A Garden for Javelina

With me it started in the garden.  As a newcomer to central Arizona’s scrub country, I knew that javelina occurred in this area but had still not observed one, despite the fact that they passed almost nightly just outside my bedroom window.  In the morning I would observe their telltale hoof prints along with the damage they inflicted on my new landscape plants.  The fact that I share with them a certain fondness for cacti and other succulents should have been a clue that my life was about to change.  At first I took it good naturedly.  Losing a few plants to wildlife was just part of the cost of living in a rural landscape.  But my cheerful optimism began to wane as the devastation continued.  Increasingly I found my mental state slowly shifting toward the irrational, constructing ever larger and more elaborate wire cages in an often futile attempt to protect my gardening efforts.

Sometimes I would find the plants partially chewed or completely uprooted but otherwise untouched.  Or I would discover strange fibrous jagged wounds on my prickly pear cactus.  Only later was the mystery solved as I learned that javelina eat mostly on the run, like a marauding pack of teenagers in a food court, hastily tearing off chunks of plant flesh with their sharp canines while leaving bits and pieces in their wake.

Though cacti form a major part of their diet, javelina are not especially fussy and will eat roots, bulbs, nuts, seeds, berries, flowers, and pretty much any recently planted green succulent material as well as grubs, garbage, and even dead rodents and birds.

Their fondness for grubs was demonstrated to me when I discovered a prize specimen agave I had just installed uprooted with near surgical precision.  Though javelina are usually fond of agaves, not a leaf or root had been nibbled.  In the hole they had left, however, I found some nice fat grubs.  I removed the grubs and replanted the agave.  Then I replaced the wire cage, burying it a little deeper and surrounding it with a few rocks.  Oh well, no harm done, I thought to myself.

A few nights later, I looked out the window and saw my agave once again dug up and on its side; the wire cage was sitting on a nearby shrub as if carelessly tossed with the flick of a tusk. Though a bit ragged, the agave was still intact, however.   I shook my head and tried to smile as I replanted and retrenched, this time with even bigger rocks.

Several weeks went by and I was beginning to feel that my agave was safe when the hooligans struck again.  This time, the wire cage was nowhere in sight.  And the agave, uprooted yet again, was looking tired and worn.  I finally found the cage at a considerable distance, as if it had been ripped from the earth in unison by a circle of  javelina and flung as far as possible to prove their point.  This was definitely getting personal, not only to me but to the javelina, whose favored grubbing place had been denied.  Whether or not they viewed this as some kind of sport I cannot say, but the sheer vehemence with which they must have thrown that cage does make me wonder.

I spent the better part of the morning digging the cage in even deeper and securing it with a fortress of small boulders.  Though more than a year has passed with no further incidents, I know they are out there still, grubbing around as they tug on that cage and my nerves.

My first actual sightings of javelina were at night as I came home and saw them dispersing in my headlights.  Since my driveway runs along a nearby wash, it is just one part of the javelina highway that the local herd must follow through the neighborhood.  Eventually I began to see them in broad daylight, especially during winter months when they are less nocturnal in their habits.  At first I saw only brief glimpses of them as they crossed the road ahead of me on my local walks.  Always they seemed more surprised by the encounter than I and quickly ran away.

The name “peccary” comes from the Tupi Indians of Brazil, who referred to this creature as “an animal which makes many paths through the woods.”  Indeed, after a period of wet weather, my front yard seems as if part of some major migratory pathway, with multiple lines of tracks running to and from various objects of interest.

Lately, I have begun seeing javelina everywhere.  One winter morning, I saw half a dozen of them reclining in the enclosed entryway of an office complex near downtown Prescott, Arizona.  Slowly they rose and made a dignified retreat, and I could almost hear them grumbling in displeasure at being disturbed as they looked over their shoulders at me

I must admit that my most memorable javelina experience was quiet and uneventful, at least for me.  I was walking home along an unpaved road when a short distance ahead a herd of animals crossed in front of me.  The animals were still in their winter mode, for it was noon on a bright February day.  One by one they passed, unhurried, though several of them paused briefly as they glanced in my direction.  I counted about sixteen, though it’s quite possible I missed several of the youngsters as they slipped hurriedly behind the adults.  They were moving from open scrub into a denser cover of mixed woodland and chaparral.  For a while I could see them following a course that took them roughly parallel to my own and the road.   Not wishing to startle the herd, I kept walking at an even pace while enjoying their company.  As I started to overtake them, however, one of the larger animals suddenly stopped and stared in my direction, at which the whole herd began to trot faster and faster in a more diagonal direction upslope and away from me and the road.  Occasionally I could still catch glimpses of them passing through the vegetation like some bristly phantoms of the scrub.

It was, I remember, a most pleasant experience.  My temporary traveling companions did not seem especially alarmed by my presence, just cautious, and we both parted none the worse for our meeting.  It was my own neighborhood herd and I had finally made their acquaintance.  Though they had now passed out of my vision, I could still see them in my mind’s eye, crossing and re-crossing the road from one neighbor’s yard to the next, on their way to new meals and adventures.  And I saw them as the social creatures they are, moving in unison while enveloped by their own special group scent.

