Archive for the ‘Ruminations’ Category


March 20, 2011

It was March 3rd this year when the cranes began to move. They rose on thermals almost directly above the house, circling higher and higher until they were visible only when their wings reflected sunlight. Headed north, they were disembodied trumpets to someone stuck on the ground, straining to see them. Trumpets in the orchestra of evolution, Aldo Leopold called them.

It was a good day to die.

And, since dying is a journey we all must take, why not take it on a day the cranes are on the move? A friend and loved one made that choice this year and took her last earthly journey with cranes flying high overhead, calling, beckoning all who listen to return to wildness.




The Lunar Eclipse and Winter Solstice

December 19, 2010

Tomorrow night and early Tuesday morning feature a total lunar eclipse, visible throughout all of North America. This eclipse falls on the winter solstice, a coincidence that has not happened for more than 300 years and will not happen again in the lifetime of anyone reading this blog on the date of its posting. (The next time falls on December 21, 2094.)

In the old days people would have greeted an event like this with all manner of pagan observances. Bonfires would have been lit and danced around, entire communities would have suspended – for one night – the rules about sexual intercourse outside of marriage, and whatever consciousness-altering substances available would have been consumed in copious amounts. Oracles and priests would have been busy forecasting the future and explaining what the omen meant. Bacchanalia, drunken feasts, and Dionysus’s Maenads, would have filled this night.

But now? Things are different and more boring. That’s the price we’ve paid for intellectual progress. Oh, a few people still believe and will build their bonfires, a few more don’t believe, but will build a bonfire anyway, and some neighbors may get together for a party, but not a bacchanal. Mostly the night will pass as any other winter night. Most everyone will be asleep in their warm houses and apartments and will wake up the next morning none the wiser and go off to work or go do their Christmas shopping.


The Romans, being Europeans and pagans,  probably enjoyed the winter solstice more than we do.  We are the spiritual and, often, the genetic descendants of the Puritans and, as a wit once noted, the only thing harder and more implacable than the rocky, cold, forbidding New England coast where the Pilgrims landed was the Pilgrims themselves. Few Americans have yet recovered from that grim Puritan heritage. H.L. Mencken once defined a Puritan as someone haunted by the belief that somewhere, someone may be enjoying themselves.

I assume that most readers of this blog are, like me, children of the Enlightenment, which means we are believers in science and what it teaches. We know, for instance, that a human sacrifice is unnecessary to make spring return this year and that Constantinople did not fall to the Ottomans because of the 1453 lunar eclipse. Irish Wrenboys no longer kill a Wren to get the sun to return.

Geometry of an Eclipse 

But despite its unquestioned advantages for humanity, our enlightenment has come at a cost. Much of the magic and some of the mystery of the universe fade away in the light of reason. Certainly we know that this year’s winter solstice and contemporaneous total lunar eclipse are nothing but an orbital coincidence of the long eons in the ceaseless dance of moon, sun, and earth with no intrinsic meaning other than its physical beauty. We know there is nothing masculine about the energy of the sun, it’s just a thermonuclear furnace. And the moon? Nothing feminine about it. It’s just a cold lifeless ball of matter caught in the earth’s gravitational field. No mystical energy exists to be absorbed from her reflection of sunlight.

But what would be wrong with a willing suspension of disbelief for one night? We do it all the time when we read a work of fiction or when we watch a movie. So pour yourself a glass of wine, get outside Monday night/Tuesday morning, build yourself a little fire, and at least meditate, even if you don’t feel like dancing around the blaze.  Like Dickens’s Monsieur Defarge, perhaps no vivacious Bacchanalian flame will leap out but you might discover “a smouldering fire” burning in the dark, hidden in the dregs of the wine.

Bohr and Einstein 

I leave you in the company of Niels Bohr, one of the greatest scientists who ever walked on this earth and, along with Einstein with whom he disputed often, a father of modern physics. This preeminent physicist, scientist and rationalist kept a horseshoe above the entrance to his home. A guest once said to him, “Dr. Bohr, surely you don’t believe that a horseshoe can bring you good luck?” Dr. Bohr responded, “No. But I’ve heard it works for those who don’t believe too.”


For more on the eclipse here is the NASA description and here is a newspaper interview with a Wiccan discussing its mystical significance.

