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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Relaxing Sights and Sounds of Nature

When Bow asks to go out in the early morning, sometimes it is not to exercise, or display or listen to the sound of his own voice. It is not to swing on his swing, or lie on his bench, or to tease the dogs. Sometimes he just sits and listens to the sounds of nature.

It may not seem as if he is doing anything important, but not doing anything important may be just exactly the point. And doing that in nature, as opposed to in an urban environment, has been found to be helpful to ward off anxiety and depression. 

How does that work, exactly? I don't think it is the sound of silence. On the contrary,  the soft, repetitive sounds of bird calls and insect noises have been programmed into us to let us know when all is well. The ambient noise of a forest or savanna is different when disaster is about to strike, and a preternatural silence ensues. So long as everything is business as usual, we hear the soothing sounds of all the other animals going about their daily lives. This sound of ordinary busyness is very soothing.

 But in a big city we hear alarming noises all the time. Cars honking, alarms going off, sirens and other loud engine noises that sound like explosions. Some of these sounds are actually designed to be alarming and to alert us to emergencies, but when you have so many people together in such a small space, there are constant emergencies, until life begins to feel like one great big emergency. There is no time to relax and listen to the crickets chirping.

Many of my interns have told me that one of the first things they noticed on my property was how utterly quiet it was. But it's not really quiet. It's just not loud. There are noises all the time, but they are peaceful noises. Like the kind the cicada makes.

I saw this amazing creature in my front yard last night. I did not know what it was, but I was impressed by the extreme gravity and purposefulness of the insect as it made its way from the sidewalk to my lawn.

I posted pictures on Facebook and was told it was a cicada shell. People often find the empty shells attached to trees. But this shell was still very much occupied.

Cicada season is about to begin and with it all those natural, repetitive sounds.

 I would love for Bow to have full access to the wild land that is just outside the outer pen. But even under our current, less than perfect arrangement, he does get to enjoy nature in a way that very few modern human beings can do.

It's not quite paradise yet, perhaps, but it is nice.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Example of Liberia

It has been very hot out for the past few days. The sun casts heavy shadows, and everything seems slow.

Even the little butterflies on my long internal road look lazy.

They congregate there in small groups, and then they line up, as if getting ready for a race.

"On your mark, get set, go!" they seem to be saying. And then they all fly off at once.

But even though they all take off at the same time, there are always some that are faster and some that are slower. No two are the same.

No matter how similar they look, and how perfectly lined up they seem to have been, and how well synchronized their start is, they still each have their different pace and speed and destination.

No matter how superficially similar, no two chimpanzees are alike, either. And no single "solution" of the chimpanzee "problem" is going to perfectly cover every case.

Some are literate, and others are not.

Some are domesticated and some are wild. Some are imprisoned, and some are free. Some are gainfully employed, and others are asking for a handout.

Photo Credit: The Daily Mail, UK
Chimpanzeessin Liberia, abandoned by their captors, beg for a handout

I've been thinking a lot about Liberia lately. Not just the chimpanzees in Liberia, but also the entire history of that country.

If you would like to read a news item about chimpanzees in Liberia abandoned by the New York Blood Center, here is the news source I have seen:

The short version of the story is this: In 1974 the New York Blood Center captured wild chimpanzees and infected them with diseases deadly to humans while keeping them on six little islands in Liberia. The chimpanzees, who had been self-supporting up to that point, became entirely dependent on their captors for food and all of life's necessities. In 2005 the New York Blood Center abandoned their research project, but they promised to care for the captive chimpanzees for life. Ten years later, the funds for the "lifetime care" have run out. Sixty-six adult chimpanzees and one baby are now begging for food. They have not learned how to become self-supporting again. They wait for humans to come to their island and feed them, greeting them with outstretched hands and hugging those who help them.

This is a very moving, very distressing story, and here are the lessons we can learn from this;

  1. It is easy to become dependent and hard to learn to be self supporting again. You cannot just set slaves free and expect them to know what to do, 
  2. Bad things can and do happen to chimpanzees in Africa all the time. Sending chimps to Africa does not guarantee them a happy or "natural" life.
  3. Banning medical research on chimpanzees in America will not prevent American organizations from conducting such research abroad.
  4. When the funding for research on chimpanzees is cut, chimpanzees find it hard to make a living. 
  5. Sixty-six adult chimpanzees, who could easily attack and kill the few men who come to their island, instead hug them and are grateful for the food they bring. If chimpanzees were stupid wild animals who cannot control their violent impulses no matter the circumstances, how could this be happening? 
I am not saying this in support of medical research on chimpanzees, but you have to realize that anytime any activity involving chimpanzees is banned, that is going to be hard on chimpanzees from an economic standpoint. If you ban medical research, medical research companies are going to dump their chimps. If you ban circuses, circuses are going to lay off their chimps. If you ban films in which chimpanzees are allowed to play chimpanzees, giving those choice roles to human actors and CGI constructs, then chimpanzee actors are going to be out of work. And if you ban the private ownership of chimpanzees, then nobody will feed the chimps that they don't own anymore.

