Saturday, December 13, 2014

Pony Books and the Making of a Reader

Photo courtesy Newspix/Rex Features

A few months ago there was a dust-up online regarding adults who like reading YA literature.

Apparently this twisted the knickers of some critics, who muttered about the quality and (supposed) lack of depth in YA literature.

Reading the Harry Potter books, anything by John Green, and the like was suddenly a shameful thing for adults to be doing, though I guess it was OK to read chick-lit or light beach-escape reading as long as it was written with grown-ups in mind.

Far better writers than I have addressed this issue and extolled the fine writing and substance to be found not only in YA but also chapter books and picture books. I can only say that I've had a very pleasant few months indulging in the habit of reading horse books, which took turns with other novels that would be more likely to pass muster with these critics.

As a horse-crazy kid, of course, I did nothing but read horse books between the ages of 9 and 14. My local library helpfully labeled all its horse books with a little horse-head sticker on the spine, so you didn't even have to use the card catalog.

I figured I'd probably read every horse book available in our library system and most of the ones ever written for the middle-grade/young adult crowd by the time I got to high school, but there were actually herds and herds of literary oaters out there that I'd never come across, and that's not even counting the hundreds of titles that kids in England enjoyed throughout the 1900s.

Among these titles was a five-book series I stumbled upon in a vintage-items shop in late summer: The Timber Trail Riders. This series was published between 1963 and 1964, when I was still a very tiny person learning to talk, let alone read.

The adventures of the Timber Trail Riders were published by Whitman Publishing Company of Racine, Wisconsin. Whitman Publishing Company became a subsidiary of Western Publishing in 1915 (Western later published the beloved Little Golden Books). The Whitman line included many mysteries and westerns; series based on characters such as Trixie Belden, Donna Parker, and Troy Nesbit; and many books based on popular TV shows and movies such as Lassie and various Walt Disney films.

One aspect that intrigued me about these books was their obvious appeal to boys--three of the five stories featured boys as the main characters. This might not have been remarkable back in the day, but among the connoisseurs of pony books (yes, there is such a thing, and we hold our heads high), there is concern about the pinkification of the horse world--is there too much emphasis on all that is pink, glittery, and princess-y?

When the Resident Teen was a very small Resident Horse-Crazy Tot, a friend who was the mom of a little boy told me her son had rebelled at the idea of visiting some horses while they were on vacation. "Horses are girrrrl animals," he sneered, wrinkling his face in disgust. (Interestingly, in his middle teen years, this boy became a Brony.)

There was no shortage of boy-friendly horse stories when I was looking for books in the 1960s and early '70s, though. Marguerite Henry's books appealed to both boys and girls, as did the many volumes in Walter Farley's "Black Stallion" series. Most of these books had boys as the central human characters, but the horses figured so strongly in them, it wasn't off-putting to a horse-crazy girl reader.

I read Henry's books over and over, though the Black Stallion books didn't grab me--I read a few of them and then left off when my mom signed me up for the World Famous Horse Story Library book club, which brought books from authors around the world to my doorstep.

So when I sat down to read the Timber Trail Riders, I wondered if they'd have appealed to me when I was a kid, when just about all it took for me to like a book was the presence of a horse every few paragraphs.

When I finished them, I knew for sure they wouldn't have been my cup of tea.

 Not because the writing is terrible--it's not scintillating prose, but it's up to the task for a simple, unadorned, straightforward action-adventure mystery, perhaps the sort of writing for teens that would be called "hi-lo" today (high interest/low reading level).

One reason I wouldn't have liked them is the fact that they're mysteries. I hated mysteries as a child and I still don't like them. I had only one mystery book as a kid, and the only reason I read it again and again was because I knew how it ended. Something involving--wait for this--a false drawer in a desk! Unheard of!

I also wasn't, and am still not, really interested in fast-paced adventures. I couldn't have said so at the time, but the fact that as an adult one of my favorite books is The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey is a pretty good clue that this taste in reading has deep roots. (The book chronicles the long, slow recovery of the author from an obscure virus and her observations of the tiny snail that lives in a potted violet on a table by her bedside.)

My childhood obsession with horses taxed the patience of many adults--an art teacher took credit off my grade because I painted too many horses, a great-uncle ridiculed my drawings because they were of "yet another horse," and I was praised mightily when I brought home a book from the library that wasn't about horses.

(I often wonder if kids who were interested in cars, rockets, stamps, ancient Egypt, or the like were pressed to set aside their interests in this way.)