Toe Dusting

December 10, 2010

We met a Barn Owl this week. We liked him, but he didn’t care for us. As a matter of fact, when your author walked in to our store where the local animal rescue people had brought it for educational purposes, the owl lowered its head and shook it in the universally recognized shake of disapproval. The rescuers of the owl told me not to take it personally, but I knew better. That owl was rescued after an encounter with a high voltage electrical line which it would not have encountered were it not for humanity’s insatiable desire for electricity. He had no use for me or any other of my fellow Homo sapiens, except possibly for those who rescued him and now care for him.

The rescuers assured us the owl was “toe dusting.” Fairly new to its role as a teacher of humans, the owl was stressed and toe dusting was the physical sign of that stress. Ornithologists hold that Barn Owls lower their heads and shake it over their talons, either as an aggressive signal or as a defensive behavior.

Toe Dusting

I don’t believe it. They do it as a message of disapproval, just like that herbaceous Mountain Goat on the Olympian Peninsula in Washington State a few weeks ago when it gored a man in the leg and then stood over the man until he bled to death. The animals are getting angry with us and who can blame them?

But even if it was threatening me, that owl has the softest eyes of any bird I’ve ever seen up close. Mind you, if I were a field mouse or a vole scuttling across a snow field on a cold, crystalline night and looked up when that owl’s shadow crossed the snow I doubt that I would find anything soft about those eyes. I would see the eyes of a minister of death. And that shadow I would see the instant before my death would be the first clue I had that an owl was anywhere nearby: Owls are about the only land-dwelling animals who never make a sound they don’t intend to make.

But I was in no danger from the owl, and I loved his eyes. They reminded me of Edward Howe Forbush springing to the defense of Barn Owls in his magisterial Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States. Defending them from unjust persecution, he called them “benefactors to mankind.”

Like Forbush, I may be susceptible to emotional projection and may have mirrored my own consciousness when I looked in those eyes, but I don’t believe that either. Those were the wise eyes of an old soul looking out at me.


The rescuers also brought a Merlin with them. Nothing soft about a Merlin’s eyes I can assure you. Falcon eyes put one in mind of Yeats’ horseman,

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!


Here is our post on identifying Barn Owls and here is more on Barn Owls and Halloween. George Orwell also wrote about Barn Owls.

The Pencil

October 23, 2010

Harold Ross, the legendary founder and editor of the world’s best magazine, The New Yorker, was renown for his tightness when it came to office supplies and equipment. When E.B. White, probably the best writer at the world’s best magazine, was late with a piece, Ross sent him a note that said:

Mr. White:

If you get that story done, I’ll take steps to get you a new cushion for your chair.

H.W. Ross

Harold Ross in the Copyright-Expired Olden Times

On another occasion Ross bumped into Dorothy Parker, also a staff writer, at a restaurant and asked her why she wasn’t back in the office working. She responded, “Because someone was using the pencil.”

That’s been the problem here at The Fat Finch lately. Every time I sit down to write a post somebody else has the pencil.

Heedless, the wild world marched on without taking the slightness notice of the paucity of Fat Finch posts. Billions of birds migrated and are already on their winter feeding grounds. The southern hemisphere, now grabbing most of the sunlight falling on the planet, also has most of the birds. The Rocky Mountains are hunkered down, awaiting the first blast of winter, which is late this year. Most of the Aspens north of New Mexico have shed their leaves and stand naked now, awaiting cold north winds and the storms that the jet stream will soon blow their way. Rocky Mountain Aspen have had a good year. SAD, “Sudden Aspen Decline” seems to have slowed and fewer trees died this year. And we humans seem to have isolated the cause of SAD: drought and heat. And that’s not good news in the long run, the world keeps getting warmer and the southwestern United States keeps getting drier. Someone has even noted that the value of municipal bonds in the southwest may decline as worries about water supplies increase. Phoenix may have all the water rights it needs, but you can’t drink water rights.

It’s been raining in San Diego and that means the jet stream has finally begun its autumn meanderings above the earth and the Bermuda High is horsing around south of the Azores. Up in the Yukon the mainly birdless trees are thinking of Robert Service who wrote in his poem, “The Pines”:

We sleep in the sleep of ages, the bleak barbarian pines;

We pillar the halls of perfumed gloom;

We plume where the eagles soar;

The North-wind swoops from the brooding Pole, and our ancients crash and roar; . . .