People who want to cut off funding to chimpanzees in every possible endeavor in the United States are not "friends of chimpanzees", no matter how humanely they couch their propaganda. They are not trying to "liberate" chimpanzees. They want to get rid of them. 

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about Liberia. Because those particular chimpanzees from the New York Blood Center are in Liberia, I have been reviewing the history of Liberia, and the motives of the Americans who sponsored the Liberia project seem to me to be parallel to the motives of those people who are currently campaigning for chimpanzees to be allowed to exist only in Africa.

From the Wikipedia:

The Founding of Liberia in the early 1800s was motivated by the domestic politics of slavery and race in the United States as well as by U.S. foreign policy interests. In 1816, a group of white Americans founded the American Colonization Society to deal with the problem of the growing number of free Blacks in the United States by resettling them in Africa. The resulting state of Liberia would become the second (after Haiti) Black republic in the world at that time.[21]
Why was the growing number of free blacks in the United States in the early 1800s seen as a problem by the white men who founded the American Colonization Society? Wasn't it a good thing that more and more blacks in America were becoming free? There can be only one answer: the people interested in resettling free blacks in Africa were racist. Free blacks in America were those successful men and women who despite all the disadvantages they were under managed to assimilate into American society and become self-supporting -- some of them even wealthy. This normal process of upward mobility had been ongoing in the colonies even before the American Revolution. 

Some of the men who joined the American Colonization Society were Northerners who resented free blacks, because they did as well as or better than free whites. Some of them were Southerners who resented the example free blacks set for their slaves. This was before the Civil War, and many of those people would end up on opposite sides of a very bitter struggle that could have been entirely prevented if the natural process of manumission had been allowed to take its course. Today, in the schools, we are being taught that if you are black, the only reason you are free is because of the Emancipation Proclamation. But many black Americans had free ancestors in the US long before the Civil War. They did not need anybody to set them free, because they had gained their freedom on their own.

So what does this have to do with chimpanzees? Today, in America, the people who work to prevent chimpanzees from earning a living come from two camps:

  • Those who hate chimpanzees and fear them as wild animals who kill humans indiscriminately and without regard to circumstance. They just want them far, far away.
  • Those who adore chimpanzees as wild savages, but think they should not be domesticated, educated or allowed to work. 
The two camps may seem as different as the two groups that formed the American Colonization Society. But their motives are at base the same: they are for apartheid, and they want to destroy chimpanzees in America.

I am not writing this to complain about Liberia. Like Israel, Liberia was one of those 19th century experiments in founding new countries that have both positive and negative results. Nobody is suggesting that Liberia should be disbanded, any more than I am suggesting that all chimpanzees should live in the US. But I think by now everybody agrees that just because Liberia exists, that does not mean there should not be black Americans in America. Or that just because Israel exists, there should not be Jews in America. 

I once knew a man from Liberia. I met him in college. We both liked poetry. But he liked the poetry of Marcus Aurelius, while I favored Kipling. So we each went our separate ways.

No two butterflies are the same. Remember that. It will stand you in good stead. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015


If I had to choose a single quality to describe Bow, I would say that he is flexible.

Bow is an easy-going fellow, slow to anger and with a knack for forgiving others and an uncanny ability to ask for forgiveness in return and to get it, too. I have seen Bow get angry, but I have seen him apologize just as easily. His apologies are real -- at the moment of apology, he means it. And he is great at bringing about reconciliations, which is something most of the humans I know are not too good at. He does not hold a grudge.

Bow's lips are malleable, being able to take on almost any shape.

He can practically turn them inside out.

Just when you think they will never go back to normal, he returns to his usual careless grin.

Even his muscular strength is imbued with an amazing flexibility. Have you ever seen someone bounce up and down on a concrete floor with such ease?

Bow can go from a gentle, relaxed leisure time to an energized display to an after-exercise reverie in a matter of four minutes flat. It's great exercise, it's aerobic, and it also allows him to blow off any steam he needs to without endangering himself or others.

