Portraits of Wildflowers

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Posts Tagged ‘fall foliage

Evergreen sumac isn’t always evergreen

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While most of the leaves on an evergreen sumac (Rhus virens) do remain green in December, it’s not unusual for the leaves on a damaged or dying branch to turn brown or maroon. That was the case with this one in my Great Hills neighborhood on December 21st of the recently expired year. Call it fall foliage by proxy.



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Because native speakers of a language learn it by assimilation, they don’t notice many things that a foreigner does when learning the language. If you’re a native English speaker, you’ve probably never thought about the familiar prefix re-. If a foreigner asked you about it, you might think for a bit and say something like: We put re- in front of a verb to convey the meaning ‘back’ or ‘again.’ For example: “The platoon captured the high ground, later got repulsed, and then recaptured the high ground.” Or: “This story, which originated in China, has been retold in many other countries.”

So far, so good. But now suppose the foreigner asks you: “How do I know which verbs I’m allowed to stick re- on and which verbs I’m not allowed to stick re- on?” Your likely answer will be: “What do you mean?” As a native English speaker, you’ve almost certainly never realized that we can’t just put re- on any verb we want to. Take these examples:

  • I was in Barcelona in 1985 and I rewas in Barcelona in 1990.
  • Come visit as soon as you can. Recome as often as you’d like.
  • She wanted to be in movies but after repeatedly failing to get a part she gave up on the idea. A year later she rewanted to be in movies.
  • Look at that beautiful sunset. Relook at it to really appreciate it.
  • There are people who’ve had a fortune, gone bankrupt, and eventually rehad a fortune.
  • Once I knew where I was going in life. Later I lost my way. Now I reknow where I’m going.

A foreigner sees nothing illogical about any of those uses of re-, but a native speaker would never say any of them (except maybe in jest). Someone who knows a little about word origins might be aware that re- got borrowed from Latin, whereas the verbs in those examples—be, come, want, look, have, and know—are all native English words, and so maybe English just doesn’t put Latin-derived re- on native English verbs. There are a couple of problems with that hypothesis. First of all, very few English speakers know which words are native. More importantly, we can stick re- on some native verbs: we can rebuild a church, redo a chemistry experiment, remake a tarnished image, reset a slow clock, and resend an email that wasn’t received.

The situation is even more complicated: sometimes we can use re- with a native English verb but doing so changes the meaning to something other than ‘back’ or ‘again.’ Compare these two:

  • Years after his mother’s death, he still recalled her fondly.
  • He called his mother last night but she had company and couldn’t talk long. He recalled her the next morning.

The recall in the first sentence does not mean ‘call again’; it means ‘remember.’ In the second example, we’d normally say “he called her back”; we wouldn’t say “he recalled her,” or maybe we could marginally get away with that if we paused slightly between the re- and the called; we’d write that with a hyphen: “he re-called her.”

Now you see how complicated the situation is. I haven’t figured out a way of telling which English verbs we can stick re- on, which we can’t, and which we might get away with although it would sound a little strange. Native speakers somehow just know.


© 2023 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 23, 2023 at 4:27 AM

Another look back at fall foliage

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The last months of 2022 in Austin were excellent for fall foliage—so much so that I couldn’t show nearly as many pictures as I’d have liked to when they were still current or even a few weeks old. “Better late than never,” as the adage goes. Today’s pictures are from November 26th along the Capital of Texas Highway near Lakewood Dr., a few miles from home. The first two play up the color contrast between the ephemeral red of a Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) that had climbed high into the canopy of a cedar elm tree (Ulmus crassifolia) and the similarly transient yellow of the elm tree’s leaves.



In the pair above you, you see how different orientations (horizontal versus vertical) and different focal lengths (70mm versus 24mm) can produce different results (not surprisingly) even when two pictures are taken from the same spot. In the top view, blue appears only in subdued little patches visible through holes in the foliage. In the second view, blue, along with white, dominates the photograph.



For a different perspective, to take the last picture I worked my way
through the woods to get under the Virginia creeper so I could aim straight up.


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UPDATE. Two days ago I reported on a high school in Virginia whose administrators apparently on purpose failed to notify students about their Merit Scholarship commendations. A January 16th editorial in The Wall Street Journal revealed that even more Virginia schools have been discriminating against Asian students in that way than was initially known. You’re welcome to read William McGurn’s “The New Structural Racism,” whose sub-head is “In Northern Virginia, affirmative action has hardened into a war on high achievers.”


