Archive for April, 2013

If These Are the Early Stages

Monday, April 29th, 2013

The piece below, by my husband Andy Schmookler, has appeared in two Virginia newspapers.


Hurricane Sandy as viewed from space

Hurricane Sandy as viewed from space


“If these are the early stages, I shudder to think what’s on the path ahead.”

Two things brought that thought to mind.

One is my own aging. Aches and pains, stiffer muscles, presbyopia, diminished energy. As I approach my 67th birthday, I can imagine the kind of hard experience that led Bette Davis to say that old age isn’t for sissies.  It’s no small challenge to come to terms with the ancient truth that the uphill part of life’s cycle is followed by the downhill.

As a way of coming to terms with personal deterioration, we can always take the larger view in which we see ourselves as part of the circle of life. We have children; we have grandchildren; life renews itself. Although as individuals we may come and go, we are part of something bigger than ourselves that carries forward the stream of life.

But now that larger view of life has also become disturbing. That same alarming thought –If these are the early stages, what the heck is on the path ahead? — has come to mind in relation to another reality: the early stages of climate change.

Like what happened last June, when an unpredicted enormous wind swept across the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic, knocking down trees for hundreds of miles, including some right around our house in the Shenandoah Valley. Just a few months later, Hurricane Sandy — whose eye never approached within hundreds of miles of us -— attacked our area with 24 hours of hard-driving rain that found its way onto our wood floors and into the homes of our neighbors. Sandy’s winds took down still more trees.

Extreme weather has become far more frequent, just as scientists predicted.

Another weather development scared me even more.

All through March, I was pining for spring and  looking at the extended forecast to see when warmer weather would be coming. The average high temperature for March in my area of year is the mid-50s, but we had less than a handful of days that have reached that average. Most days were a good 15 degrees colder than that.

Then I read this in the Guardian (UK):

“Climate scientists have linked the massive snowstorms and bitter spring weather now being experienced across Britain and large parts of Europe and North America to the dramatic loss of Arctic sea ice.”

Even this frustratingly prolonged winter appears to be part of the larger picture called “climate change.”

Global warming has diminished the sea ice in the Arctic to levels unprecedented in recorded history, and this altered the course of the jet stream in a way that allowed cold Arctic air to descend to lower latitudes than is normal.

This, climate scientists warn, is just the beginning. The momentum of these changes is gathering, some vicious cycles have been triggered, and the ultimate effect of our generations-long spewing of greenhouse gases into Earth’s atmosphere will be far greater than anything we’ve yet seen.

It’s scary. What powers of this planet are we unleashing? What will life be like for our children and grandchildren?

How well will living systems around us survive? Apparently not so well.  For a couple of years, I’ve been worrying about all the dead wood in the forest surrounding our house. A few weeks ago I read in USA Today:

”Years of drought and high temperatures are thinning forests in the upper Great Lakes and the eastern United States, NASA satellites show. Nearly 40% of the Mid-Atlantic’s forests lost tree canopy cover, ranging from 10% to 15% between 2000 and 2010, according to a NASA study released this week.”

Climate change has stopped being hypothetical. It’s already part of our lived experience. It’s visible. It’s palpable. These early stages are rough enough.  But if the climate scientists are right, we ain’t seen nothing yet. We and our kind are in for a bumpy ride.

One would think that faced with a challenge this profound, we Americans would be responding with an all-out quest for ways of solving, or at least ameliorating the problem. That’s how we responded to World War II, when fascism threatened us. That’s how we responded to Sputnik, when the Soviets seemed to be overtaking us.

And yet, despite these real and ever-more-visible dangers, one of our two major political parties has made it dogma that there’s nothing happening in our climate that we as a nation are obliged to address.  What gets done? Not nearly enough.

This is dangerous.

Andy Schmookler, recently the Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District, is an author whose books include Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge America’s Moral Divide.


Our New Neighbors–the Phoebes

Saturday, April 27th, 2013



     Some new neighbors moved in a few weeks ago.  And they are very friendly neighbors.  In fact, their motto seems to be “su casa es mi casa.”  These neighbors are showing a surprising degree of interest in our house!

     You guessed it.  Our new neighbors are birds.  Phoebes.  I so often see them flitting about near our windows, swooping up under the eaves of the house, and emerging from our three-sided tool shed.

    Phoebes, apparently, are known for living in close proximity to humans.  Unlike shyer birds, phoebes build their nests on the ledges of buildings, under steps, and under the eaves of houses.  Phoebes are not at all distressed by human activity nearby.  In fact, I read of one phoebe pair that built their nest on the underside of a railroad bridge.  There they raised their young, unconcerned about the trains that roared over them every day!    Ornithologists say that the phoebe is one bird whose numbers have  increased, rather than decreased, along with rising human numbers and humans’ geographical expansion.  More people mean more buildings.  And more buildings, it seems, mean more potential nest sites.

