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Thursday, May 29, 2014

You Win a Few, You Lose A Few

We are all happy and safe, but there is some bad news. I don't think the pea plant is going to make it. Looking at it with a bit of perspective, you can see that it is a relatively small tragedy. But I will just share with you some of the events leading up to this unfortunate melancholy outcome.

One day,  I noticed a pea pod emerging from Bow's pea plant. This was the same day when I saw the doe and the fawn, only a little later in the day.

Bow seemed indifferent to the pea pod and the pea plant, and in my presence, he always left them alone.

Even when he was displaying and the grid rattled from his assaults, the pea plant seemed safely anchored.

Meanwhile, in the evening, I discovered an odd green insect admiring itself on the mirror in my bathroom.

My friends on Facebook told me it was a stink bug, and that it would emit an unpleasant odor if I upset it. So I decided not to touch the insect and gave it free run of my bathroom, in the hopes that sooner or later it would find a way out.

The next day, I saw the moth flitting around in the outer pen. I assume it was the same moth I had seen earlier in the week.

It is very hard to focus on such a tiny moth, flitting about. Bow certainly did not think it was worth the trouble. But soon, while the moth was flitting, we heard thunder in the distance, and Bow felt compelled to reply.

We went inside. The plant was still attached to the grid. That was Tuesday, May 27. The 28th was a Wednesday, and Lawrence came to stay with Bow. I asked him to use his weed eater in the backyard, as my mowing had been inadequate to the task of keeping all the weeds down. Lawrence said he would try to do it while Bow was satisfied after lunch. Bow hates noisy contraptions like weed eaters.

For me, Wednesday is a busy day. In addition to running my usual errands, my daughter and I also met with family for lunch and table ice hockey. Then I took my daughter and her friend to their voice lesson, and a kitten there was so intrigued by the music that it insisted on climbing the screen.

For my daughter's solo, we used a beautiful arrangement of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" by Daniel Carter. It was a very special voice lesson.

When I came home, that stink bug was still in my bathroom. I decided to try to help it find its way outside without upsetting it. I coaxed it onto a paper plate and carried it outside.

I allowed the stink bug to take its time choosing which blade of grass it wanted to settle on. Feeling happy with its own choice, it did not emit any unseemly odor. Mission accomplished.

When  I went back into the pen to relieve Lawrence, I asked how Bow's day had gone. Lawrence said it had been good, but Bow had been upset when he was using the weed eater, had knocked things around in the pen, and Lawrence had needed to stop several times to calm him, before he got the job done.

This is how the pea plant looks this morning. There are no flowers. I cannot see any pea pods. And everything is droopy and not climbing the grid. Bow must have taken his anger out on the poor plant when Lawrence was out in the yard weed eating.

You win a few, you lose a few. All things considered, this is a very small tragedy indeed.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Doe and the Fawn

This morning, as I was puttering in the kitchen getting breakfast ready, I saw a doe and a fawn in the front yard. Now I have seen deer there before, but this was a most unusual sight. The fawn looked like a newborn, unsteady on its feet, so much smaller than the mother. I just had to get a picture!

I grabbed the cellphone and started filming them through the front door screen.

But this was highly unsatisfactory, and even though I could see them clearly with the naked eye, in the camera even with magnification, they were almost invisible. So I decided to open the front door and step out. Big mistake!

As soon as I came out, the doe made a dash for it, but the fawn could not keep up. It was dazed and disoriented and ended up stranded by the foliage under the poplar trees. I could see it clearly, so I decided to go there, and the doe circled back a couple of times, but seeing me, she ran away.

When I approached the fawn, it was doing the closest thing to sticking its head in the sand that it could do. Its tail up in the air and its head hidden beneath the foliage, it hoped I would just mistake it for some inanimate object.

 I did not touch. I backed off and went to the porch, hoping I could get a really good shot of the doe coming back for the fawn. However, when that did not happen after a few moments, I returned to the fawn, who had gotten tired of its initial pose.

I decided the doe needed me to not be anywhere in sight so she could come back and save her baby. I went back inside.

Back in the house, the tea kettle was whistling, and Bow was upset with me. I set up the breakfast things, and before asking me for a food item, Bow spelled: "That was not good."

"Do you mean that it was separated from the mother?"


"Do you think the mother will come back?"

