Thursday, January 28, 2016

Hooked on Downton Abbey

After six seasons I’m still wondering why a guy like me became a fan of the British TV series Downton Abbey. Not just a  run-of-the-mill fan – a rabid fan. I would rather miss dinner than an episode of Downton.

For the uninitiated, Downton is a period drama following the lives of the aristocratic Crawleys and their domestic servants at their magnificent old castle in the English countryside. It is set in the years running through the First World War and into the 1920s.

Downton first aired in Britain in the fall of 2010 and the sixth season, said to be the last, ran last fall. The series is aired later in North America with the sixth season now underway on American PBS, where I watch it.

The show, a sophisticated soap opera, has become wildly popular in Canada and the United States, attracting many prominent viewers. Michelle Obama is said to be an avid viewer, as are Chelsea Clinton and her parents. Other prominent fans are actors Sandra Bullock and Harrison Ford.

Boxer Mike Tyson has said he likes the show and hopes to land a role in it.

Those folks are among the estimated 120 million viewers who tune into Downton in 220 countries and territories.

For me, Downton offers relief from the constant mayhem shovelled out to North American TV audiences. It’s nice to watch drama unfold without shouting, shooting, wild smash’em up car chases, and increasingly inventive forms of physical violence. When I want to see that kind of stuff I can shut off the TV and drive to Toronto.

I also appreciate Downton Abbey because I know there is an end to it. Many North American series clunk along with hundreds of episodes over many years. They keep going long after their most interesting stories and characters have been exhausted.

Downton usually has seven or eight episodes per season. When a season ends in late February or early March, that’s it for the year. Nothing more until next January and by then you really are looking forward to its return.

Much of our North American TV fare looks and sounds like reality TV. Little is left for the imagination.

Downton is packed with subtleties. The expressions and dialogue of the characters are delicate and intelligent. The characters are no less nasty, sometimes even brutal, than those on North American TV, but it is nastiness delivered with finesse.

One of the nastier characters is Thomas Barrow, the scheming under butler. He’s not likeable, but once into the story you realize he is struggling with his homosexuality, which was a crime in the 1920s. The viewer comes to understand why he is the way he is and develops compassion for him.

As devastating as Barrow is with cutting remarks, the show’s champion zinger slinger is unquestionably Lady Grantham, the aged mother of Robert Crawley, the earl of Downton. She is played by the famous British actress Maggie Smith.

One of her classic zingers is delivered early in Downton’s history when she is told that one of her granddaughters is entitled to her opinion.

“No, she isn't until she is married--then her husband will tell her what her opinions are.”

In another scene, her granddaughter Lady Mary tells her sharply:

“How many times am I to be ordered to marry the man sitting next to me at dinner.”

“As many times as it takes,” Lady Grantham shoots back.

All the characters in Downton Abbey are complex and well fleshed out. Dislikable as some are, the more you see of them the more likeable they become, despite their faults.

Lord Grantham is an example. He is a military man of honour and conviction and an upholder of British upper class beliefs. The world he knew is falling apart and he is not sure how to handle that.

Despite this he is not a stereotypical English aristocrat bitter about his lot. He displays compassion and treats his servants almost like family.

Downton Abbey is a flashback to a time no less complicated than today, but a time when life’s problems were faced not as an unfortunate victim, but as a determined person with quiet resolve.


Thursday, January 21, 2016

More Heat, Less Ice

St. Nora Lake has frozen over, finally. The ice was five inches thick at the start of this week. Great news for the snowmobile crowd and winter anglers.

That’s the latest freeze-up in the 30 years that I have known the lake. If this winter continues to be relatively mild, breakup could come earlier than usual. The earliest ice off was a couple of years ago when blue water appeared the last week of March.

Later freezes and earlier openings are becoming more frequent for Haliburton County lakes and raise concerns about what is happening with the world’s climate.

New research indicates that freshwater lakes are warming at twice the rate of the oceans. They get warmer as the length of winter ice cover time gets shorter.

The consequences of warmer lakes are being seen already: the decline of native fish, the arrival of invasive species, more algae and other changes that bring problems. St. Nora was a great lake trout lake when I first saw it in 1985. Today it is considered a better bass lake.

More than three in four lakes above the 40th parallel (roughly the latitude of New York) have had summer temperatures rise 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit between 1985 and 2009. Some lake temperatures have risen more than twice that.

This information comes from a the Global Lake Temperature Collaboration, a new international research group. 

As of last week total ice cover on the Great Lakes was only 3.8 per cent. It was 22.5 per cent at the same time last year, 38.3 per cent in January, 2014.

The fastest warming Great Lake is Superior, which is 1,330 feet deep and holds 11 per cent of our world surface water supply. It has warmed 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 100 years. Most of the warming has occurred in the last 30 years.

