Nature Talks.

Feeling Sluggish.

April showers have brought out the slugs. Like a lot of common animals I have a history with slugs and it’s not all happy. When I was a kid my mother showed me how to kill slugs by pouring salt on them and I went up and down the sidewalk at night with a big container of the “when it rains it pours”, pouring it all over every slug I could find. The next morning I’d find shriveled leathery bodies like three-dimensional commas, an interrupted life sentence.

Why did I hate the slugs so much? I can’t explain it because I loved snails. I collected snails, built little terrariums for them in empty jars, and spent hours watching them. Slugs were just escargot liberated from the extra cargo of a shell. If anything they deserved more respect for daring to go bare, but I think it was the lack of a shell that bothered me. Snails are builders, architects. They make a refuge and carry it with them, and I could pick up a snail without getting slimed, although I also let them crawl up and down my arm. Slugs, I thought, lived up to their name: sluggish. Lazy. Fat. Stupid. Slugs are unstamped coins. Big, slow moving boats. Hit somebody hard enough and you say you slugged them. And according to the Oxford English Dictionary was an insulting term for people long before it was applied to the gastropod.

That’s imposing a lot on slugs, none of it true. Well, I don’t know about slug intelligence, but their bodies are all muscle, as some friends who decided to fry them up in garlic butter since it was cheaper than going to a French restaurant discovered, and slugs can move pretty quickly, although I guess they have enough natural defenses that most of the time they don’t need to. Most animals either know or, like my friends, discover that slugs aren’t that appetizing.

I’m sure I’d also feel differently if we lived on the west coast where banana slugs are found and are even a school mascot because they’re amazing. I’d probably feel the same way about them that I did about snails. And I’ve always found sea slugs fascinating, from when I first read about them in my Jacques Cousteau books to when, on a trip to Florida, I found some hanging onto a piece of driftwood. They had amber bodies and azure gills. I carried them to the house where we stayed in Florida in a bucket with some sand and rocks and seaweed and watched them for hours. They crawled all over their temporary plastic home, occasionally swimming by curling and uncurling until they floated up to the surface then drifted back down. The next day I took them back to the beach and released them to the sea, not wanting them to die in captivity.

They lived in salt, the same stuff I used to destroy their terrestrial cousins. I don’t know if that’s what changed my mind about the sidewalk slugs but after that I let them pass.

Spring Storms.

March is supposed to come in like a lion and go out like a lamb but the one this year apparently didn’t get the memo and came in with summer temperatures and went out with ups and downs. Then the April showers started with a midday thunderstorm that was so bad I left work in the middle of the day. My office is safer than my house in a storm—it’s eleven stories of heavy concrete, not counting the basement that’s below street level, so while it would be a lousy place to be in a flood it’s pretty solid protection from tornadoes. Still if anything really bad happened I wanted to be at home to be able to deal with it. I walked from the office building in heavy rain—“downpour” really is the best word for it, and not just because a solid sheet of water was sliding off the awning over the door—to the parking garage where I’d been smart enough to park on one of the covered levels instead of the roof as I usually do. Then I drove home through rain that was so heavy at one point I had to pull over into a parking lot because the wiper blades just weren’t cutting it. When I got pulled into the driveway at home the rain had stopped and the sun had come out.

Spring storms are weird.

Of course it’s the kind of weirdness that, when you think about it, makes perfect sense. Winter’s cold slows everything down; it’s nature’s resting period. And then spring comes in, the temperatures go up, and it’s like the Earth stretches and, like a lot of us, struggles to get out of bed and needs a shower, a hot beverage, and a little time on the toilet to get going. It’s no wonder most thunderstorms hit in the spring, or at least it seems that way. I’ve never actually kept any kind of record but, again, it’s a kind of weirdness that makes sense. And after I’d gotten home, taken the dogs out, and had lunch the rain started again, followed by a rush of cold, because nature isn’t just waking up; it’s got a hangover.

The worst of it had passed by nightfall but I went out in the dark and looked up at the sky where dark pulpy clouds hung so low I thought I could reach up and touch them. A plane went over, lights turning the mist bright green and red and white, the people inside it cocooned from the dark, soggy ground below. Then I went in to get ready to bed, the spring wakeup having left me so tired.

A Spring In Their Step.

