Spring Beauties

One of the simple joys of early spring is walking in the greening woods, absorbing the rising energy, and seeing wildflowers emerging along woodland trails.  Spring and fall bring a special poignancy–reminding us that everything is transient and turning our awareness from the noise, distraction and foibles of human existence to something that is resonant and serves, as the late microbiologist and environmental philosopher Rene Dubos once commented, “as a sounding board for the Cosmos.”

Spring Beauties blooming along the Cascade Falls trail at Patapsco Valley State Park, April 18, 2019 (photo by author)

Spring beauties–Claytonia virginica--are an early bloomer in the Northeast, and in Maryland, where I live, reach their glory between mid-April and mid-May, depending on the vagaries of the weather. They are ephemeral, and once at peak will dry up and fade away until the following spring. The flowers are delicate, ranging in color from white to pastel pink to nearly purple, with their color highlighted by the pink to purple veins that radiate along the petals. Although various parts of the plant are edible, they are increasingly under threat, and should not be disturbed. I hike often in the Maryland woods, but the only expansive stands I know are in Patapsco Valley State Park.  The plant ranges from as far north as Nova Scotia and Minnesota south to Georgia and Louisiana and west to Texas.

When they are at their diffident glory, the effect is mesmerizing. I am always surprised that fellow hikers walk by without stopping and standing quietly to absorb the impressionistic carpet sweeping along the woods and up hills into the trees.  Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder—but it is hard to imagine that anyone who takes time to look carefully at a stand of blooming Claytonia could fail to appreciate their delicate esthetic.

Spring beauties have a complex relationship with their primary pollinator, the andrenid bee, Andrena erigeniae, sometimes called the “Spring Beauty Bee,” a small, short-tongued bee that forages almost entirely on Claytonia. According to Carol Gracie’s “Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History,” the diminutive bee relies on Spring Beauty for both nectar and pollen, the latter being the sole food source for the bee’s annual larvae brood.

Spring beauty bee (Andrena erigeniae) on a spring beauty (photo by Judy Gallagher via Wikimedia Commons)

The little bee makes three to five trips back and forth to the flowers to gather enough pollen, which it shapes into a ball. It lays a single egg inside the pollen ball, which is tucked away in a side chamber off the main underground nest.

Spring beauty flowers unfold around 52 degrees Fahrenheit—which corresponds to the temperature at which some pollinating flies are able to take wing–although the Spring beauty bee does not fly until the temperature reaches around 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

The characteristics of spring beauty that draw us to them reflect an evolutionary adaptation, in that the contrasting pattern of the petals and filaments attract pollinators, while the pink veins and yellow spots at the petals’ base guide insects down into the nectar source, according to Gracie.

Once pollination has occurred and seeds have formed, the flower has evolved to put pressure on the seed capsules so that they burst explosively, dispersing seeds up to two feet from the plant. While spring beauties bloom transiently, they take up to four years to reach reproductive maturity–another reason to observe their beauty but leave them untouched.

Spring beauties blooming along the Cascade Falls trail at Patapsco Valley State Park April 2019 (photo by author)

Claytonia were first described in detail by John Clayton, an early Virginia naturalist, who came to colonial Virginia from England, and wrote the Flora Virginica, last updated in 1762, according to the Virginia Native Plant Society.

Spring beauties are a botanical curiosity in that wild stands of the flowers show great color variability within the same stand. Generally, evolutionary pressures should result in the more reproductively successful color becoming dominant, notes Gracie.  This oddity was explored by Indiana University graduate student Frank Frey, who wrote in the introduction to a paper he published in 2007 in the journal Evolution that “maintenance of floral-color variation within natural populations is enigmatic because directional selection through pollinator preferences combined with genetic drift should lead to the rapid loss of such variation.”

What Frey found is that two distinct pressures—attractiveness to hungry slugs and infection by a pathogenic fungus have exerted opposing pressures. Slugs, it turns out, prefer the leaves of pink flowered beauties—but white-flowered beauties are more susceptible to the fungus. Frey learned that this is a consequence of the interplay of various biochemicals that occur in different proportions in the leaves of spring beauties with white versus pink flowers.

In the past, spring beauty was used medicinally by herbalists and native Americans as a contraceptive, for treating convulsions, sore throats, dandruff, and urinary tract problems, and as a poultice for eye infections, according to the Virginia Native Plant society.

But we need only enjoy their simple beauty as they turn the spring woodland understory into a gentle pointillist painting.

A Tweet That Changes Nothing on the Ground While (further) Undermining the Moral Authority of the United States

As anyone who has read my previous posts knows, I am a critic of the Netanyahu government and of the abandonment by the Israeli right of the two-state solution. The Golan Heights had, until this week, mostly faded from discourse, despite its 1981 annexation by Israel.

UN-controlled border crossing point between Syria and Israel at the Golan Heights (photograph by Escla, Wikimedia Commons)

Israeli control of the Golan Heights for strategic purposes is a separate issue from the fate of the West Bank. During my Israeli army service, I was stationed in the north, not far from the Golan Heights. The idea that this area could again fall under Syrian control struck me then, and strikes me now, as entirely contrary to Israel’s security in a way that transcends other issues. Perhaps in a parallel universe where Syria is not controlled by a brutal dictator who has no qualms about killing his own people it would make sense. And should that universe ever eventuate, the Israeli government could then reconsider its options.

While the 1981 annexation violated the long-held international principle that national boundaries can not lawfully be changed by force, there has been little dissent in Israel and among its allies that the Golan is historically and tactically unique in providing Israel with a strategic high point. Photographs of Israeli soldiers on the Golan looking down into Syria are striking. When it was Syrian controlled the Syrians regularly rained down artillery on the kibbutzim below.

