Irreverent Musings on Nature

Print cover frontHere’s a new review of The Absurd Naturalist, posted on Amazon by writer, editor, and reviewer Don Martin. Like all authors, I enjoy reading reviews (especially good ones), but this one is particularly entertaining in the way it creatively weaves together some of my essays in a playful, irreverent tone befitting the essays. Thanks, Don!

on August 16, 2015
This handsome volume contains 43 essays tangentially related to the subject of naturalism, or if you prefer, the avocation of being a naturalist. I use the term ‘tangentially’ very loosely here, because I am just not so sure. Maybe if you stretched it a bit, but that would be fine because the stories are quite good.Where else might you read about the evolution of the toaster oven, and which naturally-selected physical traits you should look for when considering a replacement model? Or, have you recently considered the question of same-species marriage? No matter where you come down on the issue I think we’d all agree that procreation should be limited to an intra-species affair. When you start to cross-breed, say, people and cats, or maybe dolphins and polar bears, you can never really be sure what you’ll get. And the author treats us to what he claims is the first X-rated naturalist essay, which would be an oddity indeed! Unfortunately he strays badly afield and we never really get to the juicy good parts.Perhaps you may be considering becoming a naturalist yourself. Why you would ever want to do that I just don’t know, but no worries! Contained herein are two companion essays, ‘The Well-Dressed Naturalist’ and ‘The Well-Equipped Naturalist.’ Careful study of those chapters will allow you to at least pretend to be a naturalist, and do a convincing job of it, even though you probably have no formal training in the science and have certainly never studied it.And, of course, you’ll need to know how to keep javelinas out of your garden, which you can never actually do, so the best bet there is just to peacefully coexist with them. Which is not the recommended approach when it comes to packrats. Packrats mean an all-out war, man on rat, to the death! You will not win that one either. After considering the various animal species you will certainly, as a pseudo-naturalist, want to move on to the world of plants. And you’ll certainly need some legal advice on how to file wrongful-death lawsuits on behalf of your dearly departed zinnias. You know those ones. The ones who looked perfectly green and healthy at the nursery, but which suddenly expired of some mysterious ailment as soon as you bought them, brought them home, and lovingly planted them in your garden?

This book sits right on the line between humor and satire, and it sits there very well indeed. Good satire is becoming a lost art, and it’s refreshing to see someone who knows his way around it. I guarantee you that you’ll at least smile as you read these short essays, and I’d be willing to bet you’ll even catch yourself laughing out loud at times. They really are that good! The Absurd Naturalist is quite entertaining, and is very highly recommended.         Buy a copy here: Amazon http://www.amazon.com/The-Absurd-Naturalist-Irreverent-Musings/dp/1502977281

New Review of The Absurd Naturalist

Check out this new review of my latest book “The Absurd Naturalist.” Available at Amazon http://www.amazon.com/The-Absurd-Naturalist-Ir…/…/1502977281
A Fun ReadPrint cover front
By Niche on March 2, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition
Gene has a naturalist’s focus and curiosity – he combines his observations in nature with wry twists on the wide variety of topics his essays cover. Open this book, pick an essay, and you will find yourself smiling as well as gleaning some insights into the natural world in the process.

The Tick

The Absurd Naturalist

 

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Few people, even nature lovers, love the tick. It is difficult to love a creature that has its mouthparts embedded in your flesh. This is the way most acquaintances with this little vampire begin. One does not set off on a nature hike to look for a tick in the field and exclaim, “Oh my, how interesting.” Instead, one is far more likely to go to the bathroom mirror and scream, “Oh my God, get that damn thing off me!”

Ticks belong to the order Acarina, which also includes mites. There are about 850 different kinds of ticks—so far as we know, that is. According to one estimate, there may be as many as a million other kinds of ticks and mites in the world, still waiting for scientists to classify them. It is something to look forward to.

Like spiders, scorpions and other arachnids, ticks have eight legs, at least most of the time. When they first hatch out as larvae, however, they have six. If this sort of thing bothers you, you would do well not to become an acarologist (a specialist in mites and ticks), much less a biologist.

