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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Swinging Before the Storm

I do not like to be outside much when it is hot, so Bow often ends up staying longer in the outer pen by himself, while I go back to the cooler, air conditioned inner pen. But late yesterday afternoon I went out with Bow, and the outer pen was unusually cool. A refreshing breeze, too mild to be termed wind, was blowing and everything seemed so inviting. Even though I had work to do on the computer, I lingered outside.


And as Bow was sitting on his bench, looking out at the dogs, it suddenly occurred to me that I wanted to try  the swing.


The swing is a bit high for me, as when I am sitting in it, my feet cannot touch the ground. It is not the best swing for a human, since the seat has been damaged and split in two, and so prior to yesterday I never really took the effort to try to climb into it. However, once on, it was kind of nice. And seeing me trying to swing, Bow came over to help. He did not mind sharing his swing with me.


Bow helped swing me from one side, then from behind,  and then he sat down on the stoop that leads from the inner pen and gently kept the swing going while seated comfortably.


I don't know if you can hear it distinctly, but all the while that Bow was helping me swing, a little bird was chirping about the impending storm. Because it was not suddenly cool out for no reason. There was a storm a-brewing, and this was one of the signs.

After dinner, and after Bow had gone to bed and the dishes had been washed, I went for a solitary walk to the mailbox. Teyman is no longer with us, but I have gotten into the habit of the walks I used to take with her.

A little bird was sitting on a wire and singing about the weather as the storm clouds appeared overhead.


Even as I went out onto the county road to check the mailbox, the bird redoubled its singing.


I could see it was raining in the distant horizon as I walked back to the house.



By the time I got to the front porch, the storm had arrived.


It wasn't a very violent storm, and it did not last long, but it left raindrops on Bow's bench, and it is nice and cool outside this morning. Due to all the moisture on the ground, Bow did not want to go out this morning. He asked to go out, but when I opened the door he refused to move. He did not want to get his feet wet. So we went back in, and Bow asked for his rug.

It is a pretty, peaceful morning out, though. We passed through the storm, and all is well.


Friday, June 28, 2013

Intimations of Mortality

Our dog Teyman died on June 24, 2013. She had been struggling with recurring growths for some time, and she was twelve years old, so her death was not unexpected, but it was still a sad thing for all of us.

Teyman arrived on our property as a stray on October 3rd, 2001. We had just moved in, and it was the anniversary of my father's death, so it seemed like some kind of omen.

Teyman and Sword on the day they met
Over the years, we have come to take Teyman's presence for granted. She was a very independent dog, and she loved to go hunting for her own food.


Bow and Teyman had an uneasy but respectful relationship. Teyman stood her ground with Bow and did not allow him to dominate her.


Life with Teyman was not always easy, because she had a mind of her own and would not always do what someone else wanted. However, when a friend was in trouble and needed to be taken to the emergency room in the middle of the night, it was Teyman who woke me up and insisted that I do something about it right away.

For most of her life, Teyman was a lean and slick looking dog, and she was spry and active. Only during the past few years did she gain weight and become less active. As she aged, she became less tolerant of other dogs, so I had to separate her from Brownie and our new dog Leo. Because she was no longer in the backyard, I took Teyman on walks three times a day for the past year and a half. This was good for both of us.


When Teyman died, Bow was sad. He didn't say he was sad, though. He tried to comfort us by saying it "just happened for no reason" -- זה סתם קרה -- meaning that it was not anyone's fault. And then he said he was not happy. But he didn't say he was sad.

However, he looked sad for the next few days.



Now, he no longer looks sad -- just a little thoughtful. Death is never easy to grasp and understand, even when we do accept it.


When someone we know dies, it reminds us of our own mortality. Sometimes we just need to process for a while. It's not a question of replacing Teyman with another dog. We have two other dogs, and Bow likes them. But sometimes he just wants to ignore Leo and Brownie and just swing and swing and think his own thoughts.



Sunday, June 23, 2013

Empathy, Literacy and the Full Moon

Last night was the night of the Strawberry  Moon. No, I did not get a good picture of it with my cell phone camera. So I will leave that to your imagination -- or you could check the blog of somebody who has a real camera.

But I did have some interesting experiences, possibly due to the full moon, and also a few thoughts to share.

