A Letter from the Farm

A short epistle from Howard Birnstihl one day when he was under the wether…and if you think I’ve spelt that incorrectly you’d better read on…and then again, maybe not.

Hi Mum,

A bit of a shaggy dog story perhaps, but there I was feeling grouse, quite cocky really, although not wanting to crow about it, having a cat nap after a heavy stag night when a wise old owl who really had ants in his pants started badgering me, saying even though I was a lone wolf and the black sheep in the family, a real dark horse in fact – and usually in the doghouse feeling lousy, and even though I had bigger fish to fry seeing a man about a dog, I’d be better off coming out of my shell and become a big fish in a small pond by leaving the rat race and all those road hogs floundering around like fish out of water and duck down to the farm today.??

Feeling a bit crabby and wanting to buck at the idea, but not wanting to ruffle his feathers, I said, in a pig’s eye, you’ve got emus in the top paddock mate, I haven’t been down there in donkeys and could fall prey to any number of things.? But then I thought, it’s water off a duck’s back to me so although as busy as a beaver, flat out like a lizard drinking and dog tired, feeling like something the cat dragged in, I decided I could run with the hare and run with the hounds and pressed doggedly on, running hell for leather like a raging bull as straight as the crow flies till I got to the gate.? At first feeling quite chirpy, trying to ferret out the key, I felt a bit of a galah, a bit of a lame duck actually, standing there like Blinky Bill as I thought, holy cow, someone has been horsing around here monkeying with the lock. I thought yeah, while the cat’s away, eh.?? Anyway, I don’t wish to bleat about it but that really got my goat as I’ m as blind as a bat without my glasses, as clumsy as a cow on roller skates and the damned thing was as stubborn as a mule. Perhaps I should have turned tail and run but I didn’t want to chicken out and was champing at the bit.? I could have tried till the cows came home, being the pigheaded type, flogging a dead horse no doubt as I felt as weak as a kitten and as sick as a dog, and even going the whole hog and beefing myself up it just wouldn’t budge.? Feeling like a bull in a china shop, and raging like a caged lion I thought you’d need to be as strong as an ox to move that thing, but of course there’s more than one way to skin a cat. So, going at it like a bull at a gate and placing my head in the lion’s mouth, and having done the donkey work, I made a monkey of myself.? I slipped in the mud and in two shakes of a lamb’s tail I was on my ass.? Feeling like a lame duck I thought maybe I should have let sleeping dogs lie, but the place was an absolute pig sty.? I nearly had kittens when I took a peke, a real nest of vipers.?? Like a fly on the wall, and with a worm’s eye view, I quickly checked the rafters to see if my chickens had come home to roost, and I suppose I should have counted them before they hatched, although I’m never sure which came first, the chicken or the egg.? Poor things were couped up with hardly enough room to swing a cat, and when I did, I really set a cat among the pigeons who’d weaselled their way in somehow…perhaps through a hole in the chicken wire.? I checked the nests but was too late, the bird had flown, gone like a bat out of hell.? The only one left was a horrible looking thing, a real ugly duckling.? Maybe I shouldn’t have been so hasty, you know, like a rat up a drainpipe, after all a bird in the hand and all that.? But then I just stood there, like a deer caught in the headlights, feeling like I was shutting the barn door after the horse had bolted – the farm now, I’m afraid to say, once a ripsnorter, was now something of a white elephant.? This, I fear, was turning into a dog’s day afternoon.

