Saturday, May 26, 2018

Meet Linus

Not to brag or anything, but I've got awesome friends.

The other day, when I posted a thingy on Facebook about the wasps in my chickadee house, I got all sorts of advice. The thread got long. Halfway through, Bruce tossed in a few paragraphs and added "I'm an entomologist." Joshua came back with more wisdom and said "I'm an entomologist, too." Then I was all "Me too! I'm an entomologist!!" out of sheer exuberance, until I remembered I'm not actually an entomologist and deleted it. And then Eric jumps in the fray. He didn't even mention he is an entomologist, but he doesn't have to, because he's like the Queen Bee entomologist of all time. So that's three entomologists on one thread. Not counting me, who is more accurately a non-entomologist, a.k.a. retired mailman.

This is all very handy if there's a lot of stuff you don't know, or if, as in my own case, there's a lot of stuff you knew for a second but not anymore. For instance, when I found a new bug the other day, I could probably have posted a photo of it and gotten an immediate identification from several of my friends. But I didn't. I didn't want to be a pest, and I also wanted to try to identify it myself, old-school. I searched online.

Man, there are a lot of bugs.

First site I checked out suggested I note the habitat, because certain bugs are found in certain habitats. My bug was on my clothesline. He really liked my clothesline. He wouldn't get off my clothesline. Eventually I hung the whitey-tighties on either side of him and he didn't even flinch like a normal person would. There was no clothesline-habitat section on the website.

Then it asked if my bug had six legs or eight. It said if there were six, it was "most likely" an insect. I know why they hedged. You can't keep little boys from ripping legs off a spider. Similarly, if you see a glowing abdomen, it's most likely a lightning bug; but if it's all by itself in the middle of a little boy's forehead, it's an ex-insect and a shitty little boy.

I wasn't really getting anywhere.

Fortunately, I found a dichotomous key. You all know what that is. Dichotomous earth is what you put around your vegetables to keep the slugs out. No wait! I'm thinking of slug bait! A dichotomous key is what you use to figure out if what you have is a Backson, and if so, if it's a Spotted or Herbaceous one. The key asks you a question and you answer A or B. Depending on your answer, you get another question, and eventually it whuffles you down to your bug. So it's just like going to the optometrist's.

I'm never really sure if A is better than B there, either.

I started in on the dichotomous key and ended up concluding that I had an insect previously unkown to science, which was very exciting. Murrus clotheslinus, or Linus for short! I even searched the Oregon image database of all 331 state bugs and found nothing at all resembling my bug. My bug had wings sticking straight up and curb-feelers coming out of its butt.

Then I saw the image of Japygid diplurian. The whole image was entirely black. The Japygid diplurian is so rarely seen that they didn't have a picture of it, so it was probably my bug. And what a wonderful bug it was! The Japygid diplurian, it says here, even predated the dinosaurs. You get a bug that size that eats dinosaurs, you've got yourself a champion. They say the dinosaurs got wiped out by an asteroid, but it totally might have been the clothesline bugs. Awesome.

Still, hard to tell with no picture. I went back to my dichotomous key. Early on, when it asked if my bug had one pair of wings or two, I'd said one, because that's all I saw, but they can get really sneaky about hiding wings. I decided to change my answer. This is exactly how I do TurboTax, which is also a dichotomous key. They ask if you're single or married; over or under 65; like long walks along the beach (yes/no); have any passive carryover losses to report under section 651.4 with a slide-through diddler subject to the Crapmont Contraction between 1979 and 1982. I mark "yes" out of pure fear until it sends me down a rabbit hole of questions I can't answer, and then I go back and try "no" and everything works again.

Same thing here with the bug.

And there, eventually, under "two pairs of wings," is my bug. He's a mayfly. You all knew that already.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Having A Plan

Well, shit, someone got killed by a cougar in Washington, first time in 94 years, and we'll probably get a lot of dead cougars out of it. The perp got offed for sure. He was still standing over the mountain biker admiring him when he was apprehended.  I'd feel better about killing lions if we had more big predators plus enough room to stash them in, but we don't. Most of us are in cities and the rest are kind of strung out into the countryside trying to get space around us, and that covers a lot of map. And I do feel bad for the biker and I know I'm supposed to be more loyal to my kind, but Jeebus, there are so many of us, and most of us aren't really as cool as a cougar. Not saying I wouldn't try to bash one over the head if it came after me or after my friends and family, most of them, but it's all just a shame, isn't it?