Ticks make their living by sucking blood out of mammals, birds and reptiles. They usually lie in wait on a plant until a suitable host passes nearby, then hop on board, anchoring themselves to the skin by means of a dart-like structure located below the mouth. Ticks are known to wait around up to three years for a host to come by. They are very patient.

One of the problems with bloodsucking—at least for the host—is that this is a fine way to transmit diseases from one organism to another. Among arthropods ticks are rivaled only by mosquitoes in the number of diseases transmitted; these include Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, Texas cattle fever, relapsing fever, anaplasmosis, and a fairly new one—first recognized in 1975—called Lyme disease. And if this isn’t enough, some female ticks can also pass along a nerve poison in their saliva that produces paralysis.

So if one day you happen to discover a tick on your person, you are probably justified in removing it as quickly as possible. If you are really patient, you can just wait for the female tick to have its fill of blood—after which she will drop off by herself to go lay her eggs—but few of us are this considerate of other life forms. Removing a tick, one of the most tenacious creatures on earth, is easier said than done, however. If particular care is not taken, part of its head—the capitulum—may remain in the flesh and possibly cause infection. Some folk remedies call for applying petroleum jelly or a burned match to the animal, the idea being to “encourage” the tick to release its hold so it can be removed intact. You might also try playing loud hard rock music next to its head. AC/DC works especially well, and some have reported good results with Megadeth. These remedies can make matters worse, however, by actually irritating the tick and causing it to regurgitate its gut contents, which is not a good thing. The best bet is to use a plain old set of fine tweezers, then wash the wound with soap and water.

Great care should also be taken to properly dispose of the tick. One source advises burning or drowning in alcohol. You might also try a tiny stake through the heart. You can’t be too careful with vampires.
©Gene Twaronite 2015

Originally published in 5enses Feb. 2015  http://www.5ensesmag.com/the-tick/

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A Nice Cave with a View

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Recently I signed up for a DNA test at one of those ancestry sites. It was a little pricey, but the idea intrigued me. Since my family originated in Lithuania, I fancied there might be some kings or brave knights of old, or at least a wizard (vedlys) or two in my background.

After sending in the usual saliva swab, I waited anxiously for the results. Months went by without a reply. Finally, I decided to call the company.

I had to go through three different people before I was transferred to the head honcho. “Yes, Mr. Twaronite, we have your lab results here. You may want to sit down for this.” I did not like the sound of this. The last time someone used those words was when the police called to tell me that my stolen car had been located at the bottom of the La Brea tar pits.

“Your ancestry is most unusual, Mr. Twaronite. In fact, we would like to perform some additional tests on you. If you give permission, you might even appear in a research paper. Would you be willing to come down to our office?”

“Not until you tell me what’s going on. What do you mean unusual? Are my genes abnormal? Is there some kind of disease I should know about? Am I gonna die?”

“No, you’re not going to die, at least not yet.”

“What is it then? Is it something about my ancestors? OK, so maybe I’ve got some bad dudes in my background. I can live with that. Whatever it is, please tell me!”

“When we started comparing your DNA matches to look for common ancestors, there was nothing at all surprising in your recent background. You have a few matches in old Vilnius—a seventeenth-century tavern keeper on your maternal side, and an undertaker and gypsy on your paternal side—and some more recent relatives in Kaunas. But as we plotted farther back, your genes simply went off the charts. You’ve heard of Neanderthals, Mr. Twaronite?”

“Of course I’ve heard of them. An early human that ran around Europe and Asia during the last Ice Ages, right? Muscle-bound guys with big brows, lived in caves. I’ll bet some of them even lived in Lithuania. So what are you saying—that I’ve got a few Neanderthal genes in my background? I guess it’s possible that some of my ancestors might have messed around a bit—hey, we’re all human. Now that I think about it, I remember reading somewhere that all modern humans have a few of their genes kicking around in us. So what’s the big deal?”

“Yes, it is true that most humans of European or Asian ancestry possess a small percentage of Neanderthal genes, somewhere around 1 to 4%. Indeed, as much as 20% of the Neanderthal genome may exist in human populations today. But yours is a special case, Mr. Twaronite. Let us just say that in your genetic makeup Neanderthals are exceptionally well-represented.”

