Osprey Breakfast

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Following are images of an Osprey couple sharing a fish around 8:24 AM yesterday. I saw the male Osprey fly in with a fish, but by the time I was ready to take pictures, he was already standing on a side of the nest where the female was incubating.

Male Osprey with fish, female incubating in nest.

Usually, he would have eaten the head of the fish, leaving the rest to her.

Male Osprey bringing fish breakfast to female.
Note headless fish in male’s talon.
She started eating. As usual, female Osprey was larger than the male.
She decided to take the fish with her to eat somewhere else.
After a brief flight, she landed not far from nest, scattering nearby birds.
Male Osprey took over incubating duties.

Weekend Variety

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I have been saving photos of birds over the past several weeks, waiting for an opportunity to post them. Here are most of them, in no particular order.

Black-crowned Night Heron in deep sleep.
Yellow-crowned Night Heron slowly waking up.
Bald Eagle shielding Eaglet from a strong wind. Ten days ago there were two Eaglets in the nest, but only one is visible now.
Canada Geese goose-stepping practice.
Great Egret landing.
White Ibis landing with twigs to build its nest.
Forster’s Tern looking for fish.
Purple Martin.
Snowy Egret.

Ucrania 2022 y Guernica 1937

maria bilbao

A lo largo de los días no puedo abstraerme de las imágenes y noticias sobre la invasión de Ucrania. Es imposible no dejar de pensar en la vida tan dolorosa, inhumana, de sus habitantes que malviven en las ciudades destruidas, condenados a bajar al subsuelo de la tierra y vivir en corredores infrahumanos con el sonido de fondo de las alarmas, y las bombas cayendo sin cesar. Tantas personas inocentes que han perdido la vida serán recordadas como víctimas del genocidio perpetrado por Putin y su ejército en los comienzos del siglo XXI.

Leo una entrevista al psiquiatra Luis Rojas Marcos en La Voz de Galicia del 26 de abril. Luis Rojas Marcos vivió en primera línea el atentado del 11-S cuando dirigía el Sistema de Hospitales de la ciudad de New York. Al preguntarle sobre Putin, dice: “Yo no puedo comentar la salud mental de Putin porque no lo…

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Rain and Flowers

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It rained all day yesterday. I thought I heard rainfall also during the night. It continued this morning and did not stop until mid morning. I went out to see what survived or was ruined, and was pleasantly surprised as all the flowers came through and actually seemed to thrive.

Judy Zuk Magnolia.
Judy Zuk Magnolia.
Azalea.
Hino Crimson Azalea.
White Dogwood.
White Dogwood.
Another white flower: Viburnum.

A New Gull, and the Usual Birds

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The Black-headed Gull comes from Europe and, about fifty years ago, has begun appearing in North America in small numbers. I saw a group of about a dozen of them on Wildlife Drive for the first time last week. They did not seem too shy, like most gulls, and I was able to come close to them.

Other birds that I photographed are well known to most of us.

Male Red-winged Blackbird.
Female Red-winged Blackbird.
Great Blue Heron with a shrimp appetizer.
Lesser Yellow Legs.
Willet contemplating take off.
Glossy Ibis.
Canada Goose hatchling.

Bald Eagle Nest

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Last week, I went to the site of a Bald Eagle nest at the refuge. It was high on a pine tree, but a Bald Eagle mother and Eaglets were visible from the road.

Bald Eagle nest.
There were two Eaglets, but only one was visible in this photo. It was asking when lunch would be ready.
“We have to wait for Daddy to come back from fishing,” said the Bald Eagle mother.

Mid Spring Flowers

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A cold beginning for Spring 2022 has decimated our early magnolias and Asian pear flowers. Today, at the end of April, temperatures climbed above 50°F (10°C) but a strong wind makes it feel much colder. The “Judy Zuk” Magnolia tree that I planted five years ago is bearing vibrant yellow flowers. Judy Zuk was the president of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden from 1990 to 2005, and this magnolia is a hybrid developed there.

“Judy Zug” Magnolia.

“Judy Zug” Magnolia.

Another late bloomer that has escaped frost is the Susan Magnolia, a smaller tree than the Soulangeana Magnolia (Saucer Magnolia). We have two trees of the Soulangeana but both lost all of their flowers this year. Fortunately, we have three Susan Magnolias.

Susan Magnolia.

Last but not least are the dependable Bleeding Hearts which have started to come up.

Bleeding Heart.

Spring Colors

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The Crabapple is a most colorful spring blooming tree. There was one near the entrance of our public library and it easily drew everyone’s attention.

Crabapple spring blooms.
Crabapple spring blooms.

At nearby Colonial Lake ducks and birds were also welcoming the sun and a much needed increase in temperature.

Mallard couple, with she probably the result of a domestic duck and a wild Mallard.

American Robins were everywhere. I followed one as it walked on the shore of Colonial Lake.

American Robin at Colonial Lake.
American Robin looking for worm.
American Robin.

At one point there was a face off with an European Starling.

European Starling.

Although bigger than the Robin, the Starling flew away.

Double-Crested Cormorants

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In my previous post about a Cormorant, I should have mentioned that it was a Double-Crested Cormorant, the most common type found in North America. It sports a double crest of feathers on its head during breeding season. However, when it plunges into the water to look for fish, the double crest is flattened on its head and cannot be seen then.

