Wild Things

Lies, Damned Lies, and Sticks

What sets humans apart from other animals? That’s a question people have debated for centuries. And maybe the answer is as simple as, “We’re the only ones who ponder questions like these.”

Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, says what makes humans unique is our ability to create and believe fiction. Apparently (I haven’t read the book yet, so I might be inventing fiction here), he doesn’t mean just storytelling like novels, TV shows or lies like, “No, I didn’t eat the last three brownies.”

He’s talking about fiction in a larger sense. In the February 2015 Smithsonian magazine, Harari gives an example of one universal fiction: money. Even though money doesn’t have any inherent value, we have created and we believe in a whole system of exchange based on it.

When it comes down to creating fiction at an individual level, however, I’m not sure humans are as unique as we might like to think. As evidence, here’s a true story about a man and a dog. I promise, I am not making this up. I wasn’t there when it happened, but it was told to me by one of the participants, who—despite his behavior on this occasion—is generally ethical and trustworthy.

One summer day the man and the dog were at a lake, playing a game. The man would throw a stick out into the water, the dog would swim out and retrieve it, the dog would bring it back to the man, and the man would throw it again.

The man got tired of the game before the dog did. When the dog brought the stick back for the eleventeenth time, the man pretended to throw but didn’t let go of the stick. He created a fiction.

The dog, still full of energy and eager to play, didn’t notice the fake. He dashed out into the water to retrieve the stick, which, of course, he couldn’t find. He swam back and forth several times, searching. Eventually he swam back to shore, empty-mouthed.

But instead of coming directly back to the man, he searched along the bank until he found another stick. He picked it up, started toward the man, then stopped. He trotted back to the edge of the lake and dropped the stick into the water. Once it was wet, he grabbed it again and brought it back to the man. The fiction he created was actually more elaborate than the fiction the man created.

Without words, both the man and the dog lied to each other. You can decide for yourself which one was the better storyteller.

The larger question of the ethics of inter-species lying is perhaps a topic for another day. But, keeping in mind that the man told the first lie, I just might mention another observation on the uniqueness of humankind.

According to Mark Twain, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”

Categories: Living Consciously, Odds and Ends, Wild Things | Tags: , | 3 Comments

Jumping Jack

There I was, minding my own business, taking an innocent walk down the lane that leads to my parents’ farmhouse. Suddenly this gigantic critter erupted from the grass practically under my feet. While I stood there gasping, waiting for my heart rate to subside, it dashed off to what it apparently considered a safe distance. There it stopped and stood up on its hind legs to reconnoiter, its eyes wide, nose twitching, and ears swiveling.

Believe me, that was one impressive bunny—the biggest jack rabbit I’ve ever seen. Its winter coat was so lush and thick, it would have made Cruella De Vil forget all about Dalmatians. And standing erect, its amazing ears at attention, it looked as big as a kangaroo. (Okay, okay, so I’ve never actually seen a kangaroo. That’s still what it looked like.)

Come to think of it, I haven’t seen many jack rabbits in recent years, either. Maybe they’re all that big, and I just didn’t remember because it’s been so long. The rabbit population seems to follow cycles of abundance, over-abundance, disease and die-off, scarcity, and resurgence. Since I haven’t lived on the prairie for a long time, I’ve probably missed a few cycles.

This week, however, I discovered what may be another reason why jack rabbits seem a little scarce. They’re being abducted and genetically modified into a different species. If you don’t believe me, check out this January 19 article in the Rapid City Journal. It features “the world’s foremost jackalope maker,” who provides thousands of these exotic critters to Cabela’s.

The rabbit I saw in my parents’ lane would no doubt make an impressive jackalope. I hope, instead, it enjoys a long and prosperous life as a jack rabbit. And I promise to watch out for it the next time I visit.

I wouldn’t want it to suffer the same fate as the last South Dakota jackrabbit I got close to. That time, we ran over it. On Good Friday.

I swear, it was an accident. We were driving after dark on a gravel road when the rabbit, no doubt stressed out and distracted by its seasonal duties, dashed out in front of the car. It’s a terrible feeling to realize you have just squashed the Easter Bunny.

Maybe it would have been better off as a jackalope.

Categories: Wild Things | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

To Swat or Not to Swat?

Supposedly, in some cultures, there is a belief that if you save someone’s life you then become responsible for that person. I did extensive research (five whole minutes with Google) and didn’t find any evidence that this is actually true.