“Are you saying that I’m some kind of Alley Oop? I can assure you, I don’t look like that at all. What kind of percentage are we talking about?”

“Near as we can figure, it’s close to 63%. So far as we know, no other human on earth possesses such a high percentage of Neanderthal genetic material. That’s why we’d like to study you as soon as possible.”

“So what you’re telling me is that my ancestors not only hooked up occasionally with Neanderthals—they had the hots for them. Does that make me some kind of freak or something?”

“Not at all, Mr. Twaronite. Neanderthal genes possess many fine qualities advantageous to human survival, such as resistance to certain diseases and the ability to adapt to cold climates. You should be proud of your lineage. Indeed, your genetic signature matches up closely with a small group of Neanderthals living along the Baltic Sea in Lithuania approximately 35,000 years ago. They were probably some of the last living members of their species before they became extinct.”

“I guess that makes me a bit of a caveman.”

“Well, I wouldn’t put it quite that way. While some Neanderthals constructed elaborate huts, many did make use of the limestone caves common to much of Eurasia. These were not simple caves, mind you, but highly organized homes, with separate spaces devoted to sleeping, eating, and socializing. Despite the popular stereotypes, these early humans shared much in common with our own species. Their brain size was similar to our own. They fashioned complex tools, and even buried their dead. Let’s just say you’re more Neanderthal than anyone alive today.”

“You know I have been feeling some strange urges lately. It seems to be getting warmer and warmer around here. Sometimes I feel like heading north to a colder climate. Meet some new people. Find a nice cave with a view.”
                                                    ©Gene Twaronite 2014

Originally published in 5enses December 2014 http://www.5ensesmag.com/a-nice-cave-with-a-view/

Read this and other essays in Gene’s new book The Absurd Naturalist. Available now from Amazon  http://www.amazon.com/Absurd-Naturalist-Irreverent-Musings-Nature/dp/1502977281/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1417381754&sr=1-1&keywords=the+absurd+naturalist

 

The War on Packrats

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How did it come to this? I never intended for it go  this far. And now, with the war turning badly, I fear  the worst.

When we first moved into our little cabin in the hills, there was no hint of the troubles ahead. Yes, there were a few skirmishes with the local javelina and rabbit tribes, but it was nothing we couldn’t handle. Then we started noticing stuff: mysterious droppings and urine spots on the patio; piles of twigs and cones under every shrub and boulder; and inexplicable chew marks on the siding of our cabin.

As I recall, it was when I discovered that one of our car’s front headlamps was out that things turned ominous. When I brought the car in for repair, I was in for a double shock. The mechanic informed me that the wires to the headlamp had been neatly severed, most likely by a packrat, which was apparently in the process of building a nest there. Then he handed me a bill for $200.

I tried my best to take this philosophically, but when it happened again I knew the tiny gauntlet had been thrown down. When later I discovered a ziggurat-sized packrat nest behind our cabin, I knew there was no turning back. I must stand and fight.

You wouldn’t think a creature with such a cute name—we even apply it to certain humans who can’t throw anything away—could be so much trouble. OK, so technically they’re rats—wood rats, to be exact—but unlike those nasty Norway rats which live in sewers, subways, and other dark places, these guys just live out in the woods and deserts. They have long hairy tails and big ears, and the way they look at you with those dark liquid eyes you’d swear they belong in a Disney movie. Hard working little critters, they build huge nests that can be occupied for a thousand years or more by generations of rats. Scientists just love these nests, by the way, because in addition to their tasteful furnishings of cans, glass, cartridge cases, jewelry and assorted objets d’art, they also contain gobs of plant debris and pollen that can provide clues of past changes in plant communities. Nature writers wax eloquently about how packrats have adapted to survival in the harsh desert environment, investing them with a certain charm and cachet.

But don’t be fooled. They are ruthless and will stop at nothing. They will invade your castle. They will construct nests within your car and rip out your wiring and upholstery. They will chew up your siding and steal anything not nailed down. And they will leave behind them a trail of urine, feces, kissing bugs, and even Bubonic Plague.

Normally I’m a peaceful guy, but this was war. It was either them or me.