A few days ago, I saw a couple of Cormorants sunning themselves in the middle of Colonial Lake, one with a visible double crest.

Double-crested Cormorants. The one on the left has a visible double crest on its head.
A closer look at a Double-crested Cormorant.

The crest color is white for Double-crested Cormorants in Alaska, but is black in other regions.

Cormorant

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This time of the year, birds are very busy building their nests. A male Cormorant at the refuge emerged from the water with a stick.

Cormorant just found a stick in the water.
Cormorant getting ready to take stick back to the nest.
Cormorant taking off.
Cormorant flying back to nest.

In nest building, the male Cormorant only gathers building materials. The female Cormorant is the one that arranges such materials into a nest.

Purple Martins

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The EBF refuge’s Visitor Center puts up Purple Martin houses every spring. Those birds take them over and create a busy intersection as they fly into and out of their chosen condo. A photographer only has to stand below and aim a camera up to photograph the birds. However, they fly very fast and one has to be quick on the shutter!

Purple Martins in front of their condos.
Male Purple Martin checking out humans.
Male and female Purple Martins having a conversation.
Female and male Purple Martins in front of their condo.

Late Spring

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Late Spring sounds like the name of a movie by Yasujirō Ozu, but it is very real for us this year. Almost a month after it was supposed to start, this year’s spring has been dragged kicking and screaming to make its entry, and it exacted extensive revenge on all sorts of plants and flowers. Our magnolia trees which normally bloom with thousands of vibrant flowers have had most of their buds killed by frost. I can count less than a dozen yellow flowers on our Butterfly Magnolia. It usually has several hundreds in April.

Butterfly Magnolia flower. The other flower in the background was killed by a late frost.

And here’s a view taken last week of the refuge.

Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, April 2022.

The Ospreys have arrived and became occupants of six platform nests along Wildlife Drive. Yesterday, I saw a male Osprey dining on the head of a fish.

Male Osprey eating head of a fish.

Meanwhile his mate seemed to be still sleeping.

Female Osprey in platform nest.

Further down the road, the Osprey couple that lost a fish to another Osprey a few days ago were waking up. He, on the right, did not appear to be in any hurry to go catch a fish.

Osprey couple on nest.

Rather than wait for them, I drove on to go see the night herons in Ocean City. On the way out, a very small turtle crossed my path.

Eastern Mud Turtle.

Finally a beautiful dove was standing by the side of the road.

Mourning Dove.
Mourning Dove.

Ospreys, Fish Crow

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As I arrived at my favorite Osprey nest site, I saw and heard the female Osprey whistling. Usually, a female Osprey whistles to clamor for food when she sees her mate come back with a fish that he has caught. Then as he lands somewhere within sight of the nest, he proceeds to eat the head of the fish and only brings what remains to her.

Female Osprey calling out loudly.

This time, the female was whistling loudly, almost belligerently. Then I saw not one but two male Ospreys fighting.

Male Ospreys fighting.

Male Osprey chasing away intruder.

Unfortunately, the one that fled had a fish in its talons. In the following photo, the fish is missing its head which was very likely eaten by the other male Osprey.

Osprey flying away with fish without head.

The Osprey that had its fish stolen flew after the thief. After a while I could not see either of them any longer. Meanwhile, at the nest, the female Osprey was facing a Fish Crow which came by to see whether it could steal anything from the nest.

Fish Crow approaching Osprey nest.
Fish Crow landing on nest.
Fish Crow flying away.
Fish Crow perched on nearby tree branch, waiting for an opportunity.
Female Osprey waiting for mate to return.

I also waited for the male Osprey to fly back to the nest with a new catch. But I had to leave after almost half an hour of waiting without seeing him. The female Osprey did not whistle once during that time.

Village Teacher, Absorbing Historical Fiction

T. W. Dittmer

I recently read “Village Teacher” by Nguyễn Trọng Hiền. I was fascinated by this book and decided to share my review.

Yes, I admit, my time in Vietnam has stayed with me and I’m drawn to stories of that country, but I liked this book so much that I couldn’t stay quiet about it. My review on Goodreads follows.

Village Teacher by neihtn (Nguyễn Trọng Hiền)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To me, this story was engrossing. I’ve become a slow, undisciplined reader, but this tale carried me along throughout the entire book.

The story takes place during the early years of the French colonization of Vietnam. It is the story of the schoolteacher in a village in northern Vietnam who participates in the royal examinations in the imperial city of Hue. During his time there, he meets a woman of Vietnamese/French descent and the two are strongly attracted…

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Belted Kingfisher and Others

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A lady photographer told me five years ago that there was a Belted Kingfisher at Colonial Lake near our house in New Jersey. She even told me that it usually came out at 1 PM to start looking for food. It’s only yesterday, five years later that I was finally able to photograph it a few minutes after 1 PM, from about 200 ft away.

Female Belted Kingfisher with punk crest.

Next time I will try to come closer and hopefully get a better shot, but she may be too skittish.

Meanwhile a Song Sparrow, partially hidden in a tree, was singing beautifully.

Song Sparrow.
Song Sparrow: “Did you like my song?”

