The Casual Blog

Tag: wild horses

Our holiday weekend — wildlife and books

Wild horses at Corolla, NC

We had a happy July 4 family gathering at the Outer Banks.  There are a lot of stress inducers in the news these days, and it was good to unload some stress.  It helped to spend some time walking on the beach and some time reading. 

I also brought along my new camera, the Nikon Z9, and started getting comfortable with it.  There is definitely a learning curve, but I was pleased with some of the results, a few of which are here.  It was fun seeing the wild horses at Corolla, which mostly seemed in good health.  We also stopped at Alligator River wildlife refuge on the way and saw a few bears, owls, and (a first for us!) alligators.  

Alligator at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Speaking of animals, I highly recommend a lively short essay by Ed Yong titled How Animals See Themselves.  Yong highlights some of the amazing sensory capabilities of non-human animals, including not just extraordinary sight, smell, and hearing, but also abilities like echolocation which we can barely conceive of.  Appreciating the umwelt (a term he promotes) of these animals makes our own lives richer, and potentially more compassionate.  I’ve downloaded Yong’s new book on this subject, An Immense World.

On a related subject, NPR had a great little piece this week on octopuses and how they operate.  I hadn’t realized that the receptors in the suckers of an octopus are vastly more numerous than the nerves in our fingers, and each sucker has not only a sense of touch, but also of taste and smell.  Instead of processing information in a centralized brain, most of their neurons are associated with their suckers.  Scientists are starting to figure out how all their mini-brains work together so that, for example, they can unscrew jars from the inside and perform astonishing feats of camouflage.  I’ve seen a a few of these creatures on diving trips in the Caribbean, and they are truly amazing.   

    

Meanwhile, while recovering from covid, I finished a big book: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy.  It had been some forty years since I last read this famous work, but I still remembered some of it.  Besides being long, it is notable for its scope, which is both narrow (a few months in the lives of a handful of Russian aristocrats) and broad (Russian society in the process of major changes).  Having learned some history over the last few decades, I was better positioned to appreciate Tolstoy’s insights and also his blind spots.  

Some of the book, which was written in the mid-1870s was visionary, or at least a magnificent struggle for a vision.  There is insight into the emotional lives of the characters, including their most creative and destructive emotions.  At times Tolstoy’s consciousness seems to merge with the lives of animals and plants, and evokes the grandeur of nature.  But at other times he seems to regard peasants as useful but inferior, like horses, and other animals as merely good targets for shooting.

Part of Anna Karenina deals with the severe depression suffered by its title character, and also by Levin, who most represents Tolstoy himself.  Tolstoy doesn’t use anything like the modern vocabulary for describing psychological problems, but he evokes them with power.  It is not comfortable to enter into these experiences, but they are definitely timely.

Our depolarized Outer Banks reunion, with some wild horses

Last week we had a family reunion at Corolla, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  All told, there were 29 Tillers and their close connections, from several states, ranging in age from a few weeks to 69.  We took up three beach houses and gathered together to go to the beach, have dinner, and play games.

We had pleasant weather, and the water was warm enough for swimming, though some straw had washed up on the beach during a previous storm.  Just north of Corolla, the beach is open to four wheel drive vehicles, and I took mine up  there to look for the resident wild horses.  I made these pictures, among others.  It was cheering to see these big animals making their own way and looking calm and reasonably healthy.  

There was a sort of elephant in the room at this family reunion, which was a strong divergence of political views.  As regular readers have probably noted, my politics are far from conservative, as are those of a few other relations.  Probably a majority of the other Tillers identify strongly as conservatives.  In this time of extreme political polarization, with many primed to see politics in terms of a battle of good versus evil, some wondered, how would we get along?

The answer, it turned out, was just fine.  We found plenty of things in common, like kids, jobs, food, sports, houses, and family memories.  There was a lot of laughter.  It’s easy to overemphasize the significance of political differences, and to forget how much of our lives has little to do with our political allegiances.  Our reunion was a good reminder:  we all (Tillers, and of course, others too) are closely tied, and those ties are important.

The reunion also reminded me that there are plenty of differences of opinions among those on the conservative side.  The loudness and shrillness of right-wing media is misleading in many ways, including giving the impression of a conservative monolith.

I don’t mean to suggest that political differences are unimportant, especially now.  The transformation of the Republican party into the party of Trump, with its gloves-off program to seize power is still happening.  Republican leaders all across the country are passing new laws to increase the likelihood that they won’t lose future elections.  They’re also passing laws to prevent schools from teaching about topics that inspire questions about the existing social order, like our history of slavery and continuing racism.  

