Chipmunk Update

February 15, 2014

February 15 and up to our eyebrows in snow.  The area around the back door where people, other than I, go occasionally for various reasons like filling the bird feeder or fighting their way to the hot tub, looks like a model of the high Himalaya.  There has been a little thawing, and a crust has formed on which four squirrels play their merry games.  It seems possible that they, like the cardinals, are in a mating mood, although to me it looks like a long road to spring.  The intentions of the male cardinal are writ large in his glorious red plumage with its accent of glossy, black bib.  His lady, perhaps even lovelier in dark golden olive, has found some lipstick for her beak.

Now to the point.  Valerie saw a chipmunk this morning running through the raspberry patch.  Imagine my astonishment having so recently researched and written about how chipmunks go underground in the fall, before it’s even very cold, and stay there in a state of semi-hibernation until spring.  I don’t call this spring, but apparently some others do.  Still, what can have inspired this tiny animal to surface under such a mountain of snow?  The raspberry patch is not even very close to where we are accustomed to seeing chipmunk holes.  Did it come up, for whatever bizarre reason, in the wrong place.  Is it lost?

Keep tuned.



January 19, 2014

In the late fall of 2012 I concluded that all the adorable chipmunks, who had amused and delighted me throughout the summer were dead.  The bleak days of dreary November went by; I gazed sadly into a yard bereft of stripey fun; I cursed my neighbor’s cat, remembering my Shannon’s pleasure when, after an illegal trip to the yard, she returned with a mouthful of chipmunk.

Then, at last, came spring, and on the first  warm day there was a miniature explosion of chipmunks.  Looking as fit and lively as ever, chipmunks of several sizes, from newly minted children, not more than an inch long to full sized,  three inch grown ups, chased each other up and down the cellar door, foraged in the scanty, winter grass, and posed on the stacks of slate that made our back yard such a perfect habitat.  babychipmunk

And these were neither immigrants nor tourists.  Several I thought were clearly the offspring of “my” chipmunks, born on the premises (but where? but when?), tiny copies of what I could only suppose were their not particularly proud parents, who mingled casually with the younger generation.

This happy experience taught me a number of things, possibly the most useful of which was “consult the internet, you dumb cluck!”  In fact, I do use the internet frequently and often with gratitude, but it is not instinctive for me as it is for the young and for many of the not so young who rush to its rich offerings of info and mis-info first and turn on their brains second.  Anyway, old habits die hard.  At least I don’t put on my galoshes and slog to the library to consult a book, delightful as that might sometimes be, and I do use the internet.  I use it every day for something, but I still have the weird old habit of relying on what I know (in many cases not much) or even, believe it or not, of cracking a book.

Back to chipmunks.  The next two pictures  would give the game away if one were thinking like a naturalist.  Here a feisty householder has emerged from a fairly well concealed round hole and is having a wary look around.

Chipmunk burrow

We, too, have these round holes, which are less well hidden under even weedier grass.  We have several of them, two near the barbecue, two more quite far away by chipmunk standards out where the wash line begins.  After deciding that none of these holes is big enough to cause a fall or sprained ankle, I have pondered their greater mystery.  “Something lives down there,” I tell my daughter, and she agrees.

Enter Wikipedia on the subject of chipmunks:  “They dig complex burrows with many entrances and chambers as well as short escape tunnels, and each chipmunk defends a small area around its burrow, threatening, chasing, and even fighting with a neighbor who invades the space.”  Really?  Well, that’s fascinating and illustrates what we all know, that there can be more than one version of Wikipedia on the same topic.  This is the first I’ve heard of territorial defensiveness, and the alert gaze of the emerging chipmunk may be focused on a burrow thief or not.  Perhaps he is looking for someone to play one of those exhausting chipmunk games or someone to mate with or someone who is eating an especially delicious nut (or apple or peanut butter sandwich or baby bird).  Perhaps he (or she, of course) is simply enjoying the few but undeniable signs of spring in Massachusetts.  How will I know?  I could settle down in a not too distant lawn chair (chipmunks are not easily alarmed by people) and watch until I saw something definitive happening to the emergent chipmunk.  This could be several weeks down the road or happening to a different chipmunk that I was unable to distinguish from the one that first caught my attention.  This discouraging observation reminds me of the reasons I never became a naturalist, tempting though that path  sometimes seemed.

