Rut

10-point skull

After six days of being sick and sleeping in odd patterns (if at all), what a joy to wake up well before light and sit out on the porch with my coffee again! It’s good to get back into the old rut. Sirius glows balefully above the trees to the south. A great-horned owl calls once from the same direction. Water gurgles in the ditches on both sides of the yard with a pleasing stereophonic effect — something I might not notice if it were daylight.

The deer are restless this morning. All the while I sip my coffee — some twenty minutes — I hear them crashing back and forth through the woods on the other side of the driveway. It’s not a bear or a coyote that’s spooked them, I don’t think; I don’t hear any alarm snorts or stamping of front hooves, and the mad dashes seem too frequent and too short. What I hear instead are the strange, low grunts of a buck in rut. At one point, there’s a higher-pitched vocalization, almost a moan. I wonder if I might be hearing some advanced stage of the mating game. More likely, though, it’s the sound of rival bucks contending for the privilege of servicing a doe in estrus.

Imagine what it would be like if human beings went into rut and estrus like white-tailed deer: if males were obsessed with sex for only two months out of the year instead of all twelve, and females for just one day! The economy would collapse. Without the dependable lure of sex and all the anxieties attending the quest for personal sex appeal, how would you get consumers to spend money? And with nothing to sublimate, who would bother to farm, make widgets, or write blog posts?

It’s funny, every year brings fresh evidence that most of the vaunted properties of the human heart and mind that were once thought to set us apart actually differ only in degree, not in kind, from the mental abilities of other animals. Tool-using? Complex problem-solving? Language? Altruistic behavior? Reverence for the remains of dead relatives? Warfare? Peace-making? All these and more can be found in other species. Symbolic language still appears uniquely human, and I suppose you can consider that a difference in kind if you want to. But what most separates us from other animals lies not in our minds but in our bodies — specifically, in women’s bodies. They don’t go into estrus. Along with our close relatives the bonobos, humans are virtually the only species that’s physically capable of making whoopie any time of the year.

Which is not to say that many other species don’t enjoy genital stimulation — including (gasp!) with members of the same sex — throughout the year; they simply aren’t fertile then and can’t engage in coitus. On the positive side, the virtually unique sexiness of the human female seems closely linked with the complexity of our social systems and the concomitant expansion in brainpower (I hesitate to say “consciousness,” since that’s such a nebulous and loaded term). Many researchers now suggest that extended human longevity, especially for post-menopausal females, derives from the competitive advantages enjoyed by those with the best daycare arrangements (‘Hey, Grandma…’). On the downside, liberated from the solar cycle, human females became shackled to the rhythms of our lifeless companion planet instead. Free to have sex whenever they want, they became vulnerable to sexual predators year ’round. [UPDATE: see comments section for discussion of rape among other animals.] And once we became smart enough to figure out how to eliminate or fend off our natural predators, human populations were free to grow exponentially.

In a nutshell, then: to be human means, above all else, to be uniquely capable of love. Or from another perspective, which strikes me as equally valid, to be human means to be uniquely fucked.

After I go back inside, I grab my copy of Appalachian Autumn and look up “Deer: white-tailed: mating behavior of” in the index. (Fortunately, my mother took the time to compile good indices for all four of her Appalachian Seasons books.) I refresh my memory with this passage, from November 24:

At the Far Field thicket I found more evidence of the rutting season — several secondary scrapes littered with deer tracks and feces. Again I conjured up a vision, this one of bucks and does meeting here and pairing off, an anthropomorphic idea totally at odds with what really happens between bucks and does. Although does can be choosy, they usually mate repeatedly with only one buck. Two days before a doe is actually ready, she begins seeking out a buck by leaving a trail of urine and pheromones. While every buck in the area may track her down, usually only the dominant buck, which drives off the others, claims her by “tending” her until she comes into estrus. Then he may copulate with her anywhere from once or twice during her twenty-four hours of receptivity to many times (one researcher reported eight times during the daylight alone). Since most breeding is done at night, actual figures are hard to come by. Once her time is up, though, the buck heads off to find another receptive doe. During the sixty-day rutting season, a mature buck may breed with between four and twenty does. On the other hand, after her twenty-four-hour fling, assuming she has conceived, the doe has no more interest in bucks.

