Natural respect

Ariel and I went to Slimbridge today on a whim and saw ducklings hatching!

We went into the duckling room first thing to admire the ducklings and there were two eggs in the hatchery (a little warm box where it is a little drier than the egg incubator, to help the ducklings dry out once hatched, where the eggs are moved once there are signs of life). They were apricot silver calling ducks, I think. They looked very much like the one pictured, although a bit less wet and straggly!

The two eggs were both intermittently rocking a little and one had a crack where the duckling had started chipping at the shell from the inside. Duckling Woman told us that it can take many hours, even a couple of days, for an egg to hatch and that they were in the early stages, but that if we checked back later we might see a little hole in the egg rather than just a slight crack. Apparently it takes a lot of effort to break an egg with a miniscule little “egg tooth” (not a tooth, just a sort of bump really) so they often have a few little sleeps while in the process of hatching out.

When we went back an hour or so later there was a third egg which had been brought in and it already had a hole in it! We could see movement through the hole, the little beak chipping away, and feathers, and we could even see the movement of the ducking breathing. Apparently, the little air sac inside the egg gets bigger as the duckling uses up all the nutrients in the egg. When the littl’un is ready to hatch, it starts by breaking into the air sac at which point it begins to breathe! From that moment, even before it is hatched, the duckling begins to cheep. We couldn’t hear any cheeping as the 5-day-old Laysan Teal ducklings (rarest duck on earth) on the other side of the room were very noisy. But apparently they cheep to one another as they are all hatching together and this encourages them, hearing one another, and maybe it also lets mummy duck know what is going on. Anyway, it was really cool and we watched it for a while, the two original eggs had both progressed a little – the one that previously just had a little crack, had chipped almost all the way around while the other which was just rocking before had got some cracks.

A drink and a snack in the cafe later and we decided to go back and see the ducklings on our way out. All the eggs had progressed a little bit and the “middle egg” was catching up, with a visible hole although not such a big hole as the third egg. We went over to see the ducklings and just as we were looking at them and talking to Duckling Woman, someone cried out “oh look it’s come out!” and we rushed over to see the duckling hatch. It was the middle egg which had obviously got a wiggle on and overtaken its more advanced clutch-mate. It had its head out but not its feet and we saw it wiggling around and coming out – very ungainly, but just amazing to watch.

There is a little yellow sac thing that comes with it – like a placenta?? – but otherwise the egg is empty. The duckling, once unfurled, was huge compared to the egg! We got to have a look at it later on and inside the egg you could see the blood veins which had nourished the littl’un before it hatched. Duckling Woman had told us to expect that the duckling would just collapse in a heap and snooze after the mammoth effort of hatching itself, but it seemed to have plenty of energy left – maybe because the “birth” was so unexpectedly quick and easy – and spent a while just crawling around and trying to get onto its feet, rolling its fellow-eggs around and trying to cosy up to its own broken egg (return to the womb??) It was fab!

After that Duck Man came in and had a look. The third duckling – the one everyone thought would hatch first because it was ahead of the others – by now was trying desperately to push out of the egg even though it hadn’t chipped all the way around the edge yet. It was just pushing and pushing. I think (in my anthropomorphic way) that it was annoyed at having been overtaken, and encouraged by the now much louder cheeps of its clutch-mate, and possibly annoyed at the fact that the duckling was rolling the egg around as it tried to get on its feet – no wonder it wanted to get out fast!

Anyway Duck Man came in and decided to “help” by breaking the shell open a little (impatient obstetrician! episiotomy now!) I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing for the chick, and it didn’t feel right, to my wholly inexpert eyes, for him to interfere – however it had the unexpected advantage for we onlookers that we got to see the second duckling hatch as well. It came out within less than a minute of being “helped” and it too was completely amazing. It came out in one go, not head first and legs after like the first one – or legs first and head later like the cartoons…

Oh it was amazing! (Amazing!) I’ve gone on and on about this – I felt while watching it, so privileged and awed.

I kept relating it back to what I know about childbirth in terms of the length of the labour, the experience of the hatching bird / birthing child, the need for time and rest, and this probably coloured my reaction to Duck Man’s intervention. It was a thoroughly absorbing natural process and it was tainted somewhat by the intervention. But still.

What a surpisingly and wonderfully powerful experience: I was walking on air for a long time afterwards – it was a little moment of Joy.


Kangaroo with joey

[Note: This post is inspired partly by Erika, partly by a kangaroo documentary Ariel and I watched today, and partly by a book about two cute little animals (“Platypus” and “Echidna”) having a birthday party, which we read in the library this morning.]

When I was a kid at school and paid as little attention in Biology as I thought I could get away with, all I picked up about kangaroos is that they are marsupials which means they have a pouch to put their babies and all I picked up about the platypus is that it is a bit weird, something like a cross between an otter and a duck.

