05 June 2008

Playing Megafauna


For the past few months since moving back from Chiang Mai I have been working on a 27 acre estate in north Dallas. Usually I take care of the greenhouse and several perennial and rose gardens, but occasionally I get called upon to do a bit of turf maintenance, either using the line trimmer, or mowing with one of the big mowers. The mower, as you might imagine, is a big noisy machine, and when we mow el pasto grande (the big lawn, with the helicopter landing pad, where Bush or McCain might land if they were to visit, not that I'm saying they have), I spend several hours on the machine, driving back and forth, listening to podcasts. It's rather meditative (unless of course I'm listening to You Look Nice Today, in which case I'm probably laughing so hard I can barely drive straight), and since it's such a big property, with a pond, and screens of trees and understory growth on the margins, I have a good opportunity to observe the wildlife. Granted, there is significantly less wildlife on 27 acres of manicured parkland than one might find on 27 acres of undisturbed blackland prairie, but it is 27 acres. In addition to the birds, squirrels, bunnies, rats and 'possums, there is also a bobcat. But this isn't about the bobcat. This is about the wee creatures that populate the lawn that I drive across atop of four steel blades, spinning away, giving it their whole 29 horses worth. What's interesting is how things like squirrels and birds behave around the mower. If I walk up to a squirrel, it runs up the nearest tree, of course. But when I'm on the mower, it just sort of scoots out of the way. It doesn't run, it just moves over and goes about its business. The birds love the thing. Mockingbirds, bluejays, starlings and grackles will hop around places that have just been mowed, eating the insects that have been flushed out, while the swallows will swoop right in front of the mower, catching up the insects that flee as it approaches. Yesterday it was too windy for the birds, with gusts up 40 mph, so as I drove up the drive I noticed three swallows and a juvenile grackle sitting on the blacktop. They eyed the mower, and hopped out of the way as I passed. They looked disappointed. It has occurred to me that they seem remarkably well suited to taking advantage of the chaos generated in the wake of a large object as it moves through a grassland. This makes sense, since all of the native birds evolved in tandem with Cenozoic megafauna, like bison, camels, horses, and mastadons, and probably followed the herds around, nipping up any insects that were flushed from cover as they traveled through the landscape. So every week or two, I steer my Anthropocene mount over an artificial savanna of live oaks and African grasses, running on fuels first laid down during the Carboniferous, in a weird conjunction of age and place.

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