Thursday, March 22, 2012

Of Signing Chimps, Water Ouzels, and 10,000+ Bottle Caps

Washoe, from Wikipedia.
Yesterday I was up well before night gave way to the dark gray of a Seattle March morning to catch a tour bus to Ellensburg to enjoy a Christmas gift from my brother and mother: attendance at a Chimposium held at Central Washington University.

Chimposium is an opportunity to learn about and visit the famous chimpanzees who learned to communicate in American Sign Language in experiments that started in the 1960s. I was fortunate enough to attend a Chimposium in the early 1990s, when the matriarch of the five-chimp troop, Washoe, was still alive; she was the first non-human animal to communicate in ASL.

Today, just three chimps remain, one of them being Loulis, who was raised by Washoe and learned ASL from her. It's a fascinating place and project, the story of which is well told on the facility's website here.

The two male chimps greeted us with a show of territorial superiority--swinging from ropes, rampaging around the room, spinning, bouncing off the walls, and the like. The female, Tatu, banged on the window and then retreated to a corner to watch us with interest. She's fond of traditional "girly" stuff, and I saw her sign "lipstick" as she gazed at the crowd, which consisted largely of women of retirement age wearing one of Tatu's favorite cosmetics. (The CWU staff reports that Tatu likes black lipstick best.)

The hour spent at Chimposium was bracketed by other sightings, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Starting with the sublime: the beauty of the Cascades in winter, viewed from the comfort of a tour bus while it's being chained up to go over the pass. (OK, mixed with a little ridiculousness, as "Yanni" played on the bus's loudspeakers.)

The air was very still; the deciduous trees covered in snow made it look like the woods existed in both positive and negative formats.

I caught a glimpse of a small, chunky bird called the American Dipper just before the bus pulled out to resume our trip east, perched on a stone in the steam. The Dipper is also known by the far more wonderful name of Water Ouzel and is a remarkable creature: It hunts for food underwater, clinging to the substrate with its claws and walking about pecking up insects and larvae. It can also use its short, strong wings as flippers and stay underwater for 30 seconds at a time. Pretty cool.

I also caught a quick glimpse of a group of swans majestically gliding across a mountain pond. We whooshed by too quickly for me to check to see if they had a tiny spot of color at the base of their bills or not, which would tip me off as to whether they were Tundra or Trumpeter swans (I know, I'm a rubbish birder, forgive me), but the Tundra Swan appears to be more common and thus the more likely species.

The chimpanzees were sublime, too. It wasn't until we entered Ellensburg for lunch that the ridiculous began, in a delightful way.

Like finding out that we'd be eating at--where else?--a place called Rodeo City BBQ. Where signs warn you "Do Not Lean Back in Chair." You old cowpoke, you--mind yer manners.

And whereas most grocery stores are keen to hide the fact that vermin and insects might be lurking amongst their wares, or might choose to advertise sales on salmon, arugula, quinoa, melons, and the like if they are Seattle grocery stores, the market in Ellensburg takes a different approach:

After lunch (which consisted of decent barbecue and no bargain-priced maggots), I stepped out to visit another local attraction, a wonderland of fences and poles spackled with bicycle reflectors and bottle caps and bristling with nails, populated by everything from creepy mannequin heads to impaled teddy bears. This version of "It's a Small World" was Dick and Jane's Spot.

More than 10,000 bottle caps, two thousand bicycle reflectors, and hundreds of glass insulators and other odds and ends transform a once-humble house into a year-round festival.

Over at Chimposium, volunteers stress their efforts at "enrichment," activities and novelties for the chimps that get them thinking and help relieve the monotony of captivity; the artists who created this house are aces at enriching their own lives and those of passersby.