Yesterday I ran across an article in the Atlantic about how literacy improves empathy. It was full of platitudes: reading about another person's experiences in a literary work (as opposed to say, low brow lit) improves our ability to empathize with others, according to the article. Then they gave some reasons why they think that, among them: literacy is something that has to be taught. Because it's unnatural, it makes us think more. And thinking leads to empathy, and so we are getting better and better, and are more empathetic than pre-literate people.

If you have connections, you can write anything in a prestigious journal and get it published. But really! That argument is full of holes. First of all, literacy does not have to be taught, any more than language has to be taught. It can be picked up, but it requires exposure. Like language itself, literacy is something few people would come up with on their own, because most do not invent their own language or their own alphabet. But with exposure in a social setting, we pick up the ambient language. And many children, including Bow, have also picked up the ability to read, without explicit instruction. Literacy happens when people who are pre-wired to decode are exposed to writing and language in a social setting.

Secondly, high literature predates writing. Many great classical works of literature, including parts of the Old Testament and the Iliad, existed as oral tradition before they were ever set down in writing. Writing does not beget literature. It merely helps to preserve it. And empathy, if we have any, is something we bring to literature: not something we gain from reading it. People without empathy can't get it out of a book.

Take Bow, for instance. He has empathy, because he can feel what another person feels without getting under their skin. He brings this empathy to bear every time he grooms me.


Bow has surgical instruments at his fingertips, and yet his touch when he examines me is soft and gentle. He can remove a mole with a single flick of a finger, and yet he examines each blemish on the surface of my skin with care. Like a doctor, he examines ears, eyes and nose to determine any signs of ill health or disease. But unlike most of today's doctors, he does it without asking for a fee.

Can empathy be taught? I don't think so. No more than literacy can be. It can be demonstrated,  but we cannot expect to teach it to an unwilling and unmindful pupil. My experience is the same with readers of my books. You can take them on the journey, but they will not suffer along with the characters, if their mind is closed.  To feel for another, you have to have feelings for yourself. Today, many humans have shut themselves down. They are blind  to the sights that surround them, and they feel nothing that they have not somehow been given permission to feel by the society they live in.

Walking alone yesterday evening, I stayed open to the world around me. A snake was lying across my path, so I stepped aside and walked around it. But then curiosity got the better of me, and I turned back and tried to film it. The snake, wanting to avoid a confrontation, seeing that I was not leaving, decided to go back into the overgrown pasture.


It was an eastern yellow-bellied racer, a friend later told me on Facebook. Racer is a good name for it, as once it made up its mind to leave, it wasted no time in executing that decision.



I peered into the pasture, where I spotted a beautiful flower, which a Facebook friend later identified as common milkweed.



I continued along my path all the way to the western edge of my property, then headed back. On the way back, I came across a turtle. The turtle, being slow, allowed me to take more time to observe it.



There was exposed dirt where the turtle's hind quarters were moving, and at first I thought it was trying to dig its way out of the shallow hole it was in.


But when I shared the footage I got of the turtle with a Facebook friend, she told me it was female three-toed box turtle who was digging a nest to lay her eggs in.


I left her alone, thinking that whatever she was up to, she did not need my help to do it.






 My friend says that seeing a female box turtle dig a nest in the wild is quite rare, because they usually do this in private where no one can see. But it was the evening of the strawberry moon, and the animals were coming out. I was glad I was there to see it.

Does empathy come from a book? I don't think so. Empathy means being able to feel for others, even those quite different from us. Empathy prepares people to understand what they read. It makes us better readers and better people.  But empathy is not found between the pages of a book. It is found within us -- or not at all.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Cycle of Life

Cherry picking season is over. I wrote about that this morning in The Feast Before Us. No more cherries. But that's okay, because there are other kinds of fruit ripening. It's part of the cycle of life, that every fruit has its season. Each comes into our lives when its time is ripe, and so we don't run out of fruit all at once. It seems almost as if nature intended it that way, and it's a part of the cycle I am happy to go along with.

There are other aspects of the cycle of life, however, that most of us find a little more disturbing.  If you are squeamish, you may want to skip the rest of this post, because it's about life and death and eating and getting eaten. It's not the peaceful realm of botany, my friends.



Today after lunch, Bow wanted to go outside, and he settled happily on the bench to chew his cud. I snapped some pictures.


Bow sometimes hides his mouth when he's chewing, as a mark of politeness, I suppose.But he was happy and content, and when I asked him to let me take a better picture, he obliged.


