Keepers of the game

Cabela'sLast Thursday, en route to south Jersey to visit family, we went a little out of our way to visit the new Cabela’s store in Hamburg, PA. Cabela’s is a retailer of outdoors gear, primarily for hunters and fishers. They call themselves an outfitter, but this is no back-of-beyond outfitters store; it’s a monstrosity. Pennsylvania had to outbid several of its neighbors to get it, offering the corporation all kinds of absurd tax breaks and subsidies. You can’t really call it a big box store, because it’s not boxy in shape. Instead, it’s built like an enormous lodge, rising to a point in order to make room for a two-storey-tall, artificial mountain at the center of the store that serves as a diorama for a collection of taxidermy mounts from all over North America. Trophies from other continents — mainly Africa — line the walls. There’s an entire elephant over against one wall, not far from the fish tanks.

The mountain in the store is a rocky crag bearing little resemblance to the long, low ridges we think of as mountains in Pennsylvania. In the photo you can see Kittatinny Ridge behind the bronze sculpture of a heroic frontiersman and an Indian in a canoe. Two hundred and fifty years ago, this mountain was indeed the frontier and the edge of Indian territory, where refugees from ethnic cleansing to the southeast and in surrounding states took temporary shelter. Today, however, Kittatinny Ridge is best known for the world-famous Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, which was started by an amateur ornithologist named Richard Pough who objected to the once-popular sport of shooting hawks and eagles on migration.

In 1929, Pennsylvania’s Game Commission placed a $5 price tag on the goshawk’s head–a grand sum in Depression years. Two years later, while Pough was a recent college graduate living in Philadelphia, he became one of a growing number of conservationists opposed to the widespread movement to eradicate wildlife predators, including predatory birds.

Pough heard of the place locals called “Hawk Mountain” and decided to visit. There he saw gunners stationed, shooting hundreds of passing hawks for sport. He returned to gather the carcasses lying on the forest floor and take photographs. Pough unsuccessfully tried to stop the shooting himself, but his photographs were eventually seen by a national conservation activist–New Yorker Rosalie Edge.

In 1934, Mrs. Edge came to Hawk Mountain and leased 1,400 acres. She installed a warden on the property, a New England bird enthusiast named Maurice Broun, and Maurice’s wife and bird conservation partner, Irma Broun. The shooting stopped immediately and the next year, Mrs. Edge opened the Sanctuary to the public as a place to see the beautiful but persecuted birds of prey. She purchased and deeded the 1,400 acres to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association, incorporated in 1938 as a non-profit organization in Pennsylvania.

The Cabela’s store is a huge tourist draw, as you can tell from the buses out front. There were at least as many schoolchildren there as we saw in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia the next day. Perhaps they were only stopping on the way to a field trip to Hawk Mountain. As you may have gathered by now, Cabela’s doesn’t just sell guns and boots (we were there for the boots), it sells a fantasy. A fantasy based on a romantic, even sentimental idea about nature that goes back close to a thousand years, I would argue, to when the word “forest” still meant “a hunting preserve for the king,” and “wild” was still indistinguishable from “willed” — as in “sovereign, opposed to one’s own will.” In the Middle Ages, the relationship between king and lion was more than symbolic; a ruler proved his kingliness by killing large predators, and substituting himself for them. We all know from Robin Hood the sorts of punishments that were meted out to mere mortals who killed the king’s deer. When Scots-Irish and other oppressed European tribesmen emigrated to places like Pennsylvania, they gloried in their new-found freedom to slaughter game. Every man could be a king! In practical terms, of course, the fur-traders depicted in the Cabela’s sculpture were lowly serfs to an international market, but we’re talking about fantasy, then and now.

bear and moose

I am far from opposed to hunting, as regular readers of this blog will know. I don’t hunt myself, mostly because I don’t think I’d have the patience, but I do like venison, and I love the whole idea of eating wild animals — except for those near the top of the food chain whose populations cannot support much hunting pressure, and which are generally not very good to eat in any case. Bears are kind of an in-between case — they can be carnivores, but in the main they’re scavengers, like us. Eating a bear, to me, would be almost like eating an ape or monkey: uncomfortably close to cannibalism. But I’d probably still try bear meat if someone offered it.

