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One of the accounts which I follow on Instagram is “newyorkcitywild” which showcases the flora & fauna (& fungi) of New York City.  While I expected it would be filled with pigeons, trees of heaven (gah!), and cockroaches (and maybe the occasional black wasp with fluorescent orange feelers), it is actually filled with an astonishing proliferation of incredibly beautiful plants and animals like owls, frogs, beaver, snapping turtles, garter snakes, and flowers of every color of the rainbow.  The city is teeming with wildlife that finds space in the parks and abandoned corners.  Imagine what we could do if we tweaked the designs for the future just a little bit!

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However, even though the photos have changed some of my stereotypes about the urban ecosystem,  when I looked at this account the other day, I assumed that the creator had fled the city on a yacht.  The pictures were most certainly not of chimney swifts, or treefrogs, or damselflies, but instead featured 30,000 kilogram (35 ton) humpback whales gulping down entire schools of menhaden.  I couldn’t believe that this was happening just beyond Sheepshead Bay until I recognized the unmistakable city skyline behind one of the giants. I have (very gradually) come to terms with the fact that I live near an ocean, but it is still hard to recognize that it is a working ocean which connects to real ocean things and isn’t just filled with plastic garbage and dodgy Panamanian-flagged super freighters.

I was enormously moved to see that our enormous friends are so near…that I share a home with them in terms which are local rather than planetary, but then, immediately, I was terrified for the poor whales. Humans are BAD neighbors.  Most of the amazing wild animals I have seen in the city have been dead–either smashed by psychotic motorists (whose greatest delight is killing all living things with their evil benzene death chariots), or concussed to death from flying into windows, or poisoned by pesticide or weird chemicals.  And, sure enough, yesterday’s Gothamist featured a harrowing tale of a trapped humpback whale slowly and agonizingly fighting to breathe despite being caught in some nightmarish tangle of cables, fishing lines, and sinister plastic garbage in the Ambrose Channel just off the city coast.  You should read the article [spoiler alert: it has a happy ending when the whale was freed after a multi-day struggle by the Marine Animal Entanglement Response team from the Center for Coastal Studies].  Humankind’s engagement with the greater world ecosystem is improving..in ways. Yet the larger narrative is still one of devastation, peril, and death.

Tomorrow’s New York City could be filled with whales (figuratively or literally...since we live in a world of global warming and a storm is coming) or they could be gone from everywhere.  We humans are the architects of the city and the makers of the deadly cast off fishing nets.  We could make and do things differently.  But can we?

 

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OK, so our Year of the Rat celebrations have engendered some reader pushback against the maligned rodents, and I can certainly understand that, considering some of the unhappy rat/human collaborative efforts from history (like, uhhhh, the bubonic plague or sundry deep famines).  And, likewise, I completely understand how unnerving it can be when a scabrous piece of the subway wall detaches itself from the general gloom and runs over your foot like a gray hell imp (this is particularly demoralizing after being pushed around by New York crowds all week while desperately trying to hold on to a semblance of sanity commuting to and from your meaningless dayjob).

Yet, despite (ten thousand years of) these bad rat moments, rats are worthy of our respect; not because of their enormous worldwide success, nor their astonishing resilience, nor their acute intelligence (although all of those things are indeed true and respectable), but because of something unexpected–their morality and compassion.

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A landmark University of Chicago laboratory experiment from 2011 presented lab rats with a dilemma. A subject rat was given a choice of  helping an unknown fellow rat trapped in a narrow, scary, and uncomfortable plastic tube (which could only be opened by the subject rat nudging a finicky and unpleasant latch), or eating chocolate.  It is worth noting that rats like chocolate as much as we do.  The NIH summarized the experiment results thusly:

To test how much value the rats placed on liberating a trapped cagemate, the scientists presented rats with 2 restrainers — one with a rat inside and another containing 5 chocolate chips, a favorite rat snack. A free rat could choose to eat all the treats himself by opening the chocolate restrainer first or blocking the entrance to the chocolate restrainer. But the researchers found that the free rats opened the restrainers in no consistent order and allowed their liberated cagemates an average of 1.5 chips. When an empty restrainer was paired with a chocolate-containing one, the free rats ate all 5 chocolates.

To summarize: the rats helped the other rats and then shared the chocolate! Here are some full descriptions of the study.  You should read them and run it through in your head.  Maybe imagine if you were caught in something like this with terrifying alien scientists, a rando human stranger, and a satchel with millions of dollars in it. Would you behave as well as the rats?  Would you try to help or would you try to escape the lunatic aliens with the money as fast as possible? Would you free the other human and then take 3.5 million dollars and give them 1.5 million? Really? Reallllly?

No study about the emotions or virtues of animals would be complete without a loud and peevish set of detractors coming forth to claim that the conclusions are misconstrued (or some form of anthropomorphism).  The “only humans have actual feelings and thoughts” crowd assessed the 2011 study and found it lacking because perhaps the subject rat wanted the companionship of the stranger rat trapped in the tube or something.  It seems to me the original study took such concerns into account by creating scenarios in the which the second rat, once freed, was still separated from the subject rat (this did not alter the experiment’s outcome). However, to placate the naysayers, the neural scientists sighed heavily and created an even more harrowing ordeal in which rats had to risk drowning (or so it seemed to them) in order to help a stranger rat who seemed to be drowning. Once again the rats performed with admirable integrity and heroism.  An additional wrinkle was that the rats who had been trapped in the water as the “victim rat” acted more quickly to save their distressed fellows when they were given the role of subject rat.

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To my ears, that sounds like a textbook definition of empathy.  All of this does! Rats have hearts. They are capable of compassion and nobility.  Guanyin also holds rats in her ineffable embrace. As she listens to the cries of the world she hears their horrified squeaks to their families as we trap and poison them.

I confess that such a thought is deeply disquieting to me. I have been guilty of treating rats like vermin.  Yet I have talked to people with pet rats and I am not really surprised.  It has long been obvious to people of good conscience and reasonable observational abilities that almost all mammals (and a distressing number of birds and fish) have rich and soulful emotional lives.  They are not machines made of meat (or, at least, not more so than we humans are too).  They have souls, whatever that means.  Probably a lot of religious people are cursing me to their made-up gods, but I bet most people with pets are biting their lips and thoughtfully nodding.

I don’t know what to do with this knowledge. Our world is a cruel world of savage competition and appetite.  I eat certain mammals and birds.  I live in rat-free dwellings! It’s how I live! It’s what I have always done… yet more and more I worry that I live thoughtlessly in the jeweled master bedroom of a vast palace of cruelty.

But we are not seeking facile and comfortable answers here. We are seeking the truth, and that can be a narrow path of daggers which cut your heart. If you want soothing lies which confirm all of your biased feelings, go become an evangelical [REDACTED]ian.

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uhhhh….

 

 

Bluebells in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

This blog has described cherry blossoms as one of the crowning beauties of spring, but there is a darker and more haunting beauty of the season which might possess equal floral splendor.  Bluebells are woodland flowers which need very little light.  They create dense colonies under full canopy forests where few other plants can grow.  In May, they bloom simultaneously in a shimmering ocean of lavender blue.  If cherry trees are written in a major key of pink and white, bluebells are in a minor key of silver and ultramarine shadows.  At a distance they look like a pool of some exotic liquid, but this illusion vanishes up close (an effect which tends to draw the viewer toward a goal he never reaches). Individual flowers are actually also quite attractive looking like the related hyacinths, but with each blossom hanging like, well, like a pretty little lavender bell.

Carpets of bluebells are a particularly British phenomenon. The flowers colonized Britain late in the ice age, before the seas rose; the flowers thereby avoided competition with many other European woodland plants which never naturally reached the Sceptred Isle.

Because of their otherworldly loveliness, and the way they made familiar woods seem completely alien, bluebells have an ancient and somewhat sinister place in folklore.  Bluebell woods were regarded as portals to fairyland where unwise aesthetes could be trapped between worlds—or children could be stolen outright.

Bluebells feature in Rip Van Winkle style tales of people who wander into the flowers grasping at absolute beauty only to emerge and discover the world has changed by hundreds of years and everyone they knew and loved was dead.  Another tale told about the bluebells is that anyone who hears them ring will soon die—although this story might have a hint of truth since the flowers are poisonous.  If you find yourself disoriented in the midst of a bluebell woods with your ears ringing you might be in trouble (although scientists are poring over the chemically active compounds within bluebells to see if they have potential medical applications).

Bluebells also produce a sticky sap which was used for fletching arrows and binding books in ages past when arrows and books were everyday  items.  The bulbs themselves were also ground into a starchy powder used for…get ready for it…starching Elizabethan lace ruffs.

Portrait of a Woman (Michiel Jansz van Miereveldt, 1628)

Beyond providing a dark portal to supernatural realms and stiffening ill-thought out fashion accessories, bluebells are a sign of ancient forests.  Since they outcompete other woodland plants when beneath dense shade, a large vibrant colony of bluebells indicates that the forest has stood for a long time.  Magnificent bluebell displays are rare in the new world unless you find a place which had dedicated and visionary gardeners a lifetime ago.

Here at Ferrebeekeeper we have written a great deal about Echidna and her monstrous offspring. But what about her erstwhile spouse Typhon, the hideous flaming giant made of snakes? Today’s news from Europe reminds us that we should not forget him, for Mount Etna on Sicily is erupting again.

A Reuters photo of the January 12th 2010 Etna eruption taking place behind the Sicilian village of Milo

When Typhon challenged the Olympian gods and nearly destroyed them with his chaotic rampage, Zeus barely defeated the monster by hurling a flaming mountain onto him.  According to myth, Typhon still struggles beneath the bulk of Mount Etna.  His convulsions cause earthquakes, explosions, and eruptions of boiling rock.  Here are some pictures taken today of the volcano’s fury.

An Eruption on the Southeast Crater cone of Etna (AP)

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