The Bear and the Butterfingers, the Exploding Dinosaur, Fred, (and Fred, and Fred,) and the Orb Weavers

An orb weaver and its web. [image credit: San Diego Zoo]
An always delightfully engaging friend asks of the Hive Mind on Facebook:

What is the first wildlife you remember encountering in the actual wild (wild is broadly meant here–not a zoo)? Maybe don’t count squirrels. Or maybe do. I’m pretty sure mine was a squirrel. Or a pot gut up at Brighton.

Childhood memories. Such hole-y, but ever-tantalizing, constructs (say cognitive neuroscientists, whom I’ve no reason to question, although I’d like to).

My timeline ordering is necessarily diaphanous from this far vantage of almost five decades, but the set of vivid memories poking out from the gray mists comprises the following most likely non-boring contenders (for current purposes, deer = boring, although at first-sighting they, too, were exciting):

  1. various SoCal orb weavers — hence my early and lasting fascination with and fondness of arachnids and the beguiling, interrupted symmetry of spider webs (was this the seed of my later captivation by mathematics?);
  2. praying mantises — hence, subsuming arachnids, my early and lasting chitinous fascination with and fondness of arthropods generally;
  3. a brown Desert tortoise, whom we named Fred, my brother and I, and who hung out in the grass and ivy of our suburban Los Angeles back yard one summer, happily devouring our fig tree droppings (Fred did not seem to care for fallen apricots) — hence, yada yada, reptiles;
    [Later, I had an alligator lizard, also named Fred. He was brown, too. Much later, my wife and I had a cat, also named Fred, whom we rescued from the wilds of our Washington, DC, suburb. Fred the cat was also brown. Fred is the name of all the best brown pets. One day, alligator Fred laid an egg. It had a soft, leathery shell, cream-white with brown stains. Not at all like a chicken egg from the grocery store. Fred with the hard shell and a fondness for brown-black figs laying in the sun did not lay an egg. Fred’s egg never hatched; not understanding why, I was crestfallen. (And cats, silly, don’t lay eggs. But an ancestor that cats deign to share in common with us laid eggs. I think that’s cool. I bet it was brown, that ancestor.)]
  4. a hawk, perched on top of a tall party-line telephone pole (it seemed impossibly tall to an eight-or-nine-year-old kid from the L.A. suburbs, and the isolated farmhouses in eastern Washington wheat country were all connected by party lines, and church socials) across and down the draw — that’s what my grandmother always called it, The Draw, as if that was its name — a mile or so south and west from my grandparents’ farmhouse one hot summer day, which one of my ancestral uncles shot, from an impressive distance, with his childhood .22 rifle with the well-worn brown wood stock, the bird’s feathers suddenly exploding — a long time, it seemed, after the rifle hammer made the bullet’s gunpowder explode — and fluttering down against the hot still air, shimmering silhouettes arcing in and out of existence against an infinite deep blue sky (back then, deep blue skies were infinite, especially on hot summer days), the way blue and black dinosaur feathers do when they explode — hence my early and lasting dislike of firearms, and of immature, inconsiderate mentalities;
    [The hawk flew away, I would guess surprised at the sudden disappearance of tail feathers and angry at such a rude interruption of its respite. One of the feathers, like my favorite lucky agate, I kept for many years.]
  5. and, indirectly, an American black bear, who, some time in the dead of an inky starlit night in the Sierras,
    1. quietly and neatly tore a perfectly square, hand-sized opening in the corner of a fellow Boy Scout member’s tent (pretty sure it was a blue tent, like mine, but it could have been green) and took his illicit stash of Butterfingers (yes, that kid, who had red hair and freckles and I’m sure a name, and whom I never did much like because he was kind of a bully, was a fucking idiot), and
    2. quietly and neatly tore the left rear door off a neighboring camper’s metallic-blue Toyota sedan and took the food from the subsequently undamaged blue and white Coleman cooler sitting under a blanket on the back seat (the sedan owner wasn’t too bright, either, though, unlike freckles the idiot, he had black horn rimmed glasses and was a really nice guy)

  — hence, my early and lasting appreciation for the wide range of manual dexterity among bears.


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