Tag Archive | Squirrels

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.

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Walking with a Fearful Dog

IMG_4693 (800x533)My dog is afraid of the dark.  He has no reason to be afraid.  He is a lean, healthy, six-year-old Chocolate Lab. He is well-fed, and at least since he came to live with us four years ago, he has not suffered any trauma greater than his occasional bath.  And he can be fierce when he wants to be.  The squirrels in the back yard, for instance, get away from him as quickly as their little legs carry them.  I suppose their perspective might be a little skewed; we often get him worked up when we see a squirrel on the bird feeder.  “Otis, there’s a SQUIRREL on the bird feeder!” we announce excitedly.  Then one of us goes over to the back door, and he comes eagerly, waiting, with a clear look of the enormity of his responsibility in that moment.  There is a crisis among the sunflower seeds in the back yard, and it is his responsibility to take care of the problem.  “I’m on it,” he says, tail erect, muscles tense, anticipating his release.  One of us slowly, gently opens the back door so that we don’t scare the uninvited fluffy-tailed guests prematurely.  As soon as the door is open just enough, the dog rushes with every bit of his 80 pounds of muscle and bone flexed.  One of these days, the squirrel will stumble, or it will just be a little too slow in its leap from the ground to the top of the privacy fence, and Otis will catch it.  Not one of us has any idea what he will do when that happens.  Especially not Otis.

Usually, I like to take our dog on a walk in the cool early evening dusk, but we had some extra things to do tonight, so we didn’t get home until late.  So, I took him out after our little boy went to bed, and it was dark.  You would think I had asked him to go hunting for grizzly bears in an unfamiliar mountain wilderness.  He came eagerly as soon as he heard the leash, and he walked outdoors with his usual confidence.  But then, he started to fall back a bit.  Instead of staying a couple of paces in front of me, as he usually does, he got directly behind me.  I felt the leash pull a bit as I walked.  Every time we heard a sound, he lifted his head, held his tail in its most alert position, bristled the hairs on his back, and slowed down a bit.  I kept us on the streets of our neighborhood where we would get the most coverage of street lights and porch lights.  But it didn’t work; he was still afraid.

I want to look like all of those other proud dog owners.  I want my dog to eagerly lead the way, not so far out that he would strain at the leash, but certainly not slinking a step behind.  I want everyone to admire the picture we paint as we walk down the street, even after dark:  a healthy, fit, family man with his healthy, fit, family dog, going for an evening stroll together.  We could be the picture of good living:  suburban Americana at its idealistic best.  Instead, it looks to my neighbors like I am the cruel parent forcing my pup to go out for a walk:  “I know you’re miserable, kid, but it’s good for you.  It builds character.”  He carries himself like he will jump out of his skin if the slightest breeze comes along.  In fact, if I hear firecrackers or thunder in the distance, I know it’s all over.  He has been known to actually start quivering and lie down in the road, practically begging me to carry him home.  It’s humiliating.

So what do I do with this fearful dog?  For a while tonight, I spoke to him impatiently.  “There’s nothing to be scared of,” I cajoled as I pulled the leash a little bit to try to persuade him to at least walk beside me rather than trailing behind.  All of that nagging and pulling only made me feel more foolish, and it didn’t convince him to walk like I wanted him to.  I thought about giving up and going home, but I refused to turn around because I know that the exercise is good for both of us.  I wasn’t going to let his fear hold me back; at the same time, it didn’t help either of us when I let his fear make me angry and impatient.  If we were going to make it through our walk, I had to at least acknowledge his fear and try to understand it.

Then, as we continued our walk, my thoughts remained on his fear for a few minutes.  His fear is irrational to me, but it is a strong motivator for him.  And I realized that there are a lot of people like that in the world around us.  A lot of people are most strongly motivated by fear.  Some people are afraid of crime.  Some people are afraid of the government.  Some people are afraid of the black folks or the white folks or the Asian folks or the Hispanic folks or of some other population that doesn’t look or talk or behave like “normal” people do.  Some people are afraid of a homosexual agenda.  Some people are afraid of big corporations, and some people are afraid of activists.  Many people are afraid of terrorists.  Everyone is afraid that the idiot the other party is running as their candidate will win the election and then take our country down a rat hole with their ill-conceived, bleeding-heart, or self-serving policies.

So what do we do with these fears?  Sometimes I want to scold other people for their fears.  I want to call the people who hold certain fears crazy, or to label them as racists, or to point out their ignorance, or to try to push them out of my community, or to dismiss them as dumb, or to find another way to belittle or ignore them.  Usually, scolding people for their fears is not terribly effective.  Our culture has tried that for the last generation or two, and our ability to develop sound policies to solve our problems, or even to simply have civil public discourse, has suffered for it.  We start to look as foolish as I undoubtedly look when I am dragging my dog down the street, tugging and pulling and cajoling the frightened beast behind me to just walk already.

If I am going to walk with people, I have to acknowledge their fears.  If we are going to make any progress together, I have to try to understand what makes them quiver.  It won’t do any good to scold them, and I can’t just tug harder to force them to come along.  I don’t  need to let others’ fears hold me back; at the same time, it doesn’t help me or the other when I let myself act out of anger or impatience.

My dog and I made it through our full walk tonight.  We both got enough exercise, and we never did encounter any danger.  And what is more, I don’t think any of the neighbors saw me as foolish as I just let Otis fall a step behind me.  In fact, I think they might have understood.  He’s simply afraid of the dark.

Gifts

IMG_4869 (800x533)My son gave me a new bird feeder for Christmas.  It was wrapped in a big box and shoved way back under the tree.  His mom used the paper that he picked out, and she tied a big bow around it.  He was very proud to show the gift to me on the day when I came home from work and it was under the tree.  And then, when I opened it on Christmas morning, he was pleased all over again.

The fact is that my son is really good at giving gifts.  He thinks carefully about the people who will receive the gifts he gives:  what they like and what they don’t like, their unique hobbies or tastes, and what is special about his relationship with them.  When he was about four, I asked him what he wanted to get his mom for her birthday.  We happened to be sitting at the kitchen table at the time.  He looked over my head to the racks on the wall above me which hold some interesting plates we have collected over time.  “I want to get her a plate,” he announced.  “Oh, great,” I thought, “he’s not even taking the question seriously.”  I figured he had just blurted out the first thing that his eyes landed on.  But a couple of days later, I asked again, and he said the same thing.  So off we went in search of a plate for his mom’s birthday present.

I had to think for a while about where to find open stock dinnerware, but we eventually found our way to that wall of shelves along the left-hand side of the store as you enter Pier 1.  You know the ones:  raw wood nailed together and carefully designed to look like crude shipping crates.  There were plenty of options there.  And my concern that he was not taking the project of finding his mom a good birthday present was misguided.  He looked very seriously at all of the options.  He was like Goldilocks in his quest for the perfect plate for his beloved mother, except that he could not put into words the reason for rejecting so many.  They just weren’t right.

Finally, he found one that was right.  It had a nice, green leaf on it, not unlike the one which finally satisfied the cravings of the very hungry caterpillar.  Perched on top of the green leaf was a bright, red ladybug; a perfect touch to tease his mama a bit, since she makes it abundantly clear at every opportunity that she does not like bugs of any sort.  It had a unique size and rectangular shape (I believe it is actually a spoon rest), which made it all the more perfect.  We paid the nice lady in the store, took it home, and wrapped it up to be proudly and excitedly given to mama on her Big Day.

Later that year, all of our close family again received plates for Christmas.  I believe mine is the one with the poppies on it:  breezy, bright, stylized flowers on a cream-colored, square dish, not as big as a dinner plate, but a little too large to serve dessert.  He knows I like flowers, and bright colors, and I think he saw me admire it when we were in the store one day.  It now sits proudly on the shelf beside the others, above my head as we eat our family supper.

This year, we were trying to steer him away from the plates, since the shelves are getting full, and we are trying not to accumulate too much stuff that has little practical use.  But he was ready to move on from his plate-giving stage anyway.  I think his mom coached him a bit by asking what he thinks daddy really likes.  Whatever the preparation, he was very thoughtful about his gift.  He knows daddy likes working outside in the garden, and he knows his daddy likes it when the birds come to our back yard.  Ever since he was old enough to walk, I have invited him to help me fill the bird feeders.  When he was really young, he loved to help.  He would dig the scoop into the big bag of bird seed, bring it out of the bag, and aim for the top of the bird feeder.  Usually, the process got more bird seed on the ground than in the feeder, but we didn’t mind; we just moved the whole operation to the lawn, and the squirrels got some extra nourishment after we had finished.  Lately, he has not been so interested in scooping and dumping; he would rather keep battling whatever dinosaurs or bad guys are occupying his imagination when I invite him to help fill the feeders.  But he is supportive of me as I tell him I am about to undertake the project each weekend, he still likes to look at the birds eating what we put out for them, and he especially likes encouraging his dog to run out the back door full-tilt after the squirrels who take advantage of the free lunch we offer, too.  Over time, the feeder closest to the house started to rust on the top, and a detail like that does not get past my son.  So he made up his mind that the bird feeder would be the perfect gift.  When his mom showed him the selection in the bird feeder aisle at the big box store (please don’t judge us), he picked the one with the big sunshine on it because he thought that one would make me smile. He was right.

