Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Archive for August 2022

Dodder again

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Dodder (Cuscuta sp.) is a parasitic vine whose often dense tangles of slender yellow strands remind some people of angel hair pasta, as you see above in a view of dodder attacking annual sumpweed (Iva annua). In contrast, the picture below is different from previous ones I’ve taken of dodder, with the interplay of light and shadow making it moodier, artsier. Both views are from Meadow Lake Park in Round Rock on August 24.

 

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In case you haven’t noticed, much of the world is facing an energy crisis. Since the current American administration took over on January 25, 2021, the average selling price of gasoline in the United States has risen from $2.39 to $3.84 per gallon as of yesterday, for a 60% increase. The average price for diesel rose even more: on January 25, 2021 it was $2.71, and as of August 29 it was $5.11. That’s an 88% increase. In a more extreme jump from January 2021 to now, the natural gas index (NG:NMX) on the NASDAQ exchange rose from $2.49 to $9.35. My house has natural gas heating, so I compared my bill from January 2021 to the bill dated August 12, 2022: the cost for a hundred cubic feet (CCF) has tripled, going from $0.34 to $1.013.

The high cost of gasoline strains the budget of tens of millions of commuters and shoppers. The high cost of diesel means that goods transported by ships and trucks and trains—which are almost all the goods you buy—now cost more. If you have natural gas heating, keeping your residence warm this winter will cost a lot more than it did two years ago.

And we in the United States still have it pretty good. Many European countries depend on Russia for oil and natural gas, so since that country invaded Ukraine prices in Europe have risen as supplies have fallen. “French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne urged businesses to cut energy use or face possible rationing this winter if Russia halts gas deliveries.” In the U.K. “pubs and restaurants could close this winter without support to tackle soaring energy bills. There are growing fears that some hospitality venues won’t survive as they struggle to cope with rising running costs.” “In Poland‘s late summer heat, dozens of cars and trucks line[d] up at the Lubelski Wegiel Bogdanka coal mine, as householders fearful of winter shortages wait[ed] for days and nights to stock up on heating fuel in queues reminiscent of communist times.”

Spain “published new rules [in early August] stipulating that no business will be allowed to cool its interior below 27 degrees Celsius (81 degrees Fahrenheit) or to heat it above 19 degrees Celsius (66 degrees Fahrenheit) in winter. In place until November 2023, the decree also calls a halt to the illumination of monuments, bans stores from lighting up their windows after 10 p.m., and requires shops to have an electric display showing the temperature inside to passersby.” People in Germany “are feeling more frugal than at any point in the last decade, according to a survey by GfK. It found that consumers are putting aside any spare cash in anticipation of much higher energy bills.” Also “in Germany, where households face a 480 euro rise in their gas bills, people are resorting to stockpiling firewood.” (That’s in addition to clear-cutting ancient forests to make room for industrial wind turbines.)

The current Russia-Ukraine war has revealed the fragile state of the energy systems in Europe and elsewhere. The politicized push toward “green energy” has made the situation a lot worse than it needed to be. Although atomic reactors produce no carbon emissions, “green” activists have an irrational horror of nuclear energy. Germany was set to close the last of its nuclear reactors this year but is now reconsidering, given the current crisis. In the United States, not since 2016 has a nuclear reactor entered service, and the most recent one before that was 20 years earlier.

Elon Musk, erstwhile hero of the political left for producing hundreds of thousands of electric vehicles, “told European energy leaders that the world needs more oil and natural gas and should continue operating nuclear power plants while investing heavily in renewable energy sources. ‘I think we actually need more oil and gas, not less, but simultaneously moving as fast as we can to a sustainable energy economy,’ Mr. Musk, Tesla’s chief executive and largest shareholder, told a conference in Stavanger, Norway. Mr. Musk said work on developing battery-storage technology is key to making the most of investments in wind, solar and geothermal energy. ‘I’m also pronuclear,’ Mr. Musk said. ‘We should really keep going with the nuclear plants. I know this may be an unpopular view in some quarters. But I think if you have a well-designed nuclear power plant, you should not shut it down, especially right now,’ he said.”