Famous Literary Rabbits

Bugs Bunny-The greatest of all Leporidae Bugs was originally based on Groucho Marx—hence the carrot which replaced the cigar, but his trademark phrase, “What’s up, doc?” and all his wit are purely original. Bugs isn’t just the pinnacle of rabbits; he just might be the best cartoon character ever.

Source: Tenor

Rabbit-For all of A.A. Milne’s imagination in adapting his son’s stuffed animals into the characters of The Hundred Acre Wood you’d think he could have come up with a more original name than “Rabbit” for Winnie The Pooh’s Neighbor. A bit crotchety and eccentric he should have been “Reginald” or even “Herbert”.

Peter Rabbit-Few writers understood rabbits as well as Beatrix Potter. Peter isn’t nearly as wayward as his cousin Benjamin Bunny and, let’s face it, while his siblings get blackberries and milk for supper Peter gets to spend all day stuffing his face in Mr. McGregor’s garden, which has to be a lot better, and was also a convenient way to get rid of the jacket he never really wanted in the first place.

Thumper-A lot of children were traumatized by Disney’s film Bambi but somehow I avoided it by finding Thumper a lot more interesting as a character, and also he was the one whose mother didn’t get killed.

The Velveteen Rabbit-While not really a rabbit until the end of the story but Margery Williams’s hero still deserves special recognition for goodness and endurance.

The March Hare-No one really knows what a “hare” is, and by “no one” I mean the average person like me who hears the term and thinks, What is the difference between hares and rabbits? I should look that up only to completely forget about it ten seconds later. Anyway, hares are larger, have forty-eight chromosomes compared to forty-four for rabbits, and have never been domesticated. And now the number of people who know the difference between hares and rabbits is slightly smaller so Lewis Carrol’s character belongs on this list. Also, unlike the White Rabbit, who serves the King and Queen of Hearts, the March Hare is his own boss.

Judy Hopps-While Zootopia is a film and not adapted from any literary work Officer Hopps is  a solid character. Honest, hardworking, ambitious—she stands out for being pretty much the opposite of most rabbits, real and fictional.

Source: Tenor

Harvey-Another example who’s not really a rabbit Harvey’s still special for being Jimmy Stewart’s pal.

General Woundwort-Richard Adams’s Watership Down, the epic tale of rabbits escaping the destruction of their homes was adapted into an infamous 1978 animated film that’s been shown on TV a few times. Well-meaning adults have turned it on thinking, “Oh, it’s a cute cartoon about bunnies” and left their children alone to be traumatized by, among other things, the rabbit Woundwort fighting a pack of ravenous dogs in a scene so violent and bloody it’s a wonder the animators didn’t run out of red paint.

The Easter Bunny-While always second banana to Santa Claus the Easter Bunny—originally the Easter Hare among German Lutherans—once also had his own version of the “naughty and nice” list and still brings baskets of candy and eggs to children. Sometimes the eggs are hidden and children have to go on a hunt for them which is a problem if no one finds that one under the couch until July.

John Updike-Honorable mention.

Night Birds.

The barred owl was back last night, calling out under the almost full and brightly ringed moon. A couple of weeks ago I was taking the garbage out in the dark, because of course that’s the best possible time to carry an overstuffed twenty-pound plastic bag around the patio, down a set of steps, behind the car, and under the deck where there’s no light at all. I heard the barred owl’s distinctive call, “who cooks for you? who cooks for you?” from the southeast, where there’s still a pretty heavily wooded area between houses. I stopped to see if another one would answer. We sometimes also hear great horned owls and my wife can hoot back at them and get them to respond, once even convincing one to move closer. I can’t tell if the owl knew it was talking to a person and thought it was funny or whether it was fooled and ultimately disappointed when the owl it thought it was talking to vanished.

In classical mythology owls are a symbol of wisdom, associated with Athena, although I think corvids rank higher on the scale of bird intelligence. Other cultures see owls as bad omens, though—they fly silently in the darkness and swoop down on prey, and they have those large, rounded heads. As with all anthropomorphizing, though, I think it says more about us than it does the animals themselves. They’re just trying to get through the night, take down a few mice, and cough up the bones and fur, which is a pretty efficient way to eat. Imagine being able to swallow a chicken whole and have your stomach strip away all the good parts so you could hack up the feathers and bones in a compact mass about half an hour later. It would make dining out a lot more interesting.

