Saturday, February 13, 2010

Happiness and harmony

For those who like watching opening/closing ceremonies, I'm sure that last night's TV transmission from Vancouver was a huge source of happiness. Personally, I seem to remember that I abandoned TV transmissions of opening/closing ceremonies back at the time of the Sydney Olympics. I was overcome by a nauseating feeling of embarrassment when I discovered that the artistic director of the panorama of Aussie history and lifestyle had imagined a sequence revealing that hordes of dwellers in suburbia devote their weekends to mowing their lawns. Big deal! What an awesome bunch of people they must be in Australia! Believe it or not: They cut the grass on their lawns with power mowers! Each of the actors in this scene took delivery of a big cardboard box containing his personal lawn mower. The impact was too much for me. You can't fight nausea. I decided at that instant to give up forever the habit of watching opening/closing ceremonies.

Should we be alarmed or simply saddened by the accidental death of a 21-year-old tobogganist from Georgia? Long ago, I recall a brief Internet conversation with a woman who was disturbed to have discovered, during her genealogical research, that a great-uncle, working in New South Wales as a commercial traveler, had been mortally intoxicated in a hotel room by a cyanide-based product that was once used to fumigate bed mattresses. In those days, in many countries, there were tales of hotel guests who went to bed in similar circumstances, and died peacefully in their sleep. My friend exclaimed: "What a terrible way to die!" She was surprised to find me disagreeing: "On the contrary, it's surely one of the most harmonious ways imaginable of dying. God had decided that this salesman had visited his last customer. So, the Almighty calmly drew a line under his final order." I think it's a bit like that in the case of the dead tobogganist.

Meanwhile, here at Gamone, I'm getting fed up with the recurrent whiteness. I've often wondered whether the quiet and friendly personality of many Scandinavians might not be the longtime outcome of endless months of pure whiteness. In that respect, I'm a bad Scandinavian. With a bit more snow, I could well end up in some kind of nasty neurotic state. My dog Sophia, on the other hand, is in a constant state of happiness.

As I pointed out already in an earlier blog, the fluffy white world, for Sophia, is exactly as it should be. Incidentally, that's probably the main reason why the winter hasn't yet made me neurasthenic. It's such a joy for me to witness constantly the happiness of my dog.

My donkeys don't seem to be greatly troubled by the snow, particularly when they drop in for their massive daily dose of oats. They've taught themselves to gouge out the snow with their hoofs and snouts to access grass. On the other hand, they advance cautiously through the smooth snow, step by step, because they've discovered that the hidden earth can be uneven.

Their fur is so long and thick that one is tempted to imagine that it's the snow that actually causes the fur to grow this way. But that thinking would, of course, be bad biology. Meanwhile, in the latest issue of Scientific American, which arrived in my mailbox a fortnight ago, there's a front-page story entitled Why humans have no fur. Its subtitle: And how evolving bare skin led to big brains. Goodness me, we're expected to digest such a vast assortment of basic knowledge in our modern existence. When I've assimilated that article, I'll be able to go out and boast to the donkeys that it's all very well to be able to wander around in the snow, oblivious of the cold, awaiting solely the next bucket of oats... but I've got a bigger brain!

As for the birds, they seem to be happy with the seeds that I leave out for them. But I've learned that the situation is a little more irregular than what I had imagined. The black and yellow tits visit the wooden container, where each bird only stops long enough to pick up a sunflower seed in its beak. For the finches, though, it's a quite different procedure. They seem to be interested only in picking up seeds of other kinds that I've strewn around on the ground. If I leave the seeds in a dish, no bird ever goes near it, no doubt suspecting the dish to be some kind of a trap. So, I have to empty the dish of seeds onto the snow.

As they fly in and out of the bird-house, often waiting politely for the previous occupants to leave before barging in, the tits are so well organized that you could almost imagine that they have radio contact with a control tower. I notice however that all is not necessarily so harmonious in the existence of the finches. Whenever there's a small group of finches darting around on the ground, they seem to start attacking, or at least intimidating, one another. It's quite amazing. As soon as one bird has picked up a seed, it often moves aggressively towards a neighboring bird. I've been examining the erratic behavior of the finches, and wondering whether there might be some kind of hierarchy in the finch colony, resulting in a pecking order as for chickens. Thinking that Google might be able to enlighten me, I typed in the words "finches pecking order", which directed me to a review of a book: The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner, published 16 years ago [display]. With a little astonishment, I discovered that Weiner's book is included in the bibliography of Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins. My naive question about the birds at Gamone had landed me right back in the middle of Darwinian interrogations. Finches (rather than iguanas and tortoises) were in fact the true heroes of Darwin's revelations on the Galapagos.

Apparently Weiner's book describes the efforts of a couple of English-born scientists, Peter and Rosemary Grant, who spent two years on the desolate Galapagos island of Daphne Major studying the beaks of finches. [Click the banner to explore the finch story.] During their stay on the island, in the drought conditions of 1976-77, Peter and Rosemary discovered that "the average beak size of the larger seed-eating finches increased by half a millimeter", enabling the birds to tackle bigger and tougher seeds. [I sometimes feel that you have to be English to possess the necessary enthusiasm and stamina to make that kind of discovery!]

I'm living in a wonderful world [a world full of wonder]. Clearly, I can no longer go outside to give oats to my donkeys, or seeds to the wild birds of Gamone, without my being impregnated unexpectedly by marvelous evocations of science.


  1. More bare skin lead to bigger brains?
    Ergo, no hair on your head means even bigger brains?

    As far as the donkeys are concerned, their brains may be smaller, but they at least have figured out how to be fed large buckets of grain! ;-)

    Loved the birds tale!

  2. Regardless of their brain size, I'm constantly amazed by the intelligence of my donkeys. Before giving them oats, I first have to step outside and pick up their two empty buckets. Seeing me do this, the donkeys know perfectly well that it will take me about five minutes to walk back to the house with the empty buckets, clean off the mud and refill them with oats. During this time, the donkeys wander around with absent-minded expressions (yes, a donkey can decide to look absent-minded), as if to say that they're not at all excited about the prospect of getting fed. In this way, a donkey behaves with an idea in the back of its a fellow, madly in love, who makes a deliberate effort to remain calm and nonchalant. But, if I haven't reappeared with the oats at the end of five minutes, the donkeys start braying violently, as if they were being attacked. Then as soon as they see me coming back, they resort once again to their absent-minded look... up until they're within reach of the buckets of oats, which I have to set down as rapidly as possible, otherwise the donkeys would be capable of snatching them out of my hands. They are exceptionally cunning animals, capable of conceptualizing what's happening around them. The whole silly idea about donkeys being stupid and stubborn comes, no doubt, from the fact that a donkey needs time to weigh up all the evidence in favor of acting in one way rather than another. Only then will it behave (maybe) in the way you want the animal to behave.