It makes me smile that my son is so careful about picking out gifts.  It makes me smile that he is so thoughtful.  It makes me smile that he values the people in his life and the unique relationship he has with each of them.  It makes me smile that he is a sweet and sensitive little boy.  As he gets older, I know he will feel pressure to be less sweet, less sensitive, and more assertive; to play rough and fight back and hide behind a tough exterior and be masculine in all of those other ways the culture will tell him are more appropriate.  So it makes me smile, too, that I have the chance to subvert those messages and encourage him in every way I can to just be himself.

Mostly, it makes me smile that I get to be one of the recipients of his gifts.

Squirrels

(c) 2012, Eric Beene

We have plenty of squirrels around here.  Lately, the darn things have been eating all of the food out of the bird feeders.  Of course, squirrels on the bird feeders is nothing new to anyone who has ever kept a bird feeder in an average neighborhood like ours.  But the piggish little fiends don’t know when to stop.  It would be one thing if they just came for a little snack now and then.  Maybe they could pick up some of the little seeds off the ground that the cardinals and blue jays and other birds don’t like so much.  But that is not what the rascals do.  Instead, they crawl up the poles the bird feeders hang from, they jump on the feeders, they knock seed hither and yon, they do all sorts of contortions to fit in a space that was not designed for them, and they camp out there for hours, happily munching away as if the rest of the world owes them the courtesy of leaving them alone while they drive away the prettier creatures.

You can see I have feelings about the squirrels.  They really are just rats with fluffy tails and better PR.

In our house, we have found a new favorite way to deal with the problem.  Our chocolate lab, the story goes, once had to live in the wilds of rural Georgia and hunt for his own food before he was rescued and became a part of our family.  When we got him, a woman who has more money to spend on animals than we do had hired a trainer to teach him basic commands.  Uncle Skip, as our trainer is affectionately known in our house, loves our dog, and he told us that a dog like him needs to have short bursts of intense activity to really stay in shape.

So it doesn’t take an engineer to put it all together.  The squirrels camp out on the bird feeders.  The squirrels annoy me.  The dog knows how to hunt.  The dog needs bursts of activity.  All we have to do is get him excited, quietly open the back door, and in a flurry of dog energy and squirrel fright, the dog chases the squirrels up the nearest tree and returns, gleefully accepting our praise.  And then, because the squirrels don’t seem to be the brightest bulbs in the backyard chandelier, they come back, and our faithful canine gets to put every fiber of his being into action as he rushes out hunting another time.

A couple of weeks ago, though, I decided to take my camera into the back yard to practice taking wildlife shots.  I know, I know; the purple finches and house sparrows which frequent our back yard can hardly be considered good subjects for wildlife shots.  I would rather be photographing grizzly bears catching fish in their jaws in the misty spray of mountain rivers, but some book I read said that taking photos in the back yard is good practice.  So I was watching the trees, and I found a couple of squirrels running around.  I took some pictures of them, including the one you see above.

As I was looking at the photo later, I realized what I had done.  I took a portrait of this animal.  The photo let me look in his eyes, and see the shape of his face and the line of his jaw.  I could see how he was holding his mouth closed, and the brightness of his ears as he held them alert, and his relaxed brow which let his eyes enjoy the view from up in the tree.  An expression almost emerged.  And we know from looking at really good portraits of people that behind the expression on the subject’s face is a story.  I started to imagine this squirrel’s story:  what he was planning to do in the tree that day, what he had been through to get to that tree, where he had eaten his breakfast, what his friend in the next tree had told him just a few minutes before.  It gets a little ridiculous, but you can look at him and wonder what his family life is like, whether he might really be older than he looks, what good and bad choices he had made in the past which led him to that moment in that tree in my back yard.

These are the reasons why, despite my interest in photography as a way to preserve and share beauty, I am not comfortable taking many close-up photos of people outside my immediate family.  There is a deep intimacy to good close-up portraits.  In a good close-up, you can see the creases in a person’s face, and the shape of their brow, and the glistening depths of their eyes.  Their expression tells something about their story, and if you look at the portrait closely, you start to feel like you might even be reading details of their story they have never spoken to anyone.  I have several photography books which give good advice on how to create portraits like that:  how to angle the lighting, how to set up the camera, how to frame the shot, and how to zoom and crop so that there are no distracting details but only the person’s expression.  I think photos like that are beautiful in a way that I’m not sure I can express in words.  But every time I try to take a photo like that, I jump back in fright.  There is too much intimacy in the act of taking a photo like that.

Maybe for now I can stick with “wildlife” photos like the one above.  They might be just what I need.  If I am not careful with them, they might even teach me sympathy, or even empathy, for the fiendish squirrels who thwart my ideas of what kinds of creatures are worthy to be called beautiful.