Category Archives: Wildlife

A One-sided Film Worth Seeing

Here is a plug for a delightful and significant film by Jon Betz and Taggart Siegel, a couple of inspired and inspiring social documentary filmmakers of some merit and promise. Siegel has been around the block a few times and has an impressive body of work including the well-received The Real Dirt on Farmer John. Betz seems to have emerged on the scene more recently. Their film Queen of the Sun is deserving of your attention. The issue is real, the facts are good, and with a couple of caveats kept clearly in mind, you’ll be better for having seen it.

Promotional flier

The film begins with Rudolf Steiner, the early 20th century Austrian philosopher and, perhaps more familiarly, the progenitor of Waldorf pedagogy. In 1923 (2 years before his death) Steiner published a series of lectures on the biology and the community of honey bees. Famously, he warned that if modern apiculture of the time continued to meddle with and manipulate the natural life cycle of bees, we would see an alarming collapse in global honey bee populations in the span of 80 to 100 years.

The prediction comes to light today mostly, I think, because it seems to have come true. Isn’t that right? Had nothing come of it, it seems to me we would never be citing it.

In any case, it has – and is – coming true. Commercial honey bee populations are declining in this country consistently by 30-50% annually, much of what we eat is dependent on honey bees pollination, and people are concerned about where this might lead. Common sense eater, sustainability activist, and wonderful writer, Michael Pollan is quoted in the film saying that 4 of every 10 bites of everything we eat is the result of pollination. It is a seemingly obvious connection – without honey bees we would not enjoy nearly so many almonds.

The film proceeds from that premise in typical documentary style, from alarming factoid to alarmist interpretation, to persuade us that the bees are in peril, that we caused it, and that we can do something about it if we care enough and if we develop an enlightened perspective. (You can sense my caveat, I bet.)

The film is not objective (but I didn’t want it to be) or balanced (and I was grateful that it took a stand), and it wafts into philosophy and mysticism without warning (which is my own proclivity, as well.) It is a position statement and a rallying cry – and as such it succeeds. I am not sure there is an anti-honey bee statement to be made. Still, the commercial beekeepers come out looking criminal, interested in the bottom line and next year’s income. The only large-scale beekeeper interviewed is shown saying, “It’s a financial concern. We are in it to make a living.” The issue is clearly more complicated than that. Consumers have to bear some of the culpability for their carefree consumption of monoculture crops – almonds, corn, soybeans.

And the film sidesteps entirely the issue of how bees came to be in this country in the first place. The film’s implication is that we need to get back to a wilder, more natural state in which bees live on their own and pollinate without human interventions. The historical fact is that honey bees were introduced intentionally to this county only in 1622 – it is a glaring omission to ignore the fact that honeybees themselves are an invasive species. There simply are no wild hives in North America. They are all feral and introduced and non-native. The film does not take up this issue, but instead takes for granted that bees are here, for us, and we must be their caretakers.

But in the end, from this reviewer’s perspective, it is a worthy viewing. There are wonderful scenes of deeply connected and charismatic nature activists doing what feeds their souls. There are intriguing philosophical and spiritual digressions, and there is a strong message of human place in nature, not as dominator or manipulator, but as stewards.

And it presents the sexy side of the issue seductively. It is easy to get on board with this cause and to feel good about doing your part for a fuzzy, softly buzzing insect that frequents flowers and makes something as sweet and sensuous as honey – sometimes stinging when we misstep in its presence but giving up its life in the gesture. As one student remarked in the afterglow of the film last night, “I think I’m going to get a hive.”

The Latest From The Hives

I am never sure what I will find when I open a hive.  These are a few images from the latest foray into my troubled hive at school.  It emerged from winter sleepy and slow – and with a reduced population – perhaps 2000 bees in all.  But they had a queen, she was laying, and the bees that were there seemed determined.  Every few days I stopped by the apiary just to look for departures and arrivals and every time long moments would pass when I saw nothing – no activity.  I would think surely they collapsed.  And then a bee, one, lone forager would emerge, inevitably, and fly.  Nonetheless, these bees were on the verge of viability.

The brood pattern looks okay, not great, but of more concern is the patch of darkened larvae to the left.  Below is a close up.

The larvae are formed well but they are mottled – not brown, but dark grey and black.  The developing pupae in the capped cells all look fine – white and glossy.