So now I learn stuff. If anyone else is as uneducated as me in these matters, prepare to be amazed. I mean, wow!

Mammalian reproduction comes in not just one but THREE basic types.

The one we all know about, because it’s what happened to us, is the placental variety. Sperm and egg meet and set up home in the uterus, growing into a foetus that is nourished by the placenta and is then born at a fairly well-developed stage. Lactation then occurs, usually for a relatively brief period, before the new animal becomes more or less independent of its mother.

Then there is the monotreme type – the rarest and most primitive method of mammalian reproduction, where a mammal lays eggs. Yes, we’re talking otter meets duck: also the echidna (spiny anteater) but that’s about it. Lactation happens after the eggs hatch.

Cool, huh?

Finally, those marsupials. The male has a two-pronged penis, which is just as well because females have two vaginas, each leading to a separate uterus. Don’t ask me why they need two, I don’t know.

There is no placenta to nourish the marsupial foetus, it just has a yolk-like sac to keep it going until it is developed enough to exit the uterus (though a third vagina!) and crawl a short distance through its mother’s fur to reach the pouch where it latches itself onto a nipple. Since lactation starts at such an early stage, it is relatively prolonged and, at least in kangaroos, continues until well after the joey first starts to explore the world outside its mother’s marsupium.

Another remarkable thing about the female kangaroo is that she can hold a joey foetus in suspended animation within her uterus.

At any given time, assuming conditions are favourable, a mature female kangaroo might have one joey who has recently left the pouch but is still coming back for milk, another inside the pouch attached to a nipple (her body makes two different kinds of milk – one for the older joey and one for the new foetus), and a third foetus in her uterus ready to be born as soon as the joey in the pouch is ready to leave. She manages to time things so that almost as soon as the joey leaves the pouch, the next one is ready to be born and take up residence. And as soon as that joey foetus leaves her uterus, she comes into heat and will mate: the resulting zygote will develop for a few days and then stop, dormant until she is ready for it to move to the next stage. Isn’t that amazing?

This butterfly has been hanging about in my garden for the last two days:
Butterfly 1 Buterfly 2

It is still alive, and it moves around a bit, but I think it is having trouble straightening its wings. It can flutter a bit but doesn’t seem able to fly more than a foot or so.

Should I leave it and hope it will get better, or put it out of its misery? I don’t want to splat it unnecessarily but it makes me sad to think of the poor thing out there in pain and distress.


Seen on my garage door:

Mystery blob?

And then… surprise!

Loadsa spidas!

III – Petra the Earth Mother

In the beginning was the Great Mother, and her name was Penna. And Penna had four daughters, whose names were Petra, Edna, Callan and Corva.

The daughters of Penna, who were bound together by the woven cloth of the Great Mother, and who were created from her womb, themselves began to create. They gave life to plants and animals, fishes and birds, rivers and mountains and many other works of creation.

As they did so, Petra began to long for her own daughter, and to stand for that daughter as Penna stood for Petra. She longed herself to become a mother and to bring forth new life that was not a plant or animal, or a bird or fish, or a river or a mountain. A new life, like herself, reborn.

At first, Petra turned to the rocks, but her creations of rock neither moved, nor spoke, nor loved. Then she tried to create a daughter for herself in the same way as she had created the animals of the forest. Some of her creatures were failures and did not long survive. Others were strong enough to survive but were not at all like Petra, and these creations later became the monkeys, baboons and other apes of the forests and plains.

But Petra never came close to creating a daughter.

She came then to seek out her own mother Penna. Penna was making bread and as she kneaded the dough to make it elastic and smooth she thought deeply, pounding the bread in a rhythm with her heart’s contractions. At length, she covered the dough and placed it in the warm dark. Then she brought a dish of pomegranates to the table to share with her daughter.

As they ate the red seeds, Penna spoke: This is a sacred mystery, and the making of a daughter is not to be done simply, or lightly. You may think of joy and that a daughter is a gift. She is also a sorrow and a burden, which will tear out your love, and wring your heart, and pound your soul. It is not an easy thing.

Petra bent her head respectfully, but she continued to yearn for a daughter. Penna therefore sent her to reflect in a cave for seven days. After seven days, Petra returned to her mother. Penna was weaving a linen cloth and as she worked the shuttle across the warp, she again thought deeply. At length, she put away her weaving and infused a tea which she brought to share with her daughter.

As they drank the green tea, Penna spoke: This is a powerful thing that you wish to do, and irrevocable. The making of a daughter will create a bond that cannot be broken, a connection that may not be severed, an evergreen obligation.

Petra continued to yearn for a daughter and Penna therefore sent her again to reflect in the same cave. After seven days, Petra returned to her mother.

This time, Penna held Petra in her arms and then, placing her hands on the belly of her daughter, gave her gift.

Months passed and Petra began to prepare herself. A child grew within her and became a burden so great that Petra could not walk. And then, squatting with her mother in the quiet dark, Petra gave birth to a daughter, Cleista, the first grand-daughter. The child was strong, and Petra took her immediately to her breast to suckle and to grow with the love that flows.

