Lyme Ticks and Ladybugs

For nine to ten months each year the male bowerbirds of New Guinea work on their bowers. The style of the bower depends on the species. “Maypole” builders place hundreds of sticks around a sapling, winding up with a great mushroom-shaped structure. Other birds create “avenue” bowers, vertical rows of twigs imbedded in the earth between a narrow passageway. After construction, some of the more fastidious males will use their sharp beaks to paint the inside walls with plant juices. Finally, the birds begin to decorate, using whatever strikes their fancy: hunks of moss, red berries, silver snail shells, golden leaves, flowers, feathers, stones. Their whimsy extends even to manmade items: discarded batteries, toothbrushes, coins, nails, rifle shells, pieces of glass, strips of cellophane. Color is important. Some bowerbirds favor blue tones, while others prefer white or orange. Work is never quite finished; the birds spend weeks rearranging their treasures and adding to the plunder―stealing from one another is a common practice.

And the purpose of these sylvan palaces? It’s the same old story: seduction. Year after year these indefatigable birds give everything they’ve got for the chance to spend a few glorious seconds on the back of a female. Rich in suitors, the female bowerbird flies from one endeavor to another, assessing and rejecting, till she finally lands on the threshold of the bower she likes best. Sometimes she obliges the waiting male right away; other times she requires coaxing and the frenzied male will offer her gifts, a blue paperclip, an orange leaf. If these fail him, he will strut back and forth, extending his wings and chattering loudly so that she can see what a superb specimen he is. Many females end up selecting the same male and returning to him the next year, paring the chances for the other males whose efforts are nonetheless worthy.

So what becomes of all the bowers that don’t make the cut? Do they fall into disrepair, victims of time and weather? Or do the builders themselves do the dismantling, starting from scratch each fall, their bird brains brimming with fresh ideas?

I have no trouble believing that the initial impulse to build a bower is a reproductive imperative. At some point, though―perhaps after the forty-eighth golden leaf, the first dozen blue parrot feathers—I think this primal urge is forgotten and what drives the male after that is his own enthusiasm, craft turned to ecstasy. For what difference would it make to the no-nonsense, time-constrained female that there are thirteen parrot feathers instead of twelve, or that the interior, which she may not even bother to inspect, is freshly painted?

Only to the builder does every leaf and feather matter; each year, from fall through spring, nothing matters more. That his work may be in vain is something he is not prepared to ponder.

People, on the other hand, expect reward. The formulas we are taught—hard work equals success, healthy living ensures longevity, good deeds bring good luck―these ideas die hard and not without bitterness. Our house is blown away; the tumor is malignant; the dog we adopted gets hit by a car. “It’s not fair,” we cry; moreover it doesn’t make sense. Why would God allow such things? Why are we sharing our home with polio and salmonella and brown recluse spiders? Where is the virtue in poisonous toadstools and powdery mildew? Indeed, our madcap inventor seems to have as much interest in the growth of a fungus as he does a fetus.

Whatever your religious views, one thing is certain: a long time ago this ball got rolling and a force we can’t fathom gave it the nudge. From that point on, life never looked back.

Consider the extravagance of species on this planet: 140 kinds of sparrows, and every one of them changing, each generation bringing better beaks, designer tails, new come-hither stripes. So many versions of a small brown bird, all of them vying for a little more time. Why not, say, a dozen species? Wouldn’t that be a sufficient sparrow allotment? Why is the earth burdening itself with this colossal balancing act?

Watching children play or dolphins leap or eagles soar, it’s easy to conclude that life is fun, that we are put here to enjoy ourselves. Take male lions, which spend their days on grassy plains, dozing in the sun, dining on warm fresh prey, thanks to the prowess of their harems. Then take a look at male emperor penguins, which spend long winters on open ice, huddled together for warmth, risking starvation, a single precious egg balanced on their frigid feet. A tortoise trudges along for well over a century; a mayfly gets less than a day. One bird scores a mate with just a couple songs, while another must build a palace. Not one of these creatures knows the difference. “Why” is a question we might all do without.

To be born is to have worth. Lucky or not, lovely or not, everything on this busy blue orb gets a fighting chance to do its best. Rust and roses. Slugs and swans. Lyme ticks and ladybugs.

Does it feel good to be a ladybug? We can’t say. All we can witness is the effort: one tiny being earning its life.

It hurts to be alive, too much and too often for pleasure to be the point; much of the time we manage without it. Now and again we are taken by surprise. In the oddest moments—spreading mulch, washing a plate, buttoning a child’s coat—we are suddenly, inexplicably, happy. For the bowerbird, whose life amounts to little more than labor, the joy is built right in.

