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28 September, 2010

Rattus Redux, or Eratication

So of course having written about them in a most accommodating way, calling a truce wherein they get to range everywhere except the house, I found rats trying to move in the day after the Rattus Amongus post. Saw one in the garage. OK, two.

It was silly of me to be so conciliatory, to write as if they would return the favor. Rats don't read, they watch Fox "news," and are no more prone to a 2-state solution than any other zealot pushing the settlement boundaries, expanding their lebensraum.

What to do?

Maybe history has a lesson. In the 80's, working on an old farm my uncle had bought (it was his bizarre wish to vacate the Front Range and retire to the Colorado-Kansas border country), my cousins and I went to war with rats, who had taken the place over. At first it was glorious: we shot them with 22s and a 20-gage shotgun, ripped their nests apart and burned them out, invited coyotes to hang out. One cousin threw a wrecking bar at one fat male darting around the compound, and creased its spine neatly from about 15 yards away. Another night, sick of hearing them run through the duct running the length of our trailer, I blasted one through the grate with an IID (improvised incendiary device, or a can of WD40 and a lighter). Another cousin made a rat stencil, and we would spraypaint kill markers on the side of the shed, like WWII pilots stenciling enemy planes on their own warbirds. I think we logged about 3 dozen confirmed kills.

Of course it probably didn't last. My uncle died, meaning a period of abandonment once again, during which time the rats moved back, bred like crazy, and ate all the leftovers. In retrospect, I'm pretty sure that the oldest cousin had encouraged the rat-war at least in part to keep me and his brother from killing each other. Sort-of like how Canadian provocateurs manage to keep both Red and Blue US states focused on wars in far-flung reaches, lest we explode near their poorly defended underbelly. Or worse yet, start thinking of conquest in the neighborhood.

And what if we had continued, instead of heading off to school in the fall? The eratication might have swerved from functional to completely recreational. We might have started shooting the cute bunnies (oh wait, that did happen a couple of times). Maybe elaborated, doing more than just tossing the bodies out to coyote land, taking time only to notice that the males always died with wee rat boners. (Oh wait, we did start chopping off tails and nailing them to the shed.) Another month or so, and we would have been sitting in near darkness, our compound surrounded by rat-heads on pikes, muttering "The horror...the horror."

Now that I have kids, I'm not sure I wanna go that route.

But also, I don't want rats in the house either. So, I guess I'll put out some traps. An air gun is tempting (assuming the neighbors wouldn't call the cops), especially since these critters have some pretty well-established runs and can be counted on to frequent certain spots: the juniper hedge, the compost, and other portals to their underworld. Also, it's a whole lot harder for them to adapt to a lead pellet in the head than to avoid a trap. (Question: Would I stick to the ethic that if you kill it, you should eat it? Answer: Not as long as I have a job.)

They might also be easier to exclude were I ever to dismount my high horse and do things like buy a compost tumbler instead of laying out a buffet, or maybe even surrender some of my biomass to the greenwaste collection program instead of putting piles of branches and other rodent cover out back. Maybe I should break down and get a high-strung killer terrier.

I love the mellow dog I already have too much to risk the poison route, besides which the prospect of breeding super-rats holds so little allure. The old snap-traps are not foolproof, but if they catch a few, so much the better, and at least we won't be infested with the stupidest of the lot.

Coordinated action would work best. Pick a week and have everyone in the neighborhood clean up, set out traps, and cut down those damn juniper hedges. But that makes too much sense. First of all, not too many people are shameless enough to admit that rats have the run of the place. And have you ever tried to convince grandmas that their bird feeders are really just rodent smorgasbords? They'd have to be forced. Only firm-handed socialism will save us from the rats, and even Olympia ain't ready for that.

23 September, 2010

The Wayning Days of Summer

My dad loved the first breath of Fall. One night snaps cool, and Dad could smell it coming. After months of Virginia heat, his was the harbinge he and everyone else welcomed: the crisp breeze, a cold heavy dew-morning, the sudden blush of a leaf. The promise of Autumn to make up for August.

