In a rut

The deer have started to return. Mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus.

A word about binomials first. I use them a fair bit, and there are two reasons: one, they’re much more reliable than common names — Pandion haliaetus is always an osprey, whereas “fish hawks” or “seahawks” can be any number of birds, or football teams, as the case may be; and two, there will come a day when I index these posts, and a binomial index will look pretty slick. It also becomes habit. I know a long-time herbalist who only refers to plants by their scientific names. She usually shrugs when asked what their common names are. That can sound pretentious, though, and I honestly don’t care. I’m not above being pretentious. In fact, I don’t even use the word pretentious; I use the French word, prétentieux.

What are binomials? They’re scientific names for classifying living things, consisting of a generic (genus) and a specific (species) term, used to designate particular types — the Latin name of a plant or animal, beginning with the genus, capitalized, and then a descriptive epithet, not capitalized. So, Homo sapiens. Genus Homo (human being) and sapiens (wise). We had the privilege of naming ourselves — one of only two animals ever to do that — and we decided to put in a plug for wisdom, whether or not it was represented across the board. We’re also the only members of the genus Homo, as far as we know, still existing. Homo erectus? Died out a half million years ago, give or take (give or take quite a lot, actually, since estimates vary as new information comes to light).

You’d think from the boring name Felis domesticus that the house cat definitely didn’t have a hand in naming itself. Wrong. Felis domesticus isn’t a valid classification: a German dog-lover came up with it in the 18th century. Instead, cats are sometimes given the binominal Felis catus, coined by none other than Linnaeus himself, and more properly Felis silvestris catus, a subspecies of the wild woodland cat. Interestingly, Felis is Latin for cat, but catus isn’t. Catus means smart or cunning, and while Linnaeus gets the credit for that, we can probably guess what really happened. Like Thoreau, Linnaeus wrote in plain terms about the seasons — so for him mid-December was when the butter lets go of the dish; January was the time of cracking ice, and so on (Strindberg was a big fan of Linnaeus, and one of the first to appreciate his poetical soul). All poets have cats, and one night Linnaeus’s cat grabbed a quill and classified himself in the ledger as Felis catus, becoming not only type specimen but also a living example of cunning feline.stag_and_two_does_111217_02_1000

The Odocoileus hemionus have started to return, then. I have the sense that they are always around, but every now and then I realize how much they come and go. Summer is an active time, when I can make coffee, walk to the south window, and almost certainly see several does on our little scrap of lawn by the bird bath. The fawns show up in June, usually mid-month, and are with us daily for about four months, being weaned and losing their spots by season’s end. But October is slow. The deer have begun to move down into breeding grounds, and the rut occurs through the first part of December. It’s the only time we see stags up here, infrequent, but impatient and persistent. Then the does appear again, looking tired, cranky, and ready to hunker down in the snow for the long haul into spring.

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