Tag Archive | Anoles

The Compassion of Nature

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I wonder if Nature is more compassionate than we give her credit for.

Last Sunday afternoon, I was fiddling around in the flower bed in front of my house when I saw yet another anole.  We have had a bunch of these little chameleon-like creatures in our yard this summer; I think the wet weather has led to an abundance of greenery, which has led to an abundance of insects, which supports a larger population of predators who eat primarily insects, including anoles.  I have seen many anoles in the past few weeks which were quite small, as if there was a baby boom among the reptilian crowd in my yard.  I don’t mind; did I mention that they eat bugs?  And they’re kind of cute and fascinating and quite photogenic.

I went inside to get my camera.  I have taken plenty of photos of the anoles in my yard, but the light was nice, and I had a few minutes, and this one looked especially striking against the large, smooth texture of the leaves of the elephant ears.  I chose the long lens, thinking that I would get a better close-up with the greater zoom.  Once I got my equipment together, I stood the requisite three feet away to get the zoom lens and auto focus to work right together.  I looked through the viewfinder, and started snapping photos.

Then, I noticed something that made this particular anole unique.  At first, I didn’t believe it.  I had to do a double-take, and then look at the screen on my camera to see if it was real.  Maybe I was just looking from a funny angle; maybe it was hidden behind a leaf or an arm or something.  But no; it was just the way I saw it.

The anole was missing a hand.

He was, well, how would he like to be called?  Was he handicapped?  Or did he prefer disabled?  That didn’t make any sense.  Clearly, this animal was quite well-abled.  Before I knew he was, um, different, I had watched him easily climb up the long stem of the elephant ear leaf.  He was not especially thin, which would have indicated that he could not keep up with the bugs which make up his diet.  He looked more mature than many of the smaller anoles I have seen in my yard recently, which means he could run deftly enough to get away from whatever considers him prey.  He was just as able as any anole I have seen.  So what was he?  Was he “differently-abled?”  No; that sounds a little condescending.  How would I describe him?  He was simply missing a hand.

What I really wanted to do was to ask him some questions.  How did he lose his hand?  Was it a dramatic escape from one of the neighborhood cats?  Did he cross into some other anole’s territory and get into a fight?  Did he get trapped between a rock and a hard place and have to choose between his hand and his life?  Or was he just born that way, with some sort of genetic mix-up which missed the cue to grow what would otherwise be at the end of his arm while he was inside his egg?

I was too shy to ask him those questions, though.  I realized I really don’t know him at all, so it seemed somehow impolite to get so personal.  I hated the fact that I was staring at him for so long.  I didn’t want him to feel awkward.  But still, I was fascinated:  how did he walk?  Was it different than the way other anoles walk?  Could he lunge so he could take his prey by surprise?  Or did he have to learn a different way to hunt after his accident, or his fight, or whatever it was that caused him to lose his hand.  He seemed willing to have me take his portrait, so I thought to myself that it would be more polite to just look at the pictures later rather than to keep gawking and wondering in the moment.  Soon enough, he spotted something that had landed a few inches in front of him on the leaf, and we both moved on.

As I think about my encounter with this anole, however, I realized I am surprised at the grace of Nature this anole reveals.  I think of Nature as a harsh, rational, survival-of-the-fittest kind of power.  The Darwinians teach us that, right?  Only the strong, healthy, and fully able survive in Nature.  Those who are weak in body, mind, or spirit are picked off by predators or simply left to starve and die alone.  The struggle to survive is the only way each species remains strong enough to carry good genetic material on to future generations.  It seems cruel to us as sophisticated, self-reflective creatures, but that is just how Nature works.

But here was an animal who had faced some kind of trauma, either in his formation or in a fight, and that trauma hadn’t killed him.  His body healed itself:  his blood clotted to keep him from losing what little liquid life force he has inside him, his antibodies prevented infection without the help of Neosporin, his skin closed over the place where his hand used to be with no stitches or Band-Aids, the muscles in his shoulder and elbow and leg strengthened to compensate for the balance and coordination he would otherwise have from his hand.  His mind taught him how to adapt.  His surroundings nurtured him until he could get the food and the shelter he needed all on his own.  Anoles are notoriously lonely beings, aggressively territorial and unlikely to socialize with other anoles, even their own young, for any purpose other than to mate.  So I don’t assume that he had the care of a mother or a father or a kind neighbor or supportive teacher to help him figure out how he was going to get along without his hand.  I doubt his insurance covered occupational therapy.  Still, Nature didn’t dispose of him like a strictly rational Darwinian would suppose.  Nature nurtured him so he could get along just fine, hand or no hand, fulfilling his function of keeping the population of insects in check in his little territory in the flower bed in front of my house.

And Nature doesn’t feel the need to put a label on this particular anole.  Nature doesn’t ask nosy questions about how he came to be so, well, abnormal.  Nature doesn’t gawk or stare at the injury or single him out in any way at all.  Nature just lets him go about his business.