Considering the social isolation that often afflicts our species at some stages of life, it is hard to imagine the sensory richness of connections that a javelina must experience within the herd – a degree of connectivity that puts to shame all our self-absorbed twittering.

As for my own grumbles, I cannot stay mad for long at such a creature.    I have fenced some backyard areas that are considered off limits.  I continue to cage young tender plants until they are old enough to deal with javelina on their own.  And I always try to plant a few more plants than I really need in what is probably a fruitless attempt to stay one step ahead of them.   Though I have heard some occasional grunts at night, for the most part the javelina pass by my window quietly.  But I do not have to hear them to know they have been here.  As I step onto the patio in the morning, I am immediately gripped by a pervasive scent that seems to call out to me with a primal insistence: “come run with us.” It is a tempting thought, but then who would tend the garden?                                                                                                © Gene Twaronite 2012

Originally published in What’s Nature Got to Do with Me? Native West Press, 2011 http://www.nativewestpress.com

Lust and Dust in the Afternoon

The depths of depravity to which a human male can sink when left to his own devices are bottomless.

From the moment I saw the ad for the robotic vacuum cleaner, I knew I must have her.  When the package finally arrived, I tore it open and gently slipped her out of the styrofoam.  I plugged in the battery charger and waited.  Then I turned her on and watched as she moved onto the wood floor, gingerly testing the boundaries of her new home.  She glided across the room like a goddess until she bumped straight into the wall.  Alarmed, I wanted to go to her.  But she quickly recovered and corrected herself, moving along the wall as if she had known it was there all the time.  I laughed as she bounced off a table leg and performed her duties.  Then I took her upstairs to the bedroom and let her go on the soft carpeting.  As she moved into the hallway toward the stairs, my heart was in my throat.  But at the last moment she paused, seeming to sense the danger that lay ahead.  Then she turned and came back toward me.  When she nudged against my leg with her gentle hum I thought I would die.  I turned her off and took a cold shower.

Maybe it was the little French maid outfit I bought for her that finally put me over the top.  I got it from a website that sold clothing and gadgets for robotic vacuum cleaners.  At the time it seemed harmless.  That’s the way it starts.  One minute you’re just playing around, watching your little maid going through maneuvers, the next thing you know you’re booking a room for the weekend.

In the end it wasn’t my self-loathing that finally made me do the right thing.  It was a Star Trek Next Generation episode, the one in which the rights of Data, a sentient android, are on trial.  Once we construct such beings, are we not making a whole race of slaves to do our dirty work for us?  That’s when it hit me.  My little vacuum cleaner was more than a device.  She was a sentient being, full of hopes and desires of her own.

Of course, my discovery that the little ungrateful wench didn’t exactly share my hopes and desires may have also had something to do with it.  In fact, she didn’t want anything to do with me.  Whether it was her “dirt-sensing technology” or simply a matter of personal taste I cannot say.  But when she found out what I really wanted, she acted like she didn’t know me, treating me like just another piece of furniture.  So, one day, I just opened the door and sent her on her way.  I watched as she bumped and zigzagged down the sidewalk until she was out of sight.

I hope she is happy, somewhere, in her new life.                                                                   © Gene Twaronite 2012

Originally published in Fast Forward The Mix Tape. a collection of flash fiction. Volume 3 2010

My Family the Mineral

The exact date and time when my family was turned into a mineral will forever remain unknown. All anyone knows is that it occurred sometime in the early 1900’s, and that my paternal grandfather was to blame.

Born in 1893, Joseph Tvaranaitis emigrated from Lithuania over a century ago. Like the “huddled masses” before and after him, he was most likely processed at Ellis Island. According to my dad, Joseph Senior was a proud man who wanted most of all to fit in as an American. I can well imagine a conversation between him and the customs official reviewing his paperwork.

“Say, that’s a strange name you’ve got there. How do you pronounce it?”

“T-var-a-nitis—just like it sounds.” I can see my grandfather’s face beginning to flush with anger, much like in the old TV series Barney Miller where an exasperated Detective Wojciehowicz (“Wojo”) has to explain once more how to pronounce his name.

“Take it easy, Mr. T-vvvvar-o … or whatever it is. No offense. We get all sorts of names here. And well, some of us aren’t that good at pronouncing them, especially when they’re not English. Now here’s your paperwork. Good luck to you, Mr. T.”

Grumbling, my grandfather now stomps out of the building into his new life. “Tvaranaitis! What’s so hard about that?” he shouts in Lithuanian to the other immigrants rushing to get past him. Then, consumed by the perceived insult to his good name and manhood, he broods all night and who knows how long after.

Alas, there is no record of what exactly happened then. Whether it was a snap judgment, or whether it took him weeks, months, or years to conceive, a bold idea had taken root in his brain: he would change his surname from Tvaranaitis to Twaronite. Unlike the geologic process of mineralization, which usually takes millions of years, in the blink of an eye my grandfather managed to turn all current and future members of our family from being simply Lithuanian-Americans to something that defies linguistic logic and begs the question: “What is that—some kind of mineral?”