"Yes. Give me an apple."

Bow is practical like that. When I went back out after breakfast, the fawn was gone. I hope the mother really did come back for it. I would have liked to film that, but my presence was not a good thing for the mother and the baby.

I really need to get a good camera with a telephoto lens, so I can film the wildlife without disturbing.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Pea and the Moth and Dominance Displays

The big news in the outer pens is that there is a pea flower blooming. I spotted it last night.

Anyway, that's what I think the big news is. But as far as Bow is concerned, the big news, today and every day, is that he is getting bigger and stronger every single day, and he displays to show off his prowess.

This morning, while I was taking an interest in the pea flower, Bow was doing his own thing.

I am not phased by Bow's displays, no matter how magnificent. What I want to know is: what happened to the flower? Why was it so big yesterday? Why is it so much smaller today?

Is it a function of the time of day, the amount of sunlight or the presence of marauding chimpanzees? I know that flowers tend to close at night and open in the day, but do they also shrink when they sense danger? Or is this just another phase of the development of the flower, on its way to becoming a pea pod? I have no idea. Only time will tell.

I can tell you that chimpanzees puff themselves up during a display, looking much larger than they actually are, their hair standing on end. Then when the display is over, they go back to being the much smaller, sweeter creatures that we know them to be. While Bow was resting up from one of his displays, I spotted a moth in the pen.

What was the moth doing there? What was its mission? Was it confused by the conflict between the dogs and Bow? Did it get sucked into the grid of the pen by mistake? Or was it attracted by the shrunken pea flower?

The ways of nature are truly mysterious. But I can tell you this: Bow is not alone when he goes to the outer pen. There are the dogs and the pea plants, the flower and the moth to keep him company.

With so much companionship, how could anyone get lonely?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Getting to Know Turtles

There might be hundreds of turtles living on my land. But I only encounter a turtle once in a good long while. When I do, I stop to take a picture, but the truth is I'm not very good at recognizing turtles. They all look the same to me, more or less. And I don't know if the differences that I do notice are personal, individual differences, or based on species and sex. So when I met the female three-toed box turtle yesterday on my walk, I did not know if I had ever seen her before.

In fact, I did not even know she was a female till my friend Pam told me. I spotted her on my walk out to the pasture.

I stopped to look, snapped some pictures and proceeded on my walk. But I saw her again on my way back to the house.

She looked so familiar. Had I ever seen her before?

I had seen a female turtle digging a nest last year in June, on the night of the strawberry moon. Could this be the same one? The odds seemed slim, but I dug up that old video to look at.

I showed the video to Pam, who is my turtle expert, and she confirmed it was the same turtle! So now this female three-toed box turtle and I have a history. Maybe we'll recognize each other next time we meet!

Getting to know someone is a long and complicated process. Sometimes, when we meet someone from a different species, culture or race, we mistake general traits for individual traits, and we may not realize what it is that makes this individual truly special. It makes me think of the song "Getting to Know You" from the King and I,  which I like to imagine is about this issue.

Getting to know someone can be a lifetime process, as hypothesis after hypothesis about what makes them uniquely who they are is thrown out when new evidence emerges that falsifies the previous hypothesis. Many people, however, do  not even bother to look for evidence to falsify their initial hypothesis, and then they live with a stereotype of the person they know, instead of the person himself. These are the people who are doomed to be eternal strangers, no matter how long we have known them.

Bow and I are still in the process of getting to know each other. I don't always understand what makes him tick. I can't always anticipate with certainty what he is going to do or say.

There is nothing like a grooming session to bring two individuals closer together. I feel I know him very well.

 But there are times when Bow is being very thoughtful, when I still don't know what is going through his mind.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Making Progress

Outside, nature is making progress. It does not stand still. I go for a walk every day after lunch, and every day I spot changes. The dogwoods have lost their showy petals that are merely bracts. The green cherries are getting bigger. The tulip tree blossoms have opened, and flies and wasps, bumble bees and smaller bees all are congregating there to get something they like, something that is available for free, there for the picking. Are all those insects there to work, toiling for their keep, or are they there just to have fun? It is hard to tell. But one thing is for sure:  they are making progress. Whatever their goals are, they are being furthered by all this activity.

