Haze! Haze! Haze! Stop the Fires!

“Blue skies, I’m wishing for blue skies….”. At the moment, my lament comes not from many days of dreary grey skies of a British winter but weeks of choking haze in tropical Malaysia. It is the Haze Season again and I have been coughing for days. The Haze Season. Years ago, there was no such thing as haze blighting the populations and countries of South East Asia. Then we had a serious incidence in 1998-1999. We blamed the El Nino, for the fires in Sumatra and Borneo that produced the acrid choking smoke and the fine particulates that make up the haze. Yet the problem persisted in non El Nino years and has now become a regular annual occurance.

The picture above is that of the beautiful island of Borneo in a shroud of acrid smoke. What has happened? Fires are set deliberately. Some point fingers at large companies clearing forests by fire for oil palm and forest plantations. Others point to the subsistence farmers who practice “shifting cultivation” which has also been called “slash and burn”. Others point to arson from unresolved conflicts and land issues. Who is really to blame? All of us, if we cannot collectively get past the finger pointing and take positive actions to stop the fires when faced with an ecological and environmental catastrophe of our own making.

To the companies that insist that burning is the only economically sound way of clearing the forests, I ask them to consider what is the value of the profit margin when placed alongside the suffering of the old and the young, the increased morbidity and mortality among the susceptible and the weak, and the long term legacy of illness that may be there for even those yet unborn. A good leader takes care of his community. He provides for his people, yes, but without taking away the essentials of living.

If we compare the two squirrels, Spikey and Speedy; Spikey represents the caring leader who is willing to share his expertise and his loot of nuts with the other squirrels in his immediate community. Speedy is clearly the stronger individual who always bullies Spikey and the other squirrels and as such is the dominant squirrel but he seeks the nuts and food only for himself. Regretably, our human society increasingly puts self-serving characters and corporations like Speedy on the pedestal to be praised and emulated. This is a tragedy of placing the individual above the community. The individual is important but must also find touch points within the community.

Today, we celebrate the festival of Diwali (or Deepavali as we used to call it in my youth). It is the day Hindus celebrate the triumph of good over evil; the Festival of Lights. Sadly, the lights are dimmed by the gloom of the haze and one cannot help feeling that evil is having the upper hand. The evil that dwells in the heart of men pursuing the God of money and profits.

I hope we can really prove that humans are smart enough to know that stopping those fires from starting is good for all of us including our smaller animal friends that share this world with us. I am fed up with coughing and shortening my life span. Despite the picture below, I do not feel like laughing till I see blue skies again.

The Ninja Squirrel

If Spikey, our cute “average joe” grey squirrel, is this story’s protagonist, then the Ninja Squirrel is his worthy nemesis. The villian of our tale is appropriately black following the style of traditional storytelling in the movies before the advent of political correctness. Black is also the traditional color of the ninja tradition as well.

Squirrels in training to take over the world!!! They are coming to a bird feeder near you.

Now many readers may be aware that squirrels are renowned for their ability to raid bird feeders and even vending machines relying on their agility, skill and intellegence . They have been filmed successfully negotiating obstacle courses to get to their target, which for squirrels always involves food. However, our Ninja Squirrel was a league a part.

He stood a couple of inches higher than Spikey. We called the Ninja Squirrel, Speedy, on account of his lightning moves. He would bully Spikey. Whenever, Speedy appeared, Spikey would have to concede and abandon the spoils of his begging to Speedy. It was always pitiful to watch Spikey peek out of the bushes to which he had retired and watch Speedy greedily demolish the pile of nuts that he had worked hard to obtain. Spikey did try to stand his ground a couple of times but it always ended with him being chased up a tree with some fur left behind in haste.

Poor Spikey was completely outmatched by his bigger, badder and faster opponent. Nevertheless, over the next two years, we would witness a few occassions when Spikey used brains to overcome brawn. Something that gives me much encouragement in my own life’s battles, being somewhat shortchanged in the brawn department as well.

Speedy first appeared late during that first squirrel autumn that I experienced but it was only in the following spring would I get to see that very special image that is now etched into my memory. One fine day in spring, I looked out of my basement window and saw that Speedy was helping himself to the nuts that I had placed on my very own garden rockwith a small hollow which was ideal for squirrel feeding. Just then, some black birds landed nearby and started for the nuts too. Speedy would have none of that. He stood up to his full height but even then he was shorter than the approaching bird. Irregardless, he started swinging, lefts and rights. The startled birds flew off in panic, leaving feathers in their wake.