Does killing something inevitably objectify it? A lot of people would say yes, but most American Indians — and a lot of other indigenous peoples around the world — would probably disagree. From what I have seen, some Anglo-American hunters are also capable of killing without disrespecting an animal or treating it as some sort of walking target. And many of the hunters I know here in central Pennsylvania do express admiration for large predators — though that doesn’t necessarily mean they’d want to see the return of wolves and cougars and the competition for game that would ensue. Even coyotes are vilified in some quarters for their occasional predation on white-tailed deer fawns.

Which is not to romanticize indigenous hunters, either: their sacred stories often include something very similar to the Biblical story of the Fall, reflecting, I think, a nearly universal recognition of a tragic aspect to existence. And Indians no less than whites fantasized about a land somewhere over the horizon where all the game animals were plentiful and offered their bodies for food, again and again, with no adverse effect: the tragic vision’s comic, utopian twin. From an ecological perspective, both these visions contain elements of truth.

It is of course no longer legal to shoot hawks and eagles, and most of us have learned to refer to killer whales as orcas, but our culture retains a deep ambivalence toward predators. Animal rights advocates no less than trophy hunters strike me as being guilty of over-sentimentalizing nature. If it is wrong to eat other animals, where does that put the true carnivores? Should we pray for their reincarnation as human beings so they can become as enlightened as we are?

Tyger, tyger

Then there’s science. It may seem hard to believe now, but the “widespread movement to eradicate wildlife predators” mentioned in the quote from the Hawk Mountain website was instigated by professional wildlife managers in the name of science. It was once accepted wisdom that predators had to be eliminated for the betterment of nature. Mother Nature — the condescending term was as popular then as it is today — was like a little old lady, and wildlife managers and foresters were the boy scouts helping her across the street. And while it would be nice to think that we know better now, the ongoing aerial gunning of wolves in Alaska suggests that this mentality is far from extinct.

Can you tell which of the above two pictures was taken in the Academy of Natural Sciences and which was taken in Cabela’s? Does it matter? If a trophy is a kind of fetish, a repository of power and passport to an eternal frontier where the owner can be top predator, what about all those stuffed animals in a natural history museum? They’re there for educational purposes, we’re told, but what exactly can we learn from something we can’t even touch? They might as well be made out of wax or plastic — and why aren’t they?

I’m not saying that killing the odd bird or mammal for a scientific collection is going to push a species over the edge — except that, whoops, that is basically what happened with the ivory-billed woodpecker around the turn of the 20th century. What I’m concerned about here is the message we’re sending with all these lifelike dead animals, whether in a sporting goods megastore or in a museum. Is this how we want kids to think of nature: as a parade of attractive collectibles, with only fake mountains or painted backdrops for habitat? As long as breeding populations of these charismatic critters survive in zoos, or in small, scattered parcels of natural habitat — people might think — isn’t that enough?

waste not

There is another way, of course, and this photo illustrates one of them. Natural history museums may lure kids in with fossils, but I think they can really have an impact on their worldviews with great interactive exhibits like “The Scoop on Poop.” We had two seven-year-olds with us, and they loved it. Even us alleged grown-ups had fun testing our knowledge of poop-related trivia, or finding out how many hours it would take an elephant to eliminate our weight in dung. There were no stuffed elephants in evidence, either, just a pile of very realistic plastic poop.

It wasn’t only the interactive nature of the exhibit that pleased me; I thought the content was very appropriate, too. What better way to instill a sense of wonder in seven-year-olds then by letting them hold a 100 million-year-old fossilized dinosaur butt nugget? And if they manage to absorb the lesson that in nature there is no such thing as “waste” — if they begin to perceive even the seemingly most disgusting or threatening things as necessary and valuable — then in a few more years they might be able to teach all of us a thing or two.

Delaware Bay


I scatter a level tablespoon of dry yeast on the surface of the warm water — three-fourths of a cup, blood temperature — in the yellow mixing bowl that belonged to my mother’s father’s mother. Hard to call it an antique, since we use it almost every day. In fact, I just took it off the dish drainer: my mother used it to mix a dessert custard an hour ago. The paint is a little chipped around the rim, but otherwise it’s in fine shape. It’s a two-quart bowl, ceramic, and with a steep-sided shape that’s hard to find these days, so for reasons more practical than sentimental my mother lives in dread of someone dropping and breaking it someday.

