Archive for the ‘animals’ Category

Dolphins of Yesteryear

A 55-year-old news clipping brings back memories

Black file cabinet

My old filing cabinet

An old black metal filing cabinet sits in my cluttered attic. Stuffed into its four drawers are fifty-five years of my stories, some published, most not. Sooner or later someone will have to dispose of all the dog-eared pages and travel-worn manuscript boxes. In the meantime, I’ve set myself a little project for this blog: go through the files and find pieces of my past that you, my readers, might find interesting.

Here’s one, to start us off. On January 6, 1960, I was fresh out of college, and this was my first day on the job as a cub reporter at The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand’s morning newspaper.  My boss, the city editor, handed me a four-year-old clipping about the death of Opo, a bottlenose dolphin who chose to join children at play in the surf at Opononi, a beach settlement  in the Northland region. The grieving residents had commissioned a statue.  “Here, update this story,” he said. “The sculptor lives in Christchurch. His phone number’s in the book. I’ve heard he’s nearly finished.”

Statue of Opo

Russell Clark’s statue of Opo and a child

I had a pleasant conversation with Russell Clark, the sculptor, who was making the sculpture free of charge as his tribute to Opo. It is of Hinuera stone, which is buff colored and coarse in texture. The sculpture was indeed nearly finished, and would be shipped to Opononi the following week. I was so proud when my little story appeared exactly as written, along with a nice photograph, in the next morning’s edition, having survived unscathed the eagle eyes of The Press’s copy editors, gruff eminences who ruled from a curved dais in back of the press room.

I did not meet Opo, but have my own dolphin memory. We were returning from a family vacation on Tuhua, an island offshore from Tauranga. The day was brilliantly sunny, the launch was bouncing through waves, and I had just learned that I’d been awarded a national scholarship to attend university. A school of dolphins surrounded the boat. Leaping joyously through the waves, they escorted us back to land. As I stood at the bow, I felt like a princess.



For the third time since we moved to the Mendocino Coast, we’ve had an expensive car repair caused in part by mice chewing on the electrical cables. Time for another garage clean-up, and time to get serious about deterring the little darlings. We hied ourselves down to Mendocino Hardware to check out our options. Mousetraps? No. The field mice have a right to live, just not inside the building. Tony spied a gizmo that emits an ultrasonic squeal, which they’re supposed to not like. I was dubious; ultrasonic stakes installed in the vegetable garden a while back had no effect whatsoever on the gophers and voles. I picked up a can of something called Nature’s Defense. Organic, the label said. I scanned the ingredient list. Garlic, cinnamon, clove, white pepper, rosemary, thyme, peppermint. Hmmm! Interesting combination of smells. We decided it was worth a try.

 On opening the can, we discovered that the smelly material was in granules that tended to clump together. The next challenge was how to contain it under the hood. I remembered that when I was a child, a favorite gift to sew for my grandma was a lavender bag. While the clipped lavender dried in the shed, I would rummage through my mother’s box of fabric scraps, drawing pieces of voile and dimity through my fingers, feeling their softness, hearing their colors sing to each other. I would stitch my neatest stitches to make a tiny bag, decorated with fragments of lace and a ribbon to draw in the top.

Mousebag installed under the hood.

I figured the mice wouldn’t appreciate dimity and lace. But there was an old undershirt of Tony’s in the rag bag. I pulled out my sewing basket, threaded a needle, and set to work. Memories came flooding back as I sewed.

 Filled and tied with string, the little bags are now fastened with duct tape around the engine. The car smells a bit garlicky, especially when we switch on the fan, so we’re trying to remember not to. It’s too early to tell how effective the repellant will be. I’ll let you know in a few months.

Prison Guard-ening

On top of the roadbank, I am fastening circles of heavy wire mesh around young Leyland Cypresses. A passing neighbor calls a greeting. “Prison guard-ening?” she asks.

“Yeah,” I reply with a shrug of despair. She too is a gardener. She understands.

Ever since my husband and I built this house at the edge of the forest, we have tried to live in respectful community with the creatures who were here before us. Jackrabbits, foxes and bobcats use our ground-level front porch as a convenient highway. My vegetable garden is fenced off, but the resident blacktailed deer amble through the rest of the garden wherever they please. They even help by pulling juicy weeds from among the deer-resistant perennials and by keeping down the path to the compost bins more efficiently than a lawn-mower.

The only problem I have is with the bucks, who scrape off the velvet covering their antlers by rubbing them against young trees and shrubs. Already some of the cypresses show the telltale signs: a snapped-off branch or frond turning brown, a length of the trunk rubbed raw. It’s a mating signal, I understand, with several facets: the visual sign left by the buck’s rubbing, chemical signals from glands on the buck’s face, and the sound of the buck thrashing branches of the tree on which it is rubbing.  I once watched a large buck do battle with a stiff and spiny Ceonothus bush by the driveway. Again and again he attacked, as if determined to demolish it. Here on this roadbank I have lost a Pacific Wax Myrtle and a couple of Shore Pines to such opponents. The Cypresses are a replacement, to help fill in a windbreak against our fierce nor’westers. I can’t afford to lose them too.

The prison cages are unsightly, and don’t fit with the natural landscape I’d like to have. But Cypresses grow quickly; soon their foliage will hide the wire. Sometimes compromises must be made.

Return of the Gray Fox

The gray foxes are back in our Mendocino neighborhood, a meadow at the edge of the forest. We’ve seen them several times, mostly at twilight. They use our low-to- the-ground front porch as a highway. One sat for a long time at the edge of the driveway, observing the meadow. A few evenings ago Tony called me to a back window. On the hill above the wall, a fox was eagerly digging at a gopher hole. A few moments earlier I had seen its mate running up the middle of the road, and soon there were two moving side by side into the thicket. I’ve heard them bark, a raspy single note, like a cough.

Although gray foxes are typically crepuscular, we’ve seen them in broad daylight too. As we were walking across the commons yesterday, not long after noon, a fox dashed across our path with some small creature in its mouth, probably a vole or gopher. It’s likely that nearby was a nest burrow where hungry kits were waiting to be fed.

There’s a nice description of the gray fox, with pictures, in the newsletter of The Watershed Project.