I got the word from the horse’s mouth when he let the cat out of the bag, a strange sort – neither fish nor fowl, that the chickens were as mad as a dog with a fly up its bum.? I thought they were just crocodile tears at first, but I’d been backing the wrong horse, they were actually pretty cross, so much so that they threatened to cross the road, which they did.? They crossed it with a baritone and got a gravelly voice.?? Then they crossed a rooster with another rooster but ended up with two cross roosters.? But I digress…which is a bit like a tigress but its teeth aren’t so sharp.?? Anyway, this snake in the grass came up to me…the guy thought he was the bees knees, the cat’s meow, proud as a peacock, a real gadfly.? Slippery as an eel, a real hyena, you know the type, crooked as a dog’s hind leg, a real lounge lizard, saying he could give me the good oil, angling to get his fangs into me.? I said, yeah, you wolf in sheep’s clothing speaking with a forked tongue, snake oil no doubt.? Of course it was a hare-brained cock and bull story, a load of wombat droppings [I’m too polite to use the term horse shit] but he egged me on, playing cat and mouse and eventually hitting the bullseye. ?I ended up shelling out to the cold fish, raiding the piggy bank, taking the bait, hook, line and sinker.? I bought a camel load of the stuff, the lion’s share in fact, made a real pig of myself hogging it all like that.? Not wanting to be anyone’s lapdog, I sat there feeling a bit of a bunny while he looked like the cat that swallowed the canary, the cat’s pyjamas in fact, now having feathered his own nest completely.?

Went back up the road where I had a bird’s eye view and saw a zebra crossing.  It was crossing a businessman with a thousand dollar bill but he was just big noting himself.  I couldn’t stomach that.  The cows could though cos they’ve got four of the things, but I’d had a gut full of all this so hopped on my horse and left.  Mind you, hopping on a four legged animal requires years of training and I often fell in a heap.  I think it was left there by the garbo’s who’d been on a wildcat strike.  And although it was a soft landing and I was as comfy as a pig in clover, I thought I could smell a rat, but it was just full of creepy crawlies that had wormed their way in.  I checked to see if the worm had turned, but they were flocking together like birds of a feather, acting like sheep, but they couldn’t pull the wool over my eyes.  I called to my pet dinosaur to help…his name is Tyrannosaurus…or Rex for short, [his brother’s blind…I don’t  think he saurus] but he was off haring around after some fluffy tails that had been crossed with frogs, I think they call them bunny ribbits, but he was barking up the wrong tree as usual.  They were in another one, the pine tree…the one where you long to be somewhere else.  {I’ll explain that one later for the slow ones}.  Then the tree attacked him, but he was okay, its bark was worse than its bite.  To get rid of the worms from this web of intrigue I called the early birds and we soon had it all under control. 

Maybe it was the butterfly effect, as I saw a butterfly flutter by, but Rex, who I’m afraid is a one trick pony and had become a bit cuckoo, started horsing around with this little Chihuahua, although for these two little love birds I think it was only puppy love, but when it started hogging into a sausage on a roll he realized it was dog eat dog.? He took his sausage and climbed up onto a huge pig, no doubt eating high on the hog.? When they started rooting like rattlesnakes I shouted at him to leave it, reminding him that curiosity killed the cat, but he laughed at the idea of a mere cat and said being the top dog he was only foxing, all bright eyed and bushy tailed, just aping the cat as a joke, you know, just kidding, acting the goat.? I said stop being a copycat with all this ‘monkey see – monkey do’ business and leave the jokes to me. He put his tail between his legs and I soon had him eating out of my hand, but he got too heavy, felt like I was holding an elephant, but he was having a whale of a time, snorting like a pig, blowing stuff out his nose.? Then I noticed him sitting with his paws together like he often did.? He was quite a prayery dog really.? Then I thought I heard him yelling for help like a cat on hot bricks, but when I looked, he was much higher, up on a hot tin roof.? But he was only crying wolf, the pigeon-toed little twerp probably had bats in the belfry – mad as a snake – would you believe he was actually trying to make a mountain out of a mole hill?? But every dog has his day and I told him, better to be a live dog than a dead lion, even though I knew he’d gone to the dogs and I’d probably backed the wrong horse.? Thinking I was riding him too hard, he gave me a snaky look and said call off your dogs.? Feeling a bit of a lame duck, wishing I could tan his hide, I crawled back into my shell, remembering not to put all my eggs in the one basket.