Having abandoned the idea of observation, I turned to the usual source, and the first thing I found out was that chipmunks hibernate.  They seem not to like cold weather, at least in the fall, and when the first chill arrives, down the round holes they dive into surprisingly elaborate and commodious burrows to spend what must be a cozy and perhaps even sociable winter.  I made the last part up, but why not?  The situation is made to order for sociability, if you like your family, and chipmunk hibernation is no deathly coma, no precipitous drop in body temperature or function.  Hibernating chipmunks do sleep a lot and sometimes go a bit comatose, but then they wake up and do amusing things like eating the food they have stored during the summer.chipmunk eatin

I didn’t even know that chipmunks had cheek pouches.  Then one day I saw one take a large peanut I had meant for a squirrel and stow it away.  He retreated under a pile of lumber with this prize and came back for more.  Judging from the photo, even an enormous peanut is nothing to the capacity of the tiny rodent’s pouch.  The food is stored in a separate chamber in the burrow where there is also a room for discarded shells and other culinary trash and for use as a toilet.  Having learned that chipmunks in the wild only live about a year (which suggests that my grief was not entirely misplaced), my thoughts turn to mortuary matters.  Is there a room for those who expire during the winter?  If so, other questions arise.  To think, when I started this blog, I thought I would be short of material.

Questions, questions and so many with no answers within the framework of this ramble.  Jack, of course, said I should go to Google Scholar.  He always says that, and I never do it because, for one thing, I read just a hair faster than the three toed sloth I so closely resemble.  But this time I had a look, and Yes!  Oh Wow!  If I read just half of what various scientists have to say about the Eastern Chipmunk, I could write a book instead of a blog.  Stay tuned.  Maybe in 2016 when I’ve got a few other things done…


October 31, 2013

Jack and I used to prowl the dunes that stretched along the coast of Long Island, sheltering the World War II gun emplacements and many lovelier if less historic things.   Our visits were frequent or not depending upon our current location in Manhattan or Brooklyn or Queens, but there was always one in the fall.  If we timed it right, our migration from the city would coincide with the migration of the Monarch butterflies who on their long trip to Mexico paused at Fort Tilden to enjoy the profusion of milkweed that bloomed on our windswept dunes.     We could hope to see them but knew there was also a more dependable treat at this time of year.


Bittersweet photo

In fall the dunes were garlanded with gold and scarlet vines, and Jack must have great bags of it to take back to the apartment.  But Fort Tilden is a national park, and I was traumatized by my role in this adventure, which involved not only filling the bags with the long tendrils Jack clipped, but also carrying them past park headquarters, out of the park and home.  I took opaque bags and clutched them tightly, feeling like a criminal.

You are not supposed to take anything away from a national park, right?  Well, you could take beachcomber stuff–shells and stones and lovely, sea-polished glass, but these things didn’t grow.  Like Jack and me and the butterflies, the treasures of the beach came from somewhere else and were only passing through.

My husband scorned my scruples.  Bittersweet is a weed, he said.  Look how it’s strangling that little tree.  The park authorities should thank us.   Mmm, maybe, but this didn’t look like a managed wilderness to me.  Except for the occasional path, this looked like the botanical version of “Nature red in tooth and claw,” and here we were, tidying it up.  Besides it was a rule, wasn’t it?  protested the woman who had spent most of her life gleefully breaking rules.