Which makes sense, since the whole idea seems backwards. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have it the other way around? The savee, after all, is the one owing a debt to the saver. Not to mention that potential rescuers might be discouraged from saving anyone’s life in the first place, given the potential long-term consequences.

But my real question at the moment is whether this tradition, if it even exists, applies to non-human species. Insects, specifically.

Every fall, when the weather gets cold, we have a mild invasion of wasps. They either migrate inside to keep from freezing to death, or they emerge—and this is not a happy thought—from wherever they have been living inside the walls.

A few weeks ago, when temperatures were falling below zero, one of these wasps took up residence in the kitchen sink. Not the smartest place to settle. For one thing, the stainless steel got so cold overnight that the wasp was too numb to move by morning. Besides, a sink is a place where water can gush forth at random intervals and unpredictable temperatures. Innocent insects are at constant risk of being plunged into a maelstrom that will take them down the drain to a watery death.

I rescued this particular wasp at least twice, plucking it out of the sink before I committed the potentially lethal act of washing dishes. After that, while it tended to stay out of the sink, it still made a nuisance of itself by crawling around on the counter or perching on the faucet. The fact that it didn’t ever sting me in a moment of ungratefulness was due solely to my being careful not to accidentally put my hand on it.

The critter was annoying. I really didn’t want it around. Still, since I had saved its life, I couldn’t bring myself to swat it or toss it outside to perish in the cold. It would have been too much like healing a convicted murderer’s life-threatening illness in order to have him healthy enough to walk to the electric chair. I just couldn’t handle the irony.

So I put up with its presence for several days, moving dishes around it and checking to make sure it wasn’t lurking in the sink before I turned on the water.

Then Monday came. And with it, the wonderful woman who cleans our house every other week. She hates wasps. Unlike me, she had no relationship with this one.

I was conveniently out of the house while she was cleaning. (Yes, as a matter of fact, I can spell “plausible deniability.”)

When I came back, the house was clean. The kitchen counter was polished. The sink was gleaming.

And the wasp, by strange coincidence, was nowhere to be seen.

Categories: Wild Things | Tags: | 2 Comments

The Hungry Caterpillar and the Yuck Factor

The tips of our tomato plants were missing. Well, okay, some tips of some branches of two plants.

At first we blamed the usual suspects, deer. A little munching from them is only to be expected. It’s a normal hazard for any tomato plant foolish enough to poke its limbs through the fence and wave them temptingly to the outside world.

But last week, we started seeing signs of munching that was clearly an inside job. No deer could reach that far inside the fence. Besides, it was a different MO. Deer browse their way along, taking a nibble here and a bite there. This critter ate everything in its path. The tender tips of several branches were completely gone. Leaves had disappeared, leaving nothing but rows of stumpy stems on bare branches. Worst of all, the inside halves of several green tomatoes had been sheared off.

This was serious, but once we started looking closely, it didn’t take long to find the culprits. Tomato worms. Big, fat, juicy green ones. Several inches long and as big around as my thumb. Yuck. I know, they’re really caterpillars, not worms. Still, yuck.

You wouldn’t think something that big would be hard to spot, but their green color is a perfect match for their surroundings. It’s amazing how much a fat green caterpillar can resemble a delicate tomato leaf. Finding them was an exercise in the value of camouflage.

Removal was something else again. The standard advice is to “pick them off,” but I didn’t want to touch anything with such a high yuck factor. My solution was to take my kitchen scissors and snip off the branch that held the intruder. Then, with the caterpillar still methodically munching, I carried the whole thing across the yard and flung it into the brush pile. (And yes, I washed the scissors.)

I know, in the interests of protecting the tomato crop, I should have squashed them. Or snipped them in half with the scissors. But I just couldn’t; they were way too juicy.

I have wondered, now and then, if an aversion to snakes and other creepy-crawly critters could be something we’re born with. An instinct, even, meant to protect us from things that might be poisonous. It would be such a good excuse for my extreme unwillingness to touch something like a tomato worm.

But I’m not sure that’s a valid theory. As evidence, there’s a family story about one of my cousins. When she was nine months old or so, not walking yet but able to do a lot of exploring on all fours, she was outside in the yard. Her mother saw her come crawling down the sidewalk, grinning. Well, probably grinning. It was hard to tell, because she was grinning around something clutched in her mouth—a fat, green, juicy tomato worm.

No yuck factor there, apparently. At least not that she was born with. So it must be something we learn. I bet, by the time her mother got the caterpillar out of her mouth, she had learned it very well.

Categories: Wild Things | Tags: | 3 Comments

Who Ate My Homework?

