Of Ewes and Groundhogs

I need more time to prepare for Imbolc.  Or Groundhog Day, whichever you prefer.  Candlemas for you Catholic holdouts.  February 2 has the trappings of a major holiday, but it lacks the commercial potential.  Too many people are still working their way out from under Christmas overspending and tax season is just around the corner.  Still, I think it should be a national holiday.  My reasoning goes like this: since the pandemic our bosses now have our constant attention.  They’re in our bedrooms, our living rooms, our kitchens.  I see those midnight email time stamps!  We’re giving them a lot more time than we used to and seriously, can they not think about giving us a few more days off?  Some companies strictly limit holidays to ten.  

Can’t recall where I found this one…

Others, more progressive, have simply dropped the limits on paid time off.  And guess what?  The work still gets done.  I could use a day to curl up with a groundhog, or to go milk my ewes.  (Being a vegan, perhaps I could just pet them instead.)  What’s wrong with maybe two holidays a month?  (We don’t even average out to one per month, currently.)  I always look at that long stretch from March, April, and nearly all of May with some trepidation.  That’s an awful lot of “on” time.  (Our UK colleagues, of course, get Easter-related days and a variety of bank holidays.  Their bosses, I understand, would rather go with the more heartless American model, but tradition is tradition, you know.)  What if I see my shadow and get scared?  What am I to do then?

Imbolc is part of an old system for dividing the year into quarters that fall roughly half-way between equinoxes and solstices.  I go into this a bit in my book, The Wicker Man, due out in September.  That movie, of course, focuses on Beltane, or May Day, but the point is the same.  Look at what happens when you deny your people their holidays!  You’d think that the message that showing employees that you value them makes them more loyal might actually get through.  Businesses, however, have trouble thinking outside the box.  Take as much as you can and then ask for more.  What have they got to lose by giving out a few more holidays?  Otherwise each day becomes a repetition of a dulling sense of sameness.  Rather like another movie that focuses on this most peculiar holiday.


Goodbye, Linda

It’s out of the ordinary for me to post twice in one day, but I’m compelled to do so by the passing of a friend I’d never met.  I’ll already published today’s post when I learned the news.  Linda S. Godfrey was a Wisconsin journalist.  She’s known for her many books on paranormal and weird subjects.  She was the reporter who first took “the beast of Bray Road” seriously.  I only discovered her after we’d moved from Wisconsin, although we didn’t live far from her in those days.  Fascinated by her work on the beast, I contacted her with some information I’d read and we opened a very occasional exchange of stories.  She was my very first Twitter follower, and she published one of my true stories (anonymously, by request) in one of her books.

I know that academically-inclined folks are dismissive of her work, suggesting she was credulous.  I always looked at it differently—Linda was willing to listen to people.  Yes, she probably talked to some people with mental issues, but here’s a true secret—all people have mental issues.  Although I never met her in person I had the sense from her writing that she didn’t simply accept what others told her, but she was willing to consider it.  I remember visiting Rutger’s University library while I was an adjunct there, to find a difficult-to-locate reference for her.  I mailed her a photocopy of what I’d found.  As I say, we never met, and we only corresponded once in a great while.

Seeing that her blog hadn’t been updated for some time (so this is related, you see, to my earlier post), I began to wonder if she was well.  Like most of us born to write, I knew it was unusual for her not to post.  Not knowing her personally, I didn’t think it polite to ask.  I’ve read several of her books, some of them highlighted on this blog.  Often dismissed as “only a cryptozoologist,” my sense is that Linda was hounded by the need to know the truth.  Yes, the world is a mysterious place—it’s not nearly as well understood as we’re often confidently told that it is.  Some of us simply can’t rest without finding out for ourselves.  Linda earned a reputation as an expert on werewolves—many suggest the beast of Bray Road was some such creature.  She recognized the tie-in to folklore but she also knew that monsters always, always cross borders.  Linda is missed already, and it’s about time I caught up on some of her latest books, for I’m compelled to believe she now knows.