Rules aside, for emotional validity I do not have to dip very far down into the murky well of memory.  For the first ten years of my life I spent the summer with my family in the Indiana dunes.  Much of this beautiful area is now a national park, and just as well, too, since Ogden Dunes where we had our cottage is now a rather crowded development.   In those days it was fairly wild.  The houses, which ranged from sumptuous to primitive, were nicely scattered.  (Today being Halloween, I am remembering being driven around by one or the other of my parents so I could knock on doors in the windy dark and call “Trick or Treat!  But now I think the treats must have been sparse since most of the houses would already have been  shut up for the winter.)

Anyway, to the point, Kate.  I don’t know whether anything in our area was actually protected and suspect it wasn’t.  My father, however, taught me to cherish wild things, and from him I inhaled the idea that the bittersweet that threaded its joyous way through the dunes was rare and due a child’s respect.  I do not think we ever cut it to decorate our cottage.

Fast forward never-mind-how-long to Massachusetts where Jack and I still cut bittersweet from the abandoned tennis court in the little woody place across from the elementary school.  And I think of my photographer friend Liz West, who, of course, is responsible for the glowing portrait above.  Liz calls it beautiful but invasive and curses it for strangling her shrubs.  I am slowly getting over my feeling that bittersweet is rare and special, and this, perhaps is the fate of many an old memory.


October 6, 2013

000_0539Here is Bouhaki again.  She has appeared in these pages several times, starting back a few years ago when she was small enough to sit in a teacup.  After the fashion of cats she is profoundly asleep, eyes squeezed shut, little white paws limp, her now rather large white tummy trustingly exposed.  It is mid-morning, and clearly the bed needs making, but I would be reluctant to disturb that blissful slumber for a visit by royalty.

What am I thinking?  That if I was enjoying such a wonderful sleep, perhaps with the added delight of a fascinating dream, I would be groggy and cross if someone woke me up?  Really, I could not be said to be thinking at all.  The experience is more visceral than that.  Empathy, I think is the word.  I am well aware that when Bouhaki wakes for whatever reason, she will be fully awake, ready to fight or flee or, more likely in the setting of my bedroom, to observe and enjoy.  In this sense she is still a wild animal.  There is not a lot of mumbling and eye rubbing on the savannah, although there is plenty of yawning and stretching.  Knowing these things is  no impediment at all to my neglect of my domestic duties.  When did I ever put them first?

I have lived with cats for many years, though not all my life.  In childhood it was dogs, or at least one dog at a time, and that is all a different story, but not so different as you might think.  This little post scratches the surface, oh ever so lightly, of our perception of animals.  What a lot of baggage we carry to the contemplation of a sleeping cat!  Or, on the other hand, and even more surprisingly, how little some of us bring.  I have occupied both categories.

Our first cat was a sweet, young, Siamese male acquired from a friend who had some years before, adopted a Siamese female abandoned on the dock of an Italian resort town and now had more Siamese cats than she could handle.  His name was Duffy, and we adored him partly for his habit of running down the stairs from our second floor apartment to greet us when we came home.

In time we became confirmed cat people and, whenever possible, included a cat in our too often moved household, but we never had another fanatic greeter.  I can imagine Bouhaki dashing down the steps of a brownstone, but in our present small ranch house where would she dash?

As usual, I have wandered off my theme, greeter cats being only a peripheral example.  Timo and Neil took over our lives when I was starting work on The Exchange Student, a science fiction novel that involved me in huge amounts of research on real animals.  I spent a lot of time with Zoo people (my protagonist through this book and two sequels is a keeper) and a lot more time just looking at animals in zoos, but the real exhibit was at home in a two room apartment where two preadolescent male felines made life interesting for the rest of us.  It was there that I really began to look at cats, and that was, at a guess, somewhat more than 20 years ago.  They were with us a long time, though not long enough, and they taught me a great deal, as do their successors, goofy, social Bouhaki and Shannon, her much more reserved mother.