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From Elizabeth Weiss’s January 11th article in Quillette, “A Report From the Stanford Academic Freedom Conference,” I learned about the comments of Jerry Coyne:

Jerry Coyne, Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University of Chicago and author of the popular blog Why Evolution is True, speaks with some authority on the left-right cancel-culture divide, as he has spent much of his career battling right-wing social conservatives who promote creationism (or “intelligent design”) as an alternative to evolution. But in recent years, he noted, four popular false ideas (what he calls “ideological pollution”) now originate with the progressive side of the political spectrum: (1) that sex is not binary, but rather a spectrum; (2) that males and females are “biologically identical on average in behavior, mentality and choices”; (3) that “the fundamental premises of evolutionary psychology are false”; and (4) that “race is a purely social construct with no biological value.” In every case, he noted, there was a parallel with Marxism, which imagines people as being “infinitely malleable” according to their social environment.

Coyne, who is now retired from day-to-day academic life, expressed less concern than other speakers in regard to the formal repercussions inflicted on academics who violate these taboos (though he did describe the case of a professor in Maine who faced severe backlash after stating that there are only two sexes). Rather, he emphasized the manner by which this ideological system encouraged self-censorship:

What I’m worried about is being demonized, ostracized, simply for saying that there’s something like biological meaningfulness in ethnic groups. It is enough to get you called a racist, which I have been. If you say that the sexes are bimodal or even just binary, you get called a transphobe … And, to any good liberal, and I’m a good liberal … the moniker of racist or transphobe is horrifying and makes you just shut up and so this kind of demonization occurs fairly regularly.


© 2023 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 18, 2023 at 4:26 AM

Western soapberry trees turning yellow

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Yet another source of fall foliage on our 12-day trip to New Mexico and west Texas was the western soapberry trees (Sapindus saponaria var. drummondii) that I hadn’t expected but was happy to see at Palo Duro Canyon State Park in the Texas panhandle on October 20th. The place where I found the biggest concentration of them is appropriately called the Soapberry Day Use Area. You’re seeing two pictures from there.



Five weeks later, no identifying sign accompanied the young western soapberry trees I saw
putting on a display of backlit yellow gorgeosity in Austin’s Pease Park on November 30th:




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Did you hear about the world’s only surviving nonuplets?


© 2023 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 6, 2023 at 4:28 AM

Five will get you seven

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Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, seems ubiquitous in the woods of northwest Austin, including in our yard. Much less common is its two-more-leaflets-per-leaf genus-mate Parthenocissus heptaphylla, a little group of which I came across in Great Hills Park on December 1st (quinque is Latin for ‘five’ and hepta is Greek for ‘seven’). Both species happily turn colors in the fall. Update: I hadn’t realized this is the debut of seven-leaf creeper here, nor did I know that the species is endemic to central Texas.

Also welcome that morning was a bit of cedar sage, Salvia roemeriana,
flowering well past or before its habitual time in the spring. 




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Last week the Congress of the United States passed a so-called omnibus spending bill. The Latin word omnibus means ‘for all’—appropriate, given that the legislation provided mountains of “pork” for all the members of Congress, regardless of their political party. Passage meant that we the taxpayers will be on the hook for borrowing another $1.7 trillion that the government doesn’t have, and doing so at a time when interest rates on debts have returned to their normal range after 13 years of practically interest-free loans brought on by the financial crash of 2008.

The printed version of last week’s bill ran to 4,155 pages. Probably no member of Congress read it all; probably most members read only the bits that benefited them; probably some members voted without having read any part of the bill at all.

The whole thing is a scandal.

Last year I brought forth what I called fantasy amendments to the United States Constitution. They’re things that I believe most citizens would agree with but that political and monetary interests will likely keep from ever being adopted. Congress’s shameful behavior last week impels me to reprint the two fantasy amendments that are relevant to last week’s disgrace.


Prerequisites for a member of Congress to be allowed to vote on a bill.

  • A.  The member shall read the final version of the bill in its entirety.
  • B.  The member shall create an uncut video showing the member reading the entire bill, and shall post, at least 48 hours before voting on the bill, the complete video online in an easily accessible place where the public can view it.
  • C.  The member shall pass a test about the contents of the bill, such test to be created and administered by a non-partisan commission established for that purpose. The test shall contain at least 10 questions and the passing grade shall be set no lower than 80%. A member of Congress who fails may take one retest consisting of a randomly different set of questions about the bill. A second failure shall bar the member from voting on the bill.
  • D. Each revision of a bill that comes up for a vote shall trigger these requirements anew.


