Pangolins

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From a frog’s snug wetsuit to a llama’s wooly shag, animals are bestowed with the wrapping they require. Even when the efforts seem excessive, we must conclude that every species has been thoroughly considered, and who are we, anyway, to question Creation?

The first time I saw a picture of a pangolin, I was reminded of pharaohs, of ancient tombs and golden riches and all we do not, cannot, know. Almost every inch of a pangolin’s body is covered in sharp over-lapping scales; no other mammal sports such armor. What is there about this creature that warrants exceptional protection?

There are eight species of pangolins, four in Asia and four in Africa. Ranging in length from a foot to a yard, they are heavily hunted for their meat as well as their scales. All are consequently endangered and may well disappear—one more puzzle piece forever lost.

Nocturnal animals, pangolins spend their days curled up in deep tunnels or hollow trees. They feed on ants and termites, which they dispatch with their long, thin tongues. Like giant anteaters, the tongues of pangolins are rooted in the thorax and can extend nearly a foot and a half. They are short-legged animals and use their formidable claws to dig into ant hills. Because they do not see well, pangolins are gifted with a keen sense of smell for locating their prey. Some types hang by their tails from branches and scratch away tree bark to expose the insects beneath. Discriminating diners, they will ignore all but a few types of bugs, sensing perhaps what is good for them and avoiding junk food.

Pangolins are loners, meeting only once a year for mating purposes. Unlike most animals, males, which are larger than females, do not search for them. The males employ a passive come-hither, leaving their calling card in the form of urine or feces, which the females readily find. If competition is involved, males will bash each other with their tails until a victor emerges. Gestation lengths differ depending on the species—anywhere from 70 to 140 days. Most give birth to one six-inch pangopup at a time. Four weeks later, the pup emerges from the burrow, riding on its mother’s back; mother and offspring stay together for two years.

The keratin scales of a baby pangolin are soft and white at birth, hardening and darkening within just a few days. There is an international ban on their trade, but pangolins are widely poached for their scales, which are ground into powder and illegally purchased. In East Asia many people believe, without evidence, that the scales can cure various human diseases, another example of the way we exploit and imperil whatever strikes us as extraordinary.

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When threatened, pangolins curl up in a ball and tuck their faces under their tales. They also emit a foul chemical from glands near the anus, similar to skunk spray. Left with a spiny, smelly ball, would-be predators soon lose interest. Unfortunately, these excellent defenses do not work against humans.

Is humanity a failed experiment? Given our swathe of destruction, it would seem so. We have brains enough to redeem ourselves, but probably not enough time. Everything in any case is destined to expire.

Why are we here? Why is the pangolin the only mammal suited in armor? Nature just bounces these questions right back, as if she’s holding out hope, waiting for us to see the big picture. What if pangolins were put here to amaze us and we were brought in to admire them? What if our mission is that simple? What more than esteem does this old earth need?

Photo credit: string_bass_dave via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Photo credit: Wildlife Alliance via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

All At Once

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Most of the time our feelings are produced by our thoughts. We think of a person or situation, and our bodies respond with love, anger, fear, regret, despair, disgust—there’s no end to the places our minds can take us.

But sometimes the obverse is true. For just an instant, we are brushed by a fragment of memory. We pause, transfixed, thrilled not by the memory itself, which never coalesces, but by our closeness to it. We scramble after this phantom, try to fix it in time. Too late. It was gone as soon as it arrived, like the rainbow flash of an abalone shell before the dark waves rush over.

For me, these sensations occur most frequently in the spring, as if the earth, in her exuberance, is churning up my secrets along with her own, reminding me that nothing is lost. Akin to deja vu, this experience involves more certainty than suggestion. We are not stirred by a sense of the familiar but seized by our own lives, summoned to wakefulness. For a second or two, we exist in a portal, the distinction between past and present indiscernible. That fragment of memory was not an idle daydream; it was a clue, a means to the truth. We live all at once and probably forever.

Photo credit: Doreeno via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

 

Growing Pains

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Spring in the nursery is a happy time. The bedding plants are a riot of color and the eager young vegetables grow right before your eyes. Flushed with hope and fresh resolve, shoppers load their carts with more than they can use, for who can resist the tangerine zinnias, the deep blue delphiniums, the baby stalks of corn, the hundreds of heirloom tomatoes, each one promising something special. The is “The Year,” customers vow; they have learned from past efforts and this is the year they will have, at last, their dream garden.

Because people are impatient, because we must keep pace with the box store down the street—that heartless, hulking nemesis—we bring in spring stock sooner than advisable. Despite our cautions, many folks will buy cartloads of these greenhoused plants and plunge them into cold soil on a promisingly sunny day, and that night, or maybe the next, a hard frost will steal into their gardens, blackening the basil and wilting the watermelon. The disgruntled patrons will then return for replacements, digging into their pockets a second time, albeit not quite so cheerfully.

Eventually the soil warms and winter unhooks its talons and we assure everyone that they can garden with abandon.  Plants stream into the nursery like fresh troops and are cleared out the same day. We take special orders—for Tati’s Wedding tomatoes, Jersey Pickling cucumbers, Golden Calwonder peppers. The bounty! The joy! There is no stopping either.