So the paper had a thing about what you're supposed to do when you run into a cougar. The first is to pick up small children immediately, but what if you don't have one? Or if, like me, you can't throw it very far? Dave has already explained to me that his plan is to hold me in front of him to look even bigger than he is. My own plan was to climb him or get in back of him, so if we both try to carry out our plans at the same time, it's bound to look chaotic, which might trigger the cougar's prey response. We would look like one big sweaty moth at a porch light. (My backup plan involves explosive diarrhea.)

But what you're supposed to do is look large, face the cougar, speak firmly, and slowly back away. Remember: speak firmly. Bad Cat! No! Be assertive. Cougars are going to go after the up-talkers or people with vocal fry first, guaranteed. So right there, you can't say they're all bad.

One way you can try to look big is to stand on a rock and open out your jacket. And then if you're attacked anyway despite having a voluminous jacket, you're supposed to fight back with everything you've got. What? Are we supposed to knee 'em in the nuts? You ever try to find nuts on a cat?

The trouble with all this is that every one of these is the exact last thing you want to do. When I'm confronted with a cougar, I do not want to stand on a rock and risk tipping over. And I definitely do not want to open my jacket. Here, Kitty! Here is my thin, pale throat, with its rapidly pulsing delectable jugulars! And down here is my disembowelment zone! So in order to do all this, we need to have nerves of steel. I have already had one shot at this scenario, and I have determined that I have nerves of gelatin.

I might have told you the Rasty Old Bull story before, but I can't remember doing it, so you probably don't remember it either.

That last sentence was fallacious. Not only might you remember something I've forgotten, but it's damn likely. I don't even know why I opened the fridge half the time.

So you get the Rasty Old Bull story anyway. My sister and I went traipsing some distance across a rough pasture in Utah, after first climbing through the barbed-wire fence, to see a particularly nice petroglyph she knew about. We went, we admired it, and when we turned around, we were greeted by the unprecedented and jolly sight of our entire family standing on the car waving and hopping and pointing to the right and making no sound at all. We waved back. Some moments later, looked to the right. And here comes this rasty old bull. Keeping a slow but deliberate pace, balls swinging like nunchucks, on a trajectory that would put him right in our path on the way back to the car. "Walk steadily but do not run," Bobbie advised, and that sounded right, so we jammed it into second gear and headed for the car. At first. Then our strides lengthened. Theoretically we were still in a walking gait, but we looked like the Keep On Truckin guy. Finally our feet left the ground altogether. We gazelled straight across several arroyos and went completely Edwin Moses on the barbed-wire fence, clearing the ditch and into the car in one fluid motion. That was the most athletic thing I have ever done or will ever do in my life, and I got no chops left for a cougar.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Notes From A Lesser Birder

The Murre The Merrier: photo by Diana Byrne
Somebody has to be the worst birder in the Birdathon van, and I for one am not afraid to step up.

I had hope that things would be a little different this time. I've made strides. I pick up a little more knowledge every season. A few years ago, I was astonished when our fearless leader, Sarah, pointed up to some frantic dots halfway to the moon and said "Vaux's swifts." Whuh? How? And yet now I not only recognize them by sight, but also by voice. (They sound like photons swapping secrets.) I was ready for Vaux's swift.

And three years ago I thought she was making things up when she pointed out the Lesser Goldfinch, which, as it turns out, is totally a thing, and not a value judgment. In fact I now know it as one of the commonest birds in my yard, and I know its song, too. I was super ready for Lesser Goldfinch.

And, most significantly, I recently shaved a whole thirty seconds off my personal-best identification time for the female red-winged blackbird, a.k.a. that brown bird that's the only other thing in a marsh full of real red-winged blackbirds. The first time I saw it, I paged through the entire field guide looking for it, finally determining that it was a previously undiscovered species, which should excite other birders, but it doesn't. Anyway, I snapped off that ID in under a minute this time. I know--I'm amazed, too.

So off we went, and while the team was slurping coffee and easing into the day, I shot my arm out and bellowed AMERICAN CROW. Yeah, baby, in the bag! Mark it down and ink my initials next to it. I'm going to take a nap now.

