Marian Wood, crows

Marian Wood, my beloved editor for mumble mumble years, has sent a number of fascinating encounters. Although I quite like the “my life as a series of animal encounters” aspect of it, I’ve decided to post it one animal at a time and over several weeks. This way, every story gets its due. Here then is Marian’s first post:

My husband and I, a few years after we married, took the major step of visiting his parents in Fordingbridge, England—edge of the New Forest. Not a particularly salubrious encounter as my husband had actually been alienated from his parents from the age of 13 when he was expelled from his public school and ended up in Belfast with an aunt and uncle for the rest of his formal education, which ended at the age of 16 when the war broke out and he decamped to Dublin and joined the Irish Republican Army—until he found they did not issue sheets or undergarments, and he crossed the Irish Sea to join the RAF. The point is, the reunion in Fordingbridge was fraught. We had rented a car and I was the driver. One day, to put some space between us and the family, we took off to visit a quaint village along a little river afloat in Moscovy ducks. Alas, in the pull up to park, we had a huge screaming match. He saying I had mis-parked alongside the river, and me telling him to shut up since he couldn’t drive. (He could, but had no license ever since a massive car crash in Spain some eight years before.) We exited the car, still yelling at each other (not, I must say, a commonplace of our marriage). And as we stood beside the river/car, a huge angry sound—crows—approached, the air full of noise and black wings. Next thing I knew, they were bombing poor Tony, who was covered in crow shit. I was untouched. And I began to laugh like a banshee. After all, the crows had picked the right target. I have to admit I have always been fascinated by crows, but this cinched that love affair. (We managed to get over it and lasted until his death 45 years later.)

Harriet Chessman, Samoyed

A poem from Harriet Chessman (who worries that it’s too sad) in honor of a beloved dog.
Harriet is a Bay Area poet, novelist, short story writer and editor whose work has been described as intelligent and entrancing. She loves dogs.


White flash on green
biscuit blur on snow
triumphant snatcher
of gloves and toys

you breathed the Arctic
witty forager
courageous follower
of the scent, whatever –

Skunk, cat, raccoon –
the world tempting
in its fragrance
with you at the center

a twenty dollar bill,
a stick of butter,
all the shimmering

things awaiting
white teeth
eager gullet.

Your last day, you
stood to greet us
on the vet’s
green lawn

eager to be
our dog still
confiding and
ignorant of sleep.

Joyce Thompson, Great Blue Heron

The Great Blue Heron is making its second appearance in this blog, courtesy of Joyce Thompson, author of several novels and collections including her recent suspenseful and sophisticated mystery HOW TO GREET STRANGERS.  This entry is cross-posted from her own blog.


We first discovered our affinity at twilight on a central Florida beach, not far from Cape Kennedy. I’d turned out to watch the sun set and stayed to enjoy the evening cool, was lost in thought and minding my own business when a vast heron plopped down maybe ten yards away, just offshore. It was more than the splash that caught my attention. The big bird was focused on me, closely as a guy looking to get picked up at a singles bar. I could feel him poking at my consciousness.

Okay, big fella, whaddayou want?

Turns out he wanted to give me flying lessons. For the better part of an hour, he taught me the walk, that elegant high step and recoil, followed by the leap, perfectly coordinated with neck stretch and wingspread—and I tried diligently to mimic his moves, got better and better, all except the last part, where he defied gravity and left the surface of the earth while I was still bouncing along the beach. Whenever he saw he’d left me behind, he’d come back and start again.

How many times did we practice those moves? At least half a dozen before he accepted my telepathic insistence that, as a featherless biped, I just didn’t have the right stuff. We parted with affection and regret.

Cross country and fast forward, to the protected wetland where I run along a 3 mile infolding of San Francisco Bay. The slough’s a safe haven for crows, doves, hummingbirds and red wing blackbirds, egrets, shrikes, rails, cormorants, fat ducks, circling hawks and every kind of migrator, geese and pelicans most prominent among them. Leash your dogs, folks. It’s Birdland, with a slim Great Blue the genius of the place.

Seeing each other daily, we started to relate, always taking a moment to greet one another with a bow of acknowledgment that splits the difference between our native animal behaviors. Sometimes the heron would be seaward, fishing. Sometimes in spring, he stood like a statue in the wet meadow, waiting to catch one of the young ground squirrels, popping out of the underground tunnels.

One bright morning, he struck with particular force. The squirrel was big, and instead of piercing it side to side, the heron speared it head to tail, so hard that it rode far up on his beak and stuck there. The heron shook his head, trying to dislodge the squirrel, but it didn’t move. I watched him struggle until a human walker came up the path and startled him away, flying awkwardly with the weight of the skewered squirrel.

I ran on. Half a mile later, the heron swooped across the path in front of me and landed close by. His fear pierced me—the certainty that he’d starve if his jaws stayed locked.

