Archive for the ‘Gene Twaronite’s The Absurd Naturalist’ Category

  • The bellybutton man: A business fable

    By Gene Twaronite His only dream was to sell belly buttons. Admittedly, it was a difficult sell when there was no demand for the product. It was a long time ago, when people still came into the world with no belly buttons. Indeed, so long ago was it that people had not even learned to laugh. The only laughter in the land was from the hyena and the mocking call of the jubal bird. People still cried, however, and there was plenty to cry about. But you don’t need a belly button for crying. The world was filled with stony faces, streaked with tears. People went about their lives each day, performing their duties, and that was that. Things were either sad or not sad, with no in between. The salesman first heard about the invention from a sailor in the Weeping Dragon Tavern. With many drinks under his belt, the sailor slumped over the bar. Suddenly his shoulders began to convulse. He raised his head and looked at the salesman. The sailor’s mouth started to upturn in a most peculiar fashion. Then he broke out into a strange cry. It started with a series of high-pitched twitters that slowly rose in volume to something that sounded more like the grunts, howls, and choking sounds of some great beast. No one in the tavern had ever heard such a sound

  • In the cactus

    By Gene Twaronite In Australia, to be “in the cactus” refers to being in an awkward or uncomfortable predicament. The Aussies should know. They introduced several species of prickly pear that nearly took over the continent. A lot of people share this uncomfortable feeling toward cacti. All it takes is a little spine through the foot or a fall into a bed of cholla and some folks get all huffy. So what exactly is a cactus? A cactus is a succulent, a plant with fleshy stems to store water in an arid environment. But unlike other succulents — aloes and agaves, for example — a cactus lacks leaves. Well, most of them do. Members of the primitive cactus subfamily Pereskioideae do have leaves and, what’s more, they don’t even look like cacti. And some kinds of prickly pears and chollas have tiny or temporary leaves. The cactus family is full of exceptions. Actually you could say that all cacti do have leaves. It’s just that we don’t recognize them as such. This is because over a long period of time cactus leaves gradually evolved into spines. Those sharp, prickly things you love to touch are just modified leaves. Both the flowers and spines arise from a small cushiony structure called an areole — a kind of modified bud or shoot. Since no other plant possesses this structure, I could have

  • The case for animal gun rights

    By Gene Twaronite Photos from two different observers — the first recorded case in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho — clearly show an adult female wolf, armed with a .444 Marlin, shoot and kill an elk hunter with one clean shot to the head. Witnesses report that the hunter did not appear to suffer and that the wolf then nonchalantly slung the rifle over her shoulder and trotted off into the woods without a trace. In the days following the incident, social media was abuzz with questions and theories as to how the wolf came into possession of a weapon, not to mention how it learned to shoot. Yet, despite an all-out publicity campaign and statewide wolf hunt, the killer was never found. Meanwhile, other reports began streaming in from all over the country. In New York’s Adirondack Park, a group of hikers observed a deer using an AK-47 to fend off a pack of stray dogs. The most surprising thing about the incident, aside from the military precision with which the weapon was used, was the way the deer appeared to aim just below the feet of the dogs as if to frighten them, and that no dogs were injured. In another case, in Kentucky, a bobcat was photographed employing a .22 Winchester to dispatch a rabbit. The photographer, a zoologist from the local university, then observed the bobcat

  • How to choose the perfect plant

    By Gene Twaronite In finding the right plant you must keep in mind that there is no such thing as a bad plant, only bad choices. But how do you choose when there are so many thousands of possibilities? The first step is to assess your personality. Are you the kind of person who can really be trusted with a plant? Or are you the kind who goes into a restaurant and thinks that the fake plants are real and, worse, actually prefers them to live ones? If so, don’t even think about buying a plant. Assuming that you can be trusted, you need to determine how far you are willing to go with this. Are you looking for a one-night stand kind of relationship or a long-term commitment? Is your plant going to pine away in the lonely darkness for weeks at a time while you go out and have fun? Or are you willing to stand by it, in sickness and health, till death do you part? For those seeking a more casual affair, may I suggest a Sansevieria. Sometimes called a snake plant or mother-in-law’s tongue, this is the familiar houseplant often encountered in the darkest, dirtiest corner of your local saloon or barbershop. It is capable of surviving the most inhospitable conditions — under-watering, too little light, second hand smoke, disco music, and even nastier things

  • The war on packrats

    By Gene Twaronite How did it come to this? I never intended for it go this far. And now, with the war turning badly, I fear the worst. When we first moved into our little cabin in the hills, there was no hint of the troubles ahead. Yes, there were a few skirmishes with the local javelina and rabbit tribes, but it was nothing we couldn’t handle. Then we started noticing stuff: mysterious droppings and urine spots on the patio; piles of twigs and cones under every shrub and boulder; and inexplicable chew marks on the siding of our cabin. As I recall, it was when I discovered that one of our car’s front headlamps was out that things turned ominous. When I brought the car in for repair, I was in for a double shock. The mechanic informed me that the wires to the headlamp had been neatly severed, most likely by a packrat, which was apparently in the process of building a nest there. Then he handed me a bill for $200. I tried my best to take this philosophically, but when it happened again I knew the tiny gauntlet had been thrown down. When later I discovered a ziggurat-sized packrat nest behind our cabin, I knew there was no turning back. I must stand and fight. You wouldn’t think a creature with such a cute name —

