Category Archives: Creatures

Call Me Jules

A few weeks ago I finished my first reading of Jules Renard’s Nature Stories (Douglas Parmée, trans. New York: New York Review of Books, 2011). I read a few short chapters every night before bed. Now I am reading Moby Dick. The two works really do not bear comparison–except that that I am reading them in succession. Nature Stories is so happy, unguarded and fearless (in an innocent way) about its contradictions. (For Renard, caging a canary or a bullfinch is a senseless brutality, but there’s no better recreation than shooting hares and partridges.) Renard, like most good writers, is an excellent witness, but he is not a distant one. He simply enjoys stomping around the French countryside and acquainting himself with the local critters, domestic and wild. And yet, his affections are not the principle focus of what he writes; they are communicated incidentally, in passing, or by some magic of tone. For Renard, the countryside is a place of rest; there “nature” is, not without pain, but on the whole, benevolent.

Some of Renard’s sketches in this book are short enough to pass as haiku:

The Wasp

In the end, she’s bound to spoil her waistline.

Others are longer than this blog post and are truly essays–not quite travel writing, not quite memoirs, not quite expository–his jubilant account of his war against partridges (“Oh, they’re absolutely diabolical! How they’re making me run!”) fills five pages and is the longest piece in the book. Between these two examples, most selections are about the length of a short prose poem–a page or a page and a half. Perfect length for bedtime.

Here Renard observes how flies pester cattle and how rain eventually gives them some relief:

    But for the flies, they’d be very comfortable. … Whenever an ox moves its leather apron or stomps on the dry ground with its hooves, the cloud of flies buzzes off. You’d think they’re fermenting. … And over there, a first flash of lightning shoots across the sky; there’s no sound. A drop of rain falls.
The oxen see the warning, lift their heads, move to the edge of the oak, and breathe, patiently.
They know the good flies are going to chase away the bad ones.
At first gently, one by one, and then thick and fast, out of a sky torn by lightning, they swoop on the enemy which gives way, little by little, fewer and fewer, as they fly away.
Soon, with water streaming from their snub noses to their indefatigable tails, the oxen will be squirming with delight under the swarm of victorious water flies.

I suppose we have no idea what kind of relief cattle find in a rain storm, but were we to assume ourselves as cattle, this would be our narrative of ease–a gentle rain washing away the nuisances of life.

Melville’s Moby Dick is another matter–the rain is never gentle, the wind is always in the face of the protagonist and the world must be endured. I have only just begun, but it seems that Ishmael seeks more than a mere respite from the constraints and complications of civilization. He finds, instead, in his struggle against the environment a kind of brutal cleansing or, at least, a way to prove himself dead or alive. At the same time (although Renard has a few points of soft persuasion, made transparently) one can feel in Melville a great machine winding up, positioning and calculating to imprint its designs upon the reader.

I am a patient reader and Melville is worth every minute, but after long days, now and then, I feel a vacancy fit exactly for Renard’s winsome little sketches.

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Animal Suicide Note

Why should the human animal be prone to suicide? The question itself reveals the kind of loneliness in which we find ourselves. We presume a unique otherness–cognitively engaged, self-aware, self-examined. By definition, it would seem, only the animal with a “self” can kill itself. Animals can be pressed to a kind of system failure, in which certain stresses (captivity, for example) lead to death. I once tried to feed an abandoned duckling, a mallard; in futility, it leaped in its cardboard box until it died. It would be hard to imagine, however, that its intentions (or “instincts”) were anything other than to escape. Cut off from the consciousnesses of other species, we cannot know if or when the deer has the urge to dash in front of the semi, or when the rat, in despair, takes its poison with purpose. For the most part, non-human, animal models for suicidality, are just that … non-human models. It is for this reason that researchers like Preti and Malkesman look for the traits in animal behavior that are known to be associated with human suicide risks, including: anxiety, impulsivity, and helplessness. Apparently, one can pester a mouse until it mostly gives up on life. Some switch eventually flips and the poor beast simply submits to predation. But the helpless mouse is helpless, not zelfmoord.

