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Archive for the ‘deep thought’ Category

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My grandpa’s deck. The great feeding ground for countless songbirds.

The snow hangs around in patches where the sun doesn’t hit it directly. Beneath the bows of the white pine and the steep northern slopes of a hollow, it holds on cold and white.

The cardinals have stopped their flitting forays in somber in winter flocks. The trees rise with cardinal song, and the cockbirds are resplendent red and game for scuffles in the woodlots. The sun comes in casting stronger now, and the days are lengthening. And testosterone levels drive the redbirds into their coming days orgy.

A band of three whitetail does stands upon the dormant grass. The starving time is now, when the acorn crop has long since been exhausted and so have their fat reserves. The land has yet to bring forth the green grass and chewy twigs of spring, and so they live in hunger.

But the cardinals will soon have their nests and screaming broods to feed. The white-tail does will shed out their mousy-gray coats of winter and replace them with fine pelts of tawny. And then they’ll seek the thickets of greenbrier,  multiflora rose, and bracken and drop their spotted fawns into the May balmy.

Today, I was at my grandparents’ house. My parents have rented it out since my grandpa’s death, and now, they are between renters.  All landlords know that time between renters is a time to clean and renovate and do improvements.

I came to pick up some garbage left on the premises. I hadn’t been on this property since the November of 2011, when I was left to watch some Jack Russell pups while my parents and my aunt and uncle went off to attend to some of my grandpa’s final affairs.

It felt eerie to stand on that property today, a place where I spent countless happy childhood hours. I see my grandpa’s beloved Colorado blue spruce, a shelter for so many songbirds in winter, now standing nearly needle-less against the sky.  It too has fallen into death.

I then passed by the grove of spruce where my grandpa sat every evening and every morning. He would sit in his wooden chair and stare out of over the old pasture. His blue eyes glanced on countless numbers of deer that came there to graze. They even fell upon an errant emu, which he initially mistook for a bear.

To left of the spruce grove is a black cherry tree that stands at the edge of another old pasture, and a carefully placed birdhouse was the nesting box for a great many generations of bluebird.

But when I passed the spruce grove today, I saw that his wooden chair had a broken leg, and it stood sideways and unstable as if it were crumbling away into the earth.

The cherry limb that held the bluebird box had fallen to the ground, and the birdhouse was bashed to pieces. Only one of the sides and the board with the opening remained intact.

The former renters put up a cheap above ground swimming pool. It lies beside the outbuilding where I kept my hamster puppy mill. I could still smell the motor oil and sawdust and hamster piss, but that damned pool just took away from it all.

Below the pool is the dog cemetery, where several generations of good dogs now lie.  I think there is something almost sacrilegious about putting an above ground pool so close to a dog cemetery. It is on those grounds that Miley was laid to rest last summer, and just yards from her lies Dixie, my grandpa’s last dog. A beagle cross of some sort, she live out most of her 18 years on this land, spending her mornings and evenings resting beneath my grandpa’s wooden chair and glowering out at any dogs that bother to approach her place near the throne.

The pool will gone soon enough.  New renters will move in. They will bring in new things. I won’t set foot on that property so long as they live there.

They will not know the summer evenings when I’d beg my grandpa to take me fishing at his bluegill pond that lay just across the gravel road. They will not know of my grandmother’s big hugs and special pancakes.

They will not know that the first story I ever wrote and illustrated was in that house. I did the illustration, and the writing was all by dictation. It was a story about the beagle named Willie, the one that used to watch my playpen while my parents worked on their home just down the road.  I gave the words to my grandmother, and she obliged my puny childhood prose.

They won’t know about my early forays into wildlife photography, when I set up the cushions to the deck furniture up against the sliding glass door so that I could have my own photography blind. I was mimicking Dieter Plage, who set up his own blinds to photograph birds in the jungles. My grandpa fed the wild birds on his deck, and you could watch them all day through the sliding glass door. But I thought I had to do it, so I could see the birds.

My photos were all crappy.  They were out of focus, and I often got better photos of the deck furniture than the birds. But it was all in good fun.

The new renters will come with their own lives, their own histories. They will make their memories there.

And I will hold onto to mine. I will keep them buried until something rises them from my psyche. If I stand on that property, they will be evoked again. I will feel sorrow and sadness.

