Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Ratel

I had an interesting animal dream the other night. It started with a familiar motif: A distant, incredibly tall treetop around which several magnificent hawks and eagles are wheeling and alighting. It occurs so often in my dreams it could be the logo at the start of a film, like the stars arcing over Paramount's mountain.

The focus shifts to a nearby bush, snow-covered and sprinkled with red bits of fruit that resemble strips of red pepper or pimentos. And a flock of small gray birds is making short work of them, plucking them clean. One small bird remains near the top: a pygmy owl, gray and soft-feathered. Thinking it needs rescuing, I lift the little owl off the bush and bring it inside my house. Then the dream pulls a fast one. As I'm stroking the owl's soft feathers, I realize that they're not feathers; they're fur. The bird I have saved is a mammal, and it is growing rapidly. I put it down on the ground, and now it's the size and has the black and white colors of a skunk. Except the tail is stubby. I hastily put it outside. It looks around a bit and then attempts to come back in through the sliding glass door, but I won't let it. In fact, I kick it as far as the neighbor's side yard. I feel guilty, and the maybe-skunk's non-reaction confuses me. You'd think it would have immediately sprayed me with a jet of skunk juice, but it didn't. Maybe it's not a skunk. At one point it blunders into something that detonates in a straw-colored starburst. Poor dumb moke. But it's still dangerous.

The following night's dream brings a rare continuation: the critter is back! I'm watching it from a third or fourth floor window, looking down upon a small park. There it is, roaming around, the size of a tapir now, and with a more even pattern of black and white. I think I know what it is. I think it's a ratel.  Also known as a honey badger, found in Africa. Those facts don't enter into the dream. Just that this must be a ratel, big as a small horse, a wild animal of unpredictable behavior. People should be warned.  Later in the dream I'm staying with friends in their rustic hilltop house in the woods. I know that my friend Henk is a hunter, and I suggest that he get his shotgun and shoot the ratel dead. The dream ends without this happening. But I wake up reflecting thatI have gone from petting a cute little owl to booting a phlegmatic skunk into the neighbor's yard, to recommending a kill shot on a ratel. Quite an evolution.

Not long after it occurs to me that ratel is an anagram for alert. And later. And alter.


It's about me and nature. About what's become of our relationship. Even in this blog, between 2009, trying to notice every seasonal nuance, and now, nothing to observe between January 19 and April 18. It snowed. We went to northern California one week in February and sawSpring (someone else's), saw daffodils and tulips, and now Spring has made its way to New England. So the ratel is nature,  or maybe it's me—Honey to my wife, Carol, but badgering myself. Okay, fine, it's both; roll the film, someone get the light...

It was an early connection, going back to the woods that bordered the house I grew up in (age 5 to 12) in suburban Stamford, Connecticut. There in my Cub Scout years I discovered sassafras mitten leaves, wood thrushes, flickers, skunk cabbage, the fantastic scarlet tanager, moseying black-shelled turtles in the grass, and the rumor of water moccasins lurking around giant boulders.

After my dad died we moved to El Paso, Texas (age 13 to 18), where family was, and nature turned foreign: chaparral, lizards, roadrunners, and walking stick insects or large pale moths clinging to the kitchen screen door. 

College in upstate NewYork: nature and I kind of drifting apart, save for shockingly cold winters, trumpeter swans one time on Lake Moraine, and scallop-shell fossils everywhere.

Dropped out of grad school, saw America, dropped back into UBC in Vancouver  (age 24 to 37) began to romance nature in writing: wrote a kids'  book about an old character from the 1880s named Lunch Counter Jones who shows up in the 1980s and befriends animals and shares folksy stories with them.

And finally, back east to Boston, where I took to roaming meadows and woods and wetlands and writing about it for fun, and became more of a birder, stalking brown thrashers, Blackburnian warblers, indigo buntings, and the fantastic scarlet tanager. 

And then in 2009, three things happened in fairly quick succession: 1. I was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, 2. I got laid off from my 20-year job as a textbook editor, and 3. I started this blog called Old Hatch's Almanac, writing about time and nature: The Ary boys, Janu and Febru, and March forth! and the birds and bards of April and May Questel (Betty Boop) and June fireflies and rounding Cape August and Laurel and Hardy singing Shine On Harvest Moon in the French Foreign Legion and front-porch pumpkins and my namesake October and memorious November and the revels and  revelations of December. But you can only make those rounds so many times before you start repeating yourself or worse, taking it for granted, or even worse, stop noticing.

