The Dangerous Gnat

We used to call them gnats in Lincoln. The Spanish call them mosquitoes (diminutive for mosca – fly). It was many years before I realised these are the same thing, basically, although there are different sorts.

For us they were just pesky nuisances, but this is mankind’s ‘deadliest predator’. How come? The answer: malaria. In 2018 there were 228,000,000 new cases and 400,000 died, but few in the ‘developed world’.

For millennia people got the ague, got sick and many died. It even decided major events, such as Hannibal’s failed assault on Rome, the limits of Alexander the Great’s conquering. It was thought to be bad air that caused it (mal-aria).

Eventually mankind found the cure – draining swamps and quinine, a refined variant of which, hydroxychloroquine, has been in the news recently. Of course, a lot of the world can’t afford these solutions.

This reminded me of a trip we took a few years ago to the unspoilt Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. We stopped outside the gate of the reserve to take a quick entry photo, and by the time we got back in the car I had a number of mosquito bites on my arm. Of course, the whole of this eastern part of Texas was one big swamp before white men arrived. What a lot of mosquitoes! And what a heroic effort to carve the city of Houston out of such terrain. No wonder they use a lot of pesticide.

To know history and its causes is to understand today!

Thanks to an excellent review by Steven Shapin in the recent London Review of Books, on the book The Mosquito; A Human History of our Deadliest Predator by Timothy Winegard. Sounds like a great book!

No it’s not my arm. Featured image of Tasmanian mosquito by JJ Harrison via Wikimedia Commons

America’s issue with socialism, so that’s what it’s all about

Jane Fritz puts her finger on why the US really is different, and why a lot of their citizens just cannot abide the idea of socialism or social democracy or free healthcare. Of course, it’s not all Americans – this is the ‘base’ that Donald Trump is always speaking to. And this shows us why we in the UK our unwise to follow the right of our Conservative Party that would like to make us more like the US.

Robby Robin's Journey

I can’t have been alone in wondering over many, many years why so many Americans have such an aversion to ‘socialism’ even in its mildest forms, like universal healthcare.   Every other ‘developed’ country embraced what’s commonly called social democracy decades ago, in the aftermath of WWII, as have other countries. But not the U.S. As far as they’re concerned, it’s socialism.

I used to think that I understood the reason and that surely it would pass. My theory was that it was tied to the Cold War fear of communism and the thought that socialism would lead to communism. I reckoned that once enough time had passed they’d realize that wasn’t the case. However, I have now learned that this aversion to social rights has been at the core of American principles since at least the mid-1700s. That’s what individualism is all about. It explains a lot of things.

Full…

View original post 1,330 more words

Bottle brush

It’s difficult to believe that we would only just be home from Houston according to our original travel plans. We’re just left with family Zoom time and memories, including this pretty bottle brush tree, one of my more successful ventures into gardening in Houston. This one flowers well, early in March. It’s easy to see why it has the name.

bottle brush
flower
bottle brush buds
buds

These plants originate from Australia. They appear to be happy with the Houston climate.

 

Insects in the Houston garden

As coronavirus gradually reduced our horizons during our recent stay in Houston, it was surprising how many insects one came across in the garden. Surprising because continuous chemical warfare is waged against termites and cockroaches, which would both soon become very widespread without it.

The presence of lizards and birds, such as cardinal, mocking bird and blue jay, does suggest that there are insects around, and if you go in the summer there will be mosquitoes due to large amounts of standing water. Fortunately these were not significantly around during our recent visit. We did see odd cockroaches, the great survivors, but these are not my favourite photographic subjects.

Bees were around on emerging spring flowers, but my two best pictures were of a monarch butterfly and a colourful paper wasp(?).

Click twice to see full screen.

Lizards in the Houston garden

Wander around the garden in Houston and there is usually the odd small lizard, a few inches long, scuttling out of sight or sunning itself on a wall. There seem to be two sorts.

