Monthly Archives: November 2015

Elephant Seals and the Circle of Life

At 7:00, I tell Bruce that if we want to see Big Sur, we had better get going. My plan is to drive north out of the fog and into the sun. We leave Moonstone Beach and about ten minutes later we have entered Hearst’s Maxfield Parrish fairy tale domain and I spot a sign that, for all my years in California, I had never noticed.

baby elephant sealIt’s the California Elephant Seal Rookery. “Should we stop?” I ask. I needn’t have, but we were just getting to know each other.

We walk toward the rocky, low beach. Below us is a small cove rough with black volcanic rocks circling smooth, tawny sand. Lying in the sand is a hideous, grunting, scarred behemoth. A 5,000 pound male elephant seal. His snorts and exhalations are gruesome yet wondrous.

The surf ebbs and flows, the water glittering bright green-blue in the early morning light. Out of the surf emerges a creature with a lovely face and large, soft brown eyes. This is followed by a sleek-furred, round body. She is the mate to the grunting, farting elephant-snouted monster breathing raggedly by the rocks at the edge of the cove.

Bruce looks at me and I at him. We’ve known couples like this. A beautiful delicate female mated to a brutish beast.

“It looks like he’s about to tell her, ‘bring me a sammich, bitch,'” I say.

Bruce agrees, and we start a tete-a-tete about this mismatched pair. The female elephant seal works her way slowly up the beach to the side of her massive mate, heaving her body from side to side in the wet sand. The word “rookery” echoes in my mind. I wonder if she’s pregnant, but I say nothing.

We decide to walk farther south down the boardwalk, and soon realize, this single pair is by far the outlier. On the beach are hundreds of elephant seals, from a distance appearing like gray and brown beach umbrellas scattered along the shore. Here and there are small dark forms squirming in the sand like tiny leeches: the pups.

Up close, the faces of the pups appear exactly like pit bull puppies. The females are a vast array of shapes, sea colors and sizes. Most of the males are scarred fur-covered torpedoes like the massive beast from the small cove.

We see just one other couple, a serious-appearing pair with a tripod and massive camera with a telephoto lens focused on the beach. We pass them and watch a large group of females and pups, with the males arrayed closer to us along the beach, sunning their vast bulk and lying in a row like hideous fat cigars.

At once, about twenty seagulls converge on the beach, shrieking and jabbing their wicked beaks at something. I think that perhaps one of the seals has some fish and they’re grabbing for it, but say nothing. It’s cool and Bruce has his hand around my waist, the newness of this a shivering pleasure.

The moment is snapped like celery by the sudden appearance of a fifty-five-ish blonde woman with a severe haircut, wearing khakis and a dorky blue windbreaker, who rises behind Bruce’s shoulder. “They’re after the afterbirth,” she says, grinning.

Bruce’s eyes flash, but he merely smiles.

“I’m a volunteer docent,” she says. “You’ve just witnessed something people come here for years to see. Usually they give birth at night.”

“Oh,” I say, “Wonderful.” Bruce’s eyes say something very different.

On the beach, the mother seal is circling her darling black pup desperately. I see a spot of blood on her flank, but no sign of afterbirth. A perfect sand circle has emerged and she’s energetically digging it deeper amid the flock of shrieking, fiendish gulls.

“They’ll peck at anything bright,” Volunteer Docent Woman says. “They want to peck the pup’s eyes. She’s protecting him.”

Her eyes shine like bright pale blue crazy pennies. I remember the mismatched couple from the cove we’d seen before, and tell her about them.

“Oh that cove floods. They can’t be there,” she said.

“Well, we did see them,” I say. She’s as certain of her facts as Dr. Quest in a Jonny Quest episode. She mutters a few more things, then directs her attention to the couple with the telephoto lens: they’re the experts. On the beach, the elephant seal mother continues to circle round her beautiful sleek black pup while the males grunt and fart in the sun.

As we continue down the boardwalk, we talk about Volunteer Docent. She had appeared out of nowhere, a frenetic jack-in-the-box stuffed with natural history and expertise, wedded not to human life, but to these massive animals by the shore.

Bruce says, “I thought she was going to demand that I leap down on the beach and bag and tag the afterbirth.”

I laugh.

“She liked you better than me,” he says. Likely; however the seals, she liked best of all and moreso, perhaps a massive orca waited offshore to take her true love.

