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“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

Maintaining a Natural Perspective

Developing an appreciation for the natural world offers many benefits, not the least of which is that it may help keep us from going insane.

Did you ever have one of those days, when you’ve just been fired from your job and you come home to an empty, filthy apartment, only to find a note from your girlfriend telling you she’s leaving you for a body builder in Samoa? And you try to grab some beer and find there is none because someone has stolen your refrigerator. Then your doctor calls with some really, really bad news … Suffice it to say that keeping your chin up under such circumstances is no easy task unless you are an unfeeling machine or have the intestinal fortitude of Job or, better yet, have learned to maintain a natural perspective.

Simply put, a natural perspective is a way of seeing things or events in terms of our relationship to that larger time frame and sphere of existence we call nature. In the afore-mentioned case, for example, instead of dwelling on your crappy karma, you can take heart in the fact that you are still alive as opposed to being one of the estimated 150 to 200 species of life becoming extinct every 24 hours. And you can be thankful that you’re not living back during the infamous Permian-Triassic extinction event, when some 90 to 96% of all species of life on earth bit the dust, so to speak. So far, the human species is still around, and so are you. So be of good cheer. Not being extinct definitely has its advantages.

Or you might consider that your probable lifespan is considerably longer than any species of mayfly, whose lifespans can range from 30 minutes to a day. And while you might think winged male ants (or drones) lucky in that they get to spend their entire lives doing nothing but eating and mating, few live longer than several weeks. Or you could have been born a gastrotrich—a tiny aquatic animal that lives only 3 days. So, unlike these other organisms, you still have plenty of time left to screw up again. Just don’t get too cocky about this. Most trees will live longer than you. And so will some animals, such as certain tortoises and fishes. There is even a kind of ocean clam said to live 400 years.

You might also give thought to old Sol—the source of life on this planet, not to mention sun tans, skin cancers and wrinkly skin. Scientists estimate that it has been around for about 4.5 billion years, going through about 500-600 metric tons of hydrogen each second just so earth can intercept its tiny fraction of total energy output and allow you to soak up some rays at the beach. At this rate, you might ask, could the sun burn itself out before you die? Not to worry. It is estimated that the sun has at least another 4 or 5 billion years before it uses up all of its hydrogen. Of course, long before that, there may be a few other issues of concern. As the sun gradually uses up its hydrogen, it will slowly become brighter and larger, so much so that in about 1.1 billion years it will completely dry out the earth’s atmosphere, making all the world’s real estate virtually worthless. And in 2-3 billion years, temperatures on earth will become too hot even for those with oxygen tanks. And after that the sun will probably expand into a red giant, engulfing all the inner planets including earth. So whatever happens to you in this miniscule time span you call a life, don’t worry. It can’t be as bad as being swallowed up by a red giant.                                                                                                                             © Gene Twaronite 2013   

Originally published in 5enses Magazine, April 2013

An X-Rated Nature Essay

Certain members of my family have long tried to persuade me to try writing something more lucrative, something that might have a better chance of making it to the best sellers’ list than a bunch of essays. If I would write just one good pornographic novel, they tell me, or even one that is not so good—just sinfully shocking—then I would at least have a steady source of income to support my writing habit.

Being an essayist, however, I decided to first try my hand at a pornographic essay. Furthermore, I decided that my characters would all be non-human, since other writers had long ago exhausted most of the interesting possibilities of the human anatomy. With millions of different kinds of plants and animals from which to choose, each with a unique sexual story to tell, I knew I had the makings of a hit essay … not to mention future novels and movie rights.

The trouble with writing such an essay is that it’s not always easy to define pornography, even within our own torrid species. What is art or of redeeming social value to one creature may not be so to another. Non-human organisms certainly don’t write about their sexual activities (at least nothing that has yet been published). Nor do they take explicit photographs. But there are other ways to depict erotic behavior that are no less subtle and direct.

Take the flowering plants, for example—so innocent and lovely—which flagrantly and fragrantly advertise their raw sexual needs to every passing insect. The boring sameness of human flesh tones is no match for the bold gaudiness of many flowers, whose stamens and stigmas entice so shamelessly. Anthony Huxley wrote of a plant called the Persian zungeed that “has a fragrance once thought so intoxicating that Persian men were wont to lock up their women when the tree came into bloom.”