But in the meantime, adore the warm days all the more. Watch the sun fall down, burrow underground and turn into carrots and taters, dazzle off waters and birds, and weave itself into spiderwebs. Knowing that the heat daze is nearing its end makes it bearable, the mind and soul awaken to search for more evidence of the coming coolness.

Like the nights. On clear evenings, with no cloud blanket to hold hot air next to the earth, the warmth dissipates rapidly. Cold sky seems clearer, the universe bigger. Dad's phrase for the sky on such nights was "tangible clarity," and I love that description, reserving it for nice nights like that and precious little else.

18 September, 2010

Rattus Amongus

Olympia has rats, or some kind of giant gerbil. My family concocts, consumes, and disposes of various euphemisms for these creatures. And no doubt they drag the remains back to their lairs.

And attempted lairs, like in the bottom of our trash can, where they chewed a channel through the bottom and started setting up house. The weird thing is that they brought a Cheeto bag from somewhere else. Which just goes to show: them critters have networks of runs from lair to food to water to the secret escape tunnel to...everywhere. I live in great habitat--enriched with the offal flow of a dense human population--and the most I can reasonably expect without major interspecies warfare is to keep them out of the house. When we moved in I literally had to mortar in places under the house to keep them from coming in via the fireplace.

Granted, our rodents are as adorable as they get: big soulful eyes, healthy clean fur, that perky hop-run they do across the moonlit yard, not too big,...they're not so bad. The girls shudder at the suggestion of just killing them. Poison could kill our dog and rats eventually figure out how to avoid every trap anyway, which over the course of a few of their generations puts you right back where you started, except with fitter rats. So as an archaeologist, I'd have to classify any period of rat-free existence I could achieve as "ephemeral."

Anyway, the rat population is what it is because of humans. They are commensal species with us, and when you have a 2-week trash pickup cycle and a large percentage of composters in a fecund climate with yards providing cover and food, they flourish. We create habitat, they fill it. Whenever I've excavated in sites where small bones can survive, some species or another of genus Rattus has been found. Polynesians ended up transporting them everywhere they sailed, to the extent that one of the ways used to recontstruct their ancient migrations is through comaprison of rat DNA on all the far-flungislands of the Pacific. Really.

What remains unknown is how a rat could survive in tight quarters, with a crew of humans you would think would be intent on guarding their food stores and all the planting materials destined to start life on a new island. Archaeologists in Polynesia argue about this all the time. One camp says rats are just good stowaways. The other side scoffs, and says they were alloowed to survive, maybe even intentionally brought along, because they are edible. Imagine that you are setting out to colonize an island with unknown food resources, but you pretty much know there are not going to be any land animals worth eating. Would you maybe bring along something that subsists on scraps and seeds, multiplies rapidly, and tastes good roasted on a stick? From a survival perspective, it makes a lot of sense. After a while, when you've got your pig operation rolling, you pretend you never ate rat.

But if you're not in the mood for roasted rat (or tarts, or sorbet, or any of those other Monty Python dishes), how exactly does this coevolution benefit humans? I mean, they poop in our food caches, chew holes in everything, harbor diseases,... Well first of all, don't be so damn simple-minded and literal. Species that live and evolve together don't typically have altruistic thoughts about each other--they just have to co-occupy the same space without making the other extinct. The Plague, in the cold light of evolution, only made the European human population stronger. Thanks for the favor, rat.

To find the benefit on a more immediate scale, set back your clock a century or so, before trash collection and widespread urbanization. You tossed rubbish over the fence or into a pit, where rats were maong the creatures and microbes that broke it all down. Rats are incessant gnawers and poopers (dropping 200 turds a day, I've read), so they must be a significant factor in soil formation around human settlements. Through several varied attempts at composting here, I dealt with rodent incursions; they would sneak in and haul off whatever they liked best. They even ate or drove away worms I'd bought for composting, the rat bastards. Eventually, I just opted for a bin on the ground, nothing to prevent their tunneling in. Now I throw in the scraps, and they disappear down the bottom, eventually to become dirt somewhere.

