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