More Fables (Inspired by Aesop and William Bartram)

A Turtle and an Alligator Cross the Road

William Bartram, The Alligators of St. Johns, 1774, Natural History Museum, London.

The morning was uncommonly hot even for Micanopy, a small town (pop. 600) in northern Florida. There had been rain, but rather than rinsing the air, it added to the humidity. Now the sun was out, and steam was rising from the asphalt on County Road 346 to Hawthorne. I was headed to Longleaf Flatwoods Reserve, a 2,800-acre protected upland between Orange Lake and Lake Lochloosa.  My plan was run about 4 miles at a slow pace, drink lots of water, and stop in the shade if I got dizzy.

The drive usually takes about fifteen minutes, but you must be cautious. The two-lane highway beneath a canopy of live oaks and Spanish moss,  is narrow, and while traffic is light, there are always animals crossing the road or browsing along its sides. I regularly see sandhill cranes, turkeys, deer, crows and vultures. The black vultures especially catch my eye. Their dark, featherless heads remind me of hooded executioners. They can often be seen standing around a deer corpse on the grassy shoulder of the road, their wings parted and drooping, like baggy suits, as they wait their turn to eat.

I was going about 45 when I slammed on my breaks to avoid hitting a small round form crossing the road. It was a Florida box turtle, (Terrapene carolina bauri), weaving a wobbly path toward the left shoulder. I pulled over to the right, put on my flashers and got out. There were no cars visible in either direction. As I reached out to grab the turtle’s shell, he picked up his pace and straightened his path. But fearing he still wouldn’t make it to the other side in time, I picked him up and carried him the rest of the way. After I put him down, he craned his neck to glance up at me – perhaps the turtle version of a wink — and continued in the direction he was going.  I got back in my car and continued in the direction I was going.

My run was uneventful except for a brief interchange with a young man and woman standing off to the side of the trail among longleaf pines, palmettos, and various tall grasses and sedges. They were dragging a white sheet across the tops of the understory plants, they told me, to catch and count ticks – a class assignment at UF in Gainesville. I told them it would be easier if they just stood in the middle of the trail and rolled up their trousers.

On the drive back, I kept an eye out for box turtles. As I approached the area where I just rescued one, I saw what looked like a long dark shadow blocking my lane. Thinking it was a blown truck tire, I began to slow down. From 200 feet, I could see it was an alligator (Alligator mississippiensis): a big one, maybe 12 feet from nose to tail. I pulled over to the right, stopped the car and got out. The alligator was stock still but very much alive. Passing cars had so far avoided him, but a single inattentive driver would surely end his life.

As I approached to within 20 feet, he looked at me and slightly parted his jaws. I waved my arms and shouted: “Go, go, you are gonna get run over if you stay here.” He didn’t move. If it had been almost anything other than a 600-pound alligator, I’d have walked right up and either carried him across or nudged him with my foot. Even a cotton mouth – the most dangerous and ill-tempered animal you will ever come across around here — can be coaxed to move by means of a long stick. But as it was, I simply repeated my admonition, though louder: “GO, GO, SHOO,” while gesturing with my arms in the direction he needed to move to find safety.

None of this was to any avail.  As I turned to walked back to my car, I heard a loud hiss and a tail flop, unmistakable expressions of territoriality and warning. This alligator in the middle of the highway was telling me to keep away or he would attack me — while I was walking away! It was a rude and wholly gratuitous threat! I was reminded of naturalist William Bartram’s harrowing experiences during his travels to this area in 1774:

“I was attacked on all sides, several alligators endeavoring to overturn my canoe. My situation now became perilous to the last degree; two very large ones attacked me closely, at the same instant, rushing up with their heads and part of their bodies above the water, roaring terribly and belching floods of water over me. They stuck their jaws together so close to my ears, as almost to stun me, and I expected every moment to be dragged out of the boat and instantly devoured.”

The ill-natured alligator on the road must have been descended from one of Bartram’s! There was nothing more I could do, and so I drove off, wishing him the best of luck.

Moral: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18)

Tortoise on the Run

Melchior Lorck, Tortoise above a walled, coastal town in the Veneto, c. 1555, British Museum.

I don’t usually run in Barr Hammock Reserve South. The trails are narrow, crossed with spider webs, and infested with mosquitos, horseflies, ticks, and chiggers. In addition, the tree roots that cross the path are particularly aggressive – they have several times snagged my sneaker toes, sending me to the ground.

But it was a hot, June day and the Bayhead Trail provides more shade than many of the other places I run. Biting insects are fewer in 92-degree heat, and tree roots are more easily seen if you are not swatting at mosquitos and flies. There were no other cars in the lot when I pulled in, so I knew I’d have the 5,000-acre reserve to myself. I stripped off my shirt, put on a baseball cap, sprayed insect repellent on my legs (just in case), grabbed my water bottle, and set off across the grassy field leading to the trailhead.