Even the shapes of some flower parts are pornographic, to say the least. Especially is this true in certain members of the family Araceae, whose phallic resemblance so titillated the Victorians in their gardens and hothouses.

It gets even worse in the animal world. The male peacock, for instance, has no need for dirty words or pictures. His iridescent tail feathers, spread in all their glory for any passing hen, leave no doubt of his lascivious intentions. Male sage grouses are even more direct, with their brazen strutting and baring of inflatable air sacs. Animal behaviorists have not been able to determine as yet if any peacocks or grouses find such actions offensive.

The insect world has its own brand of chemical pornography. Through the secretion of minute quantities of substances known as pheromones, certain female insects send lewd and clear messages through the air over many miles to potential male partners. I sometimes wonder, late at night, what crazy pictures may form in a male moth’s head.

For sheer novelty in form and function of sexual appendages, the human body pales in comparison to those of other creatures. Just imagine what a pornographic writer might do with the copulatory arms of the squid. Or the dozen “love darts” carried by certain African naked snails. While the things that some worms do should not be mentioned in mixed company.

There is even what humans might call sexual sadism in some creatures. Female scorpions and praying mantises can never get quite enough from their mates: so they end up eating them piece by loving piece. Talk about your sex objects.

On second thought, I may never get around to writing that great pornographic nature novel. Out beyond the street lights, in the darker recesses of woods and fields, life plays out its little bedroom games on a scale too shocking for human sensibility. Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet “that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature.” Modesty, indeed.  Mother Nature, you’re one hot mama.                                                                                                                                                                             ©Gene Twaronite 2013

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My Life as a Lizard

Watching gila monsters is a lot easier than bird watching.  For one thing, you don’t have to get up at 5 a.m. or squint through binoculars to see one.  And there’s no mistaking this plump, pink and black beaded creature for anything else in the known universe.

I met my first gila (Heloderma suspectum) at Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior, Arizona.  It was a spring morning and the sun was already hot.  While inspecting an irrigation line, I discovered him following my path lapping up small puddles of water from around one plant after another.  I walked over for a closer look, but the lizard just lumbered along, seemingly oblivious to my presence.  Secure in his venomous defenses, he was in no rush.  I felt privileged to have one all to myself, especially considering gila monsters spend almost all of their time underground.  Lacking a camera, I followed him and stared, fixing his image on my brain. Though they’re not supposed to get longer than 14 inches, I remember mine as much bigger, which is probably true of most gila monster sightings.

After a half hour of this, I began to wonder if the lizard would ever leave.  What’s more, he appeared to be completely ignoring me.  Succumbing to boyish temptation, I held up the end of my boot just close enough to get his attention.  The creature did what any red-blooded gila monster would do—he hissed and gaped at me in true TV nature drama fashion, confirming yet again the innate stupidity of the male human species.  Then he walked off in a huff down the hillside.

Most lizard watching is not like this.  Our local striped whiptails, for instance, usually appear as wavy brown bands, pulsing across the landscape in jerky strobe light movements.  But when they step out of their world onto the patio around our cabin, they skittle across the glossy concrete surface, their long toes spinning around spasmodically like some cartoon creature.  It is only then, when their attention is focused on the abundant supply of crickets and other insects in this hostile zone, that I can see them more clearly.  I note that our patio whiptail has a dark brown body and usually a light blue tail, which my field guide tells me is the plateau whiptail (Aspidoscelis velox).  At least I think it is.  Or it could be the desert grassland whiptail (Aspidoscelis uniparens), whose tail is supposed to more of a dull blue.  I have spent many a morning just trying to differentiate between shades of whiptail blue.

Lizard identification is often a catch as catch can process.  Lizards don’t usually hang around in one place for long. As for picking one up for a closer look, forget it.  Even if I could catch one, the stress on both the lizard and me would not be worth it.  So the resourceful lizard watcher must grab whatever details are offered in these brief glimpses, just as astronomers of old used to peer through their telescopes at planetary features that constantly shifted and darted out of their vision with the moving atmosphere.  By capturing a few key markings or colors, and using a good field guide with range maps, I can usually arrive through a process of elimination at a positive ID.

That is the way I discovered that we have yet another species of whiptail inhabiting our five acres.  Catching a glimpse of movement, I followed her to a nearby scrub oak and slowly peeked over the shrub.  The whiptail froze at my approach, then flattened her body, revealing numerous small white spots between her stripes.  Also, there was no blue to the tail.  These two details, coupled with the range map, nailed her as a gila whiptail (Aspidoscelis flagellicauda).  The habitat was right too.  Since this species actively forages along riparian corridors up into conifer forests, she was probably following one of the two washes bounding our land.

