The Hummingwhale

Jennifer A. Connor, Writer

Tag: Puddles

Salamander Magnetism

Eastern Red-Spotted Newts’ Spring Frolic in the PA Woods

Video: Newt Greetings

When Page and I hike in to Bruce Lake in the Delaware State Forest we are welcomed by a host of salamanders, Eastern red-spotted newts, to be precise. They swish their frilly tails and dart over and under rocks and leaves in the sunny shallows of the lake edge. The trees that ring the shore are mostly still bare, with some clusters of hemlock and pine. Opposite us, the western end of the glacial lake thickens into still-brown reeds. One raft filled with a fishing family floats along under the brilliant blue sky, and other than that it is only us. Where we sit the underbrush shields the cove at our backs, and at our feet curves a few feet of pebbly shore. I lie across a flat sunny rock in order to get my face close to the surface. The clarity of the water sharpens the lines of the underwater world where gray, purple, quartz-white, rust-red, and slate-blue pebbles line the bottom and large rocks formed shelfs or roofs for the newts. At first they all disappear under rocks or under the skim of oak leaves and tree flowers and twigs. We wait. Eventually, one emerges to blow a single bubble at the surface like a kiss before changing direction rapidly in what looked like a swimmer’s turn, and then they all return, one at a time.

The tails of the newts are more flat than round, with tissue-y edges on the top and bottom. The tail-swishes are of endless variety. A couple examples: slow undulation, where the salamander is suspended just below the surface, barely moving limbs and toes, as the tail’s curves seamlessly and perfectly reverse themselves. Display mode: big, slow swishes with the tail doubling back on itself in deep folds like ribbon candy, and maybe candy is what the males are hoping they look like.

 

A greener salamander nips another’s tail and it zips away.  There is a large, darker-colored one with a more ragged tail curled up at the bottom, head under a twig and tucked into its side, wagging the tip of its tail like a dog. For a while they are all just floating, moving only as the water moves. We float too. I am sunning like a turtle on a rock and the only sounds, besides some faint highway sound from 84, are little birds rustling in the underbrush. Then, the action begins. The salamanders wrestle, two of them, while the others still float. The large salamander has come up from the bottom and is holding the green’s head with its hind legs. When green breaks free it looks like it is trying to nibble on the other one, and then its head gets grabbed again. They thrash around with big tail motion in the underwater. We can’t tell if they are fighting or mating. Later I read that the males lure other salamanders- largely female but some males too- with pheromones they release from under their tails. Then they grab them with their hind legs and while they have the other salamander in a headlock, they curl back and rub their faces together, a kind of salamander make-out session. Following this they disengage. The male drops a sperm packet into the water and the female may pick it up, or she may pick up one of the others, because the other males in the vicinity throw theirs in too in the hope that she will pick one of theirs up by mistake. Once she picks it up she will fertilize a few eggs, deposit them and leave.

Video: Nip and Chase

The salamanders in front of us have all gone back into lazy floating mode. It is mesmerizing to watch, inches from the upper surface of salamander-land, as they play and laze. In the open water with the sun on them they shine, as long as my finger, with spindly forearms and hind legs and delicate toes like pointed stars, and their stomachs bulge slightly: amphibian pot-bellies. They are green and dark green and saturated and mottled, with dark speckles that stand out especially on their tails. As I am peering in at one underneath a twig I am arrested by a sudden brilliance. The four tiny red dots along its side have caught the sun and are bearing their fierce redness at me, minuscule but striking. The spots have the precision of a laser and the coloring of fire-glow, and I suddenly see, in those red dots, another friend: the red eft.

I have sometimes crossed paths with the red eft, a magical forest denizen. The red eft is pretty common in the woods here, though I myself have not seen any on this trip. Their whole body is bright orangey-red and they motor through the vast forest terrain with tenacity. They are a glistening streak of color in an otherwise muted forest palette of rock, bark, moss and lichen, a tiny and perfect brush-stroke. Normally the eft stage lasts one to two years, and in that time, the eft seeks a new home before maturing and settling on one breeding ground. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that the efts are the newt teenagers- the juveniles- but it does astound me that if it so desires, the Eastern newt has the capability to skip this stage of metamorphosis entirely and go straight to a drab-toned adulthood, keeping only a remnant of red youth.

I have always been magnetically attracted to these creatures that are able  to sense the earth’s magnetic field and use it for navigation. They are like little compasses, and while they have several means of receptivity, one possible means includes a bio-accumulated presence of magnetite in their body. Scientists have tried to almost alchemically prove this through a salamander-reduction process and have been unable to offer a final proof either for or against the presence of ferromagnetic material. All they can say is that it seems likely, which seems like a poor profit to place against such research, no gold produced. It seems like it would be in keeping with their attributes, since they are overall such sensitive indicators of environment.