About the thought processes and motivations of these dear, familiar aliens we can only speculate.  Gifted and creative scientists in the field of animal behavior have devised excellent experiments that shine a dim light on many questions of animal cognition.  I use the word “dim” not because I think I know more than these well trained and experienced researchers but because I think we stand together all staring down into the same murky water.   We see what our animals do; often we see, or think we see, why they do it, but the process remains mysterious.

So this post is not about cognition at all.  It is not even about human cognition.  I let Bouhaki sleep because I know how it feels to sleep in some cozy place.  Kinship.  There was a time in the history of our species when our kinship with animals was simply part of the human psyche, not questioned or named but expressed in a multitude of stories and songs.  And then it began to slip away.  It became the province of one special group of people, the “animal lovers”, and not of the general populace.

This is understandable given the undeniable fact that the stories we tell and the dreams we dream are no longer of nature’s strange manifestations  but more likely of the things we humans have made–computers, space ships, thousands of things large and small that impact nature and seem to define our lives while in the dawn of our species the power was all on the other side.

Dog Day

August 8, 2013

Saturday the rather unremarkable town of Ashland, Massachusetts hosted a remarkable event.  Subtitled “Dog Day”, the Ashland Farmers Market invited its potential shoppers to bring their dogs and, if they wished, to participate in a dog parade.

The Market is only into its second season and is already an astounding success with well over a thousand people wandering its ample, grassy strip on opening day this year and comfortably large hordes following to browse the selections offered by 35  various vendors.  The offerings are, of course, for farm-fresh foods as well as seductive pastries, hand made pasta, artesanal cheeses and so on, almost all of it horrendously expensive.  As such, I have seen the like here and there in Boston’s far flung suburban sprawl but no other to rival or even touch Ashland’s Market as a social event.  Since the beginning there has been live music–loud, energizing–the product of seemingly enthusiastic local groups–and special activities for children many of whom participate happily in a considerable variety of amusements from hula hooping to writing their names in Sanskrit (one of  contributions of the local Indian community on “Indian Cultural Day).

The children, many of them very tiny, are beautiful and cause me to wonder if I am succumbing to one of the rather icky predilections of old age.  Not that I have ever disliked children. After all, I had two splendid examples of my own, but I was never one to drool over them.  Here, of course, we have a healthy crop–cherished, over-protected, well fed.  Looking at their bulbous parents, one is tempted to wonder if the little ones dropped from heaven or came trooping out of fairyland.

Hello, reader.  You thought this was going to be about dogs.  Well, you were right.  This IS about dogs.  Having skipped several special Saturdays at the Ashland Farmers Market, mostly because it was too hot to even contemplate walking what almost amounted to a city block in the sun (yes, I still think of short distances as north-south New York City blocks), but not Ashland Author Day,  for which my presence was required, I vowed to be there for the pooches.

It was a lovely day, and the mood on the Market green sward was positively ebullient as people with dogs strolled and talked and, more importantly, as dogs met dogs.  Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in her wonderful book “The Hidden Life of Dogs” asked what is important to dogs? and answered that, among other things, dogs are important to dogs.  This would have been clear yesterday in Ashland.  What a joyous festival of canine meetings and greetings! Although all the dogs were attached to a human by leash, it seemed clear that the prevailing good manners were imposed entirely by dog culture rather than human restraint.  There was so much to see, so many smells to smell, such a forest of wagging tails.

For us it was much the same except for the smells to which we are–for better or for worse–largely insensitive.  The variety was stunning.  A noble German Shepherd (only one?) briefly nuzzled a perky and clearly undismayed toy poodle.  Indeed the minis of one kind or another seemed to be everywhere:  Chihuahuas, toy Pekingese, Pomeranians,  tiny spaniels and bushels of miniature terriers all pulling at their leashes in hopes of seeing everybody.  I had supposed the place would be wall to wall Golden Retrievers and saw one.  The mid-sized dogs ran to the exotic perhaps because I haven’t had time to look them up, perhaps as products of the doggie melting pot.  Four or five very different dogs had tiny white tips on the ends of their tails.

