Hawk and Drone

We all do it. At some point in our readings of Henry Thoreau, we begin to imagine his life beyond its span. And then it isn’t long before we bring him to our neighborhood and our time. “What would Henry make of that?” we wonder. And then we wonder if we said it aloud.

This morning over coffee – yes, unnatural stimulant; water should do as elixir, I know – I wondered what Henry would make of a short clip I watched on boston.com. (I’ve put in the link below.) I’ll leave aside the whole discussion of watching life from remove for a while, and simply wonder about one of the “actors” in the clip.

The 40-second clip opens with an aerial view of an urban setting. The camera, borne aloft by a drone (quadcopter, it’s called) looks down over some hard-used playing fields by a river. The viewer suspects the drone’s ‘human companion’ is somewhere below on the playing fields.

A hawk soars by and appears to take an interest in what’s sharing his airspace. Effortlessly he veers its way; then, there’s the approach: still simply soaring, the hawk arrows in, at one point tilting his wings nearly 90 degrees to maneuver. He grows larger in the lens; the sky become hawk. Just so, if you were a duck. A few yards away, the hawk switches to talons first, flaring his wings. “Contact,” as Henry would say. “Contact.”

The drone begins to tumble down. Its camera catches the hawk lifting away. Then the drone is on the ground, the playground. Fittingly, the drone lands upside down, its world inverted.

Aside from reveling in the hawk’s takedown of what promises to be another noxious invention, what would Henry make of this moment?

One suspects a complicated response (including appreciation for the mechanics and optics of the drone), ending perhaps with a simple injunction: be wary of what distances you from the world.

Flying drones is an extension of the model airplanes that used to drone endlessly over the fields next to my boyhood house. Stuck on the field below, kids dreamed of flight, perhaps of becoming pilots, joining themselves to the long skein of bird-enviers in our race. But, of course, they had to use their imaginations to get a plane’s-eye view of our neighborhood.

Drones with their cameras change that. They take our eyes and mind where we can’t be, but, in doing so, they make us less aware of where we are. All our inventions that remove us from contact with what we see and sense pull us too from life. Our immersion in what isn’t would worry Henry, I think.

Here’s the link; see for yourself and let us know what you think: http://www.boston.com/news/2014/10/10/hawk-drone-video-captures-hawk-attack-quadcopter/fuZU493QFWyov65VoCbQWP/story.html?p1=Topofpage:Carousel_sub_image

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That Hum and Buzz

Insect Sounds

by Ashton Nichols

Think of an insect three inches long that makes a sound so loud it keeps you awake at night. When we traveled to a beautiful spot on the Delaware Bay recently, that is what we encountered. Think of another insect, half that size, which has inspired poets and painters the world over. Many of us have this first creature in the trees near our homes, and this second small animal near our hearths, along the flowered edges of our homes and our gardens. Cicadas and crickets–the singers of the bug world.

The cicada makes the loudest sound of any insect on earth; not one louder insect sound has ever been recorded. A cicada can reach 120dBs, which is equivalent according to the experts to: a riveter, a wood chipper, thunder in a summer storm, a diesel engine room, and a Fourth of July fireworks display. That’s loud! The female cicada makes no sounds whatsoever, and of all of these loud males, the Australian cicada buzzes louder than any other cicada…bububuuuuuzzzzzzzzzz! An astonishing sound.

Cicada photo by Bruce Marlin

Cicada
photo by Bruce Marlin

Here is what John Keats said about the warm sound of the crickets by his hearth: “from the stove there shrills / The Cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever.” Keats wrote these lines in a beautiful poem entitled “The Poetry of Earth is Never Dead.”  So the poet, who is perhaps the greatest wordsmith of our language since Shakespeare, finds this tiny black bug to be a creature that can make a sound that warms us, even in the cold and dead days of winter.

The level 130dBs of sound is described by the experts as “deafening” and also as the “threshold of pain.” We all know what it is like to hear a sound so loud that our ears literally hurt. We have all turned up the stereo headphones too loud, or we have stood too close to dad when he was firing up the chainsaw right next to us, or we have been in the fifth row of a Led Zeppelin Concert in 1969–right in front of that bank of Fender amps–and, although we said we loved it, it really did hurt our ears. So imagine a little insect that can make a sound only 10dBs below this “threshold of pain” and then imagine dozens of these, or even hundreds of these, in the trees and shrubs around you on a late summer night.

Field Cricket

Field Cricket

Of course, there are other insects that make memorable sounds: grasshoppers, bees and wasps and mosquitoes and midges all buzz, and some buzz loudly. But I say that crickets and cicadas carry the day. They have the voices that do not die and, as Keats said two centuries ago, they are still “increasing ever.” We hope so. Although climate change may expand the range and population density of certain species, it will also upset the balance of many insects and most of their sound-making fellow species. Like the poet, I want to hear my nearby cicadas and crickets for years to come.

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Fall of Nuts

A Time for Squirrels

By Corinne H. Smith

“I should like to see a man whose diet was berries and nuts alone. Yet I would not rob the squirrels, who, before any man, are the true owners.” ~ Henry David Thoreau, Journal November 7, 1853

I was sitting and typing in my writing porch on a recent breezy afternoon. The gusts were powerful enough to blow acorns right off the nearby oak tree. Bam! bah bah plop. Bam! bah bah plop. They slammed onto the porch roof, bounced twice, and landed outside my door, over and over. I put aside my work to go out, pick up a few acorns and look at them. They were squat and smooth and had fallen right out of their caps. The tree was still holding fast to those.

acorns2

Where acorns fall, squirrels appear. Now our yard is full of bounding puffy gray tails and the squawky sounds of critters claiming certain stashes as their own. They’re everywhere, all of the time: running over our roof, running up and down the wooden fence, perching on the railing or on a branch to take a snack break. Squirrels R Us.

This routine frenzy of fall always reminds me of a passage from John K. Terres’ book, From Laurel Hill to Siler’s Bog: The Walking Adventures of a Naturalist (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969, pp. 196-198). Terres wrote from North Carolina, where he had adopted as an indoor pet a young flying squirrel he named Hepsey. One evening he decided to test Hepsey’s nut-gathering prowess:

In an experiment, I put one hundred hickory nuts on my bureau at dusk one fall evening to see what she would do with them. By midnight, when I returned to my room, she had stored them all. Some were in her nest box, others were in the folds of the window drapes, some were in my shoes under the bed, and others in the pockets of my shirt and trousers that hung outside my closet door. Just as the wild flying squirrels of Laurel Hill have food storage places in holes in trees a short distance from the home nest, or in the forks of limbs and under fallen leaves of the forest floor, these had been Hepsey’s hiding places for her stores.

At midnight when I came to my room, Hepsey had disappeared. I did not look for her but counted another one hundred hickory nuts and spread them on my bureau. The next morning when I got up, every nut was gone. Hepsey had picked up and stored two hundred in one night.

One squirrel + one night = two hundred hidden hickory nuts. Terres did some calculations. He considered the amount of prime nut-harvesting time, from September through January, and how many of those nights would have decent collecting weather. By his account, each flying squirrel in his neighborhood had the potential to grab and hide from 10,000 to 12,000 nuts in a single season. Since he often found “uneaten flying squirrel caches,” Terres was “sure that they usually stored many more than they ate. Hepsey seldom ate more than one or two hickory nuts in a night.” Which explains where hickory trees come from.

When Henry David Thoreau was developing his tree succession theories, he did a squirrel calculation, too. He estimated that on a piece of land measuring ten rods square (1/16th of an acre), squirrels would have to plant only 10 acorns a year “in order that there might be one oak to every square rod at the end of ten years.” (October 17, 1860) Too bad Henry didn’t sneak a squirrel past the rest of the Thoreau household and keep it in his room the way John Terres did.

Handful of harvest

Handful of harvest

Terres learned something else from watching his companion closely. “After Hepsey had stored a hickory nut or acorn, she would not store that same nut again. Her sense of smell or taste was so keen that she distinguished at once a nut she had had in her mouth before and refused to carry it away.” Presumably, this ability also helped Hepsey identify which nuts were really hers, when it came time to find and eat them.

If our squirrels are each hiding 10,000 acorns this year, and eating only a small percentage of them, maybe this is good news for me. Maybe I won’t have to mow the backyard at all in a few years. It will have become an oak forest. Then I’ll hear some REAL acorn thunder when I’m writing in the porch.

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