Explore New Worlds of Imagination

This banner for our booth #477 (The Twaronite Zone) at the Tucson Festival of Books says it all. If you’re in the area, please join us for a weekend of literary fun for the whole family. The festival will be held on the beautiful sunny mall of the University of Arizona, on March 11 and 12, from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm.

We have a number of activities planned, including a drawing demonstration by award-winning illustrator Rita Goldner, author of the picture book Orangutan: A Day in the Rainforest Canopy, readings by Gene Twaronite from his children’s book Dragon Daily News: Stories of Imagination for Children of All Ages and his first book of poetry Trash Picker on Mars as well as a visit from the Absurd Naturalist, fully equipped and dressed for a day in the field.

For those who can’t make it, you can purchase signed copies of my six books in my online store. Just click on store to enter.

As many of you have noticed, for personal reasons I am no longer on Facebook or Twitter. I would be much obliged if you would pass along this link to anyone who might be interested in following my writing.

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

Tucson Festival of Books

I will be one of 450 authors at the upcoming Tucson Festival of Books  http://tucsonfestivalofbooks.org/  It will be held on Saturday, March 14, and Sunday, March 15, 2015 on the beautiful University of Arizona campus in Tucson, Arizona. The Festival enters its seventh year as the fourth largest literary event in the country attracting over 450 authors and over 130,000 participants during the weekend. All proceeds from the Festival are donated to local non-profit organizations that support improved literacy in Southern Arizona…more than $1,050,000 has been donated since the Festival began in 2009.

Please join me on Sunday, March 15, from 10:15 to 12:30, at my booth in Authors Pavilion West, located at the west end of the Main Mall, where I will be signing books and greeting the reading public. Copies of all my book titles will be available for sale.

 

Win free copy of The Absurd Naturalist

Win a free copy of my latest Print cover frontbook The Absurd Naturalist. Enter the Goodreads giveaway here:  https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/124353-the-absurd-naturalist-irreverent-musings-on-nature

There’s no obligation, but short reviews are most welcome.  #AbsurdNaturalist

 

Living in Agaveland

The Absurd NaturalistAN Transparent

I very much doubt if Carl Linnaeus ever planted an agave in his life. He was the Swedish taxonomist who in 1753 chose the name for this genus from a Greek word meaning admirable or noble. If he had planted one, the Greek word for pain or some choice obscenity would have come to mind instead.

It is hard to plant an agave without getting jabbed once or twice by a terminal spine. This is the rigid, ridiculously sharp spine found at the leaf tips of most agaves. On some species, such as Agave salmiana, it is a long and gracefully recurved, eye-gouging thing of beauty. Some species also have a steroid compound on the surface of the spine that enhances the stabbing pain. Agaves are like that.

The late Howard Scott Gentry, taxonomic wizard of this genus, referred to the general range where agaves can be found as Agaveland, as if it were some kind of mythical kingdom. Armed with sharp teeth, the spiraling rosettes do seem to occupy their rocky posts like guardians of a distant realm. There are 200-250 species of agaves occupying the drier sites of virtually every kind of habitat, from sea level to over 8,000 feet, throughout much of the arid Western U.S., Mexico and Central America as well as the West Indies.

The teeth and spines are supposedly there to protect the plant’s short stem and soft flower stalk from attack by predators. But cattle will eat agaves when really hungry. Javelina will eat them any time they please. And the most serious pests of all are rabbits, blithely eating around the formidable teeth and spines, proving once again that there is no such thing as a perfect weapon.

Some of the agaves resort to chemical defenses. Agave lechuguilla, for example, contains a substance toxic enough to kill goats. It has been suggested that some of these smaller agaves might be planted to protect areas subject to overgrazing. The goat people might get upset about this.

Agave leaves are usually glabrous, which means without hairs, though it sounds as if it should mean something else. As leaves go, they are remarkably long-lived, persisting for as long as 15 years or the entire life of the plant unless hacked off by some idiot who thinks agaves should look like pineapples.

Like many late blooming humans, most agaves are monocarpic, flowering but once in a lifetime. They may take anywhere from 8 to 20 years to flower. The flower stalks on the larger species may reach up to 40 feet in height. These monumental projections of plant matter undoubtedly helped to inspire the word “admirable.” Gentry compares this rapid growth to “a boiler building up a head of steam.” To erect this mighty structure the agave must use up so much of its stored carbohydrate reserves that the leaves are drained and, in most species, the whole plant must die.

In agave flowers, the petals and sepals are hard to tell apart, so scientists just say the hell with it and call them all “tepals,” which does have a cute ring to it.