On the other hand, we are animals and there is no reason to suppose that our own system failures differ from those of other species. It is the reflection, this face in the mirror, our human narcissism which pushes us to assume that our creaturely break downs are in fact some kind of rational deliberation about the value of another minute of life. In contrast, philosophical suicidality is silly. Thinking about the more troubling questions of existence, even when the answers are dire, ranks among the pleasures of life. Even so, Socrates serves (on one side of the coin) as a fine case study of the suicidality of self-examination. After all, to examine one’s life is, ultimately, to weigh whether or not it’s worth living. For most of us, I suspect that a competing animal urge toward self-preservation (completely outside of any rational machinations), protects us from philosophical foolishness. But for others, a completely different noise burns through the mind. The pain itself (even if we might know its source and, therefore, its limits) rages and smolders in the brain stem. In as much as it is “natural” to jump off of a hot stove, likewise, a human, an animal, in pain will seek ways to escape. But when we humans leap or pull the trigger, even then something in us, that blasted narrator, observes: you’re about to jump; you’re about to do yourself in. The chatter itself is tiresome.

Having written this, having reworked it, once again, through my mind, and obviously with some motivation, I suppose knowing is itself a bit of a buffer. We survive, but, like any animal, among the wounded.

References:

Malkesman O, Pine DS, Tragon T, Austin DR, Henter ID, Chen G, Manji HK. Animal models of suicide-trait-related behaviors. Trends Pharmacol Sci. 2009 Apr;30(4):165-73. PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2788815.

Preti A. Do animals commit suicide? Does it matter? Crisis. 2011 Jan 1;32(1):1-4. PubMed PMID: 21371964.

Bishop’s Fishy Poem

On mulling over Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” something smells wrong. I have been slowly turning the poem about in my mind trying to identify the off note. Sometimes I think I have found the source of the stench, but then it slips away. Nonetheless, there’s something wrong with this classic, much read and taught, poem.

As a way to spend one’s days, I prefer fishing to most all other activities–perhaps, truth be told, even to reading and writing poetry. One might think, therefore, that I would have a greater than usual appreciation for Bishop’s fish story. I think, however, that it is this very first-hand appreciation of angling that makes me suspicious of Bishop’s poem.

My first inclination was to object that Elizabeth Bishop knew nothing of fish–that she, herself, did not go fishing often. About this, I was probably wrong. She spent much time in Nova Scotia and in Key West–and even mentions her fishing trips in a letter or two. Having discovered Bishop’s, at least, passing familiarity with fishing, I next objected that the fish of the poem was not a fish that poet saw with her own eyes. It never swam in the water, never took bait, never broke a line. Ronald E. McFarland,  excerpted at the beginning of the page at UIC’s Modern American Poetry Site, believes that such an objection may be easily dispatched. He refers, as all do, to her days lived near the water’s edge and even goes on to speculate about type of fish that Bishop might have meant for the poem–he puts his money, without much real evidence, on the grouper.

As it turns out, Bishop herself, in her letters, provides conflicting information about the fish. First, in an epistle to (the superior poet) Marianne Moore, Bishop writes nothing of a grouper and instead identifies the parrot fish, so named for its loud colors and hook-beaked mouth:

The other day I caught a parrot fish, almost by accident. They are ravishing fish – all iridescent, with a silver edge to each scale, and a real bill-like mouth just like turquoise; the eye is very big and wild, and the eyeball is turquoise too – they are very humorous-looking fish. A man on the dock immediately scraped off three scales, then threw him back; he was sure it wouldn’t hurt him. I’m enclosing one [scale], if I can find it. (January 14, 1939)

Later, in a letter to (the far, far superior poet) Robert Lowell, Bishop sends a post-card of the “Jew-fish” (a Goliath Grouper) to the poet, saying: “Dear Cal: These are the “Fish”…. (December 21, 1948)

