Thursday, January 2 2014
Despite snow (both on the ground and lightly falling from the sky), Gretchen drove into town today to get some much-needed groceries and to do her usual volunteer work at the local ASPCA shelter. Initially she tried to take the Subaru, but she decided its brakes (which have occasionally felt irregular and "rubby" in a metal-on-metal kind of way) weren't working adequately enough on the long downhill grade of lower Dug Hill Road, so she took the other car. I immediately took the Subaru out for a drive to see if I could pinpoint the brakes' problems; they only feel bad at low speed when moving forward, and then only some of the time, suggesting some subtle shoe alignment issue. As always when I drive the car a short distance up Dug Hill Road, I tried to maximize the utility of the fossil fuel expenditure by looking for firewood to retrieved. The great thing about Dug Hill Road is that it is forested for nearly its entire length, and along any length of it there is always a certain amount of cut wood just lying there if you are only willing to look for it. The part of Dug Hill Road just north of Portz Road didn't disappoint, despite an inch or two of obscuring snow. I found an old dead Red Oak that had been felled and cut into a number of pieces, all but one of which were either too large to lift or frozen to the ground. I managed to wrestle the one moveable piece into the back of the car. Back at the house, I used the electric chainsaw to buck it into four lengths, each of which I split into four or five very large "klutzes" of the kind that are good for "feeding and forgetting" a woodstove. The best part is that a good amount of wood remains ar the site awaiting other salvaging sorties. But those sorties will all requrie powertools.
When Gretchen returned form towm, she had an odd story about Kiera the Cat, whom we'd adopted this past summer after Nigel went missing. Kiera hadn't much liked our dogs and other cats and retreated as far away from them as possible, ending up in places like the boiler room or out on the east deck. Finally, while I was down in Virginia, she disappeared altogether. We looked absolutely everywhere but she was gone. It was natural for us to assume that she'd been eaten by whatever had devoured Nigel (the cat she was replacing) and so we decided not to get a replacement cat for awhile to give the predator in our neighborhood a chance to either move on or develop a taste for children. Meanwhile at the shelter, the staff would occasionally ask about Kiera, and Gretchen would lie and say she was doing well. She wasn't going to say that the cat was probably gobbled up by a coyote within her first fortnight.
But the story isn't over. Gretchen had heard from Kirsty that the young woman who lives across the street has been feeding a "striped" cat that has been hanging around for the past few months. Eventually, though, it got too cold and, since the cat wasn't allowed indoors, the neighbor decided to take the cat to the ASPCA. Surprise, surprise, that "striped" cat turned out to be Kiera (who is more of an orange and white), and she's very much alive. Evidently she'd been happier sleeping in a plastic igloo with a yappy little white dog named Charlotte than coming back to our house to face our unique social dynamics. And of course the new neighbors, being typical Suburbia 2.0 types, don't have sufficient relationships with their neighbors to let us know they were feeding our cat.
You can imagine the disappointment the volunteers and staff at the ASPCA felt about this. They'd entrusted one of their cats with one of their most dependable volunteers, and though the cat went missing and became a neighborhood stray, Gretchen never said anything about it. It was all rather embarrassing, so this afternoon, upon learning all this, Gretchen left the shelter prematurely and cut her ties to the place, unliking them on Facebook and resolving never to return. Objectively, she really hadn't done anything wrong; the cat shouldn't have been adopted to us because she doesn't get along with other cats, and when she disappeared into what seemed certain was a coyote's stomach, Gretchen couldn't bear to tell the staff the news. But after this, Gretchen doesn't feel like she can volunteer at the shelter any more; by now she assumes there must be a vicious whisper campaign saying things like "How could she just let her new cat run off and then not say anything about it?"
Over the course of the day, though, Gretchen received a series of increasingly conciliatory emails from shelter staffers saying that things like this happen and they'd hate to lose her smiling face around the shelter. (On a related note, now that we know Kiera is still alive (and that she hates other cats) we're wondering if perhaps she'd be a good cat for Sarah the Vegan, who lost our rehomed Wilma a few months ago to kidney disease. If so, a pattern would emerge of Sarah taking the dropouts and runaways ill-suited to Chez Gus & Gretchen.)
This evening I was thinking about the complexity of the relationships animals develop with their environments over the course of millions of generations. Cicadas, for example, were able to calculate a large prime number (17) in answer to the question of how best to generally mimimize depredation while maximizing gene-pool-wide genetic reshuffling (or whatever benefits accrue from that). If human beings prove able to maintain a technological reshaping of the biosphere for an extended period of time, I suspect that sophisticated relationships would develop between organisms (bacteria, fungi, plants, insects, fish, mammals, and birds) and technological materials and artifacts. Its possible relations could even develop between operational electronics and organisms, perhaps with communication taking place wirelessly in some situations. Even if human technology isn't destroyed or reversed by a spectacular societal collapse, I expect that at some point advances in it will slow enormously and even advanced technologies will persist in an unchanging state giving biology time to adapt (or, in the case of continued advances, to develop capabilities such as cognitive intelligence allowing for rapid adaptation). The point of all this is that I don't think there is anything special or non-repeatable about human intelligence and over time (in the presence of our technologies, economies, and societies), biological systems will arise to take as much advantage of it as we do, perhaps accidentally marginalizing or even killing us off as a side effect. There have been numerous biosphere crises over the Earth's history, and in the aftermath of each, an ecosystem has arisen perfectly suited to it. Nothing humans are doing remotely approaches the oxygen crisis of 2.4 billion years ago, though our species (let alone its societies) is not anywhere near as adaptable to change as the biosphere itself.
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