Gain to the verge of the hog-back ridge where the vision ranges free;

Pines and pines and the shadow of pines as far as the eye can see;

A steadfast legion of stalwart knights in dominant empery.

Sun moon and stars give answer: shall we not staunchly stand,

Even as now, forever, wards of the wilder strand,

Sentinels of the stillness, lords of the last, lone land?

It is so cold and dark in the wintertime Yukon that even the air tries to escape, blowing southward in the autumn; helping the Yukon’s Peregrine Falcons on their way to Chile, 8,000 miles away. They make the trip in about sixty days, averaging between forty and sixty miles an hour. Bereft of falcons, the Yukon River will freeze now and not care at all what I have to say about it.

Our physical store is likewise migrating south this winter, relocating about a mile south of its current location. We’ll update you on that in a future post. But our virtual store will stay where it is. Seasons mean nothing in the world-wide-web. Weather is of no consequence there; only ones and zeroes matter.

And you’ve kept reading. Thank you. We’re hunkering down for winter too, so there will more time to write. Besides, I’ve got the pencil now.

I could use a new chair cushion though.


The stories about H.W. Ross come from the October 4, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, in a brief piece announcing that the magazine will now be available as an application on the iPad.

Jays and Peanuts – Part II

September 10, 2010

In the last post, I anthropomorphized birds, accusing some Steller’s Jays of being “stubborn” and “cantankerous”  because they refused to come to get peanuts placed on top of my car. (As you can see, they finally did, but it took them a full 24 hours before they succumbed.)I charged an Oregon Junco with impertinency and suggested that hummingbirds think they have property rights.  None of those adjectives can  be applied to any animal in the world except Homo Sapiens Sapiens.

That we attribute such emotions to animals says more about us than it does them. A tribute to our egocentric view of the world that often misses the richness of differing awareness, it perversely reinforces a view of the world in which we are separate from nature. That’s not to say that animals don’t have emotions, many obviously do. But they arise from differing consciousness and from senses that perceive the world differently.

For example, this deer obviously can hear better than we can. She’s at a salt lick in these photos and every few seconds yanks her head up from the salt and has a look around.  Actually, she’s probably having a good listen around. Those ears hear further than her eyes can see, especially in an old growth forest. A human will likely ascribe her apparent nervousness to fear. She is a prey species and, to our minds, it makes sense that she is afraid, but I wonder. Checking around like that is bred so deeply in her genes, I bet she is completely unaware that she does it, like a fish is unaware of water. More likely, she’s just enjoying the salt.

Which is not to say that animals don’t know fear.

But they don’t know, probably, anything about the Great Mystery,  the possibility of non-being, mortality. That saves them from the Great Fear. Foreknowledge of death appears absent in animals and they don’t seem to understand the world’s absences. Humans can never entirely rid ourselves of the Great Fear. We know too much about death and not enough about the aftermath. The best we can do is try following Emily Dickinson’s advice,  “I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to Heaven.”

The Sounds of Silence, the Price of Light

July 28, 2010

We live, most of us, in islands that have forgotten both silence and darkness. Although the earth still contains vast areas of both, more than half of humanity now lives in cities. In the industrialized world, far more than half of us live in large cities. The American West, that icon of individualism, sparse plains, and empty mountains is the most urbanized part of the United States. By 1990, 80% of all the people living in the American West lived in metropolitan areas. In eight of those states, the city population exceeded 88%! By any measure, westerners are city folks by a much higher percentage than anyone else in the United States.

And, in the places where most humans now live, it is never silent; never dark.

The Myth

Some mammals and some birds have adapted to the light and noise. Pigeons, Starlings, English Sparrows, House Finches and rats all thrive in our environment. Others avoid us – please pardon the cliché that is coming – like the plague.

There is no use in decrying this urbanization of the species; we have evolved to it and it must be adaptive or we would not have thrived as we have. Nor is there any reason to suppose the trend will ever reverse itself.

The Reality

We live in a transitional era. Still close enough in time to the jungle and savannah from which we came, we vaguely remember both silence and darkness. Recent studies have proven that we sleep sounder in absolute darkness and relative silence. We still fear the dark. We still yearn for a piece of nature. Anthropologists explain our little bits of lawn and garden – tyrannized nature – as remembrances of time past.