  • The well-equipped naturalist

    By Gene Twaronite I have commented elsewhere on the need for naturalists to be well dressed whenever setting out into the field. It is no less important, however, to be properly equipped with the essential paraphernalia that will identify you as a working naturalist. Otherwise, you may run the risk of being picked up as a vagrant. Or worse. A lot depends on whether you plan to specialize in a certain area of natural history or prefer to be simply known as a GN — a generalized naturalist. A herpetology (reptile and amphibian) buff, for example, should always have a couple of cloth bags hanging from the belt in which to transport captured snakes or lizards and a snake hook or tongs, along with an assortment of plastic containers to hold frogs and salamanders as well as potato salad. Entomology (bug) enthusiasts, on the other hand, should always carry a butterfly net. Even if you’re not into bugs, there’s just something about a butterfly net which makes others take notice and lends just the right je ne sais quoi quality to your outfit. Bug people should also carry plenty of small bottles and some sort of killing jar, at the bottom of which is placed an absorbent material soaked with a chemical to asphyxiate insects. I am told that used foot pads work very nicely. All naturalists worth their salt

  • On getting rid of nature

    By Gene Twaronite As a naturalist, I’m supposed to study nature, though it’s hard to know where to start. It’s all so nebulous and confusing. So I propose that we get rid of nature completely. I am referring here, of course, to the word, not the thing itself. Despite the plethora of books published with smug titles such as “The End of Nature” and despite the efforts of dedicated despoilers around the globe, the complete termination of nature is nowhere near as easy as it sounds We all know what nature is. Or do we? Does your definition include slime molds? Bat ticks? Lizard scat? How about that disgusting sound Uncle Ralph makes after dinner? Or Uncle Ralph himself? Does it include time and the curvature of space? Quantum energy, quasars, and quesadillas? Does it include Big Bang, Big Bird, and bigamy? Suffice it to say, it is all these things and more — anything and everything in the entire known universe, not to mention all the unknown universes. One nice thing about being a naturalist is that you never need to worry about running out of material. Indeed, nature is material, and all the energy wrapped up in it. By now you have probably noted that I don’t capitalize the word nature. Those who do so are beyond hope. When we try to put a spin on nature, things

  • Gardening in difficult places

    By Gene Twaronite Gardening is always a challenge. Even in the mildest climates, with abundant rain, keeping our plants alive and looking good is no small achievement. But there are places in this world with such extreme limiting factors as to sorely test even the most determined gardener. Consider Antarctica. You wouldn’t think water would be a limiting factor there as the continent contains 70 percent of the world’s fresh water. Only problem: It’s frozen. There’s not a lot of soil, either. 99.68 percent of the land area is covered by an ice sheet. The mean summer temperature, by the way, is negative 30 degrees C — a considerable stretch for even the cold hardiest garden plants. Gardening on a live volcano also poses challenges. While volcanic soils can be quite fertile, gardeners should be advised to wait at least until the lava cools off and hardens a bit. Although a common roadside plant called noni is one of the first plants to colonize lava flow cracks around Mount Kilauea in Hawaii, no species of plant can tolerate molten rock (so far as we know). It’s also really tough on gardening shoes. Sometimes the challenge lies in a place not commonly thought of as a potential garden.  Sitting on a jetliner one day, I got to thinking about the depressingly boring landscape of its wings and why no one ever

  • For their own good

    By Gene Twaronite The last big extinction event was around 65 million years ago, when a giant asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs along with much of the rest of life on Earth. During the past few centuries, however, hundreds of species have vanished as a direct result of human activity, and the rate is accelerating. While not as messy or sudden as an asteroid, our hairy ape species seems hell-bent on creating the next big wave of extinctions. According to one source, the total number of species threatened with extinction is nearly 17,000. Since we still don’t even know how many species of plants and animals are on the planet — it could be 3 million or 10 million — this number likely represents a fraction of the true number. Some animals are so critically endangered that it’s hard to see how they’re going to make it. Take rhinos, for example. According to the website SaveTheRhino.Org, black rhinos have plummeted from an estimated population of 65,000 in 1970 to just 5,055 today. Asian species are even worse off with numbers only in the hundreds. But try telling this to the millions of people who still believe that powdered rhino horn can cure everything from cancer to foot fungus — despite there being not a shred of scientific evidence that it serves any medical purpose at all. Powdered rhino horn remains

  • Not-so-ghastly emanations

    By Gene Twaronite A writer must follow the truth wherever it might lead, even at the risk of losing self-respect. It was never my intention to write about this subject, but it is one that cannot be ignored. I speak here of a simple unit of speech that can never be spoken in polite company. Yet, it is a playful word that makes me smile whenever I say it. Ripping off the tongue in the same delightful way it emanates, it is much more fun to pronounce than other words of harsher sound and meaning that still intrude upon polite conversations. While it never made it into George Carlin’s famous “Seven Dirty Words” list, the word is still considered vulgar by Webster’s. It refers to the expulsion through the anus of intestinal gas or flatus. (Flatus, on the other hand, is perfectly acceptable to say in most social gatherings, though you don’t hear it a lot.) I find it curious that a word, whose alternate definition — “to break wind” — sounds almost poetic, could ever be labeled vulgar. Of course, the unspeakable readily becomes the butt of jokes. As Carlin noted, “Anything we all do — and never talk about — is funny.” Such jokes pale in comparison, however, to the actual physical process. Nothing can so up end a discussion and set people to tittering as the unexpected,

Celebrating art and science in Greater Prescott.

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