And two Painted Turtles had just finished their rowing exercises.

Painted Turtles.

Finally, a female Mallard with mixed genes was practicing her Karate kick.

Female Mallard.

Village Teacher – Free Download – March 14-18

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My first book Village Teacher is available for free Kindle download for five days on Amazon from Monday March 14 to Friday March 18, 2022. If you want to download it, click on the above link to go to Amazon. Even if you don’t have Kindle Unlimited the price will be displayed as “$0.00 to buy”.

Following is a review of Village Teacher posted by Per, a reader, in 2013:

“This engrossing historical novel is set in the days of the French colonization of Vietnam. The background historical detail appears meticulous and it is interesting reading this book for that reason alone, however there is much more here than that. This is a tale of the travails and loves of the main character during a period of turmoil.

The characters in this story are very well developed and complex and the events that intertwine them are seamlessly presented so that the story flows well. There are numerous characters who appear in a sequential manner and their side stories add to the whole of the story but do not detract from it.

I enjoyed this book for the fascinating historical and cultural perspectives as well as the dramatic fictional story. There is a definite element of suspense and about halfway through the book It became a real page turner and I could not put it down until the end.”

Sunday Images

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Following are some photos of Yellow-rumped Warblers and a couple of Northern Pintails I took on different days about two weeks ago Near Barnegat Lighthouse.

Yellow-rumped Warbler.
Yellow-rumped Warbler.
Yellow-rumped Warbler.
Yellow-rumped Warbler.
Northern Pintails, male in foreground.

Domineering and Stealing

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The Great Black-backed Gull is the largest gull in the world. It has a domineering attitude and does not shy from harassing other birds to steal their food. I saw an example of this two weeks ago while photographing near the Barnegat Lighthouse. A Great Black-backed Gull swooped in and landed right next to a Herring Gull. It quickly took away whatever the Herring Gull was eating.

Great Black-backed Gull in background, Herring Gull in front.

The Herring Gull protested to no avail.
The Great Black-backed Gull proceeded to consume the juicy piece of food (fish, shrimp, or crab) as the Herring Gull protested.
“Gobble, gobble …” – “Hey, it’s mine!”
“Done, bye!”

The thief then flew away, unconcerned, happy.

Red-breasted Merganser

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Red-breasted Mergansers are fairly common in the winter along the coast of New Jersey. In the past two weeks, I took their photos at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge and also near the Barnegat Lighthouse on two different occasions.

Female Red-breasted Merganser looking for fish.
Female Red-breasted Merganser and no fish.
Female Red-breasted Merganser with fish.

According to All About Birds, a Red-breasted Merganser has to eat 15 to 20 fish per day, requiring it to dive under water for 250 to 300 times a day! The Red-breasted Merganser population in North America is stable and has been estimated at 500,000 in 2017.

Female Red-breasted Merganser.
Two males and one female Red-breasted Mergansers.
Female Red-breasted Merganser.

Long-tailed Ducks

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Last Monday I went to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park to photograph Long-tailed Ducks. There were two large groups of these ducks swimming in the ocean near the lighthouse. Estimates ranged from 100 to 300 ducks.

Despite their names, only mature male ducks have a very long tail curved at their backs. Female and immature male ducks do not have it.

Long-tailed Ducks: two males with long tails, and three females.

They are very good divers and are capable of foraging under water at depths up to 200 ft (61 m) to look for food, mainly invertebrates plucked from the bottom.

Long-tailed Ducks, with splashes showing those that have already dived into the ocean.
Long-tailed Ducks landing.
Long-tailed Ducks.
Two female Long-tailed Ducks.
Long-tailed Ducks, female on left, male on right.

The Demon of Yodok – Free – February 23-27

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Juche: The Demon of Yodok is the first book in the Juche series by Adria Carmichael a writer who lives in Switzerland. I read it last year and found it hard to put down as it is one of the rare fictionalized accounts of life in North Korean concentration camps, Yodok being the most notorious.

Juche: The Demon of Yodok.

If you want to read the book, Adria is offering the Kindle edition for free on Amazon at this link from February 23 until February 27, 2022.

Winter Ducks

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Winter would be very dull at the refuge if there were no duck. When most other birds and egrets have migrated, the ducks arrive and entertain us. Following are some images of them that I took yesterday. Duck hunting season will end in three days but I did not see or heard any hunter.

Male Hooded Merganser.
Female Hooded Merganser.
Male Bufflehead.
Northern Shovelers.
Northern Shovelers.

Village Teacher by Neihtn: A Review by Michael Delaney

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Village Teacher by Nguyễn Trọng Hiền (Neihtn): A Review
by Michael Delaney

February 7, 2022: The writer of this long review of my first book passed away five years ago. I am republishing his review without any change other than adding my full name as the author of the book.

In the waning years of the 19th century, a gifted but unassuming young schoolteacher named Lê Duy Tâm makes his way from his relatively peaceful village in the far north of Vietnam to the nation’s restive capital in the central region, the Imperial City of Huế. Tâm belongs to one of several contingents of young men from all over Vietnam who have trekked to Huế’s royal compound (in the fortress known as the Forbidden City) to take the final national examinations that will enable those passing to enter into the elite ranks of the scholarly ruling class: the mandarins.

