Wednesday, December 22, 2004


Quick -- what kind of picture flashes in your head when you hear/see the word "EVERYONE"? This is a question whose answer interests me. Many years ago, I began to format my brain in order to ensure that I would ALWAYS see ... well, I'm going to delay my answer till I know you lot have given the matter just a little thought. If you feel like you can share your reponses in a comment. I'll say what my mental image is, in a comment, to start you off.

And in other news, I am going to be away from my cyber-post for six days (eeeeeeeek), starting Thursday the 23rd morning. I, E and a friend are off to see the Wizard -- he IS a sort of wizard, when you consider that he pretty much kick-started India's tiger conservation effort 'way back in the last century -- "Billy" Arjan Singh. We're spending Christmas with him and returning on the 28th. I am told there will be nothing to see in the way of striped carnivores and that it will be so cold in the shadow of the foothills that I may as well start regretting the trip right away. It's going to be a 10-hour journey by road, but since I am driving-challenged, I will be in charge of entertainment and light repartee en route. The car is a Paj and I can report from our earlier trip this year to the hills, it is a seriously comfortable vehicle in which to engage with the nation's highways.

Four amazing items seen on TV's Animal Planet recently -- honestly, is there ANY other channel worth watching? -- two on David Attenborough's programs and two elsewhere. From Attenborough's "Life of Birds" series I saw (a) an astonishing record of a British hedge sparrow couple's response to the all-too-human situation of marital infidelity. Here's what we saw: Mrs Sparrow has a lover on the side. We see her engage with her spouse and then, not much later, succumbing to the charms of Mr X. Mr Sparrow, initially appears to be unaware of Mr X, but then, in an astonishing display of conjugal jealousy apparently confronts Mrs Sparrow. There were no translators to tell us exactly what was said but the lady very quickly obliges her mate by ejecting the interloper's sperm!! The couple accomplishes this -- what shall we call it? Pre-emptive abortion? -- by the female presenting her rear end to the male, who pecks peevishly in the vicinity of her unfaithful bum, resulting a quick expulsion of a tiny white speck, which (we assume) the researchers have confirmed is Mr X's sperm.

This is not an isolated instance, but has been observed as typical hedge-sparrow behavior. Why? According to the researchers, the system ensures that the interloper can also be co-opted in the care of the young, because he thinks that some of them MAY be his. And sometimes they are. Meanwhile, he is free to form serious and meaningful relationships with other compliant females, who in their turn may entertain flings on the side ... The result is that the species as a whole survives better and the phenomenon is tolerated.

Attenborough (b) was about a species of hummingbird (alas, I didn't catch the name, and so cannot repeat it here) which lives in the high Andes. Like all hummingbirds, its extremely high metabolic rate, occasioned by the astounding speed at which its tiny wings whirr(could it possibly be 70 times a second? I think that's what I heard but it's really quite hard to believe), permitting it to hover, as it flits from flower to flower, requires it to feed practically continuously. But at night, there are no flowers open for it to feed from. Its solution? It goes into hibernation -- EVERY NIGHT!! Its pulse-rate, blood-pressure and breathing all but cease altogether. In the morning, with the heat of the sun, it gradually warms up and is soon off on its rounds again. I don't know about you, but this blows me away. Like I wrote to a friend immediately after seeing this, it's a trick I would gladly learn specifically to cope with international travel. Just check in, belt up and aestivate for 28 hours straight. Wake up in NYC and head straight for the nearest Haagen Dazs (sp?) supply station. Joy.

The other two films were about mammals. One showed a troupe of monkeys in Sri Lanka, macaques of some sort, but we began watching too late to hear their full name. They looked quite a bit like the familiar Rhesus in India, but their social life is remarkably different. I don't know if the film crew happened to encounter an exceptional group, but what we saw was a complete reversal of animal behavior as recorded in other films I've seen on TV. I'm cutting a longish story short here, but let's just say that it's fairly typical of simian life for an alpha male to dominate the community for a period of three or four years until a rival arises who fights him and takes his place. What we saw in this film was an alpha leader who apparently had wonderful social relations with his group, being deposed by a male who was not merely more aggressive but also (apparently) of a cruder mentality than him.

