Category Archives: Thistle

Ladderbacks

Another walk tonight as the wind picked up, this one two hours before the moon. Walking in the desert in the dark with only the dim light of other people’s homes to guide me: a metaphor for something or other.

Three miles and change, almost all with sand ground into my heels. Arrived at the front door shaking with hunger, some of it for food.

At the house in the late afternoon after my trip down out of the Mojave to drop A. at the Los Angeles shuttle, I watched two absurdly gawky ladderbacked woodpeckers wrangle over the hummingbird feeder. They were teens with back haircuts and pointed elbows. One climbed the window frame and drummed on it for a few minutes, then drummed on the window pane to see how that worked.

What it did was summon the cat, and each regarded the other with frankly hostile interest.

In Palm Springs this afternoon I found myself idling in traffic in front of the vet where last I saw Thistle. All at once I couldn’t see the street in front of me, blurred with saltwater. I pulled over to let the moment pass.

Cathartes aura

Three of them in a plum tree this morning, turkey vultures, shivering after a rainstorm and spreading their wings to dry out.

Mallards again, and surfing the rapids again. Becky and Zeke and I watched from the bridge. Another vulture circled down in from the hills, broad white chevrons on her underside wheeling against blue sky. The mallards, about a dozen of them, dabbled upended in the slow eddy. The males waded onto the bank, stuck bills into the muddy grass.

The creek was café con leche, and it flowed steady. The air was moist with past rain.

Earlier we had let the rabbit and guinea pig run loose in the backyard. They were glad for the sunshine, which lasted only a few minutes. A rainbow formed to the west against a backdrop of dark gray. With the first few drops, Harley shrieked to be brought inside. Thistle waited until he was wet, then streaked for the shelter of the coffee table.

But the rain stopped again and we went down to the creek with the dog. The female mallards’ loud cries echoed off the far trees, off the walls of the senior center. The males’ call was a low quacky murmuring, a grumbling to themselves. One after another, turkey vultures spread their wings in the pale breeze.

My mother’s pacemaker installation went well. She was resting happily if irritably when I called in the afternoon. A routine surgery, and yet what a marked relief not to have to freight those morning vultures with heavy familial import.

Demonic fluffy bunny

Thistle has gotten ornery, yet oddly cooperative at the same time. He used to run right inside after three or four circuits of the yard when we’d chase him in, now he resists. He made Becky chase him around for hours the night before last. She eventually left him outside and went off to her appointment; he braved the raccoons and chupacabras and such in the dark until I got home later that evening.

… to feel that the light is a rabbit-light

In which everything is meant for you

And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself;

And east rushes west and west rushes down,

No matter. The grass is full

And full of yourself. The trees around are for you,

The whole of the wideness of night is for you,

A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.

— Wallace Stevens

He’s not been let outside since.

Contrariwise, he consents to handling much more readily once caught. It’s almost as if he secretly enjoys being held. He’ll relax, and relax, and sink into my arms… and then come to with a start and bite and scratch.

Fluffy Bunny!

This afternoon we climbed Eagle Peak, a ridge running north from the summit of Mount Diablo. I followed Becky up and up through head-high chamise and manzanita, past fragrant sage and crumbling rocks covered in lichen, up and up beneath oaks and pines shot through with mistletoe. We sweated and huffed and scrambled over steep rocky places with treacherous footing, traverses with just enough exposure to raise the hairs on the back of my acrophobic neck, though one would need to be somewhat persistent to actually plummet to one’s death from any particular point on the trail.

We reached the ridge crest and followed the trail south along it, a thousand-foot drop ten feet to either side. After an hour or two, we made the summit at 2,369 feet, about 1,800 more than we left at the truck.

We sat and drank, water and vantage point both. At our feet lay the head of Mitchell Canyon, 1,500 feet down. Beyond the Oakland Hills, The Bay, Mount Tamalpais, Japan. 

