The pretty good books of Susan Larson

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Duck and Cover



So, fellow bird-lovers, I am reading a book about avian evolution, which addresses the force of sexual selection as opposed to natural selection. Sexual selection means the mate choices female birds make, which tend to be aesthetic in nature, as opposed to natural selection, which means random adaptations to changing environmental pressures (the famous beaks of the famous Galapagos finches for example), where the better-adapted survive and reproduce and the less-adapted die off.


This book, titled “The Evolution of Beauty” by Richard Prum, argues that most lady birds are attracted to and mate with gentleman birds because they can sing and dance, or can build whimsical love-shacks,  grow fabulous plumage, and are just all-around charming and cute. I am supplementing my reading with frequent visits to YouTube, where clips of elaborate and totally insane male sexual displays are readily available. They really are awesomely charming and cute.

This female taste for male loveliness has led to a competition in swiftly-evolving, crazily- ramifying forms of wooing antics by those hopeful boybirds, Their sexual displays serve no adaptive purpose at all, and sometimes quite the reverse.

Consider the peacock, the Great Argus pheasant, the birds of paradise, the bower birds and the manakins. These guys aim to ravish the senses, and they do. They do not manfully defend their mates, feed their children or help around the house. The sex lives of these male birds consists of competitive flirting, flaunting, winning and making sweet love to any lady (or ladies) who choses him. A few seconds of intimacy and that’s it. The lady then gets to build a nest, lay the eggs, incubate, feed and guard the babies. But! She got to pick, all by herself, the most gorgeous among all the gorgeous contestants to father her brood. Thus beauty begets more beauty. Ravishing, melodious, iridescent, dancing avian beauty.


And then there are ducks. Like the aforementioned birds, male ducks are often gorgeous. They also court their womenfolk by posturing and flashing dazzling colors and making sexy moves and sounds. After mating with her carefully chosen drake, the female duck takes on all the familial duties, and the male goes about his business, whatever that may be.


But here’s the difference. Gangs of rejected male ducks are lurking, and they are up to no good. They try to force their repulsive unwanted selves on the female, who really, really does not want them to. She runs, she resists, She fights, and she is often injured or even killed in these gang rapes. I don’t know what else to call them. The male-to-female ratio in ducks is skewed by these violent proceedings, which of  results in an even larger number of  incel males, doing their nasty business with a diminishing number of females, who would rather die than to be inseminated by their attackers and pass on their yucky genes.


So what’s up with this sex war among ducks, when it seems so counter-producktive? (chortle here) Why do male ducks carry on in this brutal way? What makes them different from those other pretty, colorful, charming, singing, dancing boybirds?


Ducks have penises. Long ones. Longer than their bodies long ones. Most other birds don’t. They evolved away from that penetrative organ millions of years ago. Just sayin.


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The Amish Horse, Part II, Settling In

The Amish Horse. I told you about him a while back. Worked almost to death, covered with raw harness sores, bought by my friend Jess off an Internet auction site, and rescued from the slaughterhouse. The Amish Horse was a physical and emotional wreck. He was not expected to survive more than a couple of months.

His spine was humped up, the tendons in his legs were giving out, and his fetlock joints brushed the ground. The vet diagnosed him with an incurable degenerative disease of the connective tissue (DSLD, similar to EDS in humans) which had been exacerbated by brutal overwork. He was in terrible pain. Perhaps death would have been a mercy.

But Jess and her students at Empowered Equines horse rescue loved him. They salved his open sores. Friends donated leg and fetlock braces to ease his joints. Bute (great stuff, I’ve used it), supplements, orthopedic farriery and chiropractic were administered. Love and treats were offered. The Amish horse stood quietly indifferent to it all. He was done caring. Except maybe for the treats.

I met up with The Amish Horse briefly in August. At the top of the page you can see him all spiffed up to meet his fans. He is a presence: a big, broad, handsomely dark-bay gentleman of refinement and good breeding, maybe Cleveland Bay, with a truly messed-up hind end. The skin on his butt crinkles up weirdly when he moves, because with this disease, skin, too, is only weakly attached to the body. By the time I met him he was in much less pain. He could lie down and roll, and somehow get back up. He could trot and canter, goofy as it looked. He knew who he was and what he wanted from life.

