Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Little-Buddy Project


Dave has little buddies all over the place. Almost anything has little-buddy potential, and being technically alive isn't even a requirement. So at some point he's likely to address anything from Pootie to an interesting bug to a massive bricklayer as "my little buddy," and responses vary. Not everyone is as responsive as Pootie. There are days Dave doesn't even get an antenna-wave out of it.

But we both thought we might be able to develop more of a relationship with a crow. We had three or four that lived in the big Doug fir next door, and we set about making little buddies out of them. Crows are smart. If a crow can count on you for a cracked walnut, a crow is going to remember you favorably. "Hi there," we sang out, while placing a walnut in plain sight. The general goal was to have one or more of our crows approach us and say "hi there" to us--they're good mimics--and we'd give them walnuts. It seems like good luck to have a crow or two in your corner, in case there's trouble.

They grew to know us, all right, but they were cagey about it. A crow would perch on the wire, I'd come out with a walnut and say "hi there," place the nut on the wall, and the crow would studiously look the other direction until I backed off. Then he'd pop down for the walnut as soon as it could be reasonably construed as his idea. "I have some important business to conduct," the crow would think, "and I'll just grab this nut here while I'm on the way, because I'm an efficient person." Crows are proud. Still, we had a notion they would come around eventually.

After a bit I thought we could improve on "hi there" as a signal, especially if we wanted to hear it back from the crow. "How about if we say HEY! WALNUT BOY! That would be cool," I suggested, but then I thought about it some more. "Unless they can't pronounce W's. Can crows pronounce W's?"

"They can say 'caw,'" Dave pointed out.

Or we could start offering them filberts.

Some assembly required.
At any rate, although our crows were willing to accept our walnuts promptly as long as we didn't stand too close, we hadn't made much progress on the little-buddy project. And then they went away. They were just gone. Ours, anyway; there were plenty of other crows flying over.

Last week we went on a walk and I found a large dark feather. Two blocks later I found another one, and then more and more. They were all over the place. We appeared to be tracking a naked crow, and nudity is the kind of thing that would knock a lot of the swagger out of a crow. We began to examine the crows more carefully. They all looked like shit. Their tails had gaps. Their breasts were motley and ratty.  They seemed even less willing than usual to launch from the lawn, but they still had the swagger working. They were like the dude at the party who plucks at the sprung threads in his tweed jacket and explains that he'd been in line for Department Head but didn't want to sell his soul to the tenure track.

Crows gotta molt sometime; everyone does. Birds have to change their suits once a year at a minimum. A lot of the birds at the feeder looked like shit too. It happens. The crow gave me the once-over and studiously turned his head to the side. Whatever, dude. "You look like shit," I told him, in all sympathy.

At least I know where our crows are. They do know us after all, and they're proud. They'll be back once they spruce up. Dave will walk out into the back yard one day soon and a crow will land on the wall and say "you look like shit." And Dave will give him a walnut.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Bonanza


So this is how it works. At the end of summer, you go up to the mountain to get your huckleberries. You pray for one pieful and hope your humility will be rewarded with enough for two or three. The berries are tiny and sparse, sapphire-rare, and you drift languidly through the bushes like a T'ai Chi dude, as attentive to a blue speck as any miner looking for a flash in the pan. An hour later you can still see the bottom of the bucket. If you drop a berry, you get down on your hands and knees to track it down, trying to keep your tears out of the bucket.

Some years they seem plentiful and you scavenge a gallon over the course of six or eighteen hours. Some years your huckleberries are (botanically speaking) in the Theoretical family. No one has a clue why fortunes change from year to year, but people speculate. There was a late snowstorm. El Nino was in a snit. The Berry Goddess was having her nails done or seducing a televangelist when the fruit was supposed to set. No one knows.

And then there was this year. Mary Ann (purveyor of the World's Finest Salamander Hardware) and I pilgrimated to our usual spot and found ourselves hip deep in a sea of blue. I thumbed berries into my bucket; it sounded like a drum solo. After a while I quit picking the ones I'd have to bend over for. Later I narrowed it down to the ones in the strike zone. Then I passed up the bushes on uneven terrain and sought out the ones with a nice flat spot in front of them. Then I quit picking the large berries and concentrated on the huge ones.

By noon I was patronizing only the bushes that waved their little limbs in the air and said yowza, yowza, yowza. A short time later I was ignoring those in favor of the shrubs that offered free checking and a toaster. Towards mid-afternoon I limited myself to the berries that did a swan dive into my bucket when I passed by. An hour later I began ejecting them if they didn't execute either a tuck or a half-twist on the way in. I held up an explanatory card as I punted them out: 3.2, too much splash.