As all too often in Vietnam’s turbulent history, it is a time of great tumult and upheaval, the age-old Buddhist-Confucian-Dynastic order in disarray and crumbling, the nation as a whole convulsed with competing forces. Various factions vie for power at court. Contending movements in the countryside fight both each other and the French: anti-colonial nativists and nationalists,  insurrectionists, competing dynastic clans, and royal restorationists among them, along with such rapacious marauders as the Chinese Black Flag gangs. Meanwhile, the French are in the process of consolidating their effective subjugation of the whole country from north to south, having trisected it into three administrative regions, all the better to divide and conquer. (In place of the last Emperor, who mysteriously died on the throne, the French contrived to install a ten-year-old “King” in his place, leaving the bewildered boy at the mercy of the hothouse machinations of the Imperial court even while constantly put under the thumb of the ever more powerful, imperious French Resident General.)

Such in brief is the historical and cultural setting of Village Teacher, a historical romance (but much more besides) by “Neihtn.”

The story gets off to a rousing start early on, as Tâm awaits the results of the final round of examinations that he has every reason to believe (and truly so) he has passed with high honors. Out for a stroll on the lawless outskirts of Huế, Tâm springs to the rescue of a lovely young woman on horseback beset by a pair of ruffians. In short order he subdues the two louts with a few well-placed, jujitsu-like moves. (When Tâm was a boy, as it happens, his uncle taught him martial arts both as a means of self-protection and as a physical-exercise regimen.)

Only upon rescuing the young lady (whose name is Giang) does Tâm learn that she is the half-French daughter of one Captain Bonneau, a French Naval officer who is the right-hand man of the formidable French Resident General. (A decent and open-minded man, Bonneau is married to a Vietnamese merchant’s daughter, and has gained his powerful position in part by becoming fluent in Vietnamese and intimately knowledgeable about the often-cryptic ways of the Vietnamese.) Tâm is greatly surprised at this revelation, for Giang’s appearance is thoroughly Vietnamese, except for one feature that he finds utterly mesmerizing: her captivating blue eyes….

So begins a love story that unfolds in the face of many hurdles, perils, and vicissitudes, including a nefarious scheme to deny the talented young scholar the rightful place he has earned in the ranks of officialdom by dint of his sterling examination results. For, as it turns out, the conniving Minister of Rites, the very illustrious official most responsible for guaranteeing the integrity of those results, has other plans in mind….

Rather than summarizing the many ups and downs of the novel’s plot, this review will stress the more thematic, conceptual, and literary qualities of Village Teacher. In doing so, it is apposite to draw from it certain significant features of the historical and cultural backdrop against which its story takes place.

As the 19th century drew to a close, the still-intact, but increasingly precarious, Confucian-based Vietnamese political system continued to be dominated by the mandarins, insofar as not displaced by the growing sway of the French. These scholar-rulers had to be proficient in knowing and emulating the classical texts of Chinese literature, with an emphasis on poetry and philosophy, two subjects deemed utterly essential to righteous and sagacious rule. The scholars were likewise expected to be expert calligraphers in writing the complex ideographic writing system adapted from the Chinese known as chữ Nôm. So exacting were the rules of composition that a single erroneous stroke of the brush on an examination paper could doom a scholar’s entire life chances (thereby opening up the ready possibility of someone tampering with the results).

In old Vietnam, as in China, this emphasis on literary and writing skills, combined with the examination system itself, was expressly designed to perpetuate the entire traditional order and with it, of course, the mandarinate itself. In a way that sharply contrasts with the largely “progressive” mentality that intellectuals have assumed in modern times, in the East as in the West, the mandarins were deeply committed to the preservation and continued practice of their time-honored cultural patrimony, much of it learned by rote. In consequence, as one character ruefully muses, this system made of Vietnam “a country where the status quo was the official policy and where [progressive] changes often met with punishment instead of rewards.”

Yet as Tâm is painfully aware, such classical scholarly training was scarcely a useful preparation for the practicalities of governing, let alone for conducting modern mechanized warfare. With all the modern technology at their disposal, Tâm realizes, the French had a commanding, if not always decisive, advantage over the Vietnamese armed forces arrayed against them. Accordingly, he recognizes that the Vietnamese of his era would have to learn from the Westerners if they were eventually to withstand or, come to that, defeat them. Moreover, as we quickly learn, the mandarinate itself, like much else in the Vietnam of that time (and since), was riddled with its own corrosive moral and intellectual corruptions, extending even to the very examination system that was supposed to validate the mandarin’s righteous claim to rule.

Thus from the very beginning the novel strikes its overarching theme of the wrenching struggle of modernization in conflict with entrenched Vietnamese traditionalism, based on the twin pillars of Buddhist-Confucian order (itself increasingly challenged on religious grounds by the spread of European-imported Catholicism). The deft master-stroke the author has hit upon to flesh out this theme is the gradual transition from the ideographic chữ Nôm (“demotic script”) Vietnamese writing system to the modern, romanized Quốc ngữ (“national language”) that is in universal use today (outside of certain religious and literary contexts). This ingenious literary device grounds the novel in a profound process of actual historical and cultural change, with the transition in orthography serving as at once a master-trope and as a running motif interwoven throughout the story. As such, it is crucial to the plot and its climax, inasmuch as it critically bears on the destiny of its major protagonist, Tâm, a man whose vocation is rooted in language and learning.