All those tunnels aerate said soil, and provide habitat for all sorts of other critters. And of course when the starving times come calling on the large bipeds, the rats start looking like food again...

So if I were somehow able to eliminate rats from the neighborhood, more stuff would either pile up here or end up in landfills. The soil wouldn't be as good, and seeds would not be so widely distributed within it. I'd have less protein in the end times.

And plus, I cannot help but wonder if, facing extinction, the rats would up the level of their activity from annoyance to truly fighting back. What if the rats, sensing real trouble, started to systematically attack our food supply? Or gnaw through our infrastructure, contaminate us and maximize their disease vector behaviors? Yeah, where would we be then?

It remainds me of that Charles Darwin quote, attributed by some to Stephen J. Gould, but in fact made up by me, "Once the rats figure out how to do agriculture, we are toast."

17 September, 2010

Oh Yeah

Now I know what I should have written about. No pretensions to understanding cultures or creating art, just this instant from last Monday:

The photos (last post) showed twin truncated pyramids: Tahoma's snowclad white and the hat richly reddened. But a while later, dancing done and guests seated around a large ring of tables, servers circling through, Plateau style, past water and salmon but maybe not yet to buffalo, three drummers from Chief Joseph's band. Their drums are not small, but neither are they adorned. Their buttery hides lit with the final sunrays of the day, threaded into the hall through the open door which pours forth dish after dish. Server's circuited round once more and picking up the next course, swooping round to another gyre, another animal and another plant feeding itself to the assembled.

The heartly beat, the drum-hides sunned, the salmon scent: that moment would last whether I wrote it or not.

What to Write

No idea.

I have this photo I like from this past week, with Salish girls dancing, their hats shaped like Tahoma, but about 50 miles closer.

But maybe, I like this one better. Is it the composition? The perfect dapple of sun on her hat, the face not shown? Maybe. But really it's the documentary aspect, the less-cropped shot revealing the field of vehicles, the inescapable petroleum footprint. I took a shot short of Art (but also of artifice), glimpsed some meta, was rewarded by an obliging sun.
That's the photos, but what to write?
One thing I could write is why these girls are dancing, where, and so on. But no, I know too little. They are Nisqually Tribe members, and they are dancing for a crowd before a dinner and potlatch. I could go all anthro here, or worse yet writerly, but the fact is this was only the third tribal event I've been to, and who the hell am I to hold forth when I am but a freakin' infant in the world of which I would write? Same exact conclusion as I came to in 1991, having been in Hawai'i a year and realized that my dream of a year prior, of becoming a freelance writer, of doing articles on Hawaiian culture, that was a bullshit dream. No better really than Dan's plan of moving to Jamaica and editing one of their newspapers for them because he liked to smoke pot and was an offpring of Jewish NYC intelligencia (his dad wrote the screenplay for "Star 80" and grew up in Brooklyn, whereas Dan grew up in a rural NJ farmhouse).
So no. I won't give you some bogus insight on the culture of the People of the Grass (which is what Nisqually or Squally-absch people translate to in English), a factoid I include for those of you uninclined to surf off to their website where I found it.
So yeah. No good idea of what to write. Good night.

Shallow Space Travel

The other day I subjected my older child to Planet of the Apes, the original (1967 or 68, depending on your source), the Hestonian dystopia (Hestopia?), the ... uh, movie. Yeah. I'm film illiterate.

The point is that the kid needs some education regarding the crazy culture I grew up in, totally alien to this 21st century progeny. I mean, when I was a kid people were racist and new technological frontiers kept expanding and the US was mired in a war that dragged on nearly as far as this IED-laced road to Nowhere, Afghanistan we're on now and uh...

Yeah, completely different.

Sarcasm is not taught in schools, except by often ill-disciplined student prodegies and wannabes. So I have to home school, but I'm not really turned on at the prospect of the religious curricula, which I consider to be merely snide, sarcasm turned weak and mean, like an aged chihuahua from a bad home. Besides, who wants to pay their prices?

