Friday, November 30, 2012

On the beach

There is always a flotilla of Mallards down at Fort Trumbull Beach, in Milford. They are no dummies: they hang out there in all weathers, because someone who lives on the beach feeds them every day. God knows the Mallards and a few gulls were the only souls down there yesterday as the sun was setting and the most bitter of winds sliced through every item of clothing on my body. I had pledged to exercise this week after eating over Thanksgiving as if I were one of those poor foie gras ducks, but by the time Thursday came around, I hadn't got past noticing with some excitement that the gym just down the road from our new house is conveniently located right next to Rita's Ice Custard, which happens to purvey possibly the best frozen dessert ever invented. My week's exercise at Fort Trumbull lasted all of about four minutes before it felt as though there were hundreds of tiny razor blades implanted in my fingertips and I scurried back to the car. The ducks are in for the long haul, though...

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Emu in the Sky (aka, I'm still on a bit of an emu bender)

Have you ever seen an emu's wings?

This question never crossed my mind until yesterday, when I began reading about emus' stabby, huge (not "quite small"!) bills. I guess that if I'd thought about emus' wings at all, I would have assumed they were that weird shaggy kind of pelt that emus have, as if they're wandering around wearing a blanket all the time.

But there is a reason you've never seen an emu's wings: they're underneath all that shagginess, and they're tiny. Smaller than a crow's. Of course, this makes sense, given that they hardly need wings when they don't fly and can run like something out of Jurassic Park.

The fear I had of them as a child is turning more into fascination and a kind of awe -- but I got a chill when I found the Aboriginal story of how the Emu in the Sky came to be.

The Emu in the Sky is not so much a constellation as a negative heavenly space: the shape of an emu's body formed not from stars but from dark patches of the Milky Way. The giant emu was consigned there for eternity by a husband exacting justice upon the bird for killing his wife, according to people from Papunya, in the Northern Territory.

If you fancy going to this link to a great article about Aboriginal astronomy, it's worth clicking through to the second picture in the slide show: an astonishing photo of the emu's shape visible in the night sky, mirroring an Aboriginal rock carving on the ground below, in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, in Sydney.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Emus are still a bit scary

Do you remember when you were little and certain animals seemed very, very big and scary? Horses freaked me the hell out. Bison, too. I saw one bison my entire childhood, in a zoo, but it made a vivid impression. I will always remember its moth-eaten-looking coat; it's snorting, pawing hugeness; and my irrational conviction that I would some day find myself fronting one, without a moat and a fence between us.

Emus were right up there on my list of frightening animals. They were so much taller than me. Their necks were like furry snakes. Those giant eyelashes and great dark marbles for eyes, boring into you. The only reason the emus were actually staring was to see whether they liked the look of what you had on your sandwich, but that didn't stop me from thinking they were sizing up the best angle of attack. I most feared what they could do with those big triangular beaks.

Thank heavens I didn't know then what I know now: that it's their claws they use for defense, and those claws are strong enough to rip metal fences, and if cornered they kick with their big, three-toed feet. I guess I didn't notice the horrifying feet because I was too busy trying to keep an eye on their terrifying beaks, which always seemed to be erratically darting toward you on that serpentine neck, heading towards the above-mentioned sandwich . . . or, in one memorable case, a couple of Salada biscuits spread with margarine and Vegemite, which an emu snatched from my hands and seemed to quite enjoy. (For those who aren't familiar with this delicacy, Salada biscuits are like Saltine crackers. The best part about them was that when you stuck two of them together with Vegemite and margarine and then forcibly squished down on them with your chubby little fingers, the margarine and Vegemite would extrude out like tiny nubs of white and black spaghetti. Entertainment was much simpler before iPhones.) I'm sorry, Wikipedia, but the emu's bill is not "quite small." It's a gigantic pointy stabby implement.

When Frank found this video today of errant emus wandering the streets of western Sydney and disrupting traffic, I felt certain that as an adult, I would look at their beaks and bobbing heads and realize that my childhood perceptions were all wrong. In fact, seeing them against the suburban backdrop just highlighted how right I was to be awestruck by them. What incredible creatures they are. The way they move, the way they look so confident and inquisitive, the plumage on their backs that looks weirdly like shaggy fur, the general prehistoricness of them...which is no doubt why, as the guy in the pretty phenomenal hat in the video points out, they still don't know to look both ways before they cross the road.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Winter is on the way

Snow is in the forecast. Chickadees and titmice frantically load up at the feeder. Days get shorter. Birds that have spread out through spring and summer come together in flocks again. As the sun sets, there is the incessant flight of crows to their roost. Robins are massing. By day, geese strip the farm fields of summer's leftovers, then settle together in great rafts on nearby ponds. For comfort, security, and warmth? Or are they simply all attracted to the same sheltered places near dwindling food stocks? The mill pond at South Windsor is the avian Grand Central Station. All routes cross here.