As a landscape plant, the agave is hard to beat. Not only is it drought tolerant, but its spiral form tends to collect and direct water down to the roots—the plant almost irrigates itself.

Few plants have been as intimately involved in human culture. Their fiber and fleshy hearts have been used for everything from food, clothing and shelter to fish stringers, paintbrushes and musical instruments.Various tribes in Mexico have cultivated agaves for centuries. The thick short stem known as a “cabeza” is a rich source of carbohydrates that provided Native Americans with the fermented beverage known as pulque. Gentry points to the considerable effect this drink had on “the esoteric and exotic development of Mesoamerican culture.” That’s one way of putting it.

Those coming later to American shores also found agaves appealing for the mescal and tequila that they could provide. A single Agave tequilana, upon maturity, can produce a cabeza weighing up to 100 pounds, which when distilled is enough to make about 5 liters of tequila. Talk about admirable qualities.

I think of all these things as I plant yet another agave. True to form, one of its stout spines just narrowly misses my eye, and once again I am quietly grateful for my vision and for living in Agaveland.                     ©Gene Twaronite 2015   

Originally published in 5enses January 2015   http://www.5ensesmag.com/living-in-agaveland/

 

 

 

 

 

A Nice Cave with a View

The Absurd NaturalistAN Transparent

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 Case for Animal Gun Rights

The Absurd NaturalistAN Transparent

Photos from two different observers—the first recorded case in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho—clearly show an adult female wolf, armed with a .444 Marlin, shoot and kill an elk hunter with one clean shot to the head. Witnesses report that the hunter did not appear to suffer and that the wolf then nonchalantly slung the rifle over its shoulder and trotted off into the woods without a trace.

In the days following the incident, social media was abuzz with questions and theories as to how the wolf came into possession of a weapon, not to mention how it learned to shoot. Yet, despite an all-out publicity campaign and statewide wolf hunt, the killer was never found.

Meanwhile, other reports began streaming in from all over the country. In New York’s Adirondack Park, a group of hikers observed a deer using an AK-47 to fend off a pack of stray dogs. The most surprising thing about the incident, aside from the military precision with which the weapon was used, was the way the deer appeared to aim just below the feet of the dogs as if to frighten them, and that no dogs were injured. In another case, in Kentucky, a bobcat was photographed employing a .22 Winchester to dispatch a rabbit. The photographer, a zoologist from the local university, then observed the bobcat skillfully cleaning the carcass with his claws, after which he consumed the rabbit in the usual manner. According to the zoologist, this was the first time that a bobcat, or any animal, had ever been observed using a firearm to kill its prey.

Unlike the first case, widely viewed as a coldblooded execution, most of the new incidents seemed to involve a more responsible and less lethal use of firearms. In the months to come, a gradual public consensus emerged that most animals were not out to get humans after all, and, what’s more, appeared to be following sensible gun safety precautions. Though some animals continued to use their guns for hunting and protection, others were observed clearly using their weapons for target shooting and training their young. Humans observed one five-foot gopher snake in Texas plinking cans out in the desert with a subcompact Glock 26 pistol. Behavioral scientists are still at a loss to explain exactly how the creature managed this.

While some of the anti-gun people predictably complained that guns in the “hands” of animals was just another example of the country’s out-of-control gun lobby, others argued for the rights of animals, claiming that they had demonstrated a good faith effort to use their guns responsibly. The lone wolf episode, as it came to be called, was a case of one bad apple, an obvious nut job that never should have gotten its paws on a gun in the first place.

The NRA finally suggested that the Second Amendment be rewritten to include the rights of all animals to own and carry firearms. In a wildly popular TV ad, a happy family appears in their living room, doting on their two children, Labrador retriever, and Siamese cat. “We love our kids,” proclaims the proud couple, while a scene shows the two tykes blasting away with their Uzis at a human-shaped target, under the careful supervision of a trained instructor. “And we love our pets. So why shouldn’t they be allowed to have guns, too?” Scene flashes to same shooting range, only this time it’s Fido and Tabby blasting away, as patriotic music plays in the background. Then the words “Save the Animals. Support Animal Gun Rights” flashes on the screen. This ad paid for by NRA members like you.

Firearm dealers, as expected, salivated at the prospect of a huge new pool of customers, despite thorny issues of currency exchange, licensing, and delivery. There were also philosophical questions. Should guns be sold to grizzly bears, tigers, great white sharks, and other potentially dangerous animals? How old must an animal be to own a gun? And just how do officials run a background check?