I wonder if Nature is more compassionate than we give her credit for.

Note:  I now have note cards with images of Anoles available for sale in my online shop, so you can share these fascinating creatures with your friends and family!  Click here to check them out!

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Wildlife

IMG_6991 (800x532) Our summer has been full of travel, and in each place we visited, we have seen some fascinating wildlife.  In Canada, there was the moose wandering the woods near our friends’ home, the mother grizzly bear and her three cubs alongside the Trans-Canada Highway, and the Great Gray Owl perched on a fence post at the foot of the Rockies.  In the Colorado Rockies, it was the beaver dams and the fish swimming in mountain streams.  In Pennsylvania, a distant stag caught my eye while I was walking alone one evening.  Even the fireflies that hovered above the lawns in Indiana and Ohio were fascinating; we don’t get fireflies around our home for some reason.  Every place we went gave us experiences of fauna we just don’t see at home in coastal Georgia.

But in the week and a half since we came home, as we have settled back into the routines of work and school, I can’t seem to escape the wildlife in my own yard.  A hummingbird has taken possession of our feeder; we have watched him chase away the rest of his species any time another comes near.  Throughout the day, even in the middle of a rain storm, his ruby throat and emerald back hovers as he snacks on the diluted simple syrup we offer. The larger kinds of birds came back quickly when I filled our bird feeder, too, and have stuck around to see what else they can get out of me.  Blue jays and cardinals come and go as they please; the mourning doves bob their way across the lawn; house sparrows and other small birds rush in and out.  The squirrels have gratefully come back to the feeder, too, and even a pudgy brown rat draped his long, bare tail over the side the other day as he munched on the seed.  Unfortunately, it is because of him that the bird feeder will have to remain empty for a while.  We know from experience that the one brown rat will bring his friends, and we really don’t want them that close to our house.  The only way to discourage them is to take away the food.  Still, the birds hang around, and it is good to see them again.

Yesterday, a tiny frog came leaping out of the folded lawn chair as I moved it to sweep away leaves that had gathered under it.  I was not surprised; I have come to expect these little guys who seem to appreciate the safety and comfort of the canvas.  A butterfly has flitted around our back yard for the past couple of afternoons.  If I have identified her right, she is a Gulf Fritillary.  She made an appearance this afternoon to snack on the nectar of our lantana in the back yard and stuck around long enough to pose for a few photos before she wandered her way into another yard.  Earlier, a proud robin with his pronounced rusty chest stopped for a little dip in our bird bath.  When I headed to the door with my camera to see if he would stick around, our dog decided he wanted to go out, too.  But I think the robin was done with his bath by then anyway, and he flew elsewhere.  And maybe it is because of our wet summer, or maybe it is just the time of year, but it seems that this is a good time for young anoles to come out.  I have adorable juveniles and gawky-looking teenagers of that species all over the yard.  Soon, they will grow big enough to become territorial, but tonight, I watched as at least two young ones climbed and dashed up and down and in and out all over the same bunch of black-eyed susans.  One was brown, another was bright green; they can switch back and forth depending on their mood.  These little creatures never had the care of a mother; she simply laid the eggs a few weeks back, and the lucky ones emerged to tackle life more or less on their own.

Most of this wildlife in my yard is unremarkable.  These are common species of birds, mammals, insects, amphibians, and reptiles whichIMG_7021 (535x800) share this little plot of land with us and with most of our neighbors along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts for a thousand miles.  But as I thought about all that wildlife in my yard this evening, I felt the presence of God in a way I didn’t when I saw the wildlife in other places.  The moose and grizzlies were remarkable.  The great gray owl and high-antlered deer were beautiful.  Even the midwestern fireflies and mountain stream fish were fascinating.  But none of them spoke to me of the presence of God in the same way as my familiar anoles, robins, butterflies, and tree frogs.

Seeing those grizzlies and moose in the wild was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  But God is more like the anoles, which surround me all the time.  My photos of that enormous owl are worth showing off.  But God is more like the robin or the hummingbird, which everyone can see if they pay attention.  The fireflies and beaver dams cannot be found where I live.  But God is more like the squirrels and blue jays and mourning doves, which can be found everywhere.  I was wowed by the remarkable wildlife on our trips.  But God is more like the abiding presence of the familiar wildlife in my yard.  I don’t mean to domesticate God.  Just like the anoles and butterflies and frogs and robins in my yard have the ability to fascinate, surprise, and challenge me, there is much about God which is mysterious to me.  But God’s constant presence is a comfort.

I thank God that I got to experience the unique fauna of the mountains and plains this summer.  And I praise God for God’s presence which surrounds me all the time like the wildlife in my own yard.

Fighting Anoles

Note:  I now have note cards with images of Anoles available for sale in my online shop, so you can share these fascinating creatures with your friends and family!  Click here to check them out!