I will miss those beautiful days of youth and my two loving grandparents.

But I must let them live within me.

There may be no permanence to this world.  But they live on in my memories.

My grandpa once told me that grandchildren were the most important generation, for they are the last ones who will remember what their grandparents were like as people and not as characters in stories told to the younger ones.

I think that this is true. In fact, it is beyond true. It is profound.

As long as my memory works, they will live as real as they were, and I must make sure that I create memories for my younger relatives. That way, I can live on in their minds, as my grandparents do with me.

This is the afterlife I know really exists, and though one will not know it in one’s passing, it will be some solace to know that one’s life touched someone else enough that they remember you.

Our existence is a fleeting deer. Blink once and the tawny form will bound away from the sunshine and into the deepest thicket, where your eyes will be able to make out its form again.

So the eyes must be open to sear that deer’s essence on the psyche before it goes out of sight.

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reccent westminster winner

There was time when this blog was part of an official network of bloggers. We would amplify each other’s posts.

The most important thing was to be anti-kennel club and anti-dog show. If one could be rude as possible about it, then do so.

Such an environment is not exactly designed for close collaboration, for eventually we all turned on each other.

I became a pariah from that group, and things sort of died down. I still blogged about dogs. I still got pageviews.

But over time, I’ve slowly given it up.

For the sake of my own art and my own sanity, I’ve consciously moved away from dog writing. I do write about dogs on occasion, but so much about dogs has already been said.

The problems of closed studbooks and breeding exaggeration in conformation are still there. They have been highlighted much more in the past decade, but I’m reaching the point in my life that I’ve written enough about them.

I am not writing one of those “Westminster rewards breeding freaks” posts, because the usual suspects likely already have the draft written and just need to cut and paste the problems associated with the winner next Tuesday.

People are moving on in the world of dogs. I’m okay with it. And I’m certainly okay with finding comfort in my own skin as a mostly wildlife and natural history blogger.

I’m not writing about Westminster on Tuesday or Wednesday next week. I don’t know what I’ll write about, but my guess is I’ll try my hand at producing something like Rick Bass or Aldo Leopold or Annie Dillard (and fail because those are masters) and post it here.

And no one will get into a big argument with me, and I will feel better for having tried do something artful with this here English language and what it is I think I know about nature.

I’ll trundle on. I’ll try to write. I’ll hope you read it and don’t hate it. I’ll get better over time.

And so it goes.

It’s the silly work I do online.

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Nature Just Is

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Today, I was reading in one of the West Virginia local papers about a wildlife photographer who has captured some amazing images of creatures in the East.  He talked about his travels and about how he could sometimes become so immersed in his hobby that he would come in until well after dark.

I felt a certain amount of kindred spirits with the fellow, but at the end of the article, he mentioned that his work photographing wildlife brought him some knowledge of God.

And there, my connection was severed. The same wildlife he photographs includes species like black bears in which the boars often kill and consume cubs.  The beautiful red fox he photographed is not immune to bouts of surplus killing, and the same animal often dies horrifically when the sarcoptic mange overwhelms its pelt.

I find in none of these animals an intelligence that forged them. Instead, I see “the other nations” that are “other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.” The processes of nature produced these beings just as I was produced from them.  The only thing about me that is special is that I am part of an unusually large-brained species that has created such complex social systems and has created all sorts of moral philosophies and codes by which to live in these societies.

I confess my doubt openly and honestly. I no longer believe in the Christian deity. Indeed, I don’t think I ever did. When I became baptized and confirmed in the United Methodist Church, I was something like 13 or 14 years old. I never denied evolution. I never truly believed in miracles.

But I was culturally Christian, but the deity I recognized was very wishy-washy.  By age 16, I was a deist.

And now, I believe in nature and nothing else. If there is something else, it will be fully demonstrated to me through tangible evidence and not tired bromides,constantly moving goalposts, or idle speculation.

And the more time I spend in nature and the more time I spend reading about it, the less I am convinced of any deity’s existence.

I reject the term atheist, but only because the behavior some vocal atheists has given me pause. I don’t think that the public can be won to our way of thinking by railing against people’s stupidity or delusions, because it is not reason that causes people to believe.

