{ Under The Bluegums }

A personal blog with craft tutorials, reviews of books, films, and music, parenting advice, and opinions on society and politics.

March 14, 2017

Is the Fight Against Rhino Poaching Futile?

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The plight of South Africa's rhinos is still a major point of interest in the country. It is heartbreaking that South Africa is responsible for the majority of Africa's rhinos, many having been hunted to extinction in other nations. This has largely been the result of quick action from the private and public sector in rescuing them. But despite this, it does not seem that South Africa is winning the battle against rhino poaching.

A heartbreaking story in the media recently was the attack of the Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage in northern KwaZulu-Natal in February. Five poachers cut the horns off two of the rhinos - who would soon have been returned to the wild - while they were still alive. They were mutilated to such an extent that one, Gugu, died and the other, Impi, had to be euthanised.  The staff at the orphanage were also brutalised, and while donations have flooded in for the orphanage, the story is very disheartening, especially if allegations of an inside job are to be believed.

There are happy stories. Aquila Private Game Reserve's Saving Private Rhino project welcomed its first rhino orphan just over a week ago. Now seven weeks old, the fiery little orphan's mom died from an infection on a farm in Mpumalanga and conservationist Divan Grobler took on the care of the rhino for the 17-hour drive down to the Western Cape, after spending 10 days gaining the baby's trust.

Grobler seems to be a bit of a celebrity after hand-rearing another abandoned calf, Osita, and along with 10-year-old Hunter Mitchell - who raised more than R100,000 to care for Osita - the pair make a formidable example of how normal people can make a difference in the world, especially for our beleaguered rhinos.

The orphanage at the Aquila Animal Rescue Centre is the first of its kind in the Western Cape and has the added benefits of being without snares, bush meat poachers, and opportunistic poachers with weapons coming from Mozambique that plague more northern reserves. Once the orphans are rehabilitated, there are plenty of safe reserves in the area who will certainly be willing to take them on.

I have to commend people who try against all odds to turn the tide of human destruction. Despite the obvious danger in caring for rhinos, there are people who will do anything they can to help, even risking their own lives.

But I can't help but wonder if all their hard work is futile?

Surely we need the support of government in the fight against poaching and eventual extinction. At the beginning of February, the Department of Environmental Affairs announced it would allow rhino horn to be traded domestically and a tourist visiting SA could export a maximum of two rhino horns for their own purposes. While private rhino owners are purportedly pleased with the move because they can be rid of their stockpiles of rhino horn, the Humane Society International/Africa's executive director Audrey Delsink did not agree it was the correct move, telling TimesLive the regulation would open loopholes for rhino horn laundering, and endorsement of legal rhino horn trading - "...which has significant enforcement challenges and poor capacity" - would only serve to create weak spots in our already holey system.

One company is working on creating a 3D-printed rhino horn that is based on the genetics of actual rhino horns. Although originally these 'fake' rhino horns would be available in powder form and in products as powder, it was decided that they would only be dispersed into the lifestyle goods market, such as for sculptures, chopsticks, and other decorative items. But will this stop the slow road to extinction for the rhino? Conservationists do not think so. Save the Rhino International said in a statement that it would neither reduce demand for the product nor dispel the fictions surrounding its use and would normalise the use of rhino horn. It also added that over 90% of rhino horns that were currently circulating the market were fake already, and this has not stopped poaching.

TRAFFIC, an organisation aimed at monitoring the wildlife trade, told traveller24 in 2016 that the sale of legal ivory stockpiles in 2008 actually increased the black market for the resource by 66%. Instead of curbing the slaughter of elephants, around 100,000 were killed between 2011 and 2014 because it was just that much more simple to sell 'illegal' ivory in the guise of 'legal' ivory. Of course, these kinds of loopholes are easily taken advantage of by the corrupt and corruptible.

It would appear that outwardly governments of both supply and demand countries are vehemently against wildlife and wildlife product trafficking, but neither is willing to accept their part in the issue. The supply country - South Africa for rhino horn - demands that the demand country - China or Vietnam - educate their populations on the myths of rhino horns' medicinal qualities, while the demand country expects the supply country to more seriously enforce law, capture perpetrators, and deal with the supply issue from the source. It is clear that this divided view is, however, not doing anything to help the wild animals who are the source of trafficked goods.

Certain African countries have made significant headway in the battle against animal trafficking, but this is because leadership is just as committed to protecting the resources as the rangers who are protecting the animals on a daily basis.

Perhaps this outright disrespect of animals, commodification of animals, ownership of animals comes from a more sinister place in the scheme of things: what if our spirit is declining along with the animals with whom we share this world? Imagine that everything was in balance - the fecundity of the planet and the proliferation of species was balanced in such a way that humanity could feel truly linked to the Mother Earth. And the more animals we kill - after all, we've lost 50% of the world's wildlife in the last 50 years - the less we feel like the caregivers of the world we were meant to be? We're losing that connection - can you imagine what it will be like when there is no one but us on Earth? It would be desert. Literally. Whatever the truth, it does not appear that any poachers are willing to stop, any customers are willing to stop buying, and hardly anyone at all is willing to look beyond their own selfish needs.