The two outdoor dogs, Leo and Brownie, were also lounging peacefully outside. Bow and Leo are good friends, and Leo likes to sit in a wrought iron chair right next to the part of the pen where Bow's bench is.


Leo has a brand new red collar that Sword gave him, of which he is very proud. He likes showing it off. Brownie was also hanging out close by.


All of a sudden, the dogs started barking and raced toward the south fence of the yard. Bow became very animated, too. I left the outer pens to go investigate. I asked Bow if he wanted to go inside, but he preferred to stay there and to display in the direction of where the dogs were barking.

I didn't see anything in the yard through the bars of the pens, so I assumed that the things that had everybody so excited was on the other side of the fence. But when I went to the front yard to investigate, there was not much to see. So I snapped some pictures of wildflowers, thinking it was a false alarm.


But the dogs kept barking excitedly and Bow kept displaying, so I went in to check what was going on in the back yard. When I approached Brownie, the mystery was immediately cleared up. He had the severed head of snake dangling out of his mouth.


He kept tossing it up in the air and then catching it and then shaking it around. I noticed that there was still some movement in the snake head part of the snake, even though it should have already been dead.

On the ground, a little way away, I found the other half of the snake. Or rather, it was the longer and hindmost of the two parts. It looked odd to me, as part of it didn't seem like a snake at all.



I knelt to examine it. There was a half digested bird, legs first, sticking out of the snake's belly. I was curious to see the bird a little better, so I picked up the remains of the snake by its tail. For a moment, the bird dangled out of it.


Then it fell to the ground. But the bird that landed on the ground near the headless snake corpse had no head itself. It was a headless dead bird, lying next the headless dead snake that had devoured it.



And there in a nutshell is the other, scarier, more troubling part of the cycle of life. We can feel compassion for the bird that was swallowed by the snake. We can feel compassion for the snake that was killed by the dog. And we can feel the excitement of the dog, who, even though he has more than enough to eat, still enjoys hunting.

Bow and I can feel for every living creature in turn. But we can't identify with all of them at once. That would be impossible. From his vantage point in the outer pen, Bow could see all of this. When the dogs calmed down, so did Bow.

I disposed of the bodies of the bird and the snake, then I went back to check on Bow. Was he upset? Had he been traumatized by the sight of so much killing? No. He was calm and happy, lying on the bench, chewing his cud. All was right with the world.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Things are Precious only when Rare

Bow did not even ask for his cherries this morning. He does not want them. He's had too many cherries lately, and he does not find them the least bit tempting, anymore. On the other hand, he finished his grapes.

Bow Looks at His Leftovers after Breakfast

The grapes are store bought, so I dole them out sparingly. The cherries are homegrown, so he can have them at every meal and snack time, if he likes.

Bow's Breakfast Table after Breakfast
grapes entirely consumed, cereal bowl with leftover flakes and cherries untouched
You can lead a chimp to cherries, but you cannot make him eat them. Of course, it wasn't always like this. If you have been following my other blog,  The Feast Before Us, then you know that at first, we anticipated the feast to come:

http://thefeastbeforeus.blogspot.com/2013/06/anticipating-feast-to-come.html

Then we enjoyed eating the cherries:

http://thefeastbeforeus.blogspot.com/2013/06/cherries-and-cherry-pits.html

And finally, to make the cherries more interesting, we also tried them in jello:

http://thefeastbeforeus.blogspot.com/2013/06/a-surplus-of-cherries.html

But the time has come to accept the facts: the cherries are less valued now that they are so abundantly available. It isn't a strictly human phenomenon or one that applies only to chimpanzees: to be precious, something has to be rare.

Have you noticed that food prices naturally tend to go up in a famine or fall in a period of abundance? It is not greed on the part of sellers nor cupidity in consumers. It is just a fact of nature. immutable and fixed, and it has nothing to do with money, except insofar that money reflects the most basic instincts of us all: we will appreciate it more if it is rare.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Nap Time

"Does he nap?" people used to ask me, when I told them that I spend twelve hours a day with Bow. When I answered "yes" they would then ask: "Well, then you must get a lot done when he is asleep?" And I would sigh and answer: "Not really. He wakes up if I am not there and gets into all sorts of mischief. He needs me to be right there. And I need to rest, too. We end up napping together."

Well, that was then. Bow was much smaller. He was more dependent. These days, while Bow and I still nap in the afternoon, we don't always nap at the same time, and Bow is so secure in knowing I am there for him, that he does not need to be in tactile contact with me to go to sleep.