I began to hold out the largest ones so they would not make my pies lumpy. They'll be cut up for steaks and chops and put in the freezer. I ran out of containers for the rest and decanted them into the side pockets of my car.

I have room in my freezer for four pies, or one more pie than I have the serenity to make. I have enough berries for about twelve. There is no reason to keep picking, but I do. Somewhere in this glade I will find a bush with pie crusts on it.

Already rolled out.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

How're They Hanging?


Consider the flatworm. There are many kinds of flatworms, and they like to live in dark, wet locations such as the ocean, or your colon. There's not that much going on inside a flatworm. Flatworms are really too flat to even have insides. There's no space for lungs or proper organs or anything. Stuff like oxygen has to be able to drift through them so they can nab it as it comes by; if they were any thicker, they'd be short of breath all the time. They do have a gut of sorts, but it's not the greatest. They are able to shovel food in one end for a ways, but then they have to stop eating long enough to poop out the same hole. Persnicketyness is not common in flatworms. Also, they don't kiss.

It's a sad state of digestive affairs, but there are compensations. Flatworms have two penises, right below their heads. All of them do. And they all have egg-producing capacity as well. It strikes us as odd, but there is an evolutionary advantage to everybody having the same equipment. The ocean is a big place, and if you only meet the occasional flatworm, you have a much better chance of getting lucky if everyone's set up along the same lines.

Virtually any penis-owning organism polled on the subject would say that the only thing better than having a penis would be having another penis. Flatworms went for two, because their imaginations are limited by not being able to count very high, on account of not having fingers. Given the choice, human males would have opted for at least ten, and there they'd be with their crotches waving like a sea anemone; and things would start bumping into each other accidentally-on-purpose, and before you knew it, all the hopes and dreams for the future generation will have been squandered into the nearest hand-towel. It would never work.

Works for flatworms, though. You might think the flatworm would spend all its time trying to get in touch with its feminine side, but it doesn't. It tries to get in touch with the feminine side of the next flatworm over. They seem peaceable enough, rippling blithely along the ocean bottom, until they decide to have sex. And then it's total war.

Because there's a lot at stake. Since everyone in the neighborhood has man bits and lady bits both, it's going to be a stabfest to see who gets to impregnate whom. It's all en garde and penises at zero paces, and whoever manages to puncture the other first gets to ripple away and shoot the breeze with the other successful flatworms, while the other has to be the mommy, and the best she can hope for in life is that the kids won't disgrace her in some way, and maybe she'll get some macaroni art to put on the fridge. It's bleak.

It's not the only way to get new flatworms, though. If you dice up a flatworm, all the pieces grow new heads, eventually. It takes longer for the pieces that were furthest away from the original head, but there's at least some forethought remaining in the entire worm. It's a pretty slick trick, or at least it seems so to a species like ours that considers itself lucky to get any head at all.

But if you slice off the flatworm's penises, they just grow anxious.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

What's Not To Lek

Dave isn't ordinarily much of a joiner, but he joined a lek last spring, and now we're just waiting to get the membership card in the mail. We were headed up Flag Mountain (named for the way you feel on the uphill side) and we both heard drumming. Very, very low drumming. "You can hear that?" I said. "And yet you can't seem to hear me half the time I ask you something?"

"What?" Dave said.

He's a polite guy, and so he drummed back. In proper pitch, and to perfection. After a moment, they were going back and forth like new-age warrior men on a spiritual quest. Dave's idea, to the degree he was not being driven by instinct, was to get the drummer close enough to see. In those parts it was likely to be a male Sooty Grouse. The grouse, on the other hand, was, according to the literature, more interested in seeing a female grouse than in seeing Dave.

All sorts of odd noises are likely to come out of Dave at any time and some of them he engineers on purpose. He is percussive to a fault--to a fault, I say. The fingers are going, the feet are going, random objects are pressed into service. He'll drum on the counter. Drum on the crockery. Drum on the open door of the refrigerator,  where he will not begin looking for whatever is in there until all the cold air is out and the solo is complete. 

It's been a few years since I objected to any of this. His response was crisp. "It's either this," he said, "or I start smoking again." So our kitchen has a back beat. It's just one of those things. I excel at torpidity. Dave must have everything going at once or there will be a dangerous buildup of something. We don't want to find out what.

