The Lattice of Coincidence

A quote from Miller, the junkman in the movie, Repo Man:
” A lot o’ people don’t realize what’s really going on. They view life as a bunch o’ unconnected incidents ‘n things. They don’t realize that there’s this, like, lattice o’ coincidence that lays on top o’ everything. Give you an example; show you what I mean: suppose you’re thinkin’ about a plate o’ shrimp. Suddenly someone’ll say, like, plate, or shrimp, or plate o’ shrimp out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin’ for one, either. It’s all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.”

A quote from my brother:
If it happens once, it’ll happen again.”

A quote from my daughter:
Do you think John Wesley Powell is, like, haunting us, Mom?”

Nah, I think synchronicity and the  LOC (Lattice of Coincidence) are just playing with us. And you can quote me on that. If not, how do you explain the almost manic intensity with which John Wesley Powell, the famous explorer, keeps popping up in our lives? Why did Jellicle Cats and Joe Strummer, the Clash’s lead singer, show up on the same day in two unrelated searches that I did and then turn up a day later in a book I had taken out of the library almost two weeks before, but never read?

John Wesley Powell lost his right arm as a major in the Civil War and then went on to explore the Grand Canyon by taking a crew in wooden boats down the Green and Colorado rivers.  He claimed that he wasn’t an adventurer, merely a scientist who wanted to use scientific discoveries to benefit humankind. Not only was he a naturalist, but he also had a good understanding of geology, anthropology, ethnology and hydrology.

Later on in life, he headed the Smithsonian and the US Geological Survey. What my daughter likes about him is that he was a homeschooler for much of his childhood, took seven years of college courses, never graduated and became a professor. Different time, for sure. She read about him in a book we bought for a quarter in a bin at the supermarket. That was last week.

Two nights later, we turned on the Travel Channel, and there was JWP, piloting a wooden boat through the Grand Canyon. We watched the show and compared it to the biography book and noticed that, in the book, the illustration of him in the boat showed him with two arms. On the show, he was portrayed by an actor with his back to us and one sleeve pinned up. It was my daughter who realized that both of those depictions were wrong, by the way, because he only lost his forearm. She’s quick.

The Jellicle Cats come into it because I was trying to remember a T.S. Eliot quote and they showed up when I searched on his name. Two hours later, I was covered with dust and had dug out “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” and was sharing it with Daughter, who has a “Rumtumtugger” sort of cat of her own.

Joe Strummer, the late lead singer of the punk rock group, The Clash, during the end of the 70’s, showed up in another search I did when I was writing a post on spittoons because he attributed his Hepatitis C to a fan’s spitting on him at a 1978 performance. The fan wasn’t knocking his performance, by the way, just expressing his adulation in the usual free-spirited way of punk audiences in those days. Apparently, any band member not entirely covered in gobs of saliva after a show was suspected of Republican leanings.

So that’s where things stood, when I settled down on Monday night, to read my last remaining book from the ones I’d checked out of the library two weeks before. It was a mid-sized mystery novel called, “Cattery Row” by Clea Simon.

It hooked me from the first page and I liked it well enough so that I put her first book, “Mew is for Murder” on my list for the library trip I planned for the next day. Right after I did that, partway through the book, Simon mentioned Jellicle cats and then, right after that, Joe Strummer. Okay, so the book’s sleuth is a cat lover and a music critic who likes punk rock, so why shouldn’t she mention Jellicle cats and Joe Strummer? That’s not the question.

The question is, why did I take out that particular book by an author I’d never heard of, leave it unopened for two weeks in the pile next to my computer, and then do two searches that turned up two totally unrelated things that were mentioned in the book?

Now, back to John Wesley Powell. Daughter and I were browsing the children’s room’s shelves for poems by Lillian Moore, who is Daughter’s current fave and one of mine.  We were having a tussle with a large book, probably Shel Silverstein still playing around or a book my fifth-grade teacher made me memorize. Anyway, it was in between Daughter and the Moore book she wanted, so she gave it a tug, and it fell, and we both leapt back and hit the books on the shelf behind us.

As we bent to pick them up, face up in front of us were three books on John Wesley Powell. One was his actual diary and Daughter scooped that up “too-too sweet”, as she says. The other two “didn’t have enough pictures” and “too many words she’d have to look up”, so we passed on them. That’s when she asked me if JWP was haunting us. “All part of a cosmic unconsciousness,” I told her, “The old Lattice of Coincidence.”

