Buy The Battle for the Black Fen!

All posts by Annis

  I have been messing about in boats all of my life, spending hours rowing my dory into sea marshes full of greenish mud and hermit crabs and sea gulls and herons. I fished for flounder and eel with a drop line and trawled for mackerel with a shiner. I caught blowfish for my mother, who considered their lower regions a great delicacy, and captured horse shoe crabs for my Aunt, who ate their stomachs. As a teenager, I sailed with my friends up the New England coast, learning what it feels like to capsize, what tearing a hole in the hull sounds like as you go over the rock, and how bleak and cold and utterly without hope you feel clinging to the mast in a northeast gale. Read more

THE JEFFERSON BIBLE

One of the things that sets our teeth on edge these days is the assumption that we are citizens of a Christian nation – an assumption grounded on the idea that Christianity was the founding religion of America. But we are not and never were a Christian country in any established sense, the way Anglicanism is the state church of England, with the King as its (titular) head. This is perfectly clear in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which proposes freedom to choose your religion while prohibiting “the establishment of (state-sponsored) religion” in the new American democracy.

The principal doctrine influencing both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution was enlightenment Deism, the concept that a “clock-maker God” created the universe but then stepped (way) back to let it run on its own, leaving human beings to reach our own philosophical conclusions and moral decisions through reason and observation.  

Although the founding fathers were baptized in various Protestant denominations and most attended church, early presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were self-declared Deists, or non-Christians.  Both were drawn to the concept of Unitarianism’s one God as opposed to Trinitarianism’s divine trio. They believed neither that Jesus was divine nor in miracles or the resurrection.  

George Washington attended the Anglican church but rejected its Trinitarian tenets by standing silent during the Apostle’s Creed and refusing to take communion.

The Apostle’s Creed  begins

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried…”  It always startled me that there was nothing in the creed about Jesus’s actual life; just that semicolon between his birth and his death.

It is what that semicolon avoids – the actual life and teachings of Jesus, that motivated Thomas Jefferson, who had also been brought up Anglican, to create his own version of the Bible.  Though he was often attacked politically as an atheist, he was a great admirer of Unitarian ideas (Unitarianism didn’t become an official denomination until after this death) and was friends with British Unitarian Joseph Priestley. In an 1803 letter to Priestley, Jefferson proposed a new “Christian System beginning with a review of the morals of the ancient philosophers, moving on to the ethics of the Jews, and concluding with the “principles of a pure deism taught by Jesus, “omitting the question of his deity.”

The first volume, titled The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, was completed in 1804, but no copies exist today.  The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, became the Jefferson Bible. which he completed in 1820 by (literally, with a penknife and glue) cutting and pasting from the four Gospels in four languages – Greek, Latin, French, and English versions of each verse together -including Jesus’s sayings and parables but omitting miracles and “the supernatural.”  The result was a scrapbook-like red leather folio that Jefferson kept for his personal devotions, being loath to publish it in his lifetime given the notoriety he knew it would stir up.

My friend Brian Schandevel loaned me a biography of the Jefferson Bible which tells the story about how this scrapbook got lost in Jefferson’s personal effects and was not officially published (by the U.S. Government Printing Office) until 1904, when multiple copies were distributed to all of the Senators and Representatives.  After that, well into the mid-Twentieth century, every Member of Congress was presented a copy after being sworn in.

So who was Jefferson’s Jesus?

As Jefferson puts it in an 1803 letter to his daughter “To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself.  I am a Christian in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.”

Jefferson works his way consecutively through Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels, grouping precepts on one topic from all four together along with the parables, though with very little narration and minus anything he considers “supernatural.”