No matter. Such issues will surely be resolved in due time, as they always have. Already two similar bills are making their way through the House and Senate. The time is now to extend gun rights to all God’s creatures.
©Gene Twaronite 2014

Originally published in 5enses November 2014 http://www.5ensesmag.com/the-case-for-animal-gun-rights/

Imagining Aliens

 

I think one of my neighbors is an alien. He works                        thething                                    nights, so I’ve never actually seen him. He drives an old beat up Volkswagen bug with dark tinted windows, which is exactly what an alien would drive to avoid detection. According to local gossip, he hates football and never watches TV. Some say he doesn’t eat meat. I realize this is circumstantial, and he could be just another weirdo. But then how do I explain what I saw through his window? Now mind you, I’m not a peeping Tom. I was just walking past his house one night and noticed the shade was up in a back room from which light blazed into the neighborhood as if daring me to look inside. So I did.The room was filled with table high beds of soil, over which hung rows of grow lamps suspended from the ceiling. Poking out of the soil were weird-looking plants that looked like a cross between an artichoke and a pitcher plant. Attached to each of them was a plastic tube running up to a bottle filled with red liquid. It was like they were being fed intravenously with….  Well, if that isn’t proof I don’t know what is.

Of course, there’s also a teensy possibility that I might have imagined this. The night before, I had watched one of my favorite classic flicks—the 1951 movie The Thing from Another World, which scared me so silly as a kid I had to hide under the kitchen table whenever it appeared. It was supposed to be some giant alien plant which needed blood to feed its young. Sensitively portrayed by James Arness in one of his first big screen roles, it still looked more like a man than a plant.  

From earliest childhood I thrilled at the thought of aliens from distant worlds, yet was always disappointed by the unimaginative ways in which they were depicted in fiction and movies. Mainly, they all seemed so human.

Why should aliens be made to look like us? You would think somewhere in this vast universe evolution could have produced something other than forward-facing bipeds, with bilateral symmetry. But all we get are more little green men in their flying saucers. Sure, they may sport antennae, big heads, or pointed ears, but they’re still from the same hominid mold.

I guess it’s only natural for a species so in love with itself that it imagines our form to be the pinnacle of perfection. Godlike, we create aliens in our own image. Sometimes we even give them godlike powers like the Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

We also create aliens in the image of other strange earth creatures. We give them tentacles, fearsome heads and big teeth. But in the end—even if they burst out of our chests—we’re still stuck on earth, imagining only what we know.

Not that there haven’t been some great aliens. In the original Star Trek there was the Horta—a silicon-based blob which could drill through solid rock by secreting acid. Star Trek writers got even better in future series. In a Next Generation episode, a microscopic form of crystalline life is discovered living within a thin layer of saline water, which allows the crystals to communicate and form a kind of super-intelligence. Now here was a true alien—something completely foreign and strange from our understanding of life on earth.

In his 1934 science fiction story “A Martian Odyssey,” Stanley Weinbaum created one of the most memorable aliens I have ever encountered in fiction: “It was a nondescript creature—body like a big grey cask, arm and a sort of mouth-hole at one end; stiff, pointed tail at the other—and that’s all. No other limbs, no eyes, nose—nothing! The thing dragged itself a few yards, inserted its pointed tail in the sand, pushed itself upright, and just sat… Then, with a creaking and rustling like—oh, like crumpling stiff paper—its arm moved to the mouth-hole and out came a brick! The arm placed the brick carefully on the ground, and the thing was still again.”

In the final analysis, we are limited both by what we know and don’t know. Our brains are hardwired to perceive and interpret reality in a certain way. I tend to agree with J.B.S. Haldane when he wrote, “Now, my suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose….” (Possible Worlds, 1927). 

In other words, if aliens do exist they are like nothing in our wildest dreams.

©Gene Twaronite 2014

 Originally published in 5enses Feb. 2014 http://www.5ensesmag.com/imagining-aliens/

The Myth of Sassafras

Long before science, humans sat around the campfire and spun colorful tales about how various plants and animals came into being. While our evidence-based knowledge has largely supplanted these stories, that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy them.

Take sassafras, for example. According to scientists, it’s a deciduous tree in the laurel family native to eastern North America and central China. It can be easily identified by the fact that some of its leaves are lobed, like mittens or fingers. Now I’m sure there’s some perfectly logical scientific explanation for why its leaves are shaped that way.  But first, sit back and let me tell you a tale.

Sassafras loved his rock. It was the joy of his life—his thing—the fulfillment of his very existence. There was nothing he would rather do than sit atop its mossy throne and sip his morning coffee.

But one morning, the gods decided to play a trick on him, as gods so often do. They plucked his beloved rock from the edge of the ferny woods and, just like that, set it on top of Mount Futilius. Then they peered over the edge of their cloud and watched.