Requirements for a legislative bill.

  • 1. A legislative bill shall deal with only one subject.
  • 2. The first line of the bill must state what that subject is, and it must conform to the general understanding among the public of what that subject includes.
  • 3. For each pending Congressional bill, every sentence shall be identified by the name and position of the person or persons who wrote the sentence. If the writer(s) acted on behalf of or at the behest of some other person(s) or organization(s), those identifications must also be included.
  • 4. Unless Congress by a three-quarter majority in each house separately declares a national emergency, the complete text of a bill must be released to the public and made readily available online at least 14 days before a bill is brought to a vote.
  • 5. A non-partisan commission created by Congress shall thoroughly examine every final bill and remove all parts of it that don’t conform to points 1–3 above. The commission is also empowered to prevent, and must prevent, voting on any bill whose final form the public has not had easy access to for 14 days.

Point 1 is intended to eliminate the monstrous bills we now get that run to hundreds or even thousands of pages and that include a slew of unrelated things. Politicians too easily hide pet projects and controversial proposals in the welter of such “omnibus” bills. My idea is to have the legislature vote separately on each proposal or small group of related proposals. That would let the public know which legislators support which things.

Point 2 is intended to head off concept creep and gross semantic inflation. The current administration has been referring to anything under the sun as “infrastructure,” e.g. “human infrastructure” and “family infrastructure,” whereas the normal use of the term “infrastructure” includes only physical structures like roads, bridges, airports, dams, power lines, railroads, ports, canals, and the like.

Point 3 is intended to reveal who is actually inserting provisions into a bill. As things stand now, the real promoters are often hidden from the public.

Point 4 is intended to give the public and the press a reasonable amount of time to find out what’s in a bill before it gets voted on.

Point 5 creates a neutral external body to enforce the provisions that members of Congress may be too pusillanimous to adhere to.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 29, 2022 at 4:29 AM

More colorful fall foliage from Blanco

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In Blanco State Park on November 27th the sycamore trees, Platanus occidentalis, contended with the bald cypresses to put on a display of fall foliage. While it’s common for sycamore leaves to turn yellow and brown at the end of the year, as shown below, some of the ones in the park had veered toward red, especially when seen with backlighting. There’s no doubting the redness of the leaves on the sapling shown above, which had grabbed a roothold in the face of a low dam across the Blanco River. 




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Since last year I’ve reported several times on the huge numbers of people the current American administration is letting illegally cross our southern border, some two-thirds of whom it is allowing to stay here despite their having entered illegally. One reason I’ve commented on the situation is because “mainstream” or “legacy” American “news” outlets purposely don’t cover it much or at all. The December 14-15 Harvard CAPS Harris poll of 1,851 registered voters is consistent with that lack of coverage:



As I reported on December 18th: “The number of undocumented immigrant crossings at the southwest border for fiscal year 2022 topped 2.76 million, breaking the previous annual record by more than 1 million, according to Customs and Border Protection data.” If you add to that the hundreds of thousands of known and unknown “gotaways” not included in the 2.76 million encounters, then the correct answer to the question the poll asked is “Over 3 million,” which only 7% of respondents picked. You can see that the responses leaned heavily toward much lower numbers than the actual one.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman





Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 23, 2022 at 4:26 AM

More fall color from individual leaves and leaflets

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Poison ivy, Toxicodendron radicans; December 1st in Great Hills Park.




Cottonwood tree, Populus deltoides; December 12th near the Riata Trace Pond.



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A main theme of my commentaries for the past two years has been the distortion of language for ideological purposes. The other day a great trove of data came my way from the EHLI, or the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative at Stanford University, which “identifies as” “a multi-phase, multi-year project to address harmful language in IT [Information Technology] at Stanford.”

In particular I’m referring to the document the group released on December 19th, which is a compendium of “harmful” words and phrases, along with suggested and therefore presumably non-harmful alternatives to them, plus notes putting the items in “context.” Preceding the list of frowned-on items are bold-faced words of caution:

Content Warning: This website contains language that is offensive or harmful. Please engage with this website at your own pace.

