Valerie Harms, extinction events

Author and editor Valerie Harms has allowed me to post here her wonderful introduction to her own book, Dreaming of Animals.

The Unity of Inner and Outer Nature

                       by Valerie Harms

I had a vision of a unified kingdom of animals when I journeyed to the Galapagos Islands, situated 500 miles or so from land in the Pacific Ocean.  The animals did not yet have the fear of humans that has become imprinted on animals in the rest of the world.  I rested next to a sleeping sea lion and stood within hand-shaking distance of penguins and boobies.  I swam amidst clouds of curious fish, who approached me first.

When I lay down next to the sea lion, she looked at me languorously.  Our skins were coated with sand.  We basked under an immense sky, gentle wind, with the persistent sound of frothing waves.  How did she view me?  I did not really know but for awhile at least we shared a moment of the gift of life.  I took in as much as I could the sheen of her coat, the graceful lines of her form, and her peace.

I knew that in the past these once barren volcanic islands, covered with hard lava, had been found by organisms (seeds, spiderlings) from water and the air and which, despite all challenges, over the eons adapted and formed colonies, native to each island.  The endemic cultures were the reason why the islands helped Charles Darwin make his famous observations about the evolution of species approximately 150 years ago.

I was also aware how these island ecosystems were destined for future change as our species plunder the fish and turtles, introduce rats and goats, and batter the coasts with tourist boats.

I had been motivated to write this book by similar threats to animals in the rest of the world.  As part of my research for this book I traveled to Hawaii, Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Bali, Spain, and Morocco, where I’d seen how the animals are treated now, as well as the stuffed ones only visible in museums.  In rainforests and near seashores I observed some of the wondrous species that inhabit this world.  Everywhere I went, wildlife are threatened, usually by people making insensitive economic decisions.

I hate and fear the threats of extinction to animals, because animals have been vital to us since we existed on this planet.  For no matter where we live – whether near desert, mountain, jungle, grassland, tundra, lake, or ocean, we dwell amidst a number of other species populations with invisible dynamic links that originated way before our ancestral family appeared millions of years ago. Our lives depend on the crucial functions animals fulfill for the Earth.  In breathing, animals produce and maintain oxygen and other gases in the atmosphere.  In eating, some maintain a balance of populations between predators and prey.  In defecating, they recycle nutrients and help produce fertile soil.  Burrowing, they churn and till the soil.  Some help regulate water supplies, some pollinate plants, disperse seeds, and decompose organic wastes.  (A large fraction of the U.S. food supply depends on native pollinators).  In breeding and evolving, animals broaden the gene pool, making possible more medicines, foods, and other resources essential to all living beings.  The larger the genetic diversity, the more possible options we have for the optimum survival on this biosphere.


Aldo Leopold, wolf

Despite protests, the Michigan wolf hunting season began on Friday.  Four wolves have been killed in the first two days.

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949

Marian Wood, raccoons

One more from the incomparable, the impeccable Marian Wood. She writes:

Years ago, a colleague who lived in Westchester and had a lovely soft heart for animals told me she had a terrible problem: Raccoons had entered the crawl space in her home. Now I happen to love raccoons (more below) but the problem was much the same as with the squirrels (note from KJF: see earlier Marian Wood post). So I told her to wait until they left for the day, throw camphor into the crawl space, then cover the chimney entrance they were using. It worked—for a day. Then they were back inside. Turned out, she needed to use a really strong cover for the chimney entrance—as in, a huge boulder. This time it really worked. But as she was in her kitchen at the sink, she looked up to see the entire raccoon family on the roadside, staring at her through the window. Then they turned away and left. She was in tears.

Raccoons: When I was working in a summer camp for underprivileged kids, the local ranger would sometimes stop by. One night, he asked if a few of us wanted to watch the raccoons dance—it was a full moon. We piled into his car after midnight and rode to a hill. Then he cut the engine and coasted silently down. And there they were—dancing (DANCING! I kid you not) in the moonlight.

Me, monarch butterflies

October 31, the orange and black.

One day last week, two monarch butterflies flew through our yard and so we knew the monarchs had arrived.  My friend Joan is visiting us just now, all the way from Cardiff, and we migrated over to Natural Bridges State Park today to stand on the viewing stage, speaking with our quiet, butterfly voices, and watching the air fluttering with wings.  We made two trips, one in the morning when many of the butterflies were still dangling like grapes from the branches of trees and one, on the recommendation of the Natural Bridges docent, in the afternoon when she promised that the temperature would be up and the monarchs aloft.  It was actually colder in the afternoon and no more wing-filled than the morning, but still well worth the trip, to see all the butterflies in the air wherever there was sunshine and clustered in their hanging cities in the shade.

It seemed like a scene of abundance, more than last year or the year before, but still, I’m assured, many less than the old days, back before we broke the climate.  The peak should come around Thanksgiving.

This annual round trip from the Rockies takes four generations, with the lifespan very unevenly distributed throughout.  The butterflies that overwinter in Santa Cruz live for seven to eight months, much of that in a state of developmental dormancy known as diapause.  The next generation, hatched on the way back to the mountains, lasts less than two months, and spends their whole lives journeying to a place they won’t live to see.  Or so I understand from the park docent.  Nature is unkind and unfair.  I love her to pieces, but still it must be said.