I’m not sure what the fact that I’m thinking about this says about me.

I was happy it was a barred owl and not a barn owl, which I know are around here and are very distinctive, I’d even say handsome, even among owls, but they make a sound like someone being murdered. And then there are screech owls, which I have heard around here. Their call sounds like the laugh of an evil clown hiding in the trees waiting to eat children, although you have to respect the evil clowns for swallowing them whole then about half an hour later hacking up all the bones in a compact mass inside the backpack.

After the barred owl my favorite experience is the night I was home alone and I kept hearing a repeating bass sound, like someone playing In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida just outside the window. Finally I went outside to investigate, because of course when I hear a weird noise the best thing to do is go and wander around in the dark to see what’s causing it. We have a big shagbark hickory tree right outside the den window, and silhouetted against the night sky I could see a great horned owl sitting there.

We stared at each other for several minutes, then I went back inside. It seemed like the wise thing to do.

What We Leave.

When I was a kid I read a book of Cherokee legends. The story of the beginning of the world stayed with me because, according to it, all animals, plants, and trees were tested by having to stay awake for seven days and nights. Some animals—rabbits, mice, even deer—fell asleep. They became prey for the ones who stayed awake: the mountain lion, the wolf, the owl. Some of the trees managed to stay awake too. These were the pine and cedar, so they would be evergreen. Other trees didn’t pass the test, and I still remember the line: “Unable to stay awake they would sleep part of each year, and lose their hair in winter.”

I’d never thought of leaves as tree hair before that, and not just because leaves grow back while most people I know who lose their hair lose it permanently, but I still liked the phrase. And yet it didn’t explain what, to me, was the biggest mystery of all: why so many people felt it necessary to rake and bag leaves in their yards. Most put the leaves in their garbage cans, as though the trees were purposely throwing trash around. It seems like an insult to the trees. It would be different if they were sneaking over to someone else’s yard and throwing down a bunch of leaves then running back in the middle of the night, like a bunch of kids having a toilet paper party. That is something I did once—a toilet paper party, I mean, not dropping a bunch of leaves, and even though I was a teenager at the time it still seemed like a stupid thing to do.

And at least leaves are bio-degradable. Technically toilet paper is too, but leaves land there naturally, and toilet paper tends to stand out against the landscape, at least as long as it’s fresh out of the package and hasn’t been used previously, but that’s another story.

Why clear away leaves? People love to see the changing colors: the reds and yellows of trees on hills in the all-too short, beautiful time before the fall to the ground, before they turn brown and papery and crackle underfoot. Once the leaves have been shed they blanket the ground providing insulation, protection, safe spaces for next year’s insects, and nesting material for squirrels and other animals. They’ll give back to the soil what they took from it, passing it on to the next generation. A clean yard is a terrible thing, the rake and leaf blower instruments of destruction.

Well, I do use them to keep the leaves away from the doors. Tracked in underfoot they won’t do anyone any good. We don’t need leaves in the house, where we sleep.

The Change.

A friend of mine told me, “I’ve been having these dreams that I’m running through the woods on all fours. I’m chasing something and I think that running on two legs would be better, but somehow I find myself going faster than I could on two legs, and it just feels natural. Anyway if I’m not around during the next full moon maybe this is why.”

And this is my reply:

Congratulations! You’re about to go through one of the great Changes Of Life. It’s like puberty in that you’ll get a lot of hair in places you never had it before, as well as extremely strong emotions, and an overwhelming desire to run around naked. Unlike puberty this isn’t a change most people go through, but I’m glad you shared it with me because I can offer you some advice.

First, it’s not the moon, it’s the mood. The moon may be full or it may be gibbous, and I’m not just saying that because “gibbous” is a funny word. It’s cyclical but it’s irregular. You’ll find it hits you primarily spring and summer, but also sometimes in the fall. Pray it doesn’t hit you in the middle of winter, especially when it’s been snowing.

Second, when the mood hits you avoid people. Just get away. This is where it’s also like puberty: you’re going to want to have some companions around you but you’re also going to be irritable and difficult to deal with, even for people who know what you’re going through. You’re also not going to want to be around people, and that’s for the best. Someone could get hurt and no one wants that. Also people don’t taste very good.