Further reading: 

Poaching Crisis in South Africa
WWF: Wildlife Trafficking report [PDF]
Two Nations Show Good News, Bad News for Africa's Elephants
Synthetic Rhino Horn: Will It Save the Rhino?
Can Fake Rhino Horn Stop the Poaching of a Species at Risk?

{Image credits:
Lead: By Yathin S Krishnappa - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
Second: By IkiwanerEdited by jjron - tilt correction - Own work, GFDL 1.2, Link}

March 11, 2017

Book Review || The Spirits Speak or (African Spirits Speak) by Nicky Arden

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It feels strange for me to have picked up this autobiography, "The Spirits Speak" (or "African Spirits Speak" as it was published later) by Nicky Arden, at a time when South Africa is once again in turmoil politically, especially as it was written around the time that we experienced the country's biggest political revolution. If there is one thing this book can teach us is that we are never too far from each other's cultures to learn about them, reconcile our differences, and learn to love each other.

Nicky Arden is among those white people who ran from the unrest in South Africa during apartheid, in 1966. She frequently refers to herself as a coward for doing so, for being unable to stay in the country of her birth and fight for the struggle in the way that many others had.
It is just that the world had forgotten them - those who were that other minority in the quilting of whites. There were those who opposed and fought; there were those who opposed and left; there were those who supported the Nationalist regime. But there were also those who, like me, did not have the courage to fight for their belief - and courage is what it took in those days of torment and unlimited detention - for whom, unlike me, Africa nevertheless remained home; who covered eyes, ears, and mouth in order to stay in a place they loved. This day [1994 elections] was for them, too, a reckoning. [244]
She and her husband return to South Africa after Nelson Mandela is released from prison and apartheid has been brought down; it is during this visit and a trek into the bush that she meets a sangoma who tells her she needs to study to be one, too.

Nicky's journey from here onwards is inspirational: she breaks so many boundaries and taboos on her journey to become what is traditionally seen as an African icon. However, this novel is not about her physical journey but her emotional one, one that takes her right into African culture, where she discovers that she, and all of us, have always been welcome would that we stopped being so afraid and proud.

This novel is about the potential for reconciliation, a gift that black people in South Africa were - with open arms - willing to give to the white people who had heretofore either taken an active part in oppressing them or a passive part by doing nothing to change it.
And what love and acceptance poured from those black Africans who called into the radio station; what forgiveness shone from their words. Would that country have ever reached this conciliation had they not carried in their hearts such true generosity of spirit? Not a word, not a sound, not a sigh of anger, of retribution, only delight and merciful inclusion. [244]
Through Nicky's little group of sangomas and thwasas (sangomas in training) she not only learnt how to love herself but to be loved by a culture that was all too willing to share its love with her, indeed they teach her how to love herself.

This novel left me somewhat melancholy and yearning for the vision of the reconciled South Africa that sparks hope in all its pages, a vision that has somewhat been battered by corruption and a lack of progress in the country's most important arenas.

However, Nicky Arden's story of her journey is highly recommended for those who feel out of touch with their cultural roots or who feel a yearning to learn something about someone but are too afraid to ask.

March 5, 2017

Book Review || The Ghost of Hannah Mendes by Naomi Ragen

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I really wanted to like Naomi Ragen's historical romance novel 'The Ghost of Hannah Mendes'. I really did. But I felt as if I was trapped in a Mills & Boon nightmare of tropes.

It starts off with the matriarch of a Jewish family, Catherine, discovering she has but months to live and regretting that she did not pass on her heritage as was her duty, both as the eldest and as the carrier of her family's traditions. She is visited by the ghost of her famous descendent, Gracia Mendes Nasi (who is based on a real person) and warned that the family tree is dying, since Catherine's two grandchildren seem set on becoming old without settling down and having children. In possession of only a portion of Gracia's memoir, she decides to make her grandchildren, Francesca and Suzanne, find the rest of it, with the hope that they will reunite, come to value their heritage, and decide to settle down with good Jewish men.

I think I couldn't like this novel because I couldn't like any of the characters in it. Catherine is the stereotypical rich woman feeling lost after realising money isn't everything; Suzanne is the stereotypical black-sheep-of-the-family because she wanted to be with her married boyfriend who was not Jewish and a vegetarian; Francesca is the stereotypical working woman floundering after being fired from a job she was very good at and suffering from traumatic romances. Every single character feels as though their characteristics were ticked off of a list for their character types.