What struck me about Jefferson’s Bible:

  • Jesus is portrayed as a radical religious iconoclast breaking many of the traditional household rules and rituals which formed Jewish religion and society of his time. Theologian Marcus Borg describes this as a “purity system: in which “those who were carefully observant of the purity codes were ‘the pure,’ of course.  The worst of the nonobservant were ‘outcasts’ They included occupational groups such as tax collectors and perhaps shepherds. . .’The righteous’ were those who followed the purity system, and sinners’ were those who did not,” The Pharisees, observant Jews who enforced purity norms, became Jesus’s particular enemies. The Jefferson Bible is full of episodes were Jesus stirs up their ire and then has to escape arrest by leaving town in a hurry. 
  • The precepts and parables that Jefferson presents as Jesus’s basic teaching are startlingly compassionate and inclusive.  He welcomes all kinds of social outcasts– tax collectors, Samaritans, women (even loose and menstruating women), Gentiles, the poor and the uninfluential- within an ethic of compassion, inclusion, and diversity that would be utter anathema to today’s “Christian Nationalists.”  
  • Jesus is not God. He is a devoutly spiritual person in an intimate relationship with a loving deity who dwells within every one of us, an inward wisdom that is part of a transcendent divinity.  Borg would understand Jefferson’s Jesus is “The Jesus of History,” in contrast to the “Christ of Faith” who is divine in and of himself, a concept he understands as arising from the spiritual experiences of “Post-Easter” Christians.

There are several editions of The Jefferson Bible available today, including one from the Humanist Press, and another by the Unitarian Beacon Press. The latter has a preface by Unitarian minister Forrester Church, whose Congressman father, Senator Frank Church, gave him his swearing-in copy when he was ten years old. 

As a result, Forrester Church became a lifelong fan of that semicolon:   In the book “I encountered a savior who was born in the usual way and died in the usual way.  By Jefferson’s reading, it was Jesus’ unusual life on earth – made unusual by the simple eloquence of his teachings – that truly mattered.….I define religion as our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. Resurrection or no resurrection, Jesus triumphed over death: he lived in such a way that his life proved worth dying for.”

RABBITS IN JACKETS AND MICE DRESSED NICE

Trundling along through old age this winter, I was pleased to discover that Diana Athill wrote her memoir, Somewhere Towards the End, at the age of 89 and then lived on to the great age of 102!.  My favorite part of her book is where she notes that  children prefer to read and fantasize  about animals, which seem to echo their own feelings  even better than other children.  She cites Tigger, for example, who persists in being “exuberantly bouncy” to the point of annoyance; or Piglet (with whom I always identify) as “an anxious, timid little person, capable of being brave if he absolutely has to be, but only at great cost to himself.” 

When I got to the very last chapter of my very last academic book, at a time when I was clicking my heels at my impending escape from the toxic groves of academe, I extended my learned comparison of American/British/Canadian/Native Peoples poems about goddesses, just for fun, to the topic of Bears.   While Native Peoples liked to claim a Bear who married a Princess as the ancestor who taught them all their wisdom, white Canadians saw bears as archetypes of nature’s terrifying power, Americans took them as objects of the hunt, but the British dressed bears up in little jackets and dresses or dressed to the nines in tweeds and vests, smoking their pipes before a roaring fire.

Although I am way to the left of liberal and pretty free with my opinions on Facebook, I have never received any hostile feedback.  And so I am comfortable creating posts and seeing what my friends are up to.  Somewhere along the line, I seem to have acquired C.R. (Christopher Robin) Milne as a “friend,” and I enjoy his thoughtful posts along with his quotes from his father’s writings.  I don’t have a human avatar but sometimes express my feelings with a picture of an appropriately dressed mouse. Here I am, courageously setting forth on new adventures, intrepid in demeanor though really quite nervous underneath:

Why, for heaven’s sake, a mouse? Mice go way back in my life story, to its very beginning: my mother used to tell me that a darling little mouse poked its head out of her bedroom wastepaper basket to herald the onset of her labor. Always small for my age and young for my class, my nickname at school was “Mighty Mouse,” a sobriquet I did my very best to live up to.

As a child, I was skeptical about” growing up” if that meant ever becoming an adult.  It wasn’t that I thought I was going to die young – I was simply incredulous about turning into alien beings like the “role models” my principal thought it very important for us to meet so that we could consider what it would to be like them “when we grew up.”.

I was especially certain that I was not going to grow up to be Eleanor Roosevelt, who took us seriously and talked very kindly, but who loomed like a vastly tall lighthouse, her torso rising up and up to a balcony of horizontal bosom (I think this had something to do with the undergarments they wore in those days) jutting out over our heads.