At least I don’t have to worry about telling the whiptail sexes apart.  All of ours are female and reproduce through parthenogenesis.  That is, they reproduce asexually, producing hatchlings that are clones of the mother.  It is intriguing to speculate how and when such a system got started and how long it will continue.  Perhaps we human males should not take our evolutionary future for granted.

Like the gila monster, some lizards have such a unique appearance that identification is easy.  Such was the case with the greater short-horned lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi) I first observed just down the road from our home. Sometimes called a horny toad by locals, this lizard does sort of resemble a spiky toad, with stubby tail and short horn-like scales behind its head.  The range map told me that this is the only species of horned lizard known to occur in our area.  I have also observed this species up on the Mogollon Rim at 8,000 feet, which is not exactly a reptile paradise.  The creature must spend most of the year underground beneath the frost line to survive.  The horned lizard usually stays motionless to avoid detection, so once you spot one you don’t have to work up a sweat.  Since mine was sitting in the middle of the road, I gently scooped him up and placed him out of harm’s way on the roadside.

Another “easy” lizard is the collared lizard.  Ours is known as the eastern collared lizard (Crotaphytus collaris).  It is hard to confuse this substantial, muscular-limbed lizard with any other.  When you first observe his stunning blue-green body, with two black collars, light polka dots and yellow front feet, he seems more like a brightly painted toy lizard than a real one.  The colors seem too outrageous to be real.  But then he moves and the wonder begins.  You’ll often see this aggressive, territorial lizard sitting on a large rock.  With an imposing head, he must seem like a miniature Tyrannosaurus to the other lizards, which he often eats.

Far less intimidating—unless you’re a bug—is the ornate tree lizard (Urosaurus ornatus).  His background color is a dull gray or tan, like the scaly bark of the trees he often frequents, adorned with pairs of distinctive dark brown crossbars.  Though said to be common, he is an uncommonly beautiful, elfin creature darting on delicate claws in and out of the shadows.

But my “main man” saurian is the plateau lizard (Sceloporus tristichus).  He looks like your everyday grayish brown, stocky little business man lizard with an unassuming appearance.  At first glance you don’t notice anything particularly striking about him.  I think it was his relatively bland nature that first challenged me to think more about this lizard world I inhabit.  It was just another lizard, but what kind?  So I started crouching over the patio boulder where I first saw these lizards, and began really looking at them.

The first thing I noticed was the confusing range of characteristics exhibited by different individuals.  Some appeared to have light stripes running down their backs, others did not.  Some had noticeable brown blotches, or were they cross bars?  And was that a blue patch on its belly or was I seeing things?  Only after repeat observations and learning how to immerse myself in these quiet lizard moments was I able to gradually sort these things out.  A camera also helped.  Nothing like a good close-up to clear up fleeting glimpses.

Of all our species, these plateau lizards are the ones that most closely share our living space.  They live on and in the boulders and stone wall that adjoin our patio.  The wall was built chiefly to discourage javelinas and rabbits from chewing on our cactus and other plants or at least to slow them down a bit. The local plateau lizards view it as their own private Disney World, complete with shady condo crevices. As I have come to better know these lizards they have grown near and dear to me.  Somewhere in the hidden rooms of our patio wall they must mate and lay small clutches of eggs, for each spring and summer I see their tiny offspring emerging.  And I welcome these tiny replicas of their parents into our world.

It was while moving a plant along the same stone wall one June morning that I finally and conclusively recognized (I think) my most recent acquaintance, the greater earless lizard (Cophosaurus texanus).  As I strained to record whatever distinctive traits I could, the lizard surprised me with a new maneuver: instead of retreating from me, he actually ran toward me, then perched on a nearby boulder.  Then he bobbed his head in typical male fashion and wagged his tail, curling it up behind him in the exact way I had hoped, revealing the telltale black bands against a white underside.  This was the third time I had observed this species, and this was the final clue I was looking for.  I was about to go inside and pour myself a celebratory drink, but instead crouched there inelegantly to see what else he might do.  One thing the lizard wasn’t doing was going away.  As I watched, he sat there in the warm sunshine, even closing his eyes temporarily as if to demonstrate complete disregard for my presence.

