Owl cries at night

There are two scops owls nesting near the villa in Hyères where we’ve just spent the past three weeks. Their cries at night sound like very regular, neat sounds like a practiced flutist blowing one perfect note in their instruments, always the same, every few seconds. You only hear the note grow louder or weaker as the owl flies about. There are two of them, one living further away and who sings with a slightly deeper note. I’ve never seen them at all, in all those years. The closest I’ve ever been was finding a regurgitated pellet full of tiny bones in the garden, once. Other than that, they’re as inconspicuous as the wind in the trees.

Friends of ours were staying with us for the weekend. As I chatted with one of them, I asked him if he had heard the owls at night.

‘Oh yes,’ he said, and laughed. ‘My girlfriend wanted to know what that beeping sound was!’

‘Huh. Beeping sound?’

‘Yeah. City girl.’

That’s when I realised that, to people who have never heard owls before, the sound must be confusing indeed, and perhaps not entirely pleasant. I still didn’t tell the owls about their ‘beeping’ voice. You never know. They might get offended.

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The last butterflies

Cycling around Aix is a breath of fresh air, on so many more levels than the litteral one. The fields alternate with groves of pines and white oaks, there are few sounds aside from birds, and one just has to glance at the side of the road to see more plants than in a whole week working in Marseilles. Then there are the smells, too, those smells of early summer you could spend hours picking apart: wet leaves, drier leaves, earth, elderflowers, rosemary, wheat fields. One hour out there and it feels like the part of you that got the best workout was not your legs, but your brain. There is so much going on: a jay taking flight from a cherry tree, a bid of prey soaring up with a snake in its talons, willow pollen tormenting your eyes, the sweet, sudden smell of elderflowers, unknown plants pricking at your legs, roots working their way under the roads and making them bumpy, the temptation to snach almonds from a branch leaning out of a garden, tiny streams that would barely have registered as rivulets back in Québec, but that are dignified with a name and a signpost here, the red assault of a cluster of poppies, your whole body feeling the change when you leave the side of the field and enter the drier regions of pine woods, with their dry warmth and deep aromatic scent, the changing silhouettes of trees, sinuous for oaks, straight for pines, mangled for plane trees, bushy for elders…

There is an ongoing debate about whether spending your time on a computer is likely to make you less intelligent in the long run, and I’m not going to voice an opinion on it, but I wonder if we are not missing something crucial from that debate. The point is, perhaps spending your time online may allow you to reach more information, or perhaps it only allows you to memorise paths to that information and cripples your capacity to remember things by yourself, I have no idea. But what about all the information that cannot be found online? The smells, the feelings, and the dizzying diversity that remains there even though we have done an awe-inspiring job so far at destroying as much as you can? Half of the butterflies are now gone from European fields. Yet when you cycle through the countryside for a couple of hours, you come across half a dozen species, at least. There is more diversity in the last of the butterflies than in what the average person browses online in a week–and for that matter, in what could be found in most libraries of the world. There is a certain type of knowledge we have learned to conveive as all-important, and that is knowledge that can be expressed through words on a page. I’m not denying the importance of that knowledge. But what about all the information we are depriving our brains of, the sound of a lizard in the grass, the prickly touch of weeds, the way the smells change in the spring?

I recently read about a species of ants that evolved to live underground, then came back to the surface after a few thousand years. While living underground, their brains adapted to their new conditions. But they did not simply become different; they became atrophied. Life underground is much simpler than life overground. There is almost no light, there are fewer sounds, the touches and smells are mostly all the same. With so little information to process, brains can become lazy. They simply stop being ready for an overload of information that will never come.

We couldn’t turn into ants underground, could we? I hope not. I hope that there is something I’ve failed to notice in the videos and online conversations my student spend their lives following on their smartphones. I sincerely hope so, because if there’s not, our descendants will know the fate of the ants underground. Their brains will be shut to the flutter of a butterfly’s wings. And so much will be lost to us.

The land of stupid dinosaurs

Right over here, in the Sainte-Victoire mountain, there is a fossilised forest. It’s not very easy to see, because it requires creeping spider-like along the cliff, on a path that’s much too steep to climb using your feet only. At some point, when you crawl along the rocks, you notice concentric rings of calcite crystals. If you look closely, you’ll see the shape of trunks and branches, fossilised and crystalised and forever bound in rock.

It’s a forest of stumps, really. But the crystal rings are beautiful all the same.