That was a time when I climbed every tree like a monkey, tore around the playground like a puppy, and squirmed into cleverly concealed hiding places like a mouse – animal identities with which I was far more comfortable than anything the adult world had to offer.  I simply refused to believe that I would ever become one.

Now that I have nobody but myself to please, I have been revisiting my animal comfort zone. Some years ago, I took to knitting mice.   My all-time favorite was Stuart L. Mouse, named for a New Yorker like me, and here we are dressed up as each other:

A while later, I created Stella Mouse, whose outfit in my knitting book called for a tweedy skirt and cashmere-style sweater and was labelled “Vassar Mouse.”  I gave her to my friend Brenda, but Stuart had fallen in love with Stella so I let him move to her house, where the two of them got up to no good and produced little mouselings all over the place.  When Brenda died, one of her grandchildren spirited Stuart and Stella away to Washington State, where I hope they are living happily ever after and not thrown to the back of somebody’s closet.

In the wintertime, to let my friends know I am going into hibernation for a while, I might post a cozy little scene like this:

When summer comes at last and I invite them to the river for fun and frolics, I might, put this on the invitation:

You might wonder if I am descending into some kind of regressive senescence,  but what I think is really going on is that, after a long life seeing to the needs of  my career, my students, the community, and my family, I am creating a space of comfort to include a few things I missed out on by having to grow up much too soon, one of which was playing with stuffed animals.  I didn’t have my first relationship with such a being until I was twelve years old, and at that age I was ashamed that it might be seen as “babyish” to be spending so much time playing with “Scampy,” a three-inch tall (not very fuzzy) bear figurine that wasn’t technically a stuffed animal at all.

So, it’s not regression as much as compensation that makes me fasten a seat belt around a Mickey Mouse on the passenger seat of my car, read poems out loud to a stuffed lamb in a bow-tie, and picture myself on Facebook as a trepid/intrepid  mouse taking off on yet another terrifying adventure –  I am making up for lost time! 

Churches to the Rescue

My late husband, Henry Pratt and I, had quite an effective political partnership: I would participate in (or found) in a grass roots group and he would advise us from his store of knowledge about “interest group politics,” which was his specialty as a Professor of Political Science.

Although Henry has been gone almost 24 years, things that I learned from him keep cropping up in my columns for the European-based online magazine, Impakter.com.

This latest one, however, is straight from the horse’s mouth, based on two books he wrote about what happens when faith groups join together in concerted political action.

ON THE MARGINS OF THINGS

All through elementary school, we had a spelling teacher named Miss Affleck.  In her room we were assigned spelling lists of words we needed to memorize, given spelling tests on them, and taught adages like “there is a lie in belief” and “there is a rat in separate.”  Maybe it was to relieve the tediousness of teaching spelling all of the time or just because it was a passionate obsession of hers, Miss Affleck not only treated us to everything she knew about her beloved Middle Ages but also taught us to pen “illuminated manuscripts” of our own with flat nubbed pens, inks in all kinds of splendid colors, and anything we wanted to draw in the margins.

In an article subtitled “When the Edges Take Center Stage,” Anika Burgess motes “countless examples of unusual marginalia” in Medieval manuscripts “monkeys playing the bagpipes, centaurs, knights in combat with snails, naked bishops, and strange human-animal hybrids that seem to defy categorization.”

One day, Miss Affleck brought in illustrations from the Bayeux Tapestry, a huge, long depiction of the Battle of Hastings (1066) in crewel wool embroidery.  I have never been interested in men slaughtering each other, which made up the main theme of the central panel, but along the edges were all kinds of animals (some of them fantastic), hunting scenes, men and women farming, other men and women who seemed to be tumbling all over each other, and lots of birds. 

Although in the 1070s, when the Tapestry was created, women embroiderers had not yet been supplanted by male guilds, they were commissioned to chronicle the standard heroic deeds of male society.  Nevertheless, right out in public, they wove a secret feminine iconography all along the edges of patriarchy, a message of their own.  Many of the Bayeux Tapestry animals, for example, derive from Aesop’s moral fables, and may constitute women Embroiderers’ commentaries on the central action, and is it possible that the delightful scenes of daily Medieval life represent their preference for peacetime pursuits over military violence?   Is it any coincidence that the Tree of Life motif occurs frequently, even when the central panel is strewn with corpses and body parts?