Natural Wonder

I recently heard a talk about monarch butterflies that left me in awe, once again, of nature.  These remarkable insects have been in the news because of declining numbers—largely because of global warming, it seems.  We’ve only begun, however, to learn how remarkable they are, even with the head-of-a-pin-sized brains.  You might wonder why I’m discussing butterflies in November, but it’s not the first time I’ve done that.  Besides, global warming has made it relevant.  So what about monarchs?  Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that they migrate.  And to do so it takes about four generations.  This deeply embedded behavior shows an intelligence in nature that we’re reluctant to grant.  Still it’s clearly there.  I live in Pennsylvania and we have monarchs around here and they can be found as far north as southern Canada.

Photo credit: Kenneth Dwain Harrelson, via Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License

These monarchs around here aren’t the ones who left their overwintering spot in Mexico.  The earliest ones we see up here may have flown in from the Carolinas or the Midwest, where they may’ve been born.  As adults they feed on flower nectar, but to be born they require milkweed plants.  Monarchs only lay their eggs on this one plant family.  The milkweed contains a toxin that they’ve evolved to eat and that toxin gives them a really bad flavor.  That’s why birds tend not to eat monarchs.  So they reproduce in northern locations until environmental cues change the late season eggs.  These late season generation produces the butterflies that will migrate.  Instead of hanging around sipping nectar, they find south (they can tell time and they only fly on days with a south wind) and make their way to one specific area in Mexico to overwinter.  They don’t eat at that stage.

In the spring, hungry, they following blooming desert flowers north.  They follow the food supply, birthing new generations to carry on, until they reach the latitude they prefer.  So some stay around here, eating and reproducing until the cycle begins again in the autumn.  It might seem like a lot of extra work (consider what we do in the office all day and try to criticize) yet it demonstrates the remarkable intelligence of nature.  That migrating generation has to know to fly south and they have to be able to find direction.  Once there, and ready to return, their offspring’s offspring will (we suspect because of other species) know where their great-great-grandparents lived and they head there over three generations.  All of this is being endangered by global warming, however. Because one species thinks of itself alone as remarkable.


Shatner’s Space

We constantly underestimate the power of fiction.  It’s difficult to break into getting fiction published.  It wasn’t always that way.  When the pulps were still a thing often it took a thimble of talent and a handful of persistence.  Publishers were looking for content and those with typewriters were clacking away as fast as they could.  Ding!  Carriage return.  These days it’s harder.  This came to mind in thinking about William Shatner’s trip to space and his subsequent reaction.  As several news outlets said in anticipation of Shatner’s new book, the experience made him feel profoundly sad and not a little cold.  So much empty space and we still haven’t figured out how to travel fast enough to reach our nearest neighbors.  We don’t even know if we’ll like them when we meet them.

Others, in defense of space exploration, were quick to counter Shatner.  He’s not a real astronaut, after all, having spent nine decades earth-bound.  Or so they said.  But I think I understand, as a fellow land-lubber, where he’s coming from.  We’ve only really got one chance on this planet, being the only creatures evolved enough to type, to capture our thoughts—our essence—in words that can be preserved.  And wildlife statistics are showing an alarming decrease in other animals since the 1970s.  If we’re all that’s left and we can do no better than to elect fascists, well, stand me with Captain Kirk.  We look to the skies and see, well, empty space.  And besides, we need to get home because it’s supper time.

Image credit: NBC Television, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The reason Shatner got a free ride to space was, of course, fiction.  Star Trek captured the imagination of my generation and those with actual science ability started to put that kind of future together.  Today we can talk to computers and they still mishear us, often with laughable results.  But if writers of fiction hadn’t been available the show would never have succeeded and what would a Canadian actor have had to do?  Maybe a crime drama or two?  And even those require writers.  It seems to me that we should be encouraging fiction writers with talent.  Believe me, I’ve read plenty who really haven’t got it (often in the self-published aisle) but I know firsthand how difficult it is to get fiction noticed.  It’s like, to borrow an image, being blasted off into a dark, cold, empty space and looking at the blue orb below and wanting to be home for supper.


Bad Dog!

A few years back, it was, when I saw my first video of a robo-dog.  I don’t mean the cute ones that you might fool yourself into thinking, on an off day, might be a real mammal.  I mean the bare-bones, mean-looking robot kind.  If was, of course, being developed by military contractors.  Then just days ago I saw something truly frightening.  In a video from China, one of these robo-dogs with an assault rifle and a ton of sensors mounted on it, was remotely air dropped by a drone and began policing the area.  Knowing that fleets (I’m not sure that’s the right word) of thousands of drones have been coordinated for entertainment purposes, and aware of how much money and tech militaries have, well, let’s just say nightmares aren’t just for sleeping any more.