His first demonstration of his wants came in the form of an escape. One Maine summer’s day, being led to be turned out into a paddock, he decided that the stinging greenhead flies were just too much, and he wanted to be indoors. He pulled loose and bolted for the barn.

“Get out of the aisle, Gummy Bear is running in!” Jess shrieked. Kids dove into stalls as half-a-ton-plus of determined horse came busting into the barn and diving into his own stall, somehow managing to keep his wobbly legs under him on the concrete aisle floor. Not going out there. No. Nononono.

Gummy Bear? Gummy Bear? Well, it’s his name. Adults and kids tried a bunch of poetic and/or noble names on the big horse, but Gummy Bear is the one that stuck. Maybe because he is so squishy. Nobody knows.

Anyway, The Amish Horse-that-was has a name and some opinions. He has a pasture-mate, the equally enormous Clydesdale mare Wispy (!), whom he does not particularly like, but with whom he will frolic, frisk and even buck, especially when there is fresh snow to kick up and roll in.

Wispy has taught Gummy how to play with the puzzles and toys provided for intellectual enrichment and fun in the paddock, but when she plays with something he wants that something. When they get groomed or scratched out there, each one keeps track of the attention that the other is receiving, and nudges the scratcher when ‘hey it’s my turn now.’

Gummy Bear does have a lady love, a tiny pony named Marshmallow, who giggles and wriggles as he covers her with wet kisses, reaching over the fence.

His boy-frenemy is a lively silver bay pony named Punk, with whom he play-fights every chance he gets.


“I’m gonna bite you good! No, I’m gonna bite YOU!” they threaten each other, sparring. Punk has to rear up to nip at Gummy’s face, so he spends a lot of time up on his hindies, which is cute.

The fence is there for safety. Gummy, big. Ponies, small. Even friendly roughhousing in the same paddock could be lead to mishaps. These shenanigans are so joyful and hilarious, that when these guys play together a small audience assembles to watch the fun. I get to watch the home videos they take. I laugh a lot.

No human, however, has been selected to partner with Gummy, because his days may be numbered, and because although he is affectionate with humans now, he is like a two-year-old child, discovering the joys of “No.” His King of the World, “don’t-have-to, I rather think not, not listening to you, pal” phase.

He hasn’t figured out the social contract thing quite yet, the you-can-do-this-for-me-and-I’ll-do-something-nice-for- you exchange, and maybe that’s OK for now. He knows he is not going to be punished for not listening, so he’s trying that on with everybody; but  eventually he has to cooperate better, for his and others’ safety and comfort.

But there is a Young Man. The only young man at the barn-full of horse-loving young women is a high school football player, who takes on the manly heavy chores because he likes the workout. He also likes a certain young human lady who hangs at the barn. Here she is working with Gummy on targeting for treats, the first step in clicker training.



Despite the no-partner decision, the Young Man has a sort of a thing going with Gummy, probably because they are both big husky dudes. YM is learning to wrap GB’s legs, put on his fleece blanket, and generally fuss with him. He has been observed kissing him. He is also undertaking to clicker-train the horse to– wait for it– kick a football. Gummy is a little bit bemused by this, but hey, the treats are great. Here they are, sharing a pigskin moment together.



The most interesting news is about the convex Gummy spine. His chiro thinks that his hunchback is not a trait he acquired young, as is the usual case with horses with roach backs, but rather a muscular compensation he makes to help his deteriorating legs to function. However his back is getting looser and letting down, maybe causing him less pain and allowing for easier movement as he cavorts and plays with his toys and buddies. And learns to kick field goals. Or not. Here he is with his peeps, declining to put his foot on the ball.  Maybe he is asking for another kiss.


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But a chiro? This beast has a chiro? Why do these nutty people spend the big bucks on such luxuries for a horse? Why did the Good Samaritan cross the road? Rescue means Rescue.