Bow goes out and sits on the bench and observes what is going on, and he is sometimes active and sometimes passive, and it is hard to say what progress he is making. I am finishing up a project. Soon my new novel will be out, Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain.  Does Bow know about it? Sure, he does. I read him scenes out loud. If they are too emotional, he gets upset. I show him the different versions of the book trailer.

I am making progress with my current project. The birds and the bees and the flowers are making progress with their projects outside.  But what about Bow? Is he making progress? It is sometimes hard to tell, but I think that he is.

After he watched the trailer of my book, he selected another related video to watch.

He sat and watched the video quietly.

Bow has resisted using his touchscreen computer, because he sees that as work. I have not been forcing the issue and neither has Lawrence. If you let him have at the touchscreen, he just finds some way to disable it by touching way too many things all at once in random order. But see how deliberately he left-clicks on my worn out mousepad.

If we watch too closely, it seems as if everything is standing still, and we are making no progress. But in reality, every day brings a progression of new things. It's easy to miss, unless you step back for a moment and get some perspective. I like this post by Julie Deneen about how we can have more than one ball in the air and it does not matter if everything we work on comes to full fruition and just the way we planned.

We don't have to be working all the time like toilers in the field, deliberately bringing every project to  a close. Sometimes seeds plant themselves, sometimes they germinate on their own, sometimes mighty trees grow from little saplings. Come walk with me and see how many trees are growing in Bow's pasture that were not there before!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Turtle as Well

Yesterday was the day of the toad. But that same day, after lunch, when I went for my walk, I saw a turtle as well.

He was out in the open, his head held high, in the southern five acres  not too far from the woods on the east and the overgrown pasture in the West.

Unlike the most recent turtle I saw, who would rather drown than let me see it moving, this turtle did not mind letting me observe it walking. It had no trouble coming out of its shell.

My friend Pam, who is a turtle expert, told me it was a male three-toed box turtle, considerably older than the one I saved from the dogs on the day when it rained. Pam thinks there is a large turtle population living on my land. She said I should consider putting out fresh corn and bread so that the wild turtles would come visit me.

The problem is I don't have any fresh corn and bread. I am trying to cut down on carbs. Why couldn't the turtles fill up on milk and bacon? Pam says reptiles can't drink milk, just because they are not mammals. But tell that to the snake charmers. I don't think milk was invented just for mammals. I think it must be a substance that pre-mammalians liked, or else we could not have gotten here from there.

Anyway, for the time being, the turtles on my land will just have to fend for themselves, and I will make do with chance encounters. It's actually more fun when seeing a turtle is a surprise.

Bow enjoyed his own outdoor time yesterday, mostly being lazy in the outer pen.

Last night, it rained, and now the outer pen is wet, and Bow does not want to go outside. I thought I would entertain him by showing him the video of the turtle on YouTube. But we got a 500 internal service error screen.

Bow thought it was his fault, so he kept randomly pressing keys, trying to correct the problem.

I had a very hard time explaining to him that there was nothing he could do to fix it.

Don't you hate it when it's not your chimp's fault, but YouTube is blaming all its technical problems on non-human primates? I told Bow it was actually the people at Google who were to blame. Eventually, he believed me.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Of Dogs and Frogs -- Or Toads

This morning, I went outside to mow the lawn in the backyard. Bow watched me from the pens. The grass had grown considerably since the last mowing, and the skies were cloudy. It looked as if it might rain, and the air had a kind of greenish sheen, as in tropical weather.

I started to mow, but I spotted a little creature under the trampoline. It was a frog. No, actually not a frog. A Bufo Americanus or American toad, my friend Sena later told me. At first the dogs did not notice it, but as soon as they did, Brownie was eager to catch it. I had to tell him "No!"

Brownie is a chocolate lab and the sweetest, kindest dog you could possibly know. Some people, when they first see him, are taken aback, and say things like: "That's a very big dog. Does he bite?" Well, he certainly wanted to bite that toad. But when I told him "No", he backed off. You could see on his face how very much he wanted it, but he also accepted my authority, and he deferred to me.

Of the two, Leo, the smaller and younger, is currently more dangerous, because he is more rambunctious and less obedient. Not dangerous to us, but to frogs, certainly.

In yesterday's discussion of violence and dogs, I neglected to mention this fact: up until recently, dogs were entrusted with guarding the home. They were expected to show utter loyalty to the family they grew up with, while total ferocity toward intruders. They were never intended to be docile -- just loyal and obedient.