It may sound as if the bucks are having all the fun. Perhaps they are, but like humans on alcoholic binges, they pay a heavy toll at the end. The prolonged stresses of the rut leave them depleted of energy stores right at the onset of winter. Many of them will linger through till February or March only to die miserable deaths from starvation and/or hypothermia. With luck, they’ll fall to the sharp fangs of a predator or a well-aimed bullet instead, but one way or another, their bodies will return to the food chain. The herd simply doesn’t need all those bucks. Contrary to the fond beliefs of many more romantic folks, nature is not a loving mother.

I suppose some people will read this and wonder why I have such a bleak worldview. I can hear it now: “Dave, you just need to get laid!” (Well, maybe I do, but that’s irrelevant. My beliefs are carefully thought out and entirely rational!) The thing is, the world doesn’t feel bleak to me. If you believe, as I do, that the only paradise that matters must be sought in the present moment, than what does it matter if in the long run we are all somebody else’s dinner? Right here, right now, the coffee is good, the stars are beautiful, and the night is alive with primal music — the flow of water, and the urgent and wondrous and terrifying dance that attends the creation of new life. Regardless of how attentive or distracted I may be, the ability to draw breath at such a moment feels like pure grace. I wouldn’t want things any other way.

boulder

***

Speaking of grace, this week for some reason Via Negativa has been getting an unusual number of interesting comments, which have been a welcome source of diversion to me. Maybe it’s just because the sorts of things I’ve felt up to writing about (sickness, politicians and toilet seats) are a bit more inviting than my usual fare. Actually, I rarely mind the relative paucity of comments here; nine times out of ten, I don’t comment on the blogs I read, either. I tend to do my blog reading late in the day, when my creative energies are at a low ebb, and besides, I figure I’m doing my part to support other blogs and bloggers through my Smorgasblog project, the Festival of the Trees, and qarrtsiluni. But if one doesn’t leave comments, one can’t expect to get very many in return, which is why I feel especially blessed that Via Negativa still gets so many of such high quality.

The message string for my post on toilet seats was an eye-opener for me. I had no idea that toilet seats could evoke such passions. Don’t miss your chance to weigh in, if you haven’t already, on this weighty and multi-faceted subject.

Even more recently, what do you use to keep your place in a book? If you thought the answer was “a bookmark,” you may be mistaken. Don’t miss the great contributions of Joan and butuki, among others, to the riddle thread, where the elusive sylph also makes a brief reappearance, gesturing enigmatically with a cat’s whisker.

16 Comments


  1. Fabulous post, Dave, entertaining AND educational with a touch of the spiritual. The females in the deer world seem to be the winners, hmm, but the point about rape of the human female is a shocker. And they say we behave like animals?

    I had a lot of laughs reading the toilet seat post and comments – now that’s a subject that we all seem to have an opnion on – though I didn’t have anything original to add.

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  2. Thanks, Marja-Leena.

    And they say we behave like animals?

    As an insult, I think this best refers to domestic animals, which have been robbed of intelligence, poor things, in a way that has no real parallel in the natural world (or among humans, for that matter). But see discussion below.

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  3. Imagine what it would be like if human beings went into rut and estrus like white-tailed deer: if males were obsessed with sex for only two months out of the year instead of all twelve…

    I for one wouldn’t recognize human males if this were the case… What would y’all do with all the time & brain power this would free up? ;-)

    I’m not entirely in agreement with you, Dave, on the point regarding rape…or maybe I just don’t completely understand what you’re saying. How is it that female fertility cycles are to blame? There are other species (mallard ducks being the first that springs to mind) that rape females, so rape isn’t a uniquely human phenomenon…and since ducks don’t (I think) go into estrus per se, we can’t “blame” the female duck for emitting enticing smells that provoke the males.

    I’m guessing (?) that your point is that human males “know” on some instinctive level that human females can conceive at any time, so rape becomes a subconscious or even instinctive biological imperative: “Let me jump her so I can spread my seed,” etc. But if this were true, men would only rape women who were presumably fertile: no old ladies, pre-pubescent girls, or women on the Pill.

    (That last point is assuming that Barbara Kingsolver was right when she suggested in Prodigal Summer that men can subconsciously smell the difference between a fertile woman & one whose fertility has been interrupted by oral contraceptives. I realize a novel isn’t the most scholarly of sources, but her point rang true with my own experience.)