Empowered Equines is also a training school for people who want to learn good horse husbandry and positive reinforcement training. Even the vets and farriers and yes, the chiro, will learn good new things treating these horses, things that may be useful to them in their further practice. The kids are Empowered too. They learn wonderful, and sometimes tough life lessons; including analysis of seemingly unsolvable problems, patience, relationship, courage, faith, and coping with illness, debility and death.

They also learn fashion design and costume building, but that is another whole story, I’ll save for later. But if you have not seen a horse and his human partner strutting their stuff while wearing matching red silk top hats, you have not truly lived.

Some of these rescued animals can recover and work in the traditional way, if they are good with it. Some cannot. This does not mean that they are without value. Gummy Bear is not half a horse.  He is himself. He and the rest of his mates have gifts of themselves to offer. As do we human beings, even if we are compromised and broken and cannot earn our keep. If we are distant cousins with fruit flies and fish– and lots of shared DNA tells us we are– then we are practically brethren to the creatures in our care. They are us and we are them.



Here are Gummy and Punk showing off for each other. Gummy is busting into a canter. You can see the pleats in his butt and his wonky legs. But he is having fun, FUN, in spite of all he has suffered..

For more information about Empowered Equines, in York, Maine,  just Google them up.


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My Lawn

“Do you want us to dig out those violets and dandelions and…other stuff?” said the landscaper.

“No, I don’t,” I said firmly. “I like them.”

The man took this in while examining my lawn more closely, his inner turmoil showing in his face as he grappled with the sacrilegious concept of letting flowers live in the lawn.

I live in the leafy suburbs, a place where the all-green velvety, pool-table-like lawn is worshipped and served as a god. Where a stray bugleweed or a lamb’s quarter  would be ruthlessly hunted down and murdered, where visions of  dandelion fluff blowing in from elsewhere haunt the dreams of the grass-obsessed home-owner. Where the big bucks are spent for International Harvester-sized sit-upon mowers,  herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers, all to groom, feed, water, and maintain the monoculture of grass. Grass. Grass is not a plant. It is an animal. It is a cash cow.

I have no grass. Or little grass. It is true that my spouse re-seeds the lawn with grass when the mood takes him in September;  and grass emerges, tender and lusciously green. By the next summer there is no longer any grass. Or little grass. There is crabgrass and violets and clover and bugleweed and dandelions and God knows what-all else. It is green sprinkled with white and blue and yellow and purple in May.  You can tread on it. You can mow it. It is my lawn.

Grass lawns are good in Great Britain. It is cooler there, and it rains a lot more. Big British Lawns are populated by sheep, who keep them trimmed down. Grass lawns are not good in New England. It is too hot. Grass lawns want to go dormant and brown in the summer.  Eternal vigilance and loads of toxic chemicals keep grass from being crowded out by plants that love living in New England. Those plants who have displaced the grass in my lawn are real plants; they survive on their own, with sunshine and water and dirt being the only contribution from me.

I do have to mow it. I always wondered why those grass breeders have never come up with a dwarf species that stops growing at three inches, and holds its own against crabgrass. I am sure that will never happen, because the lawn-care and lawnmower industries would quietly assassinate anybody who threatened their cash cow.

Think of all the great things suburbanites could do if they kicked the grass habit. Vegetable and flower gardens, wildflower meadows with mowed pathways, astroturf,  Japanese sand and rock gardens.  But no. We have drunk the Kool-Ade;  the all-grass lawn is a sign of respectability, financial success, and the Puritan Ethic. It is a  a holy grail to be struggled for and worried over day and night. Labor-intensive though it may be, costly though it may be, crazy though it may be, stupid though it may be, we pour cash and labor (our own or the labor of those nice guys from Guatemala) into our grass lawns. We resent and silently curse the neighbors who have violets and dandelions spangling their lawns. That would be my lawn…mylawn

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How to Charm the Birds out of the Trees

Yesterday I got about a dozen hits; the gang showed up all at once, yelling and swearing and threatening each other. Today, they ignore me. I stand for thirty minutes in the backyard, motionless as a post, whistling softly and looking modestly at the ground. Nada.