Seen it before?  Know what it is?  Here is another clue.  I recently added three frames of brood and nurse bees to this hive to bolster the population and give them some more bodies to warm the hive.  Currently the population seems to be increasing, there is more activity at the hive entrance, and a lot more eggs being laid.  Also, we have had a long spell of cold, wet weather.

So, with

  • low population
  • cold weather
  • recently added brood from a different hive

this is chilled brood.  Not an emergency, it just means that the in the hive could not keep these larvae warm during development and they died.  The fact that the other brood is okay and the population is increasing is a good sign.  My bees will likely get around to cleaning out these cells when they can and when the population swells enough they will be able to take care of their brood properly.

A Landscape of Sound

These Eastern Woods, pine and hemlock, maple and birch, are a place of sound.  I am habituated to depend on my eyes – as are most of us, I believe – but this place is so full of ambient sound that if I were deprived of my sight, somehow prevented from sensing with my eyes, I feel sure this place would come alive for me through sound.

In fact, I have found, puttering around this stout cabin, these shady lands, that in this place hearing is more keen than eyesight.  How often I have heard a whistling birdsong or the echoing knock of a woodpecker – and not seen its maker!  When I can’t see, I can still know.

Two days ago an enormous crack split the woods, a precipitous sound both startling and exciting.  I was inside but I heard it plainly.  Then, following close, the wrenching sound of falling, the breaking of branches and the upheaval of earth.  It all culminated in a booming thump and crash that seemed to roll through the woods like thunder, lingering in the air and falling off slowly.  The lasting reverberations I felt more than heard.

(When a tree falls in the forest, it makes a sound.  Be sure of that.  Sorry.  Couldn’t resist.)

My first thought was of the kids and I hurried out to the front porch.  I didn’t know where they were at that moment and for all their scampering and knocking about in the woods, I thought it could have been them pushing over a tree. (!)  An absurd thought it was and easily dispelled.  The kids, of course, were safely perched on their favorite boulder and just as rapt by the sound as I.  They sat there, all three, frozen where they had been when the first crack sounded, staring off through the timber with wide eyes.

“Did you see it?” I called to them.

They hadn’t.  “It was over there!”  They all pointed.

“What was it?” my youngest said.

The instinct to look for what one hears is not mysterious.  With just a few notions – evolution, self preservation, natural selection – it is easy to see, so to speak, why we do it.

But much goes on in the woods that I hear and never see, and my world, the suburban world of career and commute, is seldom so invisible.  It is disconcerting at first to be so suddenly reacquainted with the significance of sound.  But it is a necessary upset.  It is disconcerting in the way one knows one needs to be disconcerted, a healthy kind of growth.

It is like recovering from an injury I didn’t know I had sustained, learning to hear again.  I didn’t know, wasn’t aware, that I was slowly going deaf.  Like seeing through prescription lenses for the first time – I hadn’t known what I wasn’t seeing.

Ultimately, the desire to see is too strong, the spectacle is irresistible.  Later that afternoon, we all went to investigate the epicenter.  A large white birch, having grown over the years on a bending angle in search of light, now lay in an awkward sprawl across the road to the upper header.  It had taken with it two other trees, both small hemlocks.  We stood and surveyed the scene.  The ground uphill where the tree had stood and the roots had broken was a chaos, like a bomb crater, stones and soil, moss and roots still hanging in the air.  The heavy trunk lay where it had landed, ponderously inert in the deep rut it tore in the ground.  You could almost hear the reverberant thud all over again.

“Wow!” my youngest said.  It was all any of us could say.

The acoustics of this sylvan venue, this landscape of sound, are astounding, enviable for any theatre, lecture hall, or symphony space – because the woods are, of course, all of those things.  But the imagination is always second to the real thing.  A live encounter always requires actually being there.

A Place in the Forest

Early morning in the Adirondack woods – north of Albany, just inside the park.  The forest is of hemlock here, mostly, and white pine.  There are birches, white and black, beech, red oak, basswood, and maples.  Their leafy branches are more noticeable, more conspicuous than the needled foliage, and one would tend to call this forest deciduous.

But it is not.

Those whose habits are in walking the woods, those who watch the trees and come to know how each individual grows, know different.  The tallest and straightest trunks in every direction are evergreen.

The light from the east has not yet penetrated the stands of timber that surround our little house, though it is quite light by now.  In the growing ambient illumination, the hues of green intensify, vary, and the forest deepens as lighter shades of green appear beyond others in long views through holes in the foliage.  The forest is waking up, and the color comes on, grows as things in the forest begin.