In the really big department there was only a Leonberger, but what a dog!  It is about the size of a small Shetland pony but fortunately of an extremely benign temperament.  Along with maybe a dozen very small children, I was invited to pet this prodigious animal.  (There was a not too flattering assumption here, which I chose to ignore and petted away with my co-invitees.)  The Leonberger’s all over coat is tawny, its tail plumed, its massive head undeniably leonine, draped with a dark mane from which kindly brown eyes survey the world.  At a wordless gesture from the woman at the end of the leash it dropped to the ground to make things easier for its army of petters.  I saw later, as I returned to wandering the Market, that a number of very small dogs were receiving the same courteous attention.  The Leonberger was standing again, and its admirers circulated between its legs.

So Dog Day at the Ashland Farmers Market was an overwhelmingly happy event.  The numbers are now in:  Another thousand people were there, walking around, beaming at each other as well as at the dogs who could, perhaps, also be described as beaming.  There is a lesson in all of this, which I am not going to belabor.  Read “The Exchange Student” when the new edition is available or ask me for an old one if you want to know more about the animal-human bond.

Where Have I Been?

July 16, 2013

Apologies, dear blog, and faithful followers.  I have been doing useful work editing a long manuscript but must confess that this is more fun than writing original text.  Many bloggers would disagree, but I don’t really have a proper blogger mentality.  I think of you out there–old friends and recent new electronic correspondents, and I instruct myself to write as if  dashing off a chatty letter about what I think of this and that, and I can’t do it.  A blog post is a piece of writing and therefore hard work.

What I have been doing is also hard work, but it has a delicious element of escapism that is difficult to resist.  During this dearth of the kind of old fashioned publishers who were once interested in my work, I have decided to  self publish a sequel to The Exchange Student.  This by now almost classic science fiction novel enjoyed a successful life after publication in 1999 and inspired two sequels.  These were finished several years ago, and have failed to interest anyone.

This is not because they are uninteresting.  But try–those of you who are not naturally gifted in the commercial arts–try to market as a trilogy a largely forgotten thirteen year old novel and its two sequels.

So I am thinking of combining the two sequels into one hefty manuscript and self publishing it along with a new edition of the original book.  I am puzzled, however, by the blithe enthusiasm of the by now huge population of self publishers.  This is no picnic in the park.  First, one must find the substantial amount of money needed not only to publish a good looking book, but even more to let the world know of its availability and irresistible charm.  Next one must do the enormous amount of work that was once provided by all but the least respectable publishers–the thankless slogging of the copy editors and the wise judgment calls of the senior editors.  I marvel at the number of often not terribly experienced writers who plunge cheerfully into these shark-infested waters and congratulate the professional manuscript doctors who must have proliferated in the vacuum.

Yet even knowing full well that I will fall short of perfection as an editor, I ask myself who will care in this far from literate climate, and besides, I am having fun.

Put quite bluntly, what I have been doing is hiding from harder work, like blogs and a new novel, in the charmed worlds of my own creation.  As I check for typos and inconsistencies I am with Daria in the ChelaDome, holding the tiny, newborn animal from an extinct race or with Chang and Infilaya as they ponder the genetic plan of a long vanished species.  I cross intergalactic space with a thousand captive animals and walk with Fen through their new jungle habitat.  And so on, line after line, scene after scene.  I am comfortable inhabiting these scenes and often gratified at the discovery of a well turned phrase or vivid description.

So I’ll let this blog cook for a day and proof it and change a lot of small stuff and maybe some bigger stuff and poke “publish” and get back to my invented world.

The Big Lights

June 16, 2013

Recently a friend sent this photo, Shakespeare Light Tech Kate Kelly  '52 and it all came back to me as people say when what they really mean is little bits and pieces came back–about what you would expect after sixty some odd years.  I was doing something, probably related to focusing the big lico lights that illuminated the Shakespeare stage, although since the picture was taken in broad daylight, actual focusing would have been done after dark.  We had a real Shakespeare festival going then, one of the first to do all the plays on successive summer weeks.  I think it was done rather on a shoestring the first year or two.  For the history plays the two directors played all the kings, an intellectual feat that left me gasping.  There was, of course, the occasional mix-up, but I don’t remember anyone calling us to account, even though some fairly high wattage Shakespeare experts came to the performances.  Before the whole sequence had been presented, however, Shakespeare Under the Stars had become a critical success, which brought money and enough actors to cover the enormous number of characters reasonably well.

I did many chores and a number of more major things for the various branches of The Antioch Area Theatre during my five years there, but the lights were my passion, an emotion probably reinforced by the fact that I was only third among unequals.  The other two, of course, were guys–experienced honchos from the engineering department at school.  In fact, I liked these two very much and admired their accomplishments while envying their privileges.  They knew a lot and faked the rest.  I didn’t even know enough to fake, but I had a feeling for light and a strong visual sense of how it should be used.  The guys knew a good thing when they saw it.  There was plenty to do–plugs to wire, cable to wind, even focusing, and I was not afraid of heights.  Eventually I got my reward:  the chance to run the switchboard for a major production, but, believe it or not, I don’t remember what production–not Shakespeare, one of the other big plays that were done on the outdoor stage.

During my first year at Antioch (the year of my conversion from a career in good works to one in self-indulgent creativity) the Antioch Area Theatre lost its hold on the Yellow Springs Opera House, a charming relic of the 19th Century, and moved with some trepidation into a converted foundry building.  This great, dusty space was a natural for theatre if you stepped out of the conventional picture of a stage enclosed by black drapes and scenery.  Since it was part of the academic program, all kinds of plays from hugely elaborate musicals to workshop one-acts were produced there during the year.  I directed a few and, in the end, lighted quite a few more, hanging my licos from the I-beams and running my own programs from the little metal cage that housed the switchboard.

Ah, the switchboard!  You would have to be almost as old as I am to appreciate its particular charms.  The switchboard was entirely electro-mechanical and consisted of three rows of six white porcelain dimmers, each about the size of a large service plate and studded with circles of round copper buttons.  On the operator’s side of this array were handles, again, six to a bank of dimmers, and a master handle into which you could lock several, or even all, of the individual ones.  This allowed you to control one light or several or all.  Of course, even in those days the thing was a dinosaur, but it was all I knew, and I loved it dearly.  It seemed odd to me and even, in a certain sense, wrong to sit, as some professionals did, at an electronic device and, with the merest twiddle of fingers, cause a huge stage to be flooded with  light or appear to be washed with blood or to sink into shadow at nightfall.  Making a major change of light on my switchboard took effort and with the effort came the physical sensation of change, change that might be so slow it would be almost undetected or a swift, frightening descent into darkness,  or many interesting gradations in between.

The switchboard, which weighed a ton, was moved out of doors in summer to the Shakespeare stage as were the big lights.  Technical rehearsals tended to go on and on usually way past midnight, and for some reason I was on the board alone during the tech for Anthony and Cleopatra.  This is one of my sharpest memories, though I can’t help wondering about it since one would suppose that the guy who was lighting director for this enormous production would need to be there for the technical rehearsal.  Perhaps he was sitting somewhere taking notes.  But I was at the switchboard and saw how the light of dawn began to filter through the trees and touch the face of the dying queen just as I slowly pulled the heavy dimmers down and let the stage go dark.

Move Over, Mom

May 6, 2013

This is going to be about cats, and I am amazed at how long it has been since I even mentioned these constant companions.  Well, there was the one about Timo, but dear Timo is long gone.  I’m thinking of the ones I babbled about when I first started to blog–about improbably lovely Bouhaki, too often known as  Boo, and about Boo’s gorgeous, if hopelessly indolent, mother, Shannon.