Image credit: DARPA, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Dogs, until they mostly had it selectively bred out of them, are killers by nature.  The wolf has to be a predator to survive in the wild.  As much as we like bipedalism, it has to be admitted that four legs (or more—imagine the robo-centipede, if you dare!) benefit locomotion quite a bit.  You may get a lower angle of view but a boost for speed.  And if you see a robo-dog, especially one with a machine gun for a nose, running is where you’d want to excel.  But we’ve taken our companion—our “best friend”—and made it into yet another engine of fear.  As someone who grew up with an inordinate number of phobias, I really don’t need one more.  Of course, it’s a truism that if a technology comes from the military it will be cause for alarm.

I’m capable of dreaming.  I can dream of peace and cooperation and what we could build if we didn’t have to worry about the aggressive, the greedy, and the narcissist.  Those who never learned to play well with others but who make money easily and spend it to bend the world to their bleak, bleak vision that lacks a happy ending for all but themselves.  I can envision meeting people who are different without the first thought being exploitation—what can I get out of them?—or fear that they wish to harm me.  Humans are endlessly inventive, especially when it comes to ways to harm one another.  If our creativity could be set toward working for the benefit of all, dogs would be for petting and drones would be for seeking out new ways to solve the problems that beset us all.  Instead we make them into new nightmares.


Stinging Days

It doesn’t take much to encourage wasps.  Even after a few unseasonably cold weeks in autumn, one warm day will bring them back, poking along the siding looking for a nesting place.  My most recent stinging incident occurred in October.  It’s fitting, then, I suppose, that to try to keep awake late one October weekend afternoon that I watched The Wasp Woman.  These creature features were what I grew up with, and this was a Roger Corman brief film from 1959.  In fact, it was so brief that eleven minutes had to be added to make it a stand-alone television release.  It was originally part of a theatrical double feature.  Finding out about added time explained why Dr. Zinthrop’s accent changed from the first eleven minutes to the rest of the film.

Women have the same right as men to be made into monsters, of course, but there’s a poignancy to this storyline.  Janice Starlin is the owner of a cosmetics company but profits have been declining since she’s showing signs of aging.  Her customers want a younger looking woman providing their beauty products.  As is to be expected for a movie from the fifties, it’s a pretty sexist storyline.  Still, through the plodding plot the viewer can’t help but to feel for Ms. Starlin.  So when Zinthrop shows up with an extract made from wasp royal jelly (a secretion that actually comes from honey bees) that reverses aging who can blame her for trying it?  Of course it turns her into a giant wasp woman.

These kinds of mad scientist movies with their inevitable results perhaps injected a sense of caution into those of us who grew up watching them.  They weren’t great works of art, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have something to say.  What I heard, watching this one, was that women exploited for beauty products suffer from natural aging processes.  And any formula that reverses aging come with its own set of problems.  The only other scary part of the film was when employees have to get to the upper floors to prevent Starlin from killing people, they have to wait for the elevator.  Their sense of frustration, although funny, is nevertheless a reality of working in a high-rise.  These movies from the late fifties seem to me to be a cry for help.  The sexist, button-down, white shirt world isn’t all it’s advertised as being.  Mad scientists are needed to help us cope.  Or at least stay awake on a sleepy October weekend afternoon.


Double Feature

Creature features were a regular part of my youth, and, I suspect, where my appreciation of horror films began.  Nobody was really afraid of Godzilla or other monsters that were clearly people in rubber suits.  The use of forced perspective to make regular-sized animals into giants was obvious even to a child, but that didn’t make such movies any less fun to watch.  The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews both involve gigantic versions of rather small animals and both of them were produced outside of the studio system by Gordon McLendon, the owner of a chain of drive-in theaters.  Looking for B-movies for double features, he decided to make a couple of his own.  These two didn’t cost that much, but the special effects artist, Ray Kellogg, agreed to do them if he could be the director.  Together they make quite a double-feature of their own.

