Saturday, October 03, 2009

`Unperturbed Animals Came Close'

The bird is fleeter and bolder than the squirrel, not to mention more beautiful and intelligent. I had filled the inverted Frisbee in the backyard with “Squirrel & Critter Mix,” hoping to entertain our cat who sits inside by the sliding glass doors, flapping his tail and muttering at the wildlife. The squirrel arrived in seconds, working the buffet for peanuts in the shell – the richest source of protein and fat. Next came the Steller’s jay, whose lower body is iridescent blue while the upper looks dipped in coal dust. The squirrel defends his territory by sitting in the seed-filled Frisbee. The jay moved around his rival with sideways hops, giving the seed “flicking, fast jabs, usually double, like a cat striking twice at a butterfly,” as A.J. Liebling wrote of the lightweight George Araujo.

Steller’s jay is named for Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709-1746), the German physician, naturalist and explorer of Russia and Alaska whose biography I would love to read. At least seven plants and animals bear his name. In addition to the jay his namesakes include Steller’s eider (a sea duck), Steller’s sea eagle, Steller’s sea cow (extinct), Steller’s sea lion, gumboot chiton (a mollusc: Cryptochiton stelleri) and my favorite, the hoary mugwort (an herbaceous perennial – that is, a weed: Artemisia stelleriana). Go here to read extracts from Steller’s De Bestiis Marinis, or, The Beasts of the Sea (1751).

W.G. Sebald devotes the second of three long narrative poems in After Nature to Steller’s doomed Arctic expedition with Vitus Bering. Here’s an excerpt from Section XII (Michael Hamburger’s translation):

“At the break of the following day,
St. Elijah’s Day,
Steller went ashore. Ten hours
Bering, with dread already imprinted
on his brow, had granted him
for a scientific excursion.
Now a deep blueness
Pervaded both water and the forests
that grew right down
to the coast. Unperturbed
animals came close to Steller, black
and red foxes, magpies too, jays and
crows went with him on his way
across the beach.”

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