I have spent many fruitless, lonely hours trying to unravel the reasoning behind this change. If I could speak to him across that cold void that separates us, I would ask him just one question: Why?

OK, I get the part about the first two letters—“t” and “v.” That does sound kind of awkward.  You don’t see a lot of English words starting that way, so right off there’s a problem. People just don’t get it (except for TV, which is an abbreviation). But a “t” and a “v” together at the start of a name? Forget it.

So he decided to change the “v” to a “w.” Here is where the real trouble started. Now it is true that there are many perfectly good English words and names that begin with “tw.” And since the letters “v” and “w” are right next to each other in the alphabet, I can understand why my grandfather might have made the switch. But here’s the problem: in Lithuanian there is no “w.” And just as a piece of petrifying wood slowly loses a part of its original composition as it is replaced by mineral, so did our family name lose one of its parts—the letter “v”—from what was once a bona fide Lithuanian name.

That was bad enough, but it was the last two letters of the new family name that clinched it. For some reason, my grandfather didn’t like the “is” ending. You hear a name ending like that and you think Lithuanian, or maybe Polish, right? For him, maybe that was the rub. It didn’t sound American. So he decided to change the “is” to “ite,” as in Twaronite. Again I have only one question: Why?

The stupefying leap of reasoning behind the jump from Tvaranaitis to Twaronite is one of my life’s great mysteries. It gnaws at my brain in the wee hours before dawn, especially after consuming some unhealthy Lithuanian delicacy.

Growing up with a name like mine was not easy, to say the least. OK, so it’s not exactly polite to make fun of someone’s name, but try telling that to a kid. First, there was the obvious similarity to real minerals: rhyolite, magnetite, pegmatite, or torbernite. Or how about a chondrite meteorite? And let’s not forget that alien mineral kryptonite that deprived Superman of his powers. In my superhero reenactments as a child, I liked to think the magical mineral twaronite was actually the source of all my powers, allowing me to fly through the neighborhood (OK, so I put on a small cape and ran very fast).  It is amusing to me today how many supposedly adult people still bring up this mineral reference to my face as if it were some original witty thing they just made up. It is almost enough to make me take up my cape and try flying again.

Then there were the other names by which I was known: Twilight, Termite, and—my favorite—Tomorrow Night. Members of my family undoubtedly have their own favorites, which they had to endure growing up. From early on, each of us had to learn how to creatively deal with these taunts. I’d like to think it helped build character, or in my case the character I became.

But for me growing up, it wasn’t the teasing as much as the strangeness of the name itself. When I was first taught to write my last name, it just didn’t look right. What kind of name is that? I asked my young self. I remember an episode in kindergarten or first grade. Upon being asked to write out my full name, I broke into such uncontrollable sobs that I had to be escorted down to the principal’s office. Whether it was a case of not being able to recall it or whether it was a case of existential angst at being saddled with such a monstrous handle, I cannot say. I do remember how my principal—a kindly woman by the name of Miss Butler—wrote out the whole stupid thing for me in big bold letters on a piece of construction paper, which I had to carry around with me until I could remember how to write it. I think she meant well, and did not anticipate my discomfort or the inevitable snickers from the peanut gallery. Suffice it to say that by grade three I had learned to write my name without the use of any learning aids. And much later, I used the episode in my first novel—a middle grade fantasy about a boy who thinks his own family is so crazy that he writes them out of existence and creates a new one.

It is this sense of strangeness that still trips people up when they first encounter my name. I see the clerk scanning my name on the receipt at the supermarket. Suddenly there’s a look of dire panic on his or her face. “Thank you, Mr……………..I’m sorry, how do you pronounce that? And, depending upon my mood and how long the checkout line is, I will either give them the quick pronunciation or launch into another self-deprecating story about the name being Anglicized Lithuanian and how my grandfather turned the whole family into a mineral. Then I just say, “Mr. T. will do fine,” which usually brings a smile of relief.

The irony is that my grandfather, in trying to blend in and escape what some around him perceived as a strange-sounding name, managed to create one even stranger. But being strange, as I’ve since learned, is not necessarily something to be ashamed or afraid of. Indeed, I like to think that I’ve learned to embrace it.

I’ve also learned that there are some advantages to having a strange name. When I register at a hotel, for example, I have little fear of being mistaken for anyone else in the known universe, unless of course my brother or one of his clan just happens to be checking in at the same exact moment. And when I Google my name, there are no doubles or facsimiles—just the genuine article.

In retrospect, I can now more fully appreciate my grandfather’s genius in creating a unique sobriquet befitting our family and his new life in the Promised Land. I only wish that I could tell my grandfather how truly proud I am of my name—even if it does sound like some kind of mineral—a true Lithuanian-American mineral.                                                                                                                         © Gene Twaronite 2012