Sunday, March 10, 2013

Foxes and Beavers and Owls, Oh My.

We’ve been told since we were children that foxes are sly.  But I’ve seen quite a few of them dead in the road recently.  I can only assume they’re having some unpleasant interactions with fast moving vehicles.  I don’t know about you, but it strikes me as not particularly sly to run directly across the path of a car or truck hurtling down a highway.  

“Hey, Ralph.  How much you wanna bet I can get to the other side of the smooth trail before that next giant monster runs by?” 

“You mean that big one with the round black feet and the fire-eyes that’s coming incredibly fast?  I’m not sure that’s a good idea, Sly. Why don’t you just wait until he goes by?  Remember Cousin Wily tried the same thing last week and—Sly?  SLY!

Even people generally regarded as, shall we say—not particularly sly—seldom try to outrun cars and trucks.  If they did, there would be a severe pastor shortage, and perhaps Pretty Boy would be known as Pretty-Banged-up-Humphrey. 

Now someone may respond (let’s call him Melvin),

“This is simply nature’s way of weeding out the foxes that don’t deserve the sly label—in other words, a way of protecting the brand.  The vast majority of foxes are clever enough to wait until the monster passes before crossing the street.  The ones you see flattened are the few, the proud, the non-sly.”  

I could buy that answer if flattened foxes were rare, but around here they are as common as stink bugs in my coffee and pandas in my dining room.  Yes, Melvin, maybe Maryland foxes are especially dumb, but let me point out that our educational system is among America’s finest (putting Maryland, in international educational rankings, on a par with Nicaragua and just behind Zimbabwe).  So why would our foxes be dumber that those in Pennsylvania?   Granted, most of those funds are devoted to mini-humans; but anyone familiar with our legislature knows it would not permit any Maryland resident, including our forest friends, to be disadvantaged.  I’m confident that we spend as much on educating our foxes as any other state.  I have deduced therefore that the average fox, nationwide, is not much ahead of his raccoon and opossum friends in the sly category.  

This had me wondering if we’ve been wrong about other animal traits.  Maybe beavers aren’t particularly busy.  Once they finish building their beaver—you know—[darns], maybe they lounge around the beaver lodge with a remote and a six-pack, watching Animal Planet and reruns of “Leave it to Some Other Beaver.”
Elephants never forget,” we are told, while we have to use memory devices.  But I’ve bumped into the same elephant several times, and there was, on his part, not even a hint of recognition. 

That reminds me of a story that my friend Wayne Clapier tells. The first time he met a Mission Director in Philadelphia named Mr. Yeski, Wayne determined to memorize his name by word association, and the obvious words to help remember Yeski were “yes” and “ski.”  Imagine Mr. Yeski’s confusion when Wayne saw him again, a few months later, and confidently shook his hand with the words, “It’s good to see you again, Mr. No Snow.”  Clearly, a memory device may fall into the wrong hands.  Perhaps background checks should be required for their use.

Do we really know that owls are wise?   My brother Doug found one injured alongside a road in western New York.  ‘Good Samaritan that he is, without regard to his own safety or convenience, he boldly intervened in an effort to save the poor creature’s life’—would be one way to characterize what he did;  we’ll call it, the husband way.  ‘Doofus that he is, he picked up the terror-crazed, rat-eating, disease-carrying predator, circumventing the natural order of things, and recklessly endangering himself and those closest to him’—would be another; we’ll call it, the correct way.

Doug took the bird to the neighborhood twenty-four hour owl clinic.  I remember the clinic had a cutesy name (Owl Be Back, Owl-Ya-Feelin’, Owly-Owly-in-Free, or Kukla, Fran and Owlie—I think it was one of a chain) and in conversation with the owlnithologist—that is, the owlinarian—the hootenanian—the swivel-headologist —in conversation with the owl doctor, he discovered that the owl actually has a very small brain, relative to its head size.  (Yes, Pretty Boy, not unlike your pastor—but you’re getting ahead of me—hey, that’s a first).  As I was saying, in that sense (small brain, big head) the owl is similar to the typical politician.  The similarities don’t end there: the owl preys upon others, he has what’s been described as a human-looking face, and he accomplishes very little during the day.  Perhaps the owl should be made the official bird of Congress.  The big difference is the owl has the reputation of being wise.  

Feeling some responsibility to both of our loyal Wry Bread readers, I decided to take a recording device and go off into the woods to find an owl, and by asking a few carefully devised questions, determine if said owl was truly wise.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to develop any satisfactory questions.  (Evidently, as Confucius might have said, “He who devises questions to discern wisdom must himself be wise.”  Who’d’ve thunk it?)   So after a few hours wrestling with the topic, instead of wisdom questions, I decided to ask some questions from a broad variety of categories that would reveal the owl’s general knowledge.  I chose Music, Journalism, Children’s Literature, American Films and the Daily Double. 

Some of you may be interested to know how I went about finding an owl to test.  Unfortunately we haven’t time to go into it, except to say that it’s surprising how many large squirrel families live in hollowed out trees, and how aggressive they tend to get when a stranger with a flashlight goes poking around in there.  The first owl I found wasn’t willing to be tested; he flew off as I approached as if he suddenly remembered something he had to do—just like people at a party when I bring out my fractured Christmas carols.  The interview with the second owl is below, transcribed directly from my recording for the benefit of Science.