And of course, these women so set against romance and pleasing their families just happen to find love with men who are literally too darn good to be true, practically dripping out of the pages of quick-read romances. And they are even Jewish to top it off! What a happy coincidence! It's all too cut-and-dry for me and the love scenes filled with unpredictable passion, love at first sight, feelings of safety and security, are sickly sweet. Certainly, you may love someone with all of your being but no one is perfect and in real life things get in the way. No matter how ideally the pair may be matched.

A portrait suspected to be of Gracia Nasi
I really enjoyed the historical aspects of the novel - the locations visited, the story of the Spanish Inquisition, and Gracia's own experiences - and I know that the theme of the story is to honour your family and your traditions and your religion, but I really feel there was something missing in the telling. Ragen tried to cram too much into the novel. In my opinion, she should rather have focused on either the Catherine-granddaughter story or written the entire story in Gracia's time. Throwing the memoir into the story seemed haphazard and there are moments in the plot - such as after Francesca meets Elizabeta - where everything is up in the air, pained attempts at cliffhanging that were more annoying than intriguing.

Could you say this is a feminist novel, since it is told only from the points of view of the women? I wouldn't say so. The female characters feel as though they've been written by a man, their only concerns their appearances and their stereotypical interests. Plus, the whole idea behind it is that the female granddaughters are not becoming mothers and not getting married, which is unacceptable. While Gracia Mendes is an amazing character historically, lauded in the novel for her business acumen and saving thousands of refugees during the Inquisition and for keeping her family together, it felt a little preachy to me.

In the end I finished the novel just to see how it ended, which is ~ unpredictably ~ happily ever after.

{Image credit: Bronzino [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons}

February 28, 2017

Addendum: Movie Review || The Lovely Bones

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I'll come right out and say it - the film version of 'The Lovely Bones' was disappointing. Was it because I watched it so soon after reading the novel by Alice Sebold? Perhaps. But I don't think it would be unfair of me to say that this was not it at all.

Peter Jackson's 'The Lovely Bones' certainly had the main plotline down: a girl is murdered and experiences heaven while simultaneously watching as her family learns to live with her death. The film tried sooooo hard to create that fleeting sense of Susie at once being in heaven and on Earth with her family. It tried to use stunning visuals of the natural world that made up Susie's heaven and how she interacted with it to show the passing of time on Earth. But for someone who hadn't read the novel, I think it would be too confusing, especially since the characters did not appear to age as much as they did in the novel, with the exception of Lindsey, who marries and can be seen pregnant at the end of the film.

I was impressed with Stanley Tucci's performance as George Harvey, the serial killer who murders Susie. He was indeed awkward and chilling and his performance was on point - I especially loved the contact lenses, since his familiar face was distorted. Mark Wahlberg was, as Susie's dad Jack, typically Mark Wahlberg-y - angry instead of despairing and desperate as I read the character. I was disappointed also that the story disregarded a lot of what Susie's mom, Abigail, was experiencing: her love affair with the consulting detective was left out entirely, and I think this actually played a large part in why she decided to leave the family, because it reminded her that she was something other than simply a mother.

The story was significantly simplified: Lindsey comes to suspect Harvey before her father does, who only remembers Harvey when he spots him in one of Susie's photo sets; Ray Singh has been reduced to a love interest, and for some reason becomes the biggest thing that Susie misses while she's in heaven - she cannot even rest until she possesses Ruth and kisses him; Ruth is reduced to the girl who saw Susie's ghost and the film disregards her psychic talents; and poor Grandma Lynn has become nothing but comic relief, among other things.

I suppose the subject matter of the book is much more complicated than could be carried across to film - there is just something about Sebold's novel that is deeper and more insightful than the film expresses. While both the novel and the book attempt to bring a positive spin on grief, I feel like the film was too focused on a happy ending and justice for Susie - after all, when Harvey dies at the end, it is his death we view in gruesome shots - it feels as though the redemption of Susie's family had to happen when Harvey dies. In the novel, the reality is that redemption is self-made, a decision that each individual makes to retain the bones of family and friendship ties instead of break them.

{Movie poster credit: By Source, Fair use, Link}

February 25, 2017

Book Review || The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

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I could not put Alice Sebold's 'The Lovely Bones' down. Literally. Thankfully I was ill this entire week and had ample opportunity to not put it down, and finding out what's become of Susie and her family and her killer became an itching need when I wasn't holding the book in my hand. This novel will break your heart and then smear some hope all over the bloody pieces.

Sebold's writing is difficult to describe: it feels a bit like when you're waking from a dream of being surrounded by butterflies' wings brushing your cheeks and you swear that, upon opening your eyes, the dusty scales from their wings are floating around catching the light when it's really just dust motes. This unique ability of placing the reader in two worlds at once is the most compelling part of this novel. Descriptions of the world around the characters is so whimsical yet feel so removed from history that nothing seems real, and this is the perfect metaphor for how it must feel for a family to suddenly and violently lose a loved one.