The Giant Gila Monster is never explained beyond the effectively shot beginning stating the who knows how big some things grow in the unexplored west.  Not even using a real gila monster, the lizard (unlike Komodo dragons, which one expects, were too expensive and untamable) isn’t aggressive and seems, from my perspective, to be just barely putting up with the fake trees and models it has to crawl over and around.  And everyone, apart from Mr. Wheeler, is nice.  The local Texas teens want to drag race but Chase Winstead, the gold-hearted mechanic, keeps them in line.  It’s a perfect world, in a Republican kind of vision, except for that darned giant lizard.  Winstead even figures out a way of getting rid of it so the authorities don’t have to.

The Killer Shrews, in reality puppets and dogs dressed up as shrews, is more adult-themed.  Four scientists on an island—contradicting the voiceover at the opening—have bred giant shrews.  The supply-boat captain and his Black mate are trapped on the island by a hurricane, where the mate predictably gets eaten by the escaped shrews.  McLendon himself appears as an over-the-top nerdy scientist while the producer, Ken Curtis, appears as another, more action-oriented man of science.  In a move a little unexpected for the fifties, Dr. Craigis’ bombshell blonde daughter is also a scientist.  But she’d be willing to be a sea-captain’s housewife if only she could get away from these awful shrews!  There’s a bit more tension in this one as one of the scientists is already engaged to Miss Craigis, but he’s a drunk and she wants out.  So might some audience members, but both films found international distribution and made money.  Now widely available for free, they are a slice of childhood served up in giant proportions.


Gorilla Thinking

We don’t understand consciousness, but we want to keep it all to ourselves.  That’s the human way.  Or at least the biblically defined human way.  Animals, however, delight in defying our expectations because they too share in consciousness.  Take gorillas, for example.  Or maybe start with cats and work our way up to gorillas.  We all know that cats “meow.”  Many of us don’t realize that this sound is generally reserved for getting human attention.  Cats tend not to meow to get each others’ attention.  According to Science Alert, gorillas in captivity have come up with a unique vocalization to get zookeepers’ attention.  Not exactly a word, more like a sneeze-cough, this sound is used by gorillas at multiple zoos for getting human attention.  Even if the gorillas have never met in person.

Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

This is a pretty remarkable demonstration of consciousness.  What’s more, it’s an example of shared consciousness.  The same vocalization shared over hundreds of miles without a chance to tell each other about it.  We’re very protective of consciousness.  As a species we like to think that consciousness is uniquely human and that it’s limited to our brains.  Moments of shared consciousness we chalk up to coincidence or laugh off as “ESP.”  Funny things happen, however, when you start to keep track of how often such things occur.  It might make more sense to attribute this to moments of shared consciousness.  In our materialist paradigm, however, that’s not possible so we just shake our heads and claim it’s “one of those things.”

Animals share in consciousness.  We don’t always know what their experience of it is—indeed, we have no way to test it—but it’s clear they think.  I live in a town, so my experience of observing wild animals is limited to birds, squirrels, and rabbits, for the most part.  I often see deer while jogging, and the occasional fox or coyote, but not long enough to watch them interact much.  But interact they do.  Constantly.  These are not automatons going through the motions—they are thinking creatures who have sophisticated ways of communicating with each other.  Ours includes vocalization, so far uniquely so in the form of spoken language.  The great apes—chimpanzees and orangutans, according to Tessa Koumoundouros—also vocalize and do so with humans.  Now we know that gorillas do too.  And we all know that a barking dog is trying to tell us something.  If we took consciousness seriously, and were willing to share it a bit more, we might learn a thing or two.


The Birds and the Bees

Our house came with a wood-plank fence surrounding the yard.  This is a dog neighborhood and just about everyone has a fenced in yard to keep their dogs in check.  It’s more the birds and bees that have me worried, though.  The fence, which is in need of some attention, is bare pine stained redwood.  As the stain fades carpenter bees find it irresistible.  These insects are great pollinators and we don’t like to gas any creatures just doing their evolutionary job.  Painting that fence will be a summer-long project and one that requires far more sunny weather than we tend to get around these parts.  So we have a fence with several carpenter bee homes.  (These are ubiquitous insects in this area, with lots of people complaining about them.  We have, however, the only wooden fence in the neighborhood.)

The other day I heard a knocking while I was working.  I looked out the window to see a downy woodpecker, well, pecking at the site of one of the carpenter bee homes.  This industrious little fellow had three holes in the post by the time I got downstairs to startle him or her away.  Now, you have to understand that this is a large fence.  We didn’t put it up but we have to keep it up.  Then I thought, “I was worried about the carpenter bees.  Why should I be worried about the woodpeckers?”  Holes can be patched, and fences can be painted.  I hope the neighbors don’t mind a white fence.  In any case, I left the woodpecker alone after that.  Besides, I can’t be outside all day long—I have a day job.

