Bugs Around Pennsylvania

While hiking around the hillsides in northeastern Pennsylvania today I came across the following bugs.

Praying mantis, Franklin Hill, Montrose, Pennsylvania, 24 September 2011

I’ve always found the praying mantis a fascinating insect because it seems like such an alien outlier. It’s body layout seems like a grasshopper, locust, cicada, etc., but it is predatory. And so viscous with those spiked forearms. And the strange mismatch between how delicate their head and thorax are versus how all-consuming their mandibles are.

For all the fascination they carry for me, I have never seen one outside the frame of a television documentary until this week when I saw one crawling up an apartment window on Wednesday night and this guy today. I want to harass them more thoroughly, but I have no idea how tame or dangerous they are. They seem so ravenous in the documentaries that I fear if I were to get my finger too close, he would have me cinched between his spiky forearms and a few stitches worth of torn flesh inflicted by his horrible mandibles before I could shout and shake him off.

But enough of insect brutality, now for sweet insect romance, like two monarch butterflys fucking.

Monarch butterflys mating, Franklin Hill, Montrose, Pennsylvania, 24 September 2011

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Super Macro

My present favorite feature on my Canon PowerShot SX200IS is the Super Macro setting available under manual mode. It’s really got me playing National Geographic photographer.

A frog, Richter farm, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, 13 September 2009

13 September 2009, Richter farm, Pennsylvania, a frog with whom I crossed paths far from the pond and who was all hopped out by the time he made it back to safety.

Honeybees amidst the goldenrod, Richter farm, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, 13 September 2009

13 September 2009, Richter farm, Pennsylvania, honeybees amidst the goldenrod of the fields.

Okay, Okay, I’ll Say Something Nice About D.C., Pt. II

Exuviae of a pupal annual cicada in the back yard, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 27 August 2009

Okay, so I titled part I of “Okay, Okay, I’ll Say Something Nice About D.C.” as a part I, clearly indicating an as-yet-to-come part II. So now for the second nice thing I can say about Washington, D.C.

The second thing I really like about Washington, D.C. is the cicadas. The cicadas are part of a larger phenomenon of the District’s being environmentally a Southern city. The sweltering, energy-sapping heat of summer, the omnipresent sense of dank decay, the encroaching vegetation, the hot smell of rotting organic things, the storied and usually bloodied geography. I sometimes feel like I live in a Flannery O’Connor or a Carson McCullers novel.

I have listed tactile, thermoceptic, olfactive and neural aspects of this Southern sense. The cicadas are the primary aspect of aural Southern-ness.

Exuviae of a pupal annual cicada in the back yard, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 27 August 2009

The amazing thing about cicadas is how improbably powerful they are. They sound more like a cyclotron or a tesla coil powering down than a natural creature. Pity the person who ends up with one camped out right outside their window blasting their amorous bug love song like the U.S. military trying to blast Manuel Noriega from the Vatican embassy.

There are individual bugs, then there is the entire population of cicadas in chorus. Up in my neighborhood they are so loud that you have to raise your voice to be heard outside. I don’t know whether it’s variance across species, or across individual bugs, or song phase, but when you get a lot of them together you can hear all different periods and amplitudes in their harmonics. And then the scores of different harmonics meld into a region-spanning, undulating wall of cicada sound of a sort that might induce seizures in certain youngsters susceptible to high-frequency stimulation. The omnipresent insistence of such a non-human activity makes it easy for one’s imagination to run away to visions of a primitive Potomac river valley untrammeled by human activity. Our stupid brick piles and asphalt pathways temporary intrusions on eternal nature.

Southernness is, among other things, a certain type of relation to nature.

The pictures above are the exuviae of a pupal annual cicada found tacked to a post in my backyard. My first year in D.C., a year of the seventeen-year cicadas, it seemed like these things were hanging everyplace. These pictures were taken with just a point-and-shoot, specifically my Canon PowerShot SX200 using the Super Macro setting.

Consider the Hermit Crab

À la David Foster Wallace’s famous essay, “Consider the Lobster” — published in Gourmet of all places (August 2004) — new research shows that hermit crabs experience pain, remember it, can recognize and take steps to avoid future encounters of a similar kind (“Crabs ‘Sense and Remember Pain’,” BBC, 27 March 2009). The full research report is:

Elwood, Bob and Mirjam Appel, “Pain Experience in Hermit Crabs?,” Animal Behaviour, vol. 77, no. 5, May 2009, pp. TBD, doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.01.028.

I’m a vegetarian so of course I find the practice of boiling crustaceans alive disturbing — and have since the first time I witnessed the gruesome spectacle at about the age of eight or ten. Nevertheless, I find Professor Elwood’s characterization of the practice as “potentially very large problem” to be bizarre. “Problems” have no objective existence. A “problem” is an issue of perspective. It would seem that, say, 5,000 years and trillions of boiled crustaceans into the practice of cooking arthropods alive, it’s a little late to declare it a “potentially very large problem.” An ethical lapse is only “a problem” if the perpetrator runs afoul someone who objects and is in sufficient a position of power to do something about it. Unless we wake up in the antechamber of the afterlife and it turns out that the correct answer was Hinduism, or unless it turns out that Yahweh takes seriously that bit in Isaiah about wolves and lambs lying down together (11:6-9), or unless we vegetarians establish a GULAG and declare universal jurisdiction for crims against animals then there is no problem here — at least not for the humans.

