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Tuesday, September 27, 2011


              There was a video shown on television the other day of a family in a boat who were cutting the net in which a very large whale was entangled.  It drifted out of their reach again and again and, each time, they eased their boat skillfully up to it and went carefully to work with their cutters on the tough plastic tangle. When it was finally free, it swam about a quarter of a mile off, and then threw itself into a tremendous display of breeching, tail flipping, rolling, and monumental merriment.                
            “Look at that! Look at that,” the television newsman exclaimed, “it’s thanking them!” 
            That last bit is what we call anthropomorphism, which is when we attribute human characteristics to beings that are not human.  Of course, the whale could have been trying to communicate gratitude, but all that we really know is that it was expressing some kind of emotion, its cavorting most likely a self-referential exuberance at being free at last.
            There is one emotion, however, that we do share with animals – curiosity. In his Just So Stories, written for children curious about “How the Leopard Got Its Spots” and other animal mysteries, Rudyard Kipling chose “the Elephant’s Child” as an exemplar of “insatiable curiosity.”  In “How the Elephant Got His Trunk” a young elephant, spanked all the time by his relatives for asking too many questions, is determined to travel down to the “great, greasy banks of the Limpopo River, all hung about with fever trees” because he just has to know what the crocodile eats for dinner.
            I should point out that, at this point in elephant evolution (according to Kipling) elephants have only short stubs for noses, which is what the crocodile grabs after answering the little elephant’s question with “Today, I think I will begin with Elephant’s Child.”
   This is the Elephant's Child having his nose pulled by the Crocodile. He is much surprised and astonished and hurt, and he is talking through his nose and saying. 'Led go! You are hurtig be!' He is pulling very hard, and so is the Crocodile” (Kipling’s caption)
           That roil in the foreground is the bicoloured python rock snake, which comes to the Elephant's Child's aid by grabbing his tail and pulling.  As a child filled to the tips of my ears with insatiable curiosity (and perpetually in trouble for it) I adored it when the Elephant’s Child went home and used his new trunk to punish his all his scornful relatives.
            Animals, especially brainy mammals like whales and elephants (not to mention dogs and cats) are exquisitely curious; which is how, as Kipling seems to be suggesting,  they evolved so highly in the first place.
            Late one August when I was ten years old  I was sitting on a beach in Maine wrapped in a towel to warm up from my swim in the icy Atlantic Ocean, when I noticed a whiskery old codger bobbing around in the surf right next to my brother.
            “Who was that?” I asked, when he came ashore.
            “I don’t know—a little old man with a beard?  He kept looking at me!”
            Then my father came down with my brother’s towel, and remarked:
            “Did you see that seal? It’s an old one—it’s almost September. At this time of year, they swim onto the beach to die.”        
              Even with his last gasp upon him, the elderly seal was indulging his curiosity.
              Sixty years later, I had an experience on Cape Cod that confirmed for me, once and for all, how curious animals are:
                                                    SEAL WATCHING
                                                We went out to watch the seals
                                                 outboard motor roaring, bow up,
                                                waves cleft by our wash,  then down,           
                                                as we slowed abreast of the pod.

                                                 Black heads shaped like hammers
                                                 swiveled to watch us, nostrils flared
                                                 as a constant snaffle gasping
                                                 filled the air. There were grey ones

                                                  with oval heads:  females
                                                  and young. There were couples
                                                  and half grown friends, and a gang
                                                  of bachelors rolling their necks

                                                   around each other.  Rubbing noses,
                                                   playing tag, playing “let’s splash,”
                                                   their liquid eyes swung around to us,
                                                   time and again.
                                                   The next day, I walked by the ocean,
                                                    my bare feet cooled by the sand
                                                    where tumbling pebbles turned and gleamed
                                                    and sand pipers skittered and mewed.

                                                   Two boys were leaping about.
                                                   They played tag and splashed
                                                    each trying to jump higher than the other in the air
                                                    while two young seals swam along
                                                    beside them.  Sleek  heads
                                                    raised above the waves at every shout,
                                                    eyes gleamed to follow the play,
                                                    They gazed and gazed. 
                                                    The Dalai Lama says we should regard
                                                    all sentient beings as equals.
                                                    We go out seal watching,
                                                    Seals swim as close as they dare
                                                    bestowing  curious stares—
                                                         It seems to go both ways.