Take yesterday, for instance. Bow was in and out of the inner pens, because it was a fairly nice day, though not too warm. Bow went out and watched the dogs at play, displayed at them and interacted with Leo, the youngest.



But then afterwards, in the afternoon, after spending some time out of doors, he asked to go inside, requested and got his tattered rug, and promptly curled up and went to sleep. He looked so cute lying there like that, with a content half-open mouthed smile, that I wanted to snap his picture.



But to do that I needed to unlatch the door that separated us. I was afraid the sound would wake him up, but it didn't.



His sleep was so sound, that I got my pictures, then went to the other side of the pen and got some work done on the computer.



This does not mean that I didn't get a nap yesterday afternoon, too. But I got mine when Bow was playing with the  dogs!  You see, it does get easier raising a chimp, after a while. You just have to hang in there and wait for the change to come from his side.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Living Off the Land

How many acres does it take to support a chimpanzee in the wild? How many does a human need if living a traditional hunter gatherer lifestyle? One study shows that for a group of ten humans living as hunter gatherers, the range is 5.6 square kilometers. As population increases, though, they are able to live more densely, so that a group of fifty humans only needs 18.8 square kilometers and a group of one hundred can live off a mere 31.6 square kilometers.

But can you imagine what it would take for a family of ten to own 5.6 square kilometers? One square kilometer is 247.105 acres. So a group of ten humans would need to "own" 1383.79 acres in order to live as hunter gatherers. The problem is that in order to own that acreage as against all comers, you would need an army to defend it. And that kind of acreage can't support an army. At least not a modern army.

As long as a group of aborigines live undiscovered in  a remote region, they can live in peace in the traditional way. As soon as a modern group of humans discovers them, they end up under the jurisdiction of a modern state, and to the modern humans allowing the aborigines to have exclusive usage of such a large plot of land seems "wasteful" and only a really wealthy group of ten humans could ever own that much land.

Humanity has been playing this game for a long time. Every time a new method for cultivating the land is invented, less land is available to ordinary people, and more and more people are forced to live in the cities, away from the source of their food. Today, even the self-sustaining family farm is under siege. People have to actually work at other jobs to help support their farming lifestyle.



The irony of this is that in order to live a simple lifestyle, you have to be rich. If you are not, you are required to assimilate to a technologically advanced lifestyle and to give up living off the land.

In sanctuaries in the United States, even where there are three acre islands available to some groups of chimpanzees, the chimpanzees do not live off the land. That's simply not enough land to live off, chimpanzee style. So then it turns out that to care for a chimpanzee in a sanctuary you have to pay a whole group of humans to do his laundry, prepare his food, and in all other ways provide for him. On the one hand, the chimpanzees are prisoners that do not have direct contact with the humans who care for them. On the other hand, they are waited upon by an army of cooks, bottle washers and laundresses. They are idle rich and prisoners at the same time and are trapped in the welfare state, just like many a human prisoner.

On my property there are wooded areas where the wind whips through the trees.


I have a tiny orchard where cherries and peaches and pears grow.

unripe cherries
unripe pears
unripe peaches


As the fruit ripens, birds take an interest in it and often are the first to enjoy of the harvest.



Eventually, we do get a few of the ripe fruits to ourselves.


There are also areas where all unbidden fruit trees and bushes have sprung up by themselves. This mulberry tree  grew in a ditch on the side of my private road. It is now giving fruit.




I have a five acre pasture turned savannah where blackberry bushes grow all on their own.


Bow can't go out there to pick the fruit, because he cannot obey orders and will not stop at the property line. He himself knows that it would be dangerous for him to leave the confines of his safe enclosure, so he is content to stay in the pens.


When we are not out interacting with the dogs, we sometimes have quiet moments of mutual grooming and contemplation.


Is the way we are living on a ten acre hobby farm unnatural? Sure it is. It's as unnatural for me not to have a thousand acres to roam in with a family of ten  as it is for Bow, but we have adapted to this unnatural lifestyle and are fairly content. We just need to add a few more members to our family to make our circle complete.

In an institution like a sanctuary, it takes at least  $15,000.00 per chimpanzee per year to keep everybody fed, clothed and housed. But in a home, it costs much less. Maybe someday the sanctuaries will start sending their "excess population" to be housed in private homes. I'd be willing to give them a discount!