Consider the Sloth

Two-toed sloth hanging from a tree in the jungle in Costa Rica.

Do animals think? Countless experiments have been undertaken to answer this question and the consensus is: Yes, they do.

I guess I’ve always considered this answer fairly obvious. How would creatures survive if they couldn’t evaluate situations and make appropriate decisions? Lionesses form collective hunts. Crows drop their walnuts into the path of vehicles. Beavers adjust the logs in their dams to control water levels. Plovers fake a broken wing to lure predators away from their nests. God knows what chimps and parrots are capable of.

When they are not trying to acquire food or protect their young or get attention, what do animals think about? When a lion has finished his dinner and is gazing out on the African plain, what is going on in his feline mind?

The sloth. Now there’s an animal with plenty of time to mull things over. Looking at a photo of a sloth—the big eyes, the gently smiling mouth—I am certain that something astonishing is going on in that short, flat head.

Sloths spend their lives hanging upside down from tree branches. In this pose, they eat, sleep, mate, bear young and die; even after death a sloth may hang from a branch for days, as if the divide between death and its sedentary life does not much matter. The world’s slowest mammal—an average clip is six feet a minute— sloths move only when necessary so as not to tax their minimal musculature. On the ground they are awkward and vulnerable, long polished claws serving as their only defense. For this reason, they stay in the trees, descending just once a week to urinate and defecate, digging a hole and covering it up afterward. While slowness might be considered a detriment to survival, this trait is actually an advantage for the sloth, whose lack of motion draws no attention. Another advantage of a slow pace is the chance it gives other life forms to take hold: algae blooms freely on sloths, serving as perfect jungle camouflage, as well as a handy food source.

Nocturnal creatures, sloths forage on their trees from dusk to dawn, methodically eating the fruit, leaves and bark. This roughage is then effortlessly digested, albeit slowly, with the help of multi-compartmentalized stomachs that comprise two-thirds of the animals’ body-weight.

Once a year the female lets out a few loud shrieks, which the male dutifully answers, and after great time and effort, they manage to arrive on the same branch.  The mating itself occurs over a period of several minutes, and in what seems to be a tender fashion—sloths are the only mammals other than bonobo apes and humans that mate face-to-face. The baby sloth appears six months later and spends much of its first year clinging its mother.

Research shows that sloths spend about ten hours a day sleeping. In the hours the animal is awake but inactive, it hangs from its limb and regards the jungle canopy, moving its flexible neck in increments, blinking now and then. Hidden among the leaves, making no sound or movement, these mute little beasts seem to want just one thing: to be undiscovered.

The two main emotions in life are love and fear, and certainly there is ample evidence that animals feel both. I imagine that when the shadow of a raptor passes overhead, a sloth cringes in fear. What about the lesser emotions, the ones that don’t serve us—like worry? Does a sloth, with all that time he has, worry about eagles and jaguars? Or does he have more productive thoughts, which part of the tree he’ll dine on that night? Or is he, is some deep animal way, simply enjoying himself, his mind a movie screen of pleasant images: leaves, sky, dappled light. When thoughts are not needed, maybe animals are not burdened with them.

It is estimated that people have 60,000 thoughts a day, a figure not as impressive as it sounds. These 60,000 thoughts are the same ones we had yesterday and the same ones we’ll have tomorrow. In our day to day lives, we are not much good at thinking out of the box. A sloth hangs in one tree all its life and, other than single visit from a single mate, has no company. With this scant stimulation, I wonder how many separate daily thoughts a sloth has. A hundred? Twenty? I would trade my 60,000 for a glimpse of them.

The Praying Mantis

I’ve seen what the bite of a brown recluse spider can do; a friend of mine lost a chunk of his thigh that way. The bite of a black widow spider can be gruesome too—scroll through a few internet photos. When outhouses were still common, so were black widow bites, and men, with their thin-skinned, unprotected genitalia, were especially vulnerable. I can’t imagine a more abrupt wake-up call than a spider bite to the scrotum.

Scorpions deliver venom through a stinger at the tip of their tails. Unchanged for eons, these arachnids have become a symbol of power and/or evil, their cautionary image appearing on countless artifacts. While bees have garnered a friendlier reputation, their stings are equally painful and in some cases fatal. Thirty times more painful than a bee sting is the pierce of a bullet ant, common in the rain forests of Nicaragua and Paraguay. Closer to home is the kissing bug, a creature that inhabits the American southwest and transmits Chagas, an infection that kills 12,000 people a year. Leading the pack of dangerous insects is the mosquito, whose disease-rich blood kills one child every half minute.

