Friday, May 11, 2007

New take on a snake

On a hike today I came upon a Garter snake. This usually means I'm crashing through the bushes after it, wrangling it into my hands, and wrapping myself up with it in order to get a "closer" look (for example, see the MeTube cellphone video in sidebar).

But today, maybe because the day was so hot, and the trail steep, and I so winded, I decided to take a different approach. I laid down on the ground and just watched her (not sure how to sex a snake but anything that conjures up a garter has got to be female for me). After a few moments, when I'd calmed down a bit, she let me get REALLY close. At one point my face was maybe 2-inches from hers and I could stare deep into those big beautiful brown eyes. This was a meeting on her terms not mine, a kinder gentler sort of appreciation.

Then, I began to notice things I had never seen before. I watched her scales stretch and her body inflate with each breath. I saw exquisite green and blue patterns on her head and that gorgeous fire-red tongue, flickering with a forked black tip! She was not that big, maybe three feet, not poisonous, not even rare, but she was AWESOME.

Ten minutes later and I swear I could sense a personality in there.

So I decided to play a little game with her. I dove my hand slowly into the leaf litter and surfaced a finger beside her. She sensed it immediately and would even follow it with a frantically flicking tongue. I found that if I moved it slowly and tantalizingly, I could just walk that fine line between her predatory instincts and curiosity. That's right a snake, who would have thought a snake could be curious!

When she had had enough, I swear she stopped, looked me in the eye, coiled up, and took a swipe at my face. It was so fast, and took me by such surprise, that she almost got me in the nose. I screamed like a little girl, it was perfect. By this time I was dripping with sweat and covered with black-flies. But it didn't matter, I had just had one of those little epiphanies I'm always squawking about.

I really wish I could share the experience with you. Next time I hike, I'll bring my video camera along and maybe I'll find her again.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Love, courage, and apathy on the Jersey Turnpike

The northern stretches of the New Jersey Turnpike are a couple of 5-lane wide strips of gray asphalt meandering through what used to be marshlands but now a dreary concrete landscape. A relentless barrage of trucks, buses, and cars roar along at 75 miles per hour.
This morning, I was one of many barreling along when, in the narrow strip at the base of the concrete barriers, I noticed something out of place. On the left hand side of the highway, a Canada Goose lay dead, it’s feathers ruffing from a passing truck.

Road-kill is always sad for me, but a fairly common sight. But what I saw next was absolutely heart-wrenching and inspiring. A second goose was waddling up to its fallen mate and I could see it vocalizing.

The story was clear. This mated pair were on their way north when one of them was struck, and landed in the median. The other circled around faithfully, and bewildered, returned to its mate's side in great distress.

Whoever can’t see that animals feel emotions is blind. This is a form of love. What else but love could possibly encourage ANY animal to act so thoroughly against it's own self-interests and land in such an obviously unnatural and terrifying patch of pavement?

I understand that accidents happen and organisms die all the time. And I’m certainly not one for anthropomorphizing (projecting human emotions onto animals). I’m one who never feels bad for the gazelle in the jaws of a lion. I see this as nature in action and I celebrate it as much as I would the birth of a giraffe. Death is not a tragedy but simply the price paid for life - and well worth it.

But this was different.

What really made this scene so sad was when I looked around, at all the other drivers with their cigarettes, cell phones, and mega-sized McDonalds cups, not one of the occupants of the black BMW’s, monster SUV’s, or tricked-out Toyotas seemed to care, or even notice the courageous drama unfolding in the dusty turbulence. If I thought I could help I certainly would have. But all I could do was notice, and be thoroughly overwhelmed.

Tonight, one sad bird sleeps alone. I’m sorry goose. And to all geese, I’m sorry for what we’ve done to your habitats. I’m sorry for not being more effective at helping us humans appreciate you. We really do care, we've just lost sight of what's truly important. I’ll try harder. I hope you made it out of New Jersey to find a beautiful and fecund new mate on the breeding grounds in Canada.
Happier times for a mated-pair of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis)