Tuesday, September 26, 2006

What They Do!

Well, they’ smilin’ in yo’ face.
All th’ time dey wanna take yo’ place.

The animals.

All of my pals and relatives know that I have a unique way of looking at the critter world. The animals that co-populate the Earth with us in ever-shrinking numbers as we squeeze them out of their habitats as we move ever and ever into more and more living space.

I’m not sure, exactly, whence my feelings about the other creatures of this planet. I like to blame Ernest Thompson Seton, who wrote so well and so sympathetically of the lives of the hunted. One of his greatest works is entitled Wild Animals I Have Known. Known. Not “seen”. Or “killed” (although he did kill them, from time to time). Or he could have used the word “witnessed”, or some similar term. But he didn’t do this. He knew these wild animals. The way you might know a person you meet. He elevated animals to the level of humans. That always stuck with me, even though I was probably only eight or nine years old the first time I encountered his work.

When I see an animal, I wonder what they’re thinking or feeling. Most people look upon almost all animals as some kind of automaton; pre-programmed by genetics to do a specific thing at a specific time under a certain stimulus. Well, one could argue that about Homo sapiens, but it wouldn’t fly. I’ve watched animals doing things that took conscious thought and decision-making abilities. And I’ve seen emotions in animals. Fear, of course. And aggression. But sadness, too.

So on my recent vacation, as with almost all of my vacation, I look for animals. I like to see them, to know that they’re still there in some numbers. They reassure me that we haven’t quite destroyed all of their homes and all of the habitat necessary for their continued survival. I like to see them as they go about their lives, which are often far more detailed than most could imagine.

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We encountered the usual suspects on this trip. Because we were in a bird sanctuary, we saw a lot of birds of many types. Storks, and ibises, and cranes, and gulls, and terns, and raptors, and pelicans, and so on. We saw quite a number of alligators. We happened across a mink as he was hunting along the edge of the bay one afternoon. He looked back at us for a time and let us get quite close before he decided we might pose something of a threat and he vanished from our sight so quickly he might have been a passing shadow.

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All of these creatures that we watched were rather larger, more complex animals. Birds, and reptiles, and mammals. The familiar trio. But on our last night of vacation, we decided to tramp out onto the beach late at night to see what was there. We hiked out in the cool far away from the campground and found a spot at the edge of the dunes, sat down, and waited. The night was very dark (no moon), and the breeze was blowing briskly off the sea. Every so often we would switch on the flashlight we’d brought along and shine it up and down the beach, looking for something to see.

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After some time, we did see something. A small, pale form appeared far down to our left. Something about the size of my fist. I immediately recognized it as a ghost crab. We turned off the light and waited for a bit. Shining the light again, we saw that he had moved closer to us, closing the distance between him and us from about fifty feet to thirty feet. Mainly, ghost crabs run like Hell when they spy a human. For some reason, this one was coming closer to us.

We waited a couple more minutes and turned the light on again. This time, we caught him in movement and he froze. He was now about twelve feet away and he was definitely coming to us. There were miles of beach and many yards of territory that would have taken him far from us, and yet he was actually moving closer to this pair of giant naked apes. He certainly wasn’t acting like any ghost crab I’ve ever seen.

Once more, we turned off the light for a few minutes, and then turned it back on.

The little fellow was less than two feet away from us; his eyestalks fully emerged from his carapace as he checked us out. I’d never thought of a crustacean or something of that order as having any kind of feeling beyond pain or hunger. But here this little guy was, exhibiting what I can only call…


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As I said, I’ve always had a way of looking at the wild world that’s always seemed slightly askew from most people I know. And I reckon I’m just a little more askew after this encounter than I was before it. Because I’m convinced this “brainless” little ghost crab just wanted to know what the hell two huge mammals were doing on his beach at this hour of the night when the sands were supposed to belong to him and his fellows. (Or she and her ladies, as the case may certainly have been.)

A curious ghost crab.

One more ghost for the blog.

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