The Price of Indiscretion

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Mark Eggleston—Egghead, to his students—kept scorpions in a terrarium in the back of his lab to illustrate predator-prey relationships and to instill in his young charges a sense of respect for animals smaller than themselves. “Everyone,” he said, “respects lions and tigers. But arthropods just don’t get their due. We’ll see about that.”

Students, assigned alphabetically to feed the scorpions from the moths that gathered in huge numbers below the arc lamp outside his lab, found this detail a dangerous imposition, as each was required to lift the cage lid, which, all by itself, could cause heart failure. Every one of them, big linebackers included, complained loudly, both at school and at home. “Won’t they spring out and bite me?”

To this recurring question, Eggleston always answered, “Their bite is insignificant. The sting is what you must avoid.”

To which the students usually said, “Won’t they spring out and sting me?”

“I removed their spring-bones,” he answered. “But not their stingers. So give them plenty of space.” None of this gave students any sense of safety, and that suited Eggleston’s need to engender terror among the “sheltered, nature-illiterate little rascals” that he had to teach.

In response to numerous administrative warnings, mainly from Jim Davenport, the Principal, about student safety and lack of insurance coverage, Eggleston agreed to dispose of his rattlesnake and his small coral snake, but he found it unreasonable to discard the scorpions, in part because it was so difficult to replace the Asian specimens. He admitted that they were the most likely to be lethal, but who was planning a trip to Thailand to get new ones? He cautioned the students to keep their protestations quieter. “Don’t spoil it for the arachnids,” he said. “They’re living decent lives. Better than some of you.” Continue reading “The Price of Indiscretion”

Getting Down Funky with Religion in America: A Clarification

Things have gotten so crazy around here, with all the religious posturing and fundamental extremist stuff that I think it’s high time we had a “Come to Jesus” moment to clarify what religion is and isn’t. Maybe we can affect an overhaul of the whole design. I mean, with my background in observation and getting old, I can set the whole thing straight. Give me a chance.

Clarifying The Old Testament
Part 1: Before there were Jews

When I was a kid, I watched my grandfather nod off time and again while reading the Old Testament. I thought it was because he was old and tired, but later I realized that it truly is a deeply boring book, like a double dose of Nyquil. No one can read it for more than a few minutes at a time without drifting into stage three. It’s just not good writing, and the plot, oh my god. In modern times it wouldn’t survive the editor’s pen, and it would never find a publisher. It’s proof that a bestseller doesn’t require good writing.

So let me summarize it for you, and let me apologize ahead of time if I use offensive language. To some of you it might sound anti-Semitic, but let me stress that there are many places in this text where God himself appears anti-Semitic. But I’m not, and he’s not. He’s like your angry dad–he’s not against you, he’s just drunk. Later, he’s always sorry.

I’m also not anti-Egyptian. But that Pharaoh story, I mean, what a simpleton. This was their ruler? On the other hand, Donald Trump as President of the United States?

The Old Testament is a historic record, in a sense, but it’s also a story that’s supposed to teach people to be better or something. It is the rambling, disconnected story of the Hebrews, or Jews, a small tribe that rose to prominence by heeding God’s laws, slid into disfavor by committing the most god-awful sins, like marrying outside of their tribe, and made amends by discarding those wives and slaughtering enormous numbers of cattle and rams and sheep as burnt offerings to produce a “sweet savour” for God’s nostrils. God’s nose is obviously different from mine. Have you smelled burning hair? Then they came back into God’s grace and rebuilt Jerusalem as a walled city, then blew out again by buying food on the Sabbath and committing other outrages, and finally found themselves dispersed among the hundreds of “lands” that surrounded them. But they were trying. I know, I’m leaving out some details. This is a broad brush version. The point is, they were trying. Keep going. Continue reading “Getting Down Funky with Religion in America: A Clarification”

Moth Porn

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Try to imagine being a moth, just hatching from your cocoon. I’ll give you a minute… Crawling out of the silk. Dragging your wet body up a tiny grass stem. Are you there? Okay, you are a male. You don’t know anything, and you can’t think anything, although those two conditions are not causal. I mean, it’s not because you are male that you are mindless. A female would be in the same condition, intellect-wise. Whatever. You’re a male moth, but, having no mind, you don’t know what it means to be a male. You don’t even know you’re a male, but I’m telling you. Imagine it. Male moth.

One thing you can do is detect signals from your environment, both internal and external. From the outside you pick up a scent with your antennae, a little buzz, or a tiny shiver of “yes.” You try to flap your wings because you can’t imagine doing anything else, but they don’t work. They’re still wet, hanging off your back. So…

A half hour passes, during which you don’t do anything except crawl a few inches higher on the dead grass stem that you touched with your little tarsi, your toes, and try to move those limp rags—the only parts of you that seem important, besides your antennae, which still buzz a little.

It is dark, which you recognize as different from light. But it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just dark.

After a time, your wings dry and you are able to fly. You don’t know why, because your brain has no logical functions. But what else is there to do? It’s pretty different from the limitations of the caterpillar. But you have forgotten that.

As you fly aimlessly about, you once again notice the little “yes” signal from your antennae, so you begin to fly a zigzag pattern upwind. Why upwind? Because that is where the signal seems to increase, and you are driven to increase this little “yes” feeling. It’s good.

But what is this mysterious scent that draws you inexorably forward into the night? You don’t know, because you are ignorant of everything but sensations and compulsions. But you keep at it, back and forth, always upwind, as long as the signal increases.

And then the scent disappears. Damn. You had only one thing in the world that motivated you, and it vanished like a change in the wind. You would think, “Stupid world!” if you could think. But you can’t.

Of course, it was a change in the wind. So you’re left mindlessly—I mean, seriously mindlessly—flying around with no destination in mind, because you have no mind. I can’t stress strongly enough how dumb you are. Just pathetically moronic, with no explanation except that with a brain that small, how smart could you possibly be? It’s not an insult, it’s just a fact. Even if you tried to think a thought, you’d fail. You have nothing.

But wait! There’s that luscious signal again, on the breeze. You resume your mindless quest to find enhancement of that happy message. You have no memory of having forgotten it. You just go for it. And it gets better.

Finally, when the signal is so strong that it threatens to explode your tiny brain, you bash clumsily into—another moth! “OMG!” you would think, if you could think, “I’m not the only creature in existence?” No, dummy, there’s another, just like you, with similar wings but, oh, my goodness, she’s not exactly like you! And this scent signal has you turned on like a freaking mercury vapor arc lamp, and she seems completely receptive to your sudden desire to… Wha–?

Well, here’s an interesting little factoid. Insect genitalia are pretty different from ours. In fact, ours are sad little features that I might characterize as a post and a post hole. But with moths, the male parts have claspers (what if she tries to fly away?), prongs, brushes, hooks and barbs—a whole assembly of details that makes sure that this female has the right species fit. For her part, the vaginal canal has expanded balloons and spines and long twisted loops—a whole assembly of details that makes sure that this male has the right fit. It’s a lock and key arrangement. It’s how they avoid hybridizing, and how we identify most similar-looking moth species.

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Okay? So by now, you’ve made your entrance and you have to work it around corners and hoops and into crannies, and when it all feels just right, you start to work up a reproductive package. This involves pushing a long, clumsy spermatophore through your own convoluted system into her complex bursa copulatrix This is not easy.

Several hours later…

When the sun comes up, you are a mess. The signal is gone, she is gone, and you’ve got the sun blazing down on your face like a blowtorch. Then an enormous sparrow roars into the scene and grabs you in its beak and holds your wings down with its talons to rip them off, and mashes your tiny body a few times, and your last sensation is the dark throat and crop of this destroyer as you blink out. If you could think, which you can’t, you would think, “Ha ha! You ignorant, blundering predator! You’re too late! I already did it!” Life is good.

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Disasterizing English

My father had a wonderful sense of humor, much of which involved language and word play. When we were little kids, he used to declare, “I have a falubus vocaluberry, made up of volunimus words.”

We’d say, “You mean fabulous.” And he’d say, “Exactly.” So language was up for grabs in our house.

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He also teased us with some of the irregular forms of words, especially when verbs become nouns. For example, he would say, “Look, if you deduce, you come up with a deduction. So if you elude, you come up with an eluction.”

At first, I corrected this. “Deduce and elude are not a parallel set. If you use deduce and produce, you get deduction and production.”

But he answered, “If you enlist, you have made an enlistment, so if you resist, haven’t you made a resistment? And if you desist—”

“Yeah, okay, desistment.”

“Don’t reducify my eluctment of terms. If you retire, you’ve entered retirement, so if you desire, you’ve entered desirement. If you write verse, you’re a versifier, so if you do worse, you’re a worsifier. And if you live in a house, you’re a housifier. Get it?”

We’d roll our eyes, but it loosened up the mood. “You’re a disasterifier of English,” I’d tell him.

“I’m just sophisticationalizing it.”

So I’m just saying that if I mess up in my writing, it’s not my fault.

Tiny friend on the trail…

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This photo, at least on my screen, is the actual size of this little beast.

dsc02218On October 1st, not far above the “four-way,” on the road to the Seven Bridges Trailhead, I came across this neonate smooth green snake, total length 110 mm. This makes it a late summer brood hatchling, smaller than the average given in Redder, et al. (2006). In my experience, this little species is rare in this region, but according to various studies cited in Redder, its population densities can reach at least 75 per acre. Imagine that. So around here, in a grassy swale near water, in the area the size of a football field, there might dsc02219be, say, 20 or 30 of these little guys, and we never see them. Almost never. They eat insects and spiders. Keep looking. Most snakes occur in populations much larger than us non-herpetologists imagine. We just don’t know how to find them.

Redder, Alan J., Brian E. Smith, and Douglas Keinath 2006 Smooth Green Snake (Opheodrys vernalis): A Technical Conservation Assessment. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region Species Conservation Project, http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5182074.pdf

And here’s another from Paul Young, from Stratton Open SpaceSmooth Green.jpg

Waking Up at the May Museum

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Dedicated to the May family.

When I was eight years old, I suffered a short career in Cub Scouts, less than a year, weathering one bit of idiocy after another. The camping trip, washed out by a downpour, the picnic in the park spoiled by the nutcase who forgot to bring the drinks, the hike up the canyon ruined by falling on sharp rocks that cut my shins and made them bleed–everything conspired to destroy my faith in scouting.

The last straw, my final and most deflating experience with the organization, but also the most wondrous event in my life, was the field trip to the May Museum of Natural History. There, my patience stretched to—and beyond—the breaking point. Continue reading “Waking Up at the May Museum”