Tag Archives: Natural History

Mutualisms

“I know I’m getting a little romantic here, but I like to think of them as gardeners.” The National Park Service ranger was giving a lecture on the Clark’s Nutcracker, an ash-gray corvid with striking white and black wing and tail feathers. The birds have a special relationship (a “mutualism,” he said) with the Whitebark Pine which grows near tree-line in the higher parts of the Sierra Nevada. “You see, every Whitebark Pine in these mountains, every single one of them, was planted once upon a time by a Clark’s Nutcracker.”

The Whitebark’s cones do not open on their own. Its seeds are not spread by wind or fire. Only the Nutcracker can extract them. The bird will store between eighty and 100 seeds in its throat pouch and cache them away three or five or seven at a time in the shallow soil of rocky alpine slopes. A single nutcracker will make over 9,000 caches each year and retrieve the seeds in winter by memory. A fraction of these are forgotten, or intentionally spared, and so the Whitebark grows, wherever it grows, in clumps of between three and seven trees. When they mature, after some sixty or eighty years, they produce cones of their own to tempt the descendents of the Nutcracker that first planted them.

The ranger, a young man with a short beard and long hair and the earnest enthusiasm of a character from a Wes Anderson movie, drew the picture for us: Flying among the granite peaks and glacial valleys, the Clark’s Nutcracker surveys a landscape of very personal significance, not a wilderness but a family garden planted and tended by a thousand generations of his forebears, which he will tend in turn and leave for his children. Within his territory he knows, quite probably, every tree, every root.

From our campsite at Tuolumne Meadows (at an elevation of 8,600 feet), we made a day hike up to Elizabeth Lake (9,600 feet), just below the granite horn of Unicorn Peak. This was no mean feat with two children in tow, considering the gain in elevation and the thin air. But while lunching on salami, apples, and hard-boiled eggs, we saw the Whitebark growing in small patches of krummholz, trunks and branches weather-tortured into grim, Dantean statuary, all knees and elbows and twisted necks. And flapping away across the water we saw what could only have been a nutcracker, a crow-sized bird with flashing white patches visible at the distance of a quarter mile.

Back at camp, reading the old paperback I’d brought along (Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography), it occurred to me that if we can expand the definition of “tree” and consider books – made of wood pulp, after all – a sort of sub-species, then I am deep in an arboreal mutualism of my own. My library at home becomes a tended forest, inherited down a makeshift genealogy from those (readers and writers) who have come before me. The books themselves provide me necessary nourishment and I, in turn, propagate them through lending and recommendation, and by keeping them in fair enough shape to pass on while they still have fruit to bear.

Perhaps there’s a biological basis, then, and I’m not simply being a Luddite, for preferring real books printed on actual paper made of wood pulp over electronic books downloaded as digital files, to be read from a screen. Electronic books break the mutualism, sever the natural relationship, that we reading people have so long enjoyed. Some, I suppose, might see in the advent of the digital library a leap forward in the evolution of reading – another descent from the primordial trees onto the open savannah. I’ve always preferred the forest.

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A Domestic Bestiary


First there is the TABBY, seventeen years old, spry but of poor temper. She will tolerate petting for only a moment, then it’s nature red in tooth and claw. She has a restroom all her own while the four human residents of the house must share one between them. She eats nuggets of dry cat food one at a time, fishing them out of a bowl with her paw. After several minutes she will vomit up the mess and eat it a second time. She is a connoisseur of banana and cantaloupe, and of whistling.

Until recently, six EARTHWORMS lived in a styrofoam bowl kept in the refrigerator. This past week they moved to large plastic water bottle filled with alternating layers of soil and sand and capped off with wilting lettuce. Their life and habits will be studied by the children who have, so far, named only one of them (“Wormy”).

Since time immemorial, the daughter of the house has kept SNAILS. We have two of them now and neither one cares for arugula. One of our former snails managed to escape from his jar. He made a slow-motion midnight dash across the countertop undetected and was never seen again.

The occasional HOUSEFLY slips in the front door for the purpose of keeping yours truly from sleep until I’ve risen in my pajamas to stalk the intruder with bow and lantern. After a half-hour of desperate combat, by a lucky shot with a rubber band, the infiltrator is blasted to fragments. The smudge of his spent biography is wiped from the wall without remorse.

In the kitchen is a mason jar of very small GUPPIES. These are pretty fish with nervous manners. They sparkle somewhat in the afternoon light and move by a strange choreography: keeping still for a moment, making a quarter turn, keeping still, turning, etc. If they are worried, they’re right to be. These guppies are maintained in our home only to serve as food for

The baby GARTER SNAKE recently purchased for my son, which is proving itself as poor a sport as the household cat. Garter snakes, we were told at the pet shop, do not bite. This is a lie. “Edward Shoelace” hadn’t been at home with us for fifteen minutes when he bit my daughter hard enough to draw blood. Half the day and all night long, the little snake buries himself in the dirt of his terrarium.

Finally, on the windowsill by the record player we have a colony of SEA MONKEYS (which is a heraldic name for brine shrimp). These live in a state of utter savagery and dissolution, constantly engaged in acts of cannibalism and incest. Their colony was founded a year ago and untold generations have come and gone. The population fluctuates between two and eight adults. Children are hard to count since they’re so small on hatching and are generally eaten by their parents. The few that make it to adulthood are the most depraved and enter wholeheartedly into perpetual sexual congress with their siblings and feasting after the style of Kronos.

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Marginalia, no.218

Lichtenberg wrote of a man who “was working on a system of natural history in which he had classified the animals according to the shape of their excrement.” He singled out three categories: cylindrical, spherical, and cake-shaped.

~ Aldo Buzzi, Journey to the Land of the Flies

Rather than deciding once and for all what separates one species from another, Darwin emptied the word ‘species’ of much sense at all. A dividing-line ratio of genetic variation could be settled upon, I suppose, but if the boundaries between species are going to be arbitrary, then we might as well keep the taxonomy simple. Why burden ourselves with eight million species when we can have three instead? I can think of at least two recommendations for Lichtenberg’s friend’s scheme: by placing them in the same category it accounts for the similarities (speed, long legs, ear shape) between jackrabbits and horses; it also explains why people look so much like their dogs.

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