I transported the toad to the front porch, where I knew the dogs would leave it alone. I can trust our dogs with many things, but not eating  a toad  when I am not there to supervise them is not one of them. Everybody has limits. There are some temptations that are insurmountable. Understanding those limitations is part of managing the situation.

A toad is too big a temptation for a dog. A stranger crossing your property line is something a chimpanzee is very alert to. Not all creatures or all people enjoy the same privileges and protections.

On one level, all flesh is kin. We can look at  a frog and see what we all have in common. We can feel empathy. But from a different perspective, anyone who is not a member of your family is a stranger. To conflate all violence into one handy category of undesirable activity is to fail to do justice to heroes like Jean Laffite and to consider the Karankawa cannibals, just because they ate some of their enemies. We should judge a man, a dog or a chimpanzee not merely on how kind they are to their friends, but also on how well they can neutralize their enemies. In today's culture, we forget that kindness without courage is impotent. Or that all life feeds on other life, but we should take care not to feed on our friends.

The difference between the in-group and the out-group is what distinguishes murder from hunting, terrorism from patriotism and lunch from manslaughter. Not understanding the limits of empathy is like thinking that you can live outside the inexorable laws of nature.

To make it up to Brownie for not letting him eat the toad, I played a couple of rounds of fetch-the-rock with him, before I went back to mowing the grass. This seemed to satisfy him.

And what did Bow think about all this? He understood. He knew exactly how Brownie felt about the frog, but he was happy when I came back into the pens to spend more time with him. He knows what I think about all this, because he has read parts of my new book, Theodosia and the Pirates: the War Against Spain. Or at least he has heard me read them aloud.

Bow helping to proof my latest manuscript

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Chimpanzees, Dogs and Domestication

Today is Mother's Day, and I am being nostalgic. In the picture above, from nine years ago, you can see me and Bow inside the sun room, while Sword and her friend are out in the yard on the back  porch. They are playing hopscotch on a chalk outline they made on the concrete. Bow was in his favorite pose, riding on my back. And, of course, there's a swing.

Today, the sun room has been transformed into the inner pens, the back porch is the floor of the outer pen, and the swing has been moved outdoors. It's Bow's swing, but today, since it is Mother's Day, Bow let me use it.

Bow was very unconcerned with my use of his swing, but Leo, who is a barker, kept trying to get more attention. If he were inside the pens, he would not feel so left out. Luckily, I do also interact with Leo at other times, so he's not entirely a neglected or a feral dog.

Which reminds me, offhand, of a discussion of chimpanzees, dogs and domestication I recently had with some friends and friends of friends on Facebook.

It all started with someone claiming that humans, even under conditions of slavery, cannot be domesticated, because they are so smart that they can cloak their tendency toward violence and thereby avoid having the violence culled right out of them. This, it was claimed, was in contrast to dogs who have been entirely domesticated, and can therefore be expected to be non-violent toward humans.

I took issue with this. I pointed out how many incidents of dogs killing humans we have in the United States each year. The killings are not breed specific. My point was not  that dogs were bad or that certain dogs were violent, but simply that those dogs who do not choose to kill humans do so not out of some kind of genetic predisposition against violence, but because of the way they are brought up, the way they are treated and the positive relationship that they have with humans. I mentioned that chimpanzees, who have not undergone "domestication", have by contrast not killed any human in the US in decades.

Up popped some woman, a friend of my friend, and gave me a stern lecture. She told me that chimpanzees may seem cute when they are babies, but by puberty they are very dangerous, and I should have a plan in place to get rid of mine. (She assumed Bow was in the cute baby phase, or else I would be dead by now.) Then she explained that domestication is not the same as taming, in case I thought it was, but was a program of genetic selection for certain traits that dogs have undergone for tens of thousands of years and that foxes underwent more recently in a less lengthy process.

First of all, if domestication as a way to disarm populations were really a possibility, whether for humans, dogs or chimpanzees, don't you think it would be achieved by now? The biggest killers of other humans are humans themselves. Governments interested in eradicating resistance are plotting to take away our guns or to drug us, because they don't know of any sure fire way to make us docile.

Many people have their dogs neutered, and it is not just for purposes of birth control. If birth control were desired, why not just perform a vasectomy? The same people who claim dogs are domesticated also push for universal neutering of all domestic dogs. Why?Some of it is to control behavior.