Hooray for a voice of reason. As the Greeks told us more than two millennia ago: All things in moderation, nothing to excess.

 

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 31, 2022 at 4:25 AM

Sesbania drummondii

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I most often see Sesbania drummondii, known as rattlebush, at the edges of creeks and ponds. On August 23rd, when I walked in the mostly waterless bed of the creek that flows through the part of Great Hills Park nearest to where I live, I found a good many rattlebush plants springing up right in the dry creek bed. No flowers had opened yet, but the readying buds caught my attention. Then I focused on one of the plant’s arcs of leaflets; graceful, don’t you think?

  

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Anyone in the academic humanities—anyone who’s gotten within smelling distance of the academic humanities these last 40 years—will see the problem. Loving books is not why people are supposed to become English professors, and it hasn’t been for a long time. Loving books is scoffed at (or would be, if anybody ever copped to it). The whole concept of literature—still more, of art—has been discredited. Novels, poems, stories, plays: these are “texts,” no different in kind from other texts. The purpose of studying them is not to appreciate or understand them; it is to “interrogate” them for their ideological investments (in patriarchy, in white supremacy, in Western imperialism and ethnocentrism), and then to unmask and debunk them, to drain them of their poisonous persuasive power. The passions that are meant to draw people to the profession of literary study, these last many years, are not aesthetic; they are political.

That’s from William Deresiewicz’s August 17th essay in Quillette, “Why I left Academia.” The subtitle is “I didn’t have a choice. Thousands of people are driven out of the profession each year.” You’re welcome to read the full essay.

 

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 30, 2022 at 4:25 AM

Posted in nature photography

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What follows the rain

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After two dry months we finally got a few inches of rain in central Texas two-thirds of the way through August. At various times of the year here what follows shortly after a good rain is rain lilies. So it was that on August 24th I communed with several dozen members of Zephyranthes chlorosolen (formerly designated Cooperia drummondii). In this view the sun was in front of me, so light transluced parts of the flower and cast shadows on other parts. I managed to get far enough below the flower to have it line up with dark clouds. I like the aesthetics of the resulting lofty look.

  

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If you’ve never watched the famous “Who’s on first?” routine by mid-20th-century comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, you can catch their classic back-and-forth embedded in an August 25th article by Stella Morabito entitled “Pronoun Police Are Playing An Unfunny Game Of ‘Hu’s On First?’” In addition to Morabito’s astute observations about grammar and culture, she suggests a good way to respond when institutions insist that you declare your pronouns: tell them your pronouns are I / me / my / mine / myself. A few of you may recall that back on March 29th I declared my pronouns: her as subject, hoozit’s as possessive, and I as object. That led to the transformation of a conventional utterance into a pronominally genderful one:

After Steve got out of his car, he walked up to Fred, who heard him say in his usual cheerful fashion that he was glad to be there. Fred thanked him for his greeting.

After Steve got out of hoozit’s car, her walked up to Fred, who heard I say in hoozit’s usual cheerful fashion that her was glad to be there. Fred thanked I for hoozit’s greeting.

 

I did a good job of channeling Abbott and Costello that day.

 

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 29, 2022 at 4:28 AM

Sunflower Sunday again

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Once again from August 14th in the northeast quadrant of US 183 and Mopac here’s a “common” sunflower, Helianthus annuus. The view from behind revealed a curlicue ray floret. Also notice the ant on the stalk.
Have a closer look from a different frame:

As sunflowers dry out, their rays tend to go from yellow to white, and curlicues become more common, as shown below. (And did you know that curlicue is just curly + cue, where cue comes from French queue, meaning ‘tail’? When people queue up for something they form a metaphorical tail.)

 

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I recently came across Gabriel Nadales’s article “I once hated America, but now I can’t wait to be an American.” The author is a former antifa member who had a change of heart:

To be sure, America has its problems. But as I learned more about America’s ideals and what it aspires to be, a country of equal opportunity, freedom, and civil discourse, I began to find a true sense of belonging. I realized that America is an imperfect nation defined not by our faults but by our accomplishments. It’s a promise to work toward greater equality and freedom for all, regardless of your skin color or background.

