Grimm and grimmer

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A few weeks ago I checked out Coursera, the website that grants access to free online classes in a range of topics led by professors at top universities. Pretty good deal, right? Several of the imminent classes sounded interesting: Introduction to Sustainability, for instance, and Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Computation. However, knowing nothing about either of these subjects I decided to sign up for a class that I have some background in: a literature course called Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World. After signing up, though, I realized I didn’t really have an extra 10+ hours a week necessary for all the readings, lectures, and essays.

In fact, the main reason I was interested in the class was the first reading, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and thus I decided to just read them on my own.

As you might expect, the tales are odd. We know some of the famous ones–Hansel and Grethel, Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella (called Aschenputtel in German, a decidedly unattractive name). And while there are several tales of beautiful maidens being rescued from evil stepmothers by kings, there are many more with talking animals and and lies that are not always punished. Most of the stories, really, seem written by children, with a child’s wandering logic and miscellaneous details and rules.

In the woods

Children’s tales are generally fashioned to teach lessons, but Grimm’s lessons are often puzzling. In Hansel and Grethel the poor father is loathe to leave his children in the forest, but agrees with his cruel wife. When his children reappear at the house after Hansel’s flint stones lead them back, the father is overjoyed yet must agree once more with his wife to bring them out into the woods. For, as the story asserts, “he who says A must say B too, and when a man has given in once he has to do it a second time.”

In some stories, young girls who make promises are forced to make good on them (such as in The Frog Prince). Yet, in other instances, cruelty is rewarded. Cat and Mouse in Partnership tells the story of a cat and mouse who save a pot of fat to tide them through the upcoming winter. The cat can’t wait to eat it and steals away three times to eat it by himself. When the winter finally falls and the mouse discovers the cat’s duplicity, the cat eats the mouse. The final sentence of the story simply reads: “And that is the way of the world.” Hardly comforting. Likewise, in The Wolf and Seven Goslings, a wolf asks a baker to cover him in flour so that he might disguise himself and eat the eponymous goslings. The baker at first refuses, not wanting to collude with the evil wolf, but finally agrees. The story gives us this wisdom: “And that just shows what men are.”

Perhaps the strangest two stories I read, though, were The Death of the Hen and The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean. In the first, a hen dies choking and several animals join in to carry her body to a burial site. While crossing a stream, though, they all drown. Her husband remains, buries her, and then buries himself alongside because he’s so filled with grief.

In the second story, a straw, a coal, and a bean escape a woman’s stovetop and set out together on a journey. They, too, come to a stream and the straws lays himself across it so that his new friends might pass over. The coal stops in the middle of the straw out of fear, but the coal’s heat burns the straw and they both fall in the water and…die? Can we say that about a coal and a straw? Meanwhile, the bean finds his friends’ demise so hilarious that she literally bursts with laughter. A kind tailer sews her up with black thread. So, Grimms, what are we to make of it all? Only this: “All beans since then have a black seam.”

Ah yes, an important lesson to teach the children.


Know your songs

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Here’s a handy guide to a few common birds and their songs:

Which one is your favorite?

A murmuration

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One of my favorite things to do when I lived in Spain was sit on my rooftop terrace at sunset. From there I could watch dark birds glide in  air currents around the cathedral towers. It was like being able to see the wind.

When I first saw a video of a starling murmuration, I though it was the same phenomenon. After all, the shapes that these flocks of thousands form into look like the rolling of waves, the inflation of clouds. But apparently scientists still aren’t sure how individual creatures operate on a mass scale. The best theory compares the starling flock to a liquid becoming a gas, or the origin of an avalanche. These are all systems on the brink of transition, capable of instantaneous change. Not surprisingly, this is a theory that comes out of physics; starlings are one of the few macrobiological examples of phase transitions. The only contribution from biology is that this might be an evolutionary tactic to avoid predators, but it’s still unknown how simultaneous communication occurs between thousands of these birds. The only thing we know for sure is that it’s beautiful:

This is the video I first saw and is pretty cool because the birds fly directly overhead. Starts at 0:22:

How to be an ornithologist

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What you’ll need: binoculars, checklist

Songlist: Freebird, Fly

Further reading: Audubon guides, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Last week, at my aunt’s house in Wyoming, we ate dinner with two avid birders. As they were talking about trips to scout out species, I found myself thinking that I was not particularly interested in birds. My parents, however, were excited to hear about the types of birds found in Wyoming, especially the fact that this couple had seen three distinct variations of blue birds in their own backyard.

At this dinner, my dad told a story about a pilgrimage we made when I was young to see swan migration. Suddenly, the scene came back to me: the air cold, the sky gray, and in front of me an entire Minnesotan lake covered with white trumpeter swans. It was an awe-inspiring sight. But surely this was different. Swans are so incredibly majestic, both in flight and in water. I could love swans without considering myself a birder.

The next day as we drove to a trailhead for our day hike, we passed a barren tree with a huge nest at the very top. Perched above was an osprey, gorgeous and menacing. Tiny osprey beaks peaked up over the nest. We swung over to the side of the road and hopped out to take pictures. Birds of prey, after all, are pretty cool.

You can see where this is going. My aunt was heading to a cruise around the Arctic circle and I eagerly pored over the pictures of animals she might see–including puffins. Super cool.

Western Tanager

A huge raven surprised us in another trailhead parking lot, and I remembered my newfound affinity for those birds after portraying one in a flamenco show last February. As we hiked into the Tetons my dad spotted a gorgeous little bird with a bright yellow body and a peach head. So much for my theory that I wasn’t interested in small birds.

My brother and his girlfriend were the main reason we went out to Wyoming, and they had made the trip out west partly because of my brother’s girlfriend’s sister, who is working an ornithological internship in Montana. This internship involves waking up before sunrise and checking on nesting behavior. Okay, so I might be more interested in birds than I thought, but that still sounds a little too intense for me.

On our last day as we drove away from the Tetons we saw a bunch of cars parked on the side of the road–a sure sign of some large mammal sighting. Having already seen a huge herd of bison on the trip as well as several other large ungulates, we were hoping for a bear. When we saw the large velvety antlers of an elk we sighed and kept driving. But just ahead in the meadow a shot of bright blue burst from the grass. A blue bird. Both my mom and I squealed. And suddenly I realized that I had just mentally checked off bluebird from my life list. I might be hooked.

Save the Dolphins

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Either by watching the most incredible documentary ever, The Cove, and taking action:

Or by bringing back Dan Marino. Amiright?

Playful intelligence

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Dolphins are regarded as some of the most intelligent animals…is it any wonder that they’re also some of the most playful?

They play with bubbles:

And dogs:

They like hanging out with surfers:

Oh, and they’re vain:

How to be a dolphin trainer

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What you’ll need: whistle, wetsuit

Songlist: The Dolphin’s Cry by Live

Further reading: Behind the Dolphin Smile by Ric O’Barry

The Minnesota Zoo recently shocked the populace by announcing that the dolphin exhibit will soon close permanently and the remaining two dolphins transferred to other social groups. So great was the outrage that several hundred people signed petitions and joined a Facebook group called “Save the Dolphins at the MN Zoo” (ah, grassroots movements at their finest). The Minneapolis Star Tribune article quoted several disappointed patrons, who were confused about why the zoo would close one of their most popular exhibits and hoped they would reconsider.

I am somewhat conflicted about this decision. When I was a kid, the dolphin show was the highlight of any visit to the zoo. Watching the brightly ponytailed trainers in their wetsuits signaling tricks to the dolphins and patting them on the nose afterwards, I thought there could be no better job. You get to be pals with the coolest mammals out there, and all you have to do is wave your hands around (and feed them fish–I wasn’t as excited about that part).

When I worked at a local school two years ago, I chaperoned a trip to the zoo with a group of third-graders. Some of them were already to the point of not being impressed by anything, and yet they couldn’t help squealing with excitement when they got splashed by a back-flipping dolphin. Dolphins somehow seem totally chill while also being awe-inspiring. You can’t not love them.

Which makes it even more difficult to hear that 6 dolphins have died at the Minnesota Zoo in the past 6 years. It’s not that the Minnesota Zoo has intentionally mistreated their animals, it’s just that dolphins don’t do well in captivity. As many have noted, a dolphin enclosed in a tank is equivalent to a human being trapped in a hall of mirrors–they navigate primarily through sonar, and thus all of their echolocation bounces off tank walls and back to them. Just imagine how crazy you’d go if all you ever saw was your own reflection.

I probably would not have given any thought to the plight of dolphins in captivity if not for the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove. The films centers around Ric O’Barry, progenitor of all dolphin trainers-cum-marine activist. O’Barry trained dolphins for the 1960s show Flipper, and was profoundly affected when the primary actress, a dolphin named Kathy, swam into his arms and ceased to breathe. Since dolphins need oxygen to live but are not involuntary breathers like us, O’Barry took this as an act of suicide. From that moment on, he has devoted his life to freeing dolphins in captivity.

So, as much as I would love to have dolphins nearby to go hang out with, I hope that Minnesota’s dolphins find a better home elsewhere.  For all those “Save the Dolphins” protesters: moving them elsewhere might be doing just that.

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