Setting aside the confusion that Bishop’s two letters fosters, I still insist that the fish is not the fish that Bishop caught … if she caught a fish. Rather, what we find in the poem is a caricature of a fish. It is as if the poet could not or would not take the factual fish as her model and so chose a fanciful one instead. What we have here (to cut too close to the poem’s allegorical bone) is a not the oversimplified rendering of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but rather the cartoonish parodies of Michelangelo’s image that have become the common stock of our cultural short-hand. Although the tone of the entire poem, which differs in such a great degree from the more honest note to Marianne Moore, seems ill-fit and improbable for the average fishing trip, it is the final images of the creature which I find the most unlikely and most objectionable. I have caught many, many fish, but only one with a lure in its mouth and a few with bait in their guts. Fish dislodge these irritants, or they rust away (one would think the salt water would make very quick work of the lines in this fish’s mouth)–on any account, most fish do not feed until they are free of the foreign object. To be very plain about it, a fish with a hook in its mouth is a fish that will not bite and will not be caught–a fish with four lines and leaders of rainbow hue hanging out of its mouth might be found at a puppet show, but not at the side of the boat. Bishop did not catch this fish.

Very well, one might reply. Bishop caught a fish, released it, imagined quite another fish and wrote a poem about the latter. What’s the big deal? I agree, in that there’s nothing dishonest about placing an imaginary fish in a poem, but I object to letting one’s readers assume a narrative veracity that does not exist. If the fish is imagined, so is the poet–her feelings, her brief epiphany and her fishy little moral lesson at the end, all are mere fantasy.

This dishonesty on Bishop’s part allows her readers to cede to her a voice of moral authority that she does not have. See, for example, Thierry Ramais’s thoughts at the bottom of this page on UIC’s Modern American Poetry Site:

The poem obviously celebrates a moment in person’s life when his/her humanness goes as far as to recognize the humanity of nature itself, to consider nature not as “object” but as equally “subject”. (On “The Fish”: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/bishop/fish.htm)

The irony of this statement is lost on its author–as, perhaps, Bishop was oblivious to her own dishonesty. Nature has no “humanity” and when it does, it is smaller for it. (On the other hand “humanity” has much “nature”–clearly, humans are but one of nature’s many features.) Ramais and Bishop have empathies for creatures and for natures which do not exist and, as such, they do not respect the nature that does exist. The poet may make herself and a few of her readers feel better about their place in this world, but she has done so with forgery. I would much rather have the smell of fish on my hands.

Rootless

Somewhere on one of my short runs through the city of Indianapolis I saw a single bagworm sack hanging from the limb of a small, street side, deciduous tree. Was it a maple tree? A pear? Maybe a ginkgo or tulip? I’m not sure. It was a brief image as I passed by on a wintry run. I see it very clearly now, in memory, but I have no idea where it is. I often run out from my office or home in a more or less straight path for two or three miles, but make my way back in a series of dog-leg turns. The little sack, if it’s still dangling from its limb in the wind and ice and snow, could be anywhere on either side of the street for roughly twenty miles of running routes. I doubt I will ever see it again. A woodpecker or crow will likely find it first.

The bagworm hangs suspended in my disjointed memory with tenacity. It does so, in part, because it belongs more in my memory than it does in an urban landscaping tree. Were I a child again in rural Kentucky, I could find hundreds of these in cedar thickets and fence rows. I see them now at eye level, practically in the face, as I tracked various critters through day old snow.

The evergreen bagworm (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis) in winter is a prickly sack of leather encasing the dead body of a mouthless, headless, wingless, legless female moth. And inside her body, itself really just a sack, the shiny little eggs, tapioca pearls, wait for spring. Most home owners with manicured evergreens will consider the moth to be a pest; it is voracious and unsightly. We trimmed them off our cedar Christmas trees with pruning shears. The gut strings of their bags are so tough that they can girdle a small limb … and in a season or two, choke it out to brown.