And speaking of a sensitive awareness of environment, towards the end I drop my phone in the lake. What do they think of that? Is it a Gods Must Be Crazy moment? Except, a coke bottle is probably more useful than a dead cell phone. Humanity has de-evolved. It is definitely a my-spouse-will-not-be-happy-with-me moment, although now weeks have passed, and guess what, spouse, who is just hearing about this for the first time: the phone still works! I didn’t even lose the salamander videos. Love you, baby. I am thrilled to the core of my being to have hung out with the salamanders, no less than when I was seven or nine and finding them in my backyard, before they disappeared. I haven’t seen one now in thirty years. Salamander as a symbolic messenger “beckons us to call upon our deepest internal resources to produce the development we require” and is a message that “there is never loss, and to seek out renewal whenever possible.” So, come on, humanity, myself included. That’s a hopeful message, in keeping their more obvious traits; playful, nimble, light-of-touch. They can point the way, with their little magnetic bodies, and we should pay attention.

Cairn Cove Poems

Cairn Cove Poems

 

When the Universe Tells You to Wake Up

-Wake up! I want you to know!

I awaken.

-I want to know. What is it?

-That’s what I want you to know.

Now go back to sleep.

 

 

 

 

More than Five

Shiro-yoku, forest bathing:

drinking in the forest through

all five senses.

She says: I want more than five.

Hiding

Hiding under a moss rock.

Hiding in a tear-shaped opening in the boll of a sapling.

Hiding in the knock of two sturdy branches.

Hiding in lichen on a boulder.

Hiding in a spore.

Hiding in a pinecone.

Hiding in muck.

Hiding under a brown leaf.

Hiding under a pebble.

Hiding inside a cracked acorn.

Hiding between two halves of a split stone.

Hiding between two mighty trunks of a conjoined tree.

Hiding in a log.

With all of these places to hide,

why are we so in the open?

It is because we can’t choose,

and leave a piece in each.

 

Youngster

Young hemlock waving its branches up and down

not so different from how the toddler goes, with a need to touch everything,    

was that you last night who

caught the glistening sky before it fell

and broke on the forest floor?

 

 

Pine Bath

I have pine in all my pores.

There are needles that have become caught in my clothes

and sap has glued my hair to my cheek.

I have a certain look in my eye

and bark flakes in my teeth.

People call me changed.

When I stand still I sway. When I lay, I fall.

I should use soap, take a shower, scrub harder,

I will, tomorrow,

but today,

one more pine bath.

 

All poems from residency at  Cairn Cove Retreat: surrounded by lake and woods, fed and led by savant/creatrix/caretaker Page.

The Hummingwhale

draws the most crowds on the harbor cruise,
pays no taxes,
browses flora and deep waters equally,
guards its young, sups on nectar,
bears clumsy grace delicately.

It can name five tragedies of youth lost
and shakes its finfeathers to soul and funk and
minuets.  It paints self-representations
by the bouganville.

Uncatalogued by Melville,
defiant, in fact, of the whole cetalogical-ornithological-industrial complex,
the hummingwhale whistles Dixie while empires burn, oil rigs and biochemistry experiments.
It can get in through a keyhole and then destroy every chimp cage within reach of its tail.

Evolutionarily speaking, it refuses to be mythologized,
opting out of the Bestiary of Magical Creatures
as well as its high-school yearbook.

Recruited by the mafia
it went underground
and developed love-interests and web-based social media networks.
Never caught, never seen,
when it finally resurfaced,
the world was gone.  Such a thing to lose.
The hummingwhale settled in for long unbroken years
and began to tattoo its entire body with its life story,
high points, lows, offspring legit and not,
herbology of; anatomy of mood, placing the universe,
illustrating in smaller and smaller modes,
dividing and subdividing infinitely,
always to find one more place,
one more division of space to fill.

by Jennifer A. Connor

2011

Snails: An Inventory

snailwhale3My apartment is covered in snails, likewise my bookshelf.  All that is missing is their tracks.  In the medicine cabinet in the morning a snail tells me: why hurry?  Two snails face each other by my typewriter.  In between them is a tiny music box that plays “What a Wonderful World.”  Lift them up, look at their foot, and read: Take your time.  On the corner of my desk a blue snail the size of a pencil eraser has been carrying a heart across the polished wooden plain for eons.