But I can say only this to teachers and parents who fear that girls' horse obsessions will limit them in life: Stop worrying. Horses carry the young reader into all kinds of amazing worlds of imagination and history and fact. And I can see now that the types of books I like now are rooted in those horsy books I indulged in as a kid, so I was actually forming reading tastes while I was steeping myself in horse lore. Jill Crewe of Ruby Ferguson's "Jill" pony books and her stories set in a small village where everybody knows each other, life turns on small hinges, and there's lots of talking and humor? Well, Jill, meet Jane Austen.

OK, So, What About the Books?

As noted, there are five titles, all published in a two-year span. I have found very little about them on the internet and absolutely nothing about the author. Or authors? Was Michael Murray a pen name for several writers? A copyright-renewal page online notes only that Murray was a hired writer. Either Murray was a very fast writer, or he was actually two or three writers.

I also wondered whether Whitman intended to continue the series. Each book's cover includes the title and a tagline featuring the main character's name: "A Mike Casey Story," "A Peggy Lewis Story," and the like. This billing makes me think they thought the series would take off and that the characters would become household names.

What they have in common is a scheme used by authors from the Brothers Grimm to Roald Dahl and J. K. Rowling: get rid of the parents, and get rid of them quick!

Fortunately for the parents of the assorted Timber Trail Riders, most of them are not stomped to death by an angry rhinoceros, blasted by an evil wizard lord, or otherwise dispatched. Typically, the kids simply get a marvelous opportunity to live away from their family for a month or two or even as long as a year and have thrilling adventures during that time. They also obtain horses or access to horses in ways that real kids can only dream of. Details below.

The Long Trail North: A Mike Casey Story

Mike Casey and Danny Hall are 13-year-old boys who help out on an old-time cattle drive set in modern times. It's all part of a nostalgic whim of an Englishman who’s bought an old cattle ranch that other people wanted to turn into a game farm. Failing to obtain the ranch (spoiler alert), the bad guys try to sabotage the cattle drive.

Little hiccups in the journey include  a near drowning, a few stampedes, a steady loss of cattle, and a hostage situation in a ghost town.

A fun surprise in this book is the appearance of a Native American boy who's also coming along as a drover. Mike speaks to him in stupid, truncated English, saying things like "We come from east, far toward rising sun.”

Little Bear plays along for a while, until he's asked if  he's ever heard of Chicago. He replies, “If you’re referring to Chicago, Illinois, I’ve been there at least half a dozen times, visiting my uncle who teaches ethnology at the university. I presume that is the Chicago you have reference to?”

The Texas Tenderfoot: A Dave Talbot Story

Dave Talbot, age 15, arrives in Chicago’s airport, dressed like a cowboy, and gets stared at a lot. Dad is off for a year working in the oil industry and Mom is deceased, so Dave's going to stay with Dad’s old pal  Colonel Dwyer who owns a big horse farm,. There he meets mysterious Lee Ann Burton, a poor little rich girl whose jet-setting parents are out of the picture.

They contend with Bo, the mean stableboy who's up to no good. You know he's Trouble with a capital T from the start: "“Bo was a husky tanned youth, with heavy features and a sullen manner. His dark brown hair had streaks of yellow, and he wore it too long, with slicked-back sides and exaggerated sideburns.”

Long hair--and dyed, no less! Clearly bad news.

Dave falls off a horse that Bo deliberately saddles improperly. Bo also lets valuable horses escape and tries to blame it on Dave, puts a burr under his saddle, and even attempts to burn down the stable. Dave ends up playing Sherlock Holmes and proving Bo's the culprit. In other news, Dad buys the brilliant horse Star Bright for Dave. There's also a show and party. The author of this book describes all the food lavishly. It will make you hungry.

The Luck of Black Diamond: A Sunny Saunders Story
Sunny Saunders is a young teen who goes off to live with her aunt and grandmother for a few weeks in Colorado. Straightaway she is witness to the rescue of a cow that gets stuck in quicksand. Soon after she is given free use of a splendid black horse named Diamond, who is getting a month off from his job as a regular lesson horse—he will be hers alone.

And then her uncle buys the horse to send home with Sunny, on the condition that she ride him and not neglect him. Which causes her to worry mightily about her magnanimous decision later on to let her friend ride the dependable horse in a show—her uncle has arrived for a surprise visit and when he sees that, he’ll hit the roof, won’t he? No, because at the last minute the other girl gets another lovely horse and all is well.

This, the third book in the series, appears to have been written deliberately to cater to the tastes of many girl readers by focusing on relationships rather than adventures (a stereotype, for sure, but it probably resonates for a lot of women who like romances). After the quicksand bout, there are no other big adventures than a snarly dog that sometimes frightens the riders as they trot by a house.