Over the next few years, as I experimented with various lethal devices, I became expert at trapping them. Considering the number of hours I now devote to this task, it has grown from a mere hobby to a sacred mission. I am fully convinced that, if not for my efforts, this seething rodent swarm would quickly overrun my neighborhood and the world.

I have lost track of the number of rats I have killed. I started notching them on the wall in the kitchen until my wife put a stop to it. Having destroyed every hint of a nest on our five acres, I diligently patrol our property each week on search and destroy missions. At the first hint of telltale droppings or nest building, I set out new traps. Like fur trappers of old, every morning I go out and inspect my trap lines. I must be ever vigilant, for I know they are out there planning their next attack.

Lately there have been some new developments. Despite my best efforts, I have been discovering nests such as I have never seen before. Unlike the previous ones, these are more sturdy structures, complete with tile or asphalt roofs, little wooden doors, and reinforced walls. Whenever I manage to demolish one, I find paneling, insulation, and other undeniable signs of remodeling, as well as scraps of diagrams, metal and plastic scattered about, as if they were constructing some device.

Then, one day, as I performed my usual patrol, I saw it. It was right next to my favorite rock outcrop—a place where I often go to sit. About five feet long, it seems to be made of some sort of hard black plastic, with a little tray in the middle. Call me mad, but I swear it looks just like a huge trap…baited with brie cheese and a bottle of chardonnay.
©Gene Twaronite 2014

Originally published in 5enses October 2014   http://www.5ensesmag.com/tag/gene-twaronite/

 

The Well-Equipped Naturalist

The Absurd NaturalistAbsurd-Naturalist-EDIT-300x221

I have commented elsewhere on the need for naturalists to be well dressed whenever setting out into the field. It is no less important, however, to be properly equipped with the essential paraphernalia that will identify you as a working naturalist. Otherwise, you may run the risk of being picked up as a vagrant or worse.

A lot depends on whether you plan to specialize in a certain area of natural history or prefer to be simply known as a GN—generalized naturalist. A herpetology (reptile and amphibian) buff, for example, should always have a couple of cloth bags hanging from the belt in which to transport captured snakes or lizards, a snake hook or tongs, along with an assortment of plastic containers to hold frogs and salamanders as well as potato salad. Entomology (bug) enthusiasts, on the other hand, should always carry a butterfly net. Even if you’re not into bugs, there’s just something about a butterfly net which makes others take notice and lends just the right je ne sais quoi quality to your outfit. Bug people should also carry plenty of small bottles and some sort of killing jar, at the bottom of which is placed an absorbent material soaked with a chemical to asphyxiate insects. I am told that used foot pads work very nicely.

All naturalists worth their salt carry binoculars. It’s a safe bet to say that anyone observed carrying binoculars in the field has to be one of two things—a naturalist or a peeping Tom. Come to think of it, all naturalists are peepers in a sense, forever peeping through an open window at Mother Nature’s enchantments. The most important thing to look for in binoculars is not image quality or durability, but how much they cost, the more the better. Nothing can so ruin a naturalist’s good reputation as a pair of binoculars that look like they came free out of a cereal box. Always make sure the brand label stands out clearly for all to see. Size is a matter of individual preference. Many naturalists consider 7×35 a good, all around size, though some go for the additional power and light-gathering ability of a jumbo 20×80. I have found, however, that such instruments tend to leave scars on the chest when carried too long.

Various field guides are always useful, especially in showing others that you are not some illiterate boob running around trying to look like a naturalist. It is particularly important that you open the book every now and again to make it appear as if you’re scanning the contents. It also helps if you mutter something in Latin. More affluent naturalists may go in for real field guides—those who, for $500 a day and all expenses, will lead their clients to all the natural hot spots and maybe even prepare a nice champagne brunch.

A few additional items are worth mentioning. A small notebook or journal is handy for recording field observations as well as the philosophical prose inspired by the sight of a rare Orinoco crocodile as it chews on your leg. Some naturalists, like Henry David Thoreau, have been known to get carried away with this to the point of spending their entire lives keeping journals. I end up mostly doodling in mine.

A camera is also nice to have, especially if you have just spotted an ivory-billed woodpecker or a sasquatch. Various telephoto lenses will help you take otherwise unobtainable close-ups of certain kinds of wildlife. For grizzlies, a 1000 millimeter lens is just about right.

