Nature Talks.

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.

Nothing To Sneeze At.

In the past allergy season didn’t bother me. I feel guilty for saying that and perhaps I should clarify that I felt bad for my friends who coughed and had runny eyes and noses, even though it gave me the opportunity to call them up sometimes and ask if their nose was running so I could say “Well, you better go catch it!” and then I’d hang up as if they didn’t know it was me. And now I’m paying for that, although if there’s allergy karma it’s doing the equivalent of giving me the finger as it drives by. I wake up with a stuffed up nose and I have a few bouts of coughing through the day, all of which I’m pretty sure is because I’m allergic to something in the air right now.

Allergies are a weird thing anyway. I’m not treating them lightly because when I look at labels on various foods and see warnings about nuts, peanuts, or eggs it’s a somber reminder that for me they’re innocuous ingredients but for some people they can literally be deadly. One of my wife’s friends has trouble with food that’s been cooked near shrimp. A shot of epinephrine can prevent anaphylactic shock but imagine having to keep one handy all the time in case of accidental exposure to something most people take for granted. And all because some people have immune systems that overreact to something in the environment that should be harmless.

I’m not putting down the immune system. It’s a wonderful thing. It’s just that sometimes I think we should be able to communicate with our body, tell it to calm down when it’s fired up about something it should just let go. I have regular checkups with my doctor. Why can’t my major bodily systems arrange to have regular checkups with me?

“All right, digestive system, take a seat. First of all I want to thank you for all the wonderful work you’ve been doing. I also want to apologize. I know I should have been sending you a lot more fiber. I’m going to work on sending you a lot more bananas and cabbage, though not at the same time, and a lot less pizza and coffee. Thanks, and keep up the good work. Take some of that pink stuff on your way out, and could you send in the circulatory system next?”

It would be so easy, and I bet some of the underappreciated organs, like the pancreas, would appreciate the individual note of congratulations. Around allergy season, though, might not be the best time to meet with the immune system.

“Immy, you know you’re very special to me. You’ve always been close to my heart. And everything else, really, which is what makes you so vital. I appreciate everything you do, really. That stomach flu that moved in downstairs? I’m so glad you stepped up to take care of it. But we need to talk.”

At this point I would bring up pictures of pollen, pet dander, and, I don’t know, dust mites, maybe, and say, “These are not your enemies. Look, they’re just passing through. The respiratory system has them covered. Literally. With mucus. You don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. Capisce? Have some chicken soup on the way out.”

I know it can never be that easy. If it were a whole spectrum of immune system conditions, not to mention other systemic issues, could be wiped out, or at least dealt with a lot more easily. And I wouldn’t spend so much time trying to catch my nose.

Get Lucky.

Source: Wikipedia. I’ve found a lot of four-leaf clovers but never thought to take a picture.

I never had any luck with four-leaf clovers. At least not that I know of, although I have found four-leaf clovers. One early spring, as fifth grade was winding down and I think our teachers were tired of trying to keep us occupied, when it was finally sunny, when the mornings were cold but the afternoons were warm enough that we could go out without our winter coats as long as we did a lot of running around, we were released to the playground. I’d heard somewhere that when wild onions pop up that means the last frost has passed. That’s not really true, I’ve noticed, but it’s still a sign that spring is springing. The clumps of wild onions on the playground also meant the grass hadn’t gotten high enough for the lawnmowers to start running yet so it was easy to find whole clusters of clover spreading across the ground. Maybe that’s why a group of us stopped running around and settled down to hunt for four-leaf clovers. And we each found some. They’re supposed to be rare, which is one of the reasons they’re considered lucky, but they weren’t that hard to find. A couple of my friends each found a five-leaf clover, which I guess is supposed to be twenty-percent luckier although I’m not entirely sure of the math when it comes to clovers, and someone else found a six-leaf clover, and then someone found a seven-leaf clover and an eight-leaf clover.

There was nothing else special about the day, though, and nothing exceptional followed. I think I did all right on a math test the next day in spite of getting tripped up on what one hundred divided by five was. I kept some of the four-leaf clovers I found and pressed them in books, but the only result was that a few months, or, in some cases, a few years later, I’d pick up those same books again and find a dried four-leaf clover I’d forgotten about somewhere in the pages.

Four-leaf clovers are a symbol of Ireland, although they seem to get confused with shamrocks, which get further confused by the fact that no one seems to agree on what exactly a shamrock is, except that it’s more of a sham than a rock. One kid told me the clovers I’d picked weren’t really clover but pigweed, but when I looked it up “pigweed” referred to an entirely different plant that doesn’t look anything like a clover. That’s common names for you.

I’ve also found that four-leaf clovers, and clover in general, have some folklore attached that goes well beyond just luck. In northern Italy there’s a belief that if a traveler falls asleep on his back by a certain stream a white dove will drop a four-leaf clover on his chest and if the traveler wakes before the clover fades he’ll gain the power of invisibility. It’s much more likely that a dove flying over is going to drop something else on you and you’ll be lucky if you’ve got a spare shirt. There’s also a belief that if you eat a four-leaf clover and slip another one in someone else’s food so they eat it you’ll fall in love with each other, which seems like a terrible way to win someone over. And there’s a belief that a single clover—it doesn’t even have to have four leaves—in a walking stick will make the traveler lucky. Maybe the weirdest one is a belief that a four-leaf clover can prevent, or cure, a condition called “the purples”, spotting caused by bleeding under the skin. A few years later I’d wish four-leaf clovers could cure the pimples, but that’s another story.

Clover was just one of the grasses that popped up on the playground. I already mentioned wild onions, but there were also dandelions and henbit and that weird weed that sends up tall stalks topped with a seed head. My friends and I would twist the stalk around on itself then pull it so the seed head would pop off, hopefully in the direction of a teacher who wasn’t looking.

They were all just common weeds but they were a sign that winter was finally over, spring was happening, and summer was just ahead. They were all lucky in their own way.