The docent showed us a butterfly she’d picked up off the deck.  His head was gone – eaten by a rodent when he was still too cold to fly away, she speculated – but his body was still alive and moving, so that was disturbing.  Who was it who said that no one can think too long about the food chain without going mad?

I thought instead about the survival of the group and about the death of the individual and some of these thoughts were sad, but mostly it was very beautiful to stand on the viewing deck and look up into the trees where, in great and dripping bunches, it looked as if the leaves themselves were breathing.


Tegan Moore, Bunnies

I met Tegan Moore quite recently at a Clarion West One Day workshop and we got to talking about animals, fictional and otherwise. It became quickly obvious that she has given a lot of thought to this topic and is also involved in some fascinating work with the dog in her own house, so I pleaded for a blog entry from her. She has sent the following (thank you, Tegan!) with this observation: “It is the opposite of a cute story about teaching my dog to put her feet in a bucket.”

Check her out at

When I was eight my dog dug up a nest of rabbit kits and brought one, bloody and mangled, to me in our front yard. It was dead, obviously and fortunately, and so young that it hardly looked like a rabbit yet. When my mother took the kit away the dog trotted purposefully back into the woods and brought us another, this one still struggling.

It was the size of a small potato, its fur dark and matted with blood and saliva, ears flat against its head and eyes wild and glassy. It lay broken on its side in the yellow grass. It did not seem to be able to move, from fear or damage. The dog, a terrier, had probably shaken it with at least as much vigor as he applied to his tennis balls, so it was unlikely that its spine was intact. But it was breathing fast, hyperventilating, its ratty flank rising and falling three or four times a second. Faster than a heart could beat. It wasn’t going to live long.

After the dog was dragged into the house, my mother and I stood looking at the bunny. “I could kill it,” my mom said, “but he’s your dog.”

My eight-year-old self had fantasies about country living, and how suited I was for it. I felt it a horrible oversight that I’d been born into a dentist’s family and not a farmer’s; I wanted flocks and stalls to muck and mud boots that went up to my knees, not a three-car garage on a mown half-acre. My mother, the daughter of a farm girl though no farmer herself, tried to dissuade me. The life is hard and farm animals aren’t pets. You have to do things for and to them you wouldn’t be comfortable doing, was her implication, and I was determined to prove her wrong. I wasn’t a soft, girly animal-lover. I’d seen Old Yeller. I knew what you sometimes had to do.

I’d recently been given an eight-year-old-sized teal blue shovel, which I fetched from the garage. I’d never killed anything before; even the perch I caught from the dock were unhooked and thrown back. Still, I wasn’t afraid. I had a dog, and the dog killed things, and if he didn’t finish the job then it was my responsibility to end the suffering he’d made. It was only fair.

I raised the shovel over my head and swung it down hard as I could. There was a soft clunk and a scream, a horrible, enormous squeal of a scream. It was so loud. How, when the bunny was so small and so hurt? Where did all that sound come from?

I didn’t run and I didn’t cry, though both seemed like reasonable reactions. I set the shovel down on the grass.

“I can’t do it,” I told my mom. I meant physically—I wasn’t strong enough—but I couldn’t do it anyway, I couldn’t swing again at that poor mess and risk making it scream again. I went into the house and locked myself in the bathroom.

My next birthday I asked for a BB gun, just in case it happened again, but it never did. The dog lost interest in killing things, or kept it to the privacy of the woods.

Me, Monkey

I have, as I always do, let the weeds begin to grow on my blog. This is me, vowing to you to do better. I will keep that vow. At least for a little while.

I can think of very few occasions on which I have actually been frightened by a non-human animal. In fact, I can only bring only one to mind. Several years ago, my daughter and I took a trip to Sarawak and spent a night in a National Park near Kuching. Signs on the way into and around the park warned us – Beware Naughty Monkeys – which made me think the monkeys would be mischievous, possibly in delightful and photogenic ways. We had come, at least in part, to see the shy proboscis monkeys, and we did see several of those, though far away, hidden in the trees.
The other monkeys, the naughty monkeys, we saw from much closer up. As we were taking our luggage into the dorm, a troop descended from the trees and surrounded us. A large male moved toward me at some speed, screaming furiously. I have learned on this and many other occasions, that I am not a fast thinker or a fast actor. When surprised, I freeze, which is sometimes a good thing to do and sometimes not. Even as he was charging, I expected him to turn aside at the last minute. He did not. I saw that he was furiously erect, in both meanings of that word.
He grabbed for my arm, though it turned out to be my toilet kit that he wanted. Snatching it from me, he took it back up into the tree where he opened it, took out each item, bit it, and threw it angrily to the ground as it turned out to be, I’m guessing here, of course, less delicious than he’d hoped. The whole time he continued to scream and display. The rest of the troop kept a ring around us, silent, but menacing.
The alpha monkey came down from the tree and charged me again, but another tourist, a large man I didn’t know, moved between us with an admirable, though possibly misguided conviction. It worked. The monkeys moved on to other tourists and I was able to retrieve my personal items, all now with tooth marks, but mostly still useful. My daughter and I took a long hike, had a nice dinner, and laid our sleeping bags out on the bunk beds where, once the lights were out, we were immediately aware that we shared the room with Rodents of Unusual Size. But that’s another story.