Group Proprioception Goes Interspecies

Some Seattle artist and I aren’t the only ones who think your pet should be life logging: the British government does too. Reading University has been commissioned to conduct a study of how much wildlife is being destroyed by domestic cats (McKie, Robin, “Special Tags to Measure How Often Cats Kill,” The Observer, 15 February 2009):

“For the first time, cats will be fitted with data loggers that will show their movements, range and behaviour 24 hours a day. We will know when one kills an animal — typically by the way it plays with its prey.

“We will then be able to work out precisely how many animals a cat is killing every year, and from that estimate a national figure. It will be a pretty formidable number.”

Now if they could just get some sort of pattern recognition software to read the live GPS data stream coming off your cat and tweet his kills to your cell phone, then your cat would be twittering too.

Life Logging: Not Just for Human Life Anymore

Not only should you be thinking about life logging, but you should also be thinking about it for your pet (Chansanchai, Athima, “Cooper the Cat Shows His Stuff in Photo Exhibit,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 13 February 2009):

For this Seattle cat, photography is his medium, a gift from his “parents” — filmmakers Michael and Deirdre Cross, who gave him a very small and light digital camera that hung from his collar one day a week for a year. It was programmed to take a picture every two minutes.

They wanted the answer to a question many pet lovers have asked themselves: What does he do all day?

He came back with thousands of answers — 16 of which are framed and on display at the Urban Light Studios in the Greenwood Collective. The exhibit opens with a reception tonight as part of the Greenwood Art Walk. The show runs through March 10.

Cooper the cat photographer has a blog dedicated to his exploits at http://cooper-catphotographer.blogspot.com/.

And while you’re at it, you may want to survey your environment for any particularly interesting non-living things, appliances, informational or gameworld agents, et cetera whose activities you might want to see in your FaceBook feed.

Update, 15 September 2011: Cooper the cat photographer’s blog has been relocated. It can now be found at http://www.photographercat.com/.

The Squirrel Path of Naigedajo

Koike, Kazuo and Goseki Kojima, Lone Wolf and Cub, issue 3, The Gateless Barrier, July 1987, p. 39

Before I leave the issue of animals, I guess one more observation.

Our cat is an indoor cat and I like to torment him by enticing the squirrels into the backyard. I leave a trail of nuts along the top of the fence and the cat sits in the window despairing to bury his fangs into the throats of one of those rodents. And for their part, the squirrels love it. They dance and cavort outside the window, just inches from the cat. But there’s more to it than nabbing the nuts with impunity. The squirrels seem to revel in braving death. They will take up position on the fence and lock themselves into some mental faceoff with the cat, the most ready human analog that comes to mind is the contest of will between pitcher and batter in a baseball game (only with death on the line). They stair intently at each other. After a period of fixed stillness, they both begin to twitch their tails in some sort of converging harmonic. There’s this elaborate dance — a dance of death, if you will.

What is surprising to me is the utter level of clumsiness that seems to be effective for a predator. A predator doesn’t have to get the drop on their prey. Frequently enough, prey spot predator and seem to have some sort of prey behavior where they recognize and accept their prey destiny. It’s enough to make me believe in the Inuit practice of killing only the whale that an elder has confirmed has given itself willingly to the village. It’s like Freud’s death drive already present in some common ancestor.

Alternately, last week S. and I were sitting in the back yard and a regular outdoor cat who works a circuit up and down the alley of our block made a stop at our place. The nuts were out and so were the squirrels and I braced myself to intervene to save one of the creatures that I had enticed into harm’s way. The cat leapt up to the fencerail. The squirrels scattered, except one who stood his ground less than a foot away from the cat. This is a tough, gristly, street-smart black cat. He was prone for the kill. We could see the tension for the pounce build in his body. But this squirrel didn’t back down. They stared at each other and both did the tail routine. But after a few minutes of this psychic altercation, the cat relaxed into a submissive position. The squirrel won the faceoff through some means entirely invisible.

I acquired all of my knowledge of Zen Buddhism, Bushido and Kendo as a pre-teen through an intense study of Lone Wolf and Cub comics. And intense study is how I would characterize my interest in these books. To this day I still find occasion to break out some concept or bit of wisdom gleaned back then. In issue three of this most conceptual story, Itto Ogami is hired by town politicians to assassinate a local radical Buddhist priest who is militating for the peasants. When he finds that he cannot deliver the killing blow, the monk counsels Mr. Ogami on why he cannot:

That which is not … cannot be slain. You cannot kill me for I am a leaf of Naigedajo. Forget the self and unite with Mu, Nothingness.

To kill a man, you must first project the aura of death. Your opponent reciprocates, projecting his aura of death — or perhaps an aura of fear. Thus united can you wield the sword. This is Mu. But if no aura opposes yours … that which you project rebounds upon you. It is impossible to make such a cut. If you force yourself, you yourself will be cut.

Like Sensei Splinter, I think that squirrel must walk the gateless path of Naigedajo.