But I longed for more glory. At our first stop I bounded out and squinted into the fog, but one by one, my aces in the hole showed up in someone else's hole, no offense. Anna's hummingbird, bushtit, black-capped chickadee, even Wilson's warbler, which I considered to be advanced--all of them quickly fell by the wayside. By the time I've got a bird in my binocs and a good read on it and am just about willing to go out on a limb with it, someone else has nabbed it right off its limb. Discouraged, I mentally reviewed easy and gigantic birds yet to be found, to no avail. Turkey vulture, red-tailed hawk, great blue heron, bald eagle, all of them landed in someone else's eyeballs before they landed in mine.

Pigeon Guillemot. Sure.
Meanwhile our other fearless leader Max glances at a featureless horizon and says "pigeon guillemot" and, when I look distressed, kindly says "Here, I've got it in the scope for you," but I still can't make it out. The only thing holding Max back from identifying all the birds is the curvature of the earth.

I've come to understand that we're not all possessed of the same talent. Sarah and Max and everyone else in the van have been able to sweep arcane details about birds into their brain pans and fry them up until they're crisp and accessible. Most of my bird details get accidentally tossed off the cutting board and down the garbage disposal before I get the burner on. We can't all have the same skills, and I'm freakin' deadly at Bananagrams.

But there was glory yet in store for me. Per my usual method--see where everyone else is looking, and look somewhere else--I spotted something interesting and hopped up and down squeaking ("See something, say something") until someone lumbered over with a spotting scope, found it in the sights, and identified it as a black-bellied plover, which I'd never heard of, in spite of which I went ahead and took credit for it. Loudly. That was my black-bellied plover, on account of how loud I was about it, and consequently they gave it to me and they can't take it away from me. Boo-yah.

We never did see a lesser goldfinch.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Pele's Flapping The Sheets

I've said it before. People take things so dang personally. One little thing goes wrong and it's all about them. Everyone bitches about the crappy weather on the weekend, but crappy for whom? There could be legions of salamanders who couldn't be tickleder about it, but nobody thinks about them. They think only of themselves.

I guess it's just our nature. We've got a hell of a thing going on in Hawaii right now that anybody should be honored to witness but it's being described as leaving a "path of destruction." Yes, it's possible you and your car and your house and your slower offspring and everything you've ever loved and cherished could be melted on the spot, but let's get some perspective here. This is clearly an act of creation, not destruction. You've got brand new real estate welling right up out of the ground before your very eyes.

We had much the same sort of event right here in Oregon not that many million years ago. Same kind of basalt flow. It flowed mostly westward at a decent clip until it hit the ocean and got chilly. Generally speaking, the basalt was said to flow at a rate a human being could outrun, although he would have to outrun it for a solid week. That was usually the sticking point, or would have been, had people been invented yet, but they hadn't, which cut down on the whining.

There are various ways in which molten rock meets blue sky. For instance, you could put a wedge of sea floor underneath the shoreline and keep shoving it down until it got so deep the pressure remelted it, causing volcanoes such as our own Cascade Mountains to pimple up about a hundred miles inland. But in the case of our huge shield-volcano basalt flows and the Hawaiian ones, it's because there's a hotspot underneath. Some spot in the deeper earth layers is perennially hot and churns out lava. Could be in the mantle, could be one floor higher; they're not sure. It's the spot where the fire goddess Pele sits and fans herself and complains that everybody's mumbling and the music is shitty now, and many people have left gifts for her as a bid for leniency, bouquets and leis and virgin teddy bears, but it doesn't work. (She wants chocolate.)

Pele doesn't move around, but the lithosphere above her does, so it twirls out a nice apostrophe of islands over time. In the case of the Hawaiian chain, it's the southeasternmost island that is newest and they are progressively older to the northwest. There's a volcano newer than Hawaii but it hasn't broken the water surface yet, and nobody counts it until they can drop a parking lot on it. That's another narrow-perspective thing people do.

Our own basalt flows have quite sturdied up the landscape for us. Apparently we are sitting on enough basalt that it could have covered the continental U.S. evenly up to twelve meters ("meter" is French for "yard"). We and our parking lots stand now as the westernmost legacy outpost of the old hotspot that is currently under Yellowstone. Ain't nothin' but heat coming up around Yellowstone and no end of wonders to behold, but even here you'll find people all cranky about not being allowed to annoy bison with their snowmobiles. If there were any justice in the world, these are the people who would get their asses geysered.