Over the next several days the pecker became a regular visitor.  I’d be working and then I’d hear a now familiar knocking.  I decided to watch once.  I keep a pair of binoculars in my office because I see lots of birds that I want to identify—there’s a park across the street.  At the risk of the neighbors thinking I was spying, I trained them on Downy.  It was amazing how effective its bill is on a four-by-four.  It quickly cleared a hole, stuck its beak in, and pulled out a fat carpenter bee grub.  Down it went.  A centimeter to the right it repeated the procedure.  Carpenter bees, which are so territorial when building their nests, seem to have forgotten their young.  Perhaps it’s for the best.  This bird was one well-fed flier.  And I’d finally learned what they mean about the birds and the bees.


Ravens and Teachers

Humans, it is claimed, have a theory of mind.  What this means is that we know what others are thinking, or better, at least we can anticipate what they might be thinking.  This allows us to be self-aware and live in a complex society.  We can see someone else and infer what’s going on in his or her noggin.  This is often considered a uniquely human trait, but I’m not sure how widespread it is.  You see, I frequently run into the situation where someone expects something of me without telling me.  It happened just recently with an organization to which I belong.  I’m a very busy person.  I suspect most of us are—not having time to accomplish everything we need to get done.  If someone wants something from me I have to be told what it is and I have to be told in detail.

One of the things my students always said was that I was a good teacher.  The reason for this, I think, is that when I explain something I back up a bit before the beginning.  I try to assume no knowledge on the subject before going in a bit more deeply.  This method works because of my personal theory of mind.  These people wouldn’t be taking a class on this subject if they already knew the stuff I could assume.  For understanding something new, things have to be explained thoroughly.  That doesn’t mean taking a lot of extra time, but it does mean not assuming others know what I know.  For many people this is difficult.  We’re all busy.  We tell others “Do this,” without explaining what exactly “this” is.  The results are predictable.  It happens all the time in work emails.

I’ve recently written of teachers and ravens.  The effective among the former understand the value of full explanation.  The latter have a theory of mind that allows them to go as far as to try to fool others by giving not enough information.  We might learn a lesson either by sitting in the classroom of the former or by watching the ravens that skulk on the edge of civilized areas.  What they have in common is the ability to realize that others operate with limited information.  In order to learn, information has to be conveyed and conveyed well.  Even now colleagues at work are surprised at when I explain something that it’s done thoroughly and clearly.  When I receive information it’s often piecemeal and frustrating.  The reason, I infer, is that we don’t spend enough time paying attention to either our teachers or the ravens.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons, public domain

Following Instinct

An article from the Christian Science Monitor a few years back made me think how common knowledge runs ahead of science, but without the rigorous evidence.  The article is “Ravens might possess a Theory of Mind, say scientists.”  Of course they do.  The ravens, that is.  So do many other animals.  It’s pretty obvious when watching them interact on a daily basis.  We’ve over-flogged the idea of “instinct,” using it as a way of preserving the biblically-inspired idea that people are separate from animals.  We can be an arrogant species.  We say we get to determine when other species are intelligent or not.  When they do something smart we say, “That’s just instinct.”  Is it?  How do we know that?  And isn’t “instinct” one of the greatest fudge factors ever invented?

We do not know what consciousness is.  We claim it for ourselves and a few of our favorite animals only.  The ravens in the article show by their behavior that they know, or assume they know, what others are thinking.  I’m always struck how experiments set up to measure this assume a human frame of reference.  Paint a spot on an animal and place it in front of a mirror.  If it shows curiosity about the spot it has a self-awareness, a theory of mind.  Maybe other species aren’t as concerned about zits as we are.  Maybe they consider it vain to fawn over themselves.  Maybe they use sight in coordination with scent and hearing to identify themselves.  No matter what, at the end of the day we must say how our intelligence is superior.  (Then we go and elect Trump.)

Need I say more?