The Golan Heights is different from the West Bank not only in its strategic importance, but in its demographics. The primary non-Jewish population is Druze, a distinct ethnic and religious minority who are neither Muslim nor Christian—and who have served honorably in the Israeli army. Unlike the West Bank, there is no restive population displaced by Israeli settlers. The Golan is also a critical source of water in an area challenged by water scarcity.

Druze of the Golan Heights (photography by Israeli Defense Forces, Wikimedia Commons)

In politics, as in life, there is often great merit in simply letting things be. Nobody has lately expressed the expectation that Israel, given the recent history of Syria, would relinquish the Golan Heights. But it is, of course, unrealistic at this juncture to expect Trump to simply let well enough alone.

The Donald J. Trump-Benjamin Netanyahu bromance is a case of two corrupt, oppressive authoritarian leaders who feel a deep kinship. But as a recent article in the New York Times, notes, the Golan Heights is no longer an Arab rallying cry, and the Trump administration’s recognition of Israel’s annexation will change nothing on the ground. It is, however, an open gift to the embattled Israeli Prime Minister–and has encouraged the Israeli right to agitate for the outright annexation of the West Bank.

The move will also provide others with a precedent to justify changing boundaries by force–the prime example now being Russia’s seizure of Crimea. As conservative columnist Max Boot commented in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post: “The sacred principle of territorial integrity lies at the heart of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, adopted with U.S. and Israeli support in 1967 after Israel fought the Six-Day War to preempt Arab aggression. This resolution called for “Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” but by omitting “the” in front of “territories,” it left vague which land was to be evacuated. The resolution went on to call for “acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.

Leave no doubt that as a dual Israeli-American I am concerned about the well being of Israeli citizens, and identify strongly with Israelis who would have to fight another war should the region’s balance of power change. As Boot comments, Resolution 242 was a de facto recognition by the Arab states of Israel’s right to exist. By effectively nullifying Resolution 242, Trump is depriving Israel of its legitimacy under international law, and creating controversy that serves no one other than–perhaps–Netanyahu who at the time this is written is in a dead heat with his centrist opponent, Benny Gantz for the upcoming election for Prime Minister.

Trump’s announcement does not appear to be helping Netanyahu—but it does empower the corrupt dictatorships of Hamas and Fatah in the Palestinian territories and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The neutering of Resolution 242 provides Assad, in particular, a means of diverting attention from his brutality against his own citizens by turning the focus on the Israeli presence in the Golan. According to a recent editorial in Haaretz, the move may provide Syria with a pretext for military action against Israel.

In a recent interview with NPR’s “Here and Now,” Jewish-French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy was asked about Trump’s professed love of Jews and Israel. Levy referenced the concept of “Ahavat Yisrael”—a deep love of Israel and the Jewish people. Trump, while making gestures of support for Israel and pointing to his Jewish grandchildren, has no real understanding of the meaning of Israel and the cultural and historical legacy of the Jewish people, said Levy “There is something in this embracement [sic] of the Jews of America by President Trump that looks like a kiss of death.” Trump’s nihilism stands in stark contrast to the moral and cultural principles of Judaism, said Levy. If Jews “compromise with this nihilist style, I think we—Jews—and you–American Jews—make a dangerous mistake.”

The Menschkeit of Elijah Cummings

“Menschkeit” is a Yiddish word that describes, better than any word I know in English, what many of us witnessed in the words and demeanor of Maryland Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings who chaired the Michael Cohen hearing on February 27.

Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland (official photo, public domain)

According to author Leo Rosten, who wrote “The Joys of Yiddish,” a mensch is a person of noble character–“someone to admire and emulate.” It implies a deep-seated sense of decency, dignity and ethics. It is, in any circumstances, a term of high praise, and stands in even greater contrast to the debased behavior shown by so many during the hearing. Cummings essential decency was highlighted during one of the most contentious exchanges of the hearing, which occurred when Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib blasted Republican Representative Mark Meadows for bringing a black woman to the hearing to defend Trump against charges of racism. Cohen had accused Trump of being a racist, citing several examples. The woman, Lynne Patton, had long worked for Trump and according to Meadows, had agreed to attend the hearing as evidence that Trump was not racist. She stood silently as Meadows voiced his defense.

His mention of his black relatives brought to mind a neighbor, a white, retired railway worker, who is a Trump enthusiast and who has often made comments that strike me as clearly racist. It turns out that his son married a black woman so that he has black grandchildren—and he has invoked this as proof that he is not a racist. Cummings was remarkable in bringing a sense of civility and forgiveness to the hearing. It is clear that in calming the angry exchange between Tlaib and Meadows he tapped into a deep and genuine sense of empathy and showed what might be called profound emotional intelligence.

Qunita Jurecic penned a pointed and moving piece for The Atlantic on Cummings’ largely overlooked role . We live in a time of reckoning and rage, and at such times the impulse for mercy may seem “less an act of grace than an effort to avoid acknowledging the pain of those who have been wronged,” wrote Jurecic.

Yet Cummings extended mercy and forgiveness, closing the fractious and often ugly hearing with eloquence and dignity. In his closing statement, Cummings brought Cohen to tears by recalling the images of Cohen leaving the courthouse with his daughter looking on.

“Let me tell you the picture that really, really pained me. You were leaving the prison, you were leaving the courthouse, and, I guess it’s your daughter, had braces or something on. Man, that thing—man, that thing hurt me. As a father of two daughters, it hurt me. And I can imagine how it must feel for you. But I’m just saying to you—I want to first of all thank you. I know that this has been hard. I know that you’ve faced a lot. I know that you are worried about your family. But this is a part of your destiny. And hopefully this portion of your destiny will lead to a better, a better, a better Michael Cohen, a better Donald Trump, a better United States of America, and a better world. And I mean that from the depths of my heart.”