At our recent family reunion, several of the kids (whose father says with pride, “Our kids are such nerds.”) discovered some tadpoles at the edge of the lake. They spent half their swimming time on the last afternoon catching the little critters and studying them. I assume the focus of their research was observing the stages tadpoles go through as they change into frogs.

I wasn’t there, but I wish I had been. It might have given me an opportunity to finish something I started a long time ago.

As a freshman in high school, I was much more interested in English and history than in science. So when I needed a project for the science fair, I didn’t exactly embark on any cutting-edge research. My plan was to capture a batch of tadpoles and preserve one in formaldehyde each day to show the progression of steps from tadpole to frog.

The ditch beside the road into our yard, filled with water from the spring rains, was a handy tadpole habitat. I scooped up an assortment of the unsuspecting critters and poured them into a gallon pickle jar. Then I fished out the first victim—er, research subject—and dropped it into a little jar of formaldehyde.

At this point, my Uncle Ernie intervened with a suggestion. Tadpoles kept in a pickle jar might not survive long enough to take their turns being sacrificed on the altar of science. He proposed putting them back out in the ditch in a sort of live trap. He helped me build one by tacking window screening around a peach crate, leaving the top open so I could easily fish out my research subjects. We settled it into the muddy ditch, and I dumped the tadpoles into it.

The next morning I went out to select the second volunteer to give its all to science.

The box was right where we had put it. It was still full of water, the screen around it was secure, and it didn’t appear to have been disturbed. But there wasn’t a single tadpole in it.

Apparently somebody, most likely a raccoon, had discovered the tempting tadpole buffet—not unlike the lobster tank at a seafood restaurant—and enjoyed a feast. My science experiment had turned into somebody else’s fine dining experience. I wonder if Charles Darwin ever had that problem?

I don’t remember why it wasn’t possible to simply catch a new batch of research subjects and start over. Maybe whoever ate my project also wiped out most of the remaining population. At any rate, I had to ditch the tadpole project and find something else for the science fair. Perhaps motivated by a desire to identify the culprit who ate my tadpoles, I did an exhibit on fingerprints instead.

Maybe I should have written up the experiment anyway, displaying the empty box, the one lonely pickled tadpole, and the sad story. After all, there are lessons to be learned from failed experiments as well as successful ones. And I did learn an important scientific principle from this experience. I now understand why, until they are ready to publish, scientists find it so important to keep a lid on their research.

Categories: Remembering When, Wild Things | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Golf and Game in Wyoming

The card stated clearly that it was an exclusive invitation sent to a limited few. We were obviously among the chosen, since my partner’s name was on the envelope, spelled right and everything.

He and a guest—that would be me, presumably, though of course being too quick to presume can sometimes lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings, and a wise woman doesn’t take these things for granted—were invited to enjoy dinner and fine wine for two. At the same time, we would participate in a seminar to find out all about “Wyoming’s premier golf and hunting resort community.” We would even be given the opportunity to buy “appreciating real estate” in this “deeded ownership resort.”

Now, given the exclusive and limited nature of these invitations, one might think somebody would have checked the list to verify that all the recipients actually played golf and hunted. Or at least did one or the other. Which we don’t. Maybe we qualified just on the grounds of our general all-around specialness and exclusivity.

But I still found the invitation a tad confusing. Maybe it’s my rural upbringing, but I’ve never particularly thought of golf and hunting as a matched set. Certainly, I know people who enjoy both. They just don’t indulge in them at the same time or in the same place. So I’m not sure how the whole “golf and hunting resort” thing would work.

The obvious way to clarify confusing little details like this would be to accept the invitation. Then I would have a chance to ask questions. Here are some of the things I would like to know:

1. Will the pro shop sell camouflage golf knickers?

2. A deer or antelope would probably fit on a golf cart, but if you bag an elk on the course, are you allowed to drive your pickup off the cart path to load it?

3. If you carry a rifle in your golf bag, do you have to count it as one of your clubs? And is it absolutely necessary to put one of those little mitten thingies on it?

4. Are you expected to tip the caddy something extra for helping you dress out your game?

5. If someone ahead of you on the course has stopped to field-dress an elk on the fairway, does course etiquette require you to wait, or can you play through?

6. If one member of the resort shoots a deer and it runs out onto the fairway, where another member of the resort dispatches it with a three-iron, who gets to keep the deer?

7. If your golf partner is lining up a long put, and an elk ambles into range, are you required to risk spooking the critter by shouting “fore” before you shoot?

