My first full season of feeding and watching hummingbirds is coming to an end. I thought I would get tired of cleaning out feeders on a regular basis, but, no, all I did was add a couple of more feeders. I’m not enough of an expert to be able to give an accurate count, but I did have at least two adult males on a regular basis and probably a couple of females. In the middle of the season, several more hummingbirds began to come regularly. At least three of them are juvenile males making me assume the females had a successful season with hatching and bringing out their young. It will be interesting next year to see how many of these males show up to stake out their territory.
Any time I interact with nature–whether through observation or studying the life cycles of plants, birds, or animals–I am reminded anew of God’s majestic, artistic creation and His unmatched imagination in creating both the hummingbird and the woodpecker; the whale and the seal; the butterfly and the daylily.
“Some people, in order to find God, will read a book. But there is a great book, the book of created nature. Look carefully at it top and bottom, observe it, read it. God did not make letters of ink for you to recognize him in; he set before your eyes all these things he has made. Why look for a louder voice?” Augustine of Hippo
For anyone who innocently believes you can just call a flock of birds a “flock of birds,” I’m here to enlighten you. All birds are not alike and neither are their group names. Some of these names are as charming as some minor league baseball team names (looking at you Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp) and others are, well, for the birds. (Sorry!)
So, how did these different names come about and why? Isn’t enough to know those are robins gathered round? Or do we need to know they are actually a ’round of robins’? (Though others state it is a ‘worm of robins’.)
As with many odd questions that pop in my mind, this is one that led me down a few rabbit trails, but, fortunately, others have already been down those trails and have done the necessary research to discover the origin of these terms, most notably James Lipton in his book, An Exaltation of Larks.
First, these are called “terms of venery” or “nouns of assembly” and these collective nouns don’t just pertain to birds but also animals and groups of people.
In the late Middle Ages, inventing animal group names started as a game, soon became a fad, and turned into a challenge which lasted a couple of centuries. (Please remember there were no entertaining blogs such as this one to read in those days).
As James Lipton put it in An Exaltation of Larks, “What we have in these terms is clearly the end result of a game that amateur philologists have been playing for over 500 years.”
To organize these terms and to make them more official, they were gathered together and published in works that the upper classes used to make sure they did not embarass themselves by using the wrong terms. (For example, it was considered bad form to call a “scurry of squirrels” a “bunch of squirrels”).The first of these was The Egerton Manuscript published in 1450.
“The terms were codified during the period when the river of words was approaching its greatest breadth, beginning in about 1450 with The Egerton Manuscript.” (Lipton)
Then came the The Book of St. Albans (also known as The Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Blasing of Arms) published in 1486 and containing 164 terms. Many of these terms were not for animals but groups of people and were meant to be humorous (“a sentence of judges”, “a melody of harpers,” “a gagle of women”). However, the book’s popularity caused them to become part of the Standard English lexicon.
But I digress. Back to the birds. Here are a few examples:
Group of hummingbirds: Charm (Not sure where this could have come from. The only groups, sorry, charms of hummingbirds I see are chasing each other wildly in what seems to be a pretty selfish defending of territory).
Woodpeckers: descent (Some say this is because they start at the top of a tree and come down, but I have definitely seen them ascend as well as descend).
chickadees: banditry (This is seems oddly appropriate).
cardinals: college, deck, Vatican (Several choices here. I prefer a “Vatican of cardinals.”)
finches: charm, trembling
doves: cote, dole, dule, bevy, flight, and piteousness (We always call the ones at our feeder “the drama queens”).
Ducks: Ducks on the water are called a “paddling” or a “raft.” (Mallards have their own terms and as the different writers seem to disagree on this, I will not distinguish between the different types of ducks. This has become confusing enough as it is).
Flamingoes: flamboyance. A flamboyance of flamingoes. This is not easy to say (or spell). Go ahead. Try it a few times.
Owls: parliament (I would love to see a parliament of owls but I don’t really think they hang out together too much).
Crows: murder (This may be a bit unjust but still amusing).
Grackles: plague (We have definitely been plagued with these at our bird feeders).
But what if you see a group of birds that are a mixed bag of bird types? Is there a correct nomenclature for that? Perhaps “bunch of birds” would do just fine in such cases.
As I mentioned, the naming of groups of birds is only one part of these fascinating collections or terms of venery. We also have a month of Sundays, a mountain of debt, a rash of dermatologists, a cackle of hyenas, a mass of priests, and (one of my personal favorites) a prophet ( or profit) of televangelists.
So, if you want to make sure you are calling all groups by their proper term of venery, check out Lipton’s book though you may be accused of telling a pack of lies if you try to open such a can of worms.