This is called proofing the yeast: waiting for it to show signs of life. Not so different from proofreading a text, really. While I wait, I grind rosemary, measure out a quarter cup of olive oil and a teaspoon of salt, and get the flour out of the cupboard. I’ll start with a half-scoop of white flour, then make up the rest — two to three cups, I guess — with medium-ground whole wheat. I tried adding some durum wheat flour for a while, but I couldn’t tell the difference. For whole wheat pizza, I’ve found that using a heated stone and adding the sauce right away are the most important things. Otherwise you end up with something you need to cut with a steak knife.

But that’s a couple hours away yet. Right now, I’m still waiting for the yeast. I stand looking out at the back porch, where my mother hangs the birdfeeders. The black barn cat crouches over a vole burrow below the steps. A little farther downslope, a brown leaf rises on a sudden gust of wind and reattaches itself to a low-hanging branch. I stare in disbelief. It’s too cold out for butterflies. There aren’t any birds that look like that. I walk into the next room to look through another window, but now I can’t find the leaf. I go back into the kitchen and look through the back door again: the leaf, or whatever it was, is indeed gone. So is the cat.

Yesterday around noon, as I was waiting for a batch of bread to finish, I stood here and watched a small woodchuck eating the young leaves off the black raspberry canes. The woodchuck stood on its hind legs to reach the canes, which it held between its teeth like corn on the cob, delicately nibbling the inch-long leaves. They had burst from their buds two weeks ago, just before the cold returned, and have hardly grown since. This wasn’t the fat and handsome fellow I watched through my own kitchen window two weeks ago; in fact, it looked as if it might have gotten a bit too close to that other chuck. There was a long gash in the fur of its lower back, and its tail was missing. “Scarbutt,” I said to myself, thinking of Al Pacino.

With the cat gone, the birds filter back. All the sparrows are still around, including the swamp sparrow, who is proving something of a bully. He scratches like a chicken in the thick layer of sunflower seeds on the ground below the feeders, and chases anything that comes within a one-foot radius.

There’s a flash of gold at the left-hand feeder. Two of the goldfinches have nearly completed the changeover from drab olive green to their namesake summer plumage, but the mountain doesn’t seem quite ready for them yet. Over half of our daffodils and forsythia have yet to bloom, to say nothing of tulip poplars, sugar maples, oaks, and other green and gold things. I suppose the molt is triggered by length of daylight, and if turning early makes goldfinches more visible and vulnerable in a world of later springs, then perhaps selective pressures will favor late-bloomers — so to speak.

After five or six minutes, the yeast still on the surface has organized itself into ridges in a two-sided, symmetrical pattern strongly reminiscent of a brain viewed from above. Unfortunately, I don’t have my camera handy, and there’s no way I can get it from the other house before the yeast expands further and erases the pattern, so I won’t have any photographic evidence. I almost said “proof,” but that’s a term that seems distinctly out-of-place in the digital age, when proofsheets have disappeared along with the public’s confidence in photos as true depictions of reality. It’s a striking apparition, though, this brain of yeast. It’s still in my mind ten minutes later as I knead the dough — such a joy without the stickiness of the sugar (honey, molasses) required for bread! — and feel the bubbles begin to pop against my palms.

Where poets are superstars

I’ve always said to anyone who would listen that we English speakers could stand to emulate Arabs in their respect for the written and spoken word. Actually, most other cultures give poets and other intellectuals more respect than they get in the Anglophone world, but this story from PRI demonstrates the unusually strong appeal of poetry in the Arabian peninsula.

Academy of Natural Sciences

alive and enchanting

In a museum full of dead things, the butterfly garden gets prominent billing: “Alive and Enchanting,” says the banner above the admissions desk.


But the skeletons still fascinate. Pointing and squealing, schoolchildren thunder through the hall of the “Mesozoic Monsters,” as the museum calls them. For millions of Americans under the age of seven or eight, dinosaurs and their relatives occupy the same niche in the imagination that will later be filled by pop stars and Hollywood celebrities.