If ever there were a time of cynicism in American politics, that time is now. That Cummings was able to remind us of what it is to extend forgiveness and empathy is that much more impressive. That is menschkeit.

Will Blocking Title X Funds for Planned Parenthood Increase Abortion?

It is rare that people on opposite sides of the abortion issue have a civil dialogue, although there are exceptions–such as a recent episode of The Argument podcast from the New York Times, in which Ross Douthat and Michele Goldberg debate abortion. I encourage readers to listen to this–simply to be reminded that civility exists.

My problem is not differing beliefs–I trust that nearly all those who work single-mindedly to end abortion are sincere in their belief that it is murder–it is rather that in order to punish abortion providers, particularly Planned Parenthood, anti-abortion advocates are willing to ignore the relationship between contraceptive access, unwanted pregnancy, and abortion. I am 66, and remember a famous quote, attributed to an unnamed U.S. major during the Vietnam War about the bombing of the village of Ben Tre in 1968: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.

USAF F-100 strike in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War (USAF Archives, public domain)

The recent move by the Trump administration to bar any organization that provides abortion services or referrals from receiving any Title X federal family planning funds would severely impact family planning providers, particularly Planned Parenthood, the largest recipient of these funds.

Anti-abortion organizations and their supporters in Congress have long sought to completely defund Planned Parenthood because the organization provides access to both contraception and abortion referrals and services. As written, the new rule would deny federal funds unless facilities that provide abortion are financially and physically separate from those that provide other family planning services, and would also prohibit any recipient of Title X funds from making a referral to an abortion provider. Current federal law already prohibits the direct use of federal funds to pay for abortion.

The new rule would require hundreds of Planned Parenthood clinics to either end providing family planning services entirely, or spend millions of dollars to provide entirely separate facilities for abortion services. Anti-abortion advocates, however, see space and staff sharing as a way of using federal funds to support abortion.

Anti-Abortion Protestors Outside a Planned Parenthood Clinic (photograph by Amy Wong, Wikimedia Commons)

A press release from the Susan B. Anthony list, for example, quoted their president, Marjorie Dannenfelser. “The Title X program was not intended to be a slush fund for abortion businesses like Planned Parenthood, which violently ends the lives of more than 332,000 unborn babies a year and receives almost $60 million a year in Title X taxpayer dollars.”

Planned Parenthood is the only comprehensive source of family planning services in many communities, with more than 600 clinics nationwide. The organization issued a press release, commenting that the new rule would disproportionately impact low-income and under-served women. Because the rule prohibits not only abortion, but referrals for abortion, it has been termed a “gag rule” by opponents. It has been opposed by most major medical organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

What happens if the rule prevails–or if Roe v. Wade is overturned, an increasingly likely prospect given the current makeup of the Supreme Court? An article by Michelle Oberman in the May 31, 2018 New York Times suggests that reducing access to legal, medically supervised abortion may ultimately be a Pyrrhic Victory for abortion opponents.

Oberman comments: “Whether we’re marching with coat-hanger posters or passing laws that outlaw the procedure earlier and earlier, we fight over abortion in the United States as if we know what will happen if it’s banned. But as we inch closer to potentially allowing states to recriminalize the procedure — with laws that ban abortions after six weeks, as in Iowa, and even seek to effectively ban the use of abortion-inducing drugs — we would do well to look past our southern border to consider what happens when abortion actually is illegal. It’s not the outcome anyone is looking for.”

In Latin America, where abortion has remained illegal, the advent of abortifacient drugs has resulted in widespread use of these drugs to abort without medical supervision, according to Oberman. Those who suffer complications are likely to end up in the emergency room, where physicians may be unable to distinguish drug-induced hemorrhaging from that accompanying natural miscarriage with potentially lethal consequences for these women. Because abortion is illegal, the emergency room may then become a crime scene.

Oberman goes into considerable detail (and has written a book on the subject). What is particularly interesting is her discussion of El Salvador’s experience enforcing its abortion ban. Public clinics, used by poor women, reported patients suspected of inducing abortions, but “not a single accusation against a woman originated from a private doctor or hospital,” writes Oberman. Doctors may suspect wealthier patients of inducing a miscarriage, but only poor patients, who cannot afford private care, are ever reported. Given that the only evidence against these women is a miscarriage, there have inevitably been wrongful convictions, with serious legal consequences.

There is, of course, one completely effective way to decrease abortions—prevent women from getting pregnant unintentionally. Research shows conclusively that better access to contraception leads to a decline in abortion. The Guttmacher Institute published a report in March 2016, highlighting the relationship. Among other things, the report cited evidence contradicting claims from the anti-abortion community that a decline in abortion resulted from more women carrying accidental pregnancies to term.

Similarly, research published in 2012 in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology reported the striking finding that greater availability of free contraception following implementation of the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare) spurred a drop in teen birth rates and halved the abortion rate for all participants. A discussion of the research appeared in Scientific American.

If there is one area of agreement among those who are pro-choice and those who are anti-abortion, it is a desire to decrease unintended pregnancies. We will never bridge the philosophical divide between those who sincerely believe life begins at conception and those who see life as involving consciousness or viability. It is sometimes said by those who are pro-choice that there is a “war on abortion”–and by those who are opposed that there is a “war on life.”