Yes, Bow is strong. He certainly is also very agile. But the quality that amazes me the most is his flexibility. He is beyond limber. He is like rubber! And that's a great survival trait, I think.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Self-Selecting Butterflies

You might think that when I go out taking pictures of butterflies, I choose the prettiest specimens to photograph. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Many gorgeous butterflies flit right past me, never pausing long enough for me to even get a chance at a picture. The ones I eventually photograph and film are the ones who will stay still for a spell  -- at least long enough for me to not only notice them but also to get ready to focus on their antics.

The butterfly in the video clip above seemed to want me to notice. It was modeling for me, flapping its wings and turning around in a circle, almost  auditioning to play the role of a butterfly. And if I were casting, it would surely have gotten the part!

What we see is only what they allow us to see, no more, no less. Some butterflies are shy and some are hams. And some look much more brilliantly attractive when in flight than at rest.

This tiny fellow has wings that are blue on top and white underneath. When the wings are folded, as they generally are when it rests on a flower, the butterfly looks white and blends in with the Virginia Mountain Mint.

But when it spreads out its wings to fly, the blue color is revealed in a split second splash.

I've spent a lot of time chasing the tiny blue butterflies in the air only to lose them when they landed somewhere. Because once they land, they look completely different.

In the video above, if you have enough patience, you can see the transformation for yourself. But don't get distracted. There are other insects in the shot, such as this brilliant green fly.

They say that we see only what we want to see   -- that something can be staring us right in the face, and if we are not mentally ready to see it, we won't. But the other side of the coin is that sometimes we see something we never expected to see, and we are so blown away by it, that we forget about what it was we were supposed to be doing.

It is good to be disciplined, but it also helps to be open to what is actually happening, rather than what we thought was going to happen.

You can have a well designed experiment with chimpanzees set up to prove or disprove a stated hypothesis. That would be a good way to get reputable data and funding and grants and publication. You can take pictures of what you set out to take pictures of. and then ignore all the wonderful things that are actually happening with your chimpanzee. Or you can pay attention to self-selecting acts of obvious intelligence.

In real life, things rarely go according to plan, but there are wonderful surprises! This is one of those things that each of us has to discover individually at our own pace. It cannot be done by committee.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Counting Our Blessings

The last time I picked wild plums, there were four of them ripe all at the same time. Count them, four!

Bow enjoys the wild plums much more than I do. He savors them. He takes a bite and then examines what is left, and he eats some more, and then he studies the pit.

When Bow has four blackberries to eat, they just tumble into his mouth all at once, and they are gone. But if Bow has four wild plums, it takes a while.

This past weekend I had occasion to visit the closest mall with my daughter and her friend for a birthday shopping spree. But for me, there was nothing in the stores that I wanted to buy. The mall was full of clothing outlets, jewelry stores, perfumeries, and confectioner's shops. And there were people in the middle of it all hawking baseball cards. I went into a lot of stores and saw nothing that I wanted, and so eventually I sat down and played with my phone, looking at old pictures.

Sitting outside the mall
When I was younger, my favorite three stores to visit at the mall were the bookstore, the toy store and the pet store. But there were no bookstores at the mall, anymore. There was no pet store. And the only thing that could pass for a toy store was the Build-a-Bear Workshop. Gone were the old fashioned toy shops displaying all sizes and shapes of dolls in beautiful clothing, toy trains, hobby airplanes or wooden wagons and rocking horses. That is a thing of the past. But there were flies. Everywhere you went, flies swarmed. What is the role of flies in a modern, air-conditioned mall?

Nobody spoke to me, except one little old lady who sat on a bench next to me at one point. She started off the conversation saying there was nothing in the stores worth buying. I agreed. She said they were sparkly things of no value. I agreed. Then she asked: "Do you know Jesus?" Oh, dear. I always attract religious fanatics. I don't know why. She handed me her tract.

Vacuum County

Whenever someone tries to sell me something, I try to sell them something back. So I told her about my novel Vacuum County, which is based on the Biblical story of Nabal the Carmelite. We started talking about David and Samuel and Saul, and the meeting with the witch at Endor. My new acquaintance told me that there are some things in the Old Testament that don't make sense to us, because some other books have been left out. For instance, the reason Saul was required to execute all the civilians, including women and children and cattle, he captured (I Samuel 15: 2-3, 20) -- was because they were really descended from demons. "I don't go in for killing people just because of their race," I told her, and she shook her head at me. Obviously, if they were descended from demons, that's completely different.

That is what is called "demonizing the enemy." We are still doing it today. But as much as I don't share the woman's views on genocide, I had to agree with her that our economy is doomed.  I love material things, and I used to like going to the mall. But none of the material things offered at the mall now have any attraction for me. I'd rather go shopping for material things on my own property.