Through the use of Susie's ghost, every character becomes practically transparent - we know everything there is to know about their motivations and their history because Susie is now timeless. This is the perfect use of an omniscient narrator and I'm not certain I've ever come across one that has been so successful without being obtrusive.

Susie's death obviously has a profound effect on everyone who had her in their lives. Her father becomes obsessive, her mother escapes, her sister hardens her heart, her brother resents the loss of attention. She is never far in the thoughts of friends and family and perhaps it is this connection that allowed her to see so much and so purely into their hearts. What I liked the most about this situation was that there was no narrative judgment: Susie seemed to harbour nothing but unconditional love for those she observed and this is a wonderful thing to believe of our spirits when we leave.

The heaven that Sebold presents to us probably fits everyone's idea of it. It is different and perfect for every individual, and we'll have access to everyone we've lost in the past, whether we remember them or not. The spirit's ability to linger in the real world to give literal spiritual support is something every grieving family hopes for. Whether I can believe that to be true is another story.

'The Lovely Bones' is an addicting read that is written with a truly unique spirit and you shouldn't miss it. Thankfully, I had not seen the film at the time of writing, so nothing was spoiled for me and we'll see if the film can match the novel. Keep an eye out for my addendum soon!

UPDATE: Find out whether the film could match up in my addendum!

Have you read the novel and what did you think? What is your idea of heaven?

January 28, 2017

Book Review || Already Dead by Charlie Huston

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This is the modern vampire novel you're looking for. Charlie Huston's 'Already Dead', the first Joe Pitt Novel, is gritty and dirty and has an antihero par excellence.

We are quickly thrown into Manhattan's world of vampire clans, none of which Pitt is allied with. Rather, he is the private investigator/muscle of choice for various clans, The Coalition and The Society in particular, although he is known in other circles as well.

Pitt is a swearing, bullying, smoking, drinking muscle-for-hire getting rid of a couple of zombies when we first meet him, and it takes a while for the character to endear himself to you. He is exactly like those protagonists in the best horror stories - think James Herbert - who are really unlikeable and simply get under your skin. It is also so much unlike all the supernatural fantasy to come out of publishing houses today, all eager to become the next 'Twilight', that it appears to be unique. It really is more of a crime thriller than supernatural fiction, and it just happens to have a basis in vampire lore. However, once the narrative gets underway and we become embroiled in the apparently unrelated mysteries of a zombie germ carrier and a missing teen, it is really difficult to put the novel down at all.

Pitt becomes a super-complex character with a chequered past as both a human and as a vampire, as can be seen through his familiarity with all of the clans and with dark underbelly of the city. I loved that he could walk around among the humans and no one could tell what he was. I loved the effort he had to take to go out during the day. I loved that he made mistake after mistake. I loved the descriptions of the different hangers-on of vampires: the 'Minas', the 'Renfields' and so on, terms lovingly inserted into the narrative to not only please fans of the vampire genre but also to honour the rich history of the vampire story, 'Dracula' obviously being the stand-out icon. I also thought the 'Pitt' reference was cute (if you don't know what I'm talking about, take a look at the film version of Anne Rice's 'Interview with the Vampire').

Many of the characters are deliciously detailed through Pitt's eyes, from Mr Predo and Leprosy and his monstrous dog to the Enclave's Daniel, a vampire who barely feeds in the hopes that he will die, or become some invincible messiah.

The mystery is as twisted and grisly as such a novel deserves and your only regret will be coming to the end of the novel. I am eager to read the next novel in the series, if I can find it.

January 16, 2017

Book Review || The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

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I had been wanting to read a novel by John Connolly for quite some time and 'The Book of Lost Things' has been sitting on my bookshelf for a while. You all know I am a fan of fairy tale retellings, and this darker look at old favourites is interesting and intriguing.

The novel at its heart is about the redemptive and healing qualities of books and stories for people in general and while the narrative moves a little slowly, whimsical details and interesting characters remedy this somewhat.

David, who has a very special connection to books, loses his mother from sickness and finds himself feeling unwelcome in his father's new relationship with Rose, which becomes more constrained when a baby brother is born. They come to live in Rose's house and it turns out this house has its own mysterious history connected to Rose's brother Jonathan, who also loved fairy tales. It doesn't help that David feels a strange presence is watching him.

There are gloomy and sombre twists and changes to the fairy tales we are familiar with, which provide interesting juxtapositions to David's state of mind. The evil creatures of the forest are wolves that are changing into men, giant worms that suck their victims dry, a Huntress who experiments with her catches, a more evil and sadistic Rumplestiltskin-type character, and even an enchantress pretending to be Sleeping Beauty but who is really a vampire.