I think there are a lot of things everyone should be required to learn. Here's one that rarely makes the list: whichever patch of the planet you live on, you should know its story. You should know what got rammed or rumpled to give you your view; you should know why there are seashells in the middle of your prairie. You should appreciate how very tiny and ephemeral you are, and be humble, and enjoy the show, and try not to trash the place on your way out.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Strangled By The Arms Of Morpheus

I'm weirdly pumped about our big earthquake. We haven't had it yet but everyone promises, absolutely promises, we will. We've got an ancestral rip going on under our feet that is just itching to cut loose and there won't be anything subtle about it, either. So most people are afraid of it, with good reason.

Not me. And not because I am a brave person, but because I have only the shallowest acquaintance with reality.  Let me give you a quick tour of my brain. You can pretty much take in the whole thing from the front door.

You know those people who spend a lot of time worrying about stuff? People who anticipate the future so as to make plans and forestall disaster? You know, prepared people? I'm not one of those. I have a vivid imagination and tend to use it in a way that makes me feel better instead of worse.

For instance, I always envision our big earthquake happening when I'm asleep. I do assume it will be terrifying. Apparently there is complete unanimity on that, but the actual nature of the terror is difficult for me to imagine, so I don't. Much of the house will come tumbling down and I will somehow end up on the ground floor surrounded by dimensional lumber and sheetrock dust, but not in a pinning sort of way. It will be shocking, but I will be on a nice pillowtop mattress at the time. I might have a broken bone or two, but--as I picture it--it won't hurt much. I will crawl out from under the rubble dragging my useless but somehow pain-free leg, and I will be able to locate the peanut butter in the ruined kitchen, even without my glasses. It will be at a time of year it is not too cold or rainy. Friends and neighbors will emerge here and there, dusty but with a renewed faith in the goodness of humanity and newly appreciative of the important things in life: friendship, love, and the sharing of potable water.

I have read enough about our particular situation to know that we'll get shooken but good. Most of the ground beneath our house was deposited as a big gravel bar during the Missoula floods and in a major earthquake (the kind they absolutely promise we will have) it will turn into pudding. We're on a plateau, so we don't have to worry about our house sliding down a hill with the mud, but we shouldn't count on it staying upright, either. The house will be a wreck but after all we're way too wedded to our material goods already, and it will no doubt do us good to remember that.

So. That's what I imagine.

But that's before I heard of the new Earthquake Bed, which I actually can imagine. The new earthquake bed looks like a regular bed, but when it senses an earthquake the mattress suddenly plummets four feet and a metal box flings up and slams shut over you like a Venus fly trap, leaving you entombed in the dark whilst the planet thumps violently. It's like being dropped into a tyrannosaurus face. Fun!

It comes equipped with emergency rations and water and such, but I don't anticipate using any. There's probably something in there that will record for posterity the precise moment my heart blows up. The good news is I'll be pre-casketized.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Bag O' Murr

In the olden days, life used to be clunkier. You had to write out checks and put them in envelopes and stamp them and run them to a mailbox just to keep your lights on. You had to show up on time to things or otherwise your friends would be worried sick. You couldn't get a copy of anything unless you planned in advance and had onion-skin and carbon paper. And in the olden days, you never had a picture of the exact thing you want show up in the margins of what you were reading, and if it did, you couldn't pay for it just by pointing at it.

No. If you wanted to find your exact right thing, you had to shlep through stacks of catalogs. They came through your mail slot in quantities sufficient to prop up the entire Postal Service. If you happened to be a mail carrier, you got to see every catalog there is. (Ladies and gentlemen of Route 531, sorry about the pizza stains.)

I found my very best thing in a catalog. It was a pair of Early Winters Butterfleece Women's Overalls. One glance was all it took. I ordered those puppies and never looked back. They look exactly the same as when they were new, even though I wear them all the freaking time and they're at least thirty years old. I'd wear them to church if I could get away with throwing a mantilla over them, and if I went to church.

They're only as heavy as a cup of butterfly wings, and other than that tiny suggestion of weight at the shoulders, they feel like naked-time, only warmer and less alarming to passersby. You can basically walk around inside them. You can slip an arm in them to scratch your butt without anyone even knowing. You can gain and lose the same fifteen pounds and they don't say a word. All of your bodily secrets are safe with them.