One aspect of this book that I liked was how Black Diamond is actually endowed with a lot of personality--he's got opinions and quirks. However, I didn't appreciate the stunning lack of sympathy for a girl in the story who's afraid to ride after a fall—she’s repeatedly told she's “silly.” The book is also, of course, a product of its time, which still doesn't stop you from bridling when you read that when Sunny hugs her horse and he objects, Sunny concludes, “He was not like a girl, pleased to be kissed just because some boy wanted to. His favors had to be won.”

The Mystery of the Hollywood Horse: A Peggy Lewis Story

Teenager Peggy Lewis heads off to California to stay with her Aunt Paula for a month. Her aunt finesses a job for her at the stable of the trainer of Cinder, famous TV-star horse. She soon becomes friends with the girl who’s starring in Cinder’s next movie.

There’s also a mysterious, grumpy older teen named Chuck who skulks around fretting about Cinder. They find lots of clues that point to somebody plotting to steal Cinder, and speculate a lot about it and whether or not to tell his owner for fear of being dismissed as worrywarts and fussbudgets. Guess what! Cinder gets stolen! Peggy, however, finds the horse thieves’ secret lair and spirits the horse out. The police show up and the bad guys are caught.

This story stars a girl, and has more in the way of "relationship" angst than the adventure-oriented tales even though it has more hijinks than Sunny Saunders's story, but I did grow weary of all the hand-wringing and keeping things silent. Perhaps just my frustration with mysteries showing through. Or else knowing that the darn horse would be stolen and wanting to head this off at the pass.


The Mysterious Dude: A Dave Talbot Story

Dave Talbot reappears in this book. He arrives at the California dude ranch of one of his dad’s friends. Dave and that man’s son, Ron, were childhood friends. Ron's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Maynard, have to go East because Mrs. Maynard suffers from some mysterious illness, and she will get examinations there.

Because they're gone, the ranch may have to be sold—but no! Ron and Dave will run it in their absence!

Mystery shows up in the form of a slight girl with a “pale” voice who corrects everybody and recites information like a machine. She's annoying as heck and does irritating things like take horses out of the stable in the middle of the night. But I have to say she's a weird and interesting twist on your typical horse-book character.

Unfortunately, unlike the tongue-in-cheek and fairly respectful portrayal of a Native American teenager in the series' first book, this title includes a Mexican cook who's a hot-headed, fiery South-of-the-Border stereotype straight out of central casting; she flings pots and pans and mutilated English right and left, and has a son who speaks like the mouse Speedy Gonzales from the "Bugs Bunny" cartoons. Kind of cringe-inducing.

Later on, it's revealed that the Mysterious Dude-ette has a photographic memory. Not only that, but she turns out to have witnessed a crime and is hiding out at the ranch to escape a trio of men who are aiming to snuff her out, which they attempt to do during the big parade before the rodeo.

I have to admit that by this time I was weary of action-adventure and mystery, and eager to get back to reading Molly Gloss's Falling from Horses, so I was rather racing through the books at the end. It did feel nicely subversive, however, to read books that the "no teen lit for adults" leagues would've chided me for perusing.






Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Harriet the Hairy Woodpecker

An early snowfall has flocked the garden in frost and snow, and subfreezing temperatures have kept it that way.

The path that leads to a nearby pond, which was squishy and slippery with wet leaves just two weeks ago, now crunches underfoot as if one were walking on thin panes of glass. Branches bristle with small spears of ice in strange shapes.

The cold and ice make it harder for birds to find food and stay warm (despite their being well adapted to life in this climate or they wouldn't be living here in the first place), so we make sure the seed and suet feeders are well stocked. Every morning we bring in the hummingbird feeder that's frozen overnight and replace it with a fresh one, under the imperious gaze of the Anna's hummingbird hovering nearby like an impatient customer waiting for the waiter to clear a table in a crowded brunch spot.

Though I hate winter, I have to admit it's a great season for backyard birding. Birds that were hidden by leaves and more often heard than seen are now easily spotted. They'd be hard to miss even if they didn't come close to the house to access the feeders. I rarely see the calico Varied Thrushes or the rusty Fox Sparrows in other seasons.

So it was a wonderful surprise to glance out the window the other morning and find a new species at the feeder: a big female Hairy Woodpecker, chiseling away at the suet with her sturdy beak.

Hairy Woodpeckers are a common species, found throughout North America and into Central America. They look like a supersized version of the Downy Woodpecker. The little Downy Woodpeckers are far more likely to turn up in a garden, because Hairy Woodpeckers are more at home in deep, mature forests. 

In winter, however, Hairy Woodpeckers will venture out of their comfort zone and make forays into parks and gardens. Our home is close to a conservation area thick with trees as well as scattered areas of deciduous woodlands and remnants of coniferous forest, and the cold snap drove this one to forage a little farther than she usually does.

It's easy to tell that this one is a female because she doesn't have a red patch on the back of her head like the male does. As for distinguishing a Downy from a Hairy, size is the first clue (the Hairy is a third bigger than the Downy and weighs about three times as much). The Hairy's stout bill is about as long as its head; the Downy has a tiny bill. And, if you're close enough to the bird or have good binoculars, you can see that the Hairy's outer tail feathers don't have spots like the Downy's. Except, of course, when they do. Some populations have spots on those feathers. Tricksy birds.

Picoides-villosus-001.jpg
Wikimedia Commons photo
I have always wondered, though, just why this attractive bird has a name like Hairy Woodpecker. It doesn't look any hairier to me than any other bird, and certainly isn't a shaggy mop compared to the Downy, which likewise doesn't look particularly downy. 

According to Dictionary of Birds of the United States by Joel Ellis Holloway, the Hairy Woodpecker's scientific name, Picoides villosus, translates to "hairy" or "shaggy" woodpecker and is a reference to "the bristles covering the nostrils." The Downy's scientific name, Picoides pubescens, translates to "downy woodpecker" and also refers to the nasal bristles, "which are shorter and appear softer than those of the hairy woodpecker."

I ask you. WHO NAMES A BIRD LIKE THIS AFTER NOSE HAIRS?

OK, technically they're not nose hairs. They're rictal bristles. But still. As we said sarcastically in the early 1970s, thinking we were very clever, "Same difference." 

Well, perhaps after naming all those red-headed and ladder-backed woodpeckers, there wasn't much left in the nomenclature bank to dispense on these striking birds. 

For a few minutes while researching this bird, I thought I had stumbled upon a possible bit of backwards induction in its naming when I learned that one outdated common name for this species is "Harry," and that various Pacific subspecies of Hairy Woodpeckers are grouped under the name Picoides villosus harrisi--with the harrisi stemming from an old name for one of these birds, Harris's Woodpecker. 

The Harris in question is Edward Harris, an amateur ornithologist who was a friend of Audubon's and accompanied him on some of his travels. (Harris's Hawk and Harris's Sparrow are also named for him.) Was "Hairy" a corruption of "Harry"? (That still wouldn't explain the Downy, unless it was named Downy by default in comparison to the Hairy...) 

Alas, no. Audubon wrote at length about both Hairy and Downy woodpeckers and took note of the bristles, describing how the bird had "a large tuft of reversed stiffish feathers on each side of the base of the upper mandible, concealing the nostrils; the feathers in the angle of the lower mandible also stiffish, elongated, and directed forward."

He even observed them while hanging out with the aforementioned Harris: "I have found this species, when in company with my friend Harris and my youngest son, in the very midst of vast salt-marshes, about the mouths of the Mississippi, where here and there a straggling willow or cotton-tree bush occurred, as gay, busy, noisy, and contented as if it had been in the midst of the woods."

Of course, these poor birds might not have been so gay, busy, noisy and contented if they knew that Audubon and his friends were likely to blast them with shotguns. Notes Audubon of this species, "it clings, when shot, to the trunk or branch of the tree, until quite dead, and even remains sticking for several minutes more." 

I realize Audubon's shooting sprees added a lot to our storehouse of ornithological knowledge, but it can be unsettling reading his descriptions of plugging away at the poor birds. 

Modern scientists aren't quite so gun-happy, though birds still meet their maker in the name of Science. How else would we know that as many as 100 nasty little wood-borers may be found in the stomach of a single Hairy Woodpecker? It's certainly doing its bit to keep its forest home healthy, gobbling up insects and their larvae. 

An equally cool statistic (provided by a living bird, this time) is that it can drum on a tree 25 times in the span of one second. We'll be listening for that later this winter; the woodpeckers will be forming the percussion section for the symphony of springtime by then, just as the male Anna's hummingbirds defy winter with their exuberant courtship displays.


























Monday, November 10, 2014

Good-bye, Horse

Our year of the horse has overlapped much of the Chinese Year of the Horse. Unlike that year, however, ours has, somewhat surprisingly, come to an end.

I have longed for a horse for decades, and the Resident Teen longed for one for at least a decade; finally we get one, and yet here we are, once more unhorsed. We have given Avi away, and he is off to a new life in an eastern-Washington setting, where he will surely learn new skills and find new patches of gravelly dirt in which to roll.

I know...who goes around giving away horses? (I suddenly cannot stop thinking of Jerry Seinfeld in the immortal "Pony Remark" episode: "Who wouldn't love a pony? Who wouldn't love a person that had a pony?")

Suffice it to say that the Resident Teen is temporarily putting horses on hold as she ponders what to do with her future (and that Avi is much more horse than someone like me can handle), so as Avi's not the kind of pony who should be loafing around in a pasture, it was best all around to let him go to people who could bring out the best in him.

But I always meant to write a bit more about Avi and who he is because, even though he's only 7 years old, he's already got enough material to write his own memoir, if he ever learns how to write.

Avi (full name Avram) was born May 2, 2007, on Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky (full pedigree here). His mom is a mare named Bisbee's Prospect, who raced at Emerald Downs in Washington and won three of her six races. 

His sire is a stallion named Eddington, a champion who won six races, finished in the money in 15 of his 17 starts, and placed third in the 2004 Preakness, going on to beat the likes of Funny Cide (2003 Kentucky Derby/Preakness winner) in his last race, the 2004 Pimlico Special.

Eddington (c) Ron Mesaros
Eddington is a great-grandson of Secretariat and occupied that legendary racehorse's stall at Claiborne Farms when he was there at stud. Today he resides at a breeding farm in California. 

Thanks to this genetic heritage, Avi was blessed with stunning speed and captured a lot of attention in his workouts when he started his racing career at Emerald Downs. He won his first race there on April 24, 2010. (You can see a bit of that in an Emerald Downs "Where Are They Now?" feature here--Avram's story starts at 3:50 in the video.) 

Unfortunately, Avi had a defect common among Thoroughbred racehorses: a condition called Laryngeal Hemiplegia ("lazy flapper" or "roaring" in layman's language), in which one of the two cartilagenous flaps that make up the larynx becomes paralyzed. 

So instead of firmly snapping open and shut--open for breathing, shut when swallowing--the paralyzed flapper billows around in the horse's windpipe like a loose sail on a boat, impeding the efficiency of breathing while running at high speed. 

Not exactly a recipe for success in a racehorse, and surgery to stitch the offending flapper in place didn't work; Avi stopped and appeared to go backward in his second and final race. 

Fortunately, however, a lazy flapper doesn't prevent a horse from thriving in plenty of other equine careers. Indeed, with excellent training Avi went on to become a lovely jumper, winning ribbons at shows before he became ours. He's often described as an honest horse, one that willingly jumps without hesitating. 

The Resident Teen found him to be a lovely ride, offering enough of a challenge to her to make her a better rider and rewarding good riding with a fine performance. His new owners will surely likewise find him to be an exciting horse to work with.

She also found that the lazy flapper certainly didn't affect Avi's speed when galloping down trails (after all, when you're just out for a gallop, you're not asking the horse to fly at 40 miles per hour over a distance of a mile while beating out other horses). She vividly describes rocketing along a trail and seeing the woods streak by in a blur on either side. 

Around the barn, Avi displays an interesting personality--he can be goofy and affectionate, but he also has a curmudgeonly side. Show up to say hello, and he makes that lovely rippling nicker that is horse for "hello," but as soon as he sees you haven't got any treats, he flattens his ears back, clearly expressing the opinion, "Dang it! Stupid human." 

We called him Mr. Angry Face when he was peevish. Of course, when he was being sweet, we fawned on him and stroked his velvety nose, cooing "oh, pretty pony!" (no doubt much to his disgust).

Real horse ownership, of course, is a heck of a lot different from reading about and dreaming of owning a horse. 

There are many fine children's books (especially British ones) that include the harsh realities associated with maintaining a large, delicate, working animal, but in most stories the horse usually just "goes lame" before the big show, or has a bout of colic, which makes for a nice dramatic chapter that involves staying up with the horse all night long until it recovers. 

There is nothing wrong with such stories, mind you. But in actuality, it seems there's a whole lot more in the way of fungal skin infections, thrush in the soles of the feet, scrapes inflicted on the horse by its own silly hooves (what else other than a horse would open up a gash on its leg simply getting up awkwardly one morning?), and absurd things like a gum abscess that explodes while out riding, showering the horse's neck with blood and freaking out little children passing by.

We've all learned a great deal during the Year of the Horse. We've met wonderful people, and we've enjoyed the ride. And we're curious to see what Avi--former racehorse, jumper, and part-time therapy horse of sorts--will achieve next.









Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Hooray for Hoary Marmots!

The hoary marmot is one of those animals whose name I can never read without hearing the voice of John Cleese pronouncing it, with dramatic pauses, at the outset of a Pythonesque mock-umentary about the species: "And here we have...the Hoary Marmot."

It is definitely not one of the animals you learned about growing up in the 1960s on the east coast. It is a creature of alpine and subalpine meadows, habitats severely lacking on New York's Long Island, where the highest point is High Hill at a mere 387 feet above sea level.

Then you move to the northwest and it's marmots, marmots everywhere. (Well, not really, but if you throw in the rest of their ground-squirrel kin, it certainly seems like it.)

An alpine meadow on Mount Rainier is where we most recently encountered a hoary marmot. The "hoary" in the name refers to the grizzled gray fur on an adult marmot's back and face. Marmot comes from French and Latin words that mean "mountain mouse."

The Rainier marmots along the paved trail that leads up toward the mountain from the Paradise visitor center are utterly blase about humans, even ones who thoughtlessly let their children tromp on the meadow and run up to the animals without any regard for other people who are wildlife-watching.

Not that I'm complaining about rude people or anything.

These marmots pose most obligingly for tourists, so I suspect the National Park Service is actually paying them off in edible flowers.

Flowers are just one of the foods that go toward making the hoary marmot a hefty animal. It is up to 32 inches long, with the tail adding nearly another 10 inches, and can weigh up to 20 pounds. It lives in a burrow, which it digs in areas filled with rock fragments (known as talus). Other habitat requirements include rocks on which to perch and plenty of grass and other plants to eat.

Eating is one of the marmot's favorite pastimes, and it goes into hyperdrive in late summer, packing on an extra 20 percent or more of its body weight so that it enters winter with ample fat reserves.

Hoary marmots hibernate all winter, piling into a communal sleeping chamber in October (or even as early as mid-September depending on where they live) and not emerging again until May. The extra fat sustains them during this remarkable eight-month sleep, during which their normal respiration rate of about 100 beats per minute drops as low as three beats per minute.

When we strolled through the marmot meadow, we spotted about five of the animals. Hoary marmots typically live in small colonies that are basically extended families, spread out over a rich feeding ground.

We heard one marmot, hidden on the hillside, repeatedly calling out with a loud whistling cry, which is a warning signal among marmots.

Though the marmots on the rocks below us seemed to take notice of the whistle, they didn't stir.

Perhaps the whistler was a young marmot who thought humans were predators (which they are, though not in the park) and was practicing due diligence, while the older marmots knew there wasn't much to worry about from a bunch of mamas and papas packing sippy cups and Pirate Booty.

The marmot's whistle has earned it the common name of, well, whistler. The mountain known as Whistler in British Columbia is named after the species. The marmot is also called a whistle-pig (which is a great name for an animal, not so much for a mountain.) The whistling cry can carry for more than a mile, making it an excellent way to communicate across a sprawling  meadow.

You would be correct if you guessed that the hoary marmot is related to the groundhog, which likewise sleeps through the winter. The groundhog, also known as a woodchuck, is in the same genus--its scientific name is Marmota monax, the hoary marmot is Marmota caligata. Both marmots are in the squirrel family, along with chipmunks, prairie dogs, and, of course, squirrels.

If you're a birder and are assembling a life list, you know it's going to be a lifelong occupation. A comprehensive life list is much easier for a marmot-watcher. There are only about 14 species of marmot, all of which live in the northern hemisphere, and 6 of them live in North America. You can see 5 of them without leaving the United States, and the sixth species would require nothing more than a pleasant trip to Vancouver Island.

Lewis and Clark encountered one of them, probably the yellow-bellied marmot, in their travels. They make an offhand mention of seeing a "Moonax, which the natives had petted," "moonax" being the Algonquin word for a marmot. Was it a tame marmot? Being that it was April, was it a snoozing marmot they'd dug up that was too zonked to run away? We'll never know.

No less a personage than John James Audubon painted a portrait of the hoary marmot, though it seems the only living one he saw was a caged specimen in Europe. He claimed that the marmot "seemed to be dull and sleepy." There is no record of what the marmot thought of Audubon.

If Audubon had been able to plant himself in Rainier's marmot meadow, not far from the lodge, he would have enjoyed his very agreeable subjects, who would pose most obligingly, keeping watch while sunbathing on their rocks.