 

The green anole (left) is native to the south eastern US. They have the ability to change colour to brown, hence sometimes called American chameleon, but these are not true chameleons. Their natural habitat is trees, although house walls seem to provide an alternative.

The brown anole (top right) is a native of the Caribbean, more recently introduced via pet shops and pot plants. This lizard is said to displace green anoles from their preferred habitat, so represents a threat to their long-term survival.

My third picture (bottom right) is probably a brown green anole, as it lacks the strong patterning of the brown anole.

Click twice to see full screen.

For reference here is a list of reptiles in Texas.

Spring in George Bush Park

Houston was only relatively recently wrenched from the Texas swamps (founded 1836). The city is now mainly a man-made environment where nature clings on where it can. There are some areas that are in a relatively natural state. George Bush Park is one of these, because it lies behind Barker Dam, which protects much of residential and downtown Houston from flooding after heavy rainfall events. So the park is regularly flooded in varying degrees.

We recently managed a lovely spring walk through a seemingly remote part of the park, actually just a few minutes from Interstate I10. The featured image shows one of the patches of swamp vegetation, which were probably typical of the area before Houston came along.

Much of the land is scrub interspersed with lakes. This new grass was growing just at the edge of a lake as the water receded. The grass was only a few inches high; getting the camera down to near ground level was essential here.

bush grasses

Highlight of the walk was the number of wildflowers in evidence. The spring sunshine had really brought them out. Bees and other insects were in evidence, not so persecuted here as in other parts of Houston. Here’s a selection.

 

Animal tracks in the mud showed signs of grazers and predators of varying sizes, but they keep well away from people, with good reason.

Footnotes

The park is named after President George HW Bush, who we saw was very popular in Houston in his later years.

The park is not virgin land; it was a ranch before being taken over for use as a reservoir.

Barker Dam leapt to worldwide attention during the dramatic events of Hurricane Harvey 2½ years ago, when the dam was tested to its limits.

 

 

Great Blue Heron

The great blue heron is a very large bird, the biggest heron in North America. We seem to come across the odd solitary bird fairly frequently when in Houston, in typical expectant pose waiting for signs of fish. These examples were in Archbishop Joseph A Fiorenza Park and beneath the bridge taking the I10 freeway over Buffalo Bayou. Amazing that this bird happily fishes while hundreds of cars and lorries thunder overhead.

The Audubon site gives good information on the vulnerability of this and other birds to climate change. Assuming that food sources hold up, they should still be around Houston for future generations.

Tagore Grove

Where The Mind Is Without Fear

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Rabindranath Tagore

tagore ray millerRay Miller Park is a smallish urban park just by the busy Eldridge Parkway in Houston. In a quiet corner of the park it is a delight to come across Tagore Grove, established in memory of the Indian polymath Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). A calming space on the midst of all that busyness.

The featured image shows a panel containing the words of Tagore’s poem, shown in full above – a call across the ages, so relevant to these times.

Trade Deals

Trade deals are bandied around by its supporters as one of the advantages of Brexit. We will be able to do all these wonderful trade deals which will make us better off.

Let’s just take a reality check. Now I’m no expert in trade deals, in fact few people in UK are, because we were part of the EU team. That’s maybe the point.

UK is joining the big league of trade dealers. Let’s just suppose it’s a league of the 10 top world economies. All the other teams are highly skilled and proven in the world trade dealing. The UK is just putting together a team to compete with the others, all at the same time.

If it were football, where do you think UK would finish at the end of the season, with a cobbled-together team playing against the best in the world, with a highly congested fixture programme? Bottom, obviously.

History tells us that trade deals are used by rich and powerful countries to control and exploit other countries. The British Empire, for example, is replete with examples, from cotton to salt. The current trade war between US and China is part of that pattern.

But the UK is rich and powerful, you say, the 5th or 9th largest economy in the world. So we can deal on equal terms with the others. Maybe. At the end of the day, sheer numbers mean that the smaller economy will usually have more to lose by not reaching a deal.

