Saturday, February 28, 2009

Avian reflections

It is 6:25 am and getting light outside. There is a tapping on the window which opens my eyes. It is my friend the red cardinal - this time the RED cardinal, the boybird. Sometimes his more demure brown mate comes instead. There is a tall bush brushing up against the window on the outside. The cardinals do not nest there, but it offers a safe place to hang out, and they can often be found skittering among the leaves. The tapping stops, and I go back to sleep. As if playing snooze-button, the tapping begins again at 7am precisely, at another point on the window.

After my father died, my sister was sleeping in an upstairs room in the Lothersdale house. She was woken up by a black bird pecking at the window, 'trying to get in'. It's hard not to think of Hitchcock's adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's story 'The Birds', or of the folkloric associations of death and the raven. What was the bird really doing?

When my kids were small, I told them bedtime stories. At one point they shared bunk beds in a room in a Victorian house that had a blocked-off fireplace. With a small turn of the imagination, it looked like a tiny door, perhaps out of a Narnia story. I would tell M&C about the magical world that it opened onto; they were sceptical and yet entranced.

Lacan writes of a certain structural alienation that we each undergo as humans, the stage of psychological development he dubs the 'mirror stage'. As young children (6-18 months) we experience ourselves as an image in the mirror, and for the first time grasp ourselves as a whole. But the price for this integration is a certain alienation - we identify ourselves with an image.

It has been said that no other creature can do this. But this is increasingly disputed. "Animals that have passed the mirror test are all of the great apes (bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, and humans), bottlenose dolphins, orcas, elephants, and European magpies. Initially, it was thought that gorillas do not pass the test, but there are now several well-documented reports (such as one gorilla, Koko) of gorillas passing the test. In 1981, Epstein, Lanza and Skinner published a paper in the journal Science in which they argued that the pigeon also passes the mirror test. Pigeons though could only detect the spots on their own body after they had been trained to and untrained pigeons have never been able to pass the mirror test. Dogs, cats, and young human children all fail the mirror test." [Wikipedia]

What are my red cardinals up to? Perhaps at the back of their bush they have found a doorway onto another world. They have found a place at which, at a certain point in the day, perhaps quite a narrow time 'window', they encounter something quite uncanny - something we would call their reflection in the glass, but which must at first seem like a competitor. One can only imagine the conversations between boy and girl cardinal, and the confused jealousies: "There's another guy hanging around!". "Oh yeah - she looked like a pretty cool chick to me."

Parallel plate-glass windows on two sides of a house are known to be fatal for birds, not because they are frozen, petrified, by an encounter with their own image, but because they can see right through the glass and fly headlong into a broken neck, and a crumpled twitter. But at my window, there is perhaps not tragedy - more the stirrings of an avian uncanny. Heidegger writes about the way in which a great thinker can glimpse something but not truly recognize what they have glimpsed. Could a cardinal hop away from the window puzzled, having failed to see off the intruder?

We humans think we are safely perched in that higher category of beings that can see themselves in a mirror, opening up the possibility of reflection. And yet when the effects of what we are doing to the planet are reflected back to us in the shape of antarctic glaciers slipping into the sea, we seem unable to recognize our own hand at work. Might it not be that what we construct as the site of the red cardinal's puzzlement mirrors our own predicament? To 'see' what is in front of our nose, requires a Copernican shift of frame. As for the cardinals: the danger out there is not an alien intruder, it is us.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Harvesting solar reservoirs

There are many ways of hauling logs out of the woods, and many animals that been used before powered wheels turned up (see images). One-man harnesses, dogs, mules, horses, bullocks preceded tractors, skidders, 4x4s etc. The secret is always to reduce friction at the log (ice is perfect, or water, or air [using aerial cables?]) - or skids, and maximize traction at the power source. Then these logs, which have collected solar energy over years, sometimes centuries, can be used to build houses, variably resisting insect attack, protecting their inhabitants against the elements (not least the sun). The labyrinth of the capitalization of power! Not surprisingly, the largest trees at YB are growing in the least accessible places, protected by the difficulty of hauling out their carcasses.