In other films of this sort (there was one about black-faced langurs in Jaipur, for instance), this is completely standard. After the old male is vanquished, all the females of his harem are subjugated by the new incumbent, raped and ravished, rendered pregnant and soon enough, everything returns to normal. But in this Sri Lankan group, the group was apparently outraged by the new alpha male. Not only did they seek out the body of the previous leader, who fell by the wayside and died, but, after engaging in what certainly looked like a quiet and dignified mourning ritual (they all sat around the body and some of the females wiped flies away from his face), but one by one they began to reject the new alpha in favour of the old one's loyal lieutenant!!

I realize that there are dozens of ways in which a film can be manipulated to show us what the film-maker want us to see in terms of an interpretation. All I can say is, the cinematography was non-intrusive and certainly appeared to be honest. Another astonishing sight we saw in this film was this group of monkeys foraging for food UNDERWATER. They swam and dove extremely well, and seemed completely at home underwater. It was an amazing sight -- I don't believe this kind of behavior has ever been seen before amongst primates (other than us, i.e.). Mothers with tiny babies just ducked underwater completely heedless of the fear of drowning their offspring -- who in turn seemed entirely unperturbed.

And finally, this evening, there was a repeat of a film about a monastery in northern Thailand where a group of monks has raised wild tigers whose habitat was being threatened by development -- and everyone is thriving -- the monks treat the tigers with an astonishing mixture of reverence and commonsensical love, and the tigers (ten, according to the film, and breeding successfully) responding with affection and calm, non-aggressive behavior. I hadn't seen the film before, but E had described it to me fairly thoroughly -- even so, it brought tears to my eyes (okay, I admit, I become a warm slushy puddle at the sight of animals looking happy), because it was just so unbearably beautiful. A vision of life as it so rarely is, with the monks practically aglow with this extreme demonstration of absolute compassion at work. And the tigers ... well they glow ANYWAY, don't they? Can't help themselves.


Marginalien said...

I trained myself to see a line-up of the world's varied peoples when I hear any reference to "everyone" -- just as an exercise in trying to be properly inclusive. I know it's sort of crazy, but I see a big bunch of people in costumes, starting with what I think of as the extremes -- Inuit at one end and Australian Aborigines at the other -- and all manner of different sizes, shapes and colours in between. Why? Oh ... because of a conversation which took place about thirty years ago, which began with a friend saying, "You can buy Kodak film EVERYWHERE these days -- " and my mind suddenly flashed unlikely locations -- Amazonian jungle, Saharan sand storm, nordic wasteland. Then we got to discussing the subject and that's when I realized that until then, when I used the word "everyone", I pretty much only meant a small homogeneous bunch of people who looked a lot like me. It seemed to be inappropriate to continue that way and so I created a "dream team" of representative humans -- including different ages, sexes, religions, shapes, colours, sizes, costumes etc. All kinds of corny biases and childish defaults arise from this practice -- as in, for instance, even thinking in terms of eskimos (or ANYONE) as being at the "extremes"(I mean, for them, I am at the "extremes").

Still. The habit continues. So at this time of year, when many of us are busy wishing "everyone" joy and good cheer ... well ... there's that line-up in my head, and everyone looking VERY HAPPY, waving their harpoons and their boomerangs, twirling their obis and riding their rheas off into the sunset ...

Anonymous said...

Anthropomorphism: Attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena. got 2 b real careful when you "interpret" animal behaviour in human terms.why, nowadays even interpretting human behaviour in human terms rarely makes sense!gt

Marginalien said...

I know, I know, guilty as charged: I anthromorphized. Yep. I'll take my whippings with a smile.

Amrobilia said...

V interesting! The one on the monkeys reminded me of the birds (gulls) I saw deep-sea-diving for food at the Monterey aquarium - what a sight it was. And the removal of the rival's sperm! What a trip!

Everyone? - Everyone, I guess!

Amrobilia said...

Oh, sorry! Mental picture? The faces of all those dear to me...