of vision. Though but a brief glance, it was easily sufficient to identify male and female Painted Buntings, the first I have seen in several years. Eventually I found three more, and managed to capture a few distant but very recognizable photos:
The Power to Move
Great stories moves us. No, they do not move us: rather, they instill the desire to move. But it is we, the reader or audience, who choose where to go, and what to do.
Moving stories comes in so many packages, though one man's great may be another woman's banal. Tonight I watched an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that fulfilled all of the promise of social commentary through science fiction. This was in your face; the banal was banished; my comfort and ease were disturbed; and yet I was left with hope by the end.
It was the story of a story, Far Beyond the Stars: our good Captain is sent visions of himself as a writer, in New York, in 1953. And we are given no sugarcoating about the prospects of a black writer in that time and place. In brief scenes, we are given glimpses not of the literal starry-eyed future, but of our troubled past. A writer whose ideas are squashed; a hustler who won't accept his "destiny" of menial work; a woman who hides behind an ambiguous pen name; accusations of communist sympathies; these and other sentiments stand in such stark contrast to the daily life in the Federation of Planets. And then…
Shots ring out. Our hero races to the scene, to find an acquaintance from the neighborhood splayed upon the ground. White police officers took him down because he was carrying a crow bar while trying to break into a car. A crow bar. And then they mercilessly beat the writer-Captain.
When the episode first aired in 1998, I expect that I saw it as an accurate portrayal of our recent past. Eighteen years later, I was shaken by the terrible accuracy of this scene in our troubled present. Have we changed so little?
Benjamin Sisko is the exception that proves the rule: and the Star Trek crew does not want us to overlook that.
They also remind us that it is possible to envision a future where race, culture, gender, religion, and so on have not been erased – but rather, a future where they no longer dictate our destinies. And they remind us that to envision it, to hold the idea in our minds, is a step toward achieving it.
Desperately Seeking Action on DFW Smog
Back in the '90s, I remember my parents saying that it was less expensive to inspect their cars in Plano, in Collin County, than a few miles further south in Dallas County - because of the additional emissions inspections required in the latter. I never would have imagined that 20 years later, ten DFW counties are now in non-attainment for smog-producing ozone pollution - and we still have no plan to solve the problem.
Just looking at the smog, we all know it can't be good for any of us. The American Lung Association has a good article on the health effects of ozone pollution. Moreover, studies have shown that air pollution in general has a disproportionate impact on Latino and African-American communities.
Last week, I attended my first public hearing of any kind: an opportunity for the general public to speak to representatives of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) about their current plan for bringing DFW's ozone levels down to the levels set by the EPA under the Clean Air Act. In short, they don't have a plan for meeting the current goal. In October, news came out about new EPA standards that will tighten the restrictions even further. The existing TCEQ plan calls for no new action, suggesting that efficiency gains from vehicles are sufficient to bring ozone down "close enough" to the EPA mandated level.
There were between 50 and 70 people in the room, many of whom signed up to speak. Every single speaker whom I heard in over two hours of testimony spoke out for a better plan, many of them specifically appealing to the EPA (who had several representatives in attendance) to take over the planning process. In over 20 years, TCEQ has not managed to put together a meaningful plan, and the EPA has the right to impose sanctions and dictate a plan.
After so many years, the testimony was impassioned, and diverse. Parents and grandparents spoke about their kids', and their own, struggles with asthma. Particularly moving were the stories of children whose asthma attacks often keep them out of school or leave them too tired to function well when they do attend. Older community members talked about the literal daily struggle to breathe. The injustice of a high concentration of cement processing plants on West Dallas, an area which is 80% Latino and/or African American, was strongly called out.
Some activists, fed up with years of inaction, were quite strong - even vulgar - in their language. Personally, I was not pleased to hear that tactic. I can't see what good it will do. But who am I to judge, when I haven't been on the front line of the clean air fight for decades?
The Long Wait: A Journey Toward Solar Power
Twenty-something years ago, not long after the Exxon Valdez disaster, I wrote a research paper on solar power for my middle school Earth science class. I've been trying to lower my consumption, and looking forward to rooftop solar, ever since. The wait is finally over.
Well, almost. The panels are on the roof, but now I have 4-6 weeks to wait until the electric grid company (Oncor) comes out to inspect.
It's Not About Me
More than twenty years ago, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baháís of the United States published a statement declaring that "[r]acism is the most challenging issue confronting America" (The Vision of Race Unity). This past year has reinforced the public awareness of this truth: 59% of the nation's population believes that "our country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites", compared to only 46% about a year ago (Pew Research Center). I grieve to wonder how many of the remaining 41% recognize the systemic challenges faced by African Americans, and either don't care or, worse yet, are satisfied with them.
Sam Houston Trail Park, After the Flood
The Elm Fork of the Trinity River has returned to its secondary banks at last and the Sam Houston Trail Park on the Campión Trail is once again accessible, after two months of flooding. Riding my bike there today, I managed to get a few good photos, which are posted on Google Photos. First six in the gallery are from last fall, but the rest are from today.
© Marco Beltrametti 2009, some rights reserved ( CC-BY-NC-ND ).
A social media challenge was posed, #PlasticFreeJuly: try to avoid plastic in the month of July. Taken literally, many of us would be unable to read the challenge, without the plastic of our corrective lenses. Perhaps someone, somewhere, still makes glasses from melted, ground, sand. I shudder to think of the weight required to correct my own poor vision this way.
But there is a deeper truth: the gauntlet was delivered through a medium whose human-tangible representation beamed out through melted sand, encased in plastic, with circuits embedded in plastic. Perhaps someone, somewhere, manufactures computers using naught but metals, sand, and rubber insulation. With vacuum tubes.