July 14, 2008
I came around the barn on my way to put out some food for the band of cats that live there when I saw something odd.
Standing patiently around the cat’s bowls were three black vultures, an adult and two fledged chicks.
The adult flew away, but the chicks flew only as far as a horizontal beam on the lean-to on the back of the barn and kept their eye on me. I went in to the stall, brought out the cat food, and filled the bowls. The chicks fidgeted a bit. I put the cat food away and walked out, very matter-of-fact and stood still, watching. A couple of the cats came up and started to feed. One of the chicks flew away.
The remaining chick stayed behind, watching me. Maybe sizing me up for a future buffet.
“Don’t start polishing the silver yet, Bozo,” I said. “I feel OK.”
But it got me thinking. I’ll bet that if I came out every day or so, I could eventually have the vultures acclimated to me. I could condition them with food to the point that they would be like pets.
I stood for a few minutes in this sort of Disney fog of universal “the animals are our friends” nonsense, and snapped out of it.
Not that I disparage vultures. They are admirable birds that do important work. Think of them as recyclers. And they fly beautifully, though up close they are, I admit, decidedly homely.
It is tempting to try to get to know the neighbors. Naturalist Loren Eiseley wrote in a poem that he loved forms beyond his own and regretted the borders between them.
But those borders are there for a reason, and erasing them can be fatal to the nations on either side.
Yes, I said nations, referencing another naturalist, Henry Beston, who wrote, in the early decades of the previous century, that “(animals) are not brethren; they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”
The other night I watched an ABC News piece on Alaskan Charlie Vandergaw and his bears.
A retired science teacher, Vandergaw gets up close and personal with the black bears and grizzlies found near his summer cabin about 50 miles outside of Anchorage.
Charlie is about 70, bespeckled, bearded, well-spoken, and a sort of outlaw.
He is ignoring some of those borders. Sometimes he has 10 black and grizzly bears wandering around in his yard, poking around in his kitchen. Mama bears allow him to play with their cubs. He says the bears are not pets. He says a lot of things like that. I think he really loves those bears.
God knows what the bears think.
That’s it, you see. Nobody knows what goes on under that great skull. Something, surely; bears are known to be highly intelligent. But, unlike dogs, they are not the product of thousands of years of selective breeding of the kind that makes dogs want to be our buddies. Bears are territorial. They are predators and scavengers. And quick-tempered.
In most of the press stories I have read about him, Charlie said he had never been injured in the years he’s been buddies with the bears. But during the ABC News special, he confessed that a grizzly had put a pretty good hole in one of his hands. An accident, he said.
At one point in the program, though, Charlie, visibly upset, said something had occurred to him as he was watching one of the mama black bears, Annie, rolling on the ground in front of the camera crew.
A real wild bear would never do that. Charlie knew that, and knew that if Annie could be that relaxed in front of strangers because of his fondness for bears, he had put her in danger. The next human Annie walks up to hoping for a handout or even to have her ears rubbed may not be so keen on the idea of having a few hundred pounds of clawed predator trotting their way.
To be honest, I’d love to visit Charlie Vandergaw and his neighborly bruins. I’d love to be able to sit on a tree stump and dig my fingers into the scruff of a grizzly’s neck and say hello. I’d like it to look into my eyes with the kind of kindred recognition that I get when I look into a dog’s eyes.
But that’s the Walt Disney version of bears I am thinking about, isn’t it? Next, I guess, I’d expect him to do a little dance, sing a little song, and try to sell me some toilet paper.
I wish Charlie all the luck in the world with his bears. I hope they are not so conditioned not to fear humans that they wander around and get themselves killed, or killing people themselves. And I hope people will forego their admittedly kindly desire to get friendly with animals. Respecting the borders between us may be the only way to save them.
© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,
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July 5, 2008
Note: I wrote this column 13 years ago to the day. I drove by the same field yesterday, and thought I ought to put it on this blogsite. Enjoy.
If I had been paying more attention to my driving, I would have missed it.
A dust devil, a big one, kicking up a fuss in a freshly harvested corn field.
When I was a kid, I used think they were baby tornadoes. A favorite game was to run into them, to see what they’d do. The really little ones would break up, as though I had killed them. Maybe I had. Now and then one would be big enough to get me off balance and I’d fall. Fair enough, I suppose.
As I got a little older, I played with the idea that they might be, after all, some sort of supernatural entity. One could almost believe it, seeing one darting around the pitcher’s mound on the playground at school, a funnel of dust 50 feet high, tossing leaves and scrap paper high in the air.
Science tells us they are really only spirally rotating high velocity winds that rarely last more than 15 minutes and hardly ever rotate faster than 50 mph. They occur during times when the ground heats up quickly with a cooler air mass lying over it. The dust is really incidental, and one can travel over a debris-free area and be essentially invisible. Call them stealth devils.
Science also tells us there is evidence of dust devils on Mars, and on Triton, one of the moons of Neptune. The ones on Triton are estimated to be more than six miles in height, with tails extending horizontally for more than 60 miles.
I saw this local one just after I had made a left turn onto the Barlow Road. It danced along, throwing dust, small clods of dirt, and dried corn leaves all over the place, traveling the length of the field at a pace a little slower than I drove along the road. I pulled onto the shoulder, stopped the engine, and walked to the side of the field to watch.
The devil slowed and stopped, about 100 feet away, dancing back and forth over the same area. I could hear the rustle of the leaves, and the small sound of dirt clods bumping along the rough ground. I looked at my watch. I wasn’t going to make the staff meeting. The devil wiggled a little, teasing me. I dare you, it seemed to say.
I checked my watch again. The devil tossed a piece of white paper, a page from a newspaper, I think, high in the sky. I climbed back into my van and drove away. The devil swayed in the middle of the corn field, wearing a crown of dust and leaves.
The staff meeting started late, so I was on time. Would have been, in fact, even if I had yielded to temptation and run through the devil, to see if I could knock him down.
After the meeting, the editor asked me if there was anything new in my neck of the woods.
I almost told him there was a devil dancing in a field in Barlow, but thought better of it.
Besides, he’d want to know if I had taken photos and had gotten comments from the neighbors.