Pro-Choice, Anti-Abortion Protestor at the DNC in 1968 (photograph by Ava Lowery, Wikimedia Commons)

Back in 1758, essayist and biographer Samuel Johnson wrote: “Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.” Those on both sides of the abortion debate need to acknowledge what we know about the results of making access to contraception and abortion more difficult.

Collisions and Extinctions

On February 21, 1918, a male Carolina Parakeet named Incas died in the Cincinnati Zoo. He was the last known member of his species.

In his book “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” –arguably the most thorough and emotionally compelling account of bird extinctions ever written—author Christopher Cokinos writes of the sad and maddening saga of the Carolina Parakeet. Sad because mindless, pointless, and destructive human behavior drove the extinction, and maddening because there was ample time and opportunity to have kept it from happening.

The degree to which various factors, woven together, drove Conuropsis carolinensis to extinction are not entirely clear, but it is clear that this stunning, vibrant bird—like many other extinct species–could not survive its collision with mankind.

While the Carolina Parakeet was the only member of the parrot family endemic to the United States mainland (the thick-billed parrot, which has been reintroduced, was never widespread), the way in which collisions with humans drive extinction is as contemporary as today’s paper. As I was writing this, a video of a spotted leopard wandering in a closed Indian mall went viral. (In this case, there was a happy ending.) Human beings are learning to recognize that other species are worthy of protection and respect–and although this post is a story of the worst of human disregard for other animals, we are, as a species, slowly learning to coexist. It will not be enough for some species–but there is hope for others.

Carolina Parakeet (Jacques Barraband, public domain)

Reading about the disappearance of the Carolina Parakeet is profoundly sad—and a critical lesson in how culture and technology shape the world. Practices considered acceptable during the bird’s decline seem astonishing from the perspective of 2019, reflecting a degree of mindless cruelty and indifference shocking even by the standards of the Trump era.

Lest we point only to ourselves—Westerners—for the relentless shooting of flocks, clearing of timber, and wholesale disregard for these and other creatures, Cokinos reminds us that the moa, a flightless bird of New Zealand, of which there were nine species, was hunted to extinction by the Maoris about 600 years ago. An article in Science titled “Why did the Moa go Extinct,” cites evolutionary biologists Trevor Worthy and Morten Allentoft.

“The inescapable conclusion is these birds were not senescent, not in the old age of their lineage and about to exit from the world,” said Worthy. “Rather they were robust, healthy populations when humans encountered and terminated them.” Allentoft commented: “We like to think of indigenous people as living in harmony with nature, but this is rarely the case. Humans everywhere will take what they need to survive. That’s how it works.”

Contemporary human beings, however, do not need to drive species to extinction to survive. That we do so by indifference is that much more unforgivable.

The wholesale level of ignorance and indifference chronicled by Cokinos resulted in mindless cruelty. Even renowned avian artist John James Audubon–whom one would presume had some feeling for birds—advised owners of newly captured parakeets to calm them by plunging the birds repeatedly in water, Cokinos writes.

In addition to the direct human killing of the birds for “sport,” plumage, and from ire at their occasional eating of crops, the introduction of honeybees also likely contributed to their demise. The birds were able to adapt to many human-related impacts, but the rapid spread of honeybees, who took over tree cavities favored by the parakeets, was accompanied by an observed decline in their numbers.

Carolina Parakeets feeding on Cocklebur (John James Audubon, public domain)

Parakeets–and all Psittacines (the parrot family)–are social beings–and their social connectivity can go to great lengths. Flocking is a survival behavior that evolved over millions of years. One need only watch a hawk go after a flock of birds to see this adaptation in action. Although the parakeets were able to adapt to many environmental challenges, “bullets generally work faster than behavioral adaptations,” writes Cokinos.

The otherwise adaptive flocking tendency proved deadly when confronted with guns. An explorer named John K. Townsend described a slaughter he witnessed in 1834: “They seemed entirely unsuspicious of danger, and after being fired at only huddled closer together, as if to obtain protection from each other, and as their companions are falling around them, they curve down their necks and look at them fluttering upon the ground, as though perfectly at a loss to account for so unusual an occurrence.”

In a chapter titled “Guns and Parrots” from his book “Wild Echoes,” author Charles Bergman quotes Audubon: “The gun is kept busy, with eight, ten or even twenty being killed at each discharge. As if conscious of the deaths of their companions, the living birds sweep over the bodies, screaming loudly as ever… I have seen several hundred destroyed in this manner in a few hours.”

That this was considered “sport” may strike us as obscene–but that was the ethos of the time, and there was little outcry over the practice.

Although some accounts contend that the Carolina Parakeet inflicted a toll on crops, Cokinos notes that he could find no record in the traditional agricultural sources such as the farmer’s almanac that cited Carolina Parakeets as responsible for crop depredations. Contemporary ornithologist Daniel McKinley, who published a series of monographs on the Carolina Parakeet from 1959-1985, is quoted as saying “even if the parakeet did not do much damage, it could be blamed for all of it.”

Carolina Parakeets also suffered for the plumage trade, where they joined a long list of birds in gracing women’s hats. They were also shot for food.

Scientists, too contributed to their demise. As the birds edged nearer to extinction, ornithologists continued to shoot them so they would have specimens once they were gone. Another form of destruction involved egg collection. It was not until the advent of field guides and binoculars in the twentieth century that ornithologists generally stopped shooting birds for study. While reading of ornithologists shooting endangered parakeets (and other vanishing birds) is maddening, Cokinos notes that scientific collecting killed far fewer birds than hunting or shooting by farmers. But it was another contributor to extinction.

Once the population dropped below a certain point, the absence of genetic diversity must have contributed to accelerated decline. And because the parakeets, like other, parrots, are highly social, they may have needed a minimal flock size to trigger breeding.