A magnifying glass will help you examine natural objects more closely, or burn ants when you’re bored. It can also help start a forest fire in the event you become lost.

Those not overly fond of handling slime molds or scat might also wish to carry forceps. They are also handy in plucking leeches or nasty eyebrow hairs.

And the most important equipment of all, especially for those naturalists seeking out some of the more interesting and less primitive natural areas—Tahiti or the French Riviera, for instance—is a little piece of plastic to pay for it all. A naturalist does not live by birds and bugs alone.
©Gene Twaronite 2014

Originally published in 5enses September 2014   http://www.5ensesmag.com/the-well-equipped-naturalist/

 

 

 

“On Getting Rid of Nature” by the Absurd Naturalist

Absurd Naturalist3As a naturalist, I’m supposed to study nature, though it’s hard to know where to start. It’s all so nebulous and confusing. So I propose that we get rid of nature completely. I am referring here, of course, to the word, not the thing itself. Despite the plethora of books published with smug titles such as The End of Nature and despite the efforts of dedicated despoilers around the globe, the complete termination of nature is nowhere near as easy as it sounds.

We all know what nature is. Or do we? Does your definition of nature include slime molds? Bat ticks? Lizard scat? How about that disgusting sound Uncle Ralph makes after dinner? Or Uncle Ralph himself?

Does it include time and the curvature of space? Quantum energy, quasars, and quesadillas? Does it include Big Bang, Big Bird, and bigamy?

Suffice it to say, it is all these things and more—anything and everything in the entire known universe, not to mention all the unknown universes.

One nice thing about being a naturalist is that you never need to worry about running out of material. Indeed, nature is material, and all the energy wrapped up in it.

By now you have probably noted that I don’t capitalize the word nature. Those who do so are beyond hope.

When we try to put a spin on nature, things get even more befuddled. There are almost as many quotations for the n word as there are for life, truth, and God. Thus, we find writers down through the ages referring to nature as a kind parent, but a merciless stepmother; a diseased thing from the grave, but also the art of God; too noble for the world, but equaling the stupidity of man. And we are told that nature does nothing uselessly, never deceives us, never makes blunders, and that all of its models are beautiful.

Oh, please. Have you ever taken a good hard look at a platypus? Or an aardvark? Or even your own belly button? Can such a nature be trusted? And when I hear about quarks, muons, and hadrons, pulsars, hyperspace, and imaginary time, killer asteroids and mass extinctions and the vagaries of continental drift, I cannot help but think that here lies a nature out of control.

Though I might excuse an 18th century poet like William Wordsworth for writing something so fatuous as: “Come forth into the light of things/Let Nature be your teacher,” naturalists should know better. Yet there are some today who, while poking about in ant hills or contemplating bear dung, still insist that by studying nature closely we might learn more about its inner workings and come to understand its overall scheme of things.

Poppycock! What can we possibly learn from a nature that spends over 135 million years developing dinosaurs in every shape and color and then, for no apparent reason, makes them all go extinct so that today children have nothing but plastic models to play with? Is this the sort of role model you want teaching your kids?

And what kind of order is it that gives us brains big enough to invent H-bombs, CD’s, and silly putty, but denies us what we really want—which is wings—and instead gives them to houseflies, flying fish, and even fruit bats?

In fact, the more scientists discover about this supposed nature teacher of ours, the stranger it becomes. We are told that nothing is as it seems, that everything is relative, and that someday the universe may get all squished together again, unless it keeps expanding forever, which is fine by me. Indeed, nature is not only strange, it’s more ridiculous than the human mind can ever comprehend.

We need a more realistic term, elegant but concise—a word that says exactly what we mean and won’t be put up on a pedestal. I propose the word “stuff.” Say it softly and let your lips linger on that final “fffff” sound. What better way to capture all the bounce and fluff of our weird wild universe? Now say it loudly and let it echo through your head with primordial force. STUFF! Now go back and say “nature.” See the difference?

Thus, nature study would become simply stuff study. Cereal companies would label their products 100% all stuffy. Mother Nature—whoever she is—would become Mother Stuff. And naturalists would become stuffalists.

