Saturday, 18 April 2015

Saturday Photo: And Next up, Scylla

The progression of spring flowers is upon us.  Last week the snowdrops came up, this week it's the turn of scylla.  Tulip leaves have emerged also and my neighbor's crocuses are about to bloom

I spent Monday raking the garden, and installing drip hoses.  It wasn't a moment to soon since to do that work today would mean tromping on the emerging plants.  When spring arrives here, it often comes at a gallop.

Le Devoir Turns Green

Fascinating weekend edition of the influential daily Le Devoir: nearly all the news and features are about environmental topics.  Sure. there's the latest about the Stanley Cup--no Montreal newspaper could afford not to mention that the Habs lead the Sens 2-0--but even the culture and travel pages are loaded with stories that have an environmental twist. 

Editor in chief Josée Boileau explained this morning on Radio Can that the aim was, for once, not to concentrate on the dreadful consequences of climate change and our headlong rush to pollute everything.  Rather, the idea was to provide background that shows where we're headed in the right direction.  Lack of hope can lead to inaction, she said, when what is needed is action.  Tellingly, the title of the issue is Vers l'espoir, Toward Hope.

There are many articles worth reading, even if your French is rusty.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

A Little Context for Boko Haram: Two Novels

The news yesterday was full of images from Nigeria, where people were marking the sad anniversary of the kidnapping of 132 girls and young women by Boko Haram a year ago.  What is going on with fundamentalist groups is extremely hard for me to understand.  The BBC recently did a piece on the Nigerian group, which gives some context.  The aim is a caliphate where Sharia law rules, it seems.  Everything Western should be forbidden.

But Muslims are not the only terrorists in the world, as witness Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group operating on borders separating Uganda, Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ostensibly motivated by Christian revelations, it uses child soldiers with impunity.

Inter-ethnic violence also is a curse, and probably to date conflicts like those which have pitted  Hutus against Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi have killed and displaced more than the Muslim groups have.

How did things come to this?  Two novels I read recently give a little insight.

The first is Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron. It tells the story of Jean-Patrick Nkuba, a Tutsi in Rwanda who wants to run.  He has a chance to represent his country in the Olympics, but is caught up in the 1994 genocide.  Much of his family is wiped out, but he escapes.  The frenzy that led up to killing spree--estimates are that at least 500,000 people were killed in three months--is portrayed in terrifying detail.  The story is not all horror though because it ends with a certain hopefulness that forgiveness is possible.

The subtext is that competition for land can be manipulated to profit the self-interest of individuals, and that vestges of colonial domination have exacerbated things.

The second is Three Weeks in December   by Audrey Schulman  takes place in Rwanda and Kenya. There actually are two "three weeks," the first at the end of the 19th century and the other at the beginning of the 21st.  In  alternating sections, Schulman tells the story of an engineer from Maine who heads up the team building of a railroad from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast to what would become Nairobi, and of a brilliant woman ethnobotanist who has Asperger's Syndrome and who is searching for a medicinal plant in the mountains where the last mountain gorillas live.  

There's an O. Henry-like ending that ties things up which I won't spoil, but I think it's fair to say the two stories point out what colonialism has done to the people and ecosystems of  Africa.  The dignified, wise hunter-gatherers of the first period contrast drastically with the drugged children's army, the Kuti, that Shulman has invented, who thrash about, trying to recreate a pre-colonial state. Similarly, the starving lions who ravage the railroad workers in the first story presage the sorry state of the gorillas that the ethnobotanist hopes to protect.

Both novels are good reads.  The Schulman one, however, is plagued by sloppy editing that casts doubt on the background research that she's done.  The two that bothered me the most were the reference to iced tea being drunk in 1899 on a ship in the Indian Ocean (where'd the ice come from?) and the repeated reference to jerricans, those useful metal containers that weren't invented until the 1930s. 

Monday, 13 April 2015

Saturday Photo, Several Days Late

Computer problems: that's my excuse for not posting for the last few days.  Think they may be solved, so I'll have no reason not to rant....