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  4. Lorianne – I guess I should’ve qualified that the estrus-no estrus comparison only holds for those species that actually go into estrus, e.g. mammals. But even then, you’re right, saying that rape is a human behavior “virtually unique among animals” is unwarranted hyperbole. I should probably say instead that it is rare in mammals other than humans. In some bird species such as the white-fronted bee-eaters, mallards, pintail and teal, it can occur regularly, according to Jeffrey Moussuieff Masson and Susan McCarthy in When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, which I just bestirred myself to grab off the shelf. (Goddamn lousy memory!) Mammals in which forcible sex, successful or attempted, been observed include orangutans, dolphins (!), seals, bighorn sheep, wild horses, and coatimundis, according to Masson and McCarthy.

    I wouldn’t argue that rape derives from a biological imperative. I think it derives from the fact that some individual males are, for whatever reason, fucked up. Nature is messy, never perfect: thus populations of a species that is otherwise highly sociable – Homo sapiens – can include around five percent who are sociopaths. No reason to think that isn’t true for other species (in ways that make sense for their own unique psychological make-up).

    Thanks for calling me on that. I’ll now go back and alter or excise the offending statement.

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  5. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it an “offending statement,” Dave, just a questionable one. The feminist in me felt obligated to point out that rape isn’t always/necessarily about sex & procreation, but power & subjugation. That’s why, after all, human men sometimes get raped, too.

    I find it interesting that the mammals that Masson & McCarthy note as exhibiting rape behaviors are either highly intelligent (e.g. orangutangs & dolphins) or highly social (e.g. seals, sheep, horses). (I hasten to note I don’t know a thing about coatimundis: it’s possible that they are the except to prove my observation!) I wonder what it is about living in social groups that causes even intelligent animals to behave brutishly?

    (And the inclusion about dolphins doesn’t shock me: supposedly they’re surprisingly horny creatures, which makes a bit problematic the dolphin-swimming that so many New Agey humans enjoy.)

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  6. Well no, it was “offending” only in the formal sense that one employs that cliché.

    rape isn’t always/necessarily about sex & procreation, but power & subjugation
    Indeed, which is why I think I was so eager to restrict it to humans. (Actually, I am still leary of extending our word to acts of forcible sex among other animals, but that may be warrantless anthropocentricism on my part.)

    Coatimundis are highly social. “Coatimundi females and young males up to 2 years are gregarious and travel trough their territories in noisy, loosely organized bands made up of 4-25 individuals, foraging with their offspring on the ground or in the forest’s canopy. Males over 2 years become solitary due to behavioural disposition and collective aggression from the females, and will join the female groups only during the breeding season,” says the Wikipedia article. The other mammmals in that list are also social animals, yes – good point. I wonder what that tells us? (It might simply be incidental, based on which species have been the most intensively observed by ethologists. After all, wouldn’t they tend to favor animals that are most like us?)

    As for dolphins and horny New Agers, I once ran across a website that gave explicit instructions on how to have sex with porpoises. I think it was only male humans who could safely have sex with female porpoises. I don’t necessarily want to turn this thread into a discussion of bestiality, which I know next to nothing about, but it does seem to me that if both partners clearly consent (apparently one must wait for female porpoises to initiate), it doesn’t really qualify as a crime. Perverse, yes, and not something I’d be into, but whatever.

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  7. Well, Dave, it’s good to have you back at the top of your form. What I enjoyed most about this post was the way you riffed on “rut” and where it eventually took you. Something I wonder, along those lines – sexual and otherwise – is whether it is particularly human to enjoy and desire variety, as wella s to take comfort in one’s own familiar rut. Disregarding the obvious example of that… we used to talk in Vermont about how sick we were of taking the same rat-paths (as we called them) to get across the Connecticut river to the neighboring towns. One thing I am crazy about in the city is that there are an infinite number of ways to get from point A to point B, and an infinite number of things to see and experience along the way. On the other hand, I am a big fan of limits – observing oneself and the view from one’s own porch every morning, for example. I wonder how the animal kingdom would relate that that.

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  8. That’s a very interesting question, Beth. I don’t have the knowledge to answer it except anecdotally – but then again, probably no one else does, either, because the study of animal behavior is in its infancy.

    There was an interesting study of white-tailed deer reported on last year in which researchers fastened miniature cameras to the heads of wild deer so they could see exactly where they went every day. They were shocked by just how regular they were in their patterns, and how far out of their way they’d go to visit favorite water and food sources, for example, even when other sources were closer by. I wondered at the time how these results might have differed if the deer were being actively preyed upon, though – this was in some part of the upper midwest where, as in the northeast, cougars and wolves have been eliminated.

