Sidewalk Zendo is moving to

Initially, I thought of my Sidewalk Zendo posts as just a subset of Next-Door Nature’s theme, sharing interesting information about wildlife living in the environments people build and populate and why we should be glad they do.

But Sidewalk Zendo is actually an account of my attempt to turn daily walks with my wire-fox terrier, Dash, into a Zen practice. By sharing the experience with other mindfulness-seekers I’m trying to give myself enough incentive and accountability to stick with this intention.

I’ve already copied the six SZ posts originally published on Next-Door Nature over to the new site. Naturally, I hope Next-Door Nature readers and subscribers will want to read and subscribe to Sidewalk Zendo as well, but I want that to be a choice, not something I’m forcing on anyone. A new SZ piece posted on that site this morning, and a new NDN entry will post in the next day or two.

Anubis, the Egyptian jackal-headed god of the afterlife, on holiday in Leeds, UK [Photo: Tom Blackwell, ccl]

[Photo: Jessica Lucia, CCL]

As I’ve mentioned before, one of my major mindfulness challenges is that, no matter what I’m doing in the moment, my brain is usually already on the next thing I need or want to do.  Or the thing after the next thing.

I have a strong suspicion this is because I’m a habitual list-maker. Rather ironic, because I became a devotee decades ago when I stumbled over and into an article evangelizing the power of lists to move the chores of an overbooked life out of short-term memory, allowing us to give full attention to the task at hand.  And while making lists does help me keep a lot of balls in the air, the article failed to mention a possible downside:  my focus switched from remembering the day’s tasks to thinking about checking as many of those tasks off said list as possible.

Daily walks with my terrier-guru are an opportunity, often missed, to pay attention.  Even when I’m lost in thought, though, my eyes are scanning for flora and fauna as we walk along the trail. When I spy a bright color or quick movement I snap right back into the here and now.

This morning I spotted an inchworm.

You know, I couldn’t say what I ate for breakfast an hour ago without ruminating. Yet, at the sight of a small chartreuse caterpillar in downward-facing dog on a fallen branch I immediately remembered, word for word, a tune from a movie I saw as a child in the 1960s:

Most days, I’m more worm than yogi. I meticulously inventory every leaf and petal on my calendar and forget to step back to admire the flowers.

But I did stop to sing to an inchworm this morning.

Better add that to today’s list.

[Photo: Diane Cordell, CCL]

Let’s be perfectly clear — rhinoceros horn does not have any magical medical properties. If it did, cancer could be cured by eating your own hair and toenails because it’s all made of the same keratin protein.

But several years ago a high-ranking Chinese official publicly announced that his cancer had been cured through the use of this folkloric treatment (his death 3 months later, of cancer, did not receive the same level of media attention) and rhinos are being slaughtered at an incredible pace using unimaginably inhumane poaching methods.

Populations of all three Asian rhino species (greater one-horned, Sumatran, and Javan) have been decimated and, as a result, African white and black rhinos are also on the verge of extinction.

Demand for horn has driven prices through the roof, capturing the attention of illegal drug cartels who are now dominating this trade. These human predators are willing to rob the world of an entire mammalian Family selling a useless “cure” to people desperate to save their loved ones lives, all for personal gain.

Consider offering your support to any of the fine organizations working to save rhinos. Consumers can and should apply pressure on countries like South Africa, Viet Nam, and China to pass laws making trade of rhino horn illegal, with serious fines and prison time for those who choose to continue this horrific practice.  [Photo: Thomas Hawk, ccl]

[Photo: Steven Crane, CCL]

African elephants (Loxodonta africana) aren’t usually considered an urban wildlife species but I’d come a long way and wanted to see them while I was in South Africa. The built environment just doesn’t have the amenities Earth’s largest living terrestrial mammal needs to feel at home.  Africa’s elephants prefer dense forests, woodlands, deserts, and even the transition zones between these biomes to urban canyons and suburban savannah. Lucky for me, this study abroad excursion included several days at the Shamwari Game Reserve near Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.

[© Gil Sinclair 2013, used with permission]

I also had the good luck to meet some relatives of the elephant while in Cape Town.  The rock hyrax (Procavia capensis) has found it much easier to adapt to city living than its country cousin.  I suppose concrete looks pretty familiar when boulders are your preferred abode. It also helps when you look much less threatening to the human neighbors throughout the hyrax’s Middle Eastern, sub-Saharan, and southern African range than their towering relatives.

Up on Table Mountain, which overlooks the city, hyraxes were everywhere: scampering along the pathways, basking on benches, happily whistling to one another, and enjoying the sunset from rocky precipices. Ignoring humans while living alongside them can be a good survival strategy for urban wildlife, and the hyraxes showed little interest in the two-footed visitors… unless some tourist with a camera decided to force the issue. Attempts to get the affable-looking creatures to pose were met with low “bug off!” grunts.

[© Gil Sinclair 2013, used with permission]

The family resemblance certainly isn’t obvious at first sight but keep in mind that the genealogical tree branched out millions of years ago.  Let’s start with stature:   adult elephants stand 10-13 ft (3-4 m) tall at the shoulder and may weigh over 8 tons, while an adult hyrax measures up at about 8-12 in (20-30 cm) and tips the scales at a whopping 8-9 lbs (4 kg).

Elephants have very little hair while hyraxes are covered in short taupe fur and long guard hairs that function like a cat’s whiskers.  With their small round ears it’s easy to see how they could be mistaken for a large guinea pig (rodent) or pika (cousin to rabbits and hares). Maybe that’s why they have so many aliases; in South Africa they are called dassie (Dutch for badger) or klipdas (Afrikaans for rock badger), Swahili speakers know them as pimbi, and in the King James Bible they’re referred to as coney (Middle English and Anglo-French). Even “hyrax” is misleading, originating from the Greek word “hyrak” or shrewmouse.

Taxonomists know you shouldn’t judge a book, or a beast, by it’s cover. Look beneath the binding and you’ll find a different tail. Make that tale.  For example:

  • [Photo: Andy Withers, CCL]

    Hyraxes don’t have trunks but they do have small pointed tusks and can deliver a ferocious bite when cornered.
  • Like elephants, hyraxes have flat, hoof-like toenails rather than curved claws.
  • Both are social mammals; elephants live in herds of up to 100 individuals, hyrax colonies can have up to 50 members.
  • Both have long gestation periods (22 months for elephants, 7-8 months for hyraxes) and offspring are slow to reach maturity.
  • Elephant and hyrax newborns are precocial, relatively mature and mobile shortly after birth.
  • Both species employ cooperative care for raising young. Elephant calves are tended from birth by both their mothers and other females in the herd; and hyrax pups are greeted and sniffed by the entire colony the day after they’re born.
  • Females stay with the group their entire life; males disperse.
  • Male elephants and hyraxes don’t have a scrotum; their testes remain in the abdomen even after sexual maturity.

The differences between elephants and hyraxes are more than skin deep, too.

  • Elephants must drink up to 50 gallons of water per day; rock hyraxes can survive for long periods on just the water they obtain through their food (although they dehydrate quickly in direct sunlight).
  • Neither animal is a ruminant, but hyraxes have a complex three-chambered stomach; elephants have a simpler but less efficient digestive system.
  • Hyrax stomaches are filled with symbiotic bacteria that help break down plant material; elephants have to consume up to 300 lbs of food per day, in part because they aren’t able to extract much nutritional value from what they eat.
  • [Photo: Abri du Plessis, CCL]

    An elephant spends a good portion of each day filling its stomach with food and water; rock hyraxes are world-class loafers who are inactive 95% of the time.
  • Hyraxes have poorly developed thermoregulation compared to other mammals so they need to sunbathe for several hours each morning to warm up and won’t venture out of their shelters on cold or rainy days. Elephants have to work at staying cool; they don’t sweat or pant but their large ears help to dissipate heat and they’ve developed a temperature regulation strategy that involves storing heat during the day and releasing it at night, similar to camels and desert rodents.
  • Elephants have a sixth “toe” and their feet have large subcutaneous cushions that distribute weight and absorb mechanical forces; hyraxes have a more flexible foot with a rubbery pad in the center that can be raised to create a suction-cup for clinging to rocks and moving across slick surfaces without slipping.
  • African elephants have no natural predators as adults (they have a decided size advantage) but their calves are vulnerable to attack by lions, crocodiles, leopards, and hyenas. Hyraxes have many predators and, as such, they feed in a circle formation, heads facing outward, eyes scanning for danger.

I’m told that most tourists who have a safari on their bucket list focus on the iconic African Big Five — elephant, rhinoceros, Cape buffalo, lion, and leopard.  I’d be the first to agree they’re all worth seeing in their natural environment, with no bars or moats to limit your view. Or theirs. 

But I find celebrity tours less interesting than exploring on my own.  I like to switch to hyrax-time, wander through neighborhood, sit at a sidewalk cafe or bask on a park bench and watch the residents, human and non-human alike, go about their day. Taking note of what makes us different and all the ways we’re related, despite the distance. 

© 2017 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work  but please ask).

The bees of Whitecross Street, London, UK, in honor of the beleaguered pollinators upon which we depend far more than most people realize [Photo: duncan c, ccl].

Hydrangea [photo: Joy Weese Moll, ccl]

Jet lag has had me feeling foggy since I returned from South Africa to the US last week after 42 hours in-transit.  So when the terrier-boy and I set out for our walk this morning I decided a good way to sharpen my sensory perception would be to follow his lead and pay attention to the smells I encountered along the way.

Scents are chemically complex and to process them takes both our nose (olfactory receptors in the nasal cavity) and the limbic system, areas in our brain that also handle memory and emotion.

The English language is rich with evocative words for the world we experience through our eyes and fingers and tongue and ears. Musical sounds even have a formal vocabulary. Our scent lexicon is rather impoverished, comparatively speaking. Perhaps that because smells tend to trigger strong visual images of people and places, pulling our attention away from the subtle notes coming in through our nostrils.

We can still enjoy our olfactory faculties, despite the language limitation, so every time Dash stopped to probe with his superior canine snoot I pecked the air with my inferior human beak. Here’s what wafted by:

damp soil — earthy… but that’s redundant, isn’t it?

fresh-mown grass — the signature scent of summer

dryer sheets — laundry day at the suburban homes near the trail

hot automobile brakes — from a car stopped at the crosswalk

oakleaf hydrangea — lightly sweet-and-sour although most varieties are scentless

cigarette smoke— someone in running shoes and shorts seated on a bench

tree of heaven—  (aka stink-tree) the blooms offer a strong “perfume” reminiscent of cat urine but the tree managed to snag the starring role in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

NDN Challenge:  Now it’s your turn! Step outside and let your nose lead the way.  Pay attention to your scent-sory surroundings and then share what you discovered in the comments section below!





Rainbow owl riding the LEGO line thru Portland, Oregon, USA [photo: Chris Christian, ccl]

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