While Incas was the last known Carolina Parakeet, we will never know precisely when the last bird died. Cokinos quotes the memoir of Missourian Gert Goebel, who wrote: “Until the later (18)30s, great flocks of parakeets came into our region every fall and remained till the following spring… As the settlements increased and the forests were more and more cleared away, these birds ceased to come.” Cokinos describes scattered sightings that occurred from the late 1800s through 1912 or 1913.

Even after their extirpation from the wild, there were opportunities to save the species—had there been any concerted, intelligent effort to do so. In addition to being killed for sport, plumage, collection and by farmers, Carolina Parakeets were also kept as pets and by zoos. Despite knowledge of the bird’s disappearance from the wild, and their willingness to breed in captivity, “owners exhibited a startling lack of rigor for essential concerns, such as determining the best diet for the bird or creating social conditions conducive to reproduction,” according to Cokinos. He quotes Daniel McKinley about the failure to keep the species going through captive breeding. “They had their chance. Their records show a series of disappointments and a heartbreaking waste of eggs and of young birds and old…

Edward Maruska, director emeritus of the Cincinnati Zoo, where the last known Carolina Parakeet once lived, told Cokinos that the species could not only have been kept going in captivity but quite possibly re-introduced into the wild.

The death of Incas was reported in the February 22, 1918 Cincinnati Times-Star, and Cokinos quotes the story, which attributed the death in part to Incas’ grief over the loss of his mate.

Far-Famed Last Parakeet of Its Kind is Mourned at Zoo: Grief Was a Contributing Cause: A student of bird-life, acting as coroner in the case of Incas, the Carolina Parakeet, said to be the last of his race, might enter a verdict of ‘died of old age.’ But General Manager Sol A. Stephan of the Zoo whose study of birds goes further than mere physical structure, development, and decay, knows the bird died of grief. Incas, coveted by many zoological gardens, died Thursday night surrounded by his genuinely sorrowing friends, Col. Stephan and the keepers. Late last summer, Lady Jane, the mate of Incas for 32 years, passed away, and after that, the ancient survivor was a listless and mournful figure indeed.

Nighthawks in the City and the Coming of Spring

The other night I stepped outside for a minute and was immediately mesmerized, a quiet smile suffusing my heart. The nighthawks were calling as they soared over the rail yard across from my house in Baltimore.

Nighthawks, also known as goatsuckers, are in the Caprimiguldae or nightjar family, according to the American Bird Conservancy. They are remarkable birds that feed on the wing by opening their mouths and scooping up flying insects. Hearing them on a chilly February night lightens the heart, as they are among the true harbingers of Spring. Although the voice of a single Common Nighthawk (the species most frequently found in Maryland) is a simple nasal “peent” (and when diving, a booming mechanical sound), they migrate in flocks, and when a flock is calling the blending of voices creates a compelling, dissonant harmony.

Common Nighthawk in Flight (photo by Jacob W. Frank, NPS , Wikimedia Commons)

I listen as they glide above the rail yard, between a busy interstate and a neighborhood of row homes. Is this not a miracle—that creatures so wild can grant us their voice, despite the concrete, cars, and noise nearby? They ask nothing in return–only that they are left alone–and they remind us that despite our conceits we share this planet with other beings.

Although classified as a bird of least concern, Common Nighthawks are in steep decline, with an estimated 61 percent drop in population since the mid-1960s, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO). They are long-distance migrants, forming large flocks as they fly 1600 to more than 4000 miles each way–among the longest migratory routes of any North American bird. According to CLO, Common Nighthawks migrate overland through Mexico and Central America, with many passing over Florida and Cuba before crossing the Gulf of Mexico to their wintering grounds in southern South America. Along the way, they stop in woodlands, coastal dunes, river valleys, farmlands, and marshes. Habitat loss, pesticides, and collisions with cars while the birds forage over highways at night are factors in their decline.

Nighthawks lay their eggs on gravel beaches, rocky outcrops, open ground, and forest floors, according to COL, and in cities, on flat gravel roofs. They do not build nests, relying instead on camouflage. When nesting on gravel roofs the eggs and nestlings may suffer predation from crows and birds of prey. A recent study in Conservation Physiology also found that increasing temperatures as a result of climate change are associated with high stress levels in nighthawk chicks.

New Hampshire Audubon has urged homeowners and others with flat roofs to create gravel nesting patches for urban nighthawks. The program, called “Project Nighthawk,” provides specific information on creating these patches. A link to their detailed handbook is here.

The common name goatsucker is based on ancient superstition, according to David Sibley, the renowned author-illustrator. Aristotle wrote about the alleged goat-sucking habits of these birds, and in 77 AD, Pliny penned this: “They be night-thieves, for all the day long they see not. Their manner is to come into the shepherds’ coats and goat pens, and to the goats’ udders presently they go and suck the milk at their teats. And look what udder is so milked, it giveth no more milk, but misliketh and falleth away afterward, and the goats become blind withal.

As Sibley notes, it is unclear if many people actually believed this, and the superstition faded centuries ago, despite the persistence of the nickname. We know with certainty that nighthawks eat only flying insects and have nothing to do with goats.

Despite their nocturnal habits and eerily wild calls, Common Nighthawks have adapted to cityscapes. A story in Audubon was titled “The Common Nighthawk is the Cool City Bird You’ve Been Missing.” In my highly urban Baltimore neighborhood, the birds pass through in flocks in late winter or early Spring, and late Summer or early Fall, apparently drawn to flying insects swarming the lights illuminating the rail yard. But they do not linger—their plaintive calls livening the night before moving on. Although nighthawks can be seen during the day, I have seen them here only after dark in silhouette as they glide above the lights.