“You don’t know, do you?” she said.

“Probably just one of those things,” I said.

“Nobody knows, do they?” she said. I told you she was quick.

“As far as I know, it’s just one of those coincidences of synchronicity that strikes every once in a while in life.”

“You really, really don’t know, do you?” She’s also persistent. Little Miss Water-on-Stone.

She shrugged. “Well, I think things just happen. Let’s get some more Lillian Moore books and go home and read.”

I didn’t tell her about the Jellicle Cats and Joe Strummer. It’s one thing to suspect that you’re being haunted by a well-known explorer-scientist. But it’s a whole ‘nother thing to know that cats and punk rock guitarists have you in their sights.

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Complicated is the New Simple

It seems as if nothing I try to do is ever as simple as it seems. Lately, I’ve been happily reveling in the fact that the days are getting longer, or to be more precise, the amount of daylight in our days is more than it was the day before. So, fool that I am, I decided to quickly look up exactly how much they’ve lengthened since December’s shortest day of the year.

Can of worms. Don’t go there. Not without a scientific calculator, a dictionary, ephemeris and at least a casual relationship with an able bodied seaman, which sounds more risque than it probably is. But I digress. I started with my favorite weather site, Weather Underground. It’s as reliable as these sites ever are and simple to navigate, which is a big plus for me. In the Astronomy section, there was, indeed, an entry for Length of Day. For May 31st, it read 16h 02m and I should have read that and returned to working on the research project that will pay the bills chez Hawkins if I finish it on deadline. But, I didn’t.

Above that entry, there was another that read, “Length of Visible Light 17h 27m. What the heck was this? Was some of the daylight invisible light? And, if so, why? Well, both of those entries were clickable, so I clicked on Length of Day and that’s when I opened the can of worms. Their story is that Length of Day is the time between Actual Sunrise and Actual Sunset. They were mum on how to determine when Actual Sunrise and Actual Sunset occur, so I clicked on Length of Visible Light, foolishly thinking that it might hold the clues to this puzzle. Big mistake.

Length of Visible Light, according to WU, is (and I quote), “The time of Civil Sunset minus the time of Civil Sunrise.” Okaaay. And how, I wondered, do we know when Civil Sunset and Sunset are when we don’t even know WHAT they are? Well, I didn’t see anything on the WU site about Civil Sunrise and Sunset, but I did spy an entry for Civil Twilight, so thinking it might shed some light on the whole thing, I clicked on that and got this definition, “The time period when the sun is no more than 6 degrees below the horizon at either sunrise or sunset. The horizon should be clearly defined and the brightest stars should be visible under good atmospheric conditions (i.e. no moonlight, or other lights). One still should be able to carry on ordinary outdoor activities.”

This didn’t help much with the sunrise and sunset wheeze, but it did draw my attention to two other Twilights, Nautical and Astronomical. As any seaman can probably tell you and ascertain with his sextant, assuming he has it with him in the bar or tattoo parlor, Nautical Twilight is “The time period when the sun is between 6 and 12 degrees below the horizon at either sunrise or sunset. The horizon is well defined and the outline of objects might be visible without artificial light. Ordinary outdoor activities are not possible at this time without extra illumination.” Well, unless you’re catching fireflies or fishing for horned pout or a raccoon investigating garbage cans, that is.

And what about Astronomical Twilight? Well, Astronomical Twilight is “The time period when the sun is between 12 and 18 degrees below the horizon at either sunrise or sunset. The sun does not contribute to the illumination of the sky before this time in the morning, or after this time in the evening. In the beginning of morning astronomical twilight and at the end of astronomical twilight in the evening, sky illumination is very faint, and might be undetectable.”

So, there you have it…whatever IT is. All I know is that today is shorter now, for me, because I wasted so much time trying to find out something that I could have figured out around 3:45 tomorrow morning when the “morning chorus” as Robert Lurtsema of Public Radio used to call it i.e. the thousands of furshluggener birds that lurk outside my open window start yakking at each other loud enough to wake the dead. And me.

Every morning the chorus gets earlier and every evening they say goodnight to each other or have their last word with their mates later and later. Around the middle of June, they’ll start to get up later and go to bed earlier and so will the sun. Me, I’ll still be lying awake right through Civil and Nautical Twilight. But without the birds, maybe I’ll get lucky and fall asleep before Astronomical Twilight rolls around. I can hope.