 

Gale Owen-Crocker speculates about these marginalia in an intriguing article about  “Squawk talk: commentary by birds in the Bayeux Tapestry.”

 “At several points the birds in the upper border appear to take a keen interest in the armed knights … but they disappear from the bottom border during the Battle of Hastings.” On the border of the scene depicting King Harold’s defeat, the birds’ necks are all tied in knots, “graphically demonstrating the strangulation of Harold’s prestige and ambition”. (see also Mike Pole in “1066 and the Dead Parrott)

That’s what doodles actually do, don’t they? We scribble them in the margins of our text books and lecture notes to testify to our presence in this deal, providing an edgy commentary and a touch of wry humor, subversive little announcements that we are there, even if merely on the edges of things, with a right to our own quirky takes about what is going on in the middle.    

Will the day come when a critical mass of edgy people pile up in such numbers on the margins of society that the margins implode, and we quirky eccentrics become centric after all?

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO RACHEL MADDOW

Come back in time with me to the middle of World War II, where I was growing up safely (one would think) in New York City.  But, no, we lived one street over from 86th, where the Nazi bund, though outlawed, still had its adherents. My brother and I were walking home – aged about 7 and 9, and we must have seen a rally where people were raising their arms in the heil Hitler salute.   We tried it on our parents and were soundly scolded.   As the war dragged on, that encounter left me terrified of Nazis because I thought the war included our own neighborhood.

Meanwhile, here in the Detroit Metro area, Charles Lindbergh, a pro-Hitler America Firster who practiced Nazi eugenics by establishing an (Aryan) bigamist family in Germany, was given asylum during WWII at Cranbrook; Henry Ford was promulgating the (fake conspiracy theory) about the Protocol of the Elders of Zion, delighted that Hitler was using it to persecute Jews; and, in Royal Oak Father Coughlin was pouring his hate for the Jewish race over the radio and from the pulpit of his Shrine of the Little Fascist in Royal Oak.

‘Rachel Maddow has just published a book about that era –  PREQUEL (subtitled “An American Fight Against Fascism”) covering the rise of American Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s and 1940s.  “Looking at this story in aggregate is a shock to our usual thinking about this historical period,” writes reviewer Kathleen Belew, “It’s an era that, as Maddow notes, is ordinarily remembered as a time when Americans unified against fascist threats.. . . most of us don’t know that the politics of the era were far more divisive than Greatest Generation mythologies would have us believe.”         

        

Rachel Maddow is a very accomplished public intellectual, with an hour of political commentary that, until recently, appeared every night on MSNBC. She has a Ph.D. in politics from Oxford, does brilliant research, and talks very fast. Besides starring in the Rachel Maddow show, she writes history books about things that happened before and have been neglected or shoved under the rug, but which have important implications for what is going on at the present moment.         

On the day after Thanksgiving 2023, Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes (who has the MSNBC talk show before hers) sat down for a live taping at City Hall in NY for his podcast, “Why is This Happening?” Against the background of Rachel’s discoveries about American Fascism, they discuss its reappearance in our country and what it means, for our lives now. Their theme is that it is going to be weird, frightening and difficult year, when we will have to come to terms with “the existential threat that the rising tide of autocracy in America poses for our continuing to live in a democracy.”

Chris Hayes points out the “incredible ridiculous tension in American rhetoric” people use about our democracy, as if democracy were inevitable, a permanent fixture in our country, no longer challenged.   Instead, he sees our whole history as an ongoing “Pitched battle” between people trying to get ourselves included in the precepts of the Declaration of the Independence and the Constitution and those who want to replace democracy with the efficiencies of authoritarianism   At every point in American history there has beden this tension between “Dominion, rule by some group or person” vs all of us working to do things together. “ Or, as Rachel chimes in “Being in a 250 year old democracy is hard, and there are not very many left in the world, deciding things together. ”

What to do? Well, here’s The Gospel According to Rachel Maddow

 “This is going to be a weird year.  This is going to be a very difficult, frightening year. It doesn’t come to every generation, but it has come to us this time, this year. . . .“We must engage with terrible ideas and defeat them with better ideas.” Surprisingly, however, Rachel’s core advice is not intellectual: we can’t defeat their ideas with other ideas or policies with other policies when so much emotional inter-party demonization is going on; just sending up a Fox pundit against a MSNBC pundit isn’t going to get us anywhere.