Ceaseless honking. Sporadic squabbles. Strange outliers accepted. The solitary Snow Goose. The Barnacle Goose. The one Brant that doesn't know it's meant to be at the beach, not here in the middle of farmland. Four White-fronted Geese, whose orange feet not too long ago probably touched the earth of Greenland, which seems magical to me. The female Black Scoter bobbing limp at the water's edge, her life ending in this improbable place, never making it to the ocean for the winter. A Mallard hybrid who doesn't know his spiffy white bib sets him apart. The shabby-looking Common Merganser that I hope fattens up and makes it through the season.

It seems that every bird as the winter approaches knows that this is a good place to be. Rawk, there goes two Ravens overhead. Great Blue Heron. Red-tailed Hawk. And then there is the peculiar boy with the peculiar dog -- half black Lab, half Chow. The boy proudly proves the dog's Chow ancestry by prising open its willing mouth and showing off its purple tongue to me. "His name's Seamus," he says. "I'm trying to get him to catch one of these geese here, so I can eat it." He throws bread at the birds, which sail around him at a safe distance, watching with canny eyes. "Seamus is an alpha male. He'll attack and kill anything," the boy explains, as the purple-tongued dog snaffles the scattered bread, wags its tail, and lumbers over for a pat, oblivious of the waterfowl.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Things I am grateful for on Thanksgiving

The clear New England sky, bare branches, the oxygen in my lungs, my heart beating in my chest, love and warmth and friends, acceptance, hope, life and memory and the fact that even those who are no longer taking in that oxygen and that crisp autumn sky are still here as long as they are in our memories.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The blog police are coming to get me

Pledging to write every day is tremendous. Structure, discipline, the repetition of writing, writing, writing -- these are really the only things that help you to improve your writing. The idea is awesome. You know what else is awesome? Sleeping. Sleeping is awesome, because you're horizontal and warm. You also have dreams. The dream is what made me suddenly jolt awake and realize that I had slept through my pledge to blog every day for NaBlowhateverit'scalledyoupeoplearelunaticshowcananybodysustainthis. There was a white ping-pong ball on the floor that I had to move, because -- for some very complicated reasons -- if I didn't move it, a door was going to slam and I was going to wake up. I woke up anyway, and realized that the ping pong ball was really my subconscious's symbol for my bladder. (It was nice for my subconscious to finally give me something relatively easy to decode. If anyone can solve the mystery of the giant green-gray, glossy sea creature that looked like a cross between a whale and a dinosaur and was so massive and had such an intense gravitational force that, if it wasn't for the giant sheet of Plexiglas I was watching it through, I would have been sucked into the scary, roiling, dark waters of a harbor that looked kind of like Sydney Harbour but wasn't, I'd be really grateful.) It was when I was returning to bed from the bathroom and saw that it was 4:37 that I realized I had failed in my pledge. Does it help that it was a mere four hours and thirty-seven minutes after the deadline that I at least thought about it? Is there a blog altar that I can perform some kind of  penance at?

(Picture: By Charles R. Knight (Making of America) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Why are turkeys called turkeys?

We do some dreadfully unfair things to turkeys at this time of year. Case in point:

(Just spare a thought for a moment for the stylist who worked on this shot. You know it took hours.) 
The rest of the year -- when we're not plucking, roasting, devouring, or shoving "beaming orange taper candles" in ceramic simulacra of them -- we make their name an insult. A turkey is a dud, a flop, an embarrassing failure. A turkey is an inept fool.

I don't think Wild Turkeys are dopes. I think they're majestic and gorgeous, strutting and wobbling their wattles and preening feathers that to me look like some kind of lustrous suit of armor.

Wild Turkeys, Arizona (Photo by Frank Gallo)

Wild Turkey, Arizona (Photo by Frank Gallo)
The English language is cumbersome and clotted with history. Pull on any word in any sentence, and the thread will just keep unspooling through your fingertips. Duds and flops are called turkeys because people underestimate turkeys . . . but turkeys were called turkeys in the first place because people in England mistakenly thought they came from Turkey. And it wasn't just that they mistakenly thought they came from Turkey. They mistook them for an entirely different bird. This bird:

Guinea fowl (Photo by Fir002/Flagstaffotos via Wikimedia Commons)
Guinea fowls don't come from Turkey, either. They're from Africa. But they were imported via Turkey, which was good enough, apparently. As to how anybody got a turkey confused with a guinea fowl, I think the only excuse for that would be if the guinea fowl was in a form such as this:

Mmm, delicious-looking guinea fowl. (Photo by By FASTILY via Wikimedia Commons)
The pre-Columbian people of Mexico were the first to domesticate turkeys, and the conquistadors took turkeys back to Spain in the early 16th century. Rumors of their deliciousness spread to other parts of Europe, and then the English got involved and suddenly the birds were called turkeys, even though they were not Turkish or Spanish but Mexican. If the English language was fair and made sense, we would be eating mexicos, not turkeys. 

English colonists took turkeys with them and introduced them to North America in the 17th century. Of course, the species was already here, and Native Americans had been eating them for goodness knows how many generations. What this means, though, is that the birds we buy this week at the grocery store are all actually descended from Mexican turkeys. I think my brain is about to explode. 

And then after all that, I discovered that we should really be eating eels this Thanksgiving.