Baby Animals

Kitten

Spring is always associated with baby animals. The newborns arrive as soon as the weather gets warm – cute, unsteady, and seemingly unafraid of us humans. Those that originate on farms even have names that are different from their parents: foals, lambs, calves, piglets, chicks and goslings. For those of us who remember the small landholdings that bred them all, the barnyards could be suddenly filled with new life seemingly overnight, bleating, mooing, squealing, clucking and quacking away.  They are utterly lovable and that is the problem.

People fall for baby animals all the time and especially so with the so-called domesticated ones, the kittens and puppies that we bring home from the breeder or the pet shop. With the best of intentions we smother them with affection as they try to adapt to our way of life, our rhythms, our space, and the food we provide them. Most owners have the best of intentions and treat their pets as if they were children. In this way, baby animals never learn to fend for themselves in the habitat for which they were intended.

But as we are finding out, animals have rich emotional lives and behaviors that are hard-wired into their DNA entirely appropriate for the life their ancestors lived millions of years ago. Such behaviors can be really problematical. I once owned a much-loved Labrador retriever and a sweeter and more docile dog would be hard to find. I taught him to fetch the newspaper from the front lawn and when he did he would always shake it violently to kill what he believed to be his prey. I have a friend devoted to raising two crossbred puppies from the local animal rescue. One, a large blue hound, now about one year old, has suddenly taken to lunging at baby strollers and golf carts. And this after months of careful training to walk on a leash.

I am sure I am not alone in having watched an NPR documentary on the problem with parrots in the United States where they are either abandoned or given up by their owners who are unable to manage them. Parrots live for eighty or ninety years so can frequently outlive their owners. Most such pets have either been smuggled into the country illegally or bred in the U.S. for their exotic coloring, intelligence and ability to pick up language and living habits that their owners find attractive. But all this can change and suddenly, too. Formerly docile, the birds can attack their owners or self-mutilate by plucking out all their feathers. Caring for thousands of abandoned parrots by a handful of U.S. breeders or compassionate individuals seems a poor way to compensate wild creatures that adapt poorly to captivity.

So cute and cuddly baby animals are like our spring –beautiful but transitory. Taking on the responsibility of caring for them for their lifetimes is a different proposition entirely, requiring energy, attentiveness, understanding, and sometimes unrequited devotion.

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Finally Finding Spring

Hammock

Yesterday was the first time we could say with any conviction that winter was over. The sun shone warmly enough for me to take off my coat. With an hour to kill on a Sunday afternoon, I stopped by a public beach at the edge of Long Island Sound.  A crowd of people were already there, each celebrating in their own way.

There were a group of guys standing around drinking something out of plastic cups. They were largely taciturn as they sipped. Others sat in their cars. They parked and napped looking out at the bay. One woman rolled down her car window and hurled first one and then two black winter boots into the parking lot. I know how she felt having spent months in my own winter boots, parka, wool hat, scarf and gloves.

I left my vehicle and walked to the water’s edge. There was a stiff breeze. People shot along the bike paths in running shoes with much determination and no side trips. Others pushed their young children in strollers. I watched them from a distance sitting on a concrete block amid seaweed, oyster shells, plastic bottles, tangled fishing lines and all the flotsam that accumulates with high tides over the winter. The sound of a diesel motor carried across the water and a lone sailboat battled the wind across the smooth, sparkling waters of the bay.

My favorite encounter was with a young couple who had strung a hammock between two trees above the beach. They had piled in with magazines to read but instead were telling each other funny stories. The spring seemed to belong to them. They laughed. Sometimes they broke into loud guffaws. The young man in the hammock waived to me as if we were the spring’s co-conspirators in celebrating a brand new season now that we were able to laugh at the weather again.

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Amnesty for Elephants

Circus ElephantRingling Brothers’ decision to retire their circus elephants and no longer feature them in performances would seem to mark a profound change in public attitudes about the way these magnificent animals should be treated. It’s been a long time coming. Similar movements are under way for other animals in captivity even down to the humble chicken raised in a broiler factory and bred with breast meat so heavy it can no longer walk without falling down.