The image that I recall as clear as the day I saw it, was the rippling muscles on Speedy’s shoulder and back as he let loose on the birds. Those were muscles worth of any championship muscle builder. At that time, the closest comparison I could conjure up was that of Master Splinter, the Ninja Rat Sinseh of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (remember them? Used to be more popular with kids than Santa Claus). Today, I believe my black Ninja Squirrel could have stood in for Neo during those slo-mo fight sequences in The Matrix. All he really needed to complete the look was a long black coat and cool, dark glasses.

Squirrel’s Secret Spots No:1 (Plitvice Lakes)

Where do squirrels go to for holidays? I doubt they ever really go on holidays, unlike us lucky humans. So to answer that question, I will have to use my mind’s eye and apply the power of imagination. It seems to me that squirrels would love nature of course, prefer branches less taken instead of the main trunk, stay close to an abundance of food and would be keen to try local fruits and nuts. Being successful exploiters of human habitation, they would be interested in human structures but prefer crumbling ruins to sleek constructions of metal and glass which just leaves them cold. Finally, being accomplished dancers themselves, squirrels are culture vultures. So these will be the magic places mentioned in this series of Squirrel’s Secret Spots.

Spot No: 1 is a place of my youth. I had marked the passing of my 21st birthday (many years ago now), by embarking on a voyage of discovery and self-discovery. A rite of passage, a journey to find myself, a spreading of wings, a precious memory of a month of tramping through Europe with a Karrimore Backpack and an Inter-Rail card. It was on this journey that I stumbled across this jewel.

Plitvice Lakes is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Croatia. At the time when I was there, it was still part of the independent minded communist state of Yugoslavia. It is a place of exceptional natural beauty and again at the time of my visit, a place of great tranquility. I suspect the latter has changed with ever increasing number of tourists. Still I would like to believe that you would still be able to have a portion of it for yourself somewhere along the many kilometers of wooden walkways and trails.

The area is basically a karst landscape but is so flooded with water that there are cascades, waterfalls, streams and brooks linking 16 turquoise-blue lakes of crystal clear waters. Everywhere there are deposits of limestone overgrown with moss and dripping with water. The lakes are in two clusters which are the Upper (gornja jezera) and Lower (donja jezera) Lakes. There are places where caves, holes and even tunnels have been carved in the rock. There are places for swimming. It is water, water everywhere and set in the midst of a dense green forest of beech and pine. The wildlife is also plentiful as is the trout, both in the lakes and on the restaurant menus.

I spent only two days and one night there but would like to have spent longer. Even in my short stay, I managed to meet many interesting ordinary Yugoslavs. The place where I stayed was actually a home owned by a Dutch woman who had lived in Indonesia but then moved to Yugoslavia because she liked the life and the people there. I was also quite impressed by the close bonds between the Christian and Muslim communities which was especially evident in the countryside where they lived side by side in mutual support and respect. In my journeys, I also encountered dissidents who were upset about how the country was run but again I was surprised when not one of them would speak bad about President Tito. To them, Tito had brought unity, peace and stability……. it was the other idiots in government that were messing things up.

It was therefore with great dismay that I witnessed through the media the breakup of Yugoslavia with its attendant wars and ethnic clashes. It seems to me that the other idiots had indeed messed things up. I feel sad for all the atrocities and animosity that had risen from such a peaceful land and pray for healing for all. Plitvice was not spared the horrors and in fact the first casualty of war in Croatia was Josip Jovic, who was a Plitvice Lakes Park Police Officer. One hopes, that its tranquility and beauty will today help heal battered psyche and banish the horrors of war forever.

(Plitvice Lakes, Croatia = 8* rating out of 10) Posted by Picasa

Dissecting Spikey

What makes for a successful moocher squirrel? It is time to reflect on the special qualities of our lead squirrel.

Spikey is a typical and by that we mean an “average joe” Grey Squirrel (Sciurus caroliniensis). He is about 18 inches in length and half of that is bushy tail. Like most Grey Squirrels, his fur may be described as grey with tan colored hairs scattered through the coat. Some describe it as grizzled, while to the more culinarily inclined, the phrase “salt and pepper” might come to mind. The white underbelly is another blatant and shameless effort to be the epitome of cuteness.

