Same Sun Here

Neela Vaswani
Neela Vaswani

Dear River,
I cannot tell from your name if you are a boy or girl so I will write to you like you are a human being.

The above comes from a book I’ve been reading for middle grade children, called Same Sun Here, by Silas House and Neela Vaswani.

My wife, a middle school teacher, brought the book home several weeks ago for me to read. She said, “It’s really good and you’ll like it.”

Well, I got hooked. It’s too good to put down. Teeming with prose often approaching poetry and vivid scenarios that can move hearts, it resonates those values that define the better portions of ourselves. I venture it’s one of those books you start missing no sooner you’re done.

Briefly, it’s told through a series of letters exchanged between two 12 year olds: Meena, formerly from India, now living in NYC, and River, who lives in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.

[Mamaw] says that the everyone used to write letters all the time and it’s a lost art form.

Turns out, these two have a lot in common, despite their differences in background and locale:

Both are close to their grandmothers.

Have fathers with out-of-town jobs.

Share an affection for dogs.

Are fond of mountains. (Mountains were part of Meena’s Indian childhood. River lives in the mountains.)

In New York, the buildings are in someways like mountains, but they are only alive because of the people living in them.

Are sensitive to the beauty and wonder of nature.

I usually walk through the woods instead of taking the driveway because it’s a different world there.

Are outliers. (People make fun of their strong accents and origin.)

Like to read.

I like that library books have secret lives. All those hands that have held them. All those eyes that have read them.

Silas House
Silas House

The Same Sun Here is primarily about the faulty way we perceive others. River had been told that people who looked like Meena were terrorists. Mina, that people in Kentucky were hillbillies.

Mamaw says that people don’t really care about people here because they think we’re a bunch of stupid hillbillies who are looking for handouts.

Hey, if this old guy likes the book, typically self-conscious young adults will like it even more

Having said this, I think some readers won’t like the book for its seeming political preachments. It’s big on environment (mountain top removal) and waxes enthusiastic over Obama’s election victory. (The story is set in 2008.). A book of several strands, it features the powerless and, thus, exploited and how they may still find a voice.

Climate change challenges us as well, menacing not only our quality of life, but our survival. I cringe with every forest leveled, diminishing resources, declining species, sulfur fumes, unrestrained growth, etc.

I like people who lay their cards face up on the table.

I like a book that advocates awareness of a wider humanity and the folly of stereotyping that walls out our fellows.

Too often, bound by cultural mores, we’ve only a corner perspective.

We need a wider view to forestall our prejudices. Achieving empathy, we’ll discover a surprising commonality–that we’re more alike than we thought.

Sometimes you write things in your letters that I thought nobody had ever thought before except me, but then there it is in your letter.

Or as the title nuances, the same sun here.








Expanding the energy portfolio: Utilities awaken

coalEvery month our local power cooperstive, Blue Grass Energy, sends us its superbly put together magazine, Kentucky Living, filled with helpful tips on home maintenance, gardening, recipes, recommended books, regional activities, events, etc.

With all its feel good staples, it’s easy to lose sight of its primary purpose as a public relations gimmick to elicit the public’s support. Your power company is on your side, helping you enjoy the good life, offering some of the lowest energy costs in the nation, largely through the state’s substantial coal reserves.

Its editorials, however, consistently make clear that this good life is under a black cloud via the EPA’s increasingly heavy hand, encouraged by Obama’s executive decisions restricting power plant emissions at heavy local cost and marginalization of its coal resources. In its use of coal as their primary energy source, states like Kentucky, not wealthy by any yardstick, will bear a larger cost burden than other states, which they simply can’t afford, the utilities say.

Tuesday is election day and according to the latest polls, Mitch McConnell. is poised to be reelected to yet another term and possibly become senate majority leader, meaning still more congressional gridlock.

Mitch says, “I strongly oppose the EPA’s efforts to shut down Kentucky’s coal industry. I will fight to ensure the future of existing coal-fired power plants.”

He has announced that one his priorities will be to defund the EPA.

His main opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, touted as the Democrats’ best shot at ending McConnell’s perennial reign, has simply been a mirror to McConnell on coal issues and climate change. She has even resorted to ludicrously painting McConnell as unfriendly to the state’s coal industry, including miners, even though they’ve repeatedly come to his defense.