Having visited an exhibit of seventeenth century Dutch and Flemish baroque paintings recently I was struck how oil paintings of fruit and flowers often included an animal such as a monkey or parrot. Holland and the Low Counties were great maritime powers at the time. Surely these animals were brought back as curiosities, proof of having visited distant, tropical lands. Later on, such romantic engagement with animals was exploited by the likes of P.T. Barnum and others. Jumbo had the dubious distinction of being the first elephant to reach Europe alive. He was traded from France to England to the U.S., paraded down Main Street when the circus came to town giving rides to children in the howdah on his back and eventually killed in a railroad accident while being transported around Canada. Jumbo’s popularity has not only led to the adoption of that word into everyday language but also is probably a reason why elephants performing silly tricks have been with us for so long.

But observation of these beautiful animals in their natural habitat has been profoundly changing the way we view them. We have learned how the elephant herd is made up entirely of females and is led by a matriarch. The mature female leads the herd from one grazing ground to another. Protection of the young is shared among all the females. The bull elephants are loners.  The pioneering work of individuals, scientists among them, in establishing protected habitat for the elephants, great apes, large cats and other land species cannot be overstated. They have become our heroes, or heroines as the case may be: Dame Daphne Sheldrick,  Diane Fossey, Jane Goodall, and Joy Adamson, all of them coming to understand the animals’ capacity for emotion and how they live in their natural surroundings and within complex social structures. Many of these pioneers raised animal orphans themselves and later were able to return them to the wild, a truly amazing feat.

Thanks to their scientific studies and tireless advocacy on behalf of animals, public attitudes are slowly changing, whether that may be a movement towards vegetarianism, support of animal rights, legal protections, or ecotourism. Still photography and film have brought the mystery and marvel of animals in their natural habitats onto our desktops and into our living rooms. Who could not be moved by the spectacle?

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Winter Blues

WinterThe snow storms are getting monotonous. They have been happening in my area once or twice a week for the past several months. In anticipation, everyone hunkers down to wait it out and the world goes deathly quiet. It’s true there has been a half day break now and again when the temperature gets above freezing but for the most part we’ve rivaled Siberia with temperatures in the teens during the day, single digits at night and sometimes sub-zero. When people greet one another these days it is no longer with “Have a nice day.” But instead they say “Stay warm.”

And staying warm is quite a challenge. I am burning stout oak logs in my wood-burning stove and will get up in the small hours of the night to replenish the fire and keep its red heart alive and ready to jump into flame. The sun rising across the lake in the morning into this world of arctic cold has a special significance. Its passive heat can raise the temperature inside by five or ten degrees. Then, as time rolls ever so slowly but inevitably towards warmer weather and the renewal of the year, the light brightens to become dazzling as it reflects off the snow, the days lengthen and those ever-optimistic little wrens have returned to sing their hearts out in a white world, obviously experiencing something we can only guess at as we long for the green of new grass and fluffy clouds.

 

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A Blizzard That Wasn’t

Sledding in Central Park

Sledding in Central Park

I am waiting out the after-effects of the storm that hit Connecticut this week and was forecast to be of historic proportions. The first intimation I had that it was not going to live up its billing came when in place of the heavy snow promised for a full 24 hours failed to arrive. In its place were tiny, sparse flakes often driven by ferocious winds. I began shoveling when a few inches of snow had fallen as I often do in the middle of a storm. The extreme cold and cutting wind made me mindful of frostbite. But the announcements on the media put me in mind of Armageddon. And what’s a householder to do? Believe what you hear and prepare for the worst, or shrug the whole thing off – impossible when the Governor declares a state of emergency and the New York City subway system is closed for the first time in 110 years.