But there is a lot of political movement in the opposite direction, addressing some of our biggest problems, including climate change, economic fairness, health care, institutionalized violence, and education.  In the face of radical Trumpism, President Biden is boring in a good way — practical and down to earth.  Perhaps this is the storm before the calm. 

Speaking of earth and hope, two cheers for the President’s 30 by 30 initiative:  conservation of 30 percent of our land and water by 2030.  So far, this hasn’t made big headlines, but it should help in addressing both global warming and the biodiversity crisis.  Some fifty other countries are working on this same goal.    Non-human animals are usually ignored as humans pursue their goals, to their and our great loss.  While I tend to go with E.O. Wilson, who has advocated a target of protecting 50 percent, it’s a good start. 

My new Trailhawk, sandcrabs, sunflowers, and busing

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My new slightly used ride down the hill from the sunflowers at Dorothea Dix park

When I was in Maine at the and of June, I had a rental car I really liked:  a 2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk. It was about the same size as my Mazda CX-5, and drove similarly on the highway.  But there were things I liked more about the Trailhawk: its seats, which fit me well, and its instrumentation, including a big touchscreen.  I liked its off-road capabilities, including a locking rear differential and towhooks to get pulled out of the mud. Also, I really liked the color:  velvet red pearlcoat. 

So I read some reviews and did some market research, and the day after I got home I traded in my Mazda for a red Trailhawk.  Later that week we took it to the Outer Banks to visit sister Jane and her family. We watched the 4th of July fireworks at the Currituck lighthouse from their deck, and shot off a few Roman candles.  I got up before sunrise with a plan to take pictures of sanderlings and other shorebirds at first light, but didn’t find the necessary birds.  

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Sandcrabs at Corolla, NC

I did, however, see a lot of sandcrabs.  They’re small and well camouflaged, and they can skitter quickly.  In places where I glimpsed a couple, I got down on my belly with my large zoom, and waited for them to get comfortable with me.   

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I’m sure the families walking by  on the beach thought I was a strange bird as I lay there.  But it was worth it. Eventually the tiny crabs came out of their holes, and I saw them working on different projects, like finding food and scaring off their enemies.  Though I wouldn’t call them beautiful, they are fascinatingly complex.  

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I was reminded of a sweet essay in the Times a few weeks ago my Margaret Renki titled Praise Song for the Unloved Animals.  Renki writes of the hard work by some of nature’s relatively unphotogenic pest controllers and garbagemen, like opossums, vultures, bats, and field mice.  She even finds a kind word for mosquitoes who are food for chimney swifts and tree swallows. She appreciates the complex interconnectedness of life. I’m sure she’d be happy to add sandcrabs into her list.  Yates-3812.jpg

We took the Trailhawk up to the beach area where cars are permitted, and verified that it will go on the sand without getting stuck.  We hunted for the wild horses that live there, and managed to spot eight of them.  

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Back in Raleigh, I got up early three mornings this week to check on the sunflowers at Dorothea Dix park.  There were many of them! I tried to look at them in different ways. These pictures were my favorites.   I also got a shot of a little fawn on the edge of the sunflower field.  It was bleating loudly for its mommy.   It watched me for a long moment, then started to run towards me, perhaps thinking I could help find her.  I waved my arms and told it I didn’t know where mommy was, and the fawn turned and ran into the woods.  

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I never particularly thought of myself as a sunflower person.  And definitely never thought of myself as a Jeep person, or a person who liked red cars.  But if we’re attentive, we sometimes discover things about ourselves we didn’t know, and get past our prejudices.  

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Speaking of prejudices, there was a very fine essay in the Times yesterday  by Nikole Hannah-Jones about school busing.   Hannah-Jones has a great short summary of US system of separating black kids from white ones in our schools, which we still haven’t fixed.  She also decodes the political language. Back in the sixties, and now, Instead of saying, we don’t want our white kids going to school with black ones, we said, we don’t like school busing.  Using the language of “busing” allowed us to conceal from ourselves our racial prejudice, of which we are — and should be — ashamed.

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Hannah-Jones points up that busing was pretty effective in places and at times in undoing some of our legacy of segregation.  I think schools are only one part of repairing the damage of that system. Facing up to extreme inequality in income, jobs, housing, and health care are still on the to-do list.  But desegregating our schools is important, and doable. It is likely to involve buses.   