As for Libertarian candidate, David Patterson, he tells us that “CO2 is not a pollutant in the quantities seen today.”

Fortunately, aside from the usual debacle of politics, Kentucky utilities are starting to get the message, with movement underway to harvest clean, alternative technologies. The East Kentucky Power Cooperative, for example (which affects our household) has invested $1.7 billion to help clean-up carbon emissions at its coal-fired power plants.

With the hand-writing on the wall, Kentucky’s utilities are pursuing a diverse energy grid, including not only natural gas, but solar, wind, hydro and landfill gas.

All of this will impose increased costs, but the alternative in the context of the exponential menace of climate change makes these efforts of acquiring a diverse energy portfolio least costly in the long term.






The UN Panel Report on Global Warming: Is anyone Listening?

Credit: ReutersStringer

If you’ve been keeping up with news about the environment, you’re perhaps aware of this week’s biggest news event, not the elusive search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, or the status quo of Ukraine, or the achieved pinnacle of 7 million enrollees under the Affordable Health Care Act, but the dismal impact studies just completed of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  At least this is as it should be, though you’d never know it, given the paucity of TV coverage of the Panel’s exhaustive findings (32 volumes summarized in 49 pages).

Turns out that yesterday’s coverage of the Panel’s released findings by news cable giants CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News was virtually absent, according to media monitoring service, TV Eyes, scanning Monday’s coverage between 6 a.m. and noon: CNN, 40 seconds; MSNBC, 20 seconds; and no surprise, Fox News’s total silence.

Only new comer Al Jazeera America zeroed in on the report, featuring an in depth analysis of the substantial effects of global warming on Bangladesh, which has been battling rising sea levels.

One of the Panel’s projections deals with emerging migrant hoards seeking refuge in other countries.  I didn’t see Al Jazeera’s footage, but I’m aware that India is feverishly building a wall to stem the influx of Bangladesh refugees. (By the way, if you like your news unbiased, al Jazeera is your best bet.)

This sad scenario of media indifference mirrors the largely disturbing absence of the American public’s concern with the issue of global warming, humanity’s greatest threat to its survival since its inauguration into the nuclear age in 1945 and the subsequent threat of nuclear proliferation.

For many, it comes down to jobs vs. environment, or the prioritizing of entitlement interests when the fact is that poverty is likely to grow, not diminish, and affect even the richer nations as global warming’s exponential effects take hold in the guise of drought, record heat waves, forest fires, fierce storms, reduced food production, disease and social violence. Global warming’s incipient effects are already impacting plants and animals and acidifying the oceans with deadly consequences for marine life.

Humans are the primary instigators of global warming, with carbon emissions continuing to rise, and China, the U. S., and India leading the way. Here in my state of Kentucky with its coal slave mentality, the state government has just cut annual coal mine inspections down from 6 to 4.  Sadly, I live in a state where many cars sport specialized plates, bearing “Friends of Coal,” and power companies wage incessant scare propaganda equating coal reduction with rising energy costs and job reduction instead of implementing focused research on clean coal technology.  As I write, a Kentucky coal ash plant has been caught by hidden camera dumping coal ash into the Ohio River and is being sued by the Sierra Club and Land Justice.

Again, Kentucky isn’t alone, but part of a mind-sweep that embraces America. For example, initiatives to promote recycling by outlawing plastic bags are continually defeated even in more friendly environmental places like Seattle.  (I have to confess I feel conspicuous, a seemingly rare upstart, when carrying my cloth bags into Krogers.)

In drought plagued California, swimming pools still adorn Malibu, ball parks sport well manicured grass, and golf courses like Pebble Beach and Cypress Point Club nurture their resplendent greens, even as farmers curtail their crops and California’s biggest cash crop of almond and walnut groves lie in dusty peril.

Golf interests say water consumption amounts to only 1% of California’s total, but omit a plethora of other environmental burdens like fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, which contribute to contamination of groundwater aquifers and surface waters.

This may seem off the subject, but there’s a new movie in town, Noah, that’s been drawing crowds, grossing $42 million in its initial weekend viewing. I bring it up because in my youthful days of religiosity I remember it took the biblical Noah a year to build the ark and round up the selected progeny of animals (although it escapes me as to what happened to the plants, since there’s no clear indication of their inclusion, though all the animals taken in were herbivores).