In other words, one of our most famous and successful intellectual pundits has realized that neither intellectual argument or punditry, can save democracy.

What seems to have happened to Rachel Maddow is that she nearly killed herself (she puts it that way) doing a show every night of the week until she was threatened by the kind of thing that, in Japan, is called Karoshi – death from overworking. So she cut back, doing only the Monday show, and has moved to a home in the Massachusetts countryside with her wife: “living in rural western New England…it has taught me is that politics is only one thing in any one person’s life.  .There is, I believe, something very important that you can do in your non-political life that can improve your political life: have face to face relationships with people that are everything besides politics. Know all the dimensions of your neighbors”

Her example: ” where I live now, Even committed news junkies also have bears getting into their trash; talk to them about the bears!” Your neighbors may have different political views than yours, but you can try to figure out how to solve your common problem!

My example: There is a couple up my street who have Trump posters all over their lawn at election time.. They also have a pollinator garden and plantings right next to the sidewalk.  On my daily walk, I cross the street to enjoy their garden and in hopes of chatting with them, as they are out there all of the time. Once they know me, I plan to ask them their particular needs that lead to their voting choices.  Following Rachel’s advice, the idea is that once they know me and that I am respect them enough to listen to their views they are more likely to at least listen to mine. .

Rachel adds that another way to resist demonizing people you disagree with politically is getting involved in something that connects you to them, through voluntary associations like PTAs, block clubs, and book groups. 

She also advises keeping humanity in your life by getting back in touch with old friends, repairing broken relationships you may have ended long ago, including family members. That way, so that you aren’t dragging any heavy backage behind you. Also, make new neighborhood friends, especially with elderly folks who you might phone to check in on new and then – but don’t live in your phone and devices. 

.  

 Deciding things Together

The Gospel According to Chris Hayes: You must use democratic means to fight anti-democratic forces.” Our situation is like getting on a bus with 60 people and asking them all to decide ‘where shall we go?’   Practice decision making with the people you don’t agree with”

This makes me think of Quaker decision-making, which is based on group consensus-seeking. Adam Gopnik has a great article in the New Yorker about Black Quaker Bayard Rustin, who was a lead organizer in the Civil Rights Movement (though he had to stay in the background because he was gay).

As a Quaker, he knew how to “find a way from individual crankiness to a working consensus” and to unite a coalition of fractious groups around a common cause. It was Rustin who, after a visit to India in 1948, brought the non-violent protest methods of Gandhi to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, combining them with his Quaker skills to organize the 1963 March on Washington as well as the Freedom Rides and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Those of us who witnessed that era realized that there was nothing “soft” about the non-violent method: it was militant and tough minded and required extraordinary personal courage. As Gandhi puts it, “It is not nonviolence if we merely love those who love us. It is nonviolence only when we love those that hate us. I know how difficult it is to follow this grand law of love. But are not all great and good things difficult to do? Love of the hater is the most difficult of all.”

How About Us?  The kind of conversations we want to have with our opponents are an application of the nonviolence we saw in the civil rights movement to our everyday parlance. First of all, if we demonize those who demonize us, how can we claim ethical superiority? Secondly, as Rachel Maddow points out, ideas are not enough to get through; we need to set the emotional stage for the possibility of communication. When you interrupt or have anger in your voice, for example, you arouse emotions in the other person that wipe out their thinking capacity, substituting opinions for thoughts as everything dissolves beneath waves of antagonism.

So there we are on Chris Hayes’ bus, hoping to get someplace together, but so uselessly cantankerous and tribally unable to cooperate with any group other than our own that we can’t even leave the parking lot. The only way we can reach consensus is to transcend our individual suspicion and elf-protection, to wash off the groupthink glue that congeals us, and to open up our hearts, so that we can take the emotional risks necessary for concerted action.