And here is the other reason for sloth: the weather has finally changed, the snow is practically gone, and the snow drops are up.  Tomorrow at some point I'm going to have to rake the little front garden and put down the drop hoses.  That has to be done before the bulbs come up, and I have a feeling that they are going to burst out of the ground quickly.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Sunday Photo: A White Easter

Saturday Photo: What We Don't Need

Appparently there was a big baseball game in Montreal yesterday when you actually could have imagine it was spring, and another one today, when it is snowing, again.  The Cincinnati Reds beat the Toronto Blue Jays 2-0 yesterday, I'm told.

The exhibition pre-season game is part of a campaign to bring baseball back to Montreal, I'm also told.  There have been drawings circulating which show what a new stadium for a revived Montreal Expos might look like. (The games this year are taking place in the old Olympic Stadium, built at the cost of $1.5 billion and now needing $220 million in repairs.)

The expense for a new stadium would be immense, and the location being proposed is far from Metro lines.  What's worse is that all this is coming when the Quebec government is cutting drastically right and left. 

No, we don't need a new stadium.  What we do need is a little wisdom when it comes to the ineffacity of austerity measures.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

This is Not a Poisson d'avril: The Rivers May Not Run Much Longer

Thinking about contact between humans and nature, particularly with the world's big rivers.  Kept coming across the important role they played in the peopling of the world, as highways for travel and as sources of food. 

Two things stand out today, April Fool's Day, which in French is Poisson d'avril:

First, that we've made a mess of most of them by dumping our waste in them.

Second, many are going to disappear due to climate change. Those rising in the mountains where glaciers are melting are particularly at risk, as are those of California where the fourth year of drought has reduced the snow pack to practically nothing in the Sierras.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Death of a Philosopher King: Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore

The founding father of Singapore died ten days ago, and the event passed me by even though I've been one of his fans ever since my first trip to the island nation in 2000.
Lee Kuan Yew, educated in the UK and called Harry Lee for the first part of his life, led Singapore to independence when it was flung out of Malaysia in the 1960s.  At the time, observers wondered how the small country, formerly a British colony, could ever survive.

It did, however, with Lee being in large part responsible for its emergence as a well-housed, well-educated and productive nation, an example of how things can be done.

To be sure, Lee was sometimes heavy-handed.  In fact when I first visited I was rather afraid of what I might see in the way of repression.  But the cabbies groused to me about the government the way they do most places, and there was a notable absence of uniformed police or military on the streets.  Shortly afterwards I made my first trip to Paris and was shocked to see soldiers with machine guns in the Métro. My conclusion was that there are a lot of ways to control a population, and since Singapore worked so well, perhaps Lee had some good solutions to complex problems.

Indeed, Nicolas Kristof, the New York Times columnist and specialist on Asia, called Lee Kuan Yew a “philosopher king” in his review of Lee’s memoirs
Plato, you'll remember, recommended philosopher kings as the best rulers since they combined both wisdom and power for the betterment of their countries. The world has had exceedingly few of them. When one emerged he all too often was corrupted by power. He was told what he wanted to know. His wisdom turned to caprice. He frequently became a tyrant. He would be tempted to overstay his welcome.
 Lee Kuan Yew, however, stepped down in 1990, having carefully planned his succession. He was sixty-eight and in apparent good health, and a few days before he retired he spent part of a Sunday planting a tree in a recently refurbished park along the city’s waterfront The event was nothing new—he’d inaugurated this annual Tree Planting Day nearly twenty years earlier. But this day he didn’t like what he saw. He squatted down and held his hand above the new pavement, telling reporters and dignitaries that he could feel just how much heat was still radiating from the ground even though the sun was setting. The trees, he said, should be planted closer together so that when they were full grown the canopy they formed would shade the pavement.
It was a small detail. Not one you would think a philosopher king would be concerned about. But it was symptomatic of the care and thought that have gone into making Singapore an example for green cities all over the world.
Too bad there are not more like him around. 
(The photo is of Palm Valley in the Singapore Botanical Garden: my first trip there was to research it for my book Recreating Eden: A Natural History of Botanical Gardens.  I visited there again in 2006 because I wanted to include it my book Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places.


Saturday, 28 March 2015

Saturday Photo: It's the End of March, for Goodness Sake!

Got up this morning to a light dusting of snow, again!  But even though the temperature is well below freezing, the sun has been out most of the day, makin for a lighter heart and some melting.

But it's about time that the white stuff disappeared and we had a little spring, don't you think?