Which is why I'm now going to rise from the chair, reach for my hat, tuck my laptop into my backpack, and take some time to reflect on the ratel, and the nature inside—aging, Parkinson's—as well as outside. My goal is a new edition of this blog, perhaps with a book in mind, and probably under a new name. And with that I will saunter out the gate toward the depot like Laurel and Hardy, one more time...

Monday, January 19, 2015


I think it's time to write about something besides writing,  

Not birds. Or maybe not-birds. Ed Hazell and I drove out to Forest Hills Cemetery in a remote corner of Boston to see a reported black-backed woodpecker, which is usually a bird of the Canadian north. Sun just rising -- I drove straight into it, plus the windshield slow to de-fog; had to pull over once. There was also black ice when we arrived at the cemetery. 

Gates were locked. We managed to thread our way through a car-wide passage around a storage facility, and found our way to the spot, a small rise where the gravestones of Henry O. Aldrich and several Pilkins back onto a copse of trees, a small slice of a woods.This was where the woodpecker had turned up every morning between 8 and 9:30. Does this story end with a stunning view of Picoides arcticus flaking bark off a spruce? No. We stood around with a handful of other binoculared and long-lensed suitors, listening to other birds--nuthatches and chickadees. A red-tailed hawk came by. We glanced at our watches, not surprised, more like routinely disappointed. Which eventually becomes an only slightly less valuable outcome than if we had seen it. Because we had engaged with the world  and maybe were seen by the woodpecker, which doesn't count. But we do.   

One not-seen black-backed woodpecker

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Square Don't Care

I like writing in graph-paper notepads. I've probably got a dozen of them in assorted piles, in various sizes and bindings, more of them started than finished. If you need a straight west-to-east line to provide a shelf for your words, it's there, but it's also tolerant if you wander off a bit. 

The page doesn't say "Write this way" like standard ruled notebooks do. The vertical lines and the horizontals have equal status, collaborating on a light grid with a trustworthy but unofficious function. It makes a background murmur like the Grand Concourse of Grand Central Station Uniform but not blank.

The empty page extends an ironic bow: a combination of "we've been waiting for you" and "pardon our appearance." The squares may offer nothing—zilch—or fanciful doodles. They could be mosaics, crossroads, or cells containing anything, including your own beeswax. Words find good traction along these boulevards, especially in the smooth black ink of a gel pen.

The squares could also be units of time, a template for a universal calendar, currently empty of events but accepting donations. With what to fill this screen? Drops of paint or nectar? A challenging crossword puzzle, the movie reviews in the Friday Times? The latest news from Paris? 

Fill these cells with a harmless essay, doing your exercises, making excuses, doing the dishes, drawing cartoon people with big noses. They could be peeping-tom windows in an apartment building, portals to the past or to Neverwas.

Anyway at some point you're going to move from those cubbyholes to this white blogpost (Russian for "blizzard on the trackless steppe") where famous writers pad by silent as ghosts and watermarks; and imaginary monkeys bang away at typewriters, writing everything that has been written and will be written, including these words, which is both reassuring and frustrating. Yes, it validates you—this too is literature!—but how do you avoid plagiarizing from these rhesus pieces?

Fortunately, the square don't care.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


The garbage truck gulped down a few more Christmas trees on Allen Street today. A sure sign that the patina of New is giving way to the under-layer of  Nu? which is Yiddish for “So?” with a dose of irony: So: what did you expect? So, whaddyagonna do?  So, that’s life.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with New. I like preserving that New Year’s spun-sugar Faberg√©-egg pristineness all day, taking a new year’s walk in the cold sunshine, saying Happy New Year to a passing stranger like you’re hand-delivering a card, getting home for the Viennese waltz broadcast, and admiring the new calendar—Japanese woodblock prints taking over from Georgia O’Keeffe—even though half of January’s days are already inscribed with appointments. Keep it new.

But there’s no denying the long guttural drawl of the garbage truck pulling up like a foraging dinosaur. Nu? Whaddya got for me? White bags with red drawstring bows? Brown bags chockablock with recycled bottles, boxes, and other bric-a-brac? Toss it in. What, that’s it? No appliances, no mattress, no bales of Boston Globes going back to last summer? That’s okay. I’ll be back.  

Turns out New gets old in a hurry  But luckily there’ll be another behemoth coming next Tuesday to take it away with a belch and a familiar groan.

Nu? You were expecting something else?