Nature’s disappearing vocabulary; bobcat decoys; setting the “barr” for climate data

Mishaps and mayhem from around the region.

  • COLORADO When Frosty the Snowman knocks, answer with caution.

    Peace Wheeler/Eleven Experience
 

THE WEST
If you can’t find the words to describe exactly where you are, how will you ever know that you are where you want to be? That’s the kind of question that British nature writer Robert Macfarlane asks in his books Landmarks, The Wild Places and The Old Ways. He was shocked when the Oxford Junior Dictionary decided to delete words like willow, acorn and buttercup — while finding room for things like celebrity, bullet-point and voice-mail — because “language deficit leads to attention deficit.” As Tom Shippey put it in the Wall Street Journal: “If you have no vocabulary for things, you notice them less. So you start thinking they’re not important. Then you destroy them.” Shippey, who calls Macfarlane the great nature writer of this generation, adds that it’s not only England that’s losing its vocabulary for the natural world. In America, he says, nearly a thousand words have been forgotten — words pioneers used, such as “cowbelly, the fine, soft mud that collects on the edges of slow-moving creeks,” according to the Home Ground Project. Expressive forestry terms are also fading away: daddock, for dead wood, spronky, for having many roots, and the perfect griggles, for those small apples left on the tree. Once we cut ourselves off from the bodily experience of being in the world, we literally “lose touch,” Shippey says. Macfarlane, who calls the words he collects “fossil poetry,” aims to help us notice more and wonder more. He does mention one Arizona man who hasn’t lost his word-place connection: An Apache rancher who recites place names while stringing barbed wire. And why does he do that? Macfarlane inquired. “The cowboy explained, ‘I ride that way in my mind.’ ”

THE WEST
Mountain lions eat ungulates to survive, and during a big cat’s average six-year lifespan, it will likely consume about 259 white-tailed deer. That’s what two biologists, Sophie Gilbert of the University of Idaho and Laura Prugh of the University of Washington, found after studying what happened in western South Dakota in the 1990s, when mountain lions were restored after hunters had wiped them out a century earlier. Surprisingly, the chief beneficiaries of the restored predator-prey relationship turned out to be us humans, reports the journal Conservation Letters: Fewer deer on the roads meant fewer deer-car collisions. The researchers speculate that if mountain lions returned to the rural Eastern U.S., they would eliminate so many deer from the road that over the next 30 years, “That would translate into 21,400 averted injuries, 155 fewer human deaths and more than $2 billion in savings — a pretty good return for letting nature take its course.” Coexistence does require vigilance, however, and has its costs, including “yes, the infrequent attack.”

Bow hunter Wendell Van Beek met some friendly smaller cats on the first day of hunting season in Iowa, reports KMEG-TV. From his well-hidden spot in a tree stand, he watched a bobcat stalk a squirrel scampering just below him. Then, 15 minutes later, another bobcat walked through the trees toward him, trailed by three offspring. Within moments, the baby bobcats had ventured a lot closer: “I looked down, and there sat one of the babies right next to me. … I had an old wooden ladder that was going up to the blind, and they were swinging on there just like they were monkey bars. It was quite an experience.”

And the Gardner, Kansas, Police Department got a surprise when it examined what two mounted trail cameras had recorded in a town park one night. Expecting to glimpse the mountain lion some residents reported seeing — along with the usual local skunk or coyote — police were surprised to find romping gorillas, a long-necked monster and “a cat in a bow tie.” Some humans had gone cavorting in the dead of night to prank the cops, reports the Washington Post, but the police responded on Facebook with evident delight: “Your effort and sense of humor are greatly appreciated.”

COLORADO
For 40 years, a man named billy barr — that’s the way he spells it — has cherished his solitude throughout the dead-cold winters of Gothic, Colorado, an old mining town at 9,485 feet. To pass the time, reports the Crested Butte News, barr keeps a daily log of both the temperature and behavior of snow, and he’s found that the trend is grim: “We’re getting permanent snowpack later, and we get to bare ground sooner.” Barr shared his journal with climate scientists at the Rocky Mountain Biological lab, which is based in Gothic during the summer, and now there’s a short film from Day’s Edge Productions about the long-bearded loner and his decades of valuable data. The Snow Guardian has been a surprise hit at festivals and online.

Tips and photos of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared in this column. Write betsym@hcn.org or tag photos #heardaroundthewest on Instagram.