Passing three wise monkeys leapfrogging over each other we saw some birds swanning about, lazing in armchairs, as happy as pigs in shit.? One, as graceful as a gazelle, was in a high chair. ?I guess he was a stool pigeon.? There was a swallow on her own larking around, having difficulty adding up her bill…but I guess one swallow doesn’t make a summer.? I noticed a small insect beside her was meticulously writing a letter home… although it was spidery writing it was obviously a spelling bee. Then the strangest thing, a tiny armadillo with miniature feathers wandered past. On closer inspection I saw it was scaled down.? Anyway, the rest being night owls, were singing happily, each taking a tern, it must have been their swan song as they were like sitting ducks, standing out like shags on a rock where I killed two birds with the one stone, cooking my goose and preparing for supper.? We had to pluck them of course and the dog asked, how do you get down from a duck?? I said, silly goose, you shouldn’t have got up on it in the first place.?? I said, it’s obvious mate [feeling like the cat that got the cream] it’s the elephant in the room, you should have asked him, an elephant never forgets, but if the tusk is too great, pack your trunks baby.? He went as red as a baboon’s bottom and tried juggling his cases but had to admit you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. ?The pig-headed coot trottered away having made a dog’s breakfast of everything as usual.? But I said, hold your horses, it’s as easy as shooting fish in a barrel, as they were all lined up in a roe. I said, particularly that leading one.? He said, oh, the starfish.? But we’d been flogging a dead horse here, and even though he is getting a bit long in the tooth, he is the one we’re saddled with and friends like him are important lynx in the chain.?? He was a fine sprinter too and boy, could that horsefly, actually the only horse ever to win the Stawell Gift.? And I should have looked him in the eye, I mean you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth do you?? But as a reward for this creature who was man’s best friend, I cooked up some cats and presented him with a plate o’puss for dinner.?? He was as happy as a clam when I gave him some bird for desert too, but when he saw the duck bill he refused to pay.? I said, come on, that’s chicken feed.? He wolfed it down and reckoned he was full up to pussy’s bow, saying he’d take the rest home in a doggy bag.? I was about to fly off the handle but wasp leased to let him off this time.? Although I was subtle about it, this being a pet subject of mine, I hoped that sting in the tail would get the message through.? I didn’t want to ram it home if ewe know what I mean.? Anyway, I guess it was all over baaa the shouting.?

Now the world was my oyster and we were on the wallaby, I got down off my high horse and got a wriggle on.? We could see what looked like men belting some rodents with a cat’o’nine tails, fighting like dogs over a huge cracked egg when a map fell out.? Oh well, I said…the best laid plans of mice and men… Feeling like we were on a wild goose chase, we saw a guy sitting in a hole smiling like a Cheshire cat, although as quiet as a dormouse he was as drunk as a skunk and looking as snug as a bug in a rug.? He was as tall as a giraffe and the size of a whale, holding a ringtail, twiddling it with his fingers and blowing in its ear.? We were a bit worried for a while but soon realised he was only playing possum.? Then eyeing his camel, the one without a hump, known to his friends as Humphrey, he got out his sewing kit.? I said, speak up, cat got your tongue?? But he clammed his lips shut as tight as a fish’s arse…and that’s water tight.? Then rising up on his hind legs he reminded me, curiosity killed the cat, and I said don’t talk bull, and anyway, they’ve got nine lives, so we left.? I certainly didn’t let on I’d once been a cat burglar, it’s dogged me all my life.? But at least we had a tail to tell, and fur a long time too, folks will be lapping it up once they’re hooked.? Falling in the hole, we had to claw our way out, the edges as slippery as an eel.? Then, emerging, I tripped over a huge pile of hay and noticed the man’s pet writhing like a cut snake on the ground.? It must have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.? I waddled over. The poor thing had croaked and was as dead as a dodo.