8. If you’re on, say, the seventh hole, and you miss a deer with your first shot but get it with the second, do you have to add both shots to your golf score?

9. If you’re on the tee, and you pull your rifle out of your golf bag and drop an antelope with one shot, does that count as a hole in one?

10. If one of your drives hits a turkey in the head and kills it, is your score for that hole automatically a birdie?

Never mind petty little details like prices, access, and land values. What potential buyers really need are satisfactory answers to crucial questions like these. It might be enough to persuade them to invest—at least if they’ve had enough of that fine wine.

Categories: Just For Fun, Wild Things | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Gonna Bounce That Kid Right Out of My Yard

Any reputable obstetrician would have been appalled. Such behavior by a very pregnant lady simply wasn’t appropriate.

For most pregnant ladies, actually, it would have been impossible. When you feel approximately the shape and size of the Goodyear Blimp, you aren’t going to gambol about, making mad dashes hither and yon and kicking up your heels. Heck, you can’t even see your heels.

But these two pregnant ladies were doing just that. Literally. I saw one of them kick her heels higher than her head. This was after she had hurtled across the lawn, twisting and leaping like Tipperary bursting out of the bucking chute. Her unborn baby must have been hanging on by its fingernails.

Except it didn’t have fingernails. These pregnant ladies were deer. Their prenatal cavorting took place in broad daylight, right in our back yard. And it involved children.

The children were four or five of last year’s fawns (it was hard to count, they were moving so fast). Scruffy and uncombed in their shedding winter coats, they outdid the does in exuberance. They chased each other, ducked and dodged, bucked, dashed back and forth across the yard, raced laps around the trees and back, and bounced like popcorn on their slender legs.

This frantic activity went on for perhaps ten minutes. Eventually one of the youngsters galloped off across the neighbor’s yard and disappeared. Another followed. The others dashed off in various directions and didn’t come back.

The two does looked at each other, then settled down to placid browsing on the new green grass as if nothing whatsoever had happened.

And we were left wondering just what did happen. It’s the time of year when the does, getting ready for this year’s babies, send the adolescent fawns from last year off to seek their fortunes in the big, wide world. Is this the way it’s done? Did we witness a deer rite of passage—sort of a graduation minus the speeches?

It might have been a way to literally kick the kids out, except it looked like way too much fun. Was the point of all the frolicking to get the yearlings so hyped up that they wouldn’t notice Mom had sent them away? Was this a farewell party? Or did we simply see an outburst of sheer, spring-driven delight?

We may never know. What we do know is that it was great fun to watch. But for any pregnant ladies out there, just one cautionary note. Spring exuberance or not, please, don’t try this at home.

Categories: Wild Things | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Porcupine Corpse a Prickly Issue

I tried to get them to stop. Really, I did. I pointed out the dead porcupine on the edge of the road—quite fresh, too, as far as one can judge these things driving by at 65 mph. It wasn’t the least bit squashed. Its bristling quills, highlighted by the late-afternoon sun, would have been a great temptation to any creator of traditional beadwork.

I thought my sister—the one who sews and quilts and knits and dyes and comes up with so many creative things—might have appreciated a chance to do something interesting with porcupine quills. We had plenty of room in the car; we could have tossed the critter (carefully) into the back and taken it right to her doorstep, which is where we were headed anyway.

Besides, you would think the two guys with whom I was traveling would have jumped at the chance to examine an intact road-killed porcupine. One is a scientist with an interest in natural history and the other one is a law-enforcement student whose career will probably encompass plenty of road accidents. Not to mention that both of them carry pocket knives and know how to field-dress game.

But no. They refused to stop.

I didn’t understand the full extent of the opportunity we missed until I saw the headline in our newspaper’s online edition a few days later: Man does C-section on dead porcupine, saves baby.

The story was from the Associated Press (and no, it didn’t appear on April Fool’s day). A man in Maine saw a porcupine get hit by a car. He had heard that some sort of mineral deposit valuable to Chinese medicine formed in the stomachs of porcupines, so he cut open the dead porcupine to look for it. What he found instead was—not surprisingly, given the time of year—a baby porcupine. He “cut the umbilical cord and thought the baby porcupine was dead until he started massaging it and it began breathing.”

If my traveling companions had only been willing to stop, that could have been us. We might have saved the life of an innocent unborn baby porcupine. Assuming I had been able to figure out the video function on my cell phone camera—which I’ve only used once and that was by accident—we could have even posted a video of the surgery online and become famous.