We get back in the Jeep and head up the coast to Big Sur. While we sun ourselves on a high patio overlooking God’s country, a burned-out hippie asks Bruce, who is wearing a Longhorns t-shirt, “Are you from Texas?”

Of course he is. Philly, Texas.

In quiet moments, I remember the exquisite face of the female elephant seal, about to give birth. She’s far too lovely to bring that monster a sammich.

Heinlein Fans Will Believe Anything

Occasionally File 770 will feature something about Chameleon Publishing or something I might write. I have always gotten a lot out of my conversations with generous and gracious readers – I think the run-downs and countdowns of different posts and information on File 770 are extremely informative.

A bunch of HowiesSo there’s the crazy uproar about the World Fantasy award changing to something other than a stylized head of H.P. Lovecraft, known to those of us in the field as a “Howie.” I don’t know about most others but I can speak from personal experience that on the few occasions I’ve shared the look of a “Howie” with those who do not know what the award is, reactions have been less than enthusiastic. They’ve ranged from “WTF???” to “He’s so ugly!”

One author who is new to me, Gray Rinehart, wrote his opinions about the situation. He said he had run for political office in his local community and also been nominated for a Hugo Award. Gray’s website notes that he is “the only person to have commanded an Air Force satellite tracking station, written speeches for Presidential appointees, had music on ‘The Dr. Demento Show’ and been nominated for a major literary award.”

So, Gray wrote about the Howie situation and noted that Heinlein had written in Friday that “Sick cultures show a complex of symptoms . . . but a dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot.” Gray’s position was, I think, that people in SF/F fandom are being horrible to each other. Fair enough.

But if we’re talking about real cultures and societies … i.e. let’s say … well we just went to see Bridge of Spies with Tom Hanks, which is about Brooklyn attorney James Donovan’s negotiation of a Cold War spy trade — one Soviet for two Americans — one famous (U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers), and the other, less-famous (economist and then-student Frederick Pryor). So let’s say we’re talking about a culture like early to mid-20th Century Germany. Most of these folks in the film were very concerned about being polite with each other while segments of their government were plotting each others’ deaths due to global thermonuclear war. Very politely, teachers were teaching students how to duck and cover in case of nuclear attack. Donovan’s young son in the film politely showed his father a drawing of the effects of an “air burst” 10,000 feet over the Empire State Building, which would definitely cause some damage at their Brooklyn residence. I estimate the young man was about 9 or 10 years old.

BLACKSTONEFriday500So this is pretty much the time period when Heinlein wrote a lot of his work (Cold War), although I think Friday, which I know as the “busty lady” book, was published rather later (1982).

So, about this “loss of politeness means cultural death” thing —

It might mean “loss of control” but it hardly means “cultural death.”

I don’t think hardly anybody talked back in Nazi Germany. I think they mostly were very polite to each other unless they were taking part in officially sanctioned impoliteness like Kristallnacht.

I think a lot of women were pretty afraid to be impolite back in pre-19th Amendment days, before they got the right to vote. Many students today don’t believe me when I ask them to read and paraphrase Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments (1848) which is based on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. “What do these things mean?” they ask. What is “deliver chastisement?” they ask, among other things. I ask them to write down the list of things that Stanton and the signatories listed.

“They are so many,” they say.

Women were extremely polite in 1848 when this Declaration was written. They were pretty darned polite when I was a little girl. I remember us being quite polite when I was in college. To this day, I consider myself polite. It takes great force of will to call someone a name or mock them in public.

So I’m not going to make fun of Mr. Heinlein or call him a name when I say this statement is absurd and prima facie, false. Somebody speaking up and being perhaps in your opinion, impolite, isn’t the nicest thing in the world; neither is it a sign of cultural death worse than a riot.

This is my friend Kalev Leetaru’s GDELT Project (Global Database of Events, Language and Tone). It tracks things like riots worldwide and the “tone” of official reports in an ever-growing group of nations, media (including Twitter) and languages. It begins in 1979. It is big data, all right. It has been compared to Asimov’s “Future History.”

GDELT proves Heinlein false, in that it can accurately predict wars and uprisings based on patterns of riots, unrest, and increasingly, “language and tone” related to such things. See, it’s the riot part that’s the problem, and the accuracy part — “impolite” is cultural death? How about threats prior to violence?

It probably can predict b.s. too –