This equality of opportunity is exactly the reason I’ve been able to find success as a brown Mexican immigrant. In this country, I am judged by my merits, not my skin color. America has given me the equal opportunity and freedom to choose my own path despite my minority and immigrant status. The idea that I can believe in myself is incredibly empowering.

 

You’re welcome to read Gabriel Nadales’s full article.

 

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 28, 2022 at 4:29 AM

The colors said fall; the calendar said otherwise.

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As hardy as poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is, this hueful plant was feeling the effects of two months without rain when I photographed it along Bull Creek on August 17th. People who’ve had patches of skin turn these colors from contact with poison ivy may be less sanguine about the sight than a disinterested nature photographer who’s never had that experience and who values a picture for esthetic reasons.

 

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If you spun a coin 10 times in a row and it came to rest tails all 10 of those times, would you draw any conclusions? You might be suspicious and think you’ve got an unevenly balanced coin that’s weighted toward one side. On the other hand, if you spin even a perfectly balanced coin 10 times in a row over and over and over for zillions of trial runs, simple arithmetic tells us to expect that on average the coin will come up tails 10 times in a row once out of every 1024 trial runs. One out of 1024 is a small number, roughly one-tenth of one percent, but it isn’t zero. Uncommon things do occasionally happen.

Where the human realm intersects the realm of probability, things can get contentious. For example, the American IRS (Internal Revenue Service) legitimately scrutinizes applications from organizations requesting tax-exempt status to make sure those organizations comply with the regulations required of tax-exempt entities. Suppose that over a certain period of time the IRS gives extra scrutiny to hundreds of tax-exempt or would-be tax-exempt organizations that lean in one political direction but to only a handful of organizations that lean in the opposite political direction. Of course that imbalance could have happened just by chance, but people who lean in the way-more-scrutinized political direction would probably suspect that the highly unbalanced scrutiny is intentional rather than random.

Sometimes that kind of suspicion has proven justified. You may recall this item from 2013:

The Internal Revenue Service is apologizing for inappropriately flagging conservative political groups for additional reviews during the 2012 election to see if they were violating their tax-exempt status.

Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS unit that oversees tax-exempt groups, said organizations that included the words “tea party” or “patriot” in their applications for tax-exempt status were singled out for additional reviews.

Lerner said the practice, initiated by low-level workers in Cincinnati, was wrong and she apologized while speaking at a conference in Washington.

The illegally discriminated-against groups sued and eventually received a financial settlement from the government (which unfortunately means that we the taxpayers paid for the politically motivated misdeeds of some people at the IRS).

You may say that’s old news, which it is. I bring it up, however, because I just came across an article that once again raises doubts about the fairness of our government bureaucracies. You’ll recall that two years ago the U.S. government carried out its once-every-decade census of the population. The results of the census determine, among other things, how many seats in the House of Representatives each state gets. Based on the 2020 census, 7 states lost one House seat apiece; 5 states gained one seat apiece; 1 state (yay, Texas!) even gained two seats.

With that in mind, look how the August 22nd article by Hans von Spakovsky begins:

In a shocking report, the U.S. Census Bureau recently admitted that it overcounted the populations of eight states and undercounted the populations of six states in the 2020 census.

All but one of the states overcounted is a blue [liberal] state, and all but one of the undercounted states is red [conservative].

Those costly errors will distort congressional representation and the Electoral College. It means that when the Census Bureau reapportioned the House of Representatives, Florida was cheated out of two additional seats it should have gotten; Texas missed out on another seat; Minnesota and Rhode Island each kept a representative they shouldn’t have; and Colorado was awarded a new member of the House it didn’t deserve.

So 14 states were incorrectly counted, and in 12 of the 14 cases the result favored the same political party. Could that heavy imbalance have happened merely by chance? Yes, it could have. But the political party that got by far the greatest advantage from the incorrect census counting is the same party that benefited from the illegal IRS over-scrutiny in the previous decade. That understandably raises suspicions among those who are, in the words of an adage, “once bitten, twice shy.”

