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Creek Running North

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May 13, 2004


Look atop that pine up the hill: a red-shouldered hawk calls again and again, a bad seagull imitation attracting the nesting mockingbirds. Mockers are territorial when reproducing, aggressively so. They mob the young hawk, perturbing him slightly, and making one hell of a racket. Bothered by the fuss, a male Anna's hummingbird starts chittering, strafing the mockingbirds as they in turn strafe the raptor. Eventually the hawk retreats, still cawing.

When we think about relationships among organisms at all, which is seldom enough, our thoughts tend toward the dyadic. Puma interacts with deer, by eating it. Male wolf challenges other male wolf. Aphid sinks drilling rig into Brussels sprout plant. The notion that such relationships might be strongly influenced by a third organism, or a fourth or fifth one, is conceded and then swiftly forgotten.

This pairing of animals two by two serves the analytic mind well in its simplicity, but there are some interactions that defy such reduction.

Each morning I awake, turn on the coffee machine, then open the door to let Zeke and Thistle out to romp in the fenced backyard. I shower, check email, then spend some time with the animals in the garden before rounding them up and leaving for work.

It's a slightly risky practice, leaving the rabbit out there all alone. Our neighborhood has its share of predators large enough to eat a small rabbit - barn owl, raccoons, feral cats and loose dogs. The white-tailed kites that daily pass over our yard are too small to carry away anything larger than a mouse, but there are red-shouldered hawks, and red-tails and sharp-shins, that could make relatively quick work of a rabbit Thistle's size. So we don't leave him out there alone for long, and we put Zeke out there with him, and we provide lots of hiding places - pots on their sides and the like.

A couple weeks ago I was making a third espresso when I heard a rasping scream from the yard. It took three hurried steps toward the door before I realized what I'd heard was not the agonized sound of a rabbit in extremis: it was something rawer, less piercing.

I burst through the door. Thistle, unharmed, was just diving beneath an Adirondack chair. Directly above, not four feet from my head, was that red-shouldered hawk. Talons extended, juvenile bars flashing on the underside of its tail, it wanted Thistle.

Zeke, it turned out, was no help at all. He is an old dog, thirteen and affable and slow, and animated mainly when playing tag with the rabbit. If the pretty bird wanted to join in the fun, who was Zeke to interfere?

As it happened, Thistle was saved by help from an unexpected quarter. Also above my head, countering the hawk move for move and darting just out of reach of its talons, was a crow. It had made the scream I'd heard from the kitchen: a raucous rebel yell of somewhat sadistic glee. He had been hanging around for days, watching Zeke from the oak with apparent fascination. Dog-watching that morning, the crow was on hand to harass the red-shoulder, saving Thistle from an agonizing, perhaps drawn out death.

How to reduce that interaction to its component pairs of animals? Take out any one player and the story ends very differently. Dissect the story into dyads and there is no story.

Except for this: the hawk took off. Thistle gladly accepted the shelter of his cage, stopped shivering, and started eating his morning carrot. Zeke wandered into the bedroom and dozed.

And I went back outside, to where the crow could see me from the perch to which it had withdrawn, atop the oak. It looked at me, let loose a few more of those cries that had made me drop my coffee.

It was just him and me now.

"Anything from this garden," I said. "Anything you want, it's yours. Bring your family." The crow cawed twice more, fell silent for a moment, flew off.

Posted by Chris Clarke at May 13, 2004 09:19 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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The Native Americans understood this wide cast of thousands better than us, I suspect. And included themselves within it. And knew enough to put Crow into the top echelon, where he acts upon the world with great wisdom and foolishness.

Posted by: butuki at May 13, 2004 10:48 PM
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Yes. Cahuilla and Kumeyaay creation myths offer an interesting contrast to the Western Christian one; Sowbug, for example, gets equal or greater billing than human beings.

Corvids are clever, wise-ass birds, the whole lot of them. I like 'em.

Rabbit screams are terrible -- I heard a few as a child when we had pet rabbits. One was prone to escaping his cage (a regular rabbit Houdini), and our dog was nowhere as friendly as Zeke. You'd hear this horrible screech and run out to find the dog cornering the escapee. Unfortunately, the rabbit met his end the one time we weren't home when he escaped.

Posted by: Rana at May 14, 2004 09:57 AM
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So lemme get this straight, Rana. You like corvids. You miss the frog from before Creek's redesign.

Who'da thunk it?

Posted by: Chris Clarke at May 14, 2004 10:27 AM
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Oddly, they are but some among the pantheon of animals I like and admire. Presumably the blog could, with equal or greater justification, have been called Squirrels and Lizards, or Cats and Spiders. (Hmm... Squirrels and Lizards does have a ring to it.)

I dunno why F & R won out; my brain works in mysterious ways.

Posted by: Rana at May 14, 2004 04:08 PM
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I would like to officially reserve the name "Pangolins and Pink Orchid Mantids" so that none of you have the audacity of stealing it while I'm not looking. So who cares if it doesn't have a graceful ring to it; it's mine and you're just going to have to get yourself something else, now, dow'n tcha?

Better write the name down. Anyone have a pen? Why don't I ever have a pen when I need one? A pen? Any one? Any one there? Hello?

Posted by: butuki at May 14, 2004 06:49 PM
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Those are some _beautiful_ mantises.

I have a pen you can borrow. You'll have to come over here to get it, though; I'm too comfortable to get up and take it to you.

Posted by: Rana at May 15, 2004 01:19 PM
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Does the pen have a gel-based ink? With a carbonized, extra smooth-rolling ball? And a proper, flared-end grip so that my fingers sit just right as I poise the pen over the vellum? And a nice, gold inlaid, cast aluminum shaft with personalized engravings in the clip? And of course the requisite counterbalnce in the cap to balance the instrument at the proper angle? And not to forget the marbled adjustment ring just at the top end of the pen, for friction-free adjustment of the retractable nib? Is that what you're offering?

You know I won't settle for anything but the best. I dow'n get up fer nothin' else!

Posted by: butuki at May 15, 2004 08:39 PM
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I would love to have a pen like that.

Alas, the one sitting beside me is a cheap plastic rollerball, prone to skipping, filled with ink of a strange blue shade.

Posted by: Rana at May 17, 2004 11:15 AM
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Butuki: You're a worse pen freak than I am! I didn't think it possible.
Rana: You're one up on me, my roller pens don't skip, they run out.
Hurrah for the wisdom and timeliness of corvids!

Posted by: nobbog at May 18, 2004 06:55 AM
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