Scientists have to be skeptical—that is their job.  Looking for evidence and coming up with hypotheses and theories and whatnot.  That’s how the scientific method works.  The scientific method, however, isn’t the only way of knowing things.  We learn and animals learn.  We like to think our “theory of mind” makes us unique, but watching how animals interact with each other, even when they don’t know someone else is watching them, shows more sophistication than we normally allow.  Nobody has to be convinced that the corvids are intelligent birds.  Their lives are different from the nervous little finches and wrens, however.  Does that mean wrens and finches have less developed minds?  I think not.  Until we learn how to think like animals we have no business claiming that they have no theory of mind.  Maybe if we could define consciousness we might have a claim.  Right now, though, all we have are instincts to go on.


Smaller Wolves

It was in Maine.  In 1987.  I can’t remember how Paul and I found this place to camp.  I don’t remember making reservations, but we drove along in his 1968 VW Beetle, unpacked a tent along a  rutted logging road, and set up camp for the night.  We were there to try to find moose.  In the middle of the night we were awakened by howling in the woods.  We were many miles from any other humans and nobody knew where we were.  Were there wolves in these woods?  Paul turned to me.  “Wolves don’t attack people, do they?” he asked.  I said no.  He pulled out a very large knife.  “I was in the civil air patrol,” he explained.  “You know what to do with this, right?  If a wolf bites your arm, cut your arm off and run away.” Not the best advice.  As we drifted off to sleep we were awoken again by furious sniffing outside the tent.  The next morning we saw no moose but found tracks all around our temporary home.  We convinced ourselves they were wolf tracks.  They were actually tracks of coyotes.

Most people in America have a coyote story to tell.  I can’t recall how I learned about Dan Flores’ Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History.  I’ve always been drawn to nature writing, but it was probably the “supernatural” that caught my attention.  This is a fascinating book with a rollercoaster ride through emotional responses.  Flores makes the case that Coyote was the first god of America.  Indian mythology is full of this character and his antics.  But the heart of the book focuses on the many decades of efforts—still ongoing—of the government to eradicate coyotes.  Millions of them have been killed for spurious reasons, largely because the government pays attention to ranchers who pay a lot of money to be minded.  Coyotes naturally find their balance in nature, which we insist on disrupting.  One of their survival strategies has been to move east.  Even moving into cities.

I’ve heard coyotes in Wisconsin, and I saw at least one while out jogging in the early mornings there.  Since moving east I’ve not spotted any, but they are, I know, here.  I’m largely on the side of nature, but the first ever documented adult human wolf fatality took place in another place I’ve camped, Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia, in 2009.  Reading this made my human pride rear up—we don’t face predators well.  The book goes on to touch on how I, and many others my age, learned of coyotes—through Wile E. in animated form.  This book is difficult to read in many parts, but it is an absolutely mesmerizing journey through many lenses of what it means to be American.  Whether you’re canine, or human.


Normal Paranormal

One of my favorite televisions shows of all time is The X-Files.  I didn’t watch it when it originally aired, but eventually got a hankering to see it on DVD.  There are many reasons to like it, including its originality and the dynamics between Mulder and Scully and the sense that governments really do hide things.  As I rewatch episodes I see how much religion plays into it as well.  This post is actually not about the X-Files proper, but about a place in Bethlehem I recently discovered.  I’m not a preachy vegan, but I do like to support the establishments who make such lifestyles as mine much easier.  It was thus that I discovered Paranormal Pizza in Bethlehem.  I wondered about the name, figuring that it was paranormal that you could have non-dairy, non-meat pizza at all.

To celebrate Earth Day we decided to check it out.  The menu has a set of fixed items, each named after an X-Files character.  I was glad to see that I’m not alone in my appreciation of the show.  The pizza’s very good, and I’m sure the college-age crowd that was there would agree with me.  I did wonder how many of them knew the X-Files.  Is it still a thing?  Maybe recent government disclosures have brought it back into the public eye.  Hey, I’m a Bible editor, about as far from the public eye as you can possibly get.  Vegan pizza on Earth Day, however, just felt right.