 

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 27, 2022 at 4:33 AM

Miniature amphibian

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The green heron I saw along Bull Creek on August 17th was much less familiar to me than the miniature amphibian I saw hopping about in the dry creek bed. These little creatures are only about an inch long.

Similar to amphibian is amphigory (especially if you stress it on the second syllable rather than the first; both are accepted pronunciations). Amphigory is ‘a nonsense verse or composition a rigmarole with apparent meaning which proves to be meaningless.’ This amphibian produced no amphigory, at least not while I was there to hear it.

 

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After teaching math for a year and a half in Honduras as a Peace Corps volunteer, I returned to New York at the end of 1969 and was dismayed to find out that no public high school would hire me as a math teacher because I’d never taken any “professional” education courses. (Oh, how I came to loathe the word “professional,” which bureaucrats wield as a cudgel.) The fact that I’d already taught for a year and a half made no difference. For three years I resisted going back to school, then somehow discovered—remember, the Internet still lay a quarter-century in the future—a program at Duke University that in just 14 months would get me both a Master of Arts in Teaching Mathematics and a secondary school math teaching certificate for North Carolina. That was by far the best deal I could find, so that’s what I did. Half the courses in the program were math, which was fine, because I hadn’t been a math major in college; I particularly liked the introductory number theory class. The other half of the courses were education, and a total waste of my time. I learned nothing of any value in those education courses.

Now here we are fifty years later. Education departments are still a waste of time, but what’s worse is that now they’ve become indoctrination mills for transgressive causes. If you want a glimpse at how noxious the education schools are, read an August 19th Wall Street Journal article called “Education Schools Have Long Been Mediocre. Now They’re Woke Too.” In the article, Daniel Buck describes what he experienced when he studied for a master’s degree in education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2015. For example:

We made Black Lives Matter friendship bracelets. We passed around a popsicle stick to designate whose turn it was to talk while professors compelled us to discuss our life’s traumas. We read poems through the “lenses” of Marxism and critical race theory in preparation for our students doing the same. Our final projects were acrostic poems or ironic rap videos.

In that article Daniel Buck links to a study conducted by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which analyzed syllabi in the education schools at the 14 branches of the University of Wisconsin:

On the syllabi, noticeably lacking are academic literature or manuals of classroom instruction. Instead, Hollywood movies like “Freedom Writers,” popular books like Jonathan Kozol’s “Letters to a Young Teacher,” and propaganda like “Anti-Racist Baby” abound. In place of academic essays, graduate students write personal poems or collect photographs. These kitschy activities infantilize what ought to be a rigorous pursuit of professional competency.

You can find out more distressing details in Daniel Beck’s article and in the report by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.

 

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 26, 2022 at 4:26 AM

Embarking on another round of beetle galleries

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In April I showed you some bark beetle galleries on a fallen tree in Great Hills Park. On August 21st I returned to that spot and embarked on another round of picture-taking at the same tree and a couple of nearby ones.

For more information about this phenomenon, you can read “The Truth Behind Bug Trails” and “Bark Beetles.”

 

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I haven’t given enough credit to Sharyl Attkisson, a multi-award-winning journalist who promotes free inquiry and accurate reporting. Last year I watched Jan Jekielek interview her on those subjects but I didn’t post a link to the interview; here it is now. And there are plenty of good stories on her website.

 

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 25, 2022 at 4:50 AM

Three takes on yellow

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Sunflowers weren’t the only yellow I found on August 14th in the northeast quadrant of US 183 and Mopac. Above is the fruit of western horse nettle, Solanum dimidiatum. Next you have a yellowing mustang grape vine leaf, Vitis mustangensis.

The sheen tells you it’s an upper surface. The fuzziness in the last picture indicates it’s the lower surface. 

  

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In 2016 in the New York Times, Samuel J. Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College summarized research on faculty political preferences and found that the leftward tilt in social sciences and the humanities was getting stronger. Citing studies by the Higher Education Research Institute, he noted that the ratio of liberal professors to conservative professors nationally by 2014 “was 6 to 1; for those teaching in New England, the figure was 28 to 1.” When restricted to the humanities and social sciences, it is difficult to find self-defined conservatives, period, as they fear losing their jobs, or if tenured, their promotions, or if adjuncts, their connection to universities whatsoever. In one small study, history departments were found to have a ratio of 33.5 to 1 of liberals to conservatives.