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Plotting Polecats or Why You Should Be Wary of Cassowaries

I was recently searching for some information on wildebeests and found myself seriously sidetracked by a lurid illustration of a European Polecat – a relative of our Skunk. This depiction of Mustela Putorius was looking out from behind its black mask with an expression that clearly said, “Oh, you would, would you?” I received the impression that it would just as soon bite something as look at it and, according to the information on the page, I was right.

Polecats, who are kind of like weasels on steroids, kill their prey with a single bite, according to “The Encyclopedia of Animals” from Amber Books. That statement led me to ponder whether – if by some mischance the first bite doesn’t kill the prey – the polecat just gives up and goes looking for another rabbit or mouse or rat to bite? Or does it look around, embarrassed, and take another chomp at it if no one is looking?

We’ll get to wildebeests later, but before we do, I need to say something to my UK readers who may be complacently reading this and thinking that this has nothing to do with them, because in England and Scotland, at least, gamekeepers eradicated polecats long ago.

Well, don’t look now, Brits and Scots, but while your backs were turned, Mustela Putorius was sneaking across the border from Wales, where it regrouped and no doubt hatched evil schemes against the gamekeepers and their descendants. I’d do some genealogy research and find out if Great-Grand-Uncle Yorick chivvied polecats off the local lord’s estate, if I lived in the United Kingdom.

As if things weren’t already as black as the feet of the rare Mustela Nigris or Black-Footed Ferret of the US, I suppose I should mention that escaped domestic ferrets (tell me that phrase isn’t an oxymoron) are apt to become rather close friends with polecats and their offspring are very often fertile. Worse yet, my polecat experts tell me that the “kittens” born from these unions, like all polecat babies, don’t have to be taught to kill. It’s instinctive to the breed even at the toddler stage.

It may be of some consolation to the UK citizen who finds polecat adults or kittens surging ’round on every side, to consider that things could be a lot worse. Instead of polecats, they could be confronted with a surprised double-wattled cassowary – considered by many to be the world’s most dangerous bird. One blow from its sharp inner toes can kill a good-sized dog! Who knew?

These bizarre (at least to humans) birds can jump into the air to the height of their head and have many strange features. They have a horn-like casque on the top of the head, possibly to impress other cassowaries or, maybe to help them force their way through dense vegetation. Then there are the wattles which hang from their necks – brightly colored tassles of bare skin that also impress other cassowaries – we think.

About the cassowaries’ family life, the least said the better. Males and females hang out every couple of months, then she lays eggs and takes off, leaving the male to bring up the kiddies. (Lends new meaning to the term “brooding”, don’t you think?) The Dwarf Cassowary has a darker, smaller casque and lives in the mountains of Papua, New Guinea where it is known as the Moruk, of all things.

The only good thing I can say about European Polecats and Cassowaries is that they don’t live in the same places. So, it’s very unlikely, barring a circus train derailment, that you’ll be bothered by both of them at once. If you do run into one in its natural habitat, there is absolutely no chance that there’s a wildebeest within a hundred miles, because – as fans of PBS’s Nature know – wildebeests are found only in Africa where they exist solely as fodder for lions, tigers and every other large carnivore to feed on.

This fact leads to why I was looking up wildebeests in the first place. The kids and I wanted to know why, when they have a set of pretty good horns, these large members of the Hippotraginae subfamily of the Family Bovidae don’t turn around, put their heads down and toss their attackers with those horns. Instead, they panic and try to run away instead. Invariably, at least on Nature, one of them doesn’t make it.

Why they take this approach is still a mystery to me, because The Animal Encyclopedia simply reports it as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, although they do make mention of the Black Wildebeest’s horns being used occasionally to defend against predators. I hesitate to question why Mother Nature has given the wildebeest horns to fight with, but neglected to provide the gene for fighting back as well. It seems rather short-sighted to me, but maybe the focus was more on getting carnivores fed than saving large bovine animals on that day in pre-history.

I had hoped to get away without dissing the wildebeest any more than I already have, but in the interest of responsible journalism I must say that the breed’s instincts do make me wonder if evolution isn’t breaking down in the Bovidae family just a bit. It seems that the migratory instinct is so strong in wildebeests that they’ll even cross very wide rivers, thereby drowning themselves in large numbers. What this accomplishes is anybody’s guess, unless this is a way of insuring the survival of the world’s crocodile population, and I am absolutely NOT going to look up crocodiles, so you’ll have to do that yourself.

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