Thursday, May 17, 2007

Western travelogue

I’ve just passed through the security system at Phoenix International Airport. Today I happen to be wearing a black t-shirt with “MERCY FOR ANIMALS” in bold white letters and a stylized blue logo featuring a chicken, a rabbit and a fish. My blazer also features a small black “Praise Seitan” button that I purchased at a vegetarian festival I spoke at the other day in Portland, Oregon. As I began placing my wallet, cell phone, watch, shoes, and laptop into the plastic containers for the conveyor belt to the security scanner, I wondered if my animal rights accoutrements might stir suspicion among the security personnel. As the term “Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act” goose-stepped in my brain, I had visions of a stern-faced uniformed guard quietly asking me to step aside for questioning. I was prepared to counter any interrogations with gentle explanations of animal rights being a movement of compassion and nonviolence, and if necessary, to explain that the button refers to veganism, not demonism. As it turned out, my passage through security was smooth and the personnel affable.

Six days of public speaking and signing books in Oregon and Arizona have brought some rewarding encounters with nature. In a backyard festooned with over 50 varieties of wildflowers, I watched as a feral Norway rat made forays from the undergrowth to get seeds beneath a bird-feeder. She looked much like the tame rat I had petted at the festival the day before. A pair of Steller’s jays and a Towhee poked about right next to the rat, and none seemed to take much notice of the other. I admire the natural tolerance wild creatures often show each other; it reminds me of the civility we show strangers.

A lawn abutting my Tucson hotel swimming pool provided more intense fare for the nature-watcher. The close-cropped green carpet served as a courting ground for sex-pumped great-tailed grackles. A small cluster of the large, glossy males stalked about with bills pointed straight up, like royalty out for a stroll. Suddenly a male would stoop with gaping bill, puff up his feathers creating the illusion that he had just doubled in size, then scurry over to a female crouching with fluttering wings on the periphery. The air around the pool was constantly cleaved with a cacophony of grackle calls, including a loud warbling call that sounded as if the bird was making a derisive comment about my swimsuit.

At a rest-stop en route to Phoenix, I watched a pair of cactus wrens cavorting and preening in a small tree. Nearby, a mother thrasher demonstrated foraging techniques to her fully fledged chicks. She would trot a couple of feet and they would follow as if tethered to her by invisible string. She plucked and swallowed a tiny morsel from the sandy gravel, then hurried off again. The young pair stayed behind, making desultory probes at the substrate before trotting off to join her again. As I returned to my rental car I saw a sign warning visitors of the presence of rattlesnakes. Considering how many snakes get bumped off by humans, I figure it’s a good thing snakes can’t read, else they’d be scandalized, if not terrified, by such a sign.


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