Monday, April 29, 2013

Snakes of the Florida Scrub - Yellow Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta)

Found a nice yellow rat snake this evening while on a run. These guys are nice, easy to handle, and a beautiful yellow color.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Beautiful Burano, Italy

Burano is a beautiful island and I highly recommend it as a day trip from Venice. Burano is a sunny,  romantic alternative. A short vaporetto ride away, there are plenty of day tourists that visit Burano, but it doesn't take long to find colorful backroads all to yourself.

Burano's buildings are brightly painted

And of course, Burano has canals.
And beautiful glass lanterns

And friendly residents

And the perfect ending to a sunny afternoon, gelato.


Saturday, April 20, 2013

Book Review: Cookie & Me by Mary Jane Ryals

by Mary Jane Ryals

It seems almost inevitable that Mary Jane Ryals' young adult book Cookie and Me is linked to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Most reviews make the connection. I myself wrote one for Amazon. After deeper consideration, I think it is a mistake. Even lazy.

Mockingbird is an adult mind reminiscing almost archetypally on innocence and justice.
Rayann (the "me" in Cookie and Me) is clearly an adolescent mind, old enough to start formulating her own opinions but still young enough not to be conquered by them. She isn't innocent because none of us are innocent. But she isn't jaded either. Rayann's voice is  lyrical and sophisticated. The setting and characters are evocative and rooted deeply in their place in history, 1960s Tallahassee. Rayann befriends Cookie, a young African-american girl, counter to all social expectations. From the very beginning, their friendship is founded on the compatibility of their personalities rather than the taboo. I think this is a brilliant tack. It elevates their friendship in the face of turmoil.

Rayann is a capable and sensitive protagonist, but she is also a product of the time. She doesn't have the kind of guidance to lead her and her best friend through the minefield their friendship represents, so this story is filled with teen-aged missteps, sadness, helplessness, and contradictions as well as moments of great beauty. Her life is complicated by her relationship with her father and ailing mother. The pure childlike joy in which Rayann pursues her friendship with Cookie is intoxicating. Like the faint smell of dinner after a long hike, it's promise propels Rayann forward through all of the personal and social obstacles.
Despite the specificity of the setting, the story has universal appeal. Befriending someone you are not "supposed to" and suffering the social consequences. These are themes that all teens flirt with if not embrace as they become adults.
Ryals is an accomplished poet. She made the transition to fiction with great skill. This is beautiful writing. The simplicity of childhood friendship reels, often dreamlike, in a swirling world of Florida nature, southern culture, and personal identity. The book ultimately is about how honesty and love suffers and survives. I recommend it highly.

Learn more about Mary Jane Ryals, including her wonderful poetry.

Book Review: Unlocked by Ryan G Van Cleave


Ryan G Van Cleave

Unlocked is an ambitious long-form poem addressing violence in our schools. I like ambitious writing, so I was immediately intrigued by Van Cleave's book. What will poetry contribute to this important social issue?
My first thought was that Unlocked would be an epic poem. Memories of Sir Gawain haunted my expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to see this book is divided into 1-2 page poems with chapter headings. I hesitate to call these lyrics because they are so dependent on each other. You won't see any of the chapters lifted from the book and published independently. So this is truly long-form. On the other hand, the chapters truly are chapters. Each new poem addresses a new thought, a new brick in the wall of the larger story. I found this accretive effect to be quite powerful.
Van Cleave's voice was a surprise as well. This is candid, straight-up storytelling from the perspective of a high school boy, Andy. Poetic leaps are subtle and sparse. What struck me about this voice was how wonderfully it captured a teen boy's mind. He relates to the world through video gaming and somewhat conventional metaphors. Poetry (with a capital "P") is achieved through the language of uncertainty, repetition, and the teenaged passion to belong yet be independent. Van Cleave wisely suppressed his own voice and gave it wholly to Andy. As a poet myself, I have to applaud Van Cleave's ability to do this. Effectively, he is letting a lesser poet (Andy) write his book. And I think that is why Unlocked succeeds.
The story itself follows Andy's growing relationship with Blake, another troubled teen. They bond through the seductive power of a secret gun.  Other characters abound: misfits, girls, parents, school officials, and bullies. But Andy's and Blake's relationship is what makes the book tick. Andy is completely seduced by the excitement and confidence that Blake's gun represents. The question is will the spell be broken before a tragedy happens? Ultimately, Unlocked is about power. Social power. Physical power. False power. What conveys it. Where does real power come from.
Unlocked belongs in the constellation of YA fiction dealing with school violence. You certainly don't have to be an experienced consumer of poetry to understand and enjoy this book. If read and taught thoughtfully, it brings a fresh approach to the conversation and it will reach readers not impressed by standard fiction.

Find out more about the author, Ryan G Van Cleave

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Eyed Click Beetle - Alaus oculatus

Alaus oculatus is one of two large click beetles in the Florida scrub. The other is Alaus myops which has smaller "eye spots." I'll be on the hunt for a myops to post so you can see the difference. Click beetles are cool because of their ability to snap their bodies into the air when they are flipped upside-down. It's a bit startling too, so I think it functions as a defensive maneuver as well as a way for them to right themselves. Why do you think this beetle has two huge spots on its thorax?
Alaus oculatus
Close up of the eyed click beetle's face
Close up of the modified scales on its body. Why do you think the beetle has these???
cool antenna shot

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Animals in Olivia Brophie and the Pearl of Tagelus - A class project for science teachers

One wonderful third-grade class in Oklahoma made these digital collages of animals they've read about in Olivia Brophie and the Pearl of Tagelus. The are on Chapter Three, so I can't wait to find out what they do with the tardigrades and anaspidea in later chapters! Great job guys!
For teachers: This is a great project to help kids work on animal identification. Not only do they have to investigate different pictures to find the most appropriate, but it opens up discussion on which pictures are correct and why. For example, not all of the coral snakes below are actually coral snakes. What a great opportunity to discuss how to identify America's most venomous snake. What characteristics do naturalists look at when they are identifying an animal? Shape, size, color, known range, behaviors, etc. One of the themes of Olivia Brophie is "seeing" as discovery. Recognizing the unique characteristics of a coral snake helps children start recognizing the variety in all snakes; just like once we learn a new word, we often start seeing that word all around us.

Read about Mrs. Schantz's class and some of their projects on their classroom blog:


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Gargoyles and Grotesqueries of Paris, France

Here are a few pictures of gargoyles and other stone grotesques I found in Paris and there-abouts. All of these photos were taken from ground-level. I didn't take the Notre Dame tower tour because of the long line, so I didn't get photos of those classic gargoyles looking out over the Paris skyline.

This odd thing is at the entrance to Sainte Chapelle in Paris

Interesting hairy caveman figure inside Abbey of Saint Germain des Pres in Paris 

Statue of Saint Anthony L'Eglise inside the Abbey of Saint Germain des Pres in Paris

Chimera on the Cathedral in Gallardon

Gargoyle on Chateau D'Esclimont

Now, on to Notre Dame. You may want to blow up these next three pictures of what I call "gargoyle nests" to see the individual sculptures.

I have yet to see how many gargoyles and grotesques are on Notre Dame. Someone out there must have counted them all. Here are a few: