Archive for November 2010

Plant People: Green Man, Burry Man, Moss Man and Poison Ivy

November 30, 2010

In October, Esau and I were ambushed by burrs in Riverside Park.

Esau, the Burry Dog

The Burry Man of Scotland

In the wake of the Terrible Burr Attack, I researched burrs and discovered … the Burry Man.

Every year on the second Friday in August, the Burry Man walks through the town of South Queensferry in Scotland.  Early in the morning, he dresses in flannel undergarments and a kind of balaklava with holes for his eyes and mouth.  With his arms held out to the side, he stands patiently as attendants cover him with thousands of sticky burrs that he has himself collected. He takes hold of two staves decorated with burrs and flowers.

Then he spends the day walking through the town, guided and supported by two helpers and led by a boy ringing a bell.

Whiskey through a straw

At each pub along the way, the Burry Man is given whiskey which he sips through a straw inserted into the mouth opening of his burr-covered head. He cannot sit, turn his head, relax his arms or use a bathroom until the suit is removed at the end of the day.

“The task of being Burry Man is extremely demanding,” says the Edinburgh City Museum, “requiring stamina, a strong bladder, an indifference to the discomfort caused by more penetrative burrs, and a conviction that this custom should not die out.”

Portrait of a Burry Man

The Burry Man has been walking for centuries. The earliest documentation of the ritual dates from 1687, but the custom’s pagan roots probably reach back hundreds of years earlier.

What is the Burry Man and why does he walk?  No one knows.  One theory posits that he originally served as a scapegoat, carrying the town’s ill fortune and evil deeds in the burrs. He may have been driven away at the end of the day, or even killed as a sacrifice.

Another theory connects the Burry Man to the Green Man, a plant-entwined nature figure that some scholars trace back through the Middle Ages to ancient fertility gods.

Saint Mary's Church in England

Although clearly rooted in paganism, the Green Man appears frequently on churches and cathedrals throughout Britain and western Europe.

Le Mans Cathedral, France, c. 1240

The Green Man sprouts on many English pub signs.

Plant-human hybrid

And if you look closely, you may spot the Green Man right here in Manhattan

Happy Green Man on Riverside Drive

Meanwhile in the parallel universe of Gotham City, Batman’s nemesis, Poison Ivy, is surely a fine example of a  Green Woman

Poison Ivy, Batman's enemy

Once a mild-mannered botanist from Seattle, Dr. Pamela Isley, aka Poison Ivy, is now a ruthless eco-terrorist. Part-plant and part-human, her veins run with chlorophyll  instead of blood.

Poison Ivy battles Batman high above Gotham

Pure fantasy? Maybe not. Elyssia chlorotica is a sea slug that uses photosynthesis to make its own food. But animals don’t do that. Only plants do. Right?

Who goes there? Animal or vegetable?

Not so fast, Mr. Smarty Pants.

E. chlorotica is … well, just listen to the scientists on this one. Zoologist John Zardus recently told Science News, “This could be a fusion of a plant and an animal — that’s just cool.”  Or as another biologist said, ““Steps in evolution can be more creative than I ever imagined.”

Another distant relative of the Green Man is Robin Hood, the socialist nature boy who stole from the rich to give to the poor.

Robin Hood as The Green Man

Robin Hood’s familial relation to the Green Man may pass through Robin Goodfellow, or Puck, a member of the often malevolent faery tribe that ran rampant through the British Isles.

Later writers tried to blunt Robin’s proto-Marxist arrows by claiming he was not a commoner but a nobleman driven to criminal activity by the misdeeds of King John, Richard the Lion-hearted’s evil usurping brother.  Yeah, right. Like Shakespeare was the Earl of Oxford and Depression-era outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd was the Queen of England.

(As Woody Guthrie so eloquently put it in his song about Pretty Boy Floyd:

Some will rob you with a six-gun
And some with a fountain pen.

But that’s another story.)