Shannon and Boo are mother and daughter, and they are usually inseparable.  I wake  to find the entire bottom of the bed a solid mass of fur, Shannon’s many shades of brown and black seemingly merged with Bouhaki’s black, white, rust, gold.  You might think they had mysteriously become one gigantic cat if you didn’t know better.

In the living room the cats prefer to be together more independently since there are two chairs in front of the fireplace, one for each cat seems to be the idea.  They often eat and drink together, Boo giving Shannon’s butt a quick sniff as if reassuring herself that the big, brown cat is still Mom.  Somewhere I have a picture of the two of them washing after a meal, each one doing a thorough job on the right front paw before going on at the same time to the left, then to the right flank and so on.  This was when Bouhaki was a kitten and probably learning how to wash.

The window seat with its premium view of the bird feeder is a challenge, but with care both cats can fit side by side with their glorious tails hanging down. 000_0478 Shannon has always been a quiet one and as a mother, monumentally patient, so it must have been Bouhaki who felt that her share of the platform was not enough.  Her solution, pictured below, caused much unseemly merriment among her human observers.  Shannon put up with the indignity for some time before wriggling free and stalking off.

photo (2)

A Botanical Horror Story

April 11, 2013

Or is it?

This is the pitcher part of a Nepenthes rajah, which must surely be the largest carnivorous plant known to scientists or to anyone else for that matter. 220px-Nepenthes_rajahThe plant itself can grow to be 40 centimeters long, and some pitchers will hold as much as three and a half liters of water.  Its interior and lid have hundreds of nectar secreting glands.  These attract insects and also small lizards, mammals, and occasionally birds, which fall into its dark reservoir and drown.  Digestive enzymes in the water take care of the rest and provide N. rajah with much needed nitrogen.

Is this a horror story?  Do we imagine our new kitten or canary or even ourselves gurgling our last in these doubtless slimy depths?  Or do we agree with the naturalist Spenser St. John who, shortly after Nepenthes rajah was discovered in 1862, said, “it is indeed one of the most astonishing productions of nature.”

As well as being a minor menace to small wild life, this carnivore has at least one friend.  It has a symbiotic relationship with the summit rat whose droppings it uses as another source of nitrogen.  I include, simply because I love it,  this picture of a summit rat  apparently sitting on a frilly, purple toilet seat.

170px-Rattus_baluensis_visiting_Nepenthes_rajah It is enjoying the nectar produced by the plant while the plant enjoys a meal of rat scat.

Possibly one of the branches I so unwisely set out to explore is embodied in that little word “enjoys”.  If we had the summit rat in the laboratory and were very nice to it and/or put some electrodes in its brain, we might be able to tell whether it was enjoying its visit or not.  (Probably not as far as the electrodes went, but science has its ways, including in these enlightened times, simple observation.)  So it is acceptable to most people, even those old fashioned scolds who are still warning us not to anthropomorphize animals, to say that the summit rat is enjoying the nectar, but it is not acceptable to say that Nepenthes rajah is enjoying the nourishing, new supply of scat.

The summit rat is an animal, in many ways much like you and me; N. rajah is a plant.  This distinction is more important than you might think once we start to ponder the fascinated revulsion with which many people regard a carnivorous plant.220px-Dionaea_muscipula_closing_trap_animation  Here, for example, are two Venus flytraps.  One of them has its mouth closed with its teeth clamped together, which suggests that there is something inside being quietly reduced to a digestible mush.  The other is in the act.  (Thank you Wikipedia for such an active image.)  The tiny video is actually performing in slow motion.  As soon as the sensitive hairs inside the trap are touched,  the jaws close in about a tenth of a second.  Two hairs must be touched, or one must be touched twice to rule out rain drops and other inedible items and to suggest strongly that what caused the disturbance is something to eat.  The trap takes more than a week to reopen, and during this time insects too small to waste digestion on escape between the interlocking teeth.  For the larger ones digestive enzymes proceed with their work.  Being digested while still alive strikes the human imagination as a particularly horrific way to die, but what do we know?  We are all far too large to have escaped even the attentions of Nepenthes rajah and returned to tell the tale.