So how do you prepare for these weather events? Where do you go for accurate, reliable information?  A good place to start would seem to be the National Weather Service. And yet as I check out the relevant information online I note that the information can change slightly from one web page to the next. This must mean the Weather Service is using various sources for its information or updates occur spasmodically. So in an attempt to eliminate these discrepancies, I go to the maps. I cannot tell you the number of times my area is covered in blue to show snow is falling when the actual weather is clear. I also notice around my property there are certain places that act as heat traps especially when the sun is shining. So snow can be melting on a heat-trapping surface when the National Weather Service is reporting temperatures in the single digits.

So these examples illustrate how difficult weather is to predict. Add to this uncertain scenario the fact that politicians are given to making startling announcements: “Most likely one of the largest snowstorms in the history of the City,” reports New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this week, “the likes of which we have never seen before.” Or “It could be a matter of life and death and that’s not being overly dramatic,” reports New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Add to this the media, always hard pressed to come up with a good story that’s easy to write. Listening to the introduction to an NPR program reporting on the economy, the announcer picks up on the high wind forecasts and tells us listeners interested in economics the news that trees will come down on power lines and we can expect large-scale power outages. However hard I try, I don’t seem able to avoid Armageddon.

The effects of the storm were capricious as they always are. Around my property in Connecticut I had only about 3 or 4 inches of snow while others in the same vicinity had 8 or 12 inches.  We did not lose power and I kept my wood burning stove going around the clock in case of that eventuality. But the whole experience was made significantly scarier by the embellishments of the politicians and the media. A call to my friends in Boston where the storm was supposedly unleashing its fury assured me the kids were enjoying the snow and sipping hot chocolate. Nantucket lost power, poor Nantucket, but not the millions of people predicted. Now we pick up from the disruption and wonder who we can believe next time a weather event threatens our area.

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Poinsettias

Poinsettia Plant

This year I filled my living room with poinsettias, the bright red and green potted plants that typify the Christmas season. I wondered how poinsettias got that way. I have found an interesting story.

I have seen poinsettias growing in their native Mexico and the Caribbean looking very differently from the showy plants offered for sale here every December. The poinsettia hedges had spindly shoots, scant leaves and only a few red touches growing pretty much as a weed. Like this, the plant was known to the Aztecs of Central America and used for medicinal purposes.

Joel Roberts Poinsett became the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, appointed by John Quincy Adams.  And, like many privileged landowners of the nineteenth century, became an ardent botanist. He discovered the red and green weed growing beside the road in Mexico and is credited with bringing back cuttings to the United States in 1828. However, it was the Ecke family of Southern California that first commercialized the plant having discovered how to create bushy and colorful specimens in a variety of colors. Until recently, the Paul Ecke Ranch was responsible for growing about 70% of all poinsettias sold in the U.S.

The red color at the top of the plant comes not from flowers but from modified bracts or leaves. In order to get that red color, the plant needs to experience at least twelve hours of darkness for about five days. The flowers are small and insignificant and can been seen at the center of the red bracts. Once the flowers release their pollen, the plant dies back and drops its leaves.

I can never get poinsettias to last more than two to three weeks. I suspect that the indoor temperature of my living room is too high for their comfort and I have a tendency to overwater them. If I put more effort into the plants’ welfare I am sure they would last longer. This year, poinsettias are in competition with geranium cuttings which I have wintering over and doing well. I have set up the geranium cuttings in the cellar where it is cooler than the house and the plants get steady, indirect light. They should be snoozing through the winter until I can put them out in the spring to harden off. But a couple of the cuttings have gotten over-enthusiastic and decided to bloom. So they are set to take over pride of place from the poinsettias as the harbingers of spring.

 

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That Was Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving FootballThe Thanksgiving holiday really was a bust this year. It snowed the day before and icy roads made traveling difficult. But there was plenty on television

between almost continuous football games and days where we were expected to pull out our wallets and celebrate by spending money: Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday. Add to this the fact that most of my local stores have had their Christmas trimmings on display now for a couple of weeks and one wonders what has happened to Thanksgiving. It got nudged into oblivion.