Here in Indianapolis, recent winters have been mild. The moth is increasing its northern range. In twenty years of living north of the Ohio River, this is the first evergreen bagworm that I have seen. I am sure that there have been many others, especially in the southern part of Indiana, but I have missed them. This December has been cold. If the coming months are colder, the moth may retreat a season or two to the south. What little, aimless sense I have of home follows.

Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis

Turning

South of 11th street, the Indianapolis Central Canal finishes its last mile and a half in a concrete basin. At, roughly, sixteen feet below the city streets, it is a welcome and mostly pleasant alternative to the ordinary urban bustle. Nonetheless, but for goldfish and mallards, it’s a lifeless display. The ecosystem is still recovering from the city’s $423,000 cleanup (completed three years ago) and battling a monthly barrage of anti-algae treatments. Before the “cleanup” the canal (especially near the government building and the State Museum) was a foul mess. Full of weeds and algae and rotting vegetation, the methane was strong and gurgled audibly. But the weeds, while hiding the concrete, gave cover to the fish; the bass, bluegill, and carp swam slowly, in and out of view in the submerged forest.

Today, the ginkgo trees have shed their nuts and the mums have begun to brown. The water’s surface gathers corner blankets of blown leaves, slowly sinking. November tannin and tea. Below, the goldfish, some with fan tails and few longer than a hand, hang two feet and deeper beneath the wind and rain. Waiting.

I miss the old, foul canal. Without another cleaning, it will return … probably within the decade. I miss, already, the seasons of increase. The bottom growth rising to the surface, fecund and rich. But the summer passed with equal violence and the fall was too warm, and now, the waiting.

Feed Me

In the last month, at least one small family of goldfinches has moved into the neighborhood. I hear them more often than I see them, but last week I found them feeding on the neighbor’s parched, but fully-seeded Echinacea plants. Two adults and two, completely fledged, adult-sized “chicks”. The adults were busy prying tiny morsels from the densely packed seed heads, but the minors fluttered on nearby stems, crying to be fed. When the adults saw me and took flight, their young followed, begging, airborne over the rooftops. No doubt, all this begging accounts for the fact that I have heard them more often than I have seen them.

Of all the creatures that rear their young, perhaps the birds are the most insistent at pestering for nourishment. Whining puppies are annoying and I’ve seen a few frustrated, tired, nurse mares, but most mammals satiate and move on. Humans whine for food more (and certainly across a greater number of years) than do most mammals. My nearly adult-sized adolescents are still begging. The “what’s for supper” questions begin as soon as we finish the school and work day. The finches, however, are nagged all day long: chick-wee, chick-wee, chick-wee … is so nearly: feed me, feed me, feed me …. I’ve never heard this ruckus in the winter. Sometime soon they must learn to feed themselves.

The coming winter will be both a burden and a season of rest.

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch. Bob Hines, United States Fish and Wildlife Service. 1974.

In the last month, at least one small family of goldfinches has moved into the neighborhood. I hear them more often than I see them, but last week I found them feeding on the neighbor’s parched, but fully-seeded Echinacea plants. Two adults and two, completely fledged, adult-sized “chicks”. The adults were busy prying tiny morsels from the densely packed seed heads, but the minors fluttered on nearby stems, crying to be fed. When the adults saw me and took flight, their young followed, begging, airborne over the rooftops. No doubt, all this begging accounts for the fact that I have heard them more often than I have seen them.

Of all the creatures that “rear” their young, perhaps the birds are the most insistent at pestering for nourishment. Whining puppies are annoying and I’ve seen a few frustrated, tired, nurse mares, but most mammals satiate and move on. Humans whine for food more (and certainly across a greater number of years) than do most mammals. My nearly adult-sized adolescents are still begging. The “what’s for supper” questions begin soon as soon as we finish the school and work day. The finches, however, are nagged all day long: chick-wee, chick-wee, chick-wee … is so nearly: feed me, feed me, feed me …. I’ve never heard this ruckus in the winter. Sometime soon they must learn to feed themselves. The coming winter will be both a burden and a season of rest.