Anyway, the guy must have seemed some kind of crazy.  After all, the earth, nourished by mist, hadn’t ever experienced rain before. The gospel of Luke (17:25-27, KJV) makes analogy to Noah and his time, saying

As it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be also in the days of the son of man. They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day Noah entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all.

Looks like Hollywood missed a golden opportunity of transforming an ancient saga of environmental survival into a film of contemporary relevance.



Fall Fever in Kentucky


Autumn carries more gold in its pockets
than all the other seasons
.  (Jim Bishop)

Of all the seasons in Kentucky, I like fall best with its myriad days bathed in soft light, keeping company with tepid warmth and gentle breezes following summer’s humid heaviness.  I like the way it lingers, sometimes right up to Thanksgiving, a seductress stubbornly clinging to her teasing ways.

Fall helps creation catch its breath and prepare for winter’s long sleep. The prescient wrens, doves, jays and cardinals jostle for space at their feeder, fattening themselves for aerial flight to distant climes.  Scurrying squirrels ransack the ground, greedy for winter  provision.  Trees flame and flicker in a palette of oranges, yellows, and reds, a few of their leaves–emissaries of snowflakes–softly eddying their way earthward.

My roses renew their glory, liberated from summer’s scourge of heat and insect.  And I am also quickened, eager to cross over the threshold of human artifact to immerse myself in Fall’s last blooms.

Oh that life might be like this–languorous days when even time stands still and we wake to find our haunting ghosts have fled.


Cajun Music: Addictive!

Cajun music instruments
Cajun music instruments

I like to work out daily on our elliptical machine, or at least 5 times weekly for 30 minutes a session.  It beats taking a vigorous walk in often hot and humid Kentucky for up to an hour.  In contrast,  I can turn on the fan in the exercise room, plug in my iPod, and be serenated.  Lo and behold, exercise done!

One of the marvelous things about music is that there’s something out there for every taste and mood.  Most of us like a fast paced tempo when we’re trying to get the heart pulse up.  Lately, I’ve discovered that Cajun music with its dominant, happy mix of accordion, fiddle and triangle gives you real foot-stomping stuff, even if you can’t get into the French lyrics.  A vibrant variant reminiscent of the blues also exists, known as Zydeco.  It will remind  you of swing dancing and it’s both sexy and passionate!

There are a good number of Cajun bands out there and I don’t think you can really err in your selections, but I like Michael Doucet’s BeauSoleil the best.  He founded the group to try to stave off the decline of Cajun culture, especially its language, which remains an endangered species.  Back in 1950, half of the Cajun people spoke it as their language at home.  That’s declined to just 10% presently.  Cajun, by the way, comes from the French word, Acadian.

You probably know this, but the Cajuns are descendants of the former French colony known as Acadia in today’s Nova Scotia.  The British exiled them when they refused to accept British sovereignty in 1755.  Their homes and crops were burned and many family members separated.  Many, nearly a half, lost their lives at sea.  Their plight is memorialized in Longfellow’s Evangeline.

Ultimately, most of them settled in central and Southwest Louisiana (the Bayou country), preserving their culture for two centuries.  Cajun is the Acadian dialect of their forbears.   Louisiana today has about 700,000 Cajuns, though the vast majority are Anglicized.  Nonetheless, Cajun festivals are popular and frequent in Louisiana, with Lafayette their apex.

Be careful though about sampling Cajun music:  Like its spicy cuisine, its joie de vivre music can prove addictive.


Where are the songs of Spring?


Saw a sign yesterday that read, “Spring is coming soon.”  That’s something we’re all wondering about, even in Kentucky, where we’ve been having an unusually cold March, which makes it hard to believe the Kentucky Derby is merely six weeks away.  They say it may be related to melting glaciers changing our wind patterns.

But the real sign nature is about to turn generous was yesterday’s afternoon delight in seeing my goldfinch friends, busy at their feeder, newly returned from their long and distant migration.  I remember late October when suddenly they were gone, the absence of their aerial eagerness and bright collusion of yellow and black; the silence and loneliness of it, like saying good bye to a good friend who had brought abundant joy, “A quality of loss/Affecting our discontent” (Dickinson, “A Light Exists in Spring”).

I’m not a member of the Audubon Society, but I quite understand their love for birds with their bright plumage and merry song.  I think of St. Francis of Assisi whose kindness the birds reputedly reciprocated by sitting on his shoulders.  Sometimes I think they take their own measure of me in their aerial hideaways when I replenish their several feeders in our backyard.