VOLUNTARY ASSOCIATIONS

Christina Figueres, who is the architect of the Paris Climate Accord, says the way to get big things done is by “stubborn optimism, a dissatisfied, gritty, determined confidence that humanity can bring about needed change in the face of great challenges.” And, in America, we have often achieved great things through forming Voluntary Associations.

Click on my column on that from Impakter.com:

https://impakter.com/voluntary-associations-americas…

IT IS TIME TO SAY ENOUGH

The way I remember my friend Esther Broner telling us the story, she was on a pilgrimage to Mount Sinai with an inter-faith group including Moslems, Jews, Christians and adherents of the Shinto religion.   When they came near the summit, the men announced that the women were to stay behind while they scaled the summit to pray.

The women looked at each other in consternation but then, resigned to the same-old same-old from men, they took out the knitting and sewing they carried with them.   Esther, however, had other ideas.  She went from one to the other, showing them how to use their wool and the thread to knit themselves together into a weave of women, who then prayed their own prayers and sang their own songs in their own circle, triumphantly.

In honor of Esther, who died in 2011 (may her memory be a blessing) here is my take on the present Hamas-Israeli war:

IT IS TIME TO SAY ENOUGH

It is time to say enough.

Let the Palestinian women come out of the ruins of Gaza and the West Bank enclosures.

Let the Israeli women come out of the ruins of the kibbutzim and towns along the southern border.

Let the women of Tel Aviv arise – Jews and Israeli Arabs together, and march on Jerusalem.

May the women of Jerusalem arise – Israelis and Palestinians alike, and march on the Knesset.

Let all of the women in the West Bank and the Settlements arise to join their sisters in Jerusalem.

Let the women leaders in the Knesset and the women leaders in the Israeli Administration stand before all of the women of Israel and the Palestinian enclaves to proclaim that it is enough, that they are taking over.

May they all throw their heads back and laugh at the abject failure of Netanyahu and his minions. Let them all shout together, “it is enough!” And then let them get to work.

Spinning Among Fields

One happy summer day, years ago now, I went blueberry picking with my eleven year old grandson.  He was all over the place, leaping from bush to bush, getting  scratched up in the brambles, telling me about this, then telling me about that – enthusiastically imparting whole bunches of information, each item related to another, and very interesting to hear.

As we walked home down the hill, I said

“I notice that you haven’t been taking your ADHD medication for the last couple of days.”

“That’s right. I haven’t – and do you know why?”

“No, tell me,” I answered.

“It’s that I like the way my mind leaps around between this and that.  One thing gives me an idea about another other; when things bounce up against each other, they take me along into whole new places.”

That fruit (I also have ADHD) does not fall far from the tree.  I told him about an article I once wrote called “Spinning Among Fields,” based on the story of how different kinds of sheep took to leaping over fences from one pasture to another, leaving all kinds of wool stuck in the wires so that spinners who came along after them found wool to blend into brand all new colors and textures.

“That’s ME,” shouted my grandson, tearing gleefully down the hill in a whirl of skipping and leaping.

I am currently reading a book by the physicist Carlo Rovelli, who argues against the idea that important scientific discoveries always contradict previous assumptions. There is something of Aristotle’s theory of gravity in Galileo, and there are elements suggesting quantum theory in Einstein. It is in the places where theories abut each other that important breakthroughs occur:

“The borders between theories, disciplines, eras, cultures, peoples and individuals are remarkably porous, and our knowledge is fed by the exchanges across this highly permeable spectrum.”

Or, as Krista Tippett puts it, “Wisdom and wholeness emerge in a moment like this when human beings have to hold seemingly opposing realities in a creative tension and interplay.” There is a problem, however, This kind of interstitial thinking can really irritate people who like to think one thing at a time and are fond of either/or categories.  It got me into all kinds of trouble in a viciously territorial academic world that values loyally clinging to separate disciples; and you see it, more grimly, in the intransigence of power/over people like white supremacists who resist functioning as one among a variety of races.    

The tangential talkers in our family drive our linear thinkers to distraction as we leap from topic to topic in a conversational style they call “always changing the subject.”   So, with profound apologies to them (we have thrashed this all out and are working to communicate better when we are all together), I will be getting on with my wool gathering.  