You wouldn’t want to encounter too many horrific words too quickly or you might get a heart attack or stroke. You know, terrible words like “American.” That’s right, you’re not supposed to say “American” any more because there are lots of countries in North American and South America, not just the United States.* The recommended replacement is “U.S. citizen.” I don’t see how that can last, given that the kind of ideologues who would think of putting together a list of forbidden terms also want people in the country illegally to have all the same benefits as citizens.

The EHLI document is divided into sections according to the kinds of people the forbidden terms are supposedly offensive to. The first section is Ableist. In case you’re not familiar with that word, the document explains it: “Ableist language is language that is offensive to people who live with disabilities and/or devalues people who live with disabilities. The unintentional use of such terms furthers the belief that people who live with disabilities are abnormal.”

Notice the phrase “people who live with disabilities.” That itself is the suggested replacement for “the disabled.” It’s one of many instances of “person-first” language, in which a word or short phrase gets turned into something more cumbersome. “Handicapped,” for instance, is now “person with a disability.” As if the “dis-” in “disability” doesn’t still indicate that the person has a handicap compared to people without that disability. Similarly, the four-syllable “mentally ill” becomes the thirteen-syllable “person living with a mental health condition” and the two-syllable “senile” becomes the ten-syllable “person suffering from senility.” For the sake of inclusion, shouldn’t we extend this pattern to categories other than persons? In meal-first language, rather than say “I ate breakfast” we’ll have to say “I ate the meal that persons call breakfast” or “I ate the meal usually but not always consumed in the early part of the day.”

Some of the replacements are baffling. Rather than “committed suicide” we’re supposed to say “died by suicide.” Could the point be to shift agency and therefore remove blame from the person to the mental health condition? Or maybe “committed” has overtones of “committed to a mental institution.” Or maybe there’s no reason for the change except to make us jump through more language hoops and increase the chances for woke ideologues to call us out when we mess up on one of their shibboleths.

In the “Violent” section we’re admonished to replace “rule of thumb” with “standard rule” or “general rule.” The “context” for this is: “Although no written record exists today, this phrase is attributed to an old British law that allowed men to beat their wives with sticks no wider than their thumb.” The writers admit that there’s no evidence for the claim that “rule of thumb” originated in men beating their wives with sticks no wider than their thumbs,” but we’re supposed to ignore the lack of evidence and pretend that that cockeyed claim is true. If the writers had bothered to look up the etymology for “rule of thumb” they’d find it’s straightforward. The American Heritage Dictionary notes that the phrase comes from “the use of the thumb as a makeshift ruler or measuring device, as in carpentry.” Similarly, the English system uses “foot” as a familiar measurement, and the height of horses is traditionally measured in “hands.”

Another instance of fake history occurs in the “Additional Considerations” section. We’re advised to avoid “hip hip hooray” because “this term was used by German citizens during the Holocaust as a rallying cry when they would hunt down Jewish citizens living in segregated neighborhoods.” You should immediately be suspicious: why would German-speaking Nazis use an English interjection when hunting down Jews in countries where English wasn’t the native language? The obvious answer is that they wouldn’t. Once again the writers of the document could have looked up the actual origin of “hip hip hooray,” but apparently going to a dictionary was a step too far. English speakers were already using “hip hip hooray [or hurrah]” in the early 1800s.

 You’re welcome to work your way at your own pace through as much of the EHLI document as you want to or can stand.


* When I arrived in Honduras as a Peace Corps volunteer 55 years ago this month I quickly learned that people there refer to Americans as norteamericanos, i.e. North Americans. The compilers of the Stanford document will have to chide Hondurans and other Spanish speakers for their lack of inclusivity: aren’t Canadians and Mexicans also North Americans? In fact Wikipedia tells us there are a whopping 24 countries in North America.


UPDATE: On January 11th Inside Higher Ed published an article by Susan D’Agostino titled “Amid Backlash, Stanford Pulls ‘Harmful Language’ List.” Let’s welcome any move toward sanity in academia.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 22, 2022 at 4:27 AM

Red and russet

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Two sources of year-end color from trees in Austin are the fruit of the possumhaw, Ilex decidua, and the leaves of the bald cypress, Taxodium distichum. Here you see one in front of the other at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on December 9th. (A recent post featured colorful bald cypress in its own right.)


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Two days ago I reported how more than three million people have entered the United States in the past year by illegally coming across our southern border. The American government’s own statistics show that approximately two-thirds of those border crossers are currently being allowed to stay in the country despite having entered illegally. Not only that, the current administration is using our tax money to bus and fly lots of those illegal entrants anywhere they choose to go inside the country, even though there’s no way to verify who many of them are.