Help me. I heard his voice inside my head.

It took a minute to get over my disbelief, another to slay self-doubt. The heron waited patiently while I figured it out, picked up a sturdy stick and crept toward him with as heron-like a gait as I could muster.

Easy. I’m trying.

 He stood quiet, suffering me to poke at the squirrel with my stick until it slid down a little. Then he shook his head furiously until the dead squirrel came flying off. When it did, the heron composed himself, fluffed and preened. He nodded slightly in my direction and then took flight.

I watched him rise and get smaller in the sky, while my mind called out to him: Come back. Come back and teach me how to fly.

Mary Doria Russell, chimpanzees

My good friend, the amazing Mary Doria Russell, sent me the following link in which you can watch as a group of lab chimps in Germany experience the outdoors for the first time. Mary describes this as very moving and I certainly feel the same.

Jeff VanderMeer, Florida panther

A post from the indefatiguably brilliant writer, editor and publisher Jeff VanderMeer about a moment of grace:

Hiking in North Florida, twelve miles in, I had an animal encounter that has stuck with me for over fifteen years. It was mid-afternoon, and I had already begun to have a sense of urgency from passing through swampy forest, with woods meeting a dank black water gutter, the place I’ve most often seen bear and heard things rustling in the darkness that the imagination assigns horrible forms to. Hiking alone is a different experience than hiking with someone. Conversation distracts from the still, standing water, from the reflections of cypress knees and the oppressive feel to the air, the sky blocked by scraggly pine trees. This, too, is the corridor where wild pigs once charged toward me, and while the danger is minimal, the imagination magnifies it, and in the absence of company the mind exaggerates. “Nature” in this context is something aggressive. Once through that gauntlet, you feel foolish for these thoughts.

In those final miles on the trail, where I had the encounter, the sun is so bright in the summer that you actually feel a little delirious, even though you know this is a mirage–you have water and you’re still hobbling through your blisters and petty aches.

Hot, tired, just wanting to reach the end, I came to a halt when a big cat suddenly padded onto the trail some two hundred feet ahead. I quickly took a look through my binoculars and I kept looking and looking yet again. Because I kept trying to identify the animal as “bobcat” or “lynx”—anything other than Florida panther. It couldn’t possibly be a panther, I reasoned—they’re so rare. But it was a panther, and I just stood there as it approached, down-wind from me, sniffing, appearing to not see me. My legs were weary and I couldn’t have begun to outrun it. I didn’t have anything with which to defend myself. All I could do is watch it approach. All I could do is let the panther decide how this was all going to turn out. It was a humbling and spiritual moment. I felt totally engaged, and completely exposed as well; it was as if I were more utterly myself as I watched the panther and yet not there at all.

A minute later, the panther wandered off the trail again, about forty feet from me. It truly hadn’t seen me, or had no interest in me, even as I had been acutely interested in it. When it didn’t reappear for several minutes, I walked past where it had left the trail, and saw nothing else until I reached my car. Later, it all felt like a dream I’d dreamt, a hallucination that I kept trying to believe was real. But now, so many years later, I don’t try to deny I saw the panther. I just keep trying as hard as possible to hold on to the details of every second of that brief encounter.

Richard Butner, copperhead

From Richard Butner — wonderful writer, actor, and all-around delight

I was very young, riding back home from the old family farm. Our house was in the suburbs but the farm was, as they say, out in the country. My father was driving my mother’s old Chevrolet Corvair. It was night, but as he came up the short incline from the creek, he spotted something moving in the gravel road. He stopped the car and went to investigate, confirmed that it was a copperhead. He came back to the car and got a hoe out of the back seat. I sat there, transfixed by the scene in the headlights, waiting for some terrible Hollywood moment where the snake would lunge at my father and bite him, not knowing what would happen next or what would be expected of me. Instead it was much more mundane. He brought the hoe down on the snake with enough force to sever its head neatly. Then he used the hoe to flick body and head off into the underbrush. That’s what you did to venomous snakes in the country.

Ted Chiang, zero at the bone

As I’ve been asking people about memorable animal encounters, I’m noticing that snakes come up a lot. This is a particularly vivid memory from Ted Chiang, brilliant writer and Friend of the Blog.

When I was about six, my family spent a summer in Taiwan, and one evening we went to a night market. There was a stand where they sold snake bile for its curative properties, and they harvested it fresh. A guy would pull a snake from a cage and then tie a noose arounds its neck, so it’d be hanging from the top of the stand. With an assistant grabbing the snake by the tail so it was fully extended, he’d use a knife to cut the snake’s skin at its neck, all the way around. This allowed him to peel the skin off the snake’s body, like he was unrolling a stocking, until the snake hung there skinless, a glistening pink tube of meat. Finally, he’d use a pair of scissors to snip the now exposed gall bladder, and catch the bile in a little cup. There was a row of little cups of bile on the counter, as well as a row of skinless snakes hanging off to the side, wriggling more and more slowly as they died.