And, because Penna was pleased with her daughter and with the infant Cleista, she gave another gift.

She gave to Penna, daughter of the Earth, in honour of Cleista, the wisdom of fertility so that from that day Petra, eldest daughter of the Great Mother, became the Earthly Mother whose life and power was to cover the earth with daughters.

I – Birthing

In the beginning was the Great Mother, and her name was Penna.

From her womb was born the Earth, and her name was Petra, and from the blood of Petra’s birth grew up a great forest of the strongest trees, which was filled with running creatures who came to dwell therein.

And on the second day, from Penna’s womb was born the Light, and her name was Edna, and from the blood of Edna’s birth shone out innumerable stars which were strewn across the sky to dance in the night.

And on the third day, from Penna’s womb was born the Water, and her name was Callan, and from the blood of Callan’s birth swelled up the great oceans of the world and the monstrous sea serpents and other swimming things who came to dwell therein.

And on the fourth day, from Penna’s womb was born the Air, and her name was Corva, and from the blood of Corva’s birth arose the spirit, and the spirit laughed as it flew into the flowing Water and through the dancing Light and across the solid Earth, returning then to the sacred blood which is its beginning and its end.

The four daughters of Penna became the world, and everything in it and outside of it, bound together by the woven cloth of the Great Mother, and created from her womb.

II – Giving

It was the way with the daughters of Penna to strengthen their bond one to the others by the giving of gifts.

In the wintertime, Petra piled up the earth and stones into a huge heap, and Edna brought a fire and placed it therein to heat the stones; Callan set the stones to gush and flow. And so it was that the daughters of Penna brought to their sister Corva the gift of a volcano, which they called Bourkan that it might be a reflection of her heart.

In the springtime, Petra rolled out a great white rock, and Edna gave it Light and Corva lifted it into the empty sky. And so it was that the daughters of Penna brought to their sister Callan the gift of the moon, which they called Mahina that it might bring rhythm to the Water.

In the summertime, Callan brought the laughter of the running water, and Corva brought the laughter of the spirit. Callan brought the rhythm of Mahina, and Corva brought the rhythm of a beating wing. Petra fashioned homes for the laughter and the rhythm, in the wood of her forest and in the horns of her creatures and in the stones of her mountains. And so it was that the daughters of Penna brought to their sister Edna the gift of music, which they called Geet that it might be a partner to her dancing stars.

In the autumn time, Corva made a giant bird, and Edna destroyed the bird in a royal pyre, and Callan regenerated it with the healing of her salt tears. And so it was that the daughters of Penna brought to their sister Petra the gift of a phoenix, which they called Bennu, that it might be a companion to Petra in her labours.

And at the giving of each gift, the daughters of Penna brought to her their own blood as an offering, which was the blood of their mother reborn.

There was a time when, if you’d asked me what my thoughts were on religion, I would probably have suggested that either (a) it is true in which case we should follow its dictates regardless of how we feel about them, or else (b) it is false in which case we should ignore its commands – again, regardless of how we feel about them.

There was a time when, if you’d talked to me about “finding my own spiritual path” or some such ridiculous sandal-slapping beard-growing nonsense I’d have giggled behind my hand.

In those days, I was more rational than I am now. More what we might call male-brained. Now, I am guided by feeling as well as by reason, and I like the change.

The male-brain* thinking that dismisses feeling as irrelevant to truth, and elevates reason and rationality above all other modes of reflection, is behind a lot of things. I believe that it is behind the ever-increasing abstraction of religious thought, for example, and the way in which feeling and sensation / sensuality have been quite literally demonised in male-brain religion.

[* Clarification: I use this term very loosely to describe what appear to me to be traditionally masculine modes of thought, rather than to suggest that the male sex has any biological leaning to one particular method of approaching life problems. Masculinity, by the way, is just as much a social construct as femininity. It aint real.]

There is a different way of thinking about the spiritual. There is a deeper, more ancient, more fully human way to understand and appreciate the numinous.

A sense of transcendence, of reverential awe, of religiosity is built into every one of us. Some of us experience it more often or more intensely than others, but it is within all of us – especially if we are at peace to let it out. A spiritual feeling is as much a part of our human nature as is our ability to reason, our survival instinct, and our capactiy for love.

There is a reason why we are a spiritual species. I think it is probably a way of coping with the big unanswered questions that our rationality leads us to ask: where did we come from? where are we going to? what is love? how ought we to behave?

And because we are a spiritual as well as a rational species, we sometimes have to reject the cold purity of reason in favour of the warm strength of spirit. And so we make up rituals and stories, to enable us to make sense of the numinous, and to experience the great Other that transcendence allows us to touch.

The big question we must ask about a given religion is not is this true? but does this help me to make sense of my awe?

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