In Canada, where Spikey hails from, many of his relatives may be completely covered in black fur instead of grey. You would think that these black squirrels would be called, well, “black squirrels”. “Ahh! But that would be too easy” said the scientists who promptly declared that they are “melanistic forms of the gray squirrel”. Why don’t they call a spade, a spade? Can’t decide if this is some form of scientific gobblegook or some extreme form of political correctness since scientists all know that the squirrel-lovers are a strong and vocal political constituency.

But I digress. I would refer you to this handsome specimen in the photograph above. I am sorry, this still is not a picture of our beloved Spikey. I promise to have an image of him up as soon as I have saved enough to buy my own scanner because all his photos are not in digital format but in prints. In the meantime, his stand-in is actually a professional model who frquently poses for photos
at www.greysquirrel.net. Examine the specimen carefully and you will understand just how wonderfully equipped the Grey Squirrel is to hypnotise, enchant and even bewitch defenceless humans.

Seeing these tools employed by a master is breath-taking; not to mention peanut-taking too. I can still imagine sitting on a small stool in my small garden, in the cool of the evening shadows. By my side on the wooden boardwalk, a small pile of peanuts. Not long after, Spikey will arrive but he will hide in the bushes and from that vantage point, survey the scene. Not unlike a virtuoso performer at a concert, peering out from behind the heavy red curtains to get a measure of the audience.

Then, the grand entrance is signalled by his arrival on the far end of the boardwalk. At this point, the only thing moving is the long bushy tail but it is dancing excitedly to the left and right, like the jiggling of a fisherman’s bait, luring us in. Once, the scoundrel feels he has the viewer hooked, he begins to move along the boardwalk in a strange rhythmic dance with emphatic but alluring movements of the hips. I was hypnotised by this long before I experienced Shakira in the video, “Hips don’t lie”.

The dance brings him to an arms length from the pile of nuts. Now Spikey flashes his side profile. First his right and then his left as if he is not sure which is his better side. I suspect that he does this so that I can get a better view of his eyes which are like bright pools of liquid bliss and tranquility; all at the same time piqueing my interest while lowering my heart rate and blood pressure (hence squirrel feeding is medically recommeded). This is where, he also employs telephathy to read my mind to make sure I have not recently changed from being a docile, squirrel-feeding slave.

Thus assured, he finally reaches for the nuts, take two steps back and start eating. Immediately, one becomes aware that Spikey is a messy eater. Even as he feeds a nut through his sizeable incisors in the front, like a plank being planed by a buzz saw, bits and pieces fly out through the sides of his mouth. Having given a fantastic performance of dance, theater and magic, he ends with one final ingredient, comedy. Slapstick comedy. Good night and thank you for watching the show. There will be another performance tomorrow at about the same time. Bring peanuts.

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Did I Kill Him??

As the autumn matured into a pallate of rich golds and reds, our relationship began to follow a familiar routine. He would appear at the window in the morning to remind me to put out some peanuts out for him before I slogged off to University. As I was in a basement apartment, the window placed us equally at eye level. In the evening, if I am back before the sun goes down, he may condescend to an appearance. But if he did show up, he would entertain me with his enchanting little dance. I think I will dedicate one whole posting to his dance skills but that will be later. Yet despite this familiar routine, the rapscallion, was well versed in the skills of entrapment and allurement. Looking cute and constantly engaging interests were the tools of his trade; the easy path to procure delicious edibles.

The fact was, that on the very first day we met, as I sat on the stone steps leading to my little garden, he came and sat on my lap and ate out of my cupped hand. He granted me a glimse of such pastoral pleasure and hinted at intimacy. However, once he knew that I was hooked on him and his Sciuridae brethren, he became aloof again. Throughout that autumn, he would be coy, coming close and then draw back again; staying just a finger’s touch away but racing away if you tried to close the gap. It was infuriating but it kept the relationship from becoming routine and stale. Perhaps there is a lesson here about keeping romance fresh in marraiges and relationships. It kept me looking forward to our encounters and wondering if the next time would be the time we would connect again.

Did I tell you that I am a scientist? Well, for a scientist, I was pretty dumb. My excuse was that I was still at that time studying for my PhD and a) I was too stressed to think; b) PhD = permanent head damage, c) one must be inherently dumb to sign up for more studies and exams and d) all of the above. It was only when all the riotous fall color had begun to fade into grey skies that I had an epiphany……. winter was coming.

With this realisation, I was overwhelmed by worry and guilt. Was I making Spikey a tame squirrel? One that got too used to human handouts and became unable to cope with the harshness of winter. Was I ruining his hibernation cycle? Would he be attracted to come out in the cold for the handouts when he should be hibernating safely? Had I killed him? Riding on a crest of adrenaline, I fumbled through the yellow pages and found the telephone number for the Canadian Nature Federation (today, Nature Canada).

“Hello” said the sweet feminine voice.

“Hello, I have been feeding a squirrel.” Please don’t judge me harshly.

“Yess…. feeding a squirrel?”

“Is that bad?” Don’t hang up! It’s not a crank call.

Well, the patient voice explained to me that in fact squirrels do not hibernate but they live off their store of nuts which could be in caches in the trees or buried in the ground. However, if the squirrel had become too dependent on the feeding, he may not have stored enough. So she advised me to keep feeding through the winter.

“Uh huh, … do not hibernate. Need to keep feeding. Yes Ma’am! I can do that”

I was wiping the perspiration off my forehead when she asked what I was feeding the squirrel. I told her I was feeding Spikey, peanuts but that don’t worry I learnt from a friend who reared dogs that giving animals salted food was bad as it caused them to lose their fur. I was careful not to give salted peanuts. “That’s good” she said,” because squirrels can only eat blanched peanuts as in untreated peanuts, there is a protein that is toxic to squirrels.”

Although I still had perspiration on my forehead, I felt the most awful chill down my whole body. I thanked her and placed the phone back in its cradle. The next few steps to the kitchen seemed to last a lifetime and all the while there was pounding in my ears which seemed to say, “Killer, killer”. I opened the cupboard and took the peanuts out and with my heart in my throat, I looked at the package label and it said …….”blanched unsalted peanuts”.

Whew! I learnt my lesson. Don’t feed wild animals. Its bad for them. Well, the lesson is for you readers because I was hooked. After all, the patient voice had commanded me to feed him through the winter which I did with blanched, unsalted peanuts that you can buy in bulk at the supermarket. And despite, my ignorance, Spikey would live on.

Introducing the Cast and Actors

It began on a cold autumn day in Canada, this love affair. I was a poor student in need of lodgings and I was checking out a cosy basement apartment. Now generally, I am in the category of people who need the sky. The thought of being underground with only tiny windows at ground level from which to spy the heavens did not thrill me.

Yet the apartment had its charms, starting with the fact that there was a lovely wooden broadwalk through a small but enchanting garden. This led to the apartment’s entrance which was a pretty white door with a window to the world. Next, you had to descend a wooden, romantically spiral stairs to the apartment. The apartment was a one bedroom with a living room and a tiny kitchen but the hardwood flooring was another hook to my heart strings. I loved it. It had character. I told myself that could always come up and look at the sky like a groundhog does when he emerges from his burrow.

Having pretty much decided that I would be telling the nice, old and slightly deaf French landlady that I would be calling that Hobbit hovel home for the next two years, I came back to the surface. That was when our paths crossed. The squirrel and I.

He was there, no doubt to visit with the pretty young girl who had been the previous tenant. He sized up the situation quickly, his eyes darting between the tiny, darkened windows to the apartment dungeon and at me. There was an intellegence behind his dark eyes that immediately caught my attention. He seemed to deflate with the realisation that the young girl was gone to be replaced by this paleskinned wonder. He looked at me again more critically, his gaze moving up and down.

I made various silly animal voices to entice first contact but I am fairly sure that he decided all was not lost when he noticed that I just happened to have a bag of blanched peanuts in one of my hands. With that, he went into social mode and did what I latter knew to be his dance enticement routine that soon parted the human fool from his peanuts.

I would name him, “Spikey” for the many subsequent mornings, he would come by for breakfast with his fur spiked and disarrayed from restless slumber. He would eventually introduce me to a whole cast of comic and tragic characters. Speedy, Sneaky, Loonie, Patches, Lizzie and others were to be my regular companions and in turn, they would be my guides, allowing me glimses in to squirrel world.

Later I realise that many people have their corresponding squirrel-types. I invite you to join me as the lone grey squirrel rants about the world through squinty squirrel-opened eyes.

Viewing the World Through the Observation of Squirrels