Unless you happen to be Abdul Wasi Safi. He’s an Afghan who worked with Americans in Afghanistan but couldn’t manage to get on any of the last American planes leaving his country during the chaotic and disgraceful pull-out of American forces and some Afghan allies in 2021. Abdul Wasi Safi spent months enduring hardships and dangers as he gradually made it half-way around the world and walked across the Rio Grande River into Texas near Eagle Pass. He was soon arrested and put in prison. No free bus or plane ticket into the interior of the country for him. The current American administration is working to deport him back to Afghanistan, where the Taliban, who know who he is, will kill him.

You can read much more about Abdul Wasi Safi’s ordeal in an excellent article by Allison P. Erickson in the Texas Tribune.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 20, 2022 at 4:31 AM

Virginia creeper

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One of the most reliable sources of late-year color in Austin is Parthenocissus quinquefolia, a vine known as Virginia creeper. Some people call it five-leaf creeper, though actually what there are five of are leaflets in each palmately compound leaf. The top picture is from December 1st in Great Hills Park. I photographed the leaf below, which was down to three leaflets, in our side yard a week later.




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The number of undocumented immigrant crossings at the southwest border for fiscal year 2022 topped 2.76 million, breaking the previous annual record by more than 1 million, according to Customs and Border Protection data.

That was from NBC News on October 22, 2022. The fiscal year ended on September 30. Here are figures from the government’s report about October 2022:

The number of unique individuals encountered nationwide in October 2022 was 196,479, a 2.9% increase in the number of unique enforcement encounters than the prior month…. 78,477 encounters, 34% of the total, were processed for expulsion under Title 42. 152,201 encounters were processed under Title 8….

In other words, two-thirds of the people the border patrol encountered who entered illegally were allowed to remain in the country anyhow. In addition, every month there are tens of thousands of so-called known gotaways, illegal border crossers that authorities observed but didn’t have the resources to catch. And in addition to that there are the unknown gotaways, people who crossed the border surreptitiously enough that authorities never even became aware of them.

In spite of this mountain of evidence, the current American administration keeps insisting that the border is secure. When facts belie people’s claims, I go with the facts. What do you do?

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 18, 2022 at 4:30 AM

Blanco, Blanco, Blanco, Blanco

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The smallest of the four Blancos in this post’s title is a state park. It’s on a river of the same name in a town of the same name in a county of the selfsame name. On November 27th our route to Lost Maples took us through the town of Blanco, so we stopped at Blanco State Park, which despite being only 60 miles and about an hour from home we’d somehow never managed to visit.



The stars of the show there were bald cypress trees, Taxodium distichum, turning brown
and especially russet when seen with backlighting. (Click to enlarge the final view.)




© 2022 Steven Schwartzman





Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 17, 2022 at 4:27 AM

Return to Lost Maples

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Normally for me a return to a distant scenic place means the passage of years or at least months. Not this time: the November 27th visit to Lost Maples State Natural Area about 150 miles west-southwest of Austin proved so colorful and photographically fruitful that we went back the very next morning. We’d spent the night in Kerrville and were therefore only an hour away, not the three hours away we’d have been if we’d returned to Austin on the 27th. Being a Monday, the place wasn’t mobbed the way it had been on the weekend, so reserving an entrance permit was easy.



Here are four views of bigtooth maples, Acer grandidentatum, from that second-day-in-a-row visit, when we initially walked a part of the West Trail, where the stripe of color shown in the top picture caught my attention. The second photograph shows the glowy advantage of backlighting. In the third view, notice all the ball moss, Tillandsia recurvata.



While physicists make much of black holes, the last photograph is one of a bunch I took
showing how blue holes sometimes emerge in the midst of all the colorful foliage.




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Dictionary.com has chosen woman as its word of the year for 2022. You can read the reasons why, and in the process you’ll learn that the word in older English was the equivalent of wifeman*, where wife originally meant ‘female,’ whether married or not, and man was a generic term for ‘person,’ as in mankind and “Man does not live by bread alone.”

* In case you’ve ever wondered why the o in the plural women is pronounced like a short i, now you can see it’s a carry-over from the original form of the word. Why the first vowel in the singular form changed, I don’t know.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 15, 2022 at 4:27 AM

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