Animals and Music

May 24, 2019

I remember my mother one day giving me this very typical (for her) advice: “Be sure to wash your celery good. I was reading the other day that celery is extremely dirty and people should be more careful.”

To which I had to reply: “Where do you read these things?”

Well, I was reading the other day that termites like heavy metal music. Yes, I read it on the Internet, but there’s so much stuff on the Internet that you have to know what to look for.

Scott Bauer/USFWS

The article didn’t say whether termites show taste in heavy metal – whether they like Queen and Jethro Tull but hate KISS – but researches inferred that termites prefer this music since they chew faster when they hear it. According to Erlich Pest Control Blog, rock is ideal work music for termites due to “the frequency of 2.5KHz outputs for bass and electric guitars, which are distinctive of the rock genre.”

Mammals can have idiosyncratic tastes in music. Dolphins purportedly love Radiohead. In Tracking and the Art of Seeing, Paul Rezendes describes a raccoon who “would often come in when the man was playing Bach on his stereo. As soon as the record was over, the raccoon would leave.”

I used to have a cat who liked loud classical music, the kind with lots of horns and cymbals. She would lay next to a boombox playing Wagner or The William Tell Overture and cry if it was turned off. She’s dead now, but in Misha’s memory I would like to share this rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, her favorite.

At Crown Point

May 16, 2019

Trees are starting to bud where I live, and the birds have arrived. I went to Crown Point this week to watch the birds being banded. I’ve driven over the Crown Point Bridge hundreds of times but have never stopped here.

Banding a Rose Breasted Grosbeak. Birds are measured, then sex and age is recorded.

Savannah Sparrow.

It had rained early in the morning, and the cloud shapes were interesting.

After the long winters here, even dandelions are beautiful.

I liked this tree. Spring is unrolling slowly this year.

Crown Point Bridge from New York to Vermont.

Spring is Here

May 3, 2019
Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service

It has finally begun to feel like spring where I live, even though it was snowing this morning when I arose. The trees are not leafing yet, but the maples are budding, and animal life is conspicuous. In the past week, I have seen or heard the Barred Owl, Short-eared Owl, Cooper’s Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Osprey, Pileated Woodpecker, and the drumming wing feathers of the courting Ruffed Grouse.

One particularly welcome sight was a Little Brown Bat that sailed by my left shoulder on a dirt road near the village. I haven’t seen spring daytime bats in years. When the Little Brown Bat emerges from hibernation, she hunts during the day for insects which are inactive at night in cool weather. I used to see groups of bats flittering in the midday sun in early spring, but that changed years ago. White-nose Syndrome was first discovered in upstate New York in 2007 and has since spread throughout North America. A few species are predicted to become extinct, though the Little Brown Bat has a chance since her numbers were so high and her colonies so widespread to begin with.

Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service

I hoped that this was a sign that the disease has run its course and the Little Brown Bat is recovering, but my Internet search only revealed that White-nose is spreading to places far from the original sighting, like southern Texas. Still, I might be one of the first to notice signs of recovery, if that is occurring. “One swallow does not a summer make,” and one bat is not a colony, but I am hopeful.

Visions of the Cat

April 25, 2019
K. Fink/US National Park Service

This excerpt, about meeting a cougar on a vision quest, is from Divining with Animal Guides: Answers from the world at hand.

I decided I would do a vision quest. I would go out on my own, build a fire, and instead of sleeping I would stay up all night and have visions.

I chose the dark moon for my journey. I walked a few miles along a deserted beach, with cliffs along the edge that had small caves and alcoves. When I reached a sheltered place I pulled firewood out of my backpack, gathered kindling along the beach, built a small fire, and in the approaching twilight commenced scrying into the flames. I didn’t have any visions.

I sat there a long time, getting up only to add more fuel. It began spitting rain and I became chilled even with the fire. I felt silly, shivering all by myself in a deserted place with a car less

than five miles away and a warm bed within a few hours’ drive. “This is boring,” I said to myself. I gathered my belongings and scattered the fire. As I stamped out the last embers, I had a vision.

A fat Chinese Buddha appeared, so rotund that I could not discern the outline of his body within my psychic frame of reference. I intuitively understood that he appeared to me thus to

show that he was bigger than I could envision. The limits of his influence were beyond the scope of my understanding.

The Buddha raised his hand in a gesture of protection and the apparition dissolved. I commenced my journey home.

As I trekked northward, the cliffs at my right and the ocean to my left, I discovered it was not raining at all; the fine droplets were from an unusually rough tide. How had I blotted out the sound of that surf? I realized that I was now in danger of being cut off from dry land; cliffs to one side of me with water butting up against them. Though it was very dark, I put my flashlight in my backpack because I needed both hands to scramble over the slippery rocks. I felt angry with myself for having bumbled into such a dangerous situation.

Finally the cliffs ended and the beach opened up. I had made it. I unloaded my backpack and retrieved my flashlight.

I was now only two miles from the car, two rather slow miles over sand or a short brisk walk via a trail close by. The logical option was to take the trail, but I felt an unexplained reluctance. It was one of those feelings that don’t make sense at the time, but you understand later. I was sopping wet from struggling with the surf, and I was rattled, so despite my misgivings, the trail won out.