I said, I wish I hadn’t seen that and Rex, the old buzzard being a little terrier, reminded me it was no good burying my head in the sand like an ostrich.  Standing with his legs apart, the bandicoot, he noticed we were on an old army range, a bullet whizzing by missing us by a whisker.  We were surrounded by caterpillar tracks.  In fact there was an old tank close by and Rex reckoned you’d need a crane to shift it, in fact a whole flock of ‘em. It had a huge hole in the side and a man was trying to fix it.  Boy, said Rex, he’ll need an elephant seal there, which I thought was a bit catty.  Then he spotted a lizard and while we were taking a dekko at the gecko a man in a brown shirt came by with his sheep.  I thought the guy was a German shepherd but he turned out to be a kiwi, which of course couldn’t get off the ground.  He stood his ground and declared, I mayfly, taking a huge swig from his drink bottle.  We watched this dragonfly drink his flagon dry and he began to sing like a nightingale, but ran out of breath.  Sorry he said, I’m newt o this singing lark.   Silly bugger was as useful as a tit on a bull.  Perhaps I should have treated him with kid gloves but I said, don’t come the raw prawn with me mate, I won’t stand for it, see squirt?   He said don’t you spell that with an ‘a’?  He was only fishing but I said aye?  He said that’s a start.  I said, I’ve heard of sea lice, dragons, cucumbers, slugs and otters.  He said, what’s an otter?  I said it’s like a totter without the ‘t’.  So, a coffee drinker eh, could keep it awake.  But I guess he knows how many beans make five.  I said why?  Is he an adder?  He said yes, and asthmatic with it.  Uses one of those puff adders.  I said, listen you little termite, toucan play at that game, climbing the ladder to get a bird’s eye view of the notice board.  It said, stick insects here.  So I did and although the vultures were gathering I kicked the dog and began to whippit.  You’ve never seen a wilderbeast.

We looked for a greyhound bus as a jaguar zoomed past but all I could spot was a leopard lying in the dappled shade counting sheep.? It was as fat as a pig and in our direct path, a real fly in the ointment, and with butterflies in my stomach, watching it like a hawk, giving it the eagle eye, I took the bull by the horns and asked it to move.? It was a red rag to a bull and the blighter, as conceited as a barber’s cat, gave me a nasty stare, a kind of cat scan which made me as nervous as a kitten.? He simply refused to move but a little bird told me it was only to be expected, leopards never change their spots.? At first it looked like it wouldn’t hurt a fly, then it snarled and we looked for somewhere to hide.? We chose the long grass, but soon had to leave…it was the hide of an elephant, which it shared with a lioness and her cubs, a large bovine creature and a scowling tiger.? I said, how now brown cow, and although we were quiet as mice we were told to moooooove out, which I thought was a bit low, and I said, go on, pull the udder one.?? She just gave me her cow eyes look.? I then took the tiger by the tail and asked why he was unhappy.? He said he was only a paper tiger and had been arrested…for rustling.?? Stupid pond life.? The lioness I noticed appeared quite concerned, but we said we wouldn’t hurt her pride.? But this was like a can of worms so we galloped off, making tracks, running like a herd of wild buffalo, hoofing it till we found safety in an animal shelter.? The gate keeper was pacing up and down like a caged lion when we patted him on the back and said sanctuary much.? He was as bald as a coot and said, don’t worry, I won’t rat on you and if you’re hungry I’ve some food squirrelled away.? Clever man was ahead of the pack and had been keeping the wolves from the door and we were sure he wouldn’t throw us to the lions.? I was as hungry as a bear and wolfed down his gift, Rex going ape and sinking his canines into a sacred cow as he fought the monkey off his back, locking horns with a huge steak.? He reckoned he could eat a horse but began to change them mid-stream, going to a horse of a different colour, which I hoped wasn’t the man’s cash cow which wouldn’t make horse sense at all of course, even in a story like this.