In one of the novel’s many subtly ironic turns, the village teacher is first introduced to the new writing system, then taught it, by none other than Giang, his French-Vietnamese love-to-be. As further irony, Giang’s family is Catholic and she herself was taught the new script by French Jesuits — the order of Catholic missionaries that introduced and perfected the Quốc ngữ writing system (all the better to convert as many Vietnamese to Catholicism as possible, by making translations of the Bible widely available to a literate populace).

For all that he is steeped in the ancient Sino-Vietnamese texts, Tâm quickly recognizes the advantages of the new, accessibly simple writing system; after all, he remains a modest village teacher at heart. Thus, he becomes not only a student but an enthusiastic proponent of the new orthography for the sake of his country’s progress, seeing in it a means of promoting literacy among his largely illiterate countrymen, along with the schooling made possible by it, eventually implying a less aristocratic-autocratic, more demotic-democratic, opening-up of the entire culture.

But, of course, the alphabet-based Quốc ngữ (with only 23 characters to learn as opposed to several thousand ideograms) represents a direct threat to the old order and to the grip of the Old Guard who sustain it, they being among the elite few with the wherewithal to master the classical system. The very prospect of universal literacy would likewise be seen by the mandarins as imperiling the political edifice devised to preserve and protect their rarefied place in society. Thus do the plot elements and the major themes of Village Teacher adroitly dovetail.

As befitting the native disposition of the language-haunted Vietnamese people, then, their language is at the heart of the novel. (For that reason alone, it is entirely appropriate that the author presents Vietnamese words with their full complement of diacritical marks, including tone marks — a remarkably accurate phonetic transcription of the spoken language, incidentally, thanks to the linguistic skills of no less a historical personage than Alexander de Rhodes.) Historically, the Vietnamese (like the Chinese) have invested aspects of their language, both written and spoken, with near-talismanic properties. Certain words are infused with awe and mystery, especially names, such as those bestowed on newborns and on royal personages. Correspondingly, there are strict language taboos, particularly when it comes to the many names and verbal associations that accrue to an Emperor. Indeed, the hinge of the plots to destroy Tâm turns on just such magico-religious taboos, and the novel will end with a lexical misapprehension, inciting an accusation that threatens to lead to his precipitous beheading.

To appreciate and enjoy the novel best, it is well to keep in mind that the tale and its telling are rooted in Vietnamese literary and dramatic traditions, both classical and popular, including what many consider Vietnam’s national poem, The Tale of Kiều, the epic verse novel written in the early 19th century by Nguyễn Du. As in the opening lines cited from that work, at issue throughout is the unending conflict between great human character (expressed as prodigious talent) and human destiny or, more ominously, Fate. The major protagonist, Tâm (much like Kim Vân Kiều), is obviously meant to be a paragon, representing an idealized portrait of a Vietnamese person of the highest talent, character, and grit. (His given name signifies a combination of “heart, mind, centeredness.”) As such, Tâm is depicted as a pure and chaste soul cast among the cutthroat schemers and malevolent brutes who populate the debased world in which he finds himself thrown. (The villains may be thought of as perversely “perfected” in their own way, depicted as they are in sharp, almost calligraphic strokes as venal, vicious, and vile.)

Although the story of Village Teacher is straightforwardly told in unpretentious prose (vivified at times by striking visual images), the reader should accordingly be prepared for some melodramatic, even “operatic” elements in the convolutions and coincidences of the plot. Indeed, in places the format can remind one of hát cải lương, or “reformed (Chinese) opera,” the hugely popular Vietnamese genre of musical drama, typically set in dynastic times. There are also mythic or fable-like dimensions to the story. Among them are dread portents of betrayal that well up in dreams and the uncanny way that vectors of the plot come together at certain times, what with the crisscrossing and interlocking of the fates of various characters, some of whom (unbeknownst to them) are related by blood, notably including misbegotten children, the issue of forcible rape. In addition, there are some touches of Dickens-like sentiment (or, more germanely, of merciful Buddhist compassion), such as poignant portrayals of the plight of orphans, abandoned children, and other innocent victims of forces quite beyond their control. (But then, Vietnam has had more than its share of such unfortunates down through the ages.)

Village Teacher also features several strong female characters (including the intrepid Giang and a daring beauty of a spy) who are also drawn in an idealized fashion, as is only befitting a Romance. As in The Tale of Kiều, much is made of the distinctly “modern” way of choosing a marriage partner on the basis of personal feelings and choice, as opposed to the time-honored practice of arranged marriages. Not that this comes easily in the face of parental pressure and the old ways of doing things. The most colorful character in Village Teacher is a crafty old bag of a matchmaker by the name of Bà Bí (“Mrs. Pumpkin” in English), who is adamant about dissuading headstrong young people from their sentimental modern illusions of romance when it comes to such all-important affairs as marriage. (It is she who pronounces the hoary adage, “Love does not lead to marriage but follows from marriage.”)