Monday, September 19, 2011


"He looked at it for several minutes, admiring the delicate ears and the curve of its tail, happy with was a wooden mouse with a tarred string tail, a common enough toy but fashioned with such love of mouse that it was almost more mouselike than a real one.  It revealed, so to speak, the essence of mouse, swift and slinking, endearing and alarming all at once. "Elizabeth Goudge, The Dean' s Watch                                                                                                          
S. Stark

            “On the night that you were born,” my mother always used to tell me on my birthday eve, with a kind of lilt and wonder in  her voice, “there was a mouse  in the wastepaper basket.”
            I’ve often wondered about that little creature, sticking his pinkly translucent ears over the rim to see what was going on in the bed. Was he my herald angel? I always liked mice, and I even had white ones with twitchy pink noses for pets. As the smallest child in my class my nickname was “petit souris” until, after some daring exploits in the second grade, I was promoted to “mighty mouse.”
            None of this cheers me particularly when I arrive at my northwestern Michigan cottage every spring to roust dozens of deer mice from their complacency. I draw the line at droppings on my kitchen counters, knawed-over soap, toilet paper shredded for nests, neat stashes of shiny black seeds nestled among my socks in the bureau drawers, and pathetic little dead bodies curled up at the bottom of my coffee cups.

            One glorious May day, delighted to be back Up North, I popped a nice piece of raisin bread into my toaster, only to be assailed by the musty odor of toasting mouse. That’s why I thought it was roasting mouse I smelled when I cooked my first meal in the oven. I didn’t come up with a single baked mouse when I searched inside, but every time I turned the oven on the smell filled the kitchen, so I called the appliance man.
            “Mouse all right. Not mouse mouse, I mean—mouse urine.”
            He had settled down for the long palaver beloved of northern Michigan workmen, so I gave him a cup of coffee.
            “Thing is, it’s the insulation along both sides—they like to pee in it. Get in there,  pee over and over down the sides with your insulation, all winter long. What you need, see, is a spray bottle. You could try bleach, or maybe white vinegar? White vinegar, I think—one part in four. That should do it.”
            That did it, and very nicely indeed. When I turned up the oven for my meat loaf the odor had vanished, so, after disinfecting every counter top and drawer with Lysol and plugging mouse zappers into every room, I settled down for a mouse-free summer.
            A mouse zapper is an electronic device (therefore of no use in the winter when the electricity is turned off) that emits exquisitely high pitched sound waves inaudible to human ears, but excruciating to mice’s. Since they refuse to enter a room with a zapper in it, these are nicely humane devices to make sure they stay outside of my cottage, all summer long.
                                 ♬ ♬
            Then I discovered that the acoustical sensitivities of these very same deer mice (the leaping ones with tawny fur and darling white tummies) extend to musical accomplishment. Very late on a moonlit spring night, a researcher who was recording bat sonar picked up a lovely trilling melody. Almost supersonic, it was the mating aria of a male deer mouse, singing his little heart out at the edge of the forest. After an interval (was she assessing the musical quality of the love song and comparing it to others she had heard?) a female took up her part in the exquisite little duet.*
            I was struck with worry about what my zappers might be doing to the fine-tuned ears of these lovely little creatures, not to mention the havoc I might be causing to their romantic arrangements. Nevertheless, I left the zappers plugged in, since the only alternative was my far less merciful method for cutting down on mouse mayhem—a trip made from a large plastic bucket with three right angled entry tubes set in the lid. I fill it three quarters full of sunflower seeds and put it on my kitchen floor. The poor little things crawl in and eat themselves silly, perishing by dehydration.
            In some cultures there’s a belief that, when you die, your soul escapes through your mouth in the form of a mouse.  The terrible spring when my husband lay dying, I got a brief weekend away from the hospital to open the cottage. (There was no hope and all, and before the week was up I had to remove his life support). So there I was, emptying my mouse bucket over the wood pile on a bleak Easter morning just as the sun was coming up, offering words of regret and apology over the pathetic little corpses.  Imagine my joy when a tiny grey soul aroused itself to scurry away into the safety of the forest with the Easter dawn shining through the golden veins of its translucent ears.