In a slightly quieter part of the museum, a 3,000-year-old mummy lies half-naked in a replica of a tomb. Here disassembly rather than assembly was required. Small knots of schoolchildren pause before the exhibit long enough to express their bafflement at finding a dead man on display on a floor otherwise devoted to taxidermy mounts.


But one floor down, the cocoons are left unwrapped until they hatch. Here in this newest addition to the museum’s permanent exhibitions, nature is no less of a spectacle than in the more traditional exhibits, but now the visitors are permitted behind the glass.

swallowtail 2

And while we are still discouraged from touching the exhibits, we are given instructions in how to behave should the exhibits happen to touch us: “Just stand still and wait for them to fly off. And watch where you step.”


We were all eyes.

Flies of the Lord


Meet Bombylius major, the greater bee fly (thanks, Bev!). Not only does it look superficially like a bee, but its larvae are parasitic on the larvae of certain solitary bees. The adults turn vegetarian, and imitate bees in feeding on nectar. The flowers, one supposes, are equally tickled to be pollinated by fly or by bee. But insect predators presumably prefer their flies not to look like bees, hence the mimicry.

Ordinarily these are fast-darting insects, but 45-degree temperatures on Wednesday morning made this one sluggish. Somewhere it must be finding nectar, though — perhaps in the maples? And just a day or two of warm weather will bring the shadbush out.

I remember the last warm day we had, over a week ago now: by late afternoon, the woods were buzzing, mostly with calliphoridae. That’s one of the great novelties of early spring, that one can actually feel warm and brotherly toward blow flies. A rare religious impulse even had me effusing from scripture —

Their land brought forth frogs in abundance, in the chambers of their kings.
He spake, and there came divers sorts of flies…

–which, taken out of context, actually sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

The blow flies’ metallic black or blue bodies made a pleasing contrast with the light-brown forest litter as they blundered about in search of something darker and smellier. The most successful in this search will likely have the easiest time eluding predation, given how they stand out against leaves or grass, and thus — one supposes — evolution favors dung- or carrion-colored blow flies the same way it favors bee mimics. There are a lot of hungry birds this time of year.

eastern bluebird

If there is a God, my friends, this is how she works, in never-ending Creation. The methods may seem random or cruel to our limited way of seeing, but “it is finished in beauty,” as the Navajo Night Chant puts it. In beauty, in harmony, in balance: all three have been offered as translations of the Navajo hozho, which expresses, I gather, the central moral and aesthetic value of a people whose own Creation story begins with the Air-Spirit People, whom we call insects.

Trees in the concrete

Wal-Mart carts

On the About page for the Festival of Trees, we note that “We are interested in trees in the concrete rather than in the abstract.” Xris of Flatbush Gardener thought it would be fun to take that literally and have “Trees in the Concrete” as a theme for the next edition of the blog carnival. In his own words:

Yes, I am also interested in trees in the concrete […]. Urban trees and forestry. Street trees, park trees, weed trees. So, for the next Festival of the Trees, I’m especially looking for submissions on this theme. This is not a restrictive theme, so anything which fits the FotT submission guidelines is welcome. If you have a doubt, send it. You can submit entries via the Festival of the Trees Submission Form on BlogCarnival. You can also send an email to festival (dot) trees (at) gmail (dot) com with “Festival of the Trees” in the subject line.

The publication date will be May 1st, 2007. The deadline for submissions is April 29. It’s my first time hosting a Blog Carnival, so be gentle.



    poem ending with a line from another poet

I do not want the skies to open

again & the Writ to sift down

like dust from a mill. It settles

nothing, as I said to our neighbor

the infidel before firing

into the air. We were getting married,

our daughter to his son, & showing

our teeth. My house is your house-

hold now, he said, & I almost wept

with rage. Let us pray together,

I should’ve offered, give thanks

for nothing, for prayers

ignored & virtues

made compulsory, & therefore

meaningless. There is no God

but God, & I’m still His faithful

cur, charged with the hard work

of making people happy.


[Poetry Thursday – dead link]

Thanks, January!

To read other responses to this week’s challenge, go here.

Morning’s minion

in the woods

Yesterday morning, I was out on the porch with my coffee at first light. The fourth-quarter moon was sliding through the branches of a tulip poplar at the edge of the woods. From up in the field on the north side of the house I heard the high nasal peenting of a woodcock, while from the woods in the other direction came the low, accelerating heartbeat sound of a ruffed grouse clapping his cupped wings against the dregs of the night. Water trickled in the ditch. A song sparrow belted out one verse and went back to sleep.