The air is still still, though just barely, and the mist that took all night to gather still hangs in the trees, though not for long.  It is not like the fog where I come from that lays in thick sheets, condenses, and drips from eucalyptus branches.  This is a true mist, gossamer, subtle and immaterial, like an ambient quality to the air, a characteristic of atmosphere more than a presence.  So thin you have to ask yourself if it is really there.  Maybe your glasses just need cleaning or you still need to shake off your sleep.  No matter.  As soon as the sun needles its way low through the trees and lights on branches, it will be gone, dissolved back into the fabric of the air, the forest itself shaking off its own sleep, the torpor of the night.

I see it now, through the mist that rises from my mug of coffee, the first bright rays of sun.  It will all begin in moment.  My wife will be up and padding in for coffee, the kids will rise not long after that, and my attention will be needed elsewhere.  But for now, I am here, witnessing the advent of day in the northern woods.  And I feel lucky.  The sun’s rays for now newly shine through the leafy and needled canopy.  But in a moment, that too will be gone.  There are clouds in the sky today, perhaps showers are in store, and the sun will likely be periodic at best.

Sitting here in the slow waking, I feel myself blending.  The boundaries blur and what separates me from the world of trees and rocks and flowing water grows thin.  Couldn’t I just stay here?  Blend in?  Grow wild and lean with original energy?  Maybe I would grow hair, become long in tooth and claw.

That temptation is always there for me in places like this, calling from somewhere pure and permanent.  The instructions to blend are written indelibly in me – I suspect in all of us – and this place feels like my first home.

But I am not wild, not only wild, that is.  I am not wholly wild like that chipmunk, not merely wily like the trout in the stream or the coyotes I heard through the dark last night.  And I am not solely dependent on my wits to survive.  I am a creature of comfort and society.  My fate lies in the company of people, in love and language and thoughts and plans.

But here, for a time, I am closer to original being.

It is not hard to feel.  Give yourself moments of quiet to watch what goes on around you in wild places and you feel it seep into you – the immensity of what we are living, the indifference of nature that takes care of you not for love or obligation, but because somewhere underneath the routines of career and commute, you still know how to live in harmony with nature and nature’s laws.

It is permanent, inscribed where you cannot erase it, your place in the world.

The Song of the Coyote

Almost every night I hear coyotes.  Their voices rise in cacophony and mayhem from the hill across the valley, the one my kids call “the horse hill.”  It is the song of a pair I hear most often, but the rollick and ruckus they make gives the impression of many more animals.  Sometimes, as it happened tonight, a lone voice comes faintly, drifting on the air from much further afield, from far points unknown in the open space that surrounds our home.  Somewhere, out there, on some indistinct, grassy vantage a sole coyote pauses to recognize the stars with his birthright sound that carries across space like the voice of the night itself.

On rare occasions, a yip and bark from one direction will stir a response from another.  At times, I have heard coyotes calling in three directions.  My head cranes from one tilt to another as I  strain to direct my listening to filter the voice of an individual animal, but it is no good.  I am surrounded.  In those moments the opaque hills matted against the blue-black sky become coyote rich, and I know who has dominion.  In those moments, there is no doubt.  I am naked, blind in the dark, nearly deaf with my human hearing, and nose-mute.  This is coyote country and I am a clumsy guest.

In my community a rumor flourishes.  It is believed and passed on in street side conversations as truth that the rousing concerts of yips and barks we hear in the night are the death knells of neighborhood house cats.  One of my neighbors said to me, our cocktail repartee interrupted by the rumpus of coyotes, “Yep.  Got another one.”  The mythology of monsters is fertile, not easily debunked.  I don’t know if the story of the violent end to house cats is true, but I suspect not.  There just aren’t enough cats.

I do suspect mythology though.  The barks and howls as they erupt in the night do sound triumphant, as though a pack had perpetrated an act and gotten away with it.  The fact is coyotes almost never travel in packs.  They are solitary or mated or sometimes triune.  I have never seen four at once.  The apocrypha of the pack is a function of what we think we hear when the song of the coyote whips up in the dark, maybe from a couple of directions, and we begin to feel vulnerable, surrounded, an easy mark in the night.  “There must be dozens of them!”  No.  Just a pair.  Maybe a third lone comrade miles away.