Global warming non-believers say fluctuating temperatures and ice cover are normal and point to last year’s brutal winter. I remember it well – five consecutive mornings of minus 35 Celsius at St. Nora Lake. The previous year was no picnic either.

Temperatures do fluctuate but evidence continues to mount showing that the world is becoming seriously warmer.

Much the global warming focus has been on the Arctic where sea ice is becoming increasing thinner and younger. Air temperatures in the Arctic between October 2014 and September 2015 were more than three degrees above average in all seasons. The highest annual air temperature over land was plus 1.3 Celsius, the highest since 1900.

Land snow cover in the Arctic has decreased every year since 1979 and river discharges have increased during that time.

Looking at the weather forecast every day gives us an inaccurate picture of what is happening. For instance, the daily highs in Haliburton County for much of this week will be below the normal of minus five Celsius.

We consider that quite cold because the temperatures are below normal. However, that normal is based on records going back only 30 years to1985. If you looked at records going back 30 years before that, and even 30 years before 1955, you would find that the normals were much colder than now.

The world’s 20 warmest years recorded all have occurred since 1981. The 10 warmest years have occurred in the past 12 years.

The United Nations climate change conference in Paris last month agreed to do something to stop the rapid ice melt. The 196 nations at the conference accepted a 12-page document agreeing to reduce their carbon output "as soon as possible" and to do what they can to keep global warming "to well below 2 degrees C".

Don’t hold your breath. The Paris conference was all about politicians and bureaucrats.

Real change will come when citizens become alarmed by the mounting evidence, become willing to change lifestyles and demand that politicians take action.

Paris made enough noise around the world to create some hope that all that might begin to happen.

Here’s hoping. It’s nice to see St. Nora Lake open in December and March, but it’s not nice to think about the reasons why.


Thursday, January 14, 2016

Decoying for Ducks

I saw him from the corner of my eye. He was standing statue still, no more than 15 feet away, staring into a pile of snow-covered rocks.

He lunged forward, nose into the snow, and when he backed up, a chipmunk hung from the corner of his mouth. He ran down the trail, stopped and swallowed his meal.

That’s a real-life nature scene, I thought as I went back to what I was doing. When I lifted my head a couple of minutes later, there he was again, staring at me from a knoll not 20 feet away.

He was the most beautiful red fox I have seen in years. Young, probably born last spring, and absolutely prime. The fronts of his legs looked like he was wearing clean black stockings. His bushy tail was almost one-half his body length.  His face with its long snout, pointed ears and mischievous eyes was one only his mother could love.

Most of the foxes I have seen in recent years have been emaciated – thin and weak. A couple have showed patches of bare skin where mange has taken the fur.

This one was curious and not displaying much fear. I held my hand toward him and clicked my tongue and he took a couple of cautious steps toward me. The hand was empty and I had nothing to offer so he backed off.

I wasn’t worried about being close to him. He was wildly healthy looking so I had little concern about rabies.

You have to admire foxes. They are clever hunters who always hunt alone. Their lives, which usually last only 18 to 24 months, are a perpetual search for food. And, they have clever ways of getting what they need to eat, one of the most clever of which is decoying ducks.

Ducks are difficult for foxes to catch because they usually are on the water or in the air. So foxes will cavort on a shoreline, rolling about and acting crazy. Ducks are curious critters and when they see the fox antics they paddle close to shore for a better look. When they get close enough the sly fox snags one.

Early Indians observed this and began using fox skins to attract ducks. They tied ropes to the tail and nose of the skin. Each end was taken by a hunter who hid behind a bush. The Indians would pull the rope back and forth making the skin move like a fox acting silly. When the ducks approached, the Indians would throw a net over them.

Although they prefer to burrow underground, foxes will sometimes climb trees and settle in low branches to snooze or watch for prey. They also are especially good at finding their way in the dark because they have excellent night vision, and they have whiskers on their legs that help them feel their way.

They usually are quiet animals but they have a variety of calls ranging from yips to a high-pitched scream made during the mating season.        

Foxes are still hunted around the world as pests and for sport, although hopefully the days of killing a fox to put its tail on car radio aerial seem to be gone. Annual fox kills in Britain are said to be about 25,000 and a whopping 600,000 in Germany.

The British aristocracy still hasn’t been able to get past the cruel sport of running down foxes with hounds and horses. Britain banned hunting foxes with hounds in 2004 but the ban is widely ignored.

Members of the Royal family still have fox hunts, although they claim to use fox scent, not real foxes. A couple of years back people complained to police that a real fox was being chased by hounds and red jacketed horse riders during one of Prince’s Charles’ hunts.

Foxes, however, often are smarter than the hounds, horses and humans. Certainly they are more loyal parents. There was a report from England that a kit fox was caught in a trap for two weeks but survived because its mother brought it food every day.