Birds need our help these days more than ever.  I just read the other day that an estimated 100 million birds are killed worldwide each year by outdoor cats and other scavengers.

Diminishing canopy of forest and brush, draining of wetlands, and climate change add to the toll.  Squirrels and other rodents raid their nests, devouring eggs and young hatchlings.

Migration itself can be costly, with many killed and injured, caught in storms or flying into buildings, and sometimes planes.  Many are blown off course and show up in risky environs.  I feel bad that each year several of them smash themselves into our sunroom windows and I am left with their still warm bodies.

Some of them, hawks, are wantonly shot by farmers who see them as predators.  I had an unpleasant experience in New Zealand in hearing of a crusty elderly man who had nothing better to do than shoot hawks as everyday pastime in that gorgeous Taranaki countryside of lush greenery.  In Kentucky, especially in the mountains, hawk-killing takes on a compulsion.

Down the road and around the curve, I often see a sentry red tail hawk on a high telephone wire.  I like what I see when I drive past His Majesty.

I relish reading good poetry and there are poems, great ones by Keats and Shelley, Hopkins and Dickinson, that wonderfully excel in depicting the splendor of birds like “Ode to a Nightingale, “Ode to a Skylark,” “The Windhover,” “A Bird Came Down the Walk” and, sometimes their sadness as in Angelou’s moving “I know why the Caged Bird Sings.”

But I began with the subject of Spring and so Keats’ question of “Where are the songs of spring?” (“Autumn”) comes to mind and finds its answer, for me at least, in yesterday’s return of my yellow-jacketed friends.  Let Spring’s sweet song begin!

Be well,


A new rhythm that imperils: reflections on global warming

We owe our existence to it, yet we give it little heed, since it’s always there for us.  In my science classes we called it natural law, the material rules of nature that lie behind the structure and behavior of our universe.  Our earth, for example, rotates on its axis, allowing for alternations of light and dark.  It circles the sun with a mathematical precision on which we base our calendar.  There is the partnership of sun and moon exerting a gravitational force on a rotating earth that lifts and lowers its ocean waters with cyclic surety.  Like a camera lens set on infinity, the examples have no limit in their envisioning.

In sum, there exists a rhythm to the universe, which some have argued evidences a Mind at work, bestowing design and flowing with purpose.  Others, however, contend these laws are merely interplay of cause-effect mechanisms, devoid of intent and ethical regard, as reflected in Japan’s devastating tsunami in 2011, taking 20,000 lives. What we define as tragic is more likely our not heeding their operations.  It’s not wise to build on seismic faults or close to ocean shore.

As you may surmise, I draw comfort from these cosmic rhythms despite their indifference to our human schemes.  I know that tomorrow brings the dawn and, with it, the promise of new beginning.  In our human world, such fidelity is rare.

I find a discordant note, however, in our thoughtless disregard of those laws that sustain us, providing clean air, dependable rainfall, and abundant harvest.  In doing so, we’ve acerbated climate change, a crisis largely of our own making rather than merely cyclical change.  We’ve poisoned our air and water, slashed and burned our way through virgin forest, plundered our fellow animal species and squandered our water resources. Tomorrow’s wars are more likely to be waged over water, not oil.

In ten years, the African elephant, once a million, will vanish into memory along with the rhinoceros, all for the sake of trinkets and aphrodisiacs.  Today I saw the BBC news that sharks may soon become extinct, 100 million already killed, in a fishing industry that preys upon their fins to flavor Asian soup.

In our misdeeds, we’ve set other laws into motion that now imperil rather than sustain, generating melting glaciers that are raising sea levels and a warming tundra with potential for massive release of methane, a toxin deadlier than CO2.

Meanwhile, there was the media’s startling failure in last fall’s presidential debates to question the candidates on our generation’s most perilous challenge.  Locally in  places like Kentucky where I reside, cars sport “friends of coal” license plates and “environmentalist” suggests extremism.  Nationally, and globally, corporate interests prevail to uphold waste in the guise of growth.

As for the public’s response, I see its numbing indifference perhaps most vividly at grocery store checkout.  Though I provide my own cloth bags, I’m virtually self-conscious in my singularity amidst a sea of plastic supported by custom.

We are makers of a new rhythm, but this one brings no comfort.


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