And in some areas of the world, it takes courage to let it go. I’m not just talking about countries that are run as theocracies. Even in the United States, it can be so difficult to admit that one no longer has supernatural beliefs.

It took me years to realize that I had no supernatural beliefs at all. The beliefs themselves are lost or lost then rearranged in the cognitive space to make some sense of it all.

In the end, I lost my ability to rearrange these problems in my brain, and I honestly just dropped them all. It was the only way I could make sense of existence.

I had to accept that we don’t know it all, and the only way to know anything is to study the evidence. The best way to study the evidence is through the scientific method, and science makes this whole question unworthy.

Science knocks man off his throne at the pinnacle of creation.  Science makes us smaller and more insignificant. It is far more profoundly humbling to enter into these questions with a doubt that you know will never be answered fully than to enter into them with a predetermined conclusion.

I no longer ask questions about God. Instead, I accept that there is Nature. And Nature just is. Nothing more and nothing less.

 

 

 

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Father of geese

konrad lorenz goslings

The trilling chirps of greylag goslings fill the morning air. The dew is heavy and cool against the late spring grass. The sun casts down upon the verdant land, and it shines against the greenery that magical shade of green that it turns when it is just starting to approach its summer fullness.

Konrad Lorenz comes to the goslings in the morning dew, and they race to meet his shoes. They know him as their doting parent, for when they first hatched, he was the first thing they saw. Goose instinct says follow that first thing you see when you hatch. That is your parent.

Konrad knows they will come wherever he goes. He was one of the first people to describe the phenomenon by which precocial birds attach themselves to the first moving object they encounter upon leaving the egg. They know him as their father, nothing more and nothing less.

When he lies before them in the cool grass, they gently peck at his goatee.  A beaming smile crosses his face. He is smitten with his charges.

Such a gentle man, so tender with these wee ones.

Yet behind the man lies a hidden darkness.

Raised in parochial Austria and educated at Columbia, he studied medicine at the University of Vienna, then got a doctorate in zoology. But in the 30s, the nation of Austria had turned inward and darker. The Catholic Church held sway. It was stifling a curious mind of science.

In the 30s, he studied the greylags closely. He kept wild ones and the tame varieties and crossed them, and he believed that the tame ones were degenerates. Their blood tainted the wild ones when they were crossed, and his ideas got swept up in the Zeitgeist of racial hygiene.

When the Anschluss came, he joined Hitler’s party and became Nazi scientist. In 1940, he found a job as a professor the University of Koenigsberg, but the war was not far off. He was drafted into the Werhmacht, where he worked on a project that studied the so-called Mischlinge– people who were half-German and half-Polish.

It is the same sort of science he performed on greylags that he now performed on his fellow man.

The Soviet Union beat the Nazis at Stalingrad, and the war was all but lost. The Germans sent as many men as they could to that far eastern front, and Lorenz was sent to defend the Fatherland from the great red Slavic horde. He found himself a prisoner of war, where he worked as a medic for the hated Bolsheviks. He kept a pet starling and wrote on a little manuscript. And he survived.

One day, he would say that he saw much of himself in those Soviet doctors. They were committed to an ideology, an ideology imposed by the state, and in that he saw his own folly through those years of the 30s and the war.

He returned to Vienna, where he loved his wife and dogs and his children. He kept a menagerie of all sorts of animals. He worked at the Max Planck Institutes in Westphalia and Bavaria, and he wrote books on animals and their behavior.

And he tried to forget that he had once allowed himself to become caught up in the madness the wrecked his nation. He won the Nobel Prize for Medicine, sharing it with Karl von Frisch, a fellow Austrian who was deemed a mischling (why different spelling?) and forced into retirement for the crime of “practicing Jewish science,” and Niko Tinbergen, who fought to defend his native Netherlands against the Nazis and was held as prisoner of war.

Lorenz would spend the rest of his life with this stigma of having joined in that great madness. He first denied his membership to that party, but the records were soon revealed to the public.

And all knew that he had partaken in the blood and fury, not as a fanatic but as a man of science.

So he would spend the rest of his days trying to find absolution for that great sin, trying to make amends to his friend Niko.