And, let’s face it, it is probably why so many of us are birders. We yearn to spend at least a little time in beauty, surrounded only by the sounds of wildness. Serenity lies in silent places and where better to find it than in a place where a bird call can lose itself in the silence of the world.


For more on the urban American west, try the blog of the well-known western scholar Carl Abbott. His book, How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban change in Western North America is a good read and still available on Amazon. Any of the works of my American West professor, Gerald Nash are excellent introductions, especially his The American West Transformed: The Impact of the Second World War.

For those of us still gamely hanging on to the value of wild experiences, see this post at Wild Resiliency.

Memorial Day 2010

May 31, 2010

Today the United States observes its Memorial Day, taking a moment to remember and honor all the Nation’s servicemen who died in our wars. Begun after our Civil War, it became official after World War I.

Wars are more than human tragedies of course. They are ecological disasters. Flora and fauna suffer as well. Here, from Wikipedia, is a photo of Chateau Wood during the third battle of Ypres, commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele, which raged from June until November of 1917.

From the looks of the trees, bird song did not accompany those Australian soldiers on their walk. Birds withstand artillery barrages no better than humans or trees.


The photographer was Frank Hurley and the photo is in the public domain.

“Stuck” by Raymond Chandler

March 17, 2010

Raymond Chandler never blogged.  The art form of the blog — that wasn’t a snicker I just heard, was it? — hadn’t been invented yet.  But Chandler would never have been at a lost for something to write about, like I am sometimes.  In fact, he had some pretty good advice for writers, all of whom get stuck from time to time:

“When in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.”

So, without further ado. . . .

butch_cassidy_and_the_sundance_kid1Two guys come through the door with guns.


The Muds of March

March 14, 2010

March is here, the Sandhill Cranes are mostly gone, and the Canada Geese are leaving.  That means it’s time for our annual reminder of Aldo Leopold.

One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring.

A cardinal, whistling spring to a thaw but later finding himself mistaken, can retrieve his error by resuming his winter silence. A chipmunk, emerging for a sunbath, but finding a blizzard, has only to go back to bed.  but a migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat.  His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.

Leopold lived on a farm in Wisconsin so when he saw the geese in March, they were passing through on their way north. Writing sometime before 1948, he notes in his book A Sand County Almanac, that the geese he saw were well-educated and knew something about the Wisconsin statutes. In November, when flying south, the geese took a direct line over his farm and flew as high as they could get.  In the spring, they flew low, landed, and even idled about for a couple of weeks. The geese, Leopold hypothesized, knew that Wisconsin’s hunting laws allowed people to shoot them in November, but not in March. And so, natural selection marched on.

A March morning is only as drab as he who walks in it without a glance skyward, ear cocked for geese. I once knew an educated lady, banded by Phi Beta Kappa, who told me that she had never heard or seen the geese that twice a year proclaim the revolving seasons to her well-insulated roof. Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth?  The goose who trades his is soon a pile of feathers.

As geese can be under-educated, and get shot in Wisconsin in November, humans can be over-educated and miss their connection to the earth. Of the ten known human species that so far have walked this planet, nine are extinct. Makes you nervous.

But, for now anyway, the geese fly and, “the whole continent receives as net profit a wild poem dropped from the murky skies upon the muds of March.”


The quotes are from A Sand County Almanac, “March: The Geese Return.”


December 21, 2009

Today is the Winter Solstice, that day when our cave-dwelling ancestors of long ago suddenly realized that they had only four more shopping days until Christmas.  We’ll have 9 hours and 47 minutes of daylight here today, only one minute less than we’ve had for the last several days and only one minute less than we’ll have for several more.  “Solstice” actually means “standing still” which is what the sun appears to do for several days on either side of the Solstice. Only the most careful of observers will detect anything different for several more days, a tribute to those most careful  observers of long, long ago, who did.


The NPS photo of the winter sky at Chaco Canyon, NM was taken by Dr. Tyler Nordgren  That’s Orion low on the horizon, to the right of Fajada Butte.  A sun dagger on the butte, placed there a thousand years ago, will mark the exact moment of the Solstice today, at 10:47A.M., MST.

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