Life Lessons from the Physical World

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Mice 3 Ways

1. Near my little house in the City is a tree-filled dog run owned by our neighborhood. During recent storms, several branches fell from trees and we piled them up until we could arrange for a landscaping service to come make them into woodchips. The woodpiles sat around long enough that they became inhabited by little furry rodents; some of us saw rats, others saw mice. Probably different piles had different rodent residents, but the point is the park became infested for a few weeks. The dogs didn’t mind—in fact, the little critters just made our daily romps in the park all the more entertaining for the canine carnivores. I didn’t mind either, even when I helped move the wood piles and disturbed what seemed like hundreds of dirty little mice that ran out in every direction, practically over my feet.

2. Recently I went to get lunch at funky Reading Terminal Market in downtown Philadelphia. I was waiting in line after ordering pad thai at one of my favorite stands, when the cashier suddenly yelped and jumped back from the counter. I couldn’t see what she saw but I asked someone else waiting in line and he reported that a mouse had just streaked across the counter. A particularly prissy woman standing behind me canceled her order and fled. I stood there considering my options. I pretty much assume that there are rodents and bugs hanging out in every restaurant I visit, and certainly at the open air stands in the ancient Reading Terminal. I figure healthy folks can consume a certain amount of mouse and roach droppings without sending their immune systems or guts into a tizzy. But still… Well, in the end I was hungry, and these folks make great pad thai, and my order was ready, and my lunch hour was waning, and I hadn’t actually seen the mouse myself, so I took my food and ate it all up back at the office. Yum.

3. During the summer of 2004 my house was overrun by mice. I mean, mice lived in my oven, under my kitchen cabinets, in my bathroom ductwork. There were droppings everywhere. I was beside myself, and my stupid dog was worthless. She had no interest in chasing or killing them. We would just hear them running around at night, and probably they ran right over us as we slept. I ran the vacuum obsessively, I kept the dog bowl in the fridge, we put down glue traps and stuffed steel wool in all the openings in the kitchen and basement, but ultimately, I had to call an exterminator and have poison spread around. Medea and I went to live somewhere else for a while. Once the problem was licked—after we caught or found the corpses of more than 35 mice—I threw everything out of my pantry, scrubbed my kitchen with bleach and bought myself a nice new oven. I couldn’t stand having those dang dirty things in my house, Nature Girl or not. If it happens again I'm getting a cat.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Late for Blueberries

Sometimes you just walk in the woods for the sake of doing something physical, or listening for birdsong you can identify, or noticing the changing foliage as the summer goes from fresh to dog-days, finding that in fact some changing leaves have already left the trees and landed on the trail. Other times, you hike for a purpose, like a breathtaking view, or some ripe wild berries. You have a particular destination in mind.

You can pick up the AT at a hidden trailhead about 6 miles from Jim Thorpe PA. If blueberries aren't the goal, and you're not turned on by birdsong, there are certainly more picturesque vistas along the PA section of the AT. (Try Pulpit Rock and the Pinnacle itself; the trailhead's in Hamburg just off the Kempton exit from Route 78.) But at this secret spot, there's a little parking lot, and the trail climbs pretty steeply for the first mile and a half. When the blueberries are ripe, this is a lovely hike because you hardly notice the rise as you anticipate the sweet snacking you'll enjoy after about an hour of trudging. It's mostly under cover in the woods, with occasional clearings that provide a bit of a view and some fresh air, but on this late July day it stayed pretty stinking hot until the trail flattened out at the top. Then, thankfully, a nice breeze did help evaporate the sweat and melted sunscreen off my arms and chest.

We came too late for blueberries this year. That second week in July has been the peak in the past, and we keep it on our calendars, but this year it was always something—there just didn't seem to be any time. So we hiked all that way with minimal hope, and found what we expected: the familiar low green shrubs, with shriveled brown bunches that should have been plump and blue. The sun had burnt the ones the bears had missed. A few loner berries hung on in shady spots, but even those had mostly been sucked small by bees and heat.