Having a cow of a day, up with the lark and putting the cart before the horse, therefore travelling at a snail’s pace, I put up the umbrella as it was raining cats and dogs.  I’d bought a heavy duty one just in case pigs might fly.  Then I noticed I had a sore calf so made a bee line for the hospital, where I collared a sister who was quite drab.  I’d assumed this grey nurse would be as clean as a hound’s tooth but was in fact a bit of a grub, not to mention mutton dressed as lamb, certainly no spring chicken that’s for sure.  I asked her if she’d help and she said she mite, which made me as mad as a march hare.   An eager beaver, her name was Robin and she kept bob bob bobbin’ along till we got to the ward.  I’d hoped it would be a forward but it wasn’t, a bit of a red herring really, and we went backward to where we started.   Rex seemed to like her though, attracted like a moth to a flame, thinking her as cute as a bug’s ear, and although I was casting pearls before swine I reminded him you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.  The silly pigeon-chested tit began to object but I shouted, shush, not a dicky bird, you hear!   And stop blubbering!  He protested, saying what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  So I took a gander.  Okay, so he was a top dog, but stone the crows, surely I didn’t have to tell him about the birds and the bees.  This was all a different kettle of fish now and feeling like I was in a kangaroo court I put a flea in his ear, I mean you can lead a horse to water, but poor old Rex started running around like a chicken with its head chopped off, acting like a clown fish, making a mare’s nest of our situation, probably thinking I would throw him to the wolves.

Still hungry, wishing we could put a shrimp on the barbie, we tried sneaking up on some pigs who were hamming it up.?? Stampeding off to save their bacon, I could see they were too expensive for us anyway, we were as poor as church mice.? They cost just over a pound each, they were guinea pigs.? I tried to buy a teddy as they said it was a bear market but Rex kept prodding me and when I objected he said he was just looking for a pig in a poke.? Then we tried the stock animals, but they herd us coming, and besides, we had trouble separating the sheep from the goats.? We saw one on its own, a real lamb for the slaughter that one.? They began running at a cliff like lemmings but when they jumped they were so far away they looked like ants, just little black specks.? They were dropping like flies.? Rex became excited, in fact going hog wild and I said, stand back and let the dog see the rabbit.? He said that was inapt.? I said, what’s inapt?? He said a p and a t.? [I had a sinking feeling inside thinking I’d been here before, a case of groundhog day if ever I saw it].? I said, surely you have the tea first and then the pee.? He said no, that way you’re in a tent.? I said what’s in tent?? He said he doubted mine and wished he was in another story.? I said, what, 101 Dalmations??? He said, no, they reckoned I was too plain, but then they thought they might have a spot in it for me.? Then he really flipped…it must have been the tail wagging the dog.

I don’t want to keep parroting on, and I certainly can’t crow about it but things had gone to the dogs and it was about this time I turned to drink.  I was lapping it up, in fact I drank like a fish, but you try that underwater, it ain’t easy.  One morning, seeing pink elephants and dragging a lobster on a string, my throat like a gorilla’s armpit, I really missed Rex – I could have done with a bit of the hair of the dog, and maybe I should have gone cold turkey.  And did I mention he was a little foxie, but I’m pretty smart myself, particularly in a one horse race and I’m reminded of a Groucho quote:  Outside a dog, a book is a man’s best friend, inside a dog, it’s too dark to read.  I was trying not to think about that when I saw this lady standing alone in the middle of a field holding a goldfish bowl trying to thumb a ride.   I peddled over and asked what was the bee in her bonnet and would she like a piggy back ride?  I felt a bit goofy, in fact you could have knocked me down with a feather when she said, a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, and they rode off on mine into the sunset.  I had to use shank’s pony to get home and even though it was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey, all in all I was as happy as a barrel of them, like a kid who’d caught two yabbies on the one string.

And summing up, did you know if you went to the trouble of gathering all the elephants left in the entire world and placed them head to tail they’d be pooing on each other’s faces.? And do you know which animal can jump higher than a house???? All animals…cos houses can’t jump.?? But let me leave you with this one final thought:? porcupines.

What? You mean it’s still going?

You bet…and the little guy is still giving it all he’s got…digging into that monstrous fambly album of his and hauling out fact after gruesome fact of how his poor little life was almost unbearable [except when he had his Saturday night bath of course, although his Mum always nagged him that it would save on water if he had it with his clothes on…] but I digress…well, not exactly digress, I mean I was only putting something in parenthesis…and talking of them, they gave him such a hard time it is the reason he ran away from home and we now have this highly emotional tale before us. Social realism at its best, these indisputable facts [he assures us] will not only astound you but put you off family life forever and, although this I know would break the poor little mite’s heart, but it may put you off your breakfast too. Oh, bum, talking of breakfast, I haven’t finished mine so I’ll buzz off now and leave you to watch chapter 55 and catch up with you next time.

See ya.

Feeling their way

Words and pics by Howard Birnstihl

Birdwing butterfly on palm
Seeing eye to eye with a moth

Lepidoptera is an order of insects which include moths, skippers and butterflies.   So what’s the difference?   Well, butterflies and the smaller skippers usually operate in daylight; they tend to be exotically colourful; when at rest they sit up straight like their mothers told them with their wings in the air; and their feelers, or antennae, usually have a knob [or club] on the end.   Moths on the other hand tend to be night-owls; wear unfashionable coats in the belief that brown is the new black, and tend to sit with their wings down, wrapped around their body, often with a structure called a frenulurn which holds the two pairs of wings together.   Butterflies often bear stunted front legs whereas those of moths are fully developed.  Oh, and their antennae may not have knobs on but their fluffier versions are still pretty impressive.

Imperial white drying out after having emerged as an adult.
Lavender skipper seeking comfort in surrounds of a similar hue.

              Antennae, or feelers, serve many different purposes on our insects, crustaceans etc, sometimes sensing tastes, smells, heat or movement.  Occasionally they are used as an aid to mating or even just maintaining balance, while monarch butterflies use their antennae as a compass.  Moths and butterflies have bodies covered in scales which are modified hairs.  And speaking of hairs, the lateral hairs on a male moth’s antennae are so sensitive they can sense the presence of a female nearly two kilometres away.   This feat is considered to be quite unique in the world of nature. This of course could cause confusion by the fact that some moths are potentially susceptible to the pheremones of other species, but embarrassment is avoided by the various types emerging at different times in the year.

Bush crickets feeling their way.

              Another feature of the male moth is its attraction to light. Some scientists believe this is how navigation is achieved by keeping a strict orientation to the brightness of the moon.   This would explain why moths are so often seen battering themselves against any available light.   Confusing the light for the moon, or the sun, the insect attempts to keep it on the one side which of course results in it travelling in ever decreasing circles until totally confused.   Still, better than banging your head against a brick wall – but only just.

But, just when we all thought we had it solved another smarty pants researcher came up with the theory that candle flames have the same light frequency as female moth pheromones and this is why the male moth gets the hots for any flame [so to speak]. Give it a few more years and no doubt there’ll be another theory on the table…stay tuned…I’ll let you know.

Close up view of a hawk moth (Theretra latreillii)

               And speaking of senses, moths are big on hearing, most of them having huge ears.   If you’ve never noticed this don’t be too hard on yourself, for even though they occupy up to a third of the moth’s total volume, they are usually hidden away inside the abdomen.   And I have to say there is no truth in the old story of the naturalist dissecting a moth and declaring, ‘hey, what’s this ‘ere?

Hopefully by flashing this giant eye a hovering bird might think twice before trying this moth for lunch.

              Both butterflies and moths [which appeared  first] have been around for about as long as plants [on which their larvae feed] start their life cycle as eggs which hatch out as caterpillars, pupating in a cocoon before emerging as an insect capable of flight.  The different moth caterpillar species [just a mere 160,000 ] produce a wide variety of cocoons.  Silk worms of course produce theirs of pure silk while the casemoth varieties construct a bag of incredibly tough material, reinforced even further with sticks.  Some simply curl a leaf around themselves while others go to the extra bother of burying themselves in the ground. 

Casemoth caterpillar adding home extensions

              Having a reputation for being a bit on the destructive side, moths can in fact do a lot of damage [from a human point of view].

Hawkmoth

Some species cause severe deforestation in places like the USA and of course there’s nothing worse than opening the drawer when winter comes to put on that as yet unworn sweater to find the moths have beaten you to it.