The sun arced lower; the shadow of our ridge crept upward in the valley to the east. A coyote, then two, then a half dozen started a chorus of lament. Becky turned to me. “They just got the election results.”

Out in the rain

Home with a cold today, I went out in the rain to shoo the rabbit back into the house. He was in the garden beds. The leaves were covered with glistening little droplets, reflecting gray sky.

In among the overgrown basil was a black and yellow Argiope.

It’s a relief of sorts. We had a few in the yard last year, but I hadn’t seen any so far this year. Turns out I just hadn’t been looking in the right place.

Thump

The kitten was abroad in the living room, and so was the rabbit. The rabbit was curious. It came nose to nose with the kitten. Something not dissimilar to a look of sudden recognition crossed Thistle’s face, and he dove under the coffee table.

Rabbits in distress will thump the ground hard with their back feet, and that’s what Thistle did. First time I’ve heard him do it. Rather loud.

The kitten wandered back into the living room several hours later, and that was enough. It was obvious to Thistle that the living room, and probably we as well, had betrayed him. Another half dozen thumps, and he ran for the office, wedged himself in a far corner under the recliner.

This from a rabbit who fearlessly chases a German Shepherd mix around the yard. The kitten is small and wobbly, not a little afraid of the rabbit, who could kick her across the street if he wanted to.

I coaxed Thistle out from under the chair, held him for a while, put him in his cage and petted him until he’d relaxed a little. Becky played violin to calm him. I walked down to the bay in the dark cool cricket night.

Gray morning

Someone has learned how to get up into the garden beds.

This is the kind of photo that people are always taking of me: looking awkward, stuffing my face with food. Although it’s usually not anything so healthful as parsley.

So far, he’s eaten only a few mouthsful of anything I’d rather eat myself, though he has developed a troubling interest in tomato leaves.

And talk about grubby old blankets: he’s been shedding his winter coat these last few weeks, and is looking somewhat disreputable.

Mornings have become my favorite part of the day of late. So far, the sun has failed to come out of its early morning fog. A morning spent working at the computer, and now it’s Time to Go Break a Sweat. I suppose I could rearrange some flagstone. Scrape some paint. Plant the flat of four-inch perennials I picked up two weeks ago. The outdoors calls.

Mobs

Look atop that pine up the hill: a red-shouldered hawk calls again and again, a bad seagull imitation attracting the nesting mockingbirds. Mockers are territorial when reproducing, aggressively so. They mob the young hawk, perturbing him slightly, and making one hell of a racket. Bothered by the fuss, a male Anna’s hummingbird starts chittering, strafing the mockingbirds as they in turn strafe the raptor. Eventually the hawk retreats, still cawing.

When we think about relationships among organisms at all, which is seldom enough, our thoughts tend toward the dyadic. Puma interacts with deer, by eating it. Male wolf challenges other male wolf. Aphid sinks drilling rig into Brussels sprout plant.  The notion that such relationships might be strongly influenced by a third organism, or a fourth or fifth one, is conceded and then swiftly forgotten.

This pairing of animals two by two serves the analytic mind well in its simplicity, but there are some interactions that defy such reduction.

Each morning I awake, turn on the coffee machine, then open the door to let Zeke and Thistle out to romp in the fenced backyard. I shower, check email, then spend some time with the animals in the garden before rounding them up and leaving for work.

It’s a slightly risky practice, leaving the rabbit out there all alone. Our neighborhood has its share of predators large enough to eat a small rabbit — barn owl, raccoons, feral cats and loose dogs. The white-tailed kites that daily pass over our yard are too small to carry away anything larger than a mouse, but there are red-shouldered hawks, and red-tails and sharp-shins, that could make relatively quick work of a rabbit Thistle’s size. So we don’t leave him out there alone for long, and we put Zeke out there with him, and we provide lots of hiding places — pots on their sides and the like.

A couple weeks ago I was making a third espresso when I heard a rasping scream from the yard. It took three hurried steps toward the door before I realized what I’d heard was not the agonized sound of a rabbit in extremis: it was something rawer, less piercing.