So the hike up Blue Mountain this July was more of the just-walking kind of hike. There was a bright blue Indigo Bunting singing away in a tulip poplar, and we heard several others, with their distinctive "fire fire where where here here" call. And we did get a nice little nap in the shade on a grassy overlook.

But this time we just took a long walk, with no particular destination or plan or commitment. Bittersweet, but lovely nonetheless.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Amazing Miraculous Creatures Are We

For our hot and sexy Saturday night date, Mr. X and I went to see the controversial Body Worlds exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Hundreds of donor bodies and body parts were subjected to the "plastination" process; the bodies were drained of fluids and then a plastic material was injected so the bodies could be shaped into life-like positions--running, smoking, doing gymnastics, playing chess, riding a bike, giving a lecture. Cross-section slices through brains, spines, diseased and normal organs, an obese leg, were displayed in lighted cases. In the "fetus room," plastinated embryos and fetuses at all stages of development were encased in cubes of glass. There were thought-provoking philosophers' quotes about life and death and the physical body printed on huge banners hung from the ceiling.

Despite a huge crowd that detracted a bit from our enjoyment (the museum staff was completely inept at managing the throngs), the exhibit was fantastic. I've read that the exhibit has increased the number of people making a commitment to donate their bodies to science; maybe they're thinking this is a way to "live" forever, if they can't afford cryogenics. Or maybe they genuinely want to contribute to a better human understanding of how our bodies function; I can see how the display would inspire people to do that.

I was initially surprised at how many children were there. But I guess this is because I grew up in a family where death is feared, denied, ignored. Now I think it's wise to teach kids that skulls and skeletons aren't just scary Halloween decorations, that these body parts aren't something alien to or outside our human reality. That these bones, blood, nerves, muscles, tendons, organs are all there underneath our skin, and while we are alive their design and function are miraculous. That eventually they deteriorate and lose the life force that holds them together. And that all of this is natural.

Intellectually, I try to believe this and find serenity in its certainty.

But on a human, emotional level, I must admit it makes me sad and makes me shiver.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Peace on Earth and Love for Everyone

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Look at the Cute Elkses

Mr. X and I traveled to Benezette, Pennsylvania for my birthday. Benezette is in Elk County, north central PA, home of a renewed and thriving free-roaming elk herd. We stayed in a "rustic" cabin in Weedville (not really, jacuzzi and woodstove were included) and drove the country roads all weekend with binoculars in hand.

We saw over 40 elk without trying, some magnificent bulls with gigantic racks. We even heard a bugle from one of these beasts, as it chased a female in the final days of the rut. Peak mating season is in September and early October, so we missed the real heavy breathing. But we did get to see a little half-hearted sparring.

The enormous elk wander at will through the woods, fields and backyards of these tiny towns. You drive along and see vehicles pulled over to the side of the road, or just stopped in the middle, and you look to see what folks have spotted. It really is amazing--you can get so close to them and watch as long as you like. Mostly, the elk don't even notice the silly humans.

The herd now numbers around 300-400, rebounding from a low of 30 or so in the early part of the 20th century. Elk-hunting began again in 2001, but remains limited; only 40 permits a year are granted. Probably as the herd increases in size more hunting will be necessary for management, but the elk apparently are not yet the kind of nuisance white-tail deer have become in other parts of PA.

We also got good looks at jays, bluebirds, goldfinches, downy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches and chickadees. I got my very first look at a great horned owl in the wild, but unfortunately, it was dead. We guessed it was either shot (illegally), fell out of a tree, or dove for prey and hit the side of a vehicle. It was intact, but flattened on one side, and whatever happened to it probably happened just moments before we drove by. We pulled over, got out, and dragged it out of the roadway. An hour later it was gone.

We also got in a lovely hike through gorgeous changing foliage at Parker Dam State Park. Thanks Mr. X, it was the perfect way to celebrate my 25th (ahem) birthday.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Penguins Don't Love and Neither Do Grizzlies

After I watched March of the Penguins, I thought I should write a little piece about it. It was a beautifully filmed documentary, narrated sweetly by Morgan Freeman in his familiar sleepy bass tones. The scenery was breathtaking. The cold and the silence were almost palpable. The story held many lessons about the tenacity of wild creatures whose only purpose in life is to eat, survive and reproduce. I could forgive in this wonderful film the very silly references to romance and love, and even Mr. Freeman seemed to be reading that part of the script with a wry smile and tongue in cheek.