The lek is a loose association of males--birds, antelope--who are all in the flirtation business. They are mighty impressive. Some species that form leks need to be in visual contact so they can check each other out. Others just need to be in hearing distance. The deal is they all put on a show and the females pop by and cruise the possibilities until they make a selection. It's less wear and tear on the females that way; it's hitting the bar on Ladies' Night instead of going through the whole internet dating scene. Hard to say if this was all their idea. Lots of male birds court their mates by feeding them. The grouse just show off. The females hang out and eat as many bugs as they can find for themselves, because nobody's buying at this bar, and then it's just "oh, okay, you then," and off they go.

It's a damn good show, though. The grouse makes the drumming sound by inflating fancy air sacs on his neck, precisely the way Dave does it, only he does it taller. Dave was unable to draw out the other grouse, and we did not get to see the show. It was a good hike anyway. Miles later, we found our way back to the cabin and there, in the periphery, what did we see?--the suggestion of slatey feathers sifting through the woods--giggling, shifting, sly glances sliding our way, a coy tail feather swept to one side--well, we should have seen it coming. Dave's the complete package. He even attracts bugs.

Murrmurrs Bonus: here's eighteen seconds of your life you'll never get back again:



Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Volunteer

Volunteer Food

I decided to attend the Willamette Writers Conference on the cheap by volunteering. When you volunteer, you work for half a day and have the other half free to attend workshops, pitch to agents, hob and nob. There's even a rumor that the agents like to mill about in the cocktail lounge and they can be accosted there. That seems like a terrific plan if your object is to annoy your quarry.

For two days I was assigned to be a "Floater in the Pit," which sounds like something I've seen almost every morning of my life. Also, I'm naturally buoyant: I figured it would be a snap. The Pit is the room in which the agents are quarantined, and at fifteen-minute intervals a new crop of carnivores is let into the room to pitch their novels and screenplays to them. Among other things, the floater mans the gates and helps with the herding, and chases down agents who manage to escape. The floater also has the opportunity to memorize the faces of individual agents to pester later. It's a plum job.

The Volunteer is also expected to help with any problems that come up and assist conference attendees. She is able to answer all manner of questions simply by donning a magic black vest with STAFF printed on the back, which transforms her perplexity into knowledge. My own vest didn't appear to come pre-loaded with knowledge, but I was soon able to helpfully point at other people: talk to him.

So it was all going well until the day I was directed to sit at one of the computers and help people purchase or change pitching opportunities. Everyone agreed the system software was virtually foolproof, but I am sixty years old, and I know what "virtually" means, and was prepared to demonstrate it. I replaced an even older woman who was wearing a look of abject terror and departed the scene with an alacrity you don't normally see in someone of that vintage. I sat down, logged in with my name, and called for my first victim. The software was indeed smooth. I felt young again.

Specifically, I felt the age I was when I got my first computer. Remember how you'd type something up and try to move things around and all of a sudden your page vanishes utterly? And how you keep punching buttons until all your documents and websites are whipping around in an invisible cyclone and you have no idea how to holler them back? And you burst into tears, abundantly and often? That age.

My first victim wanted to cancel one pitching appointment and buy two more. I'd make some progress
and then the screen would disappear. I couldn't find the end of the string to pull to haul it back again. I wasn't sure if I'd accomplished anything so I'd click on things twice, or harder. By the end of the process, I couldn't tell if I'd charged him five thousand dollars, failed to secure his appointment at all, or ordered him an XL tunic in seafoam green. There was a long line waiting. I began to have heart palpitations.

It took about an hour to get the hang of it, and then only if it was an easy transaction. But sometimes people would show up and ask to cancel three appointments, switch two more, and scoop up some new ones, and then ask for a refund because they'd missed one yesterday but it wasn't their fault because their cat had pooped in their shoes that morning, and wasn't there a way to get more agents representing Middle Grade S&M? And I'd say, oh, honey. You are SO in the wrong line.

Fortunately I was soon back in my floater position. Helping people out. Giving directions, soothing the nervous. "I don't think I can go through with my pitch today," one woman whispered, quivering. I gave her shoulder a squeeze.

"You can do it! Hey, what's the worst that could happen?"

"I could throw up," she said.

Something about this scenario seemed well within the bailiwick of the Floater.

"Talk to him," I said, pointing.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Wraith


When I have visitors, I like to take them on mountain hikes because that's my favorite thing to do, and so I'm pretty sure it's their favorite thing too, even if they don't realize it at first. These are five-star humdinger hikes, with meadows and hummingbirds and paisley drifts of wildflowers in every color and vistas of volcanoes on the horizon and a scatter of beeping pikas and, theoretically, maybe even a fat furry marmot: every component, in other words, of true happiness. And the hikes are mostly flat, too, except for being inclined at a sharp angle. Remarkably, several decades'-worth of visitors have--independently of each other--referred to my hikes as "death marches." I'm sure it's meant affectionately.