Common Nighthawk (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, Wikimedia Commons)

As I write this they have already passed on—-and I may not hear them here again until late summer when they are on their return migration. But knowing that they have returned once again provides some assurance that–for now, at least—wild things persist as they have despite the heedless activities of man.

Criticizing Israeli Policies is Not Anti-Semitic

Let me state at the outset that I am a dual Israeli-American who served in the Israeli army. Now to the topic at hand.

A recent flurry of reporting has highlighted the tendency to equate criticism of Israeli policy with antisemitism—seen as problematic for some Democrats who quietly have problems with Israeli expropriation of Palestinian land but appreciate Israel’s role as a steadfast U.S. ally. [See: Prominent Democrats Form Pro-Israel Group to Counter Skepticism on the Left.] The latest flap came when Democratic Rep. Ilhan OMar, one of two Muslim-American women in Congress, tweeted criticism of the strident pro-Israel lobby AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) suggesting that their campaign contributions had been used to buy support for Israel from U.S. lawmakers.

While Omar’s tweets were heavy-handed and construed by some as playing on unsavory stereotypes of Jewish money buying influence, the underlying contention—that AIPAC, in particular, has used contributions and lobbying to influence lawmakers is hardly controversial. That, indeed, is what lobbyists do. While apologizing for the tone of her comments, Omar—to her credit—did not back down from her contention that lobbying and contributions play an outsized role in American politics.

According to The Hill, Omar wrote: “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize.”  She continued: “At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA, or the fossil fuel industry. It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.”

The premise of AIPAC and others unwilling to render any judgment on Israel is that it is not possible to be critical of current Israeli policies under Benjamin Netanyahu without being anti-semitic or against Israel’s right to exist within secure and recognized borders. This is both ludicrous and an offense to free speech. It is akin to saying that you cannot be a supporter of the United States if you oppose the policies of Donald Trump and his administration. This is so patently absurd that it strikes me as sad that this continues to be a matter of serious debate.

Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock (photo by Berthold Werner, Wikimedia Commons)

Back in 1978, I moved to Israel, where I served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as an infantry soldier, combining military service with farming as part of the Nachal infantry brigade. When not in training or on active duty, I lived on a kibbutz on the Kinneret (aka the Sea of Galilee), where I milked cows, harvested dates, and picked bananas.

Among Israelis, particularly those in Nachal, there was no conflict in having both a profound love of country and profound reservations about the policies of the Israeli right. I grew up as a so-called birthright Jew—my family lineage is Jewish as far back as we know. I also grew up believing that the most central tenet of Jewish culture included the pursuit of social justice and care for the world. The concept has a name in Hebrew–Tikkun Olam—literally “repair of the world.”

During my time in the IDF, I had occasion to serve on the West Bank to protect Palestinian residents from potential reprisals by right-wing Jewish settlers in Hebron following a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) massacre of six of the settlers. The fear was that the settlers would go on the rampage—launching a pogrom. This was the word that was used—and one would have to be immune to irony not to be shaken by the implications.

If Democrats here oppose anti-immigrant policies and the vilification of women and minorities—-why do they characterize as “anti-Israel” or “anti-semitic” almost anyone who questions the ongoing expropriation of Palestinian land and the de facto apartheid that characterizes substantial segments of Israeli society? I mean this question rhetorically–clearly, the answer is that Democrats fear that this issue will be exploited—as it has—by Republicans for political advantage.

A further irony is that Republicans—the party of untrammeled private property rights–have no problem with the massive violation of property rights entailed in Israeli expropriation of Palestinian land.

It is true that Israel has a population of non-Jewish citizen Arabs who have the same rights as other Israelis. But there is a growing, entirely disenfranchised population of non-Jewish inhabitants under occupation, who have little hope and few opportunities. The criticism of Netanyahu’s aggressive settlement building, which can occur only by taking land from Palestinians, is no more a criticism of Israel’s right to exist then is criticism of Trump’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents if they enter the U.S. without documentation a criticism of Americans’ right to exist in peace and harmony.

I am not naive enough to be surprised that rational, reasonable, ethical criticism of Israeli policies has been weaponized by the Right. But the idea that massive land expropriation and continued oppression of a disenfranchised population of nearly 4 million Palestinians are worthy of serious criticism should not be a matter of debate. An indefinite occupation is eventually untenable—and should the Israeli government officially annex the territories without granting full citizenship status to its inhabitants, the situation will become increasingly intolerable for Palestinians. Israelis may be able to continue to crush dissent by periodic attacks on guerrilla enclaves that exist in civilian areas, leading inevitably to more and more civilian deaths—and for most Jewish Israelis, numb to the perpetual conflict, life will go on. But it will continue to corrode the beating heart of Israeli society.

When I was serving, I remember passing through the teeming, squalid refugee camps on the Gaza strip—and initially being shocked at the conditions. Rudimentary public health has been destroyed—to the extent that safe drinking water is virtually non-existent. An article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that 97 percent of Gaza drinking water is contaminated by sewage and salt. Restrictions on the movement of staple food items have led to breadlines. Yet almost never are such issues raised by either Democrats or Republicans, and they receive little—and transient–coverage by major U.S. media.

Bread lines in Gaza (photography by Al Jazeera English, Wikimedia Commons)

The continued occupation has already damaged the soul of the Israeli nation, which, on its founding, set the goal of being “a light unto the nations.” It is no surprise that the corrupt Netanyahu regime has been credibly accused of trading influence for favorable news coverage, and of accepting bribes in exchange for political favors. Oppression and corruption invariably go hand-in-hand.