A hidden purple cone flower
Every day I discover hidden treasure, like this lone purple cone flower that grew up out of nothing by the lagoon.

It is past the season for coneflowers, and I did not plant any. But here it is.  Or how about these rose pinks out in the pasture?

Or this strange creature on a black-eyed Susan?

If I devote enough time to the task, I can even come back with enough blackberries for dessert.

Sure, there are insects out there vying with me for the blackberries, but they are much more colorful and interesting than the flies in the mall. So at the moment, at the risk of sounding devout, I am actually counting my blessings.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Humane Policies and their Outcome

It's blackberry season again. I am not a very assiduous picker of blackberries; my style is more opportunistic. So every time I go out for a walk, I come back with some fruit that is ripe and just happens to be handy.

A pear drops from a tree, and I pick it up. A few blackberries just shout at me that they need to be picked, and I comply. If I don't lose everything on the way when I am chasing butterflies, I usually have something to share with Bow when I get back.

Sometimes the blackberries are so few, they just tumble into Bow's mouth, and we wonder: where did they go? But the blackberry bushes have their own plans, and their provisioning of the wildlife is not just a matter of free food for the masses: it is all about reproducing the blackberry kind.

There is a natural ebb and flow in the life of any species; its reproductive cycle. There is a time to sow and a time to reap, and every generation has its place. I can see this when I look at the purple milkweed seed pods which are now making ready for next year's crop of milkweed plants.

Sometimes we don't want to allow a species to reproduce and to prosper, and so we do things to interfere with its life cycle. That's what I am planning for the kitten.

Rather than killing it, which would be horribly cruel to the individual kitten, I am planning to spay it. But did you know that the "humane" plan is the one that spells death to the species, whereas the cruel plan has a way to revitalize it? It's called killing with kindness.

In Australia at the moment, the authorities are planning a mass extermination of feral cats.

Plan to Cull Two Million Feral Cats in Australia

This is an outright plan for genocide, but believe it or not, despite the horrors for all the cats who will die, this is better for the cat species than to round them all up, spay and neuter, and then let them go. Why? Because no two cats are alike, and not all of them are going to fall for the poison. The ones who will avoid getting killed are going to be smarter and better evolved to live in a treacherous environment. They may be harder to tame, too, because they will be aware of human cruelty, and so they will not allow themselves to be captured and de-sexed.

I know a little bit about avoiding genocide, as I am descended from people who did just that. It's not true that all individuals in a species or an ethnic subgroup are the same. Natural selection works best under dangerous conditions.

Throughout human history, we have tried to exterminate many species that we just don't like. Rats, lice, fleas, mice, cockroaches, various strains of bacteria, not to mention the pesky virus that we call the common cold. How has that worked for us, so far?

Every weapon we unleash against these natural enemies has found the next generation stronger and better able to cope with adversity. Animals -- and humans among them -- thrive under conditions that require skill in order to avoid extermination. Any weapon we devise, including antibiotics, eventually becomes useless as the creatures we are fighting evolve to cope with the new challenge.

The greatest danger to any species -- and to any ethnic subgroup -- is for their enemies to feed and to support and care for them while they see to it that they do not ever reproduce. That is what is being done to chimpanzees in America today in the sanctuaries in the name of humane treatment. If you think about it, the same thing may be happening to some human groups we know about.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Limits of Empathy

Yesterday was my day off. I ran some errands, and I heard about a potential setback. I stopped to talk with Lawrence and told him about my frustrations about a certain business transaction, and  then I went out to run more errands.  Lawrence told me at the end of the day that after I left, Bow was really upset about the conversation he overheard about the business problem. He just would not go back to playing for a long time, and Lawrence had trouble distracting him.

Finally, Bow took Lawrence's hand and spelled: "Mommy is hurt."

Lawrence told him: "Momma is not hurt. Momma is mad!" After which, Bow calmed down and went back to his usual preoccupations: food, grooming, going outside.

Yes, I get angry sometimes. And yes, Bow would rather see me angry than hurt. If I'm angry then there is still a fighting chance. If I am hurt, it means we have suffered a loss. If I lose, Bow loses.

 I know a lot of people who are trying to control their expressions every moment of the day, to convince themselves and others that they only ever have positive feelings: happiness, joy, sympathy, fellowship, friendship. They try to avoid anger, fear, sadness and boredom. They don't actually avoid having those feelings. They just disguise them -- sometimes even from themselves.