And on nice late spring days, he would run with his goslings and lead them along the green paths and let them eat the forbs and grass, and then would lead them on to his beloved Danube, where he would enter the water like a great crocodile and the goslings would take to their aquatic existence as true waterfowl.

A true romantic lover of the wildness of Central Europe, Lorenz would work to create the Green Party and fight to preserve nature.

But none of that can atone for the madness that reason excused and acquiesced and rationalized.

So on this day, he leads the goslings onward through the greenery. Onward along the lovely green paths of Altenberg, the merry band goes.

A gosling has never heard the word “National Socialist,” nor even processes the understanding of its horrors. It knows only to follow that which it thinks is its parent.

A gentle soul trying to escape his past horror. Once a young monster, now leading on his chirping charges into the sunshine.

 

 

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Born again pagan

The deer are gray-coated now. The season of the canopy flame will soon give way to the long season of the gray tree trunks, where the deer so appropriately colored seem to materialize as phantoms among the smudgy gray.

The repast of acorns is falling hard on the leaves.  A creation of the oak from those days of bright sunshine and long lazy days, the acorn feeds the beasts. The chipmunks store them in their dens, and the deer and the bears devour them to make their winter fat.

I step into this forgotten forest as a visitor, the same as I stepped into the taiga of Denali National Park or snorkeled among the sea turtles and bird wrasse in Kauai. I come here more often, but my basic humanity is that I am but a visitor here. I will never know this land the way the wild coyotes do, where they use the land to hide themselves from our firing guns. I will never have that wisdom, nor will I have the wisdom of the old men who ran the hills setting traps and hunting for hides.

And I am far removed from those first Siberians who came into this continent and lived of the bounty of the land and began their own nations before being cleared off by the Europeans.

It is as the visitor that I step into the woods. I am a visitor, a wannabe pilgrim, who has come looking for the divine. I search not for the divinity of my own Anglican-Methodist childhood, for I’ve moved beyond it. The questions I have cannot be answered in that tradition any longer. These questions I have about what it means to be good. To be good is the fundamental question for me.  How can I be decent toward others? What does it mean to be a good man?

And my other question is about my position in the cosmos, and notions that I am the center of the universe and that some omnipotent being loves me don’t withstand my skepticism.

The only deity I know is nature. My worship of this deity is to spend time alone or with dogs in that which has not be forged by its forces and meditate and ask questions.

I live in a world in which those questions can be adequately answered in the traditions of the Bible.  I live in a world where people are hurting and lost. The coal industry will never return, and the steel mills are running silent. The middle class created here has been gutted, and the unions are no more. An apocalypse has happened, and people want answers. Traditional religion provides those answers, and I will allow them to find some comfort there.

My church is the wild woods,  and my hymns are the the hoof-beats of deer, the falling of acorns from their oaks, and the soft panting of a golden retriever puppy as she leaps around on her first sylvan excursions.

I think of the spinner dolphins I saw cavorting on a quiet bay in Kauai last summer.  They leaped and spun in the pure joy of existing, a sort of ecstasy that I only dream of experiencing. The azure sea was their home. They weren’t visitors. They were truly at home in their native universe.

A piece of me wishes to feel that nativity, to feel that ecstasy.

Yet I know that as a human living in this century, I am already an alien. My world is digitized and pixelated.

But the real world is organic and pungent smelling. It is carbon and oxygen and nitrogen. It is the green stems and the fur and feather.

The real world is a place I can touch, but with which I can never fully be.

I am thus separated from the only deity I will even known, but deeply I will yearn for it. I will keep asking my questions. I will keep on going.

I am born again a pagan each time I step beyond the world of man. It is here that I find my solace, my closest sense of peace.

And thus I will be until I take my final breath.

Maybe my life will signify nothing, but for now, I will let my reverie be my meaning.

And I will take you along.

If you want.

 

 

 

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irma

The most pernicious delusion of our species is that we are somehow above nature. Ever since we chipped away at flint to make spear points or domesticated fire to do our bidding, we’ve contriving hard against nature.

But for the past 10,000 years or so, we’ve been in the process of wall-building. Domesticating grain species is a wall built against hunger that could come from depleted game herds.