I have spent two recent birthdays fashioning snails out of clay with friends.  Now they line my sills and stand watch over my porch garden with its mini-rock garden and reflecting pool.  A shining glass snail guards the mantel, a gift from the boy at school whose cubby symbol is the snail.  In the play yard at school I crouch by the Black-Eyed Susans with small children.  We carefully reach into the densest, wettest, darkest undergrowth in search of snails.  One day a little girl brought me snail whose shell she had pried off out of curiosity and it died on my desk.  When I myself was young my mother and grandmother sang to me: Shellakie Shallakie Bookie, come out of your shell, the British are comin’ to get ye.  The snail here was the Irish resistance.  When my grandmother was little, the young men of her house and village had to disappear when authorities were rounding up suspected resistance fighters.  My grandfather, as a boy, had to help dig holes for them to hide in.

On my bookshelf the amazing, surprising Virginia Woolf short story on this subject; Gertrude Stein has something too within her voluminous works; and Lewis Thompson, in his The Medusa and the Snail, writes a disappointingly brief snail treatment.

tinydesksnail

When I first acknowledged a minor snail obsession I lived in the Bay Area where it practically rained snails.  We regularly rounded up the snails in the community garden and put them on Snail Island, a patch of grass where the only place to go was up the lone tree, not a natural place for an earth-loving creature unless they have that horrible snail-zombie disease where a parasite makes them climb a tree- I don’t like to think about it.  Clumps of them gathered forlornly on tree branches.  It was gardener versus snail but in looking back I find it kind of heartbreaking.

Now that I am living back in the east yellow nautilus shells collect in more reasonable numbers in the garden, a lovely gift to find.  I prefer to see them in spades rather than in droves.

Unless, of course, I go to snail world, as I just did.  On an amble in the city I found myself unexpectedly transported to an underwater realm of  miniscule industrious black snails, many young ones with just a beginner baby toenail of a shell and elders whose gnarled shells go round and round.  I look in from above and marvel at their mysterious and busy lives, lives which are entirely spent cleaning the fuzz from the mud and each other in a shallow puddle, on an abandoned dirt road, on the outskirts of the city, bordered by swamp and train tracks, none of which they will be cognizant of though they feel the thrum of the trains drum in their muscle-y bodies.

Cicadas hum in the row of stunted trees dividing road from swamp.  Here is snail world, over there, bird land.  In the distance the road finds its way to an abandoned warehouse.  Its other end parallels the tracks where they disappear under a bridge that is seamed with a broad pipeline.  On either side, everywhere, walls of chirping grasses that sway in the sun that beats down on us, the humidity that rolls over us, and even so, snail stays cool and dark in its secret world.

These puddles appear every ten feet.  Rather than being laid down on the road, they are like windows that have opened, dusty dirt shades all snapped up to reveal jewels, living pictures, in slow motion.

The next day I tell the children about snail world and they hang breathless on every word, as entranced as I was. They listen to a story about nothing, about a puddle in the road.  Then they go on to other things, and I do too.  Small children may have an affinity for microcosms, being ones themselves.  I forget the snails are all around me until they suddenly assert their presence again one morning- I don’t know why. I admit: I am in my own puddle.  Sometimes I don’t leave my two block radius, though at other times I fly far and wild.  I have dropped these little anchors, these earth-creatures, like sinkers on a lure, their one foot firmly tasting ground, and we are connected as though by invisible lines, although unlike those of  Lilliputians, theirs cannot pin me.  Instead, they use them to transmit their wise words and news of other worlds.

musicboxsnails

Heartbeat of the Whale, 1956

“Human hearts beat 50 to 90 times a minute.  But the heart of a large whale pumps very slowly- perhaps fewer than 10 times a minute.  No one knows exactly, for the pulse of earth’s most ponderous creature never has been taken satisfactorily.  To do so has been my dream of 40 years.”

So begins Paul Dudley White M.D., cardiologist to President Eisenhower, in his expedition account as published by National Geographic Magazine, 1956, a magazine that sat undisturbed in a shelf at my parents’ house for another twenty-five years after I brought it home from the middle school library. There were a few of us who sought refuge as library volunteers, and we spent hours sorting and discarding old magazines.  The National Geographics were the most favored, and we spent considerable time assembling personal collections of the most promising- for example, a photo essay on the personal effects of King Tut, an article on the desert-warriors of Oman including a photograph of a young Sufi boy skewering his own shoulder with a stiletto, and “Hunting the Heartbeat of the Whale.” National Geographic: a magazine of Otherization at a time when nearly everyone in the world was an Other.

I know for a fact that I saved it for the whale heartbeat article.  I know because I would do the same thing now.  It was a gift from my twelve year-old self to my present self, a twelve-year old self I have often disparaged, a self who proves wiser than I remember.

