Wednesday, June 1, 2016

stray thoughts: ducklings & dragons

Was in Jersey yesterday on an errand and took another opportunity to visit the woods. It's only been a week, and I might be mistaken, but it appears to have filled out considerably in just the last seven days. Maybe I can attribute the difference to weather conditions: during my last visit it was partially overcast, and yesterday the sun shone brilliantly and unobstructed.

I know I once wrote a bloody novel about how crappy it can be to live in the suburbs of North Jersey, but damn if they're not beautiful during the spring and summer. So unbelievably luxuriantly green.

I'm indebted the the forests I habited as an adolescent for pretty much anything I can claim to know about wild flora and fauna. The only reason I ever read up on birds, plants, or bugs is because I find them outside and want to better understand what sort of life my own is intersecting with. I don't understand much of anything about "nature" at all. There's just some woods here and there in North Jersey I'm acquainted with.

At the onset of my visit yesterday I met several odonata and got my hopes up that another week was all the ebony jewelwings needed to mature and populate their grotto by the pond. No such luck—but it was one of those uncommon (but not unusual) days when the pond was hosting a wood duck. They always startle me: even before the surface of the pond comes into view over the tangle of wild roses at its circumference, the wood duck (a very shy, skittish, and exceedingly vocal bird) hears you coming and tears shrieking into the arboreal shadows almost too fast for your eyes to find before it disappears.

Most of the time I've only seen solitary males at this pond. Yesterday it was a female, a mama bird. True to her species' form, she screamed and bolted into the woods before I even knew she was there, leaving seven ducklings behind. I moved in for a closer look, puzzled as to why she'd apparently abandon them to me (a predator, as far as she knew), and wondering if maybe they weren't actually her brood. I came around to where the ducklings were gathered in hiding under the leaves of a fallen (but still living) tree drooping out over the surface of the water. The female was still nearby: she made herself conspicuous, crying plaintively, staying low to the ground, flapping and hopping towards the forest's interior, but not going far.

It was the first time I'd seen volucrine decoy tactics in action up close! Mama bird was trying to lure me towards herself, away from her brood. After I'd backed off and waited in the brush for a while, she returned to the pond with a swoosh and a splash, and her ducklings hurried to her, peeping excitedly.

Via Sergey Tishin.

Thought 1: what if I really was a predator? Not some coyote or fox or hawk, but a human being, living off the land as she (the mama duck) does, whose survival depended on his periodically consuming freshly killed animals when given the opportunity. I don't think it would be an act I'd take lightly in most imaginable scenarios: killing this duck, this mother, and orphaning her children (probably condemning them to their own early deaths) so as to perpetuate myself.

Flights like these are why I've been trying (with mixed but mostly encouraging results) to give up eating meat. One must necessarily confront his own actions when the kill is enacted personally. There is something unsettling about our relationship of utter estrangement from the meat we consume: masticating flesh without experience of the life it grew from (the life it was, really), without the gasps and screams and blood. Divorcing the meat from the murder seems dishonest at best and cowardly at worst. (One needn't stretch his brains to understand why the indigenous humans of New Jersey did not kill wantonly and wastefully.)

Thought 2: I must make a point of carrying a decent camera with me on these trips. Every summer I'm more and more fascinated by odonata in general (not just the ebony jewelwings), but my barely-functional phone camera isn't up to capturing them. Yesterday I found a very attractive damsel in the grass, but am unable to identify it after the fact. (Sphagnum sprite? Slender bluet?)

Watching the dragons and damsels flit and zip through the sunlit verdure, it's easy to indulge in the pathetic fallacy, to imagine they're happy. Even if they possessed the requisite nervous and limbic attributes to experience happiness as Homo sapiens experiences (what it calls) happiness, the odonota likely wouldn't say their lives are the perpetual dance & romp an onlooker might gather. Every day is a life-or-death scenario. They're out to kill and devour and be devoured, screw, fight, and die.

"Happy" might not be the right word. "Ecstatic" might be more apt. I imagine the dragons would report very little dissatisfaction with their life arrangement, had they time to report it.

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