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On Easter Sunday, as we were trying to find the last of the eggs which a mischievous Bunny had so hidden in the shrubbery of our front yard, we spotted two green anoles on one of the posts of our front porch.  Anoles are small lizards native to the southeastern U. S. which change color from bright green to dull brown, depending on their level of stress.  The variety we have around here are Carolina anoles.  We are glad to share our yard with them because they are fascinating in their behavior, they are kind of cute, and they eat bugs.  In fact, one time I became worried my wife was being tempted to commit adultery in her heart when I told her I saw an anole in the back yard eating a palmetto bug (which is the classy name for the really big cockroaches which have also made themselves at home here in the south).

I was glad I had my camera handy, because we all knew what was going to IMG_5447 (535x800)happen when we saw the two anoles.  They are territorial creatures, living their lives mostly as loners in the small realms they inhabit.  So, these two could not share the post; they were about to get into a fight.  They circled each other for a few minutes.  They stared intently at one another.  Then, one launched his body at the other, and the other responded.  They pushed, they jumped, they sparred, and they attacked each other with their broad jaws open.  I don’t think they have much in the way of teeth, so I am not sure exactly what they were trying to accomplish with the open mouth thing.  But clearly, they were in a fight.  IMG_5453 (532x800)And the whole time, they were completely vertical, clinging with their fascinating toes to the post on our front porch.

One was on top, facing the ground, and the other was looking up at him.  Then, they switched places.  Finally, one of them lost his footing, grasped helplessly for something to hold, then slipped to the concrete floor.  He scurried away, uninjured, to find another territory to claim for his own.  The other remained on the post.  I swear he was gloating over his victory:  his skin turned just a little more green, he puffed up the muscles on his tiny neck, and he looked mighty satisfied with himself as I snapped a few more photos of him.  “No, no, come around here and get my good side,” he seemed to be saying proudly.IMG_5460 (533x800)

I recognize that what we witnessed was nothing remarkable.  All manner of creatures struggle with each other for territory all over the world all the time.  In fact, such behavior just seems natural.  Many very smart people in many different disciplines have said over many years that behavior like we saw on our front porch on Easter Sunday is simply the way the world works.  Survival of the fittest.  There can only be one superpower.  There have to be winners and losers.  A man (or woman, I suppose, though that’s not the way most people have said it) has to stake his claim, to stand his ground, and to be willing to defend it.

The thing is, I don’t buy it.  It might work for the anoles staking a claim on our porch post; it doesn’t work for me.  I have come of age during the culture wars.  Ever since I have been an adult, folks have fought over gay rights, abortion, fair ways to rectify racism and sexism, the role of government in providing social services, and tax p0licy.  Since I was a young boy, we have invaded, bombed, or otherwise intervened militarily in Grenada, Lebanon, Libya, Panama, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, and any number of other places.  Each time, there have been hot arguments between anti-war liberals and pro-war conservatives.  In the church which I love, we have fought for decades not only over these social and political issues, but also over other theological issues.  A lot of energy, money, time, and other resources have been spent debating the mechanics of how we are saved in Jesus Christ, interfaith relations, and how to interpret the Bible.  When I was examined by a church council to be ordained, the questions I was asked included whether or not I think homosexuality is a sin and what I believe about substitutionary atonement.

The purpose of those questions was not to get to know me or my training or skills in theological thinking; the purpose was to figure out which side I was going to fight for.  And to many people in that room that night, the questions made sense because that is simply the way the world works.  Each time these debates come up, everyone lines up, with the conservatives on one side and the liberals on another, or the Republicans and the Democrats, or the hawks and the doves, or the 47% and all the rest.  And the activists from one side and the activists from the other side start circling around each other, and pushing and shoving, and lunging and leaping, and attacking each other with their broad mouths open.  Then the vote is taken, and someone is thrown to the floor while the other one gloats and preens and feels mighty satisfied with himself.

No one ever says that there is something wrong with the process.  No one ever asks if the porch post is really worth fighting for.  No one ever wonders why there is no way once the fight starts for either side to back off and save face.  And no one would dare to assert that we do not have to be territorial; everyone anticipates the that the label of “naive” will be thrown at the person who claims that we might all be more satisfied if we cooperate  and share resources rather than living as loners.  After all, you are supposed to claim your territory, stand your ground, and defend it; wise people know that is just the way the world works, right?

Several years ago, I was in a conversation with someone I know who has spent her career studying and honing her skills in political rhetoric.  If you were to ask both of us where we stand on a variety of political and social issues, we would probably agree on many of them.  But I was talking with her about strategies which I had learned and used in my work in community organizing.  Finally, I said that I was not comfortable with rhetorical argument as a way to solve the kinds of problems we both would like to solve because it doesn’t build community.  And she admitted:  she wasn’t interested in building community; she wanted to win arguments.  That was where our conversation stopped.

I am interested in building community.  I am interested in questions of process:  of how to respect and preserve dignity, of how to live satisfying lives together, of how to find shared goals that are really worth working for.  That may not be the way things work among the wild beasts on my front porch.  But I don’t want to be an anole.