Combining elements of an adventure story, a political allegory, and a historical romance, Village Teacher is certainly not wanting in eventfulness. From the capital city to Tâm’s small isolated village, corruption and mendacity are rife, particularly among the rich and the politically powerful, but extending even to complacently worldly Buddhist monks. In the labyrinthine affairs of the royal court, there are insidious intrigues and machinations aplenty: blackmail schemes, bribery, moral extortion, and ruthless pressures to betray come to the fore. Spies and informers abound. Rivals or supposed superiors are bought off, out-maneuvered, or cagily manipulated. Treachery lurks everywhere.

The novel is amply populated with diverse types of characters, both high and low in terms of station in life, rectitude, and inner fortitude. There are those who serve as symbolic alter-egos or Doppelgängers of other characters, sometimes mirroring each other’s traits in reverse, sometimes evoking better or worse aspects of one character in aspects of another. There are love triangles and wrangles, with no shortage of rivalry and jealousy over love interests and potential marriage mates. Enjoyably, many are the ways that characters indulge in teasing and toying with others, sometimes in the innocent form of playful flirting or mirthfully outwitting haughty superiors, more often by taking malicious pleasure in discomfiting, belittling, or pulling rank over supposedly unworthy or inferior others. (If the Vietnamese do not have an exact counterpart for the German word Schadenfreude, or the French ressentiment, the novel suggests that they certainly have a well-developed comprehension of the basic ideas.)

Fate is a constant theme of the book (and nothing is more characteristic of a traditionalist culture than an unshakeable belief in implacable Fate). Behind the dramatic twists and turns of the plot, the novel can be seen as a sustained rumination on how the intersections of different people, with all their contending motives, can profoundly affect others in unexpected ways. As the novel proceeds, the reader comes to appreciate that Fate is not simply some nebulous, but overpowering, cosmic force (for all that it may be perceived that way by many Vietnamese). More intricately, fate can be taken to represent the whole constellation of forces — historical, political, social, economic, cultural, and personal — that shapes individual and collective lives and fortunes.

In a very real sense, for instance, the contingent fact that one has been born at all, and now exists, can be traced to the fateful moment of one’s conception, and all that led up to it, for better or worse. To a considerable extent, a person’s disposition and innate capacities are a product of one’s parents and the family one grows up in. In traditional Vietnamese society, as in many others, one’s lot in life can decisively stem from something as elementary and arbitrary as birth order in a family (which, when combined with gender, can make the crucial difference between being a Crown Prince instead of a mere highborn princess. And that’s not even to consider the likely dismal prospects of an outcast bastard child). So, too, with the political order and social-economic stratum one is born into. A whole nation may be at the mercy of fateful decisions made by some high-level rulers and generals a world away across the sea.

In more personal terms, particularly in the Buddhist worldview, the notion of “karma” is a cardinal aspect of one’s destiny as well. The notion of karma, both good and bad, plays an appreciable part in the tale of Village Teacher, often in piquantly incongruous ways. For instance, in the course of several pivotal events, Tâm is subjected to victimization along the lines of the sardonic precept that “no good deed goes unpunished.” At work is a perversely inverted psychological dynamic whereby well-deserved gratitude somehow gets transformed into spiteful “comeuppance.” When that happens, a kind of reverse-karma comes into play in human affairs, such that persons of stalwart character are thwarted and schemed against not in spite of, but just because of, their noble qualities and commendable deeds. (Human, all-too-human.)

But even karma is not simply a brute mechanical process, for as Heraclitus observed ages ago, character, too, is Destiny. As The Tale of Kiều proposed, history itself is the product not simply of irresistible predestination, but rather of exceptional character and human will locked in an unending struggle with all the consequential forces bearing on people at any given time. (If “Fate” chiefly carries a sense of predetermination, of one’s fortunes foreordained or foredoomed from the start, “Destiny” has more to do with innate talent and the willingness to act in keeping with one’s essential nature, bearing more on the future than the past; the Vietnamese word mệnh, like the idea of the “will of Heaven,” ambiguously encompasses both senses.)

The choice of marriage partner is entirely to the point when considering personal fate in traditional Vietnamese society, given the absolute centrality of the family to one’s identity, social place, and prospects in life. In Vietnam, it has typically been mothers who took the leading role in judging and recruiting suitable mates for their offspring, relying on the beneficial blessings of the heavens, to be sure. Professional matchmakers were commonly brought in to broker such arranged marriages, exerting their proficiency so as to extend a family line advantageously and enrich its fortunes to the maximum extent.

So it is with the services provided in Village Teacher by the wily matchmaker Bà Bí, who is more than willing to tempt fate itself should that serve the supposed interests of all concerned in a prospective joining of mates. In a wryly pointed twist on the theme of fate, Mrs. Pumpkin takes it upon herself to collude with her claque of soothsayers in order to “adjust” what turned out to be a prospective couple’s unpropitious astrological signs, all the better to satisfy her client’s express wishes and, not incidentally, fatten her own fees. Such are the human wiles that can bend even the star-crossed trajectory of predestination by realigning the course of the very stars themselves.