So this started me wondering about how I could put together an illustration to show the turmoil that seems to have beset our national Thanksgiving holiday. Animals are well represented in the names of football teams so with some light-hearted footwork I’ve come up with the Buffalo Browns and the Miami Marlins. Two buffalo and a marlin are part of the general melee on the football field while no one pays attention to the turkey that really appears to be above it all.

It’s a shame we’ve come to think of this day as one for either shopping or watching football. I know people who always gather round a table each Thanksgiving and prepare to enjoy a splendid feast. There are others who participate in a Turkey Trot or some run for a good cause. And there are a few souls who give voice to what they are thankful for at this time of year. As always, I enjoy the simpler things: a good laugh, cheerful friends, the expressions of caring that come my way and come when I least expect it. The Thanksgiving holiday is distinct for its humble yet very human touch.  Let’s not lose it.

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Guy Fawkes

Guy FawkesPlease to remember the fifth of November,  for  gunpowder                                                                                                                                                         treason and plot: I know of no reason                                                                                              why gunpowder and treason ever should be forgot!

I grew up reciting this rhyme and celebrating Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th. On a cool, crisp November night we would light a bonfire and roast potatoes and chestnuts in it, setting off the fireworks we’d collected. They seem rather tame by today’s standards but I had a romantic attachment to them all: rockets, Roman candles, Catherine wheels, squibs, and golden rain, to name a few. To collect money for fireworks, kids would make a Guy Fawkes in effigy by stuffing a pair of pants and shirt with straw, putting it into a child’s wagon and going about the streets of London asking for “A penny for the Guy.”

As children, we had no idea who Guy Fawkes really was. Going back 400 years when England teetered between Catholicism and Protestantism, a group of five English renegade Catholics decided to blow up the House of Lords when King James 1 came to open parliament. The conspirators trundled barrels of gunpowder into a cellar room and Guy Fawkes was detailed off to guard the explosives. He wasn’t even the ring leader of this group of terrorists bent on restoring their faith to a divided land.

The plot was known to a few others besides. One of the members of the House of Lords was tipped off not to attend the opening ceremony.  He showed the letter to King James 1. James ordered a search of the cellars and Guy Fawkes was discovered with a match to set alight the gunpowder and a watch to calculate the right moment. There follows a rather grisly few weeks of torture for Guy Fawkes and a hanging while the English people were asked to light bonfires to celebrate the King’s escape from assassination.

This bloody history has echoes for us today. The English King James 1 was succeeded by his son, Charles 1 whose side lost in the civil war with Oliver Cromwell and Charles was executed. His son, Charles 11 was later restored to the throne and succeeded by his brother, James 11, the last Catholic monarch of England. James fled after three years on the throne and England at last decided decisively it was going to be Protestant. But it’s as well to remember that this period of religious strife, warfare and radical politics lasted throughout the reigns of four kings and some one hundred years. Guy Fawkes was only a bit player in the drama.

 

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Passenger Pigeons

 

Passenger Pigeons

This month marks one hundred years since the demise of the passenger pigeon. This once prolific bird seems to have become extinct without much understanding of the cautionary tale it has to tell.

When Europeans arrived on the North American continent, flocks of passenger pigeons were so vast that they blackened the sky, sometimes taking hours to pass overhead with a noise like distant thunder. There are no accurate records of their numbers but from written scraps and sightings the total has been estimated at between three and five billion birds. The air could become so thick with them that simply waving a pole would bring them down. Another way to catch hundreds of birds at one time was by throwing up a net. Frontiersmen who had subsisted on whatever they had been able to store as food over the winter welcomed the pigeons as a source of fresh meat. But the real undoing of the passenger pigeons arrived when the railroad came through.