I burst through the door. Thistle, unharmed, was just diving beneath an Adirondack chair. Directly above, not four feet from my head, was that red-shouldered hawk. Talons extended, juvenile bars flashing on the underside of its tail, it wanted Thistle.

Zeke, it turned out, was no help at all. He is an old dog, thirteen and affable and slow, and animated mainly when playing tag with the rabbit. If the pretty bird wanted to join in the fun, who was Zeke to interfere?

As it happened, Thistle was saved by help from an unexpected quarter. Also above my head, countering the hawk move for move and darting just out of reach of its talons, was a crow. It had made the scream I’d heard from the kitchen: a raucous rebel yell of somewhat sadistic glee. He had been hanging around for days, watching Zeke from the oak with apparent fascination. Dog-watching that morning, the crow was on hand to harass the red-shoulder, saving Thistle from an agonizing, perhaps drawn out death.

How to reduce that interaction to its component pairs of animals? Take out any one player and the story ends very differently. Dissect the story into dyads and there is no story.

Except for this: the hawk took off. Thistle gladly accepted the shelter of his cage, stopped shivering, and started eating his morning carrot. Zeke wandered into the bedroom and dozed.

And I went back outside, to where the crow could see me from the perch to which it had withdrawn, atop the oak. It looked at me, let loose a few more of those cries that had made me drop my coffee.

It was just him and me now.

“Anything from this garden,” I said. “Anything you want, it’s yours. Bring your family.” The crow cawed twice more, fell silent for a moment, flew off.

Fraternizing

zekethistle

Zeke and Thistle have become very close. Each afternoon I come home, scratch Zeke’s head, put Thistle on the floor, open the back door, and the two of them trot out to the backyard to play together. The same thing happens in the mornings before I head off for work.

Some of what they do is straight predator-prey play, with Zeke chasing the bunny in erratic rabbit zig-zags behind the big blue pot, under the Adirondack chairs, around the windmill and back. Some of it is more clearly give and take, with Thistle darting away and then charging back at the dog. Always they stop, and some large noise inevitably happens, a truck backfiring or a helicopter flying overhead, we live in a city after all, and Thistle dives for cover between Zeke’s legs.

The rabbit seems familiar with dog mannerisms, the play bow with front legs splayed, the mock lunge with teeth bared at the playmate’s face. He darts away and then back, tilts his head at Zeke’s fangs as though he was a small dog and unafraid. I call Zeke to heel and Thistle hops obligingly behind him, infatuated.

And mostly they just spend time together, Zeke sniffing his usual rounds, Thistle rubbing various objects with his chin to claim them, desultorily nibbling a dandelion leaf or needle from the pine next door. Last night they lay on the lawn together, the white-crowned sparrows a few feet away calmly trimming the new lettuce plants in the garden.

Their friendship is unassuming and simple, and yet fills me with an odd joy. I watch them, sipping my Ardbeg in one of the Adirondacks, and my heart kicks its heels sideways and gallops off into the white clover. Come time to catch the rabbit and put him inside, and I’m not sure which one of us feels the greater disappointment.

Animals by which I have been bitten, annotated version

I’ve gotten enough questions about the previous post that I figured I’d better explicate a bit.

mosquito (several species), blackfly, horsefly What you’re assuming here is true. I was born in Upstate New York, flying pest country.

human One in particular. (Hi, Craig!)

cat, dog, flea (several species) No mystery here.

cow My dad’s older brother Jack was a dairy farmer. Still would be, if he had his way, I’m guessing. He runs a small engine shop on the outskirts of a small town now, but gets up early every day to milk someone else’s cows just to stay in practice. I stayed on his farm a few summers in the 1960s, and running unsupervised through the milking shed I apparently looked like plant material to one of his cows, who sampled my shirt sleeve and a small amount of skin. I wasn’t supposed to be in the shed by myself, and I don’t think I ever told anyone.