After five minutes of this, both my knees and my patience were starting to get the better of me, so I did what any other playful 60-year old male might do—I started wiggling my little finger on the ground in my best “come hither” impression of either a big fat worm or perhaps a female lizard.  Well that got his attention.  With eyes now bulging, he bobbed his head in apparent frustration.  But possibly sensing something not quite right with my finger, he advanced no closer.  So I tried my forefinger instead, but no luck.  The lizard stared at me as I began to wonder who the smarter creature was.

It was only after consulting my field guide that I discovered my faux pas.  The prominent pink throat patch and the hint of salmon along its sides, coupled with the subdued and hardly noticeable side bars just in front of the hind legs, could mean only one thing: my lizard was a she.  This pink and salmon coloration occurs in females only during the breeding season of spring and summer.  So why was she bobbing her head at me?

Just as humans do, lizards display their emotions in a variety of ways.  These display behaviors are unique to each species and may include not only the familiar head bobbing and push ups but also inflating the throat or body, gaping, biting, chasing, lunging, and a subtle shuddering of the whole body.  These displays can be combative in nature, as between males of the same species establishing dominance or territory, or between lizards of different species or even with wholly different critters like me.  They can also assist in courtship, though I seriously doubt if my female lizard had this in mind.  I can only guess at what she might have been trying to say to me.

My wife, Josie, when I told her my story, had another question:  why are you tormenting that poor lizard?  I hadn’t thought of it that way.  I was just seeing what the lizard would do. Though I doubt if I seriously traumatized the creature, Josie did have a point.  I was no passive observer.  I was a ringmaster, sticking my hoop out for the lizard to jump through and entertain me.

But I’d like to think there is something more to these all too brief lizard encounters. Every time I see a lizard, even one that I have seen dozens of times, I am filled with a joy that I have seldom felt toward another creature.

This might have something to do with my childhood fascination with dinosaurs, both the real ones as depicted in museums as well as those of early Hollywood, involving modern day lizards in frilly outfits.  It could also be that lizards were always foreign to me while growing up in suburban Connecticut, where you had to really work at seeing a lizard.  Only one lizard species—the five-lined skink (Eumeces fasciatus)—isfound in Connecticut or anywhere else in New England, occurring there only in widely scattered populations.  So it is not surprising that I never met one in nature.  Lizards had to wait until much later when I first visited the Arizona desert and thrilled to the exotic otherness of this elusive, fleet-footed creature darting across my path.

Now that I live in northern Arizona, you would think I might have become blasé about seeing lizards.  But that first enchantment has never left me.  Each time I see one is like the first.  Invariably I stop, stare and then smile.  I get warm and fuzzy inside, as some people do when they see a bunny or deer.  And at the risk of being overly sentimental, I prefer to think of them more as fellow living beings than “its”, as is evident from my use of personal pronouns in describing them.

Maybe the lizard is my animal spirit guide or totem.  According to American Indian beliefs, one does not choose one’s animal guide.  Rather, the animal chooses you and decides whether to reveal itself to you.  I don’t know if my lizard friends have any special medicine for me or can lead me on my spiritual journey.  But I do feel there is a two way street here.  With a bit of patient observation I have tried to know my lizards better, and they have revealed things not only about themselves but about me.

With its hard scales and claws, the lizard stares back at me across the eons, reminding me of another time when his kind still ruled the earth.  But unlike the warm-blooded dinosaurs and the modern birds they became, the lizard still goes about its ectothermic way, reducing its metabolic rate to almost nothing when necessary and adjusting its internal body temperature by following the sun.

Maybe that is why, having followed the sun to a warmer climate myself, I especially relate to lizards.  Despite my constant body temperature, I too require a certain level of external warmth to energize my being.  Here at 5,000 feet in the mixed pinyon-juniper and chaparral highlands where I live there are only a few months of frost-free lizard days.  In fall, as nights become crisp and I retreat to my fireplace, the lizards retreat into the earth to their secret lairs below the frost line.  I think of them often as I sit in my rocking chair next to the window, trying to soak up enough rays to get me going.  I imagine their curled up bodies in deathlike repose beneath the rocky outcrops, and wish them well.  And I look forward to that first day in late winter or early spring when lizards rule my earth again.                                                          © Gene Twaronite 2012 

Originally published in Snowy Egret (the oldest independent U.S. journal of nature writing) 2011