While all these treacherous creatures command respect, the bug that truly unnerves me, for its stealth, its guises, its casual cannibalism, is the praying mantis. Harmless to humans, this lanky assassin dispatches other insects with alarming speed and can even snatch hummingbirds from the air, a feat I hope never to witness.

Praying mantises are usually discovered by chance. Trimming a hedge, admiring a bloom, we become aware of a slim apparition poised on the periphery. Tan, green, brown or black (camouflage is one of their many endowments), mantises appear ominous in any color, and only the most hardened among us doesn’t startle at the sight of them. These creatures are gluttonous, their appetites keeping pace with their prowess, and some will explode their own abdomens in an orgy of greed. A mantis in the garden is a harbinger of doom: something is going to die, horribly and soon.

Mantises have triangular heads, a beaky snout and bulging compound eyes with which they can follow minute movements and zero in on their victims. A flexible neck allows them to turn their heads 180 degrees. Sometimes mantises camouflage themselves and wait for a luckless bug; other times they actively stalk, avid as egrets. A few fearsome ground species race across the dirt in pursuit of their panicked prey. A mantis’s forelegs are oversized and edged with spines, ensuring a solid hold on whatever they seize. Most species have two sets of wings, the tougher, outer set serving as armor for the more delicate hind wings. Though they are chiefly diurnal, they often fly at night, perhaps to avoid being eaten by birds. To elude bats, they employ a specialized auditory organ capable of detecting echolocation calls. 

Mantises are masters of adaptation. Some Australian species will turn black after a molt, their coloration mimicking the landscape of fire season. Those that live on mono-colored surfaces have flattened bodies to eliminate their own shadows. Some resemble flowers, turning unwitting pollinators into easy pickings.

Female mantises are mercurial, one day allowing a mate to do his business and leave, another day chomping off his head, even before copulation has begun. The headless male is not deterred and will perform with more urgency. Occasionally the female will decapitate the male afterward, or eat him whole, bestowing a boost of nutrition on her prodigious progeny—as many as 400 eggs are produced. The frothy egg mass soon hardens into a winter-worthy case from which the nymphs emerge on a warm spring day, consuming each another as they stream into the world. Only about a fifth will survive their own savagery.

Some gardeners, wanting eco-friendly pest control, will purchase these egg cases and place them in the yard. The problem is, praying mantises do not discriminate; they will eat aphids and cutworms, along with lady bugs and butterflies. They just don’t see the difference.

I learned this up close last week when I spotted a praying mantis in my flower bed. Thrilled, I bent down for a closer look and saw with dismay that it was dining on a bee. A bee! Our most vital and endangered bug. I watched in horror as the mantis munched its way through the striped body. I watched until the end, until the last tuft of yellow fuzz was gone, and the last tiny pane of wing. Only then did the mantis turn its alien head and look up at me. For several seconds we peered at one another. It did not flinch, even when I raised my phone and snapped a picture.

At last it lowered its head, perhaps concluding I was too big to eat and thus of no value or interest. Then, cool as a cat, it lifted a foreleg and began grooming, neatly removing the last bits of bee.

Lizards in Love

Many creatures mate for life. People, who often bungle this commitment, are shamed by such devotion in the wild. Watching a pair of swans glide across the surface of a still pond, we are stirred to admiration, even reverence, knowing how far they surpass us in manner and form.

Swans are inarguably beautiful, as are various other animals that lead devoted lives: turtle doves, wolves, French angelfish, golden eagles. For these glorious beasts, the discipline of monogamy seems a fitting attribute, a sort of noblesse oblige.

But what of the shingleback skink?  Tiliqua rugose: a bob-tailed, slow moving, blue-tongued  lizard. Found only in Australia, this lowly beast is one of earth’s most faithful inhabitants. Every autumn, for up to twenty years, it will seek out the same mate, the male inevitably finding the female by her scent trail. During their initial courtship and upon their annual reunion, the male will lick and softly prod the female. For two months they stay together, the male closely following the female as she makes her way across the outback. If one is killed, the other will stay with the body for several days, giving it a gentle nudge now and then as if to encourage animation.

Tiliqua rugose goes by several common names: stump-tailed lizard, shingleback skink, sleepy lizard, pinecone lizard, two-headed lizard (because the fat truncated tail mimics the head, minus the eyes and mouth). The skin of this reptile is dark brown, sometimes with yellow spots, and the protruding scales resemble armor. The eye are small and reddish-brown; the tongue is a brilliant blue. Reaching eighteen inches in length, the shingleback skink weighs in at a whopping two pounds. During the day it travels across open country foraging for flowers, berries and succulent leaves, as well as the occasional snail and beetle, which it handily crushes with its powerful jaws.  At night it sleeps in leaf litter or under logs or rocks.