Whether or not Robin’s green suit connects him to ancient fertility gods or their diminished descendants, the faeries and brownies, it certainly serves a pragmatic purpose as excellent camouflage for a wanted man trying to escape detection in the forest.  And for more extreme camouflage, check out Robin’s buddy with the animal ears below.

Robin shoots with Sir Guy by Louis Rhead, 1912.

Extreme camouflage brings us to the strange tale of Moss Man.

The hapless Moss Man after his arrest

When employees at an Oregon rock and gem museum discovered a man-sized hole in the wall, they called the Sheriff.  Deputies arrived at the scene with a tracking dog who led them into the woods behind the building. The Sheriff reports that the dog became “very interested in a particular piece of ground. The dog then bit the ground that in turn cried out in pain.”

That particular piece of ground was Moss Man, a would-be thief wearing a ghillie suit, a plant-like camouflage outfit worn primarily by hunters and Army snipers.

Inspired by dreams of Sniper School, Esau plays war games in Riverside Park.

I've got that squirrel in my sights.

Do ghillie suits hold the answer to the Pacific Northwest’s legendary Sasquatch?

Just another guy in a ghillie suit?

Odd word, “ghillie.”

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines ghillie as “a man or boy who attends someone on a hunting or fishing expedition.”  The word is Scottish in origin, which brings us full circle to the mysterious Burry Man.

Little Bit Funky Broadway

November 23, 2010

Broadway at night retains a little funk along with some old-school (although not always old) neon. Together, neon and funk bite back against the relentless March of the Chains.

Lenny's Hot Bagels

Andrade’s Shoe Repair has a mini-empire (a chain?) with shoe repair stores on the east and west sides of Broadway. One gorgeous neon shoe heads south


while its companion on the other side of the avenue strolls north

Going my way?

Most blocks have at least one bodega-style shop, selling soda, magazines and lottery tickets

Caribbean colors

Hold on a second. Let’s take a closer look at that duck, shall we? After all, this is supposed to be a nature blog.

Really? You don't look sorry.


And just yards away, an insane rodent presides over the east side of Broadway

They're coming to take me away ha ha ho ho

I’m grateful for the city’s remaining pockets of funkiness, even if today’s Broadway doesn’t measure up to Wicked Wilson Pickett’s funky, funky street of days gone by.


Esau Among the Leaves … and a Nature Walk in Prospect Park

November 19, 2010

Last week in Riverside Park, a little dog sat under a flame tree in a halo of light.

Holy dog.

What, really, can you do this time of year but celebrate leaves in every possible way?

The Red Shoes, or Little Dog with Feet on Fire

Aerial View of Esau Among Leaves

Wall-Walking Among Fiery Trees

Four red-heads (one human, three canine) dissolving into light and leaves

Fallen Stars

One Dog, Many Leaves

Magic Carpet

Some of the leaves have wings.

Through the Leaves - the River!

“To a person uninstructed in natural history, his country or sea-side stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with fine art works, nine-tenths of which have their faces turned to the wall. Teach him something of natural history, and you place in his hands a catalogue of those which are worth turning around.”
– Thomas Henry Huxley, 1854

Little dog models big leaf cape.

I lifted Huxley’s  quote from Backyard and Beyond, the blog of Matthew Wills, a Brooklyn-based writer and amateur naturalist extraordinaire.  If you’d like to know more about nature in New York (like what the heck is that giant leaf on Esau’s back?), head over to Backyard and Beyond, where Matthew is offering a personalized tour of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. All you have to do is be the highest bidder for Matthew’s “Natural History Walking Tour of Prospect Park” at The Nation’s online fund-raising auction.

Good luck.

A Shadow Person walks a Real Dog on Fallen Leaves. Strange.

Veterans Day: Soldiers and Birds of Afghanistan

November 15, 2010

Mondrian Vets near Broadway and 23rd

Looking like they’d wandered into a Mondrian painting, these vets were part of a crowd of soldiers and veterans that gathered at Madison Square Park for last Thursday’s Veterans Day Parade.  The sky was a cloudless blue and the morning bright and mild.