The first mile or two traverse swamps, sandhills and hardwood forests. There is no road noise here, and because the birds were taking their mid-day siesta, it was quiet. Later in the afternoon, you’d hear cardinals, Carolina wrens, red shouldered hawks, and red-headed woodpeckers. The latter’s call is a short, shrill squeak – it’s good they mate for life because the irritating sound would destroy any budding romance.

As I approached the intersecting Piney Woods trail, I saw a large gopher tortoise hurrying – I’d almost say running — along the white sand and pine needle path. Judging by his size — about 15 inches long – he was full grown, probably between 20 and 40 years old. (They can live to 100.) When William Bartram first saw a gopher tortoise in 1774 – at almost this spot – he wrote “this strange creature remains as yet undescribed by historians and travelers.” His detailed account of the animal is excellent, but unusually for Bartram, contained a note of cruelty: “It is astonishing what a weight one of these creatures will bear; it will easily carry any man standing on its back on level ground.”

I had no way of judging this one’s strength, but his speed was surprising. When I nearly caught up with him from behind, he stopped and pulled his fat legs and most of his head into his shell. I felt ashamed that I frightened him, so I stepped back a few feet. He immediately resumed his double-time journey along the trail. I wondered what the rush was, so I followed at a discrete distance. After about ten minutes, I saw the tortoise turn slightly off the trail, and settle down to eat some young, green wiregrass. He pivoted his head, opened his mouth wide, bit down and pulled. He chewed slowly and carefully, as if he was worried about swallowing a bone. Then he moved a few feet to another area of grass to repeat the process. I watched the tortoise do this for about fifteen minutes until I got bored, at which time I turned and jogged back to the spot on the trail where I first spotted him. What I saw next surprised me and made me stop and think.

The wiregrass here was just as fresh, green, and abundant as it was where the tortoise was eating. Why did he choose the grass there instead of here, and why was he in such a hurry to get there? As quickly as I posed these questions, I knew the answer. He didn’t prefer one patch of grass more than another; he simply decided, like I did, to go for a run to pass the time and enjoy the free exercise of his body. Though hardly hedonists, Gopher tortoises live a life filled with pleasure. They are surrounded by an abundance of green grass and leafy plants to eat; sleep and hibernate in commodious underground burrows of their own design; and enjoy in their homes the excellent companionship of indigo snakes, Florida mice, rabbits, burrowing owls and innumerable invertebrates. And with few predators to worry about, an no explorers to stand on their backs, gopher tortoises can expect to live a long, untroubled life. For a few minutes, I also felt carefree, as I resumed my run.

Moral: Never doubt another creature’s capacity for pleasure.

 A Murder of Crows

Thomas Bewick, “The Crow and the Pitcher,” The Fables of Aesop, 1818. Collection: the author.

The crows used to assemble early each morning on my neighbor Ron’s closely mowed lawn. They pecked at seed scattered on the ground and glanced from time to time at each other or the rising sun. Mostly they stood around, like workers at a building site waiting for the crew chief to give orders. By the time the heat rose, they were gone.

Now they gather most mornings at our house. We can tell they have arrived by the thuds on our metal roof.  A mature American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) weighs over a pound, so when a dozen land, it sounds like so many packs of tofu falling from the sky. They are in fact the biggest of the Passeriformes, a diverse order distinguished by their toes: three forward and one back. The four digits allow them to perch and grip things, skills that pigeons (Columbiformes) and hummingbirds (Trochiliformes) for example, lack. But what’s most remarkable about crows and other Corvids, including, ravens, jays, rooks, magpies and jackdaws, isn’t their feet; it’s their brains.

Bartram for one was greatly impressed by crow intelligence. He took in an injured fledgling and nursed it to health, discovering as he did a bird that was “tractable and benevolent, docile and humble, whilst his genius demonstrated extraordinary acuteness, and lively sensations.” * I can attest how smart crows are by how they organize their day. After gathering on our roof, they set out in ones and two in different directions. Usually this happens with minimal fuss, but occasionally, isolated birds will remain, here and there, while the rest fly off. Then the boss-bird, bigger and shinier than the laggards, gives them a tongue lashing, and they clear out. After that, I rarely see them together until the end of the day when a few gather on our lawn, near the bird table, for a kind of board meeting. They walk back and forth, quietly caw to each other, stroll over to peck some of the sunflower seed and peanuts I put out for their benefit, and then repeat the ritual. I imagine they are reviewing the day and discussing the current pecking order.