There is even the hint of a homosexual character in the Knight who comes to David's rescue: Roland is looking for his friend Raphael and enlists David's help. Raphael breaks the trope of the homosexual man and his masculinity forms part of one of the novel's themes: masculinity, or becoming a man. David, upon entering the world, is still a child reeling from his mother's death and utterly jealous of his brother and Rose's relationship with his father. He does not wish to face his reality, made clear in his frequent loss of consciousness in the real world and so it is easy for him to believe that the world of fairy tales will give him what he needs. Through his adventure, however, he comes to accept his reality. Roland and the Woodcutter refer to this as becoming a man, which I find a very limiting idea since David is really growing up and his acceptance of his true life is not what makes a man.

One of the biggest questions one is left with after completing the novel is whether or not all of David's experiences were merely part of an extended fugue state, similar to but longer than his bouts of unconsciousness. While David's true life is long, he returns to the world of fairy tales at the end, and is greeted by the Woodcutter as the child he was when he first entered, seeing himself reflected in the Woodcutter's eyes as though he was his father. The Woodcutter tells him most people return at the end. So did David experience it all, or dream it all as he lay unconscious?

Only you can decide. If you read the book. :)

January 10, 2017

My Favourite Free Printable Calendars 2017

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As part of an aim to be more organised this year, I have calendars everywhere. I have a daily diary, a desk planner, and a calendar pinned up with a pen to add notes on when I pass it. But I'm considering putting a calendar up in every room as there are so many beautiful ones available for free from amazing artists in the blogging world!

Here is a roundup of my five favourites for the year - get printing!

Watercolour Star Wars Calendar

This is right at the top because I think it's amazing! The art is really sweet and the calendar itself is simple with a special spot for notes.


Floral-Themed Calendar in Colour or Not!

I like that you can choose between the colour version and one without colour. If you're into adult colouring at the moment, you can just colour the plain version the way you see fit.


Under the Sea Calendar

This is also a favourite of mine, since I love the ocean... It would go wonderfully in my sea-themed bathroom. The art is gorgeous and inspiring.

Eco Tips Calendar

For all of us wanting to live a little more sustainably, this calendar offers monthly tips on doing just that. The blocks are also large enough to fill up with daily activities and special dates, like birthdays.

Floral-Themed Calendar and Co-ordinating Weekly Planner

What makes this free calendar stand out is the matching weekly planner so you can truly remain organised!

Are there any calendars you like more? I would love to add them to my list!

{Lead Image credit: By Ondrejk - Own work, Public Domain, Link}

December 7, 2016

Book Review || The Wolf Gift by Anne Rice

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So disconnected am I with the latest publications (having hundreds of books to read right at home) I did not even know that Anne Rice, one of my favourite authors - she who inspired the sexy vampire craze of the '90s - released a novel (four years ago nogal!) taking on the myth of the werewolf, 'The Wolf Gift'.

Werewolves are much maligned in horror and fantasy literature. They are rarely anything but beasts controlled outright by a monthly alteration into a creature that kills relentlessly and remorselessly, having literally no power over the change. Even the revolutionary nineties and naughties could not change this idea and werewolf films still retain these ideas for the most part (Exceptions can be found, such as the Underworld series). It is then fitting that a master of transforming the vampire from a creature bound by the need to feed into a flesh and blood, though dead, immortal in need of love and companionship take on the werewolf and attempt to revolutionise it.

And although I enjoyed the novel and would thus love to say it has become one of my favourites, this cannot be so. I'll admit this is perhaps because I have a sentimental love and connection to the vampire stories I became drunk on in my teens.

'The Wolf Gift' is, I think, aimed at making werewolves as glamorous and charismatic as Rice's vampires were. However, there is an inevitable sort of 'cut-and-paste' feeling for me: the wealth, the attractiveness of these men (for all the werewolves are men, of course), the ancient history. I feel like there was too much of an emulation of the vampires' ancient background for me to be entirely gripped by the read. And it was such a boys' club!

I did enjoy her attempt at modernising the myth with the aid of scientific terms and theories. I also relished the fact that all evidence of the werewolves - blood, hair, skin - would disappear once it was disconnected from the person's life force. However, the metaphysical questions her creations attempt to pose to us feel too much an echo of the vampires' search for meaning, having control of immortality and yet still not knowing the answers. Now, here is a new set of creatures created with their own myths and ancient legends and they also do not know any answers. Agreed, there are no creatures on Earth who know the answers but it feels repetitive.

Even the moral calling of the werewolves is an echo of Louis, the vampire from 'Interview with the Vampire', but in this case the werewolves are drawn to destroy evil instead of making the choice to do so.