Given the tormented history of Vietnam to come in the 20th century, the author of Village Teacher on the whole takes a fair-minded, not retaliatory or recriminatory, attitude towards its non-villainous cast of characters, including the foreign ones. After all, coursing through all the political and historical particulars of the tale is a love story that is both bicultural and biracial. That forbearance also extends to the two most admirable French characters, Capt. Bonneau and a humble and good-hearted French Jesuit priest, Father Stéphane (known as Cha Phan), who recognizes that he at bottom has more in common with the idealistic Tâm than not. (Pointedly, both of these Frenchmen are fluent in Vietnamese and versed in the culture of Vietnam that they have come to appreciate for its own sake.)

The author is willing to recognize that the French (and the Christian religion they imported into Vietnam) had their own mixture of good and bad features. (As portrayed, no doubt accurately, colonial French officialdom is seen as not without certain mandarin-like qualities of its own.) While far from being an apologist for the French role in the Vietnam of that era, let alone the one to come, the author presents them as having perforce a modernizing — not to say “civilizing” — influence that the Vietnamese of the late 19th century would have been well advised to adapt to for the sake of their own national future. Tâm himself, while indifferent to religion and wary of its practitioners sectarian tendency to provoke doctrinal disputes, contends that fighting the Catholic religion per se is nothing but a great waste of energies best spent on more important things. (As if to underscore the point, both he and Giang have uncles who are temperate, salt-of-the-earth Buddhist abbots, who will play a moderating role in the plot.)

Spoiler Alert: The next five paragraphs divulge details of the novel’s climax in order to underscore the carefully constructed symmetries of the plot. Readers may skip as they will.

The story comes to a climax with an underhanded scheme to remove the capable and beloved village teacher from the teaching post he took over from his late father some years ago, thereby perpetuating one of the most traditionally revered positions of village society. Tâm’s cunning antagonist, drawing on both xenophobic emotions and the limited literacy of the villagers, paradoxically paints him as a traitorous proselytizer for foreign political and religious influences. Just as The Tale of Kiều has sometimes been used for bibliomancy (using lines from a book for divination or exorcism), so (in reverse) the villagers are made to believe that a French-Vietnamese dictionary (the Vietnamese words printed in both traditional and romanized script) is actually the tabooed Christian Bible. (To make the false charge seem credible, Tâm’s accuser points to an ideographic character of but two strokes that is misconstrued as a forbidden symbol. This represents a truly clever stroke of literary legerdemain on the author’s part, looping the plot back to the cunning calligraphic stratagem used to nullify Tâm’s examination results.)

For the crowing touch, the suspicious villagers come to learn that another supposedly sinister book printed in the new “national language,” far from being subversive of Vietnamese culture, is actually a collection of renowned Vietnamese texts. In short, the new romanized script, for all its foreign look and in spite of being devised by foreign missionaries, is just what will allow classical poetry and other literary works beloved by the Vietnamese to be disseminated far more widely than ever before, thereby representing a confluence of the classical and the modern that perfectly fits the novel’s overriding themes.

This development is also in keeping with the considerable sympathy the author expresses for the common Vietnamese people of the time, even the lowest of the “lower orders,” notably a pariah family of “night soil” gatherers (euphemistically dubbed “gold farmers”) who come to play a signal part in the plot. Indeed, an underlying theme of the novel is that the general run of the common people, with their earthy, animistic-influenced Buddhist outlook on life, were in many respects closer to a pure Vietnamese spirit than the erudite mandarins, with all their intellectualism and saturation in Chinese cultural influences. (The centuries-long tension felt by the Vietnamese over the penetration of Chinese culture into their own, from borrowed political models to forms of written and spoken language, is an undercurrent of the book, paralleling in some ways the fraught relations between the Vietnamese and the French.)

The novel’s theme of transition to the new writing system offers one final point, an especially pertinent and poignant one, foreshadowing an aspect of the eventual Vietnamese diaspora after 1975. For not only will the village school where Tâm taught become the center for spreading the new alphabetic writing system; the children who first learn the script take it upon themselves to teach it in turn to their older kinsman, thus inverting the usual teacher-student relation of adults to children. And so is has been on the part of many adult Vietnamese immigrants in the post-war era who have been instructed in foreign ways and languages by their children, rather than the reverse.

The novel ends on a note of cultural accommodation and tolerance as Cha Phan, the Catholic priest, and his Buddhist counterpart (Tâm’s uncle) come together to preside over a long-awaited marriage ceremony. Their joint participation proceeds not by disregarding or collapsing the tenets of their respective creeds, but by transcending them in temporal practice, all the better to promote harmony, tolerance, and the blessings of love between two human beings. In the end, the novel instructs, love may not conquer all, but it at least provides a saving human bulwark against the mulberry-red, blood-dimmed tides of historical fate.

As with any good storytelling, particularly of love stories, the reader of Village Teacher becomes invested in the characters and is keen to know what happens to them. Beyond that, the novel is intricately “dialectical” (in a literary-symbolic, non-Marxist sense) in its artful interweaving of its plot elements, characters, and themes. While the novel obviously bears on the many complexities and contrarieties of Vietnamese society, culture, and character (as entangled with the encroachments of the French), it consistently keeps to its historical setting and is not designed to prefigure in any detail the harrowing history of modern Vietnam to come. At most, it adumbrates many of the forces that would play out in the coming century, exuding a pained wistfulness as to possibilities thwarted, roads not taken, might-have-beens that were not to be. In that sense, although steeped in the history of its time and place, and suffused with politics of major and minor scale, Village Teacher is more of a meditation on the human condition and human destinies, as played out in Vietnam on the cusp of the 20th century, than an ideological tract, let alone a score-settling work of propaganda. It is, rather, a moving and gratifying work of literature.