Shiners, Darts and Daces

Eastern Blacknose Dace

Eastern Blacknose Dace (Rhinichthys atratulus). Ellen Edmonson. (1926-1939) from The Freshwater Fishes of New York.

“Minnows” (not just the Cypriniformes, but any finger-sized and smaller, fresh water fish) exist in fascinating micro-cultures. I have spent hours watching them flit in creek pools no larger than a kitchen sink. And, when the sun hits them, some (particularly the daces and darters) display color patterns (reds, greens, blues, browns, gold, silver and black) seldom seen on a single living organism. One can be so near a minnow, a hand’s depth, and yet separated (by water, size and speed) at a great distance from knowing. This gap bothered me less when I was younger–time was ahead of me and the eyes were sharp. Of all the losses gained in middle age, deteriorating vision is a dull one. I miss the minute differences, the flights of small birds, the progress of moss and fern, the endless throats of tiny flowers. At forty, I now need to hold my minnows up at eye level, in good light, 18 inches from the face. It was for this reason that I finally purchased a minnow trap.

Minnow and crawfish traps consist of wired with one or two funnel-shaped entrances. The minnows swim into the trap through the fat end of the funnel, but struggle to find their way out; their chances of slipping through the narrow neck are … slim. Traps are easy enough to make, and I had planned to build my own, but a moment of honesty about my laziness prompted an impulse buy. (Buying the materials would cost roughly the same.) The trap I purchased appears to be useless for crawfish; so, I have cause to keep “building a crawfish trap” on my to-do list.

I took my store bought trap to Dale Hollow in July. When it was not serving as an impromptu fish basket for our catch of bluegill, I baited it with bread and leftover meats. The oils from the meat attracted a dozen-or-so mid-sized sunfish, all too large for the trap. I suspect that any minnows in the area would have been readily snatched by the sunfish long before finding their way into my basket.

A week later, I had more success at a family reunion. My in-laws own a piece of land with a small creek running through a low pasture. After baiting the trap with a fried biscuit and some fried chicken skins, I lowered the basket near the upstream lip of a culvert pipe. Thirty minutes later (escaping the family chit-chat), I pulled up a half-dozen, flapping little fish. After they stopped jumping (a few seconds), I could see that I had trapped juvenile sunfish, mostly rocks bass, but also a couple of pumpkin seeds.

Adding another fried chicken skin (with a history of heart disease, my in-laws have no business eating the stuff), I moved the trap to the downstream end of the culvert pipe. There, an hour later, the rock bass had escaped. (How?) They were replaced, however, by five, two-inch cyprinids. They were probably common shiners, but I did not have my glasses, guide book, or camera. I think that they were too far upstream to have been (my second guess) juvenile common carp. Do carp hatch in slow, warm and weedy waters only to swim upstream against pencil thin currents?

Moving the trap 50 meters downstream to a deeper, shaded pool proved even more productive. In minutes, the trap collected well over two dozen small fish. A few rock bass again, but most of these were cyprinids, predominately daces. Many looked similar to (and might have been) Eastern Blacknosed Daces; others had red sides and/or irregular black markings–I remember a blot about a third of the way from the head. The trap (loaded with chicken skins and live fish) also attracted other creatures. Crawfish picked at the skins through the wires, but avoided the funneled entrances. I could also see that a few, tiny darters were resting on nearby rocks. Darters are both still and too fast; they perch without moving, but suddenly dart away when disturbed. Near the end of the evening, a small snake arrived and tried its luck at catching minnows near the trap. It seemed frustrated and rose to the surface and did not move for at least twenty minutes; I felt watched.

At dusk the mosquitoes arrived and I pulled in the trap and dumped the whole lot (minnows and chicken skins) in the creek. If they had been crawfish, it would have been time for a small meal.