But grain grows best only in certain areas, and thus, we’ve become sedentary and possessive. We’ve become better fighters to defend our lands. We’ve built better tools of war. A gun is a finely crafted rock-chucker.  An ICBM with a hydrogen bomb is little more than a super rock-chucker that throws a very deadly rock.

When diseases have developed as a result of our great concentrations of population, we’ve created sewage systems. We’ve developed medicines to defend ourselves against disease.

We have made it so our average lifespans are at least double what they were just centuries ago. The planet now teems with us.

And we all want walls to protect us.

We’ve spent so much time designing and contriving new ways of security, new ways of comfort, that in these wealthier countries, we live almost as aliens upon our own planet.

In the United States, we live in a sort of fairy tale fortress. The nuclear triad and our advanced airforce mean that no enemies are going to get us.  Most of us live in cities, where the only predators we’ll ever know are those belonging to our species. Air conditioning and mosquito control make the South livable, and insulation and fine furnaces make the North’s winters pass in comfort.

We have power, but that power is finite.

Very simply, there is isn’t a wall we can build of any kind that can stop a hurricane. We cannot nuke our way out of this threat. We are totally at its mercy.

Harvey, which dumped all that rain on Texas and Louisiana, ruined the best-laid plans of cotton farmers and urban planners.

The boiling seas off Africa are now sending us another.  This one is a vortex of water vapor and wind that no more cares that it is going to hit West Palm Beach than it would Winnipeg. It is mindless force of nature, and it is about to humble the sunny lands. It will cost billions of dollars.

And no presidential act, no bluster or official act, can stop what is coming. True, the warming planet makes these superstorms more likely, but the contribution our carbon-addicted economy did to create this storm was already cast into the atmosphere. Whether we elected the denialist or the one who didn’t deny it,  we were going to warm and warm anyway, and the storms will still come.

We are laid out vulnerable now. The millions of years of evolution and the thousands of years of civilization are but a veneer.  Before this coming storm, we are the Taung child, and the great eagle is stooping from the sky, talons poised.

We’ve spent much of our political energy over the past year or so engaged picayune squabbles. We’ve become obsessed with immigration, especially of how it relates to our so-called “national character.” We’ve elected a man who will keep us safe from the scary Mexicans and Muslims, as if those were the greatest threat we had to face.

We lost our minds about who gets to refuse service at the bakery and who gets to use what bathroom. We fought those wars of culture so long that they are so well-worn and threadbare that we no longer have a body politic. We have our factions now. That is the United States. States that are united in law but no longer in national purpose or understanding.

But while we were worrying about all these things, the planet warmed a bit more. We landed, then, one year on a bad roll of the dice, and the big storms are coming.

We could have spent this time working on building up a post-carbon economy, improving infrastructure, and developing innovative ways of flood control and evacuation procedures.

That’s what a rational people would have done with these past few years. The debate of the last presidential campaign would have largely been based upon those issues and not the worst sort of nationalist fear-mongering.

But we build the walls. We imprison more people in the world than any other, and yet we do not feel safe. We are armed to the teeth with more guns per capita than anywhere else, and yet we don’t sleep easy at night.

Income inequality and job insecurity eat away at our sound minds. We might have spent the last election fighting over those issues.  We chose differently.

Now the poor  are exposed to the drowning waters and the howling winds. It won’t be as bad as Katrina, we hope.

But no wall can stop what is coming.  It is coming. People will die.

No matter how advanced we are, the fortress cannot protect us.

We are vulnerable, exposed. And this is truly frightening for such a walled-off species.

 

 

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“Deer Among Cattle” by James Dickey

winter-deer

This is one of the great illustrations of the difference between wild and tame, between cultivated and domesticated and organic and free.

Here and there in the searing beam
Of my hand going through the night meadow
They are all grazing

With pins of human light in their eyes.
A wild one is also eating
The human grass,

Slender, graceful, domesticated
By darkness among the bred-
For slaughter,

Having bounded their paralyzed fence
And inclined his branched forehead onto
Their green frosted table,

The only live thing in this flashlight
Who can leave whenever he wishes,
Turn grass into forest,

Foreclose inhuman brightness from his eyes
But stands here still, unperturbed,
In their wide-open country,

The sparks from my hand in his pupils
Unmatched anywhere among cattle,

Grazing with them the night of the hammer
As one of their own who shall rise.

 

 

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