After pondering what I could do with all those spice jars, bread-bag plastic-tab thingies, toy unicorns, and other items cluttering up our house given enough time and a loaded hot-glue gun, I strolled up the main street in town and gravitated toward this inviting sign:

 Whew! Talk about enrichment! I'd just hit the jackpot. This was going to be fun. But no; alas, Bailey's Bibliomania had just closed down on March 11, for good, and indeed the books were being carted out of the store and onto a truck as I watched. Oh well.

But...wait a second. Here were shelves of free books. Not much on offer...outdated textbooks, water-damaged romance novels, pamphlets...and then, serendipity: the perfect, absolutely ghastly book to find when on a field trip to visit chimpanzees at an institute where the animals are treated with respect and the utmost in courtesy:

A Honey of a Chimp, according to a 1980 Kirkus review, is "a classic example of the children's book as synthetic commodity."  The back-cover copy explains that little Emily wants a pet "more than anything in the world," but her dad's allergic to cats, Mom doesn't like dogs, and hamsters and fish are "too boring" while snakes proved unpopular with everyone but Emily.

So, of course, the family procures a chimpanzee. Hilarity ensues.

The chimp grows up, naturally, and Emily learns a lesson that all chimp-owning adolescents eventually learn, namely that "even perfect things can't last forever." Hopefully this does not refer to Emily's perfect face, given what damage can be inflicted by an angry chimpanzee.

My family, of course, knew better than to get me a chimpanzee even though Mom was allergic to cats and didn't like dogs. I got a camel, a capybara, and a right whale. That's just the way it was, kids, back in the '80s.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Sox and the Kitty, Continued

Django the Art Cat, as regular readers of this blog (all 2.4 of them) will know, does not consider the day officially underway until some article, preferably something highly absorbent, has been placed in the dog's water bowl. In a pinch he'll dunk hair elastics, but he really prefers paper, particularly paper towels and napkins.

Socks are a recurring theme, mainly because they are not only very portable for a cat but also because there exists a reliable source of them: the laundry basket of clean clothing in the hallway that the resident teenager is supposed to take upstairs right away.

Said basket actually sits in hallway for weeks unless thunderous ultimatums are issued. The result is that we actually have about a dozen socks that never, ever are worn in between washings. They go from the dryer into the basket, where the cat seizes one each day and transports it to the water bowl.

There it soaks up water and, if not retrieved and hung to dry in time, eventually becomes a magnet for dog/cat hairs, crumbs, and other debris. Then it is flung down the basement stairs to go into the washer again. Such is the cycle of life for these footloose socks.

There is a long sock striped in emerald and lime green that often ends up in the drink, but right now it's hanging out somewhere in limbo-land between hallway, water bowl, washing machine, and dryer, so I couldn't get a picture of that. Hence, I've substituted Django's installation entitled "The Cat-tain and Chenille: A Study in Pipecleaners, Hair Elastics, and Water."

He appears to be celebrating St. Patrick's Day. Did he actually foresee this holiday? Is the cat known amongst my daughter's friends as "Fat Looie" and "Mr. Stupid" actually smarter than he lets on? Unlikely, as he's not only mostly colorblind but also illiterate. Heck, it took every speck of his gray matter to become litterboxerate.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Lynching of a Family Legend; or, the Color of Blarney

Every nation has its own abundance of folklore, customs, and traditions, but those of Ireland have so thoroughly saturated American culture that you could be forgiven for momentarily thinking that the Emerald Isle has more of this richness than others. Particularly as Saint Patrick's Day approaches.

(It's hard to believe that this feast day for a saint was celebrated quietly and without much fanfare in Ireland and only evolved its current boozy, maudlin, stupid-leprechaun-hat-wearing, kiss-me-I'm-Irish raucousness in the United States over the past 275 years.)

My maternal grandparents were Irish immigrants, so Irish folkways threaded naturally into the fabric of our household rather than in some corny Erin-go-bragh way. With their gentle Irish brogues and old-world ways, and my mom's own experience of growing up in an Irish household, the mists of Mourne were virtually in the very air we breathed.

Like every family, Irish or not, we had our own family folklore--and blarney (as in malarkey, hooey, a load of nonsense) was not a part of it. At least, not intentionally. Our folklore came with stalwart conviction. We never questioned it; there was no reason to. It took until the 1990s and 2000s for us to realize that some of the old chestnuts we'd been roasting, however, had been toasted a bit too much.

The first yarn to come unspooled was one of the most sacred of all: the one involving The Very Cane Used by Michael Collins Himself.

Michael Collins, as you may know, was an Irish revolutionary leader who played an important role in the Easter Rising and subsequent events. He loomed large, physically, in life just as he still towers over Irish history and hagiography: he was fondly known as "the big fella" because he stood about 6 feet tall and had the build of a boxer.

Apparently, the oversized wooden cane that came into my mother's possession after my grandparents' passing once belonged to Mr. Collins himself. My grandmother was very much involved in the Rising (she carried weapons and messages), and before she left for America was given this cane by a comrade in honor of her service. Sometimes my mom would demonstrate how hard it was for her to lean on the cane because it was clearly made for a tall person. Such as Michael Collins.

Fast-forward to my mom's opportunity to share the cane--and its story--at an "Antiques Roadshow" event. It did not take long for the expert to gently debunk this cherished legacy. He merely had to point out the date of manufacture etched onto the cane. I believe it was 1936.

Michael Collins, however, died in 1922. (As my dad said to me at the time, his eyes crinkling as he suppressed a chuckle, "He was well past needing the use of a cane at that point.")

Ah, well. My mom took it in stride and thought it was quite funny, actually. And of course the new cane story became the new folktale to replace the old one.

Just this past weekend, however, a smaller bit of folklore likewise straggled to the wayside.

When I was little, my grandparents often invited an elderly woman named Agnes Dooley to dinner. Agnes was a friend who had likewise emigrated from Ireland. She'd never married and enjoyed being honorary "Aunt Agnes" to the four of us.

Every time we saw her, she'd slip each one of us a dollar bill: She would shake your hand, and lo and behold, when you withdrew yours from hers, you had a dollar bill rolled up in your palm. (She also slipped us a valuable lesson on one visit: Instead of greeting her nicely, we assaulted her with "Hi! Where's my dollar? Where's my dollar?" There were no dollars doled out on that visit, and we displayed much better manners the next time we saw her.)

Agnes, we were told, had once worked as a cook for the founder of Merrill Lynch. My mom recalled a story my grandfather told of his stopping by to see her and finding her weeping at the scullery table because she did not know how to prepare spinach and was supposed to be serving it that night. He helped her out and all went well. Mom also gave me some costume jewelry that Mrs. Lynch passed along to Agnes, as well as an old cookbook that had belonged to her and that she was said to cook from for the Lynches.

This weekend, I happened to peruse many of my cookbooks looking for a chicken recipe, and paused when I got to Agnes's book, which is held together by duct tape because the binding split long ago. It became clear that the bindings of the Merrill Lynch story could benefit from some duct tape, too.

For starters, Merrill Lynch wasn't just one guy. There was a Mr. Merrill and a Mr. Lynch. So Agnes couldn't have worked for Merrill Lynch unless she was in banking. Who was her employer? One piece of evidence comes from the jewelry: there's a brooch with the initials "H.M.," and Merrill's wife's name was Harriet. But the cookbook, dated 1949, is inscribed to a Lynch and, indeed, Agnes added in pencil that the book belonged to "Mrs. Lynch" in the 1950s.

Furthermore, the inscription appears to be made out to what looks like a "Willard" Lynch--a name I can't match up with that family's offspring. It's signed by a Jack Aaron, who could be anybody but probably isn't the actor of that name in the first part of the 20th century.

I suppose the details don't matter all that much, really. Agnes did work as a cook for some unspecified amount of time in the kitchen of a family associated with the founders of Merrill Lynch . Did the gifts come from the family she worked for, or did the Lynches dole out cookbooks while dining with the Merrills, or Mrs. Merrill give out jewelry while lunching with the Lynches?