Rhythms with Black and White by Piet Mondrian

Vets of every description gathered before the parade

So young


Veterans for Peace


Lost in thought


A notably young crowd of vets gathered to march with IAVA, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

IAVA volunteers greet a marcher


IAVA gave out hoodies that proclaim “We’ve got your back.” And they do, providing resources and assistance to soldiers transitioning back from Iraq and Afghanistan as well as advocating for better services for veterans and their families.

It’s a good thing someone is looking out for these men and women. By the time they are in their early 20s, many of the soldiers have served multiple deployments, fighting in wars that began when some were still children. "We've got your back."

While the lives of many Americans remain untouched by the wars, the nearly two million soldiers who have served so far bring their experiences home to their wives and husbands, children and parents, friends and co-workers. More than 5,700 American soldiers have been killed and over 41,000 have been wounded; coalition deaths number 1,148. Civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan are in the hundreds of thousands.

Colorful patches brightened the streets

Operation Iraqi Freedom Coalition Forces

Disabled American Veterans

Vietnam Veteran

Strangely, the discount stores that line the side streets were all hawking camouflage clothing, $20 a jacket, less for a T-shirt. So if you’d lost your uniform or just wanted to look like a soldier, you could blend right in. Sort of.


The real thing

I watched the start of the parade, then headed for the subway. Along the way, I passed several bus kiosks sporting advertisements for war video games.

Call of Duty. Yeah, right.

Much later, I walked in the park, admiring the fall colors, the hordes of dark-eyed junkos and one elegant little female downy woodpecker.  As I walked, I checked the weather in Kandahar and Kabul on my iPhone, and was surprised to find mild temperatures not much different than this year’s mild New York City autumn.  I wondered what animals might be spotted by soldiers in Afghanistan.

An exceptionally lucky birding soldier might spot the extremely rare Large-billed reed warbler, only recently discovered to reside in Afghanistan

or perhaps a steppe eagle

Soaring steppe eagle

For several months this year, Navy SEALs in Afghanistan, along with an American contractor trained in ornithology, cared for a Steppe eagle that had been shot in the wing by an Afghan soldier.  A U.S. Army veterinarian splinted the wing, and the men built a large cage on their base, and fed the bird by hand.  The eagle eventually healed, although it will never be able to fly.

With their deployment drawing to an end, the men worried that the bird would not survive their departure. “We redeploy back to the states in about 3 months,” wrote a SEAL in a letter seeking help for the bird, “and I doubt that the crew relieving us will want to put the effort into caring for it.”

The men finally located a bird sanctuary in New York that agreed to keep the eagle. New York Senator Schumer helped to clear bureaucratic and diplomatic hurdles, and in October the bird arrived at the Berkshire Bird Paradise Sanctuary in Grafton, NY.  The Steppe eagle known as Mitch now shares living quarters with an American eagle called Eddie.

Mitch and Eddie at Berkshire Bird Paradise Sanctuary

Nothing that lives escapes suffering in a war zone.

What Shall We Do Without Us? by Kenneth Patchen

Return to Riverside: Rats and Red-tails

November 9, 2010

With the return of autumn, Esau and I have returned to Riverside Park.

Riverside Drive Promenade

We indulged for months in a thrilling spring-into-summer fling with Morningside Park.

Lush Life: Early Summer in Morningside Park

New goose

Ma, I can fly!

All summer, Morningside’s little pond teemed with animal action. Goslings and ducklings hatched and grew. Bullfrogs, turtles and herons abounded.

Great white hunter

But lately I am again craving the sight of the Hudson River as it laps the long, green finger of Riverside Park.  Subject to powerful ocean tides, the Hudson sometimes runs south to the harbor and the ocean beyond as a river should, and other times it flows north past the George Washington Bridge, carrying its flotsam and jetsam up past the Bronx and the suburbs into the deep interior of the continent.

The river in a peaceful moment

Dazzle-me green

In summer, unless you descend to the lower paths, the park’s dense foliage blocks the river from view. But now that the leaves are thinning, the river calls to us even when we’re walking high above on Riverside Drive.