    At any rate, I would expect that it is highly advantageous for the individuals of some species to constantly change their patterns, while for others, consistency might be equally key, depending on ecological niche, local geogrophy and climate, and probably other factors as well. But within each species, too, it’s reasonable to assume plenty of variation, just as among humans. I would go further and point out that “intelligence,” if it means anything, refers to a certain agility of mind, including a healthy sense of curiosity and the ability to quickly adapt to changing circumstances. (This is a definition that — by sheer coincidence, of course — fits highly social, opportunistic, habitat generalists such as human beings very well!) So I would suggest that other species we deem intelligent would exhibit a similar taste for variety. Whether it ever approaches our own, I don’t know, but with creatures such as elephants and ravens, I’d be surprised if it didn’t.

    How’s that for a long-winded way of saying “I don’t know”?

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  9. Yeah – I don’t know either! Thanks for that answer and the story about the deer. It makes me want to go back and read what Jane Goodall has written on the subject, for example. My cat was extremely habitual and my dog, too, in some ways, but in the case of the dog, not to the point of being unable to enjoy novelty. What about horses? or pigs?or dolphins? Seems like the capacity for play is closely allied with desire for variety.

    But I can just about guarantee one thing – only humans would CHOOSE to limit themselves voluntarily, as a hermit does, for the specific sake of honing observational skills, both internal and external. Zen masters can talk about the zazen of a frog, but I don’t think the frog decided to be that way!

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  10. Yeah, the capacity for play – I should have said that. Good point.

    The hermit appears to be limiting himself, but I’d say it’s really just a more refined form of exploration.

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  11. Good post, Dave, indeed you’re back on form.
    You’ve studied animal behaviour a lot more than I have so I can’t tell if my question is naive or not but:
    how can anyone tell that an animal is “raping” another animal as opposed to simply having sex? I mean it’s not as though the rapee is saying “I said no and I meant no”. When cats are mating, for instance, the female sounds as though she really, truly objects but apparently those are ecstatic sounds.

    On another tack:
    Concerning human sexual behaviour, somebody will no doubt research how it has gradually changed (in the West anyway) in our time, as women became more powerful and began to assert themselves. It’s not at all unusual now for women to be the pursuers, to demand sexual satisfaction and to have many partners. This has, apparently, caused many men to become anxious about their performance, etc. Fertility, it seems, has also dropped dramatically.

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  12. I agree, you don’t have to feel bleak. Accepting all of those things in life that people tell you to be afraid of… yes, you’re going to die, yes… enjoy the ride that you’re on.

    And grace. Grace definitely definitely helps. Even clumsy grace.

    That is some photo. Woah.

    Two months of sex? Sign me up.

    My cats know when they’ve done wrong, and they continue on that path until a small Nerf football gets thrown at them — this is so similar to my own guilty path.

    ‘vulnerable to sexual predators year ’round’ — now that’s a label!

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  13. Natalie –

    how can anyone tell that an animal is “rapingâ€? another animal as opposed to simply having sex? I mean it’s not as though the rapee is saying “I said no and I meant noâ€?.

    Yeah, that’s just it. Masson and McCarthy go into detail about mallards, in which females in pair-bond relationships are regularly ganged up upon by groups of renegad males, and sometimes drown as a result. So that sounds like a pretty clear-cut case. They also say that “In the wild, bottle-nosed dolphins, despite their saintly popular image, have been seen to form male gangs to sequester and rape females of their own species.” I don’t know what the parameters are in other cases, hence my own hesitation a few comments back. But I am willing to believe that people who spend a lot of time with animals of another species can become adept at reading their body language and undrstanding their vocalizations.

    This has, apparently, caused many men to become anxious about their performance, etc.

    Ah, so that explains all those spam emails!

    Bobby – Thanks for the reactions. I’m glad you agree with some of my points.

    Yeah, animals can feel something like guilt, for sure. Assuming that guilt and consciousness of wrong are the same thing, which probably isn’t strictly true.

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  14. I disagree about the economy collapsing, though. Desire is endless; want want want want want, this will make me happy that will make me happy, escaping this will end my unhappiness, escaping that will set me free. Our anxiety is infinite; sex could drop out of the equation without disturbing much of anything. So I don’t think we’re uniquely fucked. All us sentient beings are in this together, all fucked alike.

    Or maybe I just need to get laid, myself.

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  15. Dale – you’re probably right.

    I’m begining to wish I’d used a different word than “uniquely” to qualify both “fucked” and “capable of love.” What I meant was, “to a unique degree.” No question other animals are also capable of love and prone to a variety of neuroses and psychoses.

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