Then there is a rattle of feathers, and tiny claws grip my thumb. A chickadee swipes a piece of peanut off my palm, squeaks, and takes off. A titmouse takes his place, eats a peanut and nips my hand to see if it might be tasty. She grabs another nut, flips her wings, and heads for the woods to dine on it in private, or stash it for later.

I am totally, helplessly enchanted. The birds have decided I am good people.

“My” backyard birds have always been pretty casual around me, eating at the feeder as I puttered in the garden or read in the Adirondack chair. But of course, like all biophiliacs, I wanted to touch them, or at least I wanted them to touch me. So I decided to make the effort to lure them onto my hand.

There are a number of ways bird-lovers accomplish this trick, but the principles remain the same. Put some birdie treats, something extra good like pecans or peanuts, on your feeder and stand around at a discreet distance.

Wear sunglasses (no wild animal likes to be stared at, it’s very threatening, and if you roll your naked eyes to look at them the scream EEEEEK and fly away). Wear comfy shoes. This takes a while.

Even though they figure out pretty quickly that you and the goodies arrive together, eating in your company is a big step for a little bird. Shorten the distance between you tactfully, retreating if necessary. When they are happily fluttering around your head, take the treats off the feeder, put them in your hand, arrange your hand so it touches the feeder and wait for the bravest bird- a chickadee probably- to take the plunge. Last step, remove the feeder and offer the goodies.

You will hear the birds vocalizing and figure out what they are saying. There is the general alarm-call, “chicka-deedeedeedeedee.” Five ‘dees’ indicate your high dangerousness quotient, and will lesson in number as the bird decides you are harmless, until you rate only a “chick” as the bird weighs and risks and benefits giving itself encouragement to hop onto your palm.

In my imagination, the bird working himself up to do it is saying “shit, shit, shit!”

The little squeak they make when they have actually done it means “Yippee!” And the angry chickadee ‘gargle’ is a curse flung at other birds: “My turn, bitch, back off!”

I just love being fought over…

Nuthatches alight on my hand also, making their nasal mutterings, “meh, meh, meh.” I am hoping that I will get woodpeckers, who make a sound like a sneeze. Perhaps I can entice some other birds too, although the resident cardinals and finches are very shy. My idea of heaven is a Carolina Wren- that tiny russet-colored droplet of pure energy- taking peanuts from my hand. But anybird will do; it’s a thrill to have them sit on me, and an honor to be their pet.

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Poverty Bites

“The Poor,” as Jesus remarked a good while ago, “you will always have with you.”
As promised, The Poor have not gone away. Throughout history the more fortunate have dealt with them charitably, mercifully, or brutally as the mood takes us. In our success-crazed American society, the condition of poverty is kind of OK, but only if you rise out of it. If you insist on remaining stuck in poverty, there are names you get called.

Lazy, shiftless, amoral, irresponsible, moochers, ‘takers,’ The 47 Per Cent, people who expect Free Stuff, Welfare Cheats, Welfare Queens, those people who actually own washing machines and TVs, but who are eternally lining up to buy T-bone steaks and prawns with their food stamps, Drains on the Economy, producing nothing but kids out of wedlock, drinking their paychecks away, addicts, criminals, and trailer trash.

Well, I have my own definition of The Poor. The Poor are people who can’t get their teeth fixed.

I am one of the more fortunate, at least for the moment. I have however, inherited my ancestor’s crumbly soft teeth; I have had a bunch of dental abscesses, which start out as a mild temperature sensitivity and then develop into a roaring, throbbing agony that spreads to my whole head and then to my body. When this happens I call Dr. Levine’s office and groan into the phone, and the nice lady says to me “Can you come in right away?” So I do, and Dr. Levine performs a root canal and I go on my way rejoicing and praising God.