I’m not betting that we’ll have any deals any time soon, and the prospect of a ‘no deal’ exit from the EU is as real as ever.

However, all is not necessarily negative. The impinging of reality on the Brexit project may result in Prime Minister Johnson agreeing to a deal that keeps us reasonably close to the EU. Of course, this would annoy the hard Brexiteers, just as he annoyed the DUP with the withdrawal agreement. We live in hope!

Featured image of President Trump attending agreement of beef deal with EU,
by The White House from Washington, DC via Wikimedia Commons.

Hottest Day

It has been England’s hottest ever July day. The air is hot and humid, more like summer in Houston. Becalmed all day, without the air conditioning that is regarded as necessary in Houston, I have to take a walk in the evening, now it is slightly cooler, despite impending rain.

We are lucky that Knutsford has a number of smallish green areas. As I walk I become aware of just how hot and oppressive are the streets around the town, heat emanating from the terraced houses and roads. Entering the parks there is an immediate change of atmosphere, cooler, more breezy. The grassy areas, surrounded by trees, have a different feel again, still refreshing. The small ‘walled wood’ is another perceptibly different environment, completely enveloped and protected by trees. By the lake that is the Moor pool a different quality comes from the relatively cool water.

In short, contact with nature – trees, grass, water – makes the extreme heat tolerable. More trees and lakes will not only slow global warming but make its effects more tolerable. More bricks and concrete make things worse. This is common sense, yet we don’t act like it is. The only alternative will be islands of air conditioning for those that can afford it, as in Houston.

As I return home, spots of the anticipated rain begin to fall. The roadside trees help my brisk walk home, removing the need for that umbrella. I pause gratefully in the relative cool under our beautiful weeping birch, before going back into the oven-like house.

Featured image taken in the shade of our weeping birch tree.

Trump Trade Deal: It’s Not About F*cking Chicken

In this excellent post Conor Boyle shows how the media have trivialised a rather important issue on different attitudes to government responsibility for food and health regulation in EU and US. As he says, it’s not about the chicken, it’s about the responsibilities of government, and whether people are left at the mercy of essentially unaccountable large corporations. This is one of the true costs of Brexit.

The Conversation Room

Don’t get me wrong, I like chickens. As a child I loved visiting the farm and feeding the little chicks in their pen. I just don’t think when deliberating what’s at stake for the U.K in signing a post Brexit trade deal with the United States that poultry should be the focal point of debate. 

From Jeremy Corbyn to the BBC it seems everyone has bought into the idea that  chlorinated chickens entering the U.K food chain is the number one objection to a trade deal with Donald Trump. It can be quite infuriating to see political debate on respected current affairs progammes ask “Does Britain really want chlorinated chicken?” As if the primary impact of a trade deal with with the U.S is the quality of KFC.

To clarify, in the E.U chicken producers must adhere to strict hygiene and welfare regulations throughout the process of rearing…

View original post 667 more words

Anhinga 2

This anhinga, taken at Brazos Bend Texas State Park in March, is poised, intent, ready to strike.

anhinga 2019

According to Wikipedia, the anhinga is also known as a snakebird, American darter, or water turkey. The stance is obviously a bit like that of a cormorant.

Katydid

Granddaughter spotted this leaf insect in Houston, and it somehow finished up on her hand. What an amazing camouflage, looking just like a leaf.

It seems to be a katydid, in America anyway. Brits call it a bush cricket, and the scientific name is tettigoniidae.The picture below shows the long antennae – it was once called a long-horned grasshopper.

katydid

The name ‘katydid’ is onomatopoeic, coming from the particularly loud, three-pulsed song – as is ‘cicada’, to which they are related. There are actually thousands of species in this family.

Information thanks to Wikipedia link in the text.
Thanks to momma for photographing on her iphone!