bear their bloodsucking fruit
Saturday, July 8 2006
Normally if Gretchen was around she'd be walking the dogs every morning but with her gone it's all up to me to do it. So when conditions change dramatically along the Stick Trail, not more than a day will pass before I know about it. This morning I noticed just such a change. Up until today I'd been able to walk in the forest shirtless and only encounter the occasional mosquito or biting fly. Today, though, a cloud of mosquitos descended on me immediately. I was lucky because I just happened to be wearing a shirt (for protection of my back, which I'd slightly sunburned yesterday while painting). I had all I could do to keep them off me, a task complicated by the fact that I was carrying a cup of coffee. Perhaps the unusually dry early springtime suppressed mosquito populations and it took this long for the rainy conditions that began in late May to bear their bloodsucking fruit.
Often Clarence the cat will walk with me and the dogs in the forest, something I don't really enjoy because he's slow, a chronic whiner, and doesn't know how to keep out from being underfoot (he likes to dart from one ankle to the next as you walk, hoping to rub against them). Today, though, he didn't see us leave and assumed we'd taken the Farm Road. I could hear him up there yowling for me to slow down, but I'd taken the Stick Trail instead. Lulu, our crotchety older grey cat, took advantage of Clarence's confusion and enthusiastically bounded after me. Lulu never comes along when Clarence is with me, mostly because Clarence delights in pouncing on her at every opportunity. This is a fate she has far too much dignity to abide.
It turns out that Lulu is much easier to walk with than Clarence, mostly because she doesn't dart between your ankles. But she also keeps a brisker pace and doesn't dawdle like Clarence does (he loves to dart up trees every so often, for example). Lulu complains now and then, but such complaints aren't nearly as loud or as persistent as those of her "brother."
As we went farther and farther afield, a little over a half mile from home, Lulu seemed to be getting pooped out, so I carried her some of the distance. She's much lighter than Clarence, so here again she was at an advantage. When she'd struggle to get free, she'd always land on the ground heading back the way we'd come. Clearly she was getting tired of the walk, and she was telling me by example. When I kept walking though, she'd continue to follow me. Eventually we bust that right that allows makes for an interesting walk through two riparian zones, and after that she seemed to sense we were looping homeward. Her complaining decreased markedly and she showed much greater interest in keeping pace. She even dashed ahead of me in some places, bounding like a weasel with her tail pointed skyward.
In the afternoon I endured a couple of miserable housecalls. I don't even know why I accepted them, since I don't really do that work anymore. Since I was still rattled by yesterday's altercation between Eleanor and the cyclist, and since today was a perfect biking day, I decided to bring the dogs with me, with the idea of leaving them in the car for each job.
When I got to the location of the first housecall, I found it was in an unusual setting for this area: a development of large identical vinyl-clad McMansions (along with similar-looking townhouses). This development is called Maverick Knolls and it lies behind an algæ-choked artificial pond straddling the border between West Hurley and Woodstock. As with all such developments, no trees had been spared during its construction and there were none there any older than the development itself. Judging from the age of the trees, I'd say Maverick Knolls is about eight years old. So I had no shady place to park my car. I went off road about 10 feet between a pair of trees in a stand of original forest adjacent to the development, but the shade there was unsatisfactory. So I asked the client if I could bring my dogs inside. Her house was a fussy riot of immaculately-place white pillows and white carpeting so the dogs ended up on the back porch. I knew instinctively that this wasn't going to work but there was no other option. This woman didn't seem to have any special fondness for animals at all.
As I worked, I'd hear Sally scratching at the back door. But it was made of glass so it didn't seem like anything bad could happen. More than an hour passed, punctuated by me running over to yell at Sally to stop her scratching. But she refused to be silenced. Being kept separated from me was, for her, a gross injustice. I concurred, of course, but I just wanted to get this housecall over with so we could leave.
