Five Fables (Inspired by Aesop and Antonio Gramsci)

A picture containing text, book Description automatically generated

Thomas Bewick, “The Bear and the Bee-Hive,” The Fables of Æsop and Others, wood-engraving, 1818.

The Buffalo and the Revolutionary

Straddling the fence may be the best way to avoid an unwinnable conflict.

Once, many years ago, I became trapped between a buffalo and an alligator. It happened in Payne’s Prairie Preserve near Micanopy, Florida, while running along the eight-mile Cones Dike Trail. At about the three-mile marker, I saw a buffalo (Bison bison) blocking my way. The animal was huge and wooly, with tufts of matted fur hanging from both sides of his face like payos. He was grazing on fresh, green grass growing in the middle of the trail. Though inexperienced with bison, I loved all animals and was committed to their liberation. If I strode toward the buffalo with revolution in my heart, I believed, he would surely move away. But when I got to within about 25 feet, he raised his head and looked at me. Then he scraped the ground with his front hooves – first one, then the other — just like raging bulls do before they charge.

Realizing the animal could easily overrun and crush me, I climbed the short wire fence bordering one side of the trail to establish a barrier – however flimsy — between us. But as I started to lower myself down the other side, I saw a large alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) in the black muck below. Not wanting to end-up like Captain Hook or worse, I froze in place while the buffalo and alligator decided how best to proceed. After about ten minutes, the buffalo lost interest and slouched away. I quickly bade the alligator goodbye, climbed back over the fence, and ran-off the way I came. (See: Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, pp. 175-85; hereafter PN.)

The Cockroach and Henry James

In the struggle for hegemony, force often takes second place to culture.

When we moved into our new house in Micanopy, our kind neighbors Erik and Arlene warned us about “waterbugs,” aka, the American cockroach (Periplaneta americana). If we had a serious infestation, they warned, we’d need to put down poison. We dismissed their concern. Our house was tightly sealed and thoroughly modern in design — cockroaches had no place there.

One night a few weeks later, we saw our first roach in the kitchen. It was nearly two inches long, reddish brown and fast. I later learned cockroaches are among the speediest insects in the world, moving at about 50 body lengths per second. That would be the human equivalent of sprinting 200 mph! They can also squeeze through the smallest cracks and make a good living from trash in kitchen bins, or from crumbs they find on floors, counters or in cabinets.

Because my wife Harriet and I support animal rights, we decided to catch the roaches and move them outside. Though we worked as a team, this still proved difficult: We’d corner the roach, quickly place a bowl over it, slide a sheet of cardboard beneath the bowl to trap it, and then take the insect outside our front door for release. Soon however, we noticed we were catching and releasing the same cockroaches! (We recognized them from the distinct injuries we caused to their antennae when catching them.) In addition, capturing them at all was getting harder and harder. By chasing, corralling, and releasing the roaches, we were training them in speed and agility! At last, we reluctantly concluded the herd needed to be culled.

The next few times we saw a cockroach, I tried to swat it with a copy of the London Review of Books. I usually missed my target however, and when I did land, the magazine proved too flimsy to dispatch the creature. Then I tried a thick, paperback book: The Penguin edition of Henry James’s The Americans. Sometimes I flung the book at the roach. I always missed. Other times, I lay the book flat on the floor and slid it toward the creature at a high rate of speed. The roach dashed out of the way every time.

Finally, I tried a different tactic. When I saw a roach, I sat down on the floor near it and read aloud from The Americans:

“The truth is that circumstances had done much to cultivate in Mrs. Tristram a marked tendency to irony. Her taste on many points differed from that of her husband, and though she made frequent concessions it must be confessed that her concessions were not always graceful. They were founded upon a vague project she had of someday doing something very positive, something a trifle passionate. What she meant to do she could by no means have told you; but meanwhile, nevertheless, she was buying a good conscience, by installments.”

After a few minutes of reading, the roach got used to my presence and became lethargic. That allowed us to easily approach it and place the plastic bowl over the roach to catch it and transport it at least two blocks away. I’m about to start Daisy Miller. (See: PN, 234-35)

The Alligator and the College Student

No matter how far you have gone, you must turn back if the way forward is blocked.

I often run in Barr Hammock Reserve. It’s almost as close as Payne’s Prairie, but less visited. It too has a dike trail – a six-and-a-half-mile loop – which I can just manage to complete on a good day. And it was there that I encountered an alligator and a college student (Studenta floridensis).

Running beneath a hammock of oak and cypress trees, I passed on my left numerous Florida softshell turtles lounging, head to tail, on half-submerged logs. Perched in the trees or flying low over the marsh were little blue herons, snowy egrets, and white Ibises. Red shouldered hawks cried out overhead; they are nearly as common as turkey vultures in this part of Florida. The weather was ideal, sunny and 80 degrees, and as I ran, the trail disappeared beneath my feet like a moving sidewalk at an airport.

At about the six-mile mark, I saw ahead of me a young woman with blue shorts, a white T-shirt and a UF baseball cap, doing jumping jacks like I used to do when I was a boy at school. But as I got closer, I realized she wasn’t doing calisthenics at all; she was trying to scare something in front of her. Then I realized what it was: an alligator, measuring about 12 or 13 feet from nose to tail. A creature that size – probably about 30 years old — can weigh more than 800 pounds. As I reached the young woman, she turned to face me and asked: “Can you get him to move so I can finish my run?”