"Yes, I'm happily serving you
 my very own children for breakfast!"
Who knows, and, I suppose, who cares. The main thing is...

  • Granddad helped save Agnes's bacon by teaching her how to cook spinach

  •  Agnes's profligate giving-away of dollars indicates she clearly didn't work at the bank

  • We learned good manners

  • There's a more valid six-degrees-of-separation between us and the Merrill Lynch founders than there is between us and Michael Collins

  • I inherited a great cookbook with some wonderfully weird illustrations.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

An Agreeable Gaggle of Gregarious Greater White-Fronted Geese

Spring’s bird choir is tuning up, which reminds me that I never got around to writing about some of the birds of autumn. I’m sure you’ve all been on tenterhooks waiting to hear about that, and have passed the winter in a state of nervous agitation, so I am happy to now be able to quell your anxiety (though I realize splitting that infinitive may spark more unrest in your soul…sorry.)

Late last October my friend P. and I were walking briskly around Green Lake when we nearly stumbled upon three plump, taupe-and-white geese nonchalantly wandering across the path. 

They seemed mildly surprised to encounter us and baffled by the notion that we expected to proceed along the path, as if they had no idea that we were bigger, heavier, and moving faster than they were, and just continued their leisurely stroll, turning their heads to blink at us in bewilderment.

In fact they were a lot like many Seattle pedestrians, who amble haphazardly across the street without looking right or left and then seem surprised that you had to brake abruptly so as not to hit them.

I’m sure these geese were not at all interested in what my genetic makeup was, but I was keen to know theirs: What manner of goose were they? They certainly weren’t the Canada geese that frequent area lakes, nor were they the scrappy ruffians that used to patrol Green Lake, the dumped domestic geese of various breeds that banded together with half-Mallard, half-domestic ducks to fill what we used to call Bad Duck Cove.

When I checked various field guides, I was convinced these were migratory Greater White-fronted Geese—at least, until I doubted this identification and became convinced they were domestic geese showcasing the graylag-goose ancestry of the barnyard breed. 

My friend, however, sent along some pictures of immature White-fronted geese, which showed the youngsters as lacking in the white facial feathers and dark belly feathers of adults. In addition, a list of birds spotted at Green Lake over the years confirms that White-fronted geese are sometimes seen in fall as they migrate from tundra and taiga nesting grounds to winter feeding grounds farther south.   

These clues, combined with what seemed to me a lack of that deep-bellied keel typical of a barnyard goose, have me fairly well convinced that these were young migratory White-fronts.

Different subspecies of this bird are found circumpolar in the northern hemisphere. Across the pond, they’re typically stripped of their “Greater” designation, though, which keeps the European birds from getting ideas of grandeur. (Or gander.) 

In the United States, they’ve also been known by more colorful names, such as Laughing Goose, Gray Wavey, Marble-belly, and Specklebelly, any of which I think are much better names. 

The doddering lack of concern evinced by the geese at Green Lake doesn’t appear to be unusual, from what little I’ve read. The 1930s-era publication Birds of California notes that hunters were able to sneak up on white-fronts grazing in a field by hiding behind obliging cattle and horses, which puts me in mind of cartoon characters tiptoeing from shrub to shrub.

John James Audubon writes that “of the different species [of goose] which visit…they are by far the least shy.” Other than the fact that they’re “delicious” and that the bird’s intestine is seven feet long, he doesn’t offer up much else about it other than descriptions of its appearance.

With a word like “Greater” in the goose’s name, it stands to reason that there must be a Lesser White-fronted Goose, and there is: it’s smaller, highly endangered, and found in northern Eurasia. 

There is also, quite marvelously, a laudable effort called the Fennoscandian Lesser White-fronted Goose Conservation Project. Now that is an organizational name I long to see on a T-shirt or in a Christopher Guest film.