Chrysalis of a cabbage white butterfly
Cabbage white emerging from chrysalis

              Generally speaking butterflies are much more colourful than moths and appear much more delicate.  Their cocoons [usually known as a chrysalis] also tend to be more delicate.  Appearing on the planet slightly later than moths, butterflies arrived about the same time as flowers, upon which they sup.  Only imbibing liquids, they enjoy the sweetness of nectar of flowers and will also land on you or me in order to extract the salt from our sweat.  Using a bit of lateral thinking, they use their feet to check the taste. Not as busy as bees when pollinating, they do however travel much further, and some species are known for their flower constancy…meaning they will ignore other species and travel further to concentrate on their favourite. 

Citrus butterfly showing proboscis, or drinking straw folded up.

In the tropics these colourful insects often have several generations a year, whereas in cooler climates it tends to be only one, and in fact it can actually take several years between generations in some cases.   Often using their markings as camouflage, some also employ bluff in making their wings look like more fierce creatures.  Some too, are territorial, actively dissuading interlopers…although as one oldtimer once put it…they tend to sting only like a butterfly.

extreme close up of the wing of a sunset moth butterfly (Chrysidiria rhiphius)

Another fascinating feature of the colour of butterflies, of which I‘ve talked about in other articles, is that it is not actually colour, or pigment, but simply the way the scales are formed that produces the impression of colour by the way they reflect light and this is why, unlike most gaudy things, their colour never fades.  Display collections set up centuries ago are still as bright and colourful as the day that net closed around them

Intense research is being carried out on butterflies and it has been discovered that some species can only fly when their bodies reach a certain temperature.  They orientate their bodies in relation to the sun to control this, with some cold climate species developing darker wing bases in order to capture more heat.  As for the complicated aerodynamic techniques they use to lift their bodies into the air and manoeuvre, we’d need quite a few pages to cover it. 

Not very impressive but this moth is an important link in the food chain. As it is endangered by climate change so are the beautiful pigmy possums which survive [till now] on it.

As far as air travel is concerned, some species fly prodigious distances.  Being cold blooded, often the reason is simply for comfort, but chasing their food choice is another common factor.   The Monarch species actually flies an astonishing 2500 miles between the American Rockies and Mexico.  Others take it easier and pop over to California.  Now, if you want to get into the realm of the weird get hold of this.  They always return to the same tree.  But it’s not as simple as that.  It’s not the same butterfly, it’s the next generation.  Who says kids never listen to their parents?

WORK: UNDERTAKING

Work 12. Quite an undertaking.

Words and pics by Howard Birnstihl

Undertaker.   I know you all expect me to say obvious things like I was dying to get into this job but I can state here and now that that is categorically untrue.   But there were lots of people dying to be my clients.   And the ones who missed out…well they were stiff.  Of course I had to practice things like looking serious, so I kept telling myself some of the old worn out the jokes I’ve used in this essay.  Worked like a charm.   Although not really.  Charms were meant to identify the dead person to God.  We couldn’t afford charms but the boss said that was okay cos we had a plaque on each lid.   I scrubbed them with a tooth brush for hours and got rid of most of it.

I made a bad start though, the boss said I was late.   I think he was confusing me with his clients.    He said don’t be late again.  I couldn’t relate to that.   For the service a prelate came before he was too late.   He hadn’t seen our coffins but said he’d buy one on spec.  Of course he was late so I said speculate?  He hit me with his little cross which made me a little cross.  But it was an ace service.  Everyone applauded.  Then he foot faulted and everyone booed. 

The boss had given me such detailed instructions on grave dimensions I just didn’t dig it.   It finally sank in though, there’d been a lot of rain.  Only trouble was it rose to the surface again, causing quite a stir, it had been so long since the last resurrection no one knew the protocol.  So we played it by ear.  Then we played it by there.  Then we played it everywhere.  Golly we had a right old time.