     Phoebes are not colorful birds.  They have a dark head and a dark back and tail feathers.  The breast is white, with smudgy grey on the upper part.  The cutest thing about the phoebe, I think, is its tail, which seems made to move.  When a phoebe arrives at its perch, the tail gets activated– flipping, dipping, and quivering.  The ph0ebe is easy to recognize by its raspy-sounding call.  It says its name.  

     Phoebes are flycatchers, a large family of birds that eat insects by darting out from a perch and catching them in mid-air.  During the winter, phoebes may supplement their diet with berries.  

     While I have mostly enjoyed observing the habits of our new neighbors, I have to admit they have also been annoying.   One of the phoebes began to hang out around a couple of the windows of our house, just below a small balcony.  The bird would hover, then scrabble its feet against one of the windows.  After a few moments, the bird would then move to the adjacent screen, and press against it,  clutching the screen with its feet and facing in, tail feathers spread wide, for balance, I assume.  Then the routine would resume:  hover; scrabble; cling.  

     Well, it didn’t take long for the windows and screens to become streaked and dotted with globs of white.  I wasn’t happy to have to wash the windows and scrub the screens.  But once I covered the outside of the windows and screens with newspaper, the phoebe left them alone.

     I assumed the bird had been interested in building a nest in the balcony eaves, and that it interpreted its reflection in the window below as a rival that must be driven away.  While I would love to have a nest of baby birds so close by, I wasn’t willing to put up with filthy windows.  The birds would just have to find another spot for their nest.  

     And it seems they have.  Even as I sit here writing, I have been hearing bird feet scrabbling against a sliding glass door and on our basement windows.  Uh-oh.  I am not looking forward to washing these larger windows and taping newspapers onto them.  But I am also hoping the phoebes will build their cup-shaped nest in a near enough place that I’ll be able to observe the little ones.–April Moore




Hard Work Pays Off: Invasive Beetle Eradicated

Sunday, April 21st, 2013


Good news from New Jersey!  The invasive long-horned beetle, which had destroyed many trees, has been completely eradicated from the state.   The victory was hard-won, taking more than a decade of painstaking work on the part of local, state, and federal officials, with the cooperation of citizens living in and near the infested area.

     The Asian long-horned beetle is a black beetle dotted with white.  Its most distinguishing features are its black and white striped antennae, which are longer than its body.  The adult beetles mate in early summer, and the female lays her eggs in tiny indentations she makes in the bark of certain trees.  When the larvae hatch, they burrow their way into the tree’s heartwood, where they feed on the tree’s wood all winter.  A cross-section of an infested tree looks like Swiss cheese, explains Rhonda Santos, a public information officer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

     Native to China, this invasive beetle was first spotted in the U.S. in Brooklyn, New York, in 1996.  The beetles, it is believed, made their way into the country in wood packing materials.  In 1998, the U.S. government responded by banning from U.S. ports wooden pallets that had not been heat-treated or treated with methyl bromide to kill the beetle larvae.  Some of the nation’s most common hardwoods–all maple species, birches, and poplars–are vulnerable to the invaders.  

     It did not take long for the beetles to start causing problems in five states–New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Ohio.  New Jersey’s first infestation showed up Jersey City in 2002, when more than 100 trees were infested.  There was a more serious outbreak two years later in a nearby community.   

     A variety of approaches were required to eradicate the beetle from the entire state of New Jersey:  tree removal; injections of insecticides; public education; and surveillance.  For the two years following the 2004 infestation, New Jersey agricultural officials defined a 25 square mile zone across four communities, including residential and industrial neighborhoods, and inspected more than 129,000 trees.  Officials urged citizens in the area not to transport firewood, the main way the beetles were spreading in the state.

     Workers removed not only infested trees, but also a wide swath of nearby trees that were at high risk.  For instance, reports Lisa Foderaro in The New York Times, in the town of Linden, only 11 trees were infested, but more than 14,000 trees, including saplings, were cut down because their proximity to infested trees put them at great risk.  Those trees were then chipped and burned.  The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection offered many home owners to replace their infested trees with non-vulnerable tree species.  About one-third of the removed trees were replaced with much less vulnerable oaks and lindens.

     The last living long-horned beetle was seen in New Jersey in 2006.  Yet victory could not yet be declared.  USDA officials required New Jersey localities to go through three ‘confirmation cycles,’ in which no long-horned beetles were found.  That process took several years. By March 2013, it was clear that there were no Asian long-horned beetles alive in New Jersey.  ”We can declare New Jersey is free of this invasive pest,” declared New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher.  He added that the eradication program had been “a herculean effort.”

     With the March 2013 declaration, New Jersey joined Illinois as the two states that have completely eradicated the Asian long-horned beetle.  Ohio, Massachusetts, and New York are still battling it.  New York’s efforts are proving effective, with Manhattan and Staten Island expected to be proclaimed ‘long-horn beetle free’ this summer.