Kindof with Mystery Science Theater in mind, I pulled up a couple comfy chairs and started the flick. Heston in a suaved-out swagger on the bridge of a Spaceship, a cynical antihero who doesn't let some pinhead back at Command tell him he cannot smoke a cigar in a pure Oxygen environment. Then he shoots up and the movie begins.

But before that, think back to when I was talking about having the teach Sarcasm 201 (she placed out of Intro without batting an eye, just those slack lids and the teeniest of eyebrow lifts). One great technique is the Training Film, liberally basted with audience comments. There were some Archaeology Training Films that shaped who I am. Platoon (imparting the proper sense of doom, leavened with the fun of stalking through the jungle and giving hand signals), Indiana Jones (learning to say "That belongs in a Museum!" with conviction, and at other times a series upon which sarcasm is to be heaped), Predator (cannot remember why, probably because of swampy jungles and the dude's cool dreadlocks), and so on.

To Planet of the Apes, featuring Cornelius, an archaeologist-hero who clearly knows his methodology better than Indy and has respect for human remains. Not only that, but he's a staunch evolutionist and is romantically involved with Dr. Zira; together, they defend science from the ruling cadre of light-skinned religious bigots. They seek Truth, and my beef is not with them.

It's with Heston. Always with Heston. And maybe too it's just fun to make fun of decades-old effects and stuff like the sudden pointless zooms that punctuate the movie (I kept expecting it to cut to commercial). Oh, and of course the Ape technology. They can do brain surgery and make functional guns, but their means of capturing humans is the Crudely Woven Net, available in sizes large enough to be effective (the trip-wired net fences that I'm pretty sure they stole from Marlin Perkins), but usually deployed awkwardly between two horse-riding Gestape-o, invariably in a size too small to entangle a large biped.

The Planet of the Apes is geographically interesting, too. They land in a lake ringed by the telltale white stains of a drawdown, evidence that the lake is impounded behind a major hydroelectric dam, yet there are no power lines in the whole movie.

What there are are footprints, on the sands before them in several Forbidden Zone scenes. Because nobody has been there in 1200 years or so, they must be fossils, remnants of the last people stupid enough to abandon a lake full of water to strike out aimlessly through the desert in white patent leather boots with back packs full of useful things like test tubes containing pink sand. More sand. In a desert where you banished yourself. Sarcasm.

On the more local scale, there's the big boulder inexplicably rolling down a hill at them, after which they rest, beneath another precariously balanced boulder! Heston is the best captain ever. Yeah.

History lessons can be drawn from this flick as well. The casting is a window on the 1960's that era of upheaval and promise, change and retrenchment. I'm sure that including among the astronauts a woman and what were then called Negroes (one of the sequels has a character by that name, in case you have doubts) gave the writers a warm fuzzy feeling, but consider what their roles were. The woman has been brought because the uterus would die witrhout her. Cap'n Heston briefly mourns the passing with the creepy "She was to be our Eve," although the idea of repopulating with 3 guys and one girl instead of the other way around is a recipe for at least one murder. Then of course the female lead for the rest of the movie is the perfect woman in Hollywood terms: enamored with the hero, mute, and scantily clad sexy body topped by a great head of hair (legs and armpits shaved, though she acts amazed that Heston can shave).

The one black guy in the movie, although clearly the smartest of the survivors, is given every bit of work that happens. Need someone to climb up and flip an important switch inexplicably located at the other end of the sinking ship? He'll do it. Test the new planet's soil, or run ahead and find the path while everyone else jawbones about their egos? Call on the Negro. Somebody need to get killed to establish the apes' disregard for human life (only to later appear as a museum specimen, suggesting that they have some scientific curiosity)? Perfect job for a Negro in 1967. Or 1968.