Rice also attempted to show that werewolves really are a more brutal reflection of immortality. Vampires never physically alter and their choices to be 'beasts' seem to be less limited. Werewolves on the other hand have the ability to entirely change their physical appearance - at will, too - and their beast-like instincts lie right on the surface. They have a 'true' connection with nature, sensing it and smelling it and even experiencing a deep connection to it. In this regard, I found their killing of animals with relish and without necessity confusing, since nature is by all intents innocent and their change induces an inherent attraction and malice towards evil. This idea is addressed by discussions about all of us being both good and evil at once, but it rings hollow when you consider that they have the conscience and mind of the human being. If they are close to nature, surely running rampant through the night slaughtering dozens of birds, feasting on every animal in sight seems to be more linked to the irresponsible nature of the all-devouring human than a beast at one with the ecosystem. It feels more like an assertion of their power over nature than an acceptance of being one with it and respecting it, which is what I would have thought would happen to a human suddenly exposed to the true wonder of it all.

I suppose they are at once man and beast and perhaps that is how they can reconcile the needless killing of creatures - needless because it is neither for survival nor for feeding that they kill - with an indulgence in power and blood, a trait that seems all too human for a group of men supposedly so connected to nature who are all also philosophers, poets, and scientists.

'The Wolf Gift' feels too much like a modernisation of The Vampire Chronicles, replete with references to Facebook, the Internet, cellphones, global media, and even scientific theories. This is not to say that I did not enjoy reading it, as there was a stage where I could not put it down, simply needing to know what happened next. It's just that at the end of it all I felt disappointed. Perhaps I'm being too judgmental as a result of my aforementioned sentimentality over The Vampire Chronicles, and also because this is only the first novel in a series.

Have you read it and what did you think? Have I judged it too harshly?

{Image credit: By Lucas Cranach the Elder - Gotha, Herzogliches Museum (Landesmuseum), Public Domain, Link}

November 30, 2016

10 Things You Didn't Know About Whales

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Whale Flickr-Guarda La`
I have always been fascinated by whales and indeed they are one of the reasons my family and I went to the seaside this month (we weren't lucky, by the way, although we did get a glimpse of dolphins). But despite my purported love for them, I didn't even know how astonishing these creatures are. I'm again referencing Diane Ackerman's amazing collection of essays 'The Moon by Whale Light...' (which has been one of my favourite reads so far this year) in order to support my astonishment and awe of these creatures and the natural world that allows us to share this earth with us.

I'll start off with this thought-provoking quote:
We ache to know of other forms of equally intelligent life in the universe and yet here are creatures as unknown as extraterrestrials right among us, moving in a slow-motion ballet under the ocean. [112]
Ackerman's essays are filled with sentiments such as these bemoaning humankind's skewed value systems.

These are the 10 most interesting facts about whales that I uncovered in her essay.

1. Whales have the largest brains on Earth. While this might not come as much of a surprise, considering how large some of them become, it is not a matter of matching size: their brains are as complex as ours, probably even more so.


2. There are two types of whales. Toothed whales use echolocation and have a single blowhole. Dolphins, which are cetaceans just like all whales, fall into this category along with orcas and porpoises. Baleen whales are all the larger whales that eat by filtering their food through baleen plates. These whales have two blowholes, just like our nostrils.

3. Anyone can guess why the Right Whale was so named: it was literally the 'right' one to kill, as its body did not sink and it was also relatively docile. If sanctions had not been placed on whaling, this would have been the only animal found all over the world to have been extincted by humankind.

Blue Whale
4. When a Blue Whale is vertical to the ocean floor, its body experiences three different atmospheres.

5. A whale's body, because of its size, generates so much heat that when dead, and even if in icy water, the flesh burns and chars the bones. Whales' bodies thus have to be harvested of all important parts before it becomes a 'burnt whale'.

6. When a whale sings, no air is released from its lungs or anywhere else.

7. Whales sometimes balance their tails out of the water for fun.

8. Whales are made of 97% water and thus babies will hear their mothers perfectly for the entire year of their gestation.

9. At the time of the book's publication, the actual act of copulation between humpback whales had never been seen or filmed. However, the first photograph of these whales mating was taken in 2010 and only released in 2012 after a study was being completed.

10. Humpback whales, known for their hauntingly beautiful underwater songs, use rhyme to remember long songs, which are copied and adapted amongst the males of the species, a complex idea that not simply any organism could understand.

If you'd like to try spot some whales this year, check out this list of spots where you can spot whales in South Africa before the end of December.

{Image credits: 
Lead: Flickr/Guarda La` [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Species branching: By Jérôme Spitz , Andrew W. Trites, Vanessa Becquet, Anik Brind'Amour, Yves Cherel, Robert Galois, Vincent Ridoux [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Blue Whale: By NOAA Photo Library - anim1754, Public Domain, Link}

November 26, 2016

The Disrespect of Pardoning a Turkey

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The festival of Thanksgiving has ended and an annual precursor to these celebrations, the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation, which includes the 'pardoning' of two turkeys, took place the day before. While there have been many articles talking about the true history of thanksgiving in terms of the colonisation of North America and thanksgiving as mourning on the part of Native Americans, there are hardly any in the mainstream media considering the ethics of mutilating and consuming 46 million turkeys every year.

Every media house however did, aside from listing the many, many ways that a turkey can be cooked, cover the traditional 'pardoning' of the turkey, and I suddenly wondered what exactly was the turkey being pardoned for? Crimes against the State? Using up more space in its cramped, dark shed than it should? Rallying a group of activists to call for equal rights (or rights, period)?

After some research I discovered that the first turkey pardon was actually a frustrated and snide joke. Ronald Reagan is the first American president on record to 'pardon' a turkey, after hitting out at criticism over the Iran-Contra affair and whether or not he would be pardoning someone for allegedly being involved. So the original pardon had nothing to do with ethics or compassion - it was just a joke. It was disrespectful.

George HW Bush then instituted the turkey pardoning as an official annual event as a response to the efforts of animal rights activists, in an effort to show that the State can indeed be empathic and caring. Wow, really? One whole turkey out of millions? (Well, I'm not certain of the number of turkeys slain in 1989, but it was likely a lot - especially after Bush popularised the turkey as the cornerstone of the Thanksgiving meal.) I hope the activists weren't satisfied with such a response, as it was thoughtless and disrespectful.

Since then, two turkeys have been pardoned every year, being sent to wonderland locations around the country. Like Disney Land.

It's all such a farce. It's misdirection. These turkeys are mutilated and tortured: they are debeaked, have their claws slashed off, and males have their snoods cut off - without anaesthetic. They live in sheds among thousands of other turkeys, walking in their own droppings and sometimes resorting to cannibalism. They are very likely to die during transport to slaughter due to stress. And, worst of all, they are not recognised (in the US) as applying to the Humane Slaughter Act. This means they can have their throats slit, be pummelled on the head, be singed in a steamer, be plucked, and who knows what else while still alive and conscious. To treat any living being in such a way is disrespectful.

Oh, but this is alright because two turkeys have been pardoned for what would appear to be nothing but the mere fact of their existence to feed us humans, apex predators that we are. 

Personally, I cannot imagine a bird the same weight as my three-and-a-half-year-old toddler lying on my table and being the centre of a meal about being thankful. 

Certainly we humans can be thankful it is not we who make the centrepiece of a dinner spread, because we have rights.

Further Reading:

November 24, 2016

Dad Embracing Fatherhood = No Troubled Teen. What?!

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According to a study carried out in the United Kingdom, trouble with unruly teenagers can largely be avoided if fathers embrace their fatherhood and have a positive attitude towards it, and it does not matter whether or not said father assists in childcare, spends time with children, or helps out around the house. Well, that's the basic tenet of the study, the focus of an article on The Guardian. However, I find this conclusion problematic.

In no way am I disputing the fact that a positive attitude in a father towards his role in his children's lives will have an equally positive effect on their development. I would, however, like to point out some issues I have with the conclusion insofar as it may create the incorrect assumptions about troubled teens and parenting.

First of all, the participation of either parent in the study was different. The mothers were only asked about their children's behaviour, such as their ability to share and social skills - answers which I believe can be fairly objective on the part of the mothers as observers. The fathers, on the other hand, were asked questions that could largely be answered subjectively: how they felt about fatherhood, how confident they were as a parent, and whether or not they enjoyed spending time with their children. Researchers admitted the study relied mainly on self-reporting and from this we can see there must be quite an emotional response underlying the answers.

Also, the fathers were asked how much they helped around the house, and the mothers were not; we can thus infer that there is an implicit bias in the study: mothers are the main caregivers and thus do, or are expected to do, all the housework.

Most studies heretofore have focused on a mother's role in the positive development of their children and this study has been praised for putting the focus on the fathers, who are overlooked much of the time. I agree with this statement: fathers are often not viewed as particularly capable when looking after children and sometimes are seen as completely useless and any time they spend looking after children is sweet (take a look at these comments comparing how mothers and fathers are treated when caregiving).

However, a study that determines that legions of teens are troubled because they simply did not have committed fathers is not considering all the aspects that are involved when raising children. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I see the study as finding that the father needs to do nothing at all but be positive towards his child and confident in his own capabilities. He does not need to spend time with his children; he does not need to help the mother in caregiving or housecleaning; he does not even need to engage with them. As long as he is confident as a father.

This rings incredibly hollow to me and I can see it working for a nuclear family where the mother is not depressed, not lonely, and perfectly happy to be the only one to engage with the children. But picture this: the father - who is confident as a father and enjoys being with his kids - goes to work and the mother cares for the child. She does everything during the day, from cleaning up and wiping bums to teaching the alphabet or counting, reading a bedtime story, and tucking the kids in for the night. The father comes home and relaxes. The mother is exhausted, making her short-tempered and impatient with the children and not at all invested in doing activities with them. She is not happy and her emotions seep into her children.Perhaps the father's unwillingness to help with the chores frustrates the mother even more, resulting in screaming arguments. Or perhaps throw in a father who enjoys overindulging in alcohol after getting home from work and tends to get rowdy and perhaps a bit rough. He still likes being a parent though. And the study is telling me that these children will still end up as untroubled teens?