Yesterday morning, although I appeared to be walking briskly along the parkside of the Drive, I was actually light years away, tracking in my mind’s eye the actions of a young man – well, a fictional character, actually, in a project I’m working on.  A huge hawk, suddenly and silently soaring low past my shoulder, jolted me back into the miraculous common world.

The hawk put out its landing gear and seemed about to touch down on the retaining wall, but changed its mind, landing instead in a tree that grows from twenty feet below in the park.

Hawk in profile

After a minute or two, the bird – I believe it was a juvenile red-tail – moved to a new perch, a few yards south. A single feather poked up above its tail, like an admonishing finger


It looked around for a while, then again unfolded its big wings and dropped off its perch.

Through the leaves

It continued to head south from branch to branch, eventually dropping fully into the park to find a spot in the trees below, where we lost sight of it.

I haven’t seen a hawk in this part of Riverside for weeks.  What I have seen in dismaying numbers are rats.  Until this fall, I rarely saw rats along the park side of Riverside Drive. Now I see them every night, running shadows that snatch bits of food from unlined trash cans, pop in and out of holes in the walkway, trot along the top of the retaining wall, and zip through the sandboxes of the children’s playgrounds that dot the Drive.

Rats make a fine meal for a red-blooded red-tail.

Redtail Eating Rat by D. Bruce Yolton:

May the hawks dine in peace and plenty.

(I am not the only blogging park-lover to stray from a main squeeze.  In Brooklyn, a nature blogger abandons the charms of Prospect Park for a dalliance with lovely Green-wood Cemetery where red-tails, kestrels and merlins haunt and hunt among the graves.)

Note:  This post is part of I and the Bird #138, a regular birding blog carnival.

Raccoons, Marshmallows and the U.S. Government

November 5, 2010

Last weekend, Esau and I discovered a gray box snuggled up against the retaining wall in Riverside Park.

Mystery box

A round hole at either end led to a small chute and a dark interior.

Flowers at the front door

High in the wall, just south of the box, is a raccoon den. I know it’s a raccoon den because, for the past year, I’ve been regularly watching raccoons as they emerge from this hole to watch the world go by before venturing out on evening raids into the park.  I have on occasion seen as many as five or six raccoons pour out of the hole like bulky little clowns out of a clown car.

Are you looking at me?

“Aha!” I thought gleefully, and my heart danced. “I am at long last seeing, with my own eyes, the traps used by the USDA to catch raccoons.”  Need I remind you of my fascination with NYC’s dramatic outbreak of raccoon rabies as well as the USDA’s patient and effective program to vaccinate virtually every raccoon residing in Manhattan?

The vaccination program began last spring in Central Park, the epidemic’s epicenter, and branched out into Morningside Park and Riverside Park. (Click to read about the program and about Lee Humberg, the biologist in charge.)  By April, over 230 raccoons had already been vaccinated and tagged for future identification.

The current round of trapping allows the USDA to vaccinate any raccoons that may have been missed as well as juveniles that were too young or vagrants that have wandered into the area. If a trapped animal appears unwell, it will be euthanized and tested for rabies. This humane and labor-intensive approach has led to a steep drop-off in the number of raccoon rabies cases with only three confirmed reports in the past three months. Compare that to March 2010 with a monthly high of 38 confirmed cases.

But this trap was targeting my raccoons, and I wanted to know more about it.

I longed for a closer look at the gray box, but was deterred by fencing put up by the Riverside Park Fund to protect their lovely plantings.

So Esau and I walked south on the path near the wall, keeping our four eyeballs peeled.

Sure enough, about four blocks south we found a second gray box,  identical to the first, but on an unfenced slope. We drew near and read this intimidating warning

on the hinged and securely padlocked lid

In other words: Mind your own beeswax.

Undeterred but cautious, we peered inside and saw that each round hole led to a separate (empty) wire mesh “Have-a-Heart” trap, baited with … marshmallows

Start the fire and find a stick.

The traps were gone within a couple of days. Whether any raccoons were caught – or were spotted roasting marshmallows and making s’mores – remains just another small NYC mystery.

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