And through it all, Hestonian machismo. The derision for his lesser crew. The violent attempts to grab paper from Dr. Zira instead of just pantomiming or gently reaching out. The insults hurled at his captors. The only break in his mindless macho posturing is his obvious homosexuality. That's pretty much the only explanation for why he would order his man-crew to strip naked and cavort in the water (check out the scene where they stand together looking at each others peni), then indulges in a diva-ish strip of his own under the gushing white waterfall. I have it on good authority that Chuck got so deep into this aspect of the role that he insisted the film be the first to show several naked men, but no naked women. Groundbreaking. And if you doubt my conclusions about his gender, consider this: even if the ape scientists only gave me a mate because they are horny voyeurs, I'd have started repopulating immediately, but Chuck barely touches her, even when he hears he's about to be gelded. Maybe he'd planned on ordering the Negro to start breeding the new human race, but in 1967 (or 1968) even science fiction frowned on interracial relationships. Ergo our current president's childhood diaspora.

So, having looped around to the present again, I should consider stopping, or surrender to another gyre over that ridiculous planet. Rich grounds for smartassery and sarcasm, but I think I'll just have to step away for now...

11 September, 2010

Sherman Pass

Memory outlasts individuals. Sometimes it becomes history, even myth. Depending on where you grew up, the mythistory of General Sherman is one of crusader or terrorist. This has to do with the American Civil War, but his shadow darkens other places as well--commemoratively on a Californian tree and a NW mountain pass, and bloodily on Indian Country.

My grandmother lived in Cheraw, SC, the last town burned and looted on Sherman's march. Some histories say he'd not intended this to happen, but nobody stopped it and he didn't apologize, pay off the victims, or help them rebuild. Many histories take pains to point out that his famed pillagatory sweep was basically just property damage, that he didn't slaughter civilians, and that destroying infrastructure, fields, livestock, and food stores was just a military action. Or a just military action, or some such bullshit. But the fact is that when you make the food disappear, people starve. Some survive, but it takes years to rebuild, decades to recover, and generations to forget (or not, as this entry suggests).

This uncivil campaign was not an isolated event, either in the history of the civil war, or US Army annals, or even Sherman's career. General Sheridan, like many Union generals a noted wimp, laid waste to the Shenandoah Valley in between carefully chosen mismatches and retreats; like the Nazis, he kept meticulous records of his destruction, even used them to brag. Oh, sick irony. Both of these guys proved that you can win, and win big, with the following assholish strategy: avoid engaging the enemy army, vandalize property, and waste food.

Both of them took their Sher-fire methods on the road after the war, too. [The most famous of their minions to get his due, George Custer, had also honed his warcraft in the Shenandoah burning out civilians.] Sherman commanded forces whose goal was to rid Indian Country of Indians. As before, he favored chickenshit tactics like attacking weakened winter encampments, or killing buffalo to starve out the enemy. Unlike before, when the southerners they were fighting at least bore them some resemblance, both men approved of slaughtering civilians once they got into the territories. So this boy named Tecumseh by a father who had admired that native leader grew into a man who ordered other natives killed off like so many southern livestock. Sicker irony.

By the time Sherman was rewarded with command of the entire US Army, the killing was mostly done in the south and west. I think was during this time that things began to be named for him, including that giant sequioa in California and the pass in Washington.

I drove through that pass last week, and the landscape echoed Sherman's experience. Heading east from Tonasket, Route 20 is dotted with abandoned cabins in a lands wrested from the tribal reservations after, yep, gold was discovered in them thar hills. (Prior to the Civil War, Sherman's claim to fame had been providing military order over the northern California gold rush.) Climbing closer to the pass, sick trees become more and more common. Blame it on introduced pests or on the global warming wrought by an American that industrialized evermore since the 1860s military requirements, but the sick forest is at least partly a legacy of manifestly stupid destiny. Then, reaching the highlands, a final poignant reminder for those not willing to stretch the links so far as I do: burnt forest. No, Sherman didn't light the match, but the fact that the road leading to the pass named for  a famed pyromaniac leads through skeletons burnt black or bleached white after the "White Mountain Fire" was sick irony aplenty.

Ahhh...heroes, they make me throw up in my mouth a little.