We are told that maternal love activates cognitive development. We are told that a depressed mother can repress this development. We are told the mother is the centre of the family, that her feelings of stability, her relationships, and her parenting can make or break a happy home. If the mother is not experiencing feelings of security in the different aspects of her life, the child's cognitive development is at risk. But it's all good and dandy as long as the father is happy? Because then the kids won't be troubled? They may be less clever but they won't be troubled.

Thus should the study in question not be focusing on the confidence and happiness of both parents? Surely the happiness of a child heading into their teen years depends on an array of aspects, from tension between parents, depression of parents or child, secret physical or sexual abuse, bullying, the loss of a loved one, drug or alcohol abuse (by child or parent), or peer pressure. It certainly isn't enough to say that a father confident in fatherhood equals a happy teen.

As a mother, if this is true, it is disheartening to think that all the effort I put into raising my child will be for nought unless my husband continues to be confident in his fatherly skills and happy as a dad.

Perhaps I'm jumping the gun as I have not read the study in its entirety and I also don't know what variables were used to decide who would take part in the study, aside from families where the parents were still together until the child was eight months of age. Also, I don't think that only 10 440 children are really statistically valuable or accurate. After all, there are over 11 million children under the age of 18 in England (as of 2014). But hey, I don't know anything about statistics.

{Image credits: 
Header: Flickr/Mindaugas Danys [CC BY 2.0]
Inset: Flickr/Stuart [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]}

November 11, 2016

10 Things You Didn't Know About Alligators

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The only thing that comes to mind when someone mentions alligators is the swamps and marshes of Miami and the fatal attacks that take place there. Imaginations run wild and we assume dozens of people are taken by the crocodilians every year when the reality is only 23 people have been killed by alligators in the whole of Florida since 1948.

Like every creature on Earth, knowledge about these fascinating creatures can only inspire astonishment, respect and further interest, much as it was for me with tarantulas. Crocodilians and alligators are no different and it is quite amazing what you don't know until you do some research. After reading Diane Ackerman's 'The Moon by Whale Light and other adventures among bats, penguins, crocodilians, and whales', I decided to do a series of posts on facts about the four creatures she meets - the first was about bats - because it was amazing how an animal lover like myself had no idea about these animals.

Here are 10 jaw-dropping facts about alligators:

1. It is the female who instigates courtship. The male is so focused on guarding his territory that she literally has to smash into him, climb on him, and basically make a nuisance of herself until he reciprocates. I use the word 'smash' because, for us, that's what it is - it looks soft and gentle as an observer but our delicate bodies would be crushed by the force. In essence, this groping serves for both parties to test each other's strength.

2. The male also has his part in the mating ritual: the water dance. When he bellows, inaudible sound waves vibrate the water around his body, making the water around him look like miniature fountains. While the bellowing scares other males, the females also seem to enjoy it.

3. Alligators can jump. They don't do it often, but they can. They can also climb fences.

4. Their eyes are in possession of football-shaped pupils that remain vertical to the horizon all the time - like a gyroscope. This is most likely the reason alligator-handlers put alligators on their back (most likely before they put their hands in their mouths), because moving them literally disorients them. It has nothing to do with strength or taming the creature and everything to do with the fact that the poor alligator feels like it's been thrown off a building. [Read about why some animals have vertical pupils here.]

alligator-eye5. Female alligators have a clitoris, large enough to be confused with a penis. No one, however, knows if they can have an orgasm, as it's a bit difficult to do with a 2.6 metre toothed deathtrap in a science lab...

6. In certain atmospheric conditions and temperatures, it may look as though crocodilians are emitting vapour from their noses when they bluster. In this case, they could truly look like dragons blowing smoke out their nostrils.

7. Alligators measure their prey by height, so one way to scare one off if it wants to attack you is to stand upright. (Don't take my word for it!)

8. Alligators live to 30 years in the wild.

9. Large alligators bite down with 1342,6kg of force. It's one of the most powerful ever recorded.

10. Alligators also eat fruit when they have the opportunity and they are possibly important dispersers of plant seeds.

As a final thought from Ackerman's book:
That a creature so beautiful, wild and mysterious could be turned into a handbag or pair of shoes gave me a slow chill. [79]

{Image credits:
Lead: By Kate Perez - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
Alligator eye: By Everglades NPS from Homestead, Florida, United States (Alligator Eye, NPSphoto, G.Gardner) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Florida Memory Project}