Upon my daughter’s recommendation I read In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park. a memoir by a girl who fled communist North Korea to China and eventually made it to South Korea.
‘I am most grateful for two things: that I was born in North Korea, and that I escaped from North Korea.’
Yeonmi Park had no understanding of freedom or what it would be like to live somewhere where you had choices and could make decisions. She grew up being told what to do, what to think, and that their “beloved leader” was not only a political leader but their god. However, in spite of her family’s firm belief in their leader, starvation and the hope that life was better across the river (in China) led Yeonmi and her mother to escape their country, following her sister who had left earlier.
Unfortunately, though there was food in China, it was not quite the promised land they had hoped to find. Sex trafficking was rampant and left the two without many options. Still, with grit and determination, Park and her mother found ways to survive and eventually make their way to true freedom.
Park has since come to the U.S. and has become a leading human rights activist. If you want to hear more of Park’s story, there are several places to hear her on YouTube.
The Last Exiles is a work of fiction and could be considered a companion book to In Order to Live. Suja, a young journalist from an important family, meets Jin at the university in Pyongyang, and they fall in love. Though Suja realizes Jin is from a small village, she does not realize the depth of poverty and hunger his family (and others) face there.
When Jin is arrested and taken to prison, Suja is confused, sure there has been some mistake. When she hears of his escape, she determines to find a way out of North Korea to go and look for Jin.
Both of these books tell a grim story of life in North Korea, a life hard to imagine for those of us who live in freedom.
Have you ever thought about the conversations between Jesus and Satan when Jesus was living in a physical body on this earth? We get some hints of what this may have been like from the book of Job where a conversation between God and Satan is recorded, but other than knowing that Jesus was indeed tempted, we don’t have much to go on. Some years ago, I wrote an epic tale of the Christ and his struggle with his Adversary, Satan. And, yes, I used The Odyssey as a model for my format (not the content). Divided into “Books” (the first being an introduction) the second Book is entitled The Wilderness Temptations. Here is an excerpt which I hope you will both enjoy and will provoke some thought concerning the Christ and his earthly life.
The First Temptation
On that forty-first day, the God-Man woke
to hunger pangs and discovered his body
had become weak from that month-plus trial.
As his eyes focused to face the day,
he saw his Adversary standing at
his feet, smiling a crooked smile and shining
bright as the desert sun. “Good morning,
old friend,” he said. “Surprised to see me? But
didn’t I promise to come back? You will
find that I, unlike some others, keep all
my promises and will never forget
you or leave you for too long, for I am
concerned about you and how you’re spending
your life and squandering your potential.
I suppose with all this time to think and
consider, you’ve come to realize that you
could not possibly be the Son of God?
Since I am the one who has come to check
on you and see if your needs are being
met, it is obvious,” and his eyes swept
the horizon and the God-Man’s surroundings
and came back with a look of distaste, “that
your Heavenly Father,” and he spat the
two words out, “has not been by or if He has,”
and he smiled a sinister smile, “He has
done nothing to secure your belief that
you are His Son, has He?” Unperturbed, the
God-Man rose to his feet and answered, “Quite the
contrary. He has been here in many
wonderful ways–ways you could never see
or understand–and He has only confirmed
my belief and my profession that I Am
His Son and His Chosen.” Satan attempted
to mask the furious anger that welled up
within him with a strained smile which truly
appeared as a grimace. Then with eyes ablaze,
he said in a voice dipped in honey,
“Of course, you are. Whoever said you weren’t?
But, tell me, have you had breakfast yet?” As
if in answer, the God-Man’s fleshly insides
began to grumble, bringing delight to
his Antagonist though he tried to cover
this with a false look of concern and
pity as he waited for an answer. “No,
there’s been no breakfast here. Only rocks and
dust, as you can see.” And Satan nodded as
if in sympathy but then he appeared
to have an idea and said with great
enthusiasm, “But you are the Son
of God, remember? If you are the Son
of God, you should have no problem coming
up with a substantial meal and then we
can talk over some business.” Eyebrow arched,
the God-Man gazed at his rival and said,
“I was not aware we had any business
to discuss.” And Satan again smiled that
patient smile. “Of course, but how can you think
on an empty stomach? An empty
stomach causes the head to be light and
the heart to be weak. Come, you say you are
the Son of God, let us see you come up
with some breakfast. The Son of God shouldn’t
be out here in this wilderness where the
wild beasts are quite well-fed, yet here he is,
his guts crying out in torment, as he
stands by, as if helpless. You say you
are the Son of God but for thirty years
you have lived in practical poverty
submitting yourself to the surroundings
into which you have been thrust and now you bow
to the elements. To the things which you,
yourself, claim to have created. How can
you possibly allow yourself to be
subdued by the works of your own hands? Come,
if you are the Son of God, tell these stones
here to become bread for your breakfast. They
will be glad to be of service to their
Master, for isn’t that why they were formed?