Squeamishness aside, we are left with a sense of wonder.  The sequence of events that permit the Venus flytrap to close upon and consume its prey seem too complex for a mere plant.  It is only recently that they have been elucidated.  The messenger is a tiny charge of electricity produced when the first hair is touched and followed by a stronger charge after the second touch.  This second charge is enough to travel down fluid filled channels in the leaves and open the pores in cell membranes causing them to engorge and the jaws to snap shut.  Thus does the light of science shine upon a mystery, making it no less wonderful, but hopefully much less alarming.

Of course, there are people who, far from being repelled by carnivorous plants, collect them avidly–all too avidly it turns out since many of these fascinating–I almost wrote “creatures”–are in danger of extinction, and many others are grown chiefly in greenhouses, a sad fate for denizens of wild marsh lands and haunted woods.  Perhaps in would be better for them to attain creaturehood, but no.  As many an animal could testify, that has been tried.


March 30, 2013

I have a really lousy memory, not so much because I am ancient, although that probably contributes, but because at a certain point I simply decided not to look back.  This strikes me now as a thoroughly stupid thing for a writer to do, but at the time I didn’t really think of myself as a writer.  Or did I?  You see what I mean.

The break came when I left Antioch College and went home to write plays and live with my parents.  It is not that I was unhappy with my decision to live at home.  Quite the contrary.  I had a wonderful small room, which I had painted apple green on the outside walls and a sort of warm, slate grey on the inside ones so that the room was full of light from the garden.  I had lots of bookshelves and a serviceable typewriter.  I was also very fond of my parents.  The problem was that I felt that the five years I spent at Antioch were probably the happiest years of my life, and I was determined not to live in the past.

Life, of course, has a number of surprises in store for us no matter how energetically we may try to control things, and some of them are as good as five years at Antioch, though not usually so prolonged.  (I do not think marriage and children qualify as surprises, although heaven knows, at least in my case, they are longer than college.)  I am thinking of seeing the lawn of our rented house in London suddenly erupt in daffodils and of riding alone in the top of a double-decker bus and looking at the great city for the last time, thinking I will not look back.  So how much do I remember of London?  Very little except how much I loved it.

When I think of Tehran I think of the great mountain range that was a background to our white house and of how the pool felt at night after a hot day and of Mehdi, slender, smiling, sexy, leaning against the door in the morning waiting to drive me somewhere in the huge, every-day-less-mysterious city.

Writing a novel about Tehran was in some ways very easy.  I made up the story, but it grew from personal emotions that even after ten years were as fresh as yesterday.  Like my protagonist, there were scenes I could not forget.   On the other hand, ten years is a long time for someone with a poor memory for detail, and I am a stickler for accuracy.  The thought that someone who had lived there longer than I would have the unlikely good fortune to read my book and would point out that I had misnamed some tiny street drove me to excesses of difficult research.  In the end, the fact that my editor had asked me to cut 200 pages from a 400 page manuscript was a rather unwelcome help since a lot of the detail fell on the cutting room floor.  (Trivia note:  In those days–the 1980’s–it was thought in the publishing world that teenagers would not read a long book, which goes to show how ideas come and go like the tides.  When I was a young reader, if we liked a book, the longer the better, and much the same seems to be the case today.)

This started out to be about memory and went somewhat astray.  I could go on and on, but think for the moment I won’t.  It might be fun to revisit some of those places in another blog.  Or not.  Friends have often told me that blogs are supposed to be casual, like a diary, not polished like an essay.  I never did like writing a diary, but I like writing letters and do not fuss with them overmuch (except, of course for proof reading and correcting typos).  My feeling is that when you have written a nice blog–literate, mildly humorous, hopefully interesting–you have accomplished something more than the daily blah of life.  What a crusty old dragon I am.  But truly, the blogs I enjoy reading are much like the ones I aspire to myself.