Now, I’ve seen alligators on this trail dozens of times before and I’ve developed what I call, “the alligator rule”: If the alligator’s head is pointing down-slope into the marsh, and his tail extends only a few feet into the trail, it’s safe to run (quickly) past him. But if on the other hand, the business-end of the animal faces the middle of the path, the prudent thing is turn around and run the other way. Before applying my rule however – and because we were so close to the end of the trail — I wanted to check if there was any possible way, we could pass him. So, I devised a test: when I took two steps to my right, the animal followed me with his eyes; when I moved two steps to the left, he did the same thing. That was bad. In addition, his legs were slightly arched underneath his body, as if he was poised to lunge. “Go ahead,” he was saying, “try it.” So, I shared the alligator rule with my young friend and we both turned to run six more miles back to the parking lot. I had to walk most of the way. (See: PN, 238-239.)

The Wolf Spider and the Silverfish

In many struggles, the only path to victory is through a lengthy war of position.

Before moving to Florida, I was frightened of big spiders. Objectively speaking, this is stupid. Big spiders like tarantulas are not aggressive toward people and are non-poisonous. Little spiders however, like the black-widow and brown recluse, are potentially deadly. Nevertheless, irrational fears are as powerful as rational ones, so when I saw my first wolf-spider (Hogna carolinensis) one night in our house in Micanopy, I became alarmed.

The spider was about two inches in size, grey-black and furry, and hiding in plain sight on a shiny white bathroom tile six inches above the grey, concrete floor. That’s where he remained for several days. Despite my initial recoil, I became used to his company as the days passed and grew increasingly fond of him. I discovered that even if I approached within a foot of him, he remained still, sure that despite his conspicuousness, he’d be invisible so long as he was motionless.

After about a week, I began to become concerned about his well-being. Was he finding food and water? I started to keep notes about his appearance and behavior and read about spiders online. Wolf spiders in Florida can grow to more than four inches. They have excellent vision through eight eyes arranged in three rows, and hunt mostly at night. The females, which live up to three years, carry dozens of newborns (spiderlings) on their backs until the babies are sufficiently grown to look after themselves. This is a rare form of social reproduction in spiders (order Araneae), though tarantulas do the same thing; it must explain the natural selection of furriness – it offers something for the babies to grab hold of. Wolf spiders do not spin webs but instead, like the much smaller jumping spider (Menemerus bivittatus, also common in and around our house), pounce upon their prey or else chase it down after a brief sprint.

Finally, one day, I went to look for the spider but didn’t at first see him. He had moved down to the floor, slightly camouflaged by the concrete. As I came closer, I saw that he was occupied with consuming a silverfish (Lepisma saccharinum). The latter are no friend of mine since their favorite food is starch and cellulose, the chief ingredient in the antiquarian books I collect. Silverfish are fast runners on a flat surface but slow when they try to climb. That’s probably what cost this one his life. The wolf spider waited patiently – almost invisibly — until the silverfish began to climb toward him; then he pounced. (See: PN, 229-233.)

Cranes in Love

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Since we moved to Micanopy in 2018, a pair of sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis)

has visited our garden each Winter. Mature cranes are almost five feet tall, weigh 10 pounds, have a wingspan of 7 feet, and resemble dinosaurs, which isn’t surprising since they first appeared on the earth about 10 million years ago. The cranes come to our house almost every day, usually from 9 to 6, a parody of the daily, capitalist grind. Here are some of my notes from March 12, 2021, describing their routine:

“They arrived early today – about 8:30 a.m. First, they ate some seeds on the bird table. Then they stood around, staring off into space, before returning to the seed. At about 10 a.m., they wandered through the meadow and onto the lawn where they dug up small roots, pecked at the grass and pulled up some worms. Then they stood around and stared off into space some more. Around 12:00, they took a drink from the pond and played a game where they snare some leaves from the pickerel weed, toss them up in the air and pretend to catch them. After that, they waded into the pond and floated around for a while, pretending to be swans. At about 2:15, they sat down on the lawn, heads resting on breasts, and closed their eyes to sleep.  The next time I looked at them, at around 3:30, they were on the lawn again, stretching and performing a ritual in which they raise their wings up and down and prance back and forth in front of each other. After that, they had sex. Harriet saw it too. She said it was very embarrassing to watch (she’s English). Then she added: ‘But why so quick?’

The cranes treat our garden like their own Cythera, the mythical island of Aphrodite, painted by the artist Antoine Watteau in 1717 and 1718. Cythera is a place of peace and pleasure, where arms and armor are set aside, and people spend each day dancing, singing and making love. When the day at last ends, they return with reluctance to the sailing ship that brought them there, guided home by clouds of cupids and putti. Like the damsels and gallants of Cythera, the cranes of Micanopy wile away their time in delightful play, until sunset, when they face the west, start a long slow trot across the lawn, and then spread their vast wings. In a second that feels like a minute, they are airborne, flying to their nests in Payne’s Prairie Reserve to sleep and prepare for another day.

 

 

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and many other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe and now preparing for publication part two of their series for Rotland Press, American Fascism Now.