It ended up being one of those long rambling ill-defined housecalls, where some troubles couldn't be resolved and others metastasized into further unpleasantness, all while my blood sugar concentration sagged beneath a certain critical value. And then I went to look at the dogs and saw they'd escaped. Sally had given up on the glass door and ripped a dog-sized gash in the fragile vinyl screening. They were cavorting throughout Maverick Knolls having a great time, but now I had to tell my client that my dogs had ruined her porch. When I told her this, I was quick to add that I would come by tomorrow to fix the screen. What else could I do? She seemed to take it fairly well. There was a part of me that welcomed this turn of events; it seemed fitting justice for someone who would agree to live in an anonymous vinyl building in a landscape completely denuded of its native forest.
My second housecall was two miles away and wasn't much fun either, but since I knew I'd have to be coming back to West Hurley tomorrow, I activated my favorite escape hatch: offering to take the computer to work on at my place.
I spent most of the late afternoon and evening painting most of the rest of the Solar Deck. Before I went to bed I cut bits of wood to fit into the football-shaped crater of insect damage in the header beam of the window of the second guest room in the basement. Then I put a thin dam of aluminum across the bottom of the repair. Behind this dam I'll be pouring a fresh mix of molten epoxy.
Meanwhile, a group of adolescents a few houses up the street were partying like it was 1969, detonating the occasion firecracker leftover from the nation's 230th birthday. As always, Sally was terrified, cowering with me in the guest room as I worked. She much preferred the controlled roar of the chop saw to the pubescent popping of the fireworks. Perhaps this party marked a milestone in my young neighbor's life; earlier today I noted that his curved plywood skateboard ramp (often seen deployed in his driveway) had been hauled out to the street and abandoned beneath a large cardboard sign proclaiming "FREE!"
Throughout my childhood and well into my adulthood I was fascinated with evolutionary biology and how it manifested in taxonomy, the classification of large groups of related creatures. It's fairly obvious to anyone who pays attention how the large groups of vertebrates are inter-related, but what about invertebrates? How exactly did the ancestor of the squid diverge from that of the hornet? Is there anything about the two that is homologous? I've long realized that looking in taxonomy for actual relationships between creatures is a little like looking in the Bible to find out the life expectancy of people 4000 years ago. Even if taxonomy is generally correct, I imagine there are many flaws of scale. Is, for example, the taxonomic division called "family" in birds really of the same scale as the division called "family" in flowering plants? Or even in reptiles? It seems like they should be, and I often talk as though they are. But a duck and a swan may be far more closely related to each other than a beech and an oak. Or far less.
I didn't know this until tonight, but evidently with the rise of cheap bio-molecular forensics, there's been a strong push among evolutionary biologists to rework taxonomy based on similarities and differences in actual genetic codes. For the first time this has the potential to provide taxonomy a genuinely objective basis. I have a feeling we're not going to like what we find as we delve deep into the genes; many of our taxonomic divisions may collapse and we'll discover that there is no such thing, for example, as a taxonomic "fish."
When it comes to invertebrates, though, there is less tradition and less popular attention. So to discover that the latest gene-powered taxonomy places the Annelid (earthworm) phylum close to Molluscs (clams, snails, and squids) but not so close to Arthropods (spiders and insects) is a little unsettling, but I think I can handle it. Instead of being used to reshuffle classes within actual phyla, this new information is being used to reshuffle the phyla themselves among brand new super-phyla, sub-kingdoms, and unlabeled levels in the taxonomic hierarchy. Similarly, DNA and RNA data could be used to reshuffle Mammal families around between brand new super-families and sub-orders, thereby leaving most of the tree of life the way you didn't learn it back in Bible school.
The basis for modern reclassifications is only partly molecular. Part of it is also based on reconsidering morphological characteristics; earthworms and snails go through an interesting development phase called the trochophore, which I'd never read about until tonight. I found myself wondering: in what body of water do slug trochophores live before they graduate to crawling around on my lawn?
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