I used to think, wrongly, that these calcite rings were the famous dinosaur eggs everybody has heard about around here but nobody sees because the places where they are are either too hard to climb or plain forbidden. Actually, the eggs are much smaller, and less dramatic. But they still look like reptile eggs… which look, well, very much like rounded stones, but as there are no rounded stones there as it’s a limestone cliff and there is no water nearby, their true nature is apparent. And some pieces definitely look like fragments from a very big eggshell.

The dinosaurs that inhabited the area are titanosaurs, very big things with a long neck that look quite similar to brontausaurs. Few bones were found, they only managed to piece together one big skeleton, that’s standing in the museum right behind our flat. But they found an amazing lot of eggs all over the place.

Apparently, the reason for this is that there used to be a large river over here. And our dear titanosaurs soon noticed that it was very easy to dig nests in the soft earth of the banks. So they dug nests, laid eggs, covered the nests in a big layer of vegetable matter that would then rot and keep the eggs warm. The only detail of that brilliant plan they didn’t think through was that there is a reason why the earth near the banks of a river is soft. It’s called overflowing. 

The titanosaurs kept losing eggs to the overflowing river. And kept laying eggs there anyway. And kept losing eggs. Not every single egg that is laid in the wrong place gets fossilised, so given the massive quantities we can find now, we can assume that they kept laying eggs in the wrong place for a very, very long time. And then they disappeared. 

The eggs are still encased in rock today, and erode down the cliffs year after year, and there are so many of them scientists don’t bother studying them all, or even putting a "keep off" sign near the less interesting nests. You still stumble across them if you’re careful, at the edges of the fossilised forest, all that remains of the land of not-very-bright dinosaurs.

Phones off the hook on Shabbath

Back to the bled, as I used to say, or in a less affected phrasing, to the family home in the hills of Provence. My brother is back from a trip in Israel. We spent the better part of the afternoon diluting the noxious products he uses to develop him black-and-white Leica pictures. After scanning the negatives, he showed me what looked like a mistake: a row of phone booths, with the receptors hanging at the end of their wires on the empty wall.

‘Awrh, that was SO disappointing", he said. "It was the first evening of shabbath, and there were those guys taking public phones off the hooks in case someone picks them up and breaks shabbath, and can you believe it, they left right while I was adjusting the distance scale…"

I stared for a second.

"You mean, that was in the kibbutz, right?"

While in Israel, he had been visiting our granduncle’s daughter in her kibbutz, and had found a lot to tell us about it.

"Not in the kibbutz, no. That was Jerusalem. Near the Wall of Laments."

"Near? Like, they have a security perimetre of holiness arount the wall or something?"

"Nope. They just do it around all the city. I bet the Arabs hang them up again once they’re gone, though."

Hum. Jerusalem must be a kick-ass place for any non-Jewish people to live in, then. There followed more pictures from the Wall of Laments, with people lamenting, praying and occasionally falling asleep on their Bibles. Never saw that many hats on the same picture. The picture of my brother’s room in his dorm at Lyon with all his hats on the same shelf doesn’t count.

The negatives turned out to be rather good. While we were hanging them on the cord in the middle of the bathroom and wiping the last drops of water off their shiny surface, we exchanged some news of our respective weeks. I told him of my upcoming conference in Maryland. He told me about dissecting mice brains for his neurology class. I remembered that dissections tended to put him off somewhat when he was at school, and asked him if he had actually done it. 

"Yup. And I even had to do it for the girl sitting next to me. She was scared she would mess up."

"So girls get squeamish about cutting up mice, then?"

"Not squeamish. It’s just that they don’t want to mess everything up and have to go fetch another mouse in their little cage. But nobody really wants that, you know."

"Oh. Makes sense."

So, one advantage of studying humanities at last. You don’t get a job, but at least if someone asks you whether you would have the guts to kill a mouse and then cut up his brain, you can just answer, "Oh, sure. All for the good of science, you know. I’m no sissy.", and simply prepare the poultry in advance the next time you invite them over, so they don’t see you making faces when it comes to cut out the little birdies’ heads.

And after those pleasantries and useful afternoon well spent for the sake of art, we ended the day with a wonderfully non-vegetarian dinner in honour of my brother’s belated birthday. All hail Andalusia that gave birth to pork in whiskey sauce.

UPDATE: and for dessert, framboisier with caramelised meringue on top and just enough whipped cream. Aix-en-Provence beats Andalusia.