When Sassafras arrived at the woods that morning, his rock was gone! There was only the deep impression where it had rested. Frantically, he searched every corner of the woods and fields, and each street in the village. Where could it have gone? So far as knew, his rock had never moved anywhere, even during the Ice Ages. Then he happened to look up at the summit of Mount Futilius and saw a small bump on top that he had never noticed before. It had the same shape as his rock. Curious and confused, he set off for the foot of the mountain. As he did so, he heard a giggle from somewhere up above.

Mount Futilius soared many thousands of feet above the valley. So it was hours before Sassafras reached the summit. And there was his rock, perched on the edge of a precipice. Relieved, though puzzled, to see it there, he flopped down on its thick mossy carpet and was just about to take a nap when he noticed how cold it was. This won’t do at all, he thought. His rock needed to be back at the edge of the woods where it belonged. There was only one thing to do. If only he could get it to move. The rock was awfully big, but Sassafras had the strength of an ox. He pushed and he pushed, with all his might. After what seemed like an eternity, the rock began to budge, until finally it tipped over the edge and rolled down the mountainside. Descending as fast as he could, Sassafras prayed his rock was all right.

Upon reaching the valley, he noticed a wide swath of crushed shrubs and grass. Anxiously he followed the path, until at last he found his rock. He couldn’t believe his eyes. For there was not a scratch on it, and all its mossy carpet was intact as if nothing had happened. It was in the exact same spot where it had always been, nestled against the ferny woods.  He plopped down upon its great granite bosom and fell instantly asleep, lulled by the gentle rustle of wind through the trees. The sun was already low in the sky when he awoke.  He trudged on home, secure in the knowledge his rock was back where it should be.

Next morning, humming softly while sipping his coffee, he came to the woods and was just about to sit down when he noticed something. Again his rock was gone. And from up above he heard that same giggle, though this time it was louder. No way, he muttered. Things like this don’t happen in a normal universe. Then he gazed at the summit, and knew in the pit of his stomach what he would find there. Shaking his head, he set off for the foot of the mountain.

When he arrived at the summit, sure enough, there was his rock, perched in the exact same place it had been before. Again he pushed and pushed, until it rolled down the mountainside. This time, he descended more slowly, for he knew exactly where his rock would be.

Annoyed yet tired, Sassafras plopped down on his rock and fell asleep. The sun was just setting when at last he awoke. He was about to go home when a dark thought popped into his head. What if it happens again? No way, he muttered. It was midsummer and a warm gentle breeze blew through the woods. And he was still drowsy and tired from all his mountain climbing. So he curled up and went back to sleep, with his rock safely beneath him.

Next morning, Sassafras rolled awake and found himself lying on the wet ground where his rock once sat. Not again! he yelled, to no one in particular. And from up above he heard a peal of raucous laughter. Sighing, he gathered his wits and set off for the foot of the mountain.  

When Sassafras reached the summit, there was his rock, as he knew it would be. Troubled as he was, there was still a comforting certainty to this and what he needed to do. Dutifully, he turned his face toward the huge rock and strained mightily against its stony inertia, until finally it rolled down the mountainside. As he sauntered back to the valley, deep in thought, he reflected on his condition. How strange it seemed that life could change so fast, but stranger still is how fast he could adjust to a new reality.

Hunched on his rock, he sat thinking all afternoon about what he should do. Suddenly he had an idea. He rushed to the local hardware store, and came back with two lengths of heavy iron chain, four long iron stakes, and a sledge hammer. Then he staked his rock firmly to the ground. It was not a pretty sight, he admitted, but at least his rock would be safe. Then grasping the two chains, he curled up and fell fast asleep.

Next morning, he awoke on the damp ground and let out such a shriek as to wake the dead. For his rock was gone, and so were the chains and stakes, which had cost him a lot. He shook his fist at the heavens. Why?!? he cried. But all he could hear from above were snorts, guffaws, and horselaughs. Then he heard a stern, sarcastic voice. Because! And you’ll do it as long as we say you will!

Sassafras couldn’t imagine what he had done to deserve this. How have I displeased you?” he asked.  But there was only deafening silence.

Sassafras could not bear the thought of being apart from his rock. So, bowing to the gods’ will, he set off for the foot of the mountain and began his perpetual journey, repeating the same motions day after day, year by year, until time itself had no meaning.

Then, one day, Sassafras awoke on the damp ground and slowly rose to his feet. His joints ached, and he shivered in the winter cold. Raising his fist, he shouted defiantly to the sky. I am too told for this! You gods can all go to Hades!