But I have to say, it was a very stylish funeral, everyone wore black.  I asked the widow about his passing.  She said she found him one day with his back covered in lard.  Apparently he went downhill fast after that.  And they couldn’t give him a blood transfusion, he’d forgotten his blood type.  But you had to give the old coot credit.  He kept muttering, ‘be positive’ all the way to the end.  Secretly though, she was glad to see him go.  A violinist, he was always fiddling with things.  The last straw was him swapping their bed for a trampoline.   She really hit the roof.

 Then I asked if there’d been a will.  She said no, which is sad really, cos in my experience if you don’t have the will then you probably won’t.  She said he did have an heir though and I said not to concern herself.  They all smell a bit after a few days.   She said I was ignorant.  I said no, I’ve lived here all my life.  She shouted Immigrant! I said, a Grant?  I thought you were a Green, your husband certainly was.  She reckoned that was because he got sea sick on the way over, but I reckon it was because of his pot smoking habit.  So they did a post mortem.  They said it was an aneurism.   I thought, oh no, we’re not going to go through this every year.

The thing about death, it affects everyone.  I remember one guy who’d committed suicide by jumping off a bridge in France.  The poor guy was in Seine.  And there was the Chinese guy who tried to warn everyone the plane would crash…think his name was Sum Ting Wong.   And that poor old stutterer who died in prison before he finished his sentence.   His brother took up water polo, but his horse drowned.  And of course there was that African cannibal who created mayhem at a wedding.  He’d toasted the bride and groom.   But none of that is as sad as all those blondes dying on that submarine.   Pity that guy knocked on the door.

Anyway, finding a location for our business was problematic…so I set up right in the dead centre of town.   At first we couldn’t make up our minds as to exactly how the business should be run so we kept selling our vehicles and buying new ones.   We called this rehearsing.  

Preparing the bodies required a lot of patience… Some we stole from the local hospital.  We also played other card games with checkers and a little monopoly to help pass the time.   We would place the bodies on a slab.   This was standard practice.   If we couldn’t afford a slab then we’d just buy half a dozen which meant we went home reasonably sober on those nights.   At least our wives were happy.

It was such a sad and sombre place that we occasionally wished we had a little funny tobacco to keep our spirits up.   The word gruesome became synonymous with the place…particularly when business was slow.   So we grew some.   It became a pretty good sideline too.   We even started selling it to some of our customers but it didn’t really work…I mean who wants to go to a happy funeral? 

It was so quiet there I used to go out and sit on a tombstone at night for the sheer tranquillity.  But one night I heard what sounded like Beethoven ‘s fifth being played backwards.  Turns out he was decomposing.

Travelling to the cemetery was always so darned slow.  With all those cars overtaking us I realized why we were called undertakers.   But we wanted to expand.  We decided to take over another undertaker, which was a pretty big undertaking and it nearly ended up taking us under.

What could we do to get ahead of the opposition?   We tried glass coffins as a bit of a joke but my boss couldn’t see the funny side.   He came around to my side and we laughed and laughed and…   Then he asked if glass coffins were really a good idea.  I said, ‘remains to be seen’.   We tried psychodelic coffins covered with bright flashing lights but the cops thought we were running an illegal disco and threatened to close us down.   So we took all the lights off but they took a dim view of that.

We buried all kinds.  One was a campanologist, an identical twin – a dead ringer for his brother.   One consumptive we were sure was still alive.  We could hear the coffin.   One guy told his mother he was going to be buried standing up but when she arrived she saw he was lying.   And if you think these are bad, you should see the ones I left out.

We were in a rut and I had such a burning desire for something new we started a cremation service.  At first too hot to handle, it became so popular I said no one can match this, but someone did and the whole place went up.   That really ignited my imagination.  We tried combining the cremation service with a barbeque but we hit a snag so we had to give it the chop.  Too much at steak. 

If a funeral was not well attended we’d sell tickets.  Not that we made much money out of them, no, the profits came from the popcorn at half time.

So, what do you think, with a bit of work, I could bring this back to life? No, you’re probably right.  Should have added the one about the Roman fighter who devoured his wife.  He was glad ‘e ate ‘er.   Or the bloke we buried alive, a grave mistake.  Oh, all right, better quit while I’m still only a bit behind.  See ya.