Foodiness seems to be trending.  A great many options are available in the land of plenty.  Still, I know that vegetarians and vegans in developing countries exist, and many of them for similar reasons to me.  They know animals think and feel.  We promote the myth that they don’t so that we don’t have to feel guilty about exploiting them.  It seems to me that many of our world-wide problems would start to vanish if we realized we can evolve out of being predators.  Cashews and almonds can become cheese.  Soy beans and wheat can become meat.  And peanuts are about the best food ever, in any form.  Then there’s the natural fruits and veg.  Industrial animal farming is perhaps the largest polluter of our planet.  Yesterday was Earth Day.  I was eating a pizza made from wheat, tomatoes, and cashews.  These ingredients might seem a bit unusual.  Paranormal, even.  But that’s precisely the point.  I won’t be waiting until the next Earth Day to go back for more.


A Bird’s Life

Among the early signs of spring are birds.  Cold and silent, winter mornings have their own form of beauty, but hearing the birds is cause for hope.  The bird world looks cheerful and peaceable but it is a competitive and often harsh place.  My office window looks out onto a porch roof and a stand of trees across the street.  Electric wires constitute a part of the scene as well, giving birds plenty of places to alight and negotiate their bird business.  Like humans, birds are vulnerable, particularly when they’re young.  While teaching at Nashotah House, walking home from chapel one morning after a thunderstorm, I found a baby bird, not yet fully fledged, dying on the sidewalk.  I glanced up and couldn’t see any nests.  I’m not much of climber anyway.  Not knowing what to do I scooped it up and took it home where I could put it in a box.

I didn’t have an early class that day so I called a wildlife rescue center.  Being the days before the internet took over, this was a matter of looking it up in the yellow pages.  We piled the family in the car and drove it down.  They’d told me to keep it warm and try to comfort it.  My daughter held it.  Once we got there they said they weren’t sure if it would survive.  It was weak and chilled, but they would do what they could to revive it.  For several days we all worried about that hatchling.  I thought it might’ve been a finch because of the beak, but otherwise we knew little about it.  Several weeks later the rescue center called.  Our rescue was ready to be released—did we want to do it?

They handed us a brown grocery bag that weighed next to nothing.  “Open it when you’re outside near where you found it,” they said.  Back on campus we opened the bag and our foundling flew off so fast we could barely see it.  Adult birds, confident and socialized, seem more sure of themselves.  They perch out in the open even though hawks scan the area, and even the occasional eagle.  They go about their bird business with a confidence I sometimes envy.  They don’t worry about a 925.  They know what nature’s about.  They may have survived a near-fatal childhood.  They may have pushed siblings out of the nest to have thrived.  They peck and flap at each other in their efforts to mate.  And, above all, they carry spring on their wings.


Raven about this Book

Some books are meant to be looked at.  Being busy most of the time, even on weekends, I’m guilty of not enjoying art enough.  The Book of the Raven: Corvids in Art and Legend is a work of art.  In it Caroline Roberts and Angus Hyland have compiled paintings, photographs, and prints that feature ravens, crows, magpies, and jays, interspersed with facts, poems, excerpts, and bits of lore.  It’s not a comprehensive book, nor is it intended to be.  It is, however, a deeply moving book for a certain kind of person.  It was an accidental find in a visit to The Book & Puppet Company in Easton.  When we’re in town we like to support the independent bookstores.  (I was saddened to discover that Delaware River Books, one of the two used bookstores in town, had recently closed.)

Corvids are, on a scale, about as intelligent as we are.  They think, solve problems, make tools, and recognize human faces.  They remember acts of kindness and reciprocate.  They recognize their dead and they also play.  They’re very much like us.  The book includes, of course, Poe’s “The Raven,” but also other poems that draw inspiration from these smart, magnificent birds.  The artwork is arresting.  One of the great sins of modern life is its busyness that robs us of the time for appreciating art.  And reading.  Learning how to thrive in a world that has become purely about profit and ownership.  Art is intended to be shared.  An artist produces so that others might see.  A author writes so that others might read.  And corvids exist to bring wonder into our lives.

I find the strident call of jays comforting.  I often hear them even on my winter walks.  There are murders of crows in the neighborhood from time to time.  They gather on roofs and in the trees across the street.  Recently I spied a large black bird while on my daily constitutional.  It had left a tree full of crows and was flying straight down the path toward me.  As it flew overhead I had a good look at its tail in flight—one of the best ways to tell a raven from a crow.  It was indeed a raven, and even common ravens are rare in this area.  We live on the edge of their habitat.   I was honored by its momentary attention.  I wished I had more time, perhaps to follow that magnificent corvid and to learn from it.  Instead, I will ponder The Book of the Raven with wonder.