“..in setting forth with such an aim, we were really searching for the mysteries of the human heart.”

I do not think of 1956 as the Year of Plumbing the Mysteries of the Human Heart in America, nor was my thirteenth year such a time.  Some stories wait, encapsulated, to burst on the tongue and tell themselves.  Twenty-five years later I am caught again by Paul Dudley White’s forty-year dream, by the foolhardiness, the single-mindedness.  By the utter romanticism which will get me every time.

If I judge by this article, the science of the fifties was personal, poetically descriptive, schmaltzy.  I am invited in to the slow and powerful pulsing of the whale heart, perhaps ten beats a minute, sonorous, resonant.  I can imagine dancing to the pulse of the whale, and then the human, the hummingbird.  It is the dance of the whale heart that appears most beautiful this morning, the slowing and drawing out of the human gesture.

Here is a human gesture.  Paul Dudley White and team of scientists and engineers took their boat into a lagoon in Baja California to try to measure the heartbeat of the gray whale.  Thirteen men, several boats, cardiology instruments and several harpoons were on board an 83 foot expedition boat called the Dorado.  The Dorado and all thirteen men returned, but they paid their price.

“Medical science searches for deeper understanding of the heart, not only in quiet laboratories but in distant and dangerous places.”  Some would say, especially the romantics amongst us, that the heart itself is a difficult and dangerous place. I am either in search of a deeper understanding or in flight from it.  Sometimes just by standing still I can experience flight.  The story of the whale heart is not the story of love, except that it is.  I believe a forty-plus year story is a love story.  Even a twenty-five year story, a message from my former self: love.

“The whale charged into the keel, sheared off the rudder, bent the propeller, and left the fragile craft with a gaping hole smashed in the bottom.”

Yes.  It is most certainly a love story.

The whale who smashed their boat- which was the small craft being used for the actual operation, not the large boat- was a mother whale defending her calf.  The scientists had chosen the lagoon because it was calving season, and in the narrow and shallow waters the whales would have little room for evasion.  They would be backed into a corner.  The scientists believed that the wire barbs they shot into the gray whale’s flesh would “Inflict Little More Than Pinpricks.”  Here is a description they provide of the whale’s reaction to the pinprick: “The upright whale gave a massive shudder and fell away to one side in a white thrash of water.”  The whale then took off with all of their equipment in tow.

In some ways I see this story as bumbling, unqualified failure, a manly failure to live in the world as it is.  These men have missed/forgotten/failed to attend to some basic facts, such as:

  1. A mother whale will protect her calf at all costs.
  2. A barbed wire shot into a living creature causes pain and terror.
  3. A gray whale in flight is stronger than bits of wire and metal.

The mysteries of the heart, human or otherwise, are dependant on these basic realities that we live with.  They are powered by the heart, in fact.

Paul Dudley White writes, “We are not downhearted.  We had failed, but it was a profitable failure, for we knew now where our shortcomings lie.”  His solution involves better technology, helicopters, perseverance at all costs.

I envy his attitude.  I spent much of last year writing about how people construct their life stories and that of Quest has been the notable male narrative. Setbacks are simply part of the narrative, vital to it, in fact.  The elemental truths which may cause these setbacks are challenges to be overcome. I envy the perseverance, but not the disconnection.

I don’t read many stories of failures in the newspaper, in magazines.  I don’t think we tell those stories these days, possibly because our entire ecosystem is experiencing massive failures.  Maybe if I read scientific journals I would read more of them.  Paul Dudley White, MD renders an account of failure, epic if you throw in those forty years.  Recently I have been telling my own stories of forty-year failure, ungenerous in spirit.  He begins with the mystery. He has not left that behind, even though the beginning of his telling is simultaneous with the ending of his failed attempt. Can you still hear the slow pulse?  It has not stopped.

In 1916, forty years earlier, he saw a whale heart from the last whale caught by a whaling vessel from New Bedford, Massachusetts.  He describes the delicate tissues; the size would “overflow a bushel basket.”  Though he does not name it as such, this is the root of his story; Paul Dudley White MD meets Whale Heart.  New Bedford, 1916.

I take heart from this.  I eagerly read for failure, irregularity, and for the bones of the real world that hold me up.  I read for the normal abnormalities.  Parting words from the undaunted cardiologist: “What might seem at first glance to be a malfunction may be due merely to a heart larger than average.”

This essay is based on the article “Hunting the Heartbeat of a Whale,” written by Paul Dudley White, M.D., Samuel W. Matthews, and J. Baylor Roberts, as published in The National Geographic Magazine, July, 1956.  All quotes are excerpted from the article.

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