Ruth Ozeki, ducks

poem by the fabulous Ruth Ozeki, author of A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING.

duck eggs
My husband’s hatching duck eggs.
While I’m away, here,
writing poems, he’s got
8 eggs in an incubator,
in his office.
4 times a day, for 35 days
he must turn his eggs
180 degrees. He must mist
them with water, too,
because, being ducks,
they like water.
4 times a day, he’ll come running
back to the house, bounding
up the stairs, crying,
“Time to turn the ducks!”
I can imagine this.
“I have no friends,”
he told me on the phone,
“so I need to hatch some.”
“We miss you,” he says,
every time he hangs up.

He counts the days
til the emergence of his flock
of small new friends.
While I’m here, writing poems,
one by one, he holds them
up to a lamp to see if they are living.
They’re still mostly yolk,
he reported last night, but now
in 28 eight short days they’ll sport
damp wings and feathers, eyes and feet,
and small blunt bills to tap tap tap
their way out from the inside,
opening the wall
of the world,
a hole to the light,
where they’ll first catch
sight of his face,
(…he is leaning over them
watching, heart in his throat…)
and come bursting forth,
and fall hopelessly in love.

Alan Elms, rats

Contributed by Alan Elms, friend, writer, psychologist:

Okay, here goes Beast, Bug, and Bird Blog post #2. I am a research psychologist by training, a psychobiograper by practice. When I first entered college, I declared psychology as my major because I wanted to be a novelist, and I figured I would learn more about the human psyche from studying psychology than from becoming an English Lit major. But the Penn State psychology department was strongly oriented toward laboratory experiments, with a behaviorist theoretical emphasis and especially a Skinnerian one. I had never heard of B. F. Skinner, but I soon learned a lot about him. I was given to understand that real psychologists worked mostly with pigeons and white rats, not with people. By my sophomore year I described my major as “experimental psychology” and sought experience as a research assistant. A grad student who needed data for his dissertation project gave me two white rats and loaned me a Skinner box, then explained what a Sidman avoidance schedule was. My job was to run each rat in the Skinner box for an hour a day, rewarding the rat for pressing a bar according to some complex pattern of electric shocks and food rewards. I could have simply left the rats in the Skinner box, one at a time, to press the bar while a mechanism dropped an occasional Purina Rat Chow pellet into the food tray as I did my homework for another course. Instead I actually sat and watched the rats as they rambled about the box. I noticed after a while that they showed distinct individual differences in their behavior. One rat learned to approach the bar and press it in the correct pattern, as rats usually did in that situation. The other rat, whom I came to think of as the smarter rat, found that he could sit on top of the bar, so that he was never in danger of being shocked but could just give a little bounce or two occasionally when he wanted more rat chow to drop into his dish.
The grad student didn’t seem much interested in my discovery. The two rats, after all, learned to press the bar at about the same response rate. When the experiment was over, I rewarded the smart rat by taking him back to my dormitory, where he got fed much tastier items than Purina Rat Chow. I named him Irving, for no good reason. (I never told my later mentor at Yale Graduate School, Irving Janis, about this anticipatory naming.) I quickly trained Irving to hang upside down from the ceiling of his wire cage while I fed him a whole raw carrot through the wire. By the time I lost interest in demonstrating Irving’s intelligence, several weeks later, another student in the dorm was happy to adopt him and to leave him at home after Easter vacation. Irving was my last rat — I went on to study howler monkeys, then in grad school finally got back to my original interest: people. I also wrote a couple of novels along the way; neither was ever published.

my beast, bug, and bird blog

A few days ago, while walking along the cliffs here in Santa Cruz, I saw a great blue heron.  It’s not my first heron here – two years ago I often saw one in the state park at Lighthouse Field – and I maybe saw this same one on the cliffs a month or so ago, or perhaps it was another of the same size.  But I don’t see them often and I never see more than one at a time.

I stopped because to continue would have been to pass so close as to make it fly and other people on the sidewalk behind me also came to a stop.  Soon there were six of us standing together looking at the heron.  It watched us back.

I wonder what about the bird made us stop.  It was beautiful, but most birds are beautiful, even the pigeons have such pleasing shapes and iridescent colors, and we wouldn’t have stopped for pigeons.  I suppose it must have been the size, this very large bird, and maybe also something in the regal bearing.  Eventually it chose to fly, suspicious of us in spite of ourselves, and we said to each other what a beautiful bird it was, and continued with our walking, our jogging, our solitary jaunts along the cliffs.

I’m turning this blog for a bit to the subject of such animal encounters, mine, but not only mine; I hope to have others weighing in — if I’m lucky and people love me enough, many others.  I am calling this the beast, bug, and bird blog.  On the beast, bug, and bird blog, this is post #1.  — Karen Fowler