But it is a human feature to interpret what we experience, to look for patterns, to attempt to understand.  A human feature, perhaps an evolutionary advantage, but it is a foible to understand what we experience only in human terms.  The song of the coyote is triumphant, I suspect, only to us.  But is that enough?  Is the perception of triumph enough for us to create the myth of the cat’s bane?  Not quite.  An enduring myth requires a shred of truth, a germinative seed of fact from which to grow.  I think it likely, nigh unto certain, that in the course of natural events it has come to pass that an errant cat has run afoul of a coyote in the night and has failed to return home by morning.  I am sure it has happened, and yet I know that more cats meet their fates under car tires or at the claws and teeth of neighborhood dogs than of coyotes.  Even so, the myth is created from a shred of truth and a human perception.  Every time the coyotes howl, a cat has met an untimely end.  Murder most foul, we cry.

Despite my desire and effort to understand nature not just in human terms, I don’t have compassion for coyotes, and I believe that coyotes and humans should not occupy the same spaces at that same time.  That is to say, humans and coyotes must share habitat, but not concurrently.  Compassion is a human emotion, a human construct.  A coyote, if it needed to and if it had the opportunity, would do me in without thought of compassion, understanding, or sharing habitat.  It would act in accordance with ancient directives that were issued by an indifferent universe.  Maybe we all do.  After all, I do carry a sturdy stick when I walk in the hills with my family.

I don’t set myself against the coyotes that run in the open space around our home, but I don’t call them cute, either.  They are not beautiful, not majestic, not wily, and not smart.  These are all words we tend to use in reference to nature but they are human words, and in the end they misinterpret.  In the end, to understand and to interpret in solely human terms is to underestimate what is more than merely human.  When you realize that a coyote is responding to ancient directives issued by an indifferent universe, it becomes simply inappropriate, a misapprehension to label a coyote “crafty.”  They are not crafty.  They are what they are, but craft as we humans coined the term has nothing to do with it.

What language should we use then?  Now we are getting somewhere.  That is a good question and I don’t know.  A language older than words, perhaps.

The feeling I have for coyotes is awe – but it is the kind of awe one has for a jealous and unpredictable god.  It is not admiration I have for coyotes; it is uncertainty.

I was standing in the grass around midday a few weeks ago.  I happened to be checking my hives, so I was suited up in white and my scent was heavily masked with smoke and smears of honey.  First, I heard the rustle of leaves in the oak woods below me and then I saw the coyote emerge, head down, from the stand of oaks.  He came right up the hill toward me, oblivious of me, in the tall grass so that he disappeared sometimes in the grass and then reappeared in a different place further on.  I stood still, then glanced around for a weapon.  I found none, thought I probably wouldn’t need it, anyway.  I was caught in the tension of opposite pulls.  I wanted to see this coyote up close and so I stood still, hoping not to be noticed.  But I also had the urge to shout and to maintain the distance between us, which at this point was no more than thirty feet.  When humans and wildlife meet, it is always bad for the wildlife eventually.

The coyote came up the hill perhaps ten feet closer before it lifted its head and saw me.  It became aware of me without fear and without startle.  It didn’t jump.  It simply and gracefully, seamlessly, changed its course.  I saw it register me and the field of its vision moved right on past me as it swept its head downhill and took a bound over some tall grasses, disappearing into a stand of bays almost immediately.  I had not had time to move.

Standing there, hive tool and smoker in hand, I watched for it, but I saw almost nothing, only some grasses that moved out of synch with the wind.  Then, moments later, far across the face of the hill and moving up the valley I saw the coyote emerge onto a prominent hillock and regard me where I still stood.  I felt again that fleeting thrill of contact, man and wildlife, that tempting delusion that animal and human might share a connection in this moment of mutual recognition.  Alas, I was again humbled and abashed and aware of the human foible of wanting to understand the world in only human terms when the animal took not  a moment’s pause in looking my direction.  It moved on out of view as quickly as it had turned, giving me no notice, only the briefest of glances.  I knew I was nothing to it, less than nothing at this distance – only a vague reference in an ancient directive issued by an indifferent universe.  It wasn’t curious or compassionate or interested in connecting.  It was hunting for food.

Here is an article from The New York Times on July 2, 2010.  It describes a couple of recent incidents involving coyotes and humans and what the NYPD is trying to do about them.  Give it some thought.  In my community we have not yet had an attack, but can it be far off?