And that is why, for thirty years, every single time I put them on I get at least one compliment. From a woman. Complete strangers go out of their way to tell me how cute they are and ask where can they get some. Let's call that three times a week for six months a year at thirty years--two thousand one hundred sixty compliments. From men? Zero.

(That's almost true. One time, a man told me they were absolutely darling, called me "girlfriend," and asked if I wanted to hear the specials. But he lived for tips.)

Dave, who has not lived this long by being stupid, has never weighed in on the subject of my overalls. If prodded, he says he likes them because it solved Christmas for him two years running. I have the same overalls in three colors.

It's only been a little while since I learned about polar fleece. Polar fleece is essentially plastic. Polar fleece is made out of fossil carbon deposits and future dead sea life. So it's a good thing it lasts. Some day hundreds of years after the big earthquake I'll be discovered as a tidy pile of bones in fleece overalls that haven't changed a bit. The archaeologists will guess my height and age accurately and commission an artist's rendering of me in those overalls. Maybe they'll give me eyebrows. The caption will reference a woman in "really cute" typical middle Anthropocene garb. That is because there are going to be a whole lot more women in science, baby.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Marge And Studley Show: What Now Edition

Well, you just never know, and this whole eight-year enterprise in chickadee rentals has been one long exercise in just never knowing. Through it all, our admiration of chickadees has only increased, along with our own humility and frailty in the face of adversity. This is life, and life has its ups and downs and sudden screeching halts to it.

It started with the bird box Dave built according to Google directions, with its dimensions exactly yea-by-yo, and its freakishly specific drop-depth, and its entry hole precisely one and a quarter inches, per spec. And when we scored authentic chickadees with it, we were pretty chuffed. After all, how many rotten tree cavities are there around here with those exact requirements? Could Nature even pretend to compete with the mad skills of Dave? Clearly we had elevated the housing stock in the area and we were prepared to be the very best chickadee landlords we could be.

Nuthatch Fiasco...
But it's been one thing after another. The first few years we achieved invisible chicks, judging by the activity and the cheeping and whatnot, but we had to take it on faith. Then one year everything got started on schedule and the nest was abandoned. That was followed by the Year of Dead Chicks and Punctured Eggs. Then there was the dreadful Nuthatch Fiasco of '16, the likes of which I hope never to see again. Those nuthatches were as earnest as they could be but nothing went right for them at all.

Which brings us to this year, when I have been terribly excited by the prospect of monitoring Marge and Studley whilst actually knowing which was Marge and which was Studley, because Studley has a bum left foot. And no sooner does Marge start putting her mattress together than they both go away. Instead there are wasps.

...of 2016
So I haul the box inside for a look and unscrew the top and there's a small active wasp nest hanging from the ceiling like a chandelier. Marge's mattress looks to be nearly done, but there's no Marge. The Windowsons like to eat bugs but wasps are too spicy. I scraped off the wasp nest and re-hung the box after waiting a day to befuddle the wasps. I also took down the hummingbird feeder in case that was attracting them. Ten seconds after I shut the window a wasp came back to the house.

And maybe he was just trying to figure out what happened to his nice sculpture and he'd go away and pout. But how to get Marge back? Staging? Hanging a little picture of Marge's grandma? Laying in some potpourri that smells like chocolate chip cookies?

Besides, what's next? A plague of parasites? Hordes of Huns in hawk suits? Interference from the neighbor's Wi-Fi? Will it turn out that the Mercury in Retrograde crap affects only gullible humans and chickadees?

Odds are Marge and Studley are already off looking for new digs. I wouldn't blame them. We had a working cascara tree when we first put up the house. Now it's ninety percent dead and the birds like that too, but there aren't many leaves left and the birdhouse gets a lot more sun. I'd already thought about hanging an umbrella above it. No one wants to try to hatch a poached egg. How much intervention do our little friends need?

When you make the perfect bird house you like to think you're providing something for the community, but that's just what you tell yourself. The chickadees will figure something out. We have the box one foot away from our window because we want to watch. We put out a seed feeder and hang suet because we want to watch. But birds can share diseases at a feeder. Beyond hosing cats and planting natives and leaving seed pods to ripen, maybe we shouldn't be doing anything at all.

But. We want to watch.