That’s from a 2019 op ed by Richard Vatz in the Washington Examiner. As these things go, 2016 and 2019 are ancient history. The pandemic and moral panic of 2020 accelerated the monopolization of one and only one kind of thinking at American colleges and universities. As others before me have pointed out — how could they not, when it’s so blatant? — the sacred and must-be-genuflected-to “Diversity” tolerates no more diversity of beliefs than does the dogma of any other hardcore religion.

You’re welcome to read the full article.

 

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 24, 2022 at 4:33 AM

Posted in nature photography

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Like a seahorse

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Don’t you think this colorfully drying smartweed leaf (Polygonum or Persicaria sp.) that I found in the northeast quadrant of Mopac and US 183 on August 14th looks like a seahorse?

 

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Thirty-three years ago, when I was a teenager in Nairobi, I was a book burner. The year was 1989, the year of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and I was seduced by the rising tide of Islamism. I greeted the fatwa with glee.

I rarely burnt actual books: we were too poor to afford a copy of The Satanic Verses. Instead, we wrote the title of the offending novel and the name of its author on cardboard and paper and set them alight. It was comical and pathetic. But we were deadly serious. We thought Ayatollah Khomeini was standing up for Islam against the infidels, bringing down the righteous fury of Allah upon a vile apostate. Had Rushdie been attacked then, I would have celebrated.

So begins a recent essay by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, “The infidels will not be silenced: Like Salman Rushdie, I choose freedom.” Those familiar with Ayaan Hirsi Ali know that when she grew up she had a change of heart and mind and is now one of the world’s great champions of free speech (for which stance the forces of oppression have persecuted her). You’re welcome to read her full essay.

 

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 23, 2022 at 4:31 AM

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Green heron on the hunt

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By August 17th, two months without rain had caused large parts of Bull Creek to dry up. When I checked a stretch along the Smith Memorial Trail that morning I found that a remaining pool had become the hunting ground of a green heron, Butorides virescens. Time after time I watched as the heron crouched, stepped slowly forward as it kept its eyes fixed on something in the water that it could see but I couldn’t, till suddenly the heron lunged to snatch a small fish from the water.

On the technical side, most of the second photograph shows motion blur because I panned to keep up with the heron as it walked fairly quickly to the left. On the good side, panning let me keep the upper part of the bird, including its bill and the fish in it, sharp. Alternatively, to reduce motion blur I could’ve set a higher sensitivity and a faster shutter speed than the 1/400 I used, but I was already at ISO 1600, and with the shallower depth of field that would have resulted from a faster shutter speed I might not have been able to keep the fish and all the important parts of the heron simultaneously in focus. Tradeoffs.

 

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“I know not why a man should not have liberty to print whatever he would speak; and to be answerable for the one, just as he is for the other, if he transgresses the law in either. But gagging a man, for fear he should talk heresy or sedition, has no other ground than such as will make gyves [shackles] necessary, for fear a man should use violence if his hands were free, and must at last end in the imprisonment of all who you will suspect may be guilty of treason or misdemeanor.”

So wrote John Locke about the Licensing Act, which had enforced pre-publication censorship and banned “heretical, seditious, schismatical, or offensive books” in Great Britain until Parliament let the act lapse in 1695. I was led to that quotation by reading Jacob Mchangama’s new book Free Speech: a History from Socrates to Social Media. I encourage you to read it, too, and learn about some of the great many times throughout history that political regimes and supporters of ideologies and religions have suppressed the speech and writing of people who disagree with them. That’s especially important now, when many activists and institutions have been assailing freedom of expression more vehemently than at any time in my adult life.

Check out Jacob Mchangama’s website, where you can listen to or read edited transcriptions of episodes from his podcast about free speech, Clear and Present Danger.

You’re also welcome to read the essay about John Locke that my father, another Jacob, included in his 1949 book Rebels of Individualism.

  

© Steven Schwartzman 2022

 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 22, 2022 at 4:29 AM

Posted in nature photography

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