To serve their Master and obey his commands?
In fact, I daresay that your creation
has been watching you in wonder and has
been speculating as to why you have
not called on them earlier. Can you not
see their eagerness to serve you? Come, Son
of God, call on them; exercise your power
and authority. You say God has now
anointed you to be King, so be King.
Prepare your breakfast so we can discuss
deeper matters.” Folding his arms, Satan
stood back and waited, his impatience
obvious, but the God-Man refused to
make a hasty decision knowing well
this was not as simple a matter as
his Adversary portrayed it. He
also knew the power he possessed had
been given to him by his Father, so
consideration of his Father’s will
must be made. But he was hungry and his
insides churned once more as if to remind
him of his responsibility to
them, too. He gazed on the stones and easily
imagined them as loaves and could almost
smell them baking in the sun and taste
their flaky crusts and their soft middle–
He shook his head to clear his thoughts. His
Adversary watched him intently, though
he tried to appear both nonchalant
and impatient. Impatient as in:
‘This is no big deal, you know, get on
with it.’ And nonchalant as in: ‘But then
again, it is no matter to me, one
way or the other.’ A faint smile played on
the God-Man’s lips as he read all this in
his Opponent’s face which caused that angel
to simmer. He managed to keep his
temper in check and gazed calmly back at
his prey as he waited for an answer,
a decision to be made. Then Satan recalled
another king he had tempted, that first
king of Israel whom he convinced that
waiting for God’s provisions and living
strictly by His rules was not only
unnecessary but also senseless
when you could take care of the matter
yourself. So, Israel’s first king bent the rules
of a God of no compromise–not once
but twice–and he who was to be a
great king and leader was instead a
failure and died a scorned and rejected
king and man. Satan knew he did not need
to lead this present and final king
to compromise more than once for once
would be enough. Now he almost became
excited before the deed was done, smelling
the sweet smell of such a victory, and he
trembled but caught himself when he saw the
curious look from his prey. “Come on,”
he snapped. “What’s taking you so long? You act as
if you faced a monumental decision.
I only want you to eat, so we can talk.
Sustain yourself, my friend,” he added
more gently, his words becoming
like honey at his command, causing
the God-Man to once more remember his
hunger. Again, he looked at the stones, but
this time they brought to mind days of old,
and he saw the children of Israel
led into a similar desert and
led into a similar temptation
to be taught . . . what? Obedience. Yes, that
was it–obedience. Now he recalled
they had failed their test and he reflected
on why. He remembered their grumbling
and identified their discontent as
an expression of their lack of trust
and confidence in God as their provider.
Knowing himself to be the new Israel,
he realized if he treated himself to
breakfast (as his Adversary had so
artfully suggested), he would be
expressing the same lack of confidence.
So, summoning up the Scriptures in his mind,
he recalled God’s word on it all: ‘Remember
how the Lord your God led you all the way
in the desert these forty years, to humble
you and to test you in order to know
what was in your heart, whether or not you
would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing
you to hunger and then feeding you with
manna, which neither you nor your fathers
had known, to teach you that–‘ and he stopped and
smiled as the answer was there and the
clarity in his mind shone on his face,
and Satan inwardly recoiled as he
caught a whiff of the air of defeat.
But stiffly he waited and then it came
as in a clear and steady voice the God-Man
said in his new-found strength, “It is written:
‘Man does not live on bread alone but on
every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.'”
I read two books from Mexico in the past few weeks for the #readtheworld21 challenge, but I am only going to review one here (I did write about both on Goodreads). The first one I enjoyed; the second I wanted to throw against the wall when I finished. I refrain from reviewing books I don’t like because I’m not interested in reading reviews of books not recommended by the reviewer. I find that a waste of time. This book has been popular and even made into a movie, so I’m doing it no harm in not recommending it.
Now on to my recommended read.
The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea is a story of legend combing historical fiction and magical realism. Urrea heard stories of his ancestor, Teresita Urrea, while growing up; the fantastical stories of her life and miracles. How much was true and how much legend, he set out to discover and spent some twenty years researching and writing her story.