At that very moment his rock suddenly appeared next to him. Before he could even smile, Sassafras turned into a large handsome tree, whose great roots extended outward in a final embrace of its beloved rock. And in one last stroke of divine retribution, the gods shaped some of the tree’s leaves into lobes, to remind it of the fingers it once possessed.                              ©Gene Twaronite 2013

Originally published in 5enses Magazine, September 2013  http://www.5ensesmag.com/the-myth-of-sassafras/

 

Thoughts on Chewing

We humans are enthralled by the eating exploits of other species. We watch with wonder the bulge of a large fish gliding downstream through a heron’s gullet, or the lump of a toad being squeezed through a garter snake’s pencil-thick body. Yet daily within our very homes can be observed feats of eating no less wondrous.

Indeed, as I sit at the breakfast table this morning and watch my young niece being fed by her mother, I am amazed that such “creatures” as children (forgive me, Nicole) continue to be born on this planet. Not that Nicole’s behavior is any worse than that of any other little girl or boy, and certainly no worse than her mother was at that age. Never having had any offspring myself, I tend to watch this game of life from the position of a detached observer. But the creature in my field of vision is far more absorbing to me right now than a giant python swallowing a pig or a blue whale swilling krill.

For I realize that it is me I am watching in this real life nature drama. So this is what it’s like growing up—taking an entire slice of bread that your mother has thoughtfully broken into convenient bite-sized pieces and methodically stuffing them, one by one, into your mouth until it can hold no more. At this point, poor Nicole, you are faced with a dilemma that all of us must eventually face. Not a bit more of that tasty stuff can be crammed into that orifice between two chubby cheeks. You must chew, dear child, and that is a most dreary fact of our existence. 

You can always spit it out and start all over again, which is exactly what you choose to do several times. As I look up from my newspaper and gaze upon the partially masticated, brownish lump just regurgitated on the plate across from me, I find myself wondering how any of us ever learns to chew. And, more to the point, how any human parent finds the necessary faith in our species to sit patiently by as we learn to do this.

Chewing, or mastication, is primarily something that mammals do, and more specifically those mammals that eat plants at least part of the time. You don’t see carnivorous mammals like lions or wolves chewing their food. They much prefer to just slash and gulp.

According to some scientists, chewing may have evolved long ago when animals first colonized the land. It has to do with the tongue. Whereas fish tongues mostly just move food from front to back in the mouth, mammalian tongues evolved to move food around in the mouth for the teeth to chew it. Who knew we would evolve to eat pizza and Twinkies?

Some of the dinosaurs might also have been chewers. The shape of the teeth in certain duck-billed hadrosaurs suggests that they chewed their plant food. Scientists hypothesize that this might have given them an evolutionary advantage over the big sauropod dinosaurs, which had to swallow rocks to grind up their food. As time-consuming and inconvenient as chewing is, I’ll take it over swallowing rocks any day.

Cattle and other ruminants take chewing to new heights, masticating their food over and over, to derive every last bit of nutritional value. I wonder what it would be like chewing on your cud all day. I have a feeling that, after seven or eight re-chewings, most of us would lose all sense of flavor and enjoyment.

Though chewing is mainly an unconscious reflex, there is much more to it than that. It also involves an intricate set of motor skills that must be learned. Indeed, we can also think about our chewing, as when my mother used to tell me, and now my wife reminds me to chew, not wolf, my food.

Dogs are also known to chew on things, like your favorite slippers, but this is more of an emotional thing. It could be a sign of early depression, so you may want to talk to your dog more often.

Human babies start learning to chew at around seven to nine months. As with all things, they generally learn about food by touching and playing with it, so you can imagine how messy a process this can be.

In some cultures, parents actually pre-chew their infant’s food into a wet, pulpy mass called a bolus before giving it to them. This is referred to as premastication, and is just as yucky as it sounds.   

I guess the only thing that saves us all from extinction is that most of the world’s mothers and fathers-to-be are blithely unaware of these gruesome details until it is too late, when they are up to their necks in the lumpy brownish mess of child raising. But if they were to watch and think too much about such things as I have just witnessed this morning, it is quite possible they might decide to postpone or even indefinitely delay their plans for a child. We might very well become the first species on the planet doomed to extinction merely by watching a child chew. 

As for my own parents, they had three children. Each of us probably stuffed our faces with entire loaves of bread before learning how to chew. Remarkable creatures, my mother and father.                                          ©Gene Twaronite 2013

Originally published in 5enses Magazine, August 2013  http://www.5ensesmag.com/the-absurd-naturalist-thoughts-on-chewing/