Third, keep a change of clothes in your car. While you’re going to feel better after a nice long stroll through the woods chances are you’re going to forget where you left the ones you were wearing. Figure out a nice secure place to store your phone, wallet, and keys. This should probably not be inside your car since they’ve all got this auto-locking feature now, and anyway you wouldn’t want to go off and leave all that stuff in an unlocked car anyway. Hollow logs are a bad idea because animals like to go back and forth through those and you don’t want a raccoon getting your credit cards. Putting stuff under a rock usually works.

Fourth, remember where you parked your car.

Fifth, yes, silver bullets can kill you. So can copper bullets, steel bullets, pointed sticks, rocks, getting hit by a car, and pretty much anything else that can cause serious injury.

Sixth, you may feel the desire to mark your territory. I recommend you do this late at night with the lights off. Your neighbors don’t want to see that.

Finally, relax, this is all perfectly natural. If you just go with it you’ll find it can even be a lot of fun, and most of the time it’ll just pass without anyone even noticing anything. Oh, before I forget, though, if some morning you wake up in the woods naked and smeared with blood you’ll want to get checked for tularemia.

Welcome to the pack, good luck, and here’s hoping we don’t run into each other!

I’m Not Sirius.

This is Sabik.

We’re into the Dog Days of August now with Canis Major just slightly ahead of sunrise, and it’s also the hottest time of summer when only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noontime sun, if you believe Noel Coward, and it’s also when I go out, usually to get the mail, although I’m neither a mad dog nor an Englishman though I was once spotted drinking a Pina Colada at Trader Vic’s, but that’s another story.

The Dog Days always remind me of something I once read in a book of folk beliefs: some people thought snakes went blind during the hottest part of summer. It’s one of those beliefs that can be reverse-engineered so that it actually makes sense even if it’s not true. Snakes get milky-eyed when they’re about to shed their skins and the end of a long summer of getting fat is when they’d be most likely to do that. So people probably found snakes with what looked like opaque eyes and might have thought the heat, or going out in the noontime sun, is what did it.

Sirius is the Dog Star, located in the constellation Canis Major, and the brightest star in the sky after the Sun, which makes it so distinctive, but it’s funny to me that, by sheer coincidence, my wife named one of our dogs Sabik, after a star in the constellation Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer, which, right now, is visible after sunset in the south—about where we’ll be able to see Canis Major in a few months when the weather starts to get colder. I know the snake-dog connection is really stretching it but the thing is if you reverse-engineer the connect-the-dot design of the constellations it’s only with our imaginations that we see dogs, bears, people, and even centaurs and unicorns in the night sky. Given how easily the eye moves from one star to the next, drawing lines, it’s amazing all the constellations aren’t snakes.

And anyway it’s amazing I can think enough to make any kind of connections given how hot it is and the fact that I’ve been out in the noonday sun.

I also found this cool interactive sky chart which helped me confirm all the constellations:

Don’t Touch.

Bright colors are one of nature’s ways of saying “Don’t touch.” Usually, anyway—when you’ve boiled a lobster and it turns bright red that’s nature’s way of saying “Grab the butter, it’s time to eat!” Also there are serious ethical questions about whether you should throw lobsters in boiling water while they’re still alive and nature has completely left it up to us to sort out the answer there so, hey, thanks for nothing, nature.

I’ve always had a fascination with nature so I think I’ve always known not to touch really cool looking animals. As amazing as octopuses are, for instance, I don’t think I’d ever pick up a blue-ringed octopus even before I read that their bite can kill you because, well, blue is not a color you encounter a lot in nature so it just screams “poison!” Or “you’re looking at the sky!”

It was only recently, though, that I learned that the scientific term for this is aposematism. How I got this far in life knowing that brightly colored and flamboyant animals are often highly toxic but didn’t know that there’s a specific term for it is beyond me but I have the zoologist Lindsay Nikole to thank for teaching me that term.

This is a very roundabout explanation for why, when I was out walking and got a glimpse of some little plastic dinosaurs out of the corner of my eye I jumped out of my skin because for a moment I thought they were real.

And even after I realized they were toys I didn’t touch them. It seemed like they’d been left there for a reason and I didn’t want to interfere with that.

Here’s the video that taught me the term “aposematism”. If you have a fascination with strange and colorful animals you’ll love Lindsay Nikole’s videos.