We only saw the marmots move vigorously a few times, when they displayed a variety of charming marmot behaviors such as kissing (pressing their teeth and cheeks together in greeting) and a bit of wrestling (sitting up and playfully pushing against each other with their forepaws).

Our marmot meetup occurred in late September, but now, as Halloween approaches and Mt. Rainier's flanks are cloaked in snow, the marmots have probably tucked themselves in for the winter.

They cleverly position their shared den, called a hibernaculum, under a rock so as to thwart hungry bears from digging them up midwinter and eating their snoring, conked-out selves.

They'll still be fast asleep when poor old Punxsutawney Phil, the Pennsylvanian groundhog, will be shaken awake on Groundhog Day to predict the weather. Perhaps we can start up a new holiday for midwinter--call it Marmot Monday and celebrate it by sleeping late, then getting up and eating heartily for a few hours before going back to sleep again.








Monday, October 20, 2014

Just Try NOT to Take a Picture of Mount Rainier

It's hard enough not to take a picture of Mount Rainier when you can see it from Seattle or the ferry. It's even harder when you're creeping along its flanks and the view is spectacular and the mountain photobombs every scene at which you point your camera.

"Hello! It's me! The mountain! I'm out!"
"Me again!"
"Just me again! Sorry!"
Mount Rainier is classified as an active volcano, perhaps simply on the basis of how nimbly it scurries to get into every photo. Fortunately there are enough people visiting the park and taking pictures of the mountain to distract it and lure it out of one's camera range for a few seconds here and there, enabling one to take photos of valleys and trees and the burgundy, crimson, and rust of fall foliage.




We also saw a wide variety of wildlife, up very close...more on that in another post.

"Um...you weren't thinking of leaving without taking another snap of me, were you?"

Friday, October 10, 2014

Name That Bug

"Red-breasted nuthatch?" That works.
Among the job titles I would like to have had in this world is Namer of Animals. It would be even better than being a Namer of Paint Colors and almost as good as a Namer of Racehorses.

I can tell you right now that in this position, I'd have done a bit better by some North American birds, the ones that are burdened with dull identities because they were named after naturalists who described them or after people whom these naturalists admired.

"Steller's Jay," for example, doesn't exactly do justice to this bright blue bird of the black Mohawk and raucous cries. "Gambel's Quail" leaves out the fact that this chunky little bird sports a jaunty topknot on its head. Nor would you ever know that "Lewis's Woodpecker" has a pink belly, or that the little "Townsend's Warbler" wears a yellow and black mask worthy of a lucha libre wrestler. And "Scott's Oriole" is pretty lame for a species in which the yellow male has an executioner's hood.

Of course, there are plenty of North American birds with smashing names (Black-Bellied Whistling Duck, Red-Breasted Sapsucker, Whooping Crane, and Roadrunner tell you lots of what you need to know about each species, for example). But when it comes to descriptive names, insects have really won the lottery.

Dear reader, you are no doubt thinking I must have a lot of time on my hands to be thinking about bug names. Trust me, I have a lot on my hands, but time is not among this quantity. I only happened to think about bug names because I found these bugs living it up on a mystery plant growing beside the driveway:


I knew they were leafhoppers (two, two, two facts in one name! A+!). But I didn't know what kind. A Google search turned up a likely candidate: the wonderfully named Candy-Striped Leafhopper. Its other common names mention its colors in various combinations (scarlet, blue, red, green), but for my money you really can't beat "candy-striped."

Candy-striped leafhoppers, however, are mainly East Coast insects. This colorful insect is most likely a rhododendron leafhopper--not nearly as fabulous a name, but at least it tells you where you're most likely to find one. They're native to eastern states, too, but were introduced accidentally to the northwest sometime back in the 1920s on nursery stock.


Whatever the heck it is, it belongs to an athletic family: some leafhoppers can leap up to 40 times their length. Jumping is the insect's go-to defense. It may be the source of the leafhopper's alternate common name of "sharpshooter, "which, according to an Audubon field guide, was inspired by how it "leaps rapidly from danger with the speed of a sharpshooter's bullet."

Other sources suggest that it's called a sharpshooter because it sidles and hides behind stems, like a sniper taking cover; that the name comes from the precision with which it jabs its mouthparts into leaves to suck out fluids or its ovipositer to lay eggs in them; or that it was inspired by the "pop!" with which the insect expels honeydew from its hind end (a sound that is apparently just audible to people with far, far better hearing than I have).

Here, by the way, is a leafhopper exuding honeydew, that sweet fluid so delectable to ants. Listen closely.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Snake Killers and Hobgoblin Flies



A pair of dragonflies is taking it in turn to do sentry duty in our garden. On some warm evenings, a vivid red dragonfly perches on the shepherd's hook that holds bird feeders in the winter. Other evenings, a dark dragonfly lined with yellow passenger-train windows on his sides alights there.

Both dragonflies use the site as a launch pad for hunting insects on the wing. The dragonfly suddenly whirs away, zigzags in the air, and circles back to the hook to watch for prey again. It will spend a good portion of an hour hawking like this.

Dragonflies are famous for their speed and maneuverability as well as their keen eyesight (if you had 30,000 facets in each eye, you might be able to spot a flying gnat 10 feet away, too). Oh, and also for being Very Large Insects. (Though not as big as their prehistoric kin, which would have required a yardstick for measuring, if yardsticks had been invented yet.)

Their size, huge eyes, long abdomens, and strong flight have caused them to migrate into the folklore of many cultures (and you can find out about some of this in the wonderful book A Dazzle of Dragonflies by Forrest L. Mitchell and James L. Lasswell).

Not all of this folklore resides in the ancient past, either.

The first dragonfly I ever saw was one that skimmed over my suburban backyard on New York's Long Island. I didn't know what it was. I screamed bloody murder. I was, after all, very small, and it was very big.

My mom explained to me that it was a "darning needle," this being one of the dragonfly's many common names. I hadn't a clue what a "darning needle" was (except for, now, this insect) and my ears heard "diamond needle," which is what I called it for weeks thereafter. No wonder nobody knew what I was talking about when I still came in screaming about one appearing.

Why the screaming? I'd been informed by my German grandmother that dragonflies were known to sew shut the mouths of children. You'd scream, too.

Sewing shut mouths as well as eyes, ears, and noses, and even stitching together fingers and toes, were among the crimes dragonflies were accused of in the past. This earned them their darning-needle name as well as the epithets devil's needle and ear-piercer.

And speaking of the devil, in Europe dragonflies were often believed to be one of the devil's favorite animal forms to inhabit or simply for evil beings to ride, giving rise to names such as devil's horse, hobgoblin fly, witch's horse, and water witch.

Another completely false accusation laid at the dragonfly's six feet are that it possesses a venomous sting. This untruth has dubbed the insect with colorful names such as horse stinger, bull sticker, blind stinger, and snake killer. (Though oddly it's also known as a snake doctor.)

The dragonfly enjoys a more exalted position in Native American and Asian folklore, in which it's generally admired for its grace, beauty, ferocity, and flying skill. Judging by the number of dragonfly motifs on modern dishware and other home furnishings, it appears that this take on the dragonfly may predominate nowadays.

Which is an excellent thing, as it would prevent an uprising of Instantly Concocted Folklore such as occurred in that long-ago backyard. As I cringed on the ground one afternoon when a dragonfly began circling above my sandbox, my friend Elaine had a scathingly brilliant idea.

"Did you know that dragonflies are scared of sand and you're supposed to throw it at them to make them go away?" she said.

Wow! Who knew! Well, obviously Elaine did! We could be proactive! Soon we were merrily flinging great handfuls of sand into the air, dodging it as it rained down on the lawn. My mom looked out the window, gaped at what was going on, and quickly put a stop to it.

Dragonflies (known as "mosquitohawks" in parts of the Midwest) are aces at devouring pesky insects, so I don't think most people are driving them away with buckets of sand. Dragonflies are also very cool to watch, and don't appear to mind your approaching them quite closely (they probably glance-x-30,000 at you, think "not bug no eat it, not bird it no eat me" and go back to spotting midges).

They also have beautiful names. In this department they've truly lucked out. Unlike gorgeous birds who get saddled with tiresome names that include their so-called discoverer's name (Clark's nutcracker, Bewick's wren, blah blah), dragonflies have scooped up adjectives as avidly as they scoop up mosquitoes in the basket formed by their legs.

Just a quick look at a dragonfly-&-damselfly field guide offers up such evocative names as Smoky Shadowdragon, Amethyst Dancer, Apache Spiketail, Ebony Boghaunter, Rainpool Spreadwing, and Spangled Skimmer.

I still don't know what species the dark dragonfly that visits my garden belongs to. The bright red dragonfly appears to be a Cardinal Meadowhawk (Sympetrum illotum).

I could be wrong. If I am, please don't throw sand at me. I certainly don't throw sand at dragonflies anymore. Nor do I scream when they show up, unless it's to holler to a family member to come take a look.