Slaughtered pigeons were packed 300 to a barrel and shipped by rail to eastern cities. Each train could transport up to 1,000 barrels at one time, or a total of 300,000 pigeons. The birds were considered a source of cheap food for slaves and the poor. In the nineteenth century, no one foresaw that a bird as plentiful as the passenger pigeon could disappear. But it did. Through a combination of wholesale slaughter, local hunting, land deforestation and disrupted nesting sites, the birds could not reproduce at the same rate that they were being killed. The last known passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo in September, 1914.

Environmentalism arrived too late to save the passenger pigeons. But the loss of the birds did give a few people pause. In the decades following their disappearance legislation was introduced into Congress to begin to protect wild life culminating in 1918 in the Migratory Bird Act which included protection of the nests, eggs and feathers as well as the birds. This year, Project Passenger Pigeon has launched a wide-ranging effort to educate a largely uninformed public about the demise of the passenger pigeons. This effort is considered a jumping off point for an exploration of the many ways in which we humans shape our own environment, an environment made infinitely richer by the creatures that inhabit the forests, deserts and oceans of this shrinking world.

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Are You the Artist?

Craft Show

I spend the summer taking part in art festivals in order to sell my paintings, which I do. But a lot goes on besides exhibiting my work, making a sale or getting a commission for some custom work.

Art festivals, which are often fund-raisers, take place in attractive outdoor spaces like the grounds of some old mansion or New England town green. As a pop-up gallery, we exhibitors have to set up and take down our own booths, a task which is physically demanding. I put everything into my car the night before and arrive at the location early. There’s great camaraderie among the vendors and I have met some very interesting people. I am struck by how many of them suffered in the recent recession losing their white-collar jobs and despairing of ever getting

re-employed. So they have begun to turn their interests towards an attempt to generate income as best they know how. Out of sheer necessity, they have become jewelers, wood carvers, potters, sculptors and many other things.

As for myself, tending my tables on which I display my art work for eight or nine hours a day, I become a captive audience for the visitors who drift by. The conversations we have often arrange themselves into a sequence with which I am becoming familiar. The opening salvo is always: “Are you the artist?” People genuinely like to know who executed the painting, to be able to put a personal face on the art work, and always want to know that the painting is an original and with my signature on it. I quite appreciate all this. It makes a lot of sense if the visitor intends to purchase the art. All these steps add value. I have stories to tell about how the art work came to be, plus some anecdotes from my own personal history.

If the visitor is not a buyer of my art, which is the majority of people who stop by, the conversation then frequently veers away from my painting with the comment: “I have no talent.” This is odd. I have taught painting and found everyone in my classes to have had imagination and some degree of skill, so much so that I, as the instructor, had to go away to improve so that my students did not become more “talented” than I was. I think what the art festival visitors are really telling me is that either someone important in their past had been critical of their efforts so that their self-confidence had been destroyed, or, because becoming competent in the skills required to become an artist means many hours or years of practice, few people are prepared to put in that amount of effort.

The next progression in the conversation is a riff on the “no talent” theme.  From some people I get:  “I have no talent but my daughter or grand-daughter is a superb artist.” These visitors give me a complete run-down of this little girl’s imaginative art work in fifth or sixth grade and all the accolades heaped on her by her teachers and relatives. I really don’t have a good response to this theme and remain a listener.

On the other hand, from the”some day” crowd, there’s another variation. Their question to me is: “Do you do children’s book illustration?” If I answer “Yes,” then I have fallen into the captive audience trap again. These visitors will tell me of the book they want to write “some day”. It’s invariably an animal rescue story, either a puppy or a kitten, which they themselves saved from annihilation many years ago. As a listener I have the distinct impression that the real value to the storyteller is in the retelling and reliving of the experience, not the very hard work of actually assembling the various parts into a book, getting it published and distributing it.

And so during art festivals I become the repository of other people’s unrealized dreams. And I think our technology which promises so much in the way of individual awareness and proximity is failing these visitors to my booth. These people show me they need the emotional contact that comes from face-to-face encounters.  They need to be listened to, find appreciation and respect and know that they count for something, just as they are.

 

 

 

 

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