Busy shoving more wondrous things into the earth, gardeners fail to notice the tiny green aphids in the broccoli, the tunnels forming in the Swiss chard leaves, the shroud of white fungus creeping over the zucchini. Not until their gardens are riddled with trouble do people perceive a problem. How they react is who they are. Some, blaming nature, will turn on it. They will buy the most deadly products they can get their hands on and they will turn their gardens into battle zones. Others, blaming us, will storm back into the nursery, brandishing their sickly specimens and demanding a refund. They will cite the return policies of the box stores and they will threaten to take their business to them.

And then there are those who blame themselves. They will come into the nursery shamefaced, holding plastic bags of evidence and asking us what went wrong, why are they such bad gardeners. While gardening is supposed to be a restorative pastime, too often this is not the case. People are intimidated by plants, intimidated and aggrieved. Their gardens get the better of them, and, disgusted, they give up. There are too many variables, they complain, too much they can’t control.

Which is true. Nature will not be controlled, not for long at any rate. The more you resist her efforts, the harder she’ll work to thwart yours. Eventually she will find a way to get around your weapons and give her varied progeny a toehold. Broccoli, aphids, roses, mildew—it’s all the same to her. Balance is what she’s after.

We have removed the most devastating munitions from our shelves, anything containing neonicotinoids (the bee killer); soil drench versions are the worst as they contaminate soil and ground water for years to come. We have also eliminated herbicides containing glyphosate (Roundup, KleenUp, Remuda). Not only is glyphosate a probable human carcinogen, it has a lethal impact on aquatic and terrestrial amphibians. We encourage gardeners to make their own herbicides and pesticides using household products like Epsom salts, cooking oil and dish soap—recipes for these remedies abound on the internet.

Even organic solutions should be applied judiciously. Medicating plants week after week can erode their health, in the same way that too much medication weakens human patients. Plants, like people, defend themselves when threatened. To save its strength, a Ficus benjamina will drop its leaves after the shock of relocation, then tentatively grow them back. In response to beetle attacks, a conifer will release wads of resin, sealing its wounds and embalming the marauders. If ground ivy loses its shade, it quickly gets to work toughening and thickening its leaves.

The most important thing you can give your plants is a good start: amended soil, a roomy bed, the proper light and water. A rose will not appreciate a shady location or the overspray from  lawn sprinklers; cannas relish both. You can save yourself a great deal of time and money by learning what plants require, preferably before you buy them.

That said, your yard will never be perfect because nature isn’t perfect. Accepting this will make you a better gardener, one who slows down for a closer look in an effort to understand. There are reasons for almost everything, like why your doublefile viburnum hasn’t bloomed. Plants moved from their pots into the open ground will often take years to flower: They are spending their energy below, in the establishment of roots. This is why a lemon tree in a container will produce fruit sooner than a tree in the ground: the roots meet the boundary of the pot and, and running out of room, signal reproduction. And that sticky black coating on your orange tree? Look close. You’ll see tiny brown ovals attached to the leaves and doubtless a few ants. What your plant has is scale, in its armored form. The scale are steadily sucking the sap; what they can’t digest they secrete as honeydew, which is then harvested by ants. The sticky residue promotes the growth of black sooty mold. And those skinny leaves on that one nandina? No, it’s not sick, it just needs more water—check the irrigation.

Sometimes a plant is destined to fail, and no amount of scholarship or coddling will make a difference. Maybe it was weak from the start; maybe it was neglected too long; maybe it simply grew old and frail, no longer able to fend off attackers. Removing it does not mean you failed; it means you cared: There are few things more dispiriting than a derelict yard.

If you want to be a good gardener, start with humility. You are, after all, asking this earth for miracles: giant sunflowers, golden watermelon, crimson peony blooms. You are bound to lose a few things, to bugs or blight; think of this as giving back and plant anyway. Make peace with your garden and arm yourself with knowledge. Above all, dig gently.

Strange Company

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As most of you know, I am a writer (and I say that with the deepest humility). Because I believe that everyone should give the world whatever skills they possess, modest or monumental, I have gathered twenty of my brief nature essays into a collection called Strange Company, which  is now available as an eBook for $2.99. If you don’t have a tablet, you can download the Kindle app or Adobe Digital Editions to your computer.

Do lizards fall in love? What do sloths think about all day? Why is the blood of a horseshoe crab so valuable? Do starlings flock for fun? Do turtles ever grow bored with their long lives? Can snails be fearless? Can a parrot be a therapist?

These are some of the questions that keep me up at night. Maybe you’re likewise in awe of the natural world, or maybe you’d just like a breather from daily events. Either way, $2.99 is a pretty good deal, right? And you even get photos 🙂

 

 

 

“A Sea Change” in The Other Stories Podcast

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Today I wish to give deep thanks to editor Ilana Masad for featuring “A Sea Change” in The Other Stories podcast. This story is part of my collection SURVIVAL SKILLS, published by Ashland Creek Press.

Photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/daugaard/2687998731/”>DaugaardDK</a&gt; via <a href=”http://foter.com/”>Foter.com</a&gt; / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>CC BY-NC-SA</a>