If you are The Poor neither the dentist nor the nice lady will see you right away. They will quote you a price, not for a root canal but for an extraction; then tell you they cannot pull a tooth while it is infected. The anesthetic doesn’t work if it’s infected. They may give you a scrip for antibiotics.
So you score some Doxycycline, and maybe some weed to kill the pain, or you chew on a tea-bag, or take three Ibuprofen and a Tylenol in one go, or you turn to the universal analgesic of the poor, alcohol. If the antibiotics don’t kick in right away, you can also, as I have just learned, just rinse your mouth with vanilla extract. Or gasoline.

They only let you work part-time on the register of the big food chain that hired you. That’s so they won’t have to give you health insurance or other benefits. Your little house is underwater and the mortgage is too high, but you still make your payments conscientiously, as you do all your other bills.
But last year your good hardworking live-in gentleman friend, who never slaps you around like your husband used to, broke both arms in an accident on a construction job, and you were strapped for cash. That’s when you got involved with a sleazy loan company that charged you usurious rates of interest, compounded each week. It took some time before you realized you were only paying to service the interest, not the principal, and that the payments would never, ever end.

And now your entire mouth, jaw, head, throat and body are pounding in unspeakable agony; and either the infection or the antibiotics is making you nauseous, exhausted and unable to eat. You may have waited too long to seek help, so the infection might spread to, say, your brain, your jawbone or your bloodstream and heart, at which point you have bacterial endocarditis and you can go to the E.R.
In spite of not feeling quite up to par, you go to work and you do your hours, and you start looking around for some other way to make some cash; maybe cleaning houses, which you used to do when you were young. You can’t imagine doing all that bending and stooping work feeling like you do. And of course, no benefits come with that job either.

And maybe some friend or the people from church, seeing how sick and terrified you look, may help you pay off your debt to the predatory loan company, and maybe somebody knows somebody who is looking for domestic help, and maybe the Doxy will get rid of the infection if it hasn’t gone too far, and you can scrounge the cash to get the tooth pulled.

But there are a dozen teeth, more or less, that you still have in your head. Each one is a time bomb.
The Teeth– you will always have with you.

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Does it Matter if Your Horse is in Pain?

Nine Kinds of Pain

I used to love dressage. Dressage is the French Word for ‘training,’ and its goal is, or was, physically and mentally conditioning a horse to the point where she can move with her native pride and grace while carrying a human burden on her back. This would be something like training a ballerina to dance Swan Lake wearing a book-bag. Not so easy. The ideal result of this training should be a centaur: human and horse becoming a harmonious lyrical whole.

My grade companion horses could do basic low-level dressage, which meant: smooth starts, stops, backing up, turning in circles or in place, switching easily from one gait to another, and carrying a rider in a balanced way without discomfort or pain. More than that I never asked, because I was not really good enough to ask.

I admired the great dressage horses and their wonderful riders of the past. I had a crush on the great Olympian horse Rembrandt and his rider Nicole Uphoff, who made dressage look like a dance they were just making up for fun; so expressive of power, beauty and joy.

Lately when I see dressage clips on you-tube, it does not look like fun. One clip I happened upon showed a lady (I won’t name her) in full show kit on a beautiful dark bay horse, doing high level dressage airs in an arena. The animal’s head was tucked in almost to his neck, and his mouth was open in his efforts to evade the bit. His back was hollow and his hind feet, instead of working under his body to help carry the rider, were trailing out stiffly behind. Every time he was asked to turn, he lashed his tail angrily from side to side.

This animal was also extremely expressive. What he was expressing was pain.

And this is the video she put up of herself! Merrily floating along while her horse is desperately trying to tell her w that it damned well hurts!

If I had any hope of being heeded by this ‘expert’ dressage rider I would tell her get off, turn her horse out into a pasture to graze and play with his friends, and after a few months when the pain finally stops, she might want lend him to a twelve-year-old kid and tell them to go trail riding on a loose rein for a year or so. Maybe with no bit in the horse’s mouth.

What kind of narcissistic ego trip, or big-money trip, or prestige trip, is the competitive dressage world on, that they do not notice their own expensive and ‘pampered’ animals expressing pain? Are they so focused on extracting what they– or the show world– desire from their horses that they don’t see? Or care? Maybe PETA should have a look at this sadistic perversion of dressage. I used to like it. Now it makes me sick.