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A fun Memorial Day weekend on the Outer Banks — eating, talking, running, looking at wild horses and birds, and reading

Jane and Keith's beach house in Corolla, NC

Jane and Keith’s beach house in Corolla, NC

Again this year, my sister Jane invited us out to the Outer Banks for Memorial Day weekend, and we happily accepted. The beach is a good place to relax and restore. After weighing the pros and cons, we decided to drive out in Clara, who with her sporting heritage rides rougher than the Suburu Outback, but is also prettier and more exciting. Traffic wasn’t bad. We went at the speed limit plus 9, and the heavy complement of state troopers along I-64 tolerated the overage.

Charlie the Boogle

Charlie the Boogle

We got to Corolla about 9:30 p.m., and everyone was up and happy to see us. We enjoyed a glass of Keith’s merlot before bed. We also met their new dog, Charlie, a friendly beagle-boxer, or boogle. The camera made him a little nervous.

The next morning was sunny but chilly and windy. Keith prepared an egg casserole and fruit salad for breakfast, and we caught up on family news.
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We also talked a bit about technology and biology. I briefed them on some of the progress on understanding the human microbial community, which I read more about in the piece by Michael Pollen in last Sunday’s NY Times. Pollen wrote, “It turns out that we are only 10 percent human: for every human cell that is intrinsic to our body, there are about 10 resident microbes . . . . To the extent that we are bearers of genetic information, more than 99 percent of it is microbial. And it appears increasingly likely that this ‘second genome,’ as it is sometimes called, exerts an influence on our health as great and possibly even greater than the genes we inherit from our parents.”

This is mind-blowing, paradigm-shifting stuff. One researcher says “we would do well to begin regarding the human body as ‘an elaborate vessel optimized for the growth and spread of our microbial inhabitants.’” We’re just starting to understand some of the links between human health and microbial health. It’s a huge mistake, which most of us have previously made, to think of all germs as things that should be exterminated. Certain bacteria are essential to health, and problems in the microbiome appear to relate to chronic disease and some infections. Human health can be thought of as “a collective property of the human-associated microbiota . . . that is, as a function of the community, not the individual.”

The Pollen article is a great introduction to this subject, which is also discussed in The Wild in Our Bodies by Robert Dunn.
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After breakfast, I went out for a run with my nephew David, now 13 and growing fast. David has fallen in love with lacrosse and is getting lots of playing time as his team’s goalie, so I figured he would probably run me into the ground. Instead, he developed a major cramp problem, and so we did more walking than running. I learned about his prize-winning science fair project, which involved growing and measuring characteristics of a fast growing plant called brassica rapa.
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Keith cooked an amazing lunch – cucumber soup and pasta asparagus salad. Then we loaded up in the 4WD sport ute, and drove north on the beach looking for wild horses. Past the lifeguard station, we turned left into the sand roads through the gnarled trees and bushes of the maritime forest. We found several horses. It’s cheering somehow that these big animals can make their own way in small wild areas surrounded by development. We also saw a fox.
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I had time for some reading in the afternoon, and got a good start on Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer who died recently. This is his first and most famous book, and perhaps the most famous work of African literature to date. I was immediately hooked. The prose combines the muscular economy of Hemingway at his best with the vision of Faulkner, with an overarching tenderness and humanity. The story is about African village life, which, it turns out, has many of the same emotional components as our lives.

I also read more of More Balanchine Variations by Nancy Goldner, which is a book about various Balanchine ballets. Goldner is a generous-hearted critic, and she loves her subject. It’s so hard to bring dance to life other than by dancing, but she comes close.
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One other major bit of reading was chunks of the complete poems of Wallace Stevens. I came close to reading them all last year, before shelving the project some months back. Stevens is challenging, and not uniformly great – some of the poems seem mannered or even mad. But the greatest poems are both beautiful and profound. My favorite is still Sunday Morning, which is a sly, subversive, arresting, sensual, and humorous. I memorized it, and it still gives me goosebumps at the end, with its powerful image of “casual flocks of pigeons make/ ambiguous undulations as they sink,/ downward to darkness, on extended wings.”

Stevens proposes this joy in nature as an answer to religious asceticism, and it works for me. It also makes me look at the world with different eyes. For example, in back of Jane and Keith’s beach house, purple martins are still numerous, and still flying fast feeding on insects. It was a pleasure to watch them.

We played a new beach game on Sunday afternoon. It’s one of the many variations on horse shoes, but a good one. Points are scored by throwing a string with weighted balls on each end around a bar. They couldn’t remember the name of it, but no matter. It was fun!
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