I practically ran along the narrow path, so I was very close before I saw her. She was huge, the largest carnivorous beast I had confronted in the wild. She appeared confused. She moved a few steps from the beam of my flashlight and stood there, staring at me.

“You’re supposed to run away,” I said helpfully. The conventional wisdom was that cougars would not attack humans unless cornered, though they might possibly eat children. Many well- publicized deaths from unprovoked mountain lions have occurred since, but this was the prevailing belief at the time. I was not reassured by this while standing face-to-face with my cougar, however, because I am not a large woman. I thought to myself, “I hope this cougar understands that I’m a grown-up and not a child.”

“Listen, you’re blocking the path,” I reasoned. “Turn and follow this other path, or run back the way you came. I have to go in this direction because my car is there.”

The mountain lion took a few steps forward, slightly left of my shoulder.

“Okay, I give you the path,” I said quickly. “I’ll go another way.” I took a small step backward and shone my flashlight directly in the animal’s eyes. I took another slow step backward, and another, and another. I began shining the flashlight away, then back in her eyes, then away, then back, rationalizing this would interfere with her ability to focus. She remained still.

As I finally turned away, I let out the loudest, most terrifying scream I could muster, just to give her second thoughts about following me. “Take that, you big scream machine,” I thought.

My relationship with wilderness changed that night. After my third cougar encounter I still went out by myself, sometimes after dark, but I interacted with my environment in a different way. Hearing an unfamiliar sound I would investigate not only out of curiosity, but also out of concern for safety. I remained vigilant; I became cautious. Magical protection was no longer an abstract concept. Once there was a girl who roamed the wilderness alone at night, aware that there were mountain lions in the woods and completely unafraid. I am no longer that girl.

Crocodile Friends

April 11, 2019

Here is another excerpt from Divining with Animal Guides.


Crocodile amulet with sun disk under snout, inscribed to Amen-Ra. Photo: Walters Art Museum

Crocodiles have a reputation for being smart. A significant facet of their intelligence is their ability to learn through observation. Crocodiles take a keen interest in the habits of wildlife along the river and plan their predation strategy accordingly. They seem to anticipate daily schedules and migration patterns. Sometimes they hunt cooperatively, using combined strength to drown a large animal or pull it apart. They may form two separate groups and herd fish into an ambush. They remain still and hidden for long periods of time, then move with lightning speed when it’s time to strike. They are long-lived animals, which might be another reason crocodile goddess Neith is considered the oldest deity.

Wealthy Egyptians liked to keep crocodiles as pets. A household crocodile was a pampered creature, given a courtyard pond for lounging and freedom to explore the house. Having the croc around brought the family fertility, wealth, protection and general good luck.

The temple crocodile was treated as the living representation of the crocodile god, usually but not always Neith’s son Sobek. As with any deity, the crocodile god lived in lush surroundings, entertained by temple musicians, and wore bracelets and body piercings of the most exquisite workmanship. When a divine crocodile died, he would be mummified like any great leader and given a funeral. Pet crocodiles were also mummified, according to the family’s means. During the last millennium BCE, some temples kept a stock of crocodiles to be sold as sacrifices to Sobek, and these crocodiles were also mummified, occasionally with their babies, although not with the same precision as a divine crocodile or a pet croc. From this temple stock, a new living deity would be chosen and given the same name as the crocodile now making his journey to eternal life.

There are many questions about this process that the Egyptians left unanswered. Questions like, how do you tell the difference between a divine crocodile and an ordinary one? Outside culinary donations, how do you know when a live crocodile approves of your offering, since they appear to have only one facial expression? And, most importantly, who takes a job as a crocodile body piercer?


Crocodile mummies. Photo: Olaf Tausch

The Bird of Shadows

April 4, 2019
owl amulet
Re-creation of an amulet appearing in Frederick Thomas Elworthy’s The Evil Eye.

The following is an excerpt from a chapter in Invoking Animal Magic.

Western traditions regard the owl with ambivalence. She is a repository of wisdom, but a harbinger of death or other unwelcome news. Not only Shakespeare, but Spenser and Chaucer describe the owl as presager of doom, making the verdict of the English literary giants unanimous. Yet the owl only goes visiting if the messages are unclaimed. When the situation becomes dicey enough for her to hunt down the recipient, can she be blamed if the news is dire? 

Distinctive in tone, varied in repertoire, hidden under cover of night, owl talk strikes the listener as steeped in significance. In talking to their own kind, owls can be establishing territory, courting, migrating, defending themselves or calling for mother. But of course we know they are mostly talking to us. Not only do owls carry messages, they carry secrets. Spells from archaic Roman and English sources use the owl to pry secrets from a sleeping victim. The owl is an emblem, by admission or reputation, of various secret societies, including the Masons, the Bohemian Grove and the Illuminati. On the corner of the one dollar bill there is a minute figure that could be an owl, which people who subscribe to conspiracy theories attribute to an occult fraternity among the Founding Fathers. 