Animals at the Cottage: Whole Worlds We Could Never Dream of

When I looked out of my bedroom window to see what was making that strange noise both the yard and the forest were impenetrably dark, though I could hear a light wind moving through the pines. Then the noise came again: a deep cough, a harsh hruff!, and an abrupt bark.

Had the deer caught bronchitis again or, even worse, tuberculosis?   They usually move as they graze, though, and this creature stood stock still.

“I saw him last week,” my daughter told me the next morning.  “It’s a big fox – probably a male.”

A week later, I heard something similar carrying on, father back in the forest this time.  It was a coyote-like call, but more melodic, and hauntingly solitary as the singer moved to a new spot, stopped and called; then to another for a further rendition of what must be the aria of the vixen, seeking her mate.

That’s all guesswork, of course – though I Googled the song of the female fox and it matched up  –  but what either of them were actually up to is probably a far more intricate bit of animal communication than we humans can ever fathom.

I have been reading a book by Ed Yong, Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us , that ventures into the mysterious worlds our fellow creatures inhabit, perceiving things from their existentially non-human perspective by means of a complicated array of senses we don’t have.  Just think of your family dog: “humans share the same basic machinery, but dogs just have more of everything; a more extensive olfactory epithelium, dozens of times more neurons in that epithelium, almost twice, and a relatively larger olfactory bulb.” When he

sits by the river with his nose ecstatically quivering, he is taking in whole worlds through scents we human beings cannot even begin to imagine. That is why you should humor your dog when he sniffs every tree, and especially a fire hydrant: to him, it is as rich with information as the Sunday New York Times!  So make a resolution to take him on a sniff Safari at least once a week- that’s is a walk on a long leash, where he gets to lead the way, and sniff anything he wants, as long as it takes to absorb all the information.

.   

Then  there are our Wood Turtles.   We have seen them every year since 1998, crossing the road from the forest to the Betsie River and laying their eggs in the meadow between our cabin and the water. I wrote to Michigan’s beloved “critter guru,” Jim Harding, an instructor in Integrative Biology at Michigan State University before his 2020 retirement.

This beloved turtle rescuer replied that he is glad that Wood Turtles are still here and so frequently seen in the Betsie River habitat, as “they have declined greatly over the state in recent decades.”  I was surprised to learn that they are an endangered species “of greatest conservation need,” requiring clean flowing rivers near forested area, and pleased that our river’s protection under the Natural Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968) has spared them the loss of their favorite habitat. Forestwildlife.org

Wood Turtles are between six and eight inches long, sporting shells patterned with pyramids.  They are said to be friendly and curious, which may be a human projection, but they do have some interesting habits.  Did you know that they stamp their feet and their shell on the earth to imitate rain falling so that a meal of worms will rise to the surface? In late June this year two of them crossed the road and headed in our direction, taking up temporary residence under our deck. They seemed to hang around to greet us in the morning before heading for the river.  And – what do you know? –  the female spent a whole day digging twelve separate holes in our clearing and laid eggs in each one of them.  Why so many separate nests, we wondered?  We got our answer that same afternoon when a raccoon turned up, but he went hungry.

Are Wood Turtle eggs scentless?  I hope so, as they are clearly in danger from animal predation as well as from habitat loss.   Keep tuned – they are scheduled to hatch on or about August 5!

Earlier in the summer, a Porcupine descended the tall pine he almost never comes down from to stand on our swimming stairs.  “What is he doing?” asked my grandson, but I had absolutely no answer.   It had an elegant set of quills – shaded from white ends to brown and beige- the kind that Native Americans fashion into components of their elegant embroidery.  I read that, if you don’t actually touch them, they won’t shoot quills at you – but what might be going on in their heads remains an utter mystery.

And may it be so.  We humans, who think we know so much, clearly don’t; these wild creatures we occasionally encounter remind us that there are other sensations and other worlds that, for all of our elegant philosophizing, we can never even dream of.

The Fox illustration is by Angela Harding, a British Printmaker whose book, Wild Light, has just been published. I have my copy and it is absolutely gorgeous.