Teresita was the illegitimate daughter of a young girl called Hummingbird and wealthy rancher, Tomas Urrea, during the late nineteenth century in Mexico, a time of unrest and the beginnings of a civil war. Abandoned by her mother, Teresita brought herself to the attention of Urrea and Huila, a curandero. Seeing Teresita’s gifts and potential, Huila teaches Teresita of herbs and healing and promises to help her cultivate her gifts. What leads to Teresita becoming the Saint of Cabora is told in dramatic fashion. Don’t be like me and miss the family tree in the front of the book until you’ve almost finished the book. I would have find this more helpful at the beginning when I was trying to keep names straight but somehow overlooked it.
In lieu of the book, I can’t recommend, let me do a repeat and make a case for one that was on my favorites’ list of 2020–The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia, translated by Simon Bruni. Another story of magical realism and family, the tale begins when Nana Reja finds an abandoned baby under a bridge, covered in a blanket of bees. Though some are horrified both by the bees and the baby’s disfigured face, Simonopio is adopted by landowners who love him as their own. Simonopio soon becomes special, not only to his family but to the whole town. This one is also historical fiction taking place during the Mexican Revolution as well as the influenza of 1918.
I’m sure there are many books about and from Mexico that I need to add to my TBR. If you have any suggestions, please share!
Much has been written about the hobbies people have started while in quarantine– everything from raising chickens to baking to bringing home a new puppy. Few of these hobbies are anything new and maybe some of us would have started them at some point in our lives anyway. We just needed a nudge to make us use our imaginations That many people will continue with these hobbies–finding a new joy or way of entertainment that doesn’t involve a screen–is one of the pluses of being forced to entertain ourselves. Much like when our parents told us to go outside and play, we found we could actually find something new thing to do without someone giving us a script.
Whether because of the enforced quarantine or because my kids are mostly grown and out of the house, I have been baking more (with some success and not a few disasters), and also have picked up birdwatching as a daily obsession. Last summer I bought a pair of binoculars and a North Carolina birdbook and began observing more closely all those feathered creatures around me. I could recognize a robin and a cardinal; knew the difference between a bluebird and a bluejay; but who knew there were several types of woodpeckers living nearby? And why had I never seen a goldfinch (which according to my birdbook is fairly common)? How could I have missed such a bright yellow color?
Besides gazing with my binoculars and snapping some pictures, I’ve also been enjoying a few books (of course!) concerning birdwatching. I recently finished A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson, a charming work of fiction that had me googling different birds (in Kenya) as two men had a contest on who could identify the most birds in a certain period. The winner would be able to ask a certain lady to a dance. I’m now reading a memoir, Field Notes From an Unintentional Birder by Julia Zarankin. Long before Covid, Zarankin discovered birdwatching in the midst of some other life-changing events. Though at first reluctant to align herself with this strange group of people who all seem to wear shirts decorated with birds as well as multi-pocketed vests and have an abnormal interest in the various optics of binoculars, Zarankin soon enough found herself enthralled with learning about the birds around her and what they could teach her about herself and her own migratory habits.
In my own backyard, we have several trees, but there is also an empty lot next door, our own little forest. But, as progress would have it, the lot has been sold and now trees are coming down. Trees which surely house some of these birds I’ve been watching and feeding. Yes, I know. I’m living in a house on land that also once held a small forest, and I go to stores where a forest along with its birds and other animals used to live, so I’m trying not to be hypocritical here. But I have learned a few things both in my birdwatching and hearing the crunch and crash of trees. I’m learning to be more observant of my surroundings and more aware of the details in God’s creation. After all, they’re not my birds or trees; they are His.
I’ve also enjoyed observing the response of these birds as parts of their world comes crashing in. At first, they were quiet and out of sight, but soon, even with a bulldozer ramming its way through, they continue to come to the feeders; first the courageous chickadees and titmice, followed by the downy woodpeckers and then even the hummingbirds. A chickadee even put up a vocal protest, chirping above the crunching of branches before he grabbed his share of seeds and flew off.
So, post quarantine, I will continue to watch and observe the birds around me, and I will even try another new baking project.
“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Jesus in Matthew 6:26-27)
In February, #readtheworld21 took me to southeast Africa which includes several countries. The countries I read from were Kenya, South Africa, and Ethiopia.
First published in 1959, The Flame Trees of Thika is a memoir by Elspeth Huxley who moved to Kenya in 1913 with her parents. Huxley’s unusual childhood with her optimistic and idealistic parents is described with the eyes of a child though also with the benefit of an adult’s hindsight. Her parents’ attempts to make a go of a coffee farm was interrupted by war with Germany, but before that Elspeth grew to love the country and it became her home. She learns about the different groups of people–their customs and bits of their history–and makes friends as a child in an adult world. Huxley’s beautiful descriptions of this country, its people, and the nature surrounding them made this a classic book.