 Dogs don't always do what we expect them to. Neither do humans or chimpanzees. All of us are dangerous, whether armed or unarmed. Many different expedients are tried to neutralize the natural tendency to resist authority that comes built in to any intelligent being.

But even castrati can plot against the king, and neutered dogs and chimps have been known  to do much damage. So neither "domestication" despite its centuries' long breeding program, nor other methods such as drugs and lobotomies, is a substitute for a relationship of trust.

Telling people their dogs are domesticated and hence cannot harm them is an invitation to having people treat dogs badly or fail to relate to them at all, and expect that everything will be fine. Everything can be fine, but first you need to earn respect.

I go into the pens every day, bare footed and bare handed, with only trust for a weapon. It works a lot better than domestication ever could. Nobody in my house is domesticated: not me, not my daughter, not the dogs and certainly not Bow. We all came down from a long line of carnivorous predators, and somehow we avoid killing each other every single day.

Amazing, isn't it? But I bet it's the same at your house, too! Happy Mother's Day!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Napping in the Lap of Nature

When the weather is nice, Bow enjoys being outdoors so much that he chooses to stay out most of the day. Yesterday was warm, there was a gentle breeze, and the birds were serenading all day long. Bow came in for meals and snacks, but other than that, he just wanted to stay outside, even during nap time.

There are many health benefits to taking a nap. It's a way to recharge and de-stress, and if you take a short nap in the afternoon, then it will eventually also help you to sleep better at night. Bow does not need to be told this. He takes a nap every afternoon. But there is nothing like a nap outside in the very lap of nature!

When the birds are serenading, repeating the same line of music over and over again, this is the perfect ambient noise, the one we evolved to sleep to.

Even if you start out wide awake, eventually as the breeze caresses your face and the birds repeat the same flourish of notes, your lids will grow heavy.

You will be lulled into a sense of security, knowing that if any predator were to approach, the birds and the dogs who are keeping watch over you will sound the alarm.

There is nothing to worry about. You are safe and snug and loved and cared for. The birds are telling you that.

Yesterday afternoon was the perfect day for an outdoor nap. Conditions were optimal. There was nothing to worry about and nothing to fear, as the birds stood watch over Bow.

Bow took full advantage of the opportunity, as who wouldn't? 

Today is another day. The skies are overcast and dark clouds are threatening. The birds in the front yard are still singing, but they are not saying "all is well". 

Instead, they are chirping: "It's going to rain! It's going to rain!" I predict that Bow will take his nap indoors today. But while it lasted, yesterday was the perfect day for a nap in the lap of nature.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Subtle Transformations that We Seldom Notice

Everyone notices how cute a baby is.

Everyone can see how much more mature an adolescent appears.

But how did the transformation come about? What were all the awkward little stages? If you read all my blog posts and articles about Bow and look at all the pictures, you can see it happen gradually. But usually when a child grows, we do not notice.

 The same applies to flowers and fruit. Everybody notices the pretty cherry blossoms.

And who could fail to note when the cherries are ripe?

But how did they get that way? Lately I have been noticing some of the intermediate awkward moments, like a green cherry emerging from a pink flower cap.

The flowers on the cherry trees in my yard start out as white. But as they age, they become pink. Then the green fruit emerges, capped with a pink tuft.

Only later does the pink tuft disappear, and you see bunches of the green fruit, waiting to ripen.

Other awkward transformations are taking place all around me. For instance, the redbud blossoms have sprouted little miniature swords.

Those tiny, dagger-like protrusions will eventually become the well known seed pods. And guess what the dogwood is up to? Its blossoms -- the real ones -- have opened.

Remember that I mentioned the dogwood is a drupe? This means the four white petals are nothing but bracts, and the real action happens inside those little globe-like green things in the center. Those are the real flowers, and their tiny stamens and pistils are now open for business.

It has taken me a long time to notice some of these things. It has been twelve years since Bow was a baby and that's how long it took for me to get to the point of noticing when the little true blossoms inside the big false blossoms really open!

Yesterday I encountered another rabbit.

It was a pretty fast runner, so I was not able to observe any subtle details. It might take me another twelve years before I notice anything truly significant about rabbits. By then, Bow will be twenty-four.