This morning I didn’t get out till 7:00. Noise from the limestone quarry two miles away mingled with traffic through the gap: the wind was out of the east. Over this din, I heard a singer I haven’t heard in seven or eight months, and it took a few moments to register the brassy improvisations of my favorite avian mimic, the brown thrasher. Other than the fact that it’s too early for a catbird, it’s his signature call-and-response pattern that gives him away: every phrase is repeated once, sometimes twice, before he moves on to another, unique phrase. If you want a full blues verse, you have to supply the third line yourself.

The thrasher was far from the only singer this morning, of course. Cardinals, titmice, a field sparrow, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, robins, a nuthatch, a pileated woodpecker, a winter wren, song sparrows, chickadees — it was a well-attended chorus. But one song has gone missing ever since the last time the temperature got down to zero in February, and it occurs to me that this could very well be the reason why the early morning, always my favorite time of the day, hasn’t been buoying my spirits quite the way it used to: I miss the Carolina wrens. They’ve been year-round residents for years, ever since — well, ever since the last really cold winter killed them off, whenever that was. Close to ten years ago, I think. Since they almost always sing at first light, regardless of the weather, they’re like irrepressibly cheerful alarm clocks, if you can imagine such a thing. A Carolina wren song is a summons to a morning you want to be awake and present for.


Later in the morning, my brother Steve came up with his two year-old daughter Elanor, who is easily as irrepresible a spirit as any Carolina wren, and we went for a good long ramble in the woods. I let her chart the course, for the most part, tagging along behind. Come to think of it, my coat pocket is still full of the acorns, acorn caps and small stones she handed me, lacking pockets of her own. (Can you imagine such a thing — a child’s coat without any pockets?) I could see little rhyme or reason to the things she picked up versus the things she passed over. Just that inborn hunting-gathering instinct, I said to myself as I bent down to photograph an odd arrangement of sticks.


There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch [Joshua] Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.
–Gene Weingarten, “Pearls Before Breakfast”

look mama
a man with a stick making a song
on a funny-looking box
stuck to his chin

come along honey we’ll be late

look how he stands & rocks mama
like a tree in the wind
& the box as shiny as fresh-shined shoes
where his voice should be

hush it’s only a street musician
don’t let him catch you looking

but mama
look how the song goes all around
from the same back & forth
isn’t that the most magic trick
you ever heard

it’s only a violin honey
hurry up we’ll be late

Blog ennui

I think I have blog ennui. In regard to my own posting, that is — I still enjoy reading others, and still get exciting about discovering great posts on unheralded blogs. But I have a rapidly diminishing interest in the products of my own pen. For the last few weeks, posting anything here has seemed a chore. The thrill is gone. Anyone know any cures?


There was snow on the ground for the fifth morning in a row, an inch and a half of fresh powder — well, not powder, exactly, but just sticky enough to cling to branches and the furrowed bark of the black walnut trees in the yard, where three squirrels chased each other, spiraling up and down the trunks first one direction and then the other in mad, headlong spurts that left little puffs of snow behind them, like clouds of exhaust. A couple minutes of that, then over to the lilac where a pair of them disdained the natural pathways the branches afforded, treating them instead like rungs on a ladder — and barely slowing down. Maybe the weird weather is getting to them, I thought. Sitting inside, I heard nothing from their chase, but I know that sound of claws scrabbling on bark so well, I can’t replay the scene in memory without hearing it, in the same way that I can’t remember the characters in a subtitled foreign film speaking anything but English.


cardinal pair in snowstormThis afternoon, I watched a cardinal make threatening gestures at its reflection in the window, diving and fluttering. This wouldn’t seem at all remarkable — cardinals are among the most notorious of reflection-fighters — except that this was a female cardinal. After her third sortie, her mate flew in and perched in the bush below her. I wondered if she hadn’t learned this behavior from watching him in past years. Perhaps she was trying to lead by example, feeling that it was high time he start defending territory so they could get this breeding thing underway. If so, it obviously wasn’t working. He continued to sit in the bush, looking just a little nonplussed.