“. . . when the present stung her, she sought her antidote in the future, which was as sure to hold achievement as the dying flower to hold the fruit when its petals wither.”
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah is another memoir. Noah was born during Apartheid in South Africa. Having a white father and a black mother made his existence a crime, hence the name. I listened to Noah read the audio and found it an excellent read. I had heard this was pretty funny (he is a comedian by trade), and there is humor (I love the way he mimics his mother and grandmother), but the story is much more than humor. It is about growing up poor in a country undergoing growing pains of its own. It’s about the fierce love of a mother who works hard and does not put up with anything including Noah’s many antics.
“My mom did what school didn’t. She taught me how to think.”
“Comfort can be dangerous. Comfort provides a floor but also a ceiling.”
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is one of those books where you become invested in the characters, their lives and how they interact with each other and to their surroundings. I loved everything about this book which takes place in Ethiopia during a time of unrest and revolution. The story begins in 1954 when twin boys are born in a missionary hospital (known as Missing) to a British surgeon father and a mother who is a nun and a nurse from India. Their mother dies and their father disappears but the boys (Marion and Shiva) are raised in love by two other doctors and they both become fascinated with medicine. When Marion is betrayed by both his brother and the girl he loves and then is accused of a terrorist act, he flees to America where he studies medicine but also runs into his biological father. Not someone he had ever wanted to meet but life does not always take you where you want to go.
“You are an instrument of God. Don’t leave the instrument sitting in its case, my son. Play! Leave no part of your instrument unexplored. Why settle for ‘Three Blind Mice’ when you can play the ‘Gloria’? No, not Bach’s ‘Gloria.’ Yours! Your ‘Gloria’ lives within you. The greatest sin is not finding it, ignoring what God made possible in you.”
On deck: The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia) and A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson (Kenya).
Though traveling is at a minimum these days, traveling through books is still a great way to view and learn of other cultures. This year I’ve been making a conscious effort to read books around the world by jumping into the #readtheworld21 challenge.
January was #JanuaryinJapan. I’ve read three books from Japan and have several more on my TBR. In fact, at this point, I could have just made the whole year “reading in Japan.” However, I have been trying to keep up with the other months as well, which I will discuss in future posts.
For Japan, I’ve read Before the Coffee Gets Cold, The Housekeeper and the Professor, and The Great Passage.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi takes place in a cafe where if you sit in a certain chair, you can go back in time to a certain time of your choosing. You will be poured a cup of coffee before you leave and you must come back before the coffee gets cold. Also, you must understand that you can change nothing. So, why go back? Four different people with four different reasons take the challenge to see someone one more time even if nothing can be changed by it.
“I was so absorbed in the things that I couldn’t change, I forgot the most important thing.”
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa is a small but beautiful book of how a housekeeper and her son care for a mathematics professor whose memory has been impaired by an accident. After eighty minutes, his mind “refreshes,” so every day the housekeeper has to reintroduce herself to the professor who always asked her for her birthday and tells her the importance of that number. Though he keeps sticky notes on his jacket to remind him of important facts (like the name of his housekeeper), it is a constant challenge to both of them. The professor becomes very fond of the housekeeper’s son, calling him “Root” because his flat head reminds him of a square root. They both love baseball, so there’s the added bonus of reading about baseball as well as prime numbers.
“he seemed convinced that children’s questions were much more important than those of an adult. He preferred smart questions to smart answers.”
In The Great Passage, Araki has been working on a new dictionary (not for the faint of heart!) and is about to retire, so when he hears about the odd man in sales who sounds like the perfect man to help him continue his project, he snatches him up. Majime, who never seems to fit in with his love for antiquarian books and his linguistic background, finds that working on a dictionary is exactly where he needs to be.
You will not be bogged down with the details of making a dictionary though there are some interesting insights into what goes into tracking down words and their meanings. And what if you leave out a word? Disaster is always just around the corner. But it’s the characters, their relationships, and how they come together in spite of their differences that make this an enjoyable story.
“Any dictionary, no matter how well made, was destined to go out of date. Words were living things.”
“Reading the dictionary could awaken you to new meanings of commongly used words, meanings of surprising breadth and depth.”
This is just a small slice of Japanese literature. What these three books have in common (besides their Japanese culture) are their quirky and charming characters who are going about every day tasks and learning more about themselves as well as others.
On deck: A Midsummer’s Equation by Keigo Higashino and Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami.
Any suggestions? What parts of the world would you like to travel to?