The owl’s most conspicuous feature is her large eyes, which give the impression of seeing everything. Most birds, including other birds of prey, obtain a field of vision approaching 360 degrees by having eyes located on either side of the head. The owl’s forward facing eyes give her excellent depth perception— important for seeing in low light—and make her appear more human. Her flexible neck allows her to turn her face to the rear. She needs large eyes and wide head movements because her eyes are fixed and cannot move, hence the staring that unnerves some people. Her immovable eyes seem supremely confident and all-knowing. Since the owl sees so clearly into the night, she is credited with the comprehension of death, evil, uncomfortable truths, disquieting outcomes and everything else we place in the rubric of “shadow.”

Another glowing review for Divining with Animal Guides

March 8, 2019

In the March 1 issues of PaganPages, Susan Rossi writes:

” I was delighted to discover that Divining with Animal Guides is not a cookbook dictionary, concretizing the “meanings” of animal encounters. Author Hearth Moon Rising has created a manual for learning to observe and discern and ultimately, to shift our strictly human viewpoint. Only when we look at the context in which the animals offer us their messages are we able to fully understand their invitations and gifts. “

Read the entire review here.

Musing on Cundrie

March 1, 2019
Vision of the Holy Grail by William Morris 1890

In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, a tale from the Arthurian canon, a sorceress named Cundrie plays a pivotal role in the plot. She first appears to chide Parzival (Percival) for failing in his task to attain the Grail. She is described as a maiden no knight would ride for: hideously ugly. She has the ears of a bear, the fingernails of a lion, the hands of a monkey, incisors like boar tusks, and a nose like a dog. She is apparently a young woman, however, because her hair, coarse like a pig’s bristles, is black.

Wolfram tells us that Cundrie’s beastly qualities were given to her as punishment for Adam’s sins, yet she is not debased in her dress and education. Despite her homely appearance, she is richly dressed in the finest silks. She is a learned woman, fluent in many languages, including Arabic. In the Middle Ages, Arabs had a reputation as exceptional scholars, especially in astronomy and mathematics, subjects we are told Cundrie has mastered. Despite her aristocratic bearing, Cundrie arrives on a mule, not a horse.

Cundrie represents wisdom in her encounter with Parzival, upbraiding him for not asking an important question. She later dispenses a healing potion. Though her animal qualities are characterized as sinful, pre-Christian Celtic-Germanic beliefs held the boar, bear, lion, and hound as particularly sacred. (The monkey doesn’t seem to fit, though.)

Cundrie is a puzzle. She seems like she may be a shape shifting animal goddess demoted to an ugly maiden cursed by God to appeal to Christian sensibilities. She retains her function as guardian of knowledge.

Nature Never Shuts Down

February 15, 2019
Photo: Jerry Kirkhart

During the December-January US government shutdown, over fifty female Northern Elephant Seals decided to turn Drakes Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore into a nursery. With most National Park employees on furlough, the seals settled in with no hassles and at this point cannot be chased off.

While I often saw Sea Lions when I lived in California, I did not become acquainted with Elephant Seals, though I hiked at Point Reyes regularly. There are numerous nursing colonies on isolated beaches from Oregon to the Baja region in Mexico. Elephant Seal populations are unknown since they live in poorly accessible regions even while breeding.

Photo: Frank Schulenburg

True to their name, these mamas are huge, weighing over a thousand pounds. Males are much larger. They roar like an elephant and have a funny nose. When not breeding, Elephant Seals live in eastern Pacific waters as far north as the Aleutian Islands. They eat fish, sharks, and squid.

Colonies will take off again around April, after pups have weaned and mothers have mated. They tend to return to the same breeding grounds year after year, so it is unclear whether Drakes Beach will be ever be open year-round again. The Park Service has established a viewing area for the public on weekends so as not to disturb the seals or place humans in danger.

The message the Elephant Seals have brought through their Occupy Point Reyes escapade is that despite stunts over government “shutdowns” that Congress and now our President have pulled, Mother Nature is in charge of this land. We can go on strike if we want, but she keeps going about her business.

Sources:
Associated Press, Elephant Seals Take Over California Beach During Shutdown.
US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): Species Directory, Northern Elephant Seal.

Year of the Pig

February 8, 2019

Elephant seals next week.

The Chinese Year of the Pig began this week. The pig in Chinese astrology is a calm, prosperous, gentle animal, generous and focused. Here are some brief horoscopes for Year of the Pig.

A roundup of world folktales about pigs can be found here.

A four-part article I wrote several years ago about the sow in Western mythology is here.

I read once that you’re not supposed to clean the house for the first three days of the Chinese New Year, so as not to clean out the good luck. It seemed like good advice, and I started applying it to the Gregorian new year as well. What a boon to have days when you not only don’t clean, you don’t feel like you should be cleaning. I decided that the no-cleaning days should apply to Halloween (the Celtic new year) and Yule (the Heathen new year). Then I started celebrating Diwali and Rosh Hashana, by not cleaning of course. Now if I don’t feel like cleaning, I can say “It’s New Year’s somewhere.”