Bow, showing affection

Chimpanzees are very good at picking up on other people's feelings. It's one of the things that distinguishes them from us. They see right past any attempts to disguise who you really are and what you really feel.

Does Bow have empathy for me? Sure. But it's got to do with the fact that we are on the same team. If something bad happens to me, then that means that his interests are jeopardized, too. And even though he does not understand the exact nature of every business transaction, he has a very clear gut feeling about when something is "for us" or "against us."

Believe it or not, that's actually what empathy is for. It's not so we'll stop to help our enemies when they are wounded on the field of battle or so that we will adopt that baby from the tribe that is making war on us, or so that we will give something we need away to a stranger because he needs it more. Sometimes empathy does work that way, but that's not how it evolved and that is not its main function. It evolved to help us figure out what is in our own best interest, even when we are not the one directly hurt or threatened.

There's been an article about the benefits of reading that has been going the rounds, and many pro-literacy advocates are touting it as very significant: it claims that people who read a lot are better at understanding other people's feelings. It claims that reading develops empathy. And the more literary the book, the greater the empathy.

I think that is patently false. All my life, I have observed that people with their nose in a book most of the day are less alert to the feelings of others, which may be why they get bullied so often. The ability to read others in my experience is inversely proportional to the amount of reading we have done. People who read literary fiction are more likely to be so out of touch with their own feelings that they don't even know when they themselves are angry, much less somebody else. And yes, there was a political bias in the article, because it mentioned that people who read literary fiction are the most sympathetic to the downtrodden and excluded groups. In other words, there was an implication that empathy is a tool to achieve a particular political result.

Perspective shifting is an important mental exercise. Our ability to shift perspective grows as we become more intelligent, more capable of abstraction and less immediately engaged by direct experience,  and it is better developed in  science fiction than in mainstream literature. In order to really shift perspective, though, you need to be able to momentarily disengage your feelings.  But even though you shift your perspective to identify with an alien race or a different culture, at the end of the day, your actual empathy is reserved for the people on your team. Just like Bow's.

Japanese Beetles attacking my peach trees

Sometimes it's not even about right or wrong or good or bad. It's just about them or us. Take those Japanese beetles that I have seen around lately. One can identify with their desire to find a mate and be fruitful and multiply. But when they are attacking my peach trees in their multitudes, my empathy lessens. I am determined to thwart their very understandable and natural desires.

The greatest discord in this world does not come from a lack of mutual understanding. Its source is conflict of interest. If anybody is trying to convince you otherwise, he probably has something he hopes to gain. Take care!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Other Side of the Coin: Why We Spay

My daughter is about to turn sixteen. She has never had a cat, because I am severely allergic to cats. But she's always wanted to have one. I recently told her that we had a kitten living on our property, and she fell in love with at once and wants to keep it.

This is going to be her cat, though it will be a barn cat and not a house cat. The kitten is very tame, and though I have refrained from touching it all this time, my daughter picked it up and petted it, and the kitten was delighted by the attention.

Letting her keep the kitten is part of my daughter's birthday gift this year. But we have determined that the kitten is a female, and because I cannot allow too many cats to overrun my property, I have made a very painful decision: when the time is right, I will have the kitten spayed.

This is not for humane reasons. This is purely out of my own self interest. I have no wish to become a cat breeder. Cats are not indigenous to this area; they are exotic. They represent a threat to the local wildlife. So because I don't care about the feline species, I am going to see to it that this particular cat on my property does not reproduce.

What are the alternatives? I could give it to someone else who does want to breed cats. But really, most people who adopt a cat immediately turn around and have it spayed. They pretend they are doing it for the sake of the cat. That is utter nonsense. There just happens to be a conflict of interest between cats and humans, and we try to keep their population down, because it would be bad for us to be overrun by cats.

I feel sad for the cat, because infertility is no picnic. Having reproductive capacity removed also alters personality. We're talking about invasive surgery, and not everyone survives it.

But just as I eventually had to exterminate the mice that were overrunning my house -- with Bow's blessing, despite his earlier objections -- I have to be a good steward of the land for the sake of my rabbits and turtles and deer and birds. So this will not be a cat sanctuary. Sorry. One cat only.

The difference between me and HSUS is that I acknowledge how cruel and disempowering spaying is. It is not an act of kindness toward cats. It is something that we do because we don't care about them that much.

Don't let the animal rights rhetoric blind you to the facts. Any species whose propagation matters to you should be allowed to breed. If a sanctuary prevents chimpanzees from breeding, then its attitude toward chimpanzees is like my attitude toward cats.