On second thought, maybe we should stick with the old word for now.
                                                     ©Gene Twaronite 2014

Originally published in 5enses August 2014  http://www.5ensesmag.com/on-getting-rid-of-nature/

Land of the Solitary Ascidian

Goose In an article on nature writing, author David Rains Wallace once wrote that “the most daunting challenge facing nature writers today is not travel but data. Someone has to translate information into feelings and visions.”

Thus inspired, I set off on a collecting trip not to some far off corner of the globe but to the musty shelves of a nearby college library. (Yes, I could have done this at home, but for the true bibliophile nothing can match the sheer adventure of wandering through towering rows of books.) There, beneath the covers of the latest science journals, I hoped to “discover” new data that I could translate for my readers.

Hacking my way through the jargon jungle of the specialists, however, I quickly came to appreciate what Wallace meant by “daunting challenge.” Right off I knew there might be trouble ahead when the first article encountered in The Biological Bulletin was entitled:“Aggregation and fusion between conspecifics of a solitary ascidian.” Suddenly I felt far more alone than any solitary ascidian. About all that I managed to ascertain from the article was that this was the first time such a thing had ever been reported, and that the frequency of fusion between contacting (and presumably consenting) specimens was 20 percent. Also, that the fused animals had their outer membranes on at the time, unlike the unfused ones (which could have considerable significance if you’re a solitary ascidian).    

Charting a new course, I proceeded along the provocative pathways of the London journal, Animal Behavior. Its author left plenty of good leads for me to follow such as: “Do digger wasps commit the Concorde fallacy?” I’ve committed a few fallacies myself, but this one sounds like one of the cardinal sins. And how could one not want to know more about: “The responses of dark-bellied brent geese to models of geese in various postures”? My mind started racing with possibilities, and I found myself wondering exactly what kinds of postures those researchers were showing the poor geese. Alas, only three positions were shown: head up, head down, and extreme head up. The last one I found extremely disturbing, though I’m not a goose. The geese, by the way, considered the head down model most attractive. I disagree.    

Another London journal, Annals of Botany, led me to a romantic sounding place with its title: “Alnus Leaf Impressions from a Postglacial Tufa in Yorkshire.” I found myself yearning to go there and sit on a nice soft tufa while soaking in the countryside.    

It was in the physical science journals that I really began to go astray. Several articles in the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences sent troubling images through my brain.  What is one to make of the title: “On the Interpretation of Eddy Fluxes during a Blocking Episode”? Does this sound like football or is it just me? While the article entitled: “Improving Spectral Models by Unfolding Their Singularities” left me trying to imagine what a spectral model—especially a “maximally truncated” spectral model—might look like with its singularities unfolded.    

The visions became even worse in the Physical Review. Why, for instance, upon reading the seemingly straightforward title: “Interactions of H and H- with He and Ne” did I suddenly think of the old movie Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice? And why did the article entitled: “Hydrogen atom in the momentum representation” leave me thinking of some weird body-building pose?    

I finally lost my way entirely in the Geological Society of America Bulletin. Oh, it started off innocently enough with a “Crab Bitten by a Fish from the Upper Cretaceous Pierre Shale.” I’m sure there’s a story there, but that’s when I should have turned around. But, feeling adventurous, I went further, becoming hopelessly mired in the title: “Progressive Metamorphism from Prehnite-Pumpellyite to Greenschist Facies in the Dansey Pass Area, Otago, New Zealand.” In spite of my predicament I must admit it was a fascinating world with all kinds of lovely creatures like “Mesozoic graywackes” and “prehnite-pumpellyite facies.” For a time I even managed to keep up with the author until he suddenly went around a bend and left me all alone with: “progressive textual modification ranges from massive, nonfoliated greywacke, semi-schist, to thorough-going laminated quartzo feldspathetic schist.”

Dazed and confused, I straggled on home. I’ll leave that for some other nature writer to translate into feelings and visions.                                                                                                                                                    ©Gene Twaronite 2014                                                Originally appeared in 5enses March 2014   http://www.5ensesmag.com/land-of-the-solitary-ascidian/