And we might have ended up with a cute little pet porcupine like this one. Just imagine having one of these critters in the house: climbing the piano, munching on the house plants, gnawing on the furniture, rubbing up against you, snuggling on your lap . . .

Wait a minute. What was the whole point of stopping to pick up the dead porcupine in the first place? That’s right. The quills. Those sharp, pointy, barbed things.

Never mind.

But I bet having a pet porcupine would teach the toddler grandkids a valuable lesson about not rubbing animals the wrong way.

Categories: Family, Travel, Wild Things | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Camo–Can You See It Now?

Hunters everywhere, rejoice. You have now become cool. Well, at least your clothes have.

According to fashion experts cited in an Associated Press article that came out about the time fall hunting season started, camouflage is in. It’s the new plaid. The new paisley, even. Apparently it has sneaked away from outfitters like Cabela’s and L. L. Bean and slipped inconspicuously into the world of haut couture.

The article used phrases like “sexy take on the classic hunter look,” and “edgy but completely neutral.” The experts were excited about wearing camo in “a slick urban way,” whatever that may mean. They suggested various color options, from blush for evening wear to cartoon colors for kids.

They did, however, caution that orange is a bit cliched. That blaze orange hunting cap you’ve had for ages? Sorry. Time to ditch it in favor of something neutral, perhaps accented with a “pop of navy or yellow.”

And those style gurus must be right, because even I have noticed the camo as I’ve been Christmas shopping. Browsing through gauzy women’s scarves, for example. Half of them were camo prints in muted, ladylike browns and greens. I haven’t seen this myself, but apparently this fall’s fashion lines included camo cocktail dresses. The perfect option, I suppose, if you want to disappear into the crowd at your spouse’s office Christmas party.

Apparently another designer has come up with camouflage fake-fur coats. The true woodland wilderness experience, twice removed. At least the jackets aren’t real fur, which would be truly tactless. The original wearers of that fur might take it as adding insult to injury.

It seems to me there are some risks in this style trend. Take just one: toddlers in camo. They already can vanish in a millisecond the instant you turn your back. Who needs to make that easier by putting them in camouflage?

There is, however, one form of camo clothing that they should have been making a long time ago. Underwear. It’s the perfect answer for hikers, especially female hikers. That way, when you need to retire behind a bush for a private moment, you can go in perfect confidence that no one will see you.

At least if you don’t commit a camo fashion faux pas by wearing orange.

Categories: Fashion, Wild Things | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Mother Goose

Whose idea was it to put a goose in charge of children’s storytelling?

Mother Goose has apparently been around for several centuries. The drawings of her in children’s books usually show her with a cute little bonnet and a shawl or apron, looking like a kindly grandma with feathers. If a child said to her, “But Grandmother, what a big beak you have!”, she would just smile indulgently and give the kid another cookie.

Real geese aren’t like that. I have a faint memory (very faint—I’m sure I blocked it out because of the trauma) of a pair of geese my own grandmother had when I was little. I was scared to death of them. True, I was scared of a lot of things when I was a kid, but with the geese I think it was justified.

This week we visited some friends who have two geese. These birds enjoy a pampered lifestyle that Mother Goose herself would have envied. They live in their own custom-built house and have the run of the yard, where they bully—er, supervise—two dogs and a flock of chickens. They are fed well and even get extra treats in the form of dog food.

Not only are they well provided for in terms of food and shelter, they have their emotional and social needs met, as well. While she ate her supper, the goose was carrying on what certainly sounded like a real conversation with her servant—er, owner. And of course, neither goose nor gander has the slightest worry about someday ending up as Christmas dinner.

These birds have no reason whatsoever to be foul-tempered.

Yet, as we walked across the yard with our hostess, the geese apparently decided we were trespassers. My first clue was the noise behind me—a discordant combination of unoiled hinge and barking pit bull with asthma. I turned, and there was the goose, wings spread and bill open, in full threatening cry. The gander was a safe distance behind her, making less strident squawks that no doubt meant, “Atta girl, dear; I’m with you all the way.” They kept coming in a slow-motion chase that made me wish for a nice, stout stick.

This display of avian aggression was enough to intimidate even an adult. Then I imagined myself as a toddler, with that hissing beak and thrusting head at my own eye level. No wonder I was terrified.

And this is the critter that represents children’s nursery rhymes? It’s hard to imagine her as the kindly Mother Goose telling little kids a story.

But if she told them to sit down and be quiet, I bet they wouldn’t argue.

Categories: Wild Things | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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