A Day After Blizzard

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Last week, a day after this year’s Nor’Easter blizzard, I went to the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge refuge, only to find that it was closed because there was too much snow to be cleared. I turned around and drove to the Barnegat Lighthouse. It was still very windy, cold, and the sea was rough.

Barnegat Lighthouse after blizzard.

There was a small patch of blue sky right above the lighthouse.
Blue sky over Barnegat Light.

A young White-throated Sparrow was braving the wind. It kept jumping around, but I finally managed to get a shot of it.

White-throated Sparrow.

There was a small park next to the lighthouse. It was loaded with snow.

Small park next to Barnegat Light.

Higher in a tree, an American Robin did not seem to be too affected by the weather.

American Robin.

European Starlings were flying around and landing here and there, asking to be photographed.

European Starlings, with one offering a juniper berry to the other.

As I started to go home, I saw a cheery sign for an art gallery.

Wildflowers Too! gallery.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

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For many years White-breasted Nuthatches were a familiar sight in our backyard. Then, two years ago, smaller Red-breasted Nuthatches started showing up and have now supplanted their larger cousins at the bird feeder. This spunky bird is less than half the size of a sparrow but it seems to be afraid of no bird. Over this last blizzard, it put on quite a show as you can see in the images below.

Red-breasted Nuthatch.
Red-breasted Nuthatch.
Red-breasted Nuthatch. They are adept at climbing and grabbing on to any surface thanks to the strong claw seen on their backward pointing toe.
Red-breasted Nuthatch losing grip on bird feeder?
No problem, jumping right back.
There, in a preferred position.
Red-breasted Nuthatch next to a White-throated Sparrow.
Red-breasted Nuthatch.
Red-breasted Nuthatch, maybe making sure the feeder still had some seeds.
Red-breasted Nuthatch: “That’s it, I’m out of here!”

Birds in Blizzard

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Yesterday a Nor’easter blizzard blew through our region, dumping about 9 in (22 cm) of snow on us, while other parts of the state received 19 in (48 cm) and more. In some areas of New England it was even worse. I had food ready for our backyard birds and they came out in droves, consuming most of the sunflower seeds and suet.

Junco.
Two Juncos and suet.
Sparrow and sunflower seeds.
Chickadee at bird feeder.
Female Northern Cardinal.
Male Northern Cardinal.
Male Northern Cardinal.
Blue Jay.
Blue Jay.
Junco getting off suet feeder.

Lower Antelope Canyon in Monochrome

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Fellow blogger Marcus Puschmann recently posted wonderful black and white photos of (Upper) Antelope Canyon at the following link: https://streetsofnuremberg.com/2022/01/27/antelope-canyon-in-black-and-white/ . His post inspired me to look through color photos I took in 2013 of Lower Antelope Canyon, and to convert them to monochrome.

Both canyons are near the town of Page, AZ. Upper Antelope Canyon is the shorter of the two, but it is famous for a shaft of sunlight that falls on the canyon floor around noon time. Close by Lower Antelope Canyon is twice as long and not as famous, but it is easier to book a ticket to go see it. Both canyons have very similar look and feel since they were carved out by water from the same sandstone prevalent in the area. In any case, here are some of the photos I took, rendered in monochrome.

Near the entrance to Lower Antelope Canyon.
Lower Antelope Canyon.
Lower Antelope Canyon.
Lower Antelope Canyon.
Lower Antelope Canyon.
Lower Antelope Canyon.
Lower Antelope Canyon.
Lower Antelope Canyon. Note bird on the right.
Lower Antelope Canyon.
Lower Antelope Canyon.
Lower Antelope Canyon.
Lower Antelope Canyon.
Lower Antelope Canyon.
Lower Antelope Canyon. Stairs to exit.
View after exiting Lower Antelope Canyon.

Sky and Ice

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More photos of the beautiful blue sky from a few days ago.

High cirrus clouds.
Deep blue against white clouds.
Tundra Swan and Mallards.
Mute Swans.

In the above photo you can see the ice begin to form on the surface of the marsh. Down below is a closer look at the ice.

Ice in monochrome.

Sun and Wind

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It was a beautiful and cold three days ago at the refuge. After hiding for most of the week, the sun was out. The wind was blowing fairly strongly and lifted the clouds toward the heavens.

Cirrus clouds and a Canada Goose.

As I drove on Wildlife Drive, a Northern Harrier pair was hunting for food, such as voles and mice, among the low vegetation along the marshes. They cut in front of my car, disappeared in the grasses at times. I tried to follow them and only managed to get an occasional shot.

Female Northern Harrier hunting.
Male Northern Harrier hunting.

Meanwhile, ducks and geese took off in dramatic formations against the blue sky.

Northern Pintails landing.
Canada Geese taking off.
Snow Geese taking off.
Snow Geese taking off.
Snow Goose taking off: “Wait for me!”
American Robin foraging for worms on the ground.
Female Northern Shoveler preening.