Eastern garter snake Caught near Cayuga Creek, and it didn’t want to come home with me.

Chinese praying mantis I utterly deserved this.

pavement ant Minding my own business, standing barefoot on a sidewalk.

blacknose dace, fathead minnow The skin lightly off my toes, immersed in the viscid waters of pre-Clean Water Act Cayuga Creek.

budgerigar It was my job to put them back in their cage after a morning of flying around my sister’s room.

sheep, goat Petting zoos.

guinea pig, hamster, gerbil Pets.

head louse Brought home from school by a sibling. (Hi, Craig!)

no-see-um

deer tick That was a great camping trip. Got lost in the woods in Virginia, snorkeled off early-1970s Miami Beach, stopped at Ross Allen’s Reptile Farm in Ocala-Silver Springs. Didn’t add gator to the list.

perch After a moonlight drive through the Badlands in South Dakota in 1983, Harold the German Tourist and I stopped in Mitchell for ham and eggs ($1.99). Four or five cups of coffee later, we recrossed the Missouri and headed into Iowa, found a rest stop with a pond, and while Harold worked the driving stress out of his shoulders I walked with plastic sandals on the fringes of the pond. It was a hot day. Ouch!

ensatina salamander Nothing to write home about.

Cuban tree frog Name of Julia, found on a stepladder in the nursery where I worked in Rockville Maryland. He’d (yes, yes, named Julia and male, so shoot me) come in with a load of tropical houseplants from nurseries in south Florida. I caught him in a coffee cup and ran across the street to buy a five-gallon aquarium, where he lived for the next five years. There are stories to tell about Julia traveling cross-country with Matthew and me, his aquarium in the passenger foot well of an overloaded Ford U-Haul pickup, or of feasting on the 17-year locust emergence his last summer in DC… but he once mistook my index finger for a cricket or something, and let me have it.

cedar waxwing I was rescuing it after it had been savaged by an outdoor cat. It didn’t mean to bite me, I suspect.

California newt Forgettable and gummy.

Indonesian garter snake Becky’s pet, Jaime. Jaime ate small live fish. Sometimes he had to be coaxed, and I would take a recently-demised fish by the tail and wiggle it in front of his nose. It usually worked as planned.

Norway rat Another pet. Good Old Fraida. She didn’t mean it.

dog tick, Argentine ant That’s just life in 21st century California.

hyacinth macaw In an Oakland pet store, the macaw was free range and a center of attention, and it decided it liked me very much. I spent twenty minutes longer than I had planned to in that store, waitiing for the bird to grow bored with me and hop off my shoulder. It didn’t. Eventually, needing to leave, and lacking the several thousand dollars I’d have needed to take Mr. Macaw home with me, I went to his roost and lightly bumped his breast against his perch, hoping he’d take the hint. Instead, he looked me in the eye, slowly, methodically bent his face down toward my shoulder, took a fairly large transsect of that shoulder between upper and lower mandible, and began, in ever so small increments, to squeeze. And. Didn’t. Stop. Until I yelled for the fourth time. And then he went back to his perch and yelled too.  The welt lasted for weeks.

steelhead Swimming in Dillon Creek, a clear and cold tributary of the Klamath River north of Somes Bar, my friend and I were finding gold and snakes. The snakes were flirtatious and swam always just to the next bar. The gold lay dormant under tons of sand. I found a deep pool and went in to my forehead. My toes immediately went completely numb. The minnows I’d seen from above the surface, seen without that interfering meniscus, proved to bear distinct parr marks up and down their sides — steelhead. I tried to catch them in my cupped hands, moviing as slowly as I could. One took exception.

horse A misdirected desire for carrots.

arboreal salamander He didn’t want to be relocated from the site of my small construction project.

California towhee Towhee came into my house a few years back, and battered herself against the window trying to get out. I took her in hand, and frightened her. This is uncharacteristic of the species: they are very easygoing birds.

rabbit Thistle gets neutered on Friday.