It is unfortunate that some extreme voices on the Left are, indeed, anti-semitic–Louis Farrakhan comes to mind–and it is true that their joining of antisemitism and criticism of Israel has tainted the conversation. But the existence of people who are both bigots and critics of Israeli policy should not delegitimize honest dialogue about what is going on in Israel—and the Right’s weaponization of reasonable criticism of Israeli policies should not be accepted without rebuttal.

A strong case can be made that opposing land expropriation and ongoing conflict is ultimately the best policy for both Jewish Israelis and the occupied Palestinian population. Having lived in Israel for three years, it is not hard to imagine how the symbiotic energies of these two peoples could result in an explosion of innovation in agriculture, energy production, and technology. It is impossible to overstate the way in which a continual state of low-level conflict has drained energy from the creative potential of both Israelis and Palestinians. I am certain that a real resolution with a compromise on both sides, would be deeply disappointing to those who are truly anti-semitic and anti-Israel. It would, indeed, be the best revenge.

Engineers Human and Otherwise, and Walls of Extinction

Last week I hiked out at Black Marsh, a remarkable suburban ecosystem a few miles north of Baltimore on the Chesapeake Bay. On my way back to the parking lot, I heard a loud splash and was delighted to see a beaver near his impressive lodge.

He was joined a minute later by his mate, and they swam around, bumped noses, splashed, and generally made themselves known. Other than humans, beavers are arguably nature’s most striking engineers, and at Black Marsh, as in other aquatic ecosystems, are integral to the health of the marsh community.

An engineer splashes and glides past his lodge at Black Marsh in Baltimore County in early February 2019

Unlike beavers, human engineers often alter the environment in ways that harm all other living things. When Trump first pitched his anti-immigrant wall along the Mexican border, there were a number of articles highlighting how walls fragment and divide critical ecosystems. But these discussions have faded–although the peril posed by walls in sensitive habitats has not. This blog is a tap on the shoulder as we think about the wall going forward. Below is a sampling of what has been written about walls and ecosystems.

In a December 6, 2018 article for Scientific American, Margaret Wilder began simply–“Nature is fluid–walls are not.” She points out that in July 2018, more than 2500 scientists signed a letter opposing the waiver of federal and state environmental laws to build the wall. The letter states that “the wall threatens some of the continent’s most biologically diverse regions…”

Humans benefit from ecosystems not only for their intrinsic beauty and capacity to connect us to something larger than ourselves and the human-engineered environment, but because they also provide recreational and employment opportunities for people living in biologically diverse environments.

Jaguars are among the large mammals that could be driven to extinction by Trump’s proposed border wall (photo by C. Burnett, Wikimedia Commons)

In November 2018, more than 170 conservation groups sent a letter highlighting the vast destruction of wildlife and ecosystems that would be caused by the wall. After commenting on the major conservation areas that would be sundered by the wall–the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and National Butterfly Center, Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area–and declaring their “steadfast opposition to the damage a border wall across these and other parts of Texas would cause to birds, other wildlife and their habitats,” the authors point out the major negative economic impact it would render.

These nature preserves provide essential economic activity in Texas. According to a 2011 Texas A&M University study, nature tourism—primarily birding—contributes $463 million annually to the local economy. Located near several birding hotspots, the Alamo Inn B&B, for example, hosts more than 1,200 visitors a year. “Ninety-five percent of our guests are birders,” says innkeeper and guide Keith Hackland, who adds that his bird-watching visitors so far have come from 40 different countries and every U.S. state.

While the wall debate has lately focused solely on the way in which it symbolizes human division and intolerance, the disastrous impact that it would have on wildlife is being ignored. Human activities invariably have consequences on other living things—but in this case, the consequences would be immediate and far-reaching. It may be possible to undo much of the harm to humans that Trump’s misguided anti-immigrant policies have already had. But the building of miles of a tall, impenetrable barrier would cause irreversible harm to myriad non-human species and pose a real risk of driving many to extinction. In an article titled “Border Wall Will Deliver a Huge Blow to Biodiversity,” Sukanya Charuchandra, writing in The Scientist, reports that “more than 1500 species of flora and fauna will be at risk of extinction if a continuous U.S.-Mexico border wall is built.” The article quotes Jennifer Miller, a scientist at Defenders of Wildlife: “Debates about the border wall typically focus on immigration, economics, and national security, but the harm to Americans’ natural heritage is an outcome rarely discussed.”

Mexican Grey Wolf pup (Wikimedia Commons, author unknown)

An extended wall along the U.S.-Mexican border would adversely affect numerous threatened and endangered species, including jaguars, Mexican grey wolves, and some dwindling species of butterflies, according to a report from the Center for Biological Diversity titled “A Wall in the Wild: The Disastrous Impacts of Trump’s Border Wall on Wildlife.” Wilder notes that a wall would block large mammals from water, food, and mates, and that “25 species, among them the Peninsular bighorn sheep and the desert pupfish, will find their living habitats degraded and destroyed on over 2 million acres within 50 miles of the border. Based on actual findings from the nearly 800 miles of border fence that already exist, we know that it isolates in Mexico some birds who can’t fly over it, including the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl and many others. At a minimum, alternative designs should be seriously considered to include “virtual” walls of sensors and wildlife crossings.

The Ferruginous pygmy owl would be seriously impacted by Trump’s proposed border wall (photo by Dominic Sherony, Wikimedia Commons)

In an article titled “Up Against the Wall,” the National Wildlife Federation lays out the damage the wall would cause and features a striking photograph of javelinas blocked by an existing border wall on the U.S.-Mexico border near the San Pedro River in southeastern Arizona.