To ensure that long-horned beetles don’t return to U.S. shores, U.S. inspectors are periodically traveling to China to make sure that wood pallets used in shipping products to the United States are treated to kill the beetle larvae.–April Moore



Even Maggie Thatcher Got It

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

Since the recent death of Margaret Thatcher, the news has been filled with commentary about the former British Prime Minister. Never a fan of ‘The Iron Lady’ myself, I was surprised–and impressed–to read what she had stated publicly (below) about global warming.

Mrs. Thatcher spoke caringly and eloquently about the need to make changes and sacrifices “so that we do not live at the expense of future generations.”  And she called on us to “do our duty to Nature before it’s too late.”

Mrs. Thatcher’s words surprised me because I am used to hearing today’s conservative politicians routinely deny the science of climate change. Unlike her conservative counterparts in today’s U.S., Mrs. Thatcher accepted the evidence presented by the overwhelming majority of climate scientists.

Hearing Mrs. Thatcher’s words also reminded me of a shameful fact–that the United States is the only western democracy in which an entire major political party denies the truth of climate science.  Indeed, in last year’s race for the presidency, every single one of the Republican hopefuls dismissed climate change as an issue worthy of action.

I respect Maggie Thatcher.  For her, conservative political principles did not mean denying science.  Not only did she accept the findings of climate scientists, but she spoke out about the urgency of coming together to address this unprecedented challenge.

I hope climate change-denying American conservatives are paying attention to what the Iron Lady said on this subject.–April Moore

But the threat to our world comes not only from tyrants and their tanks. It can be more insidious though less visible. The danger of global warming is as yet unseen, but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations.Our ability to come together to stop or limit damage to the world’s environment will be perhaps the greatest test of how far we can act as a world community. No-one should under-estimate the imagination that will be required, nor the scientific effort, nor the unprecedented co-operation we shall have to show. We shall need statesmanship of a rare order…

We have become more and more aware of the growing imbalance between our species and other species, between population and resources, between humankind and the natural order of which we are part.

In recent years, we have been playing with the conditions of the life we know on the surface of our planet. We have cared too little for our seas, our forests and our land. We have treated the air and the oceans like a dustbin. We have come to realise that man’s activities and numbers threaten to upset the biological balance which we have taken for granted and on which human life depends.

We must remember our duty to Nature before it is too late…

Ravens and Crows

Sunday, April 7th, 2013

My husband Andy has been urging me to write a piece about the differences between ravens and crows.  That seemed like a good idea to me, since the extent of my knowledge was merely a vague “ravens are bigger.”

First of all, ravens are crows, but crows are not ravens.  The Common Raven and the American Crow are members of the corvidae family.  Magpies and jays are also corvids.

A raven is typically the size of a hawk, while the smaller crow is about the size of a pigeon.  And the two birds differ in shape as well as size.  The raven’s tail ends in a triangular point, while the tip of the crow’s tail is more-or-less straight across, perhaps a little rounded.  The raven has a flatter head than the crow.  And their beaks are different.  Experts explain that the crow’s beak is sharper and shorter than the raven’s, that the upper part of the raven’s beak is more curved than that of the crow.   Even so, the two birds’  beaks look practically the same to me, and I would not use their beaks to try to tell them apart.

An easier-to-detect difference, I think, is the shaggy ‘ruff’ of feathers around the raven’s neck, different from the smooth feathers surrounding the crow’s neck.

The two birds clearly behave differently during flight.  While the raven mostly soars silently, the crow flaps its wings and calls again and again.  And upon landing, the crow flicks its wings and tail feathers, while the raven simply sets its feet down, ‘calmly,’ without excess movement.

Ravens and crows can be fairly easily distinguished by their sound.  The raven sounds like this:   the raven\’s call The crow sounds like this:  sound of a crow The raven’s call is deeper and throatier than the crow’s call, which can be described as louder and harsher.

The crow and raven often share habitat, but each has its own preferences.  Ravens prefer a more natural environment and can be found in forests, deserts, and tundra, usually at higher altitudes.  Crows are found throughout America’s lowlands, especially in agricultural areas.  And crows do extremely well in urban areas.  I even read (Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds by Lyanda Lynn Haupt) of two crows spotted near a garbage can in a McDonald’s parking lot;  they were dipping fries in honey mustard sauce and then eating them!

Another difference, not noticeable to the observer, is lifespan.  A raven typically lives about 30 years, while a crow lives only about eight years.

Another difference between the two corvids, it seems to me, is image.  Crows are commonplace, everyday birds, while ravens have an air of the exotic.  The term ‘raven-black hair’ sounds beautifully vivid;  ’crow-black hair’ wouldn’t be the same.

And in Edgar Allan Poe’s beloved poem “The Raven,” the following verse is just a sample of the dark, foreboding mystery associated with the raven perched above the writer’s chamber door:

`Prophet!’ said I, `thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us – by that God we both adore -
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore?’
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.’

April Moore

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