Me:  “Fill in the blank: The sixties band including Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey that made a big hit with the rock opera Tommy and a big mess with their guitars at the end of their concerts was named The _____.” 
Owl:  Who.”

Me: “That’s right!  Good job.  The next question is from the field of Journalism:  The critical questions that any reporter should endeavor to answer for the reader when writing about an event, are “_____? What?  When?  Where...?”
Owl: (interrupting) “Who.”

Me: “Right again. But please let me complete the entire question before you answer.
Now a question from children’s literature:  Are you familiar with the name Theodor Geisel?”

Owl:  Who?   
Me:  “I’m sorry; I meant to use his pen name, Dr. Seuss.  One of his most popular books was called “Horton Hears a _____?” 

Owl:  Who.” 
Me: “Correct again!  One more question:  This from the category of 20th century films depicting romanticized 19th century American history.  In the climactic scene from the 1939 epic, Gone with the Wind, Rhett Butler prepares to walk out on Scarlett O’Hara.  She pleads with him, ‘Where shall I go? What shall I do?’  And in the immortal words that the American Film Institute voted the number one movie line of all time, Rhett responds, “Frankly, My Dear, I don’t give a _____.’”

Owl:  Hoot.” 
This caused a predicament for me.  “I don’t give a hoot” wasn’t exactly the answer I was looking for (I was looking for darn) but it was close, and I thought that maybe the owl had seen a different family-friendly version of the film than I had, so I gave him credit (or her creditit wasn’t clear to me, and I thought it might be impolite to ask).  So the owl had a perfect score on the verbal section.

Unfortunately, the owl failed miserably on the written portion of the exam, with no legible responses.  As that portion was weighted at 75%, the final grade was F. 

In defense of owls:
this was a rather limited sample.
the test was administered during the owl’s normal sleeping hours.                                             
the bird’s talons seemed strangely unsuited for holding a pen vertically.                                   
one may be wise without necessarily being well-acquainted with popular culture.   
The bottom line is, although our research followed the most stringent guidelines that an idiot could conceive, we were unable to either confirm or deny the owl’s reputation for wisdom.

People, like animals, may have undeserved reputations.   One of Jesus’ disciples is commonly known as Doubting Thomas, not because his entire life was characterized by doubt, but because of one statement he made at the lowest point in his life.  Following the arrest, trial and public execution of Jesus of Nazareth, whom Thomas had followed for three years, believing Him to be the promised Messiah, Thomas was so disheartened that he could not be comforted by the reports of the other disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead, and that He had been seen by them all.
“Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  The other disciples therefore said to him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ So he said to them, ‘Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.’” (John 20:24-25)                                                            

Thomas was deeply discouraged; we would call him depressed.   The one he believed to be the Anointed of God, the Christ, had been crucified.   Thomas evidently felt lost and abandoned.   Reports from his friends could not bring him out of the pit.  He needed more. 

“And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them.  Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, ‘Peace to you.’  Then He said to Thomas, ‘Reach your finger here, and look at my hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into my side.  Do not be unbelieving, but believing.’ And Thomas answered and said to Him, ‘My Lord and my God.’” (John 20:26-28)

It’s too bad that Thomas is not remembered more for his clear declaration of Christ’s deity than for his doubt a week earlier.  After all, the Apostle Peter denied the Lord on the night of the crucifixion, and swore that he didn’t know Jesus.  But we don’t call him “Denying Peter” or “Lying Peter,” or “Swearing Peter.”  There’s a good deal of evidence that Thomas went on to boldly proclaim the resurrection as far away as India.  Instead of “Doubting Thomas,” we might better call him “Traveling Thomas,” or “Thomas of India,” or simply, “Believing Thomas.” 

If there's a lesson here—a moral to our story, it is that we shouldn't be too quick to make character judgments based on something a brother or sister might do or say in a moment of weakness.  Peter should be remembered for his years of faithful service as a preacher of the gospel, not for his cowardly denials in those frightening hours before the crucifixion; and Thomas should be remembered for his clear affirmation of Jesus as his Lord and God, and for his arduous missionary labors, not for being slow to believe the witness of his friends to Christ's resurrection.
But I don’t suppose that here below he’ll ever shake the “Doubting” label; and foxes will always be regarded as sly, no matter how many games of chicken they lose with cars; beavers will be viewed as busy, whatever goes on in the privacy of their dens; and owls will always be seen as wise, though no other birds ever seem to go to them for counsel.  The sad thing is, frankly, most people don’t seem to give a hoot.


  1. No owls were harmed in the writing of this article. A few squirrels may have been frightened to death, but there are plenty more where they came from. We harmed no foxes---they are doing a good job of that themselves. Pretty Boy says the ones he hits with his truck taste like chicken.

  2. I give a hoot.
    I think the owl's reputation for wisdom goes along these lines:
    Proverbs 17:28 Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.
    Maybe I should take that proverb to heart when it gets to the thirty minute mark in the sermon next time. Then even I might "appear" wise.