No one knows why a group of crows is called a “murder.” It may be because they eat carrion, or because they were known – in the centuries before mechanized warfare – to gather on the edge of battlefields in anticipation of a feast to come. But the grisly appellation is mistaken. A “corporation of crows” is more appropriate. Crows have bosses, give orders, pay salaries to lower status birds (a share of carrion, or a kill), punish disobedient or lazy crows, and even issue pink slips to some that are badly behaved. “But what appeared most extraordinary,” wrote Bartram about his pet crow, Tom “is that he seemed to have the wit to select and treasure up in his mind, and the sagacity to practice, that kind of knowledge which procured him the most advantage and profit.” No socialists, crows would instead embrace the slogan of Constantin Pecqueur (a follower of Saint-Simon): “From each according to his ability; To each according to his work.”

Crows know who their friends are. Last week, when I was sitting on my patio, several of them flew back and forth from the roof – where they were having a conference – to the bird table in the garden about 50 feet away. They must have done this seven or eight times, always flying right over my head, but never once casting excrement on or even near me, though they did over the garden. Crows are famous for being mischievous and holding grudges, often white-washing human enemies. But they know who fills the bird bath every day and who puts out the sunflower seeds and peanuts.

Wise Aesop (c. 620-564 BCE) understood all this. His fable of “The Crow and the Pitcher” tells the story of a thirsty crow who couldn’t reach the water at the bottom of a deep and heavy pitcher. So, she dropped in a succession of pebbles until sufficient water was displaced that she could lean in and drink. (It has been shown that crows actually do this.) Aesop’s moral was: “What we cannot accomplish by strength, we may by ingenuity and industry.” Mine, arising from my own experience, is more fundamental.

Moral: Punish your enemies if you must, but never neglect to honor your friends. 

The Skimmer and the Twitcher

Alexander Wilson, “Great Tern, Lesser Tern, Short-tailed Tern, Black Skimmer, Stormy Petrel,” American Ornithology, 1814.

Our favorite short holiday is to travel about 75 miles due east, from our home in Micanopy to Anastasia Beach State Park on the Atlantic coast. The drive is an easy one, along two and four lane state roads, through a succession of state parks and small towns, most of the latter no more than names with clusters of strip malls.  An exception is Palatka in Putnam County, with brick-paved streets that survive from the late 19th century, and a small but historic Main Street. The latter unfortunately, like most small-town main streets in the U.S., is suffering from vacant-storefront-syndrome. Bartram in 1774 witnessed a 10-day drunken bacchanal among Indians and whites at the Spalding Lower Trade Store near here. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find a drink anywhere in Palatka.

Anastasia Beach is broad and beautiful and rarely crowded. It’s also an important nesting area for the Least Tern (Sternula antillarum) and Black Skimmer  (Rynchops niger). Populations of both birds are “vulnerable,” according to the Audubon Society, due to loss of habitat. But the number of nesting pairs has been increasing at Anastasia. When we visited two weeks ago, the park rangers and volunteers had set up ropes to keep visitors away from nests, and posted signs announcing the need to exercise discretion. Nevertheless, numerous beachgoers and birdwatchers approached the edge of the protected area, I noticed, some mere feet from the nests.

One of these was particularly obnoxious. He was about 60, over 6 feet tall, and tan. From 50 feet away, I saw him repeatedly approach and point an enormous camera lens at a nesting skimmer and chick.  Each time he did, the parent bird rose in the air, squawked, and harried the photographer, causing him to briefly retreat. After about fifteen minutes, he walked away, and I thought to myself, “good riddance.” But then, about a half hour later, he was back.  At that point, I had seen enough:

“I saw you here earlier disturbing the birds, and now you are doing it again. Won’t you please leave them alone?”

Silence

“Seriously. Look at what you are doing. Even now the skimmer is off her nest and harrying you. Can’t you take a hint”

“I’m leaving,” he said, as he stood stock still.

At this point, I unfortunately lost my temper:

“If you don’t move, I’m going to knock that fucking camera out of your hands”

Now he walked toward me and said:

“Go ahead and try.”

I had clearly miscalculated. But at just that moment, a grey-haired, willowy woman of late-middle years approached us. She too was carrying a camera, but a much smaller one, and was wearing one of those vests with many pockets typically worn by British birders – twitchers, they are called. In fact, when she spoke, I realized she was English:

“I have been watching you,” she said sternly to the man I was retreating from, “and I think it would be a good idea if you left the nice birds in peace. You have taken quite enough pictures.”

Without further ado, the tall, tan man with one big lens, stepped back from me, turned around and quickly walked away.

Moral: Everybody, human and bird alike, sometimes needs outside assistance.

Sources: William Bartram, Travels and other Writings, (New York: The Library of America), 1996, pp. 115; 163-64; 571.

John Marzluff and Tony Angell, Gifts of the Crow, (New York, London etc: Simon and Schuster), 2013, pp. 96-97.

 

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), and The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) among other books. His American Fascism Now, with Sue Coe, has just been published by Rotland Press. Eisenman is also co-founder of the non-profit, Anthropocene Alliance.

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