Halfway to the spring, fallen trees had blocked the path, both rooted on my neighbor's side of the creek. I had to clear them, so I planned on hauling them away. One had been a live cedar, about 12" diameter, lots of red wood, and over 40' high. The other of unknown brand, similar girth, but lighter after years of standing dead, and on its way being firewood. It could however, work as a semi-structural vertical support in a house (see old Japanese buildings). But how to move these trees out of there? I took out the 4x4 and a chain. Whoever invented the chain-hook that couples back onto one of the links, and grips, while being as easy as pie to decouple later, deserves a medal. Alongside the guy who invented the chain. (Or was it a gal, making a daisy-chain for her sweetheart, by splitting stems, and passing the earlier stem through the split?) There is something about a chain, and the mixture of mobility and strength that is quite impressive. Even a man in chains might glimpse this. ... I tied one end around each log, and hauled away. Once the trees get going, they slither along quite nicely, with protruding limb stubs gouging out lines in the damp mud beneath last fall's leaves. But there was a point on the trail that blocked the 4x4's access to the last tree. I needed a second chain to reach through, and paced out a 25' shortfall. Joe was coming round, so I asked him if he had a long chain - about 25' - if he would bring it. After putting the phone down, I thought - typically chains are not that long. Could we perhaps do with 20' by squeezing the 4x4 forward? Had my measuring-by-strides been too generous? Would we cope? If we had a 5' gap, could I use rope to bridge it? Joe turned up with the chain. It's only 20', he announced. The last log was the lower section of the big cedar, itself over 20' long. There may be a 5' gap, I said. I have some yellow poly rope, but it's not thick enough. Joe took the rope, looped it into three strands, tied bowline knots at each end, with triple loops, and we had our extra five feet. And bowline knots unslip after great tension. We needed the rope. At first the log would not move - it was at too much of an angle to the path, and sloping down to the creek. Thirty years ago I was leaving a monastery in Athos for the day, and five ancient monks were already at work, moving huge rocks with wooden poles. I had also seen video reconstructions of Stonehenge rock-moving techniques, using logs as rollers, as it happened. Poles worked wonders with us too, allowing weak humans to move weights we could not otherwise contemplate shifting. We know even birds use sticks to poke insects out of holes. Do they ever use them as levers? We got the log nicely back to under the front deck, and then argued about how long it was, pacing out the length with our bodies. Over 20', yes. But we staked our respective reputations on more exact figures before measuring it. 22'9" said the metal tape. We both lost the bet with technology, but gained about 2' of actual log. I will try to adjust my stride. At 17 it was exactly 3'. Now I think I am stretching my pace a little. It's either metrification (one yard = approx 3'3") - nostalgia for Europe? Or my misguided attempt at compensation for no longer being 17.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Thinking better

I am at Tractor Outlet, buying galvanized wire to make a horizontal wire grape arbor over the front deck. The young man does not think they have the wire I want, but maybe it's outside. We find it, but it's not galvanized, he says. The label, however, says galvanized. It does not look like 374 ft in that $14.95 coil, but it is. "I live on a farm, he volunteered."
I select two 10lb coils.
"Strange," he said, "I thought galvanized was shiny. Where are you from?"
" Where are you from?" I ask.
"I was born right around here."
"I'm from England."
"I thought so, with that voice. What do you do?"
"I teach in Nashville."
"What do you teach?"
"Hey, I'm fixin' to take a philosophy course next year."
"That's good, it teaches you how to think."
"But I already know how to think."
"Well, it teaches you to think better."
"Is that right!"

Next stop: find a Muscadine grape vine to grow up the arbor.
And stand back.

Monday, February 2, 2009

'Tired' goat, tired horse

Some moons ago, Molly returned from Birdsong Hollow Farm, complete with progeny. She was accompanied by a triumphant ribboned wreath, as if being given the freedom of the city. On Saturday she was spotted trailing the rest of the herd and sporting ... a wreath on her stubby horns. How could this be? An unsuspected Saturnalia among the cloven-footed? A late-night party? How could Molly have found the wreath, and begun to wear it? Had she been made queen? What was going on? A couple of years ago, I discovered that the sliced sides of car tires would form an effective donut-shaped ring mulch around a newly planted tree. One such slice with a frizzy penumbra had been left lying around. And somehow Molly had got it tangled in her horns. She was not parading, she was in distress. But would she let me near her to sort things out? She ran off, with the weight of this encumbrance dragging on her head. Yesterday I went back to find her, hoping she was worn out, and I could catch her. I found the herd, and feared the worst. No Molly. I talked to Buddy with my best dog-whispering. In the movies, the dog understands what you are saying, and takes you off to find the goat just in time to save it. Buddy smiled, but seemed to understand nothing. The goats were in two parties. There was a nursery at the barn, with the two nannies, and their five kids (two black, three b/w) - only days/weeks old. Then the main herd, from which Molly had been missing. They were coming back to YB central. And somehow Molly was with them this time - looking very tired, but wreath-free. Had she had help? Those goats cooperate in pushing over my wiremesh tree protectors, exposing the now protruding leaves for each other. Did they have a wreath-removing clinic after tea? OK so she did not need me. The goat herd has lost a few old guys, and seems well-served by some strong rams. Perhaps that's how there are still five kids, despite coyotes.

After this, it was time to check on the horses, if only to be reminded of their gently different natures. Big Mama had a little limp - arthritis? Stone in foot? Melissa will check. But Chance was worrying. He was lying down - mid morning. And did not get up. He seemed to have mud caked in his hooves. Wasn't that heavy-breathing? Was he dying? He did not respond to the ordinary excited encouragement that would have got me to my feet. Then he lay his heavy head down on the ground. He must be terribly sick. I tried calling Jay on his cell w/o success. Would we be able to pick up the body on the front-end loader? Could we leave it deep in the woods for Nature's helpers to help themselves? When all seemed lost, Chance got up and walked off. As he did so, I noticed that the patch of ground on which he was lying was no longer quite as much in the sun as it had been when he first lay down.