Six months after the male locates his mate, the female gives birth to two or three young. This process takes much out of her as the progeny can exceed eight inches in length and weigh nearly half a pound—compare a woman giving birth to a three-year-old child. As soon as they emerge, the young skinks dispatch the placenta, then promptly head out, en route to their own chosen life mates.

So how does unstinting loyalty benefit the shingleback skink? Certainly any healthy female could produce viable young; variation might even strengthen the gene pool. But somehow this lowly lizard was bequeathed with devotion, the urge to seek its private treasure again and again, at any cost. Equally impressive are the researchers who brought us these facts, who braved the harsh Australian outback to study this odd creature day and night, year after year.

Love. Who can account for it?

Great Deal On Strange Company!

For all you nature lovers, the Kindle version of Strange Company, my collection of nature essays is on sale at Amazon. This is a light-hearted look at some of our most curious beasts, a cozy read for these cold winter months. Here is an excerpt from “Consider the Sloth.”

“The two main emotions in life are love and fear, and certainly there is ample evidence that animals feel both. I imagine that when the shadow of a raptor passes overhead, a sloth cringes in fear. What about the lesser emotions, the ones that don’t serve us—like worry? Does a sloth, with all that time he has, worry about eagles and jaguars? Or does he have more productive thoughts, which part of the tree he’ll dine on that night? Or is he, in some deep animal way, simply enjoying himself, his mind a movie screen of pleasant images: leaves, sky, dappled light. When thoughts are not needed, maybe animals are not burdened with them.

It is estimated that people have sixty thousand thoughts a day, a figure not as impressive as it sounds. These sixty thousand thoughts are the same ones we had yesterday and the same ones we’ll have tomorrow. In our day-to-day lives, we are not much good at thinking out of the box. A sloth hangs in one tree all its life and has no company other than the mate it couples with every fourteen months or so. With this scant stimulation, I wonder how many separate daily thoughts a sloth has. One hundred? Twenty? Three? I would trade my sixty thousand for a glimpse of them.”

Three Ghost Stories

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Occasionally, always in the evening, my cat will turn her head and stare at something I can’t see. She will follow this invisible entity with her eyes as it moves, apparently, along the wall just below the ceiling. She does not seem alarmed by what she perceives, just keenly interested. After a moment or two, she will blink and look away, settle back into my lap. Whether the object of her attention disappears or she simply grows bored with it, I will never know.

Two of my previous cats displayed this same behavior, and several people have told me that every now and then their cats are likewise enthralled. “It’s their eyes,” a friend says, “those elliptical pupils. Their eyes absorb light and then reflect it—like headlights on a road sign. Cats see a whole world we don’t.” I have no idea what my cat sees in the dark; I only know that sometimes, in my living room at night, we are not alone.

A couple years ago I met a woman at a party, a grief counselor named Anne. I liked her calm, her attentiveness; I thought she was probably very good at what she did. We fell into an easy friendship, and one day over lunch I mentioned my cat and her odd way of peering at the ceiling. Anne picked up her sandwich. “They’re out there, alright.”

“Who?”

“Ghosts,” she said, “spirits. Whatever you want to call them.”

I took a swallow of my drink, studied her a moment. “You seem pretty definite about that.”

“It was the kids,” she said, looking up at me. “When I started counseling kids, I learned a lot. You wouldn’t believe how many children see ghosts.”

I stopped chewing. “You mean like the movie? Like ‘I see dead people’?”

“Something like that,” said Anne, nodding. “They see their relatives—grandmothers, brothers, fathers. People who have died recently.”

“Wow,” I murmured. “They must be terrified.”

“That’s the thing. Most of them aren’t afraid. They’re not really haunted, these kids. It’s more like they’re…visited.” She paused, considered. “It sounds like their parents, grandparents, whatever, just sort of appear and hang out for a while.” Her eyes widened. “It’s like the kids don’t know that this isn’t supposed to happen, so it does. They allow it.”

“How old are these kids?”

“Six, seven, eight. I’ve talked with four-year-olds who’ve seen ghosts.”

I paused, reflecting on this possibility, and then my mind snapped shut. “Lots of kids have imaginary friends. Don’t you think they might be imagining their relatives, willing them to be?”

Anne nodded. “Some of them, maybe. But Jean, the consistency is amazing. I’ve asked these kids the same questions on different days and they’ve answered exactly the same way. Their recall blows me away.”

“What about your adult clients? Do they ever see spirits?”

“Rarely. In eight years I’ve spoken with just three.”

“I wonder why it’s so common with children.”