During World War II—decades before the Endangered Species Act was envisioned– there was an opportunity to save one of the most magnificent and legendary birds of North America. But despite the efforts of the National Audubon Society and a young graduate student from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology named James Tanner, the last remaining site known to have a significant population of Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers was sold to a logging company that then used German prisoners of war to clear cut the tract, driving the birds to extinction. An article from Audubon titled “The Long Goodbye” notes that the lumber was used to build boxes used to ship tea to British soldiers.

Ivory Billed Woodpecker (John James Audubon, public domain)

One could argue that when the last vestiges of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker were driven to extinction in 1941 we didn’t know better–and while that argument provides no comfort it holds some truth. Now, however, there is no excuse. We do know better. And yet the pleas of conservationists who can help us find a better way to enhance border security without desecrating Creation are–ironically–voices in the Wilderness.

Love and My Grandmother’s Mustache

It is almost Valentine’s Day, and media—new and old—are replete with discussions of love—by which they mean romantic love—certainly the least coherent form. But it makes for good popular music, movies and other tale-spinning, and is almost always the featured version.

My maternal grandmother Sadie Lockman when she was about 90 years old

After my grandpa Sam died, my grandmother Sadie moved to a small walk-up apartment in Baltimore where she lived until she was 89 years old. She then decided that she should move to a place where, should she become less able to get around, she would not have to move again. That move alone says a great deal about her character—how many older people have the clarity and determination to preemptively move before they have to? Rather than clinging to the past, Sadie, clear-eyed and courageous, accepted the future and acted.

After grandpa’s death, Sadie decided she would learn how to invest the very small life insurance payment she had received. This was before the era of mutual funds, and Sadie soon became a regular fixture at a local brokerage firm—and proceeded to methodically invest and build substantial savings. She was able to support herself to her dying day—and was proud that she had taken almost nothing and built financial security.

Sadie was known and, I think, loved, by the brokers at this firm. I will never forget that one time I got lost after visiting Sadie in Baltimore and pulled over at a phone booth (there were no cell phones then) to call her to see if she could direct me to the interstate. She told me to hold on, called her broker, and then had me call him for directions!

I am now 66 years old, and over time have been increasingly struck by how quiet gestures speak volumes about love. As anyone who has had an elderly grandmother knows, it is very common, due to hormonal changes in aging, for old ladies to develop a noticeable mustache. And as Sadie got older, she did develop a mustache. When my mother, Charlotte, noticed this, she embarked on a ritual mustache waxing whenever the hair became noticeable. There was something touching and lovely about this small gesture—a way of helping my grandmother retain her dignity and beauty in the sunset of her life.

It is the small gestures that we take with our friends and loved ones–and in this I include both our human and non-human loved ones–that far outweigh the transient gestures of romantic love. As anyone who has experienced romance knows, the romantic phase invariably fades—and if the relationship does not evolve into one of companionship and appreciation, it does not endure.

When my mom got older and had to move into assisted living, it was my sister Jackie who often helped mom shower, and if necessary, undertook the intimate process of helping her clean herself. I remember being grateful that I had a sister—and one who did this without complaint whenever she was there and saw that it needed to be done.

The next time you are pondering the meaning of love—and you will be inundated with stories and reflections on love in coming days–think about a daughter lovingly waxing her mother’s mustache, or helping her elderly mother shower.

What My Time in the Israeli Army Taught Me About Walls

It has become a popular “what-about-ism” to point to the Israeli wall separating parts of Israel from the West Bank and Gaza as justification for a similar barrier to be built on the U.S.-Mexico border by the Trump administration. There are a lot of problems with this comparison, but I will start from my own experience serving as an infantryman in the Israeli Army from 1978-1981.

Israel’s Wall (photo by Justin McIntosh via Wikimedia Commons)

While I was serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), I came across various barriers, but the one I saw along the Israel-Lebanon border was designed with two barbed wire fences separated by a wide area of raked ground. I do not recall if the fence was electrified, but the primary deterrent was that in order to cross from South Lebanon (I was stationed in Metula much of the time) into Israel it was necessary to cross the raked dirt–which would leave footprints. A jeep patrolled and re-raked the area constantly. There were also sentries at various points. The setup was low tech—but effective.

Keep in mind that this was to deter those who wanted to infiltrate Israel to KILL people–not to find a job and make a better life for their families. The new Israeli wall, while surely effective, is primarily a political statement and a symbol—presumably it would demarcate the limits of any Palestinian state or autonomous area. It is a “fact on the ground.”

In this sense, the Israeli wall has something in common with Trump’s proposed wall—one is as much a symbol as a security barrier, while the proposed U.S.-Mexico wall would be primarily a symbol. Like the actual Israeli wall, the proposed U.S. wall would separate communities and interfere with commerce. And like the Israeli wall, it would be an ugly monstrosity and would interfere with ecosystems that are organically connected.

Often in the Trump era I find myself writing about things that seem absurdly obvious. Is there anyone who really believes that the Israeli security situation (regardless of what one may think about Israeli policies towards its Palestinian population) is analogous to the situation on our southwest border? If such is the case, it is probably impossible to persuade them that the costs of a wall here far outweigh any potential benefits.

U.S.-Mexico Border Fence in El Paso, Texas (photo office of Rep. Phil Gingrey, U.S. Congress)

That said, the use of fencing, as well as drones and additional border patrol officers is a reasonable part of any solution to the influx of people seeking better lives in the United States. In addition—and is this not obvious?—we need more judges and administrators to help give people an expeditious means of having their asylum applications heard and adjudicated. The criteria that should be used in evaluating asylum requests is a different topic for another day. But I tend to see things through a lens that reminds me that “there but for the grace of God go I.”