When Linda and Walter came for a vacation actually devoted to hiking, I made sure to front-load the event with my very favorites, figuring they would be left breathless by, probably, the beauty. And then we went to hike on the coast, where a surprising portion of the beauty is at sea level.

Everyone loves the ocean. People in the personal ads always say they like long walks along the beach. No one ever mentions death marches. Walter and Linda were thrilled. The waves roll in and out and people stand before them mesmerized, as though they are watching infinity in a frame, and are somehow comforted by that.

I'm not. It creeps me out. The ocean is just fine from a distance, like a hundred miles, but up close it's all drowny. There's nothing but water out there and most of it is over my head. There's teeth and tentacles and stingers and slithering and darkness and death. It reminds me of the very dwindlety of life, crushed under time, the waves inexorable, doom, doom, doom, and some day one of them is going to take me out. Somewhere out there is my wave, getting a suggestion from the moon and a spin from the rearing continental shelf and beginning to crank my way. I can't look.

But there are distractions. The cliffs are a frozen snapshot of lava hitting the sea. Birds coat the sea stacks. Every tidal puddle is its own neighborhood. We tread the sand for hours and nobody gets even close to dead. I begin to relax.

"What's that?" Walter asks, pointing at the shoreline.

I raise my binoculars. It's a murre, and it's all wrong. Murres shouldn't be standing at the shoreline all by themselves. Murres should be diving for fishes and flying in bunches and jamming the tops of sea stacks and pooping on rocks. Murres definitely shouldn't be shuffling their feet and letting me walk up close enough to take a picture.

My murre is dragging a wing and has a major gash on her breast. My murre is going to die soon. I long to wrap her up in a fleece and drive her all the way back to the mountain and leave her in the custody of a kindly marmot with a well-stocked larder and a dab of mercurochrome. But I turn to leave. I got the message, friend murre. It's all teeth and tentacles and darkness and doom out there.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Whisperers Of The Wild

When Walter and Linda come to your house for a hiking vacation, you not only have the company of two of your greatest treasures: there's more. Walter is a tamer of wild technology and will surreptitiously go around fixing things you've suffered with for months, and things you weren't aware were broken, and, in some cases, things that haven't even been invented yet. And all those things will suddenly run smoother in a way you'll probably put down to random cosmic kindness or the vicissitudes of the magnetic field or something, but it's really Walter.

Linda, of course, is the original magnetic field, and attracts everything you've ever wanted. Linda claims a bedroom and before long Pootie has snuck under the covers. Tater the cat hears the creak of her bedspring and vaults out of my sheets to tunnel into hers. Dave and Walter at least think about it.

And, of course, Linda will find you a bear, or a pika, or a murmuration of starlings, or anything else you have a hankering for. It's not just that she sits and waits quietly until the forest melts her a critter. It's that, like Pootie and Tater and everyone else, the critters are drawn to her. So I had high expectations. What would I order up? Well, in spite of their vaunted ubiquity around here, I have never seen a wild river otter. I thought I might have once, a fast brown parabola in the rushing stream, but I was never sure. So that would be a nice start.

Not that.
Six hours after we picked her up from the airport, Linda produced an otter. "That's a nutria," I said, a little disappointed in her.

"Not that--just over the nutria's shoulder, on the bank," she pointed, as a sleek and unmistakable silhouette turned her way in salute, and rippled into the undergrowth.

Then she set about locating Life Birds for me, in my home territory. We studied a woodpecker for a while before I finally pegged it for a particularly disheveled Hairy, but she said it was a Black-Backed Woodpecker. I have never heard of a Black-Backed Woodpecker. What the hell. Turns out they're rare, which didn't keep this one from showing up for Linda.

We'll ignore the hummingbirds that unfailingly try to drill into Linda's left ear, looking for the source of sweetness. That's old hat by now. We can gloss over the bear tracks she found on the beach, and set aside the whale spouting out of season, the meteors, and the slug fornication. Surely, if there really is a secret in the mossy dark of the Pacific Northwest, we can put Linda's talents to a more singular test. See what she is really made of.

Well, the girl's no good with secrets. She doesn't have any of her own, and, lacking guile and deceit, might be careless with someone else's. This doesn't bother me. But there's always a smile on tap in that face of hers, sure as shine on water. It's never submerged for long, and then it otters up again. It's powerful. There might well be a secret in it.

If Linda, rising as usual at dawn and venturing out barefoot in a nightshirt, has already shared a conversation and her morning coffee with Sasquatch, we'll only be able to guess it by her grin.