“I’ve wondered about that too,” Anne said. “I think it’s because they’re closer to their time of birth. Closer to creation.” She paused, considered. “They really do live in a whole different world. They don’t understand how things work so everything amazes them.”

“Or terrifies them,” I add, thinking of my own childhood.

Anne shrugged. “Well that’s true, but trust me, they’re a lot more afraid of real people than they are of ghosts.”

I have heard—I suppose we all have—a few stories about unexplained encounters: sounds or feelings or visions beyond the margins of daily life. I remember an especially convincing account told to me by a math professor. We were sitting at her kitchen table while our spouses chatted outside. The house we were in had once been inhabited by my partner’s grandparents, and the property held many happy memories for her. This teacher—her name was Elizabeth—told me that she and her husband loved the house and were delighted we had come for a visit. I asked if she any children, and she said no, conceding that it was a big house for just the two of them, especially since her father had died. “He lived with us for several years—he died four months ago.” I expressed my sympathy and she smiled. “Well, we had a nice goodbye.”

I looked at her quizzically and she folded her arms on the table and told me something that made me stop breathing. For three nights after his death, she said, her father had visited her. They had sat at this table—he in the chair I was in—and talked about life, about things they had not shared or explained or apologized for before his death. She said it was the sweetest time, the easiest time, they had ever spent together. After three nights, she went on, everything they needed to say had been said; they both knew it. “He didn’t come back after that,” she finished, looking up from the table.

I couldn’t understand. “You talked? Like we’re talking?”

“No. Not like that. We talked without speaking.”

“Where was your husband?”

“He’s a dispatcher,” Elizabeth said. “He works nights.”

I must have looked dubious because she gave a shrug and said, “You’re not the first person who thinks I’m crazy.” She paused, regarded me straight on. “What can I tell you? It happened. You can believe it or not.”

That’s the thing with ghost stories, isn’t it? The listener knows they are not true, the speaker knows they are.

The last story I will tell you concerns an artist friend of mine, a first-rate photographer. Before she began taking pictures, she worked as a forensic psychic for a police department in Chicago. I didn’t know what a forensic psychic was until she explained it to me. At first I thought she saw the future and could predict crimes, but she said no, she could not do that and she doubted anyone could. She told me that she had gone to crime scenes—always homicide—where, in her mind’s eye, she sometimes saw the violence that had taken place. “It had to be a recent crime,” she added.

I was impressed. “Did you actually solve cases?”

“Oh yes. Several. Not so much the crimes that had taken place outdoors—I was better at seeing things that had happened in a house or apartment. I saw the people that had been involved and the police used my descriptions to find them.”

“Wow,” I said. “What a talent.”

She frowned. “Well, I don’t know how much talent is involved. See, after something violent happens there is residual energy in the space. Like images left on the retina when you close your eyes. After a time, that energy goes away and the room is just a room—at least that’s how it was for me. That’s why I couldn’t do anything with cold cases.”

“Have you seen this kind of stuff all your life?”

“No, thank god. It started in my twenties. I’d see a broken window, or a smashed-up car, and I’d get this glimpse of the people who had been there, the victims and the bad guys. I started working with the police when I was thirty-four. I quit after three years.”

“Why?”

She gave me an incredulous look. “Are you kidding? It was awful, seeing those things. It was wrecking my life. That’s why I left Chicago and moved to the country. It’s a whole lot nicer here.”

There is a photo circulating on the internet, beach sand viewed through a 250x microscope. It’s a stunning surprise, all those bits of beauty beneath our feet—honeycombs of coral, tiny crosses of glass, sea shells almost too small to be. Who knew?

As I writer, I am always trying to get to the bottom of things, the hidden, ever-retreating truth. There’s so much going on that we can’t see. In their possibility, the stories I’ve been told haunt me. I’m not saying I believe them, I’m not saying I don’t. I’m just saying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Ants Know

824-ant-matabele-wound-dress-1
There are ants that tend to their injured
by licking their wounds,
slowly transferring their own health
into fallen soldiers,
sealing fresh lesions against lethal bacteria.
Who can say why a creature as small as an ant
with so many hardy brethren,
would bother to stop—an hour if need be—
and help a troop.
In that tiny helmet of a head
are there neurons of compassion, of pity,
or are these ministrations automatic, instinct,
like the urge to tunnel or serve a queen
(what is instinct anyway
but a word for what we can’t explain?).
Some ants will even evac a battered brother,
not the terminal—those who have lost too many limbs
to the brutal jaws of termites—
but the ones who, with proper attention,
may fight another day.
The medics sense the difference
and do what they can
before moving farther afield,
gifted with the knowing
there is not a moment to spare.