But then I watched Grizzly Man, the brilliant and terrifying documentary compiled by Werner Herzog about Timothy Treadwell's disastrous "love" affair with the planet's most dangerous predators. Better writers have already expounded on Treadwell's obvious mental health issues, his megalomania, his paranoia, his self-centeredness. I agree that the guy clearly had a superiority complex and lots of emotional stuff that led him away from the world of people and toward a fantasyland of "into the wild" isolation.

I also see a parallel between Treadwell's doomed devotion to the grizzlies and the warm-fuzzy rendition of penguin love. And for good measure, I'll throw in a connection to the Disney/Pixar animal movies, anthropomorphizational fluff like Lion King, Jungle Book, Finding Nemo, all the way back to 101 Dalamations and Bambi.

Look, I see the value of entertainment for children that's benign and clean and maybe teaches some lessons about kindness and humanity. I know that stuff is hard to find these days, and we all want to protect kids from the harsh realities of life until the very last minute. But in an increasingly urban society, I think we do a disservice to kids if we don't teach them a few things about the food chain, and the brutal truth of nature. When you don't grow up in places where people hunt or work farms, when you get your meat in the frozen food aisle or at McDonalds, you sort of miss the point.

I realize that Timothy Treadwell must have known a good bit about the Katmai grizzlies to survive among them for as long as he did. He was probably more than just lucky, and had obviously developed some skills that may have protected him in some situations.

But the film bits Herzog included in Grizzly Man also displayed way too much cutesy, lovey-dovey baby-talk, and sometimes it looked like Treadwell really believed he had the upper hand over these devastatingly powerful animals. It worries me that part of Treadwell's work included presentations to children, and I hope that he taught those kids as much about the real-life danger of wild animals as he did about their beauty. I hope he didn't instill in yet more children the ridiculous notion that these bears "loved" him, that wild animals are capable of feeling human emotions like love and affection and friendship.

In the end, Timothy Treadwell was eaten by a grizzly bear. That's the ultimate lesson here, and I hope that his legacy teaches it.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Birds in Boxes

Since early spring, one of my second floor window boxes has been commandeered by a very fertile mourning dove couple. I never did get a chance to put an annual planting in there. The hardy portulaca from last year has stubbornly busted back up on one side of the little box, but the other side is a messy twist of sticks and bird poop. Plus, a dove, or her hubby, and their little brood.

The first two dovelets hatched out before I noticed. Early in the morning I could hear the soft cooing of the grown-up doves--a 'hoo hoo' that many inexperienced birders think is an owl--right outside my bedroom window. When the window was open, after one of those glorious spring nights where the breeze makes A/C unnecessary, the dove calls were so loud I had to take a peek. I noticed the mom or the dad right there in the flower-box (with mourning doves, the coloring's the same and both male and female take turns sitting on the eggs or feeding the hatchlings). When I raised the screen and looked out, the bird-on-duty cocked its head to stare at me warily, trembled a bit, but wouldn't fly away. The jumble of sticks made me guess it was a crude nest, and so I started my almost-daily vigil.

Eventually, I could see two little brown dovelets under the mom/dad. I often heard them peeping loudly for their meals, and watched the parents feed them, beak to beak, until the hatchlings were sated and crept back under the adult for a little nap. As they got bigger, less of the baby birdies' bodies fit under the setting parent, and in about two weeks they were big enough to fly off.

I knew they would do it one particular morning, when I saw them shuttling frantically back and forth from one side of the box to the other, making little noises and going right up to the edge of the box before running back to safety in the middle. I should have stayed for a bit, maybe even gone into work late, because by the time I got home that day, those babies had flown the coop.

The whole saga repeated itself a second time in a few weeks, and the prolific couple has now produced its third set of eggs. But these eggs appear to have been abandoned. Perhaps four new doves this year were quite enough.