Animal Magic

Black-crowned Night Heron Français : Bihoreau ...

Black-crowned Night Heron Français : Bihoreau gris Svenska: Natthäger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My apology for the absence of the usual weekly blog entry last week, but I’ve finally started to write up Willow and the Würzburg Ghosts, reaching chapter three this week, yay! Such moments of unbridled creativity must be exploited to the full and not interrupted by other writing work if possible – hence the absence of my blog entry last week.

When writing for children aged 8 to 12 one is usually forced to express emotions or difficult subjects like loss, love, hate, betrayal through metaphors, as abstract concepts are still quite incomprehensible to children of that age. Animals can stand in for their human counterparts, as they are non-threatening, meaning when we see animals behave in a certain way we will react very differently from the way we react towards humans doing quite the same thing.

For example, two otters embracing and “kissing” will elicit a heartfelt “awwwww” from us, no matter what age we are, whereas two humans doing the same thing would probably have children reaching for the sick bag.

Black-crowned Night-Heron Nycticorax nycticorax

Black-crowned Night-Heron Nycticorax nycticorax (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Animals’ characteristics or their behaviour in their own natural habitat can be used to great effect, if employed sensitively. I have already mentioned how animals can serve as a “time” marker in a piece of fiction, with nocturnal animals lending atmosphere to night time scenes or migratory animals serving as reference points of time in a plot…to introduce not just autumn/summer/spring or winter into our story but subjects of birth or death, or the aging process or they can be symbolising youthfulness, the feeling of abandonment or loss.

Waterfowl are really good for expressing a number of things, not just for setting the scene of unspoilt nature. For example, herons, egrets and cranes are wonderful for showing patience as well as cunning in a human character. Although we mostly think of waterfowl and sea birds as day time creatures, some of them are nocturnal, among them night herons, the star attraction for today’s blog.

Generally speaking, herons are long-legged freshwater and coastal birds that belong to the family Ardeidae; in total there are 64 recognised species, although some are referred to as egrets or bitterns, because they are significantly smaller and have plumage of various colours differing from the typically grey and white herons.

We are mainly familiar with grey herons from our day time rambles: they are tall with long legs, have a long beak and their feathers are grey, black and white. Sometimes they will stand for seemingly hours with their wings spread out to shade the water surface, where their beady eyes are trained on small fish or frogs foolish enough to come within pecking distance of a heron’s beak. Herons are also partial to small mammals like voles or other rodents they might espy in fields following harvest time and they’ll not say no to small birds like passing ducklings either.

Herons can be found near any type of water way, be it in a pond in a garden, in the reed beds of lakes, along the banks of rivers or in sprawling estuaries. Because of their wingspan, herons circling high up in the air are often mistaken for birds of prey. Grey herons at home in the UK do not migrate and can be seen at any time of the year.

English: Juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron

English: Juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unlike the grey heron the night heron belongs to the genus of Nycticorax, a name that stems from the Greek for “night raven”. They are mainly nocturnal feeders and their croaking call reminds one of angry crows – an eerie sound that can be used to great effect in a bed time story!

Of the nocturnal herons the Black-crowned Night Heron is perhaps the best known species. Smaller than grey herons but larger than egrets, night herons are often migratory birds when they stem from parts of the world where it can get quite cold during winter.

Members of the Black-crowned Night Heron family have quite short legs and a stout appearance with short necks. The two existing species both boast a black crown and a pale belly, while their wings, chest, neck and auricular are typically grey or darker, depending on the species. Their youngsters are brown, with white and grey speckles, and look quite similar to each other in the surviving species. They nest in colonies perched on platforms made from sticks in a cluster of trees, or, where they find sheltered areas like reed beds or islets, they’ll nest on the ground. At breeding time the female lays 3 to 8 eggs.

Black-crowned Night Heron Français : Bihoreau gris

Black-crowned Night Heron Français : Bihoreau gris (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The passage of time expressed by such creatures can either be very long – two people watching the patient hunter, while they are sorting out a major crisis in their lives – or represent a very short interval, such as two people watching a happy duckling swimming along one moment, only for the heron’s beak to find its target with lightning speed, a metaphor for the fact that our life could be over in an instant…and that we should value every moment that we are alive.

While very young (8) children won’t get all your subtext and metaphors at first reading, they will eventually, when they return to your writing at a slightly older age. Children’s books for that age group have to work on many different levels, as child readers falling into that age group have a wide range of reading ability.

At the 8-year-old stage they might only pick up on your slapstick humour, where your night heron tries to catch a fish, misses and falls over on its beak, but 10 to 12-year-olds will understand that even accomplished predators have bad-hair days…something to be exploited by little ducklings and frogs everywhere.

Your heron taking off into the night sky might express the soaring feeling of first love or finally getting mum or dad’s praise. A heron patiently standing for hours on end with its wings shading the surface of the water, before finally catching its fish reminds me of a child that employs patience and cunning to get even with a bully instead of using its fists.

Choose your animal representatives wisely and you’ll be able to express quite complex issues without too much difficulty.

Happy writing!

Willow in the Twilight Zone

While over at mariathermann.wordpress.com I’ve been discussing how important location is to me as a writer, here at Willow the Vampire’s own blog I have so far been looking mainly at nocturnal characters and their traits.

Willow and her family are creatures of the night themselves and naturally, this influences the way they view the world.

Not so long ago the excellent writer and teacher William Stadler talked about incorporating all the senses in one’s writing on his own WP blog Stadler Style, such as using sound and temperature for example.

Doing so will not only help with characterization but also with setting a scene far more vividly. One draws the reader in more, when there are points of reference familiar to the reader, such as the sound of a school dinner bell or heavy rainfall or thunder and lightning or a car back firing.

At the time I commented how I like to use animals to set the scene and to give a “time” reference such as allowing a bumble bee to enter a room as a reference/metaphor for daylight, spring and new beginnings or, in contrast, use the flight of migratory birds to symbolise autumn, endings and melancholy.

After having shown you a whole host of creatures of the night Willow the Vampire might come across on her nocturnal rambles through the Stinkforthshire countryside, I felt it was about time to introduce the Twilight animals to you.

Vampires can come out to play after the sun has set and can remain outdoors until the sun rises again. Although this does not apply to Willow herself, it is nevertheless what she grew up with and what is most familiar to her – her vampire parents are forced to live that way.

At dawn and dusk a large variety of animals emerge that we don’t always notice during the daytime hours. Take a stroll to a local river, pond or lake and you’ll see what I mean. There are herons and egrets, dancing cranes and grebes, Common loon and cormorants, squirrels coming for a drink of fresh water and geese gathering to take off in formation.

In your garden or in the hedgerows there are hedgehogs and adders, snails and slugs, moths and mice, which suddenly awake to forage, to mate, and to communicate with the world.

In some ways Willow the Vampire has been stuck in her own twilight world – she is still exploring who she is and what she is…are all vampires evil…or are humans bad? A recent reviewer of Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove picked up on the underlying discussion of good versus evil and all the twilight shades in between. This theme will be explored further in Willow’s second novel, when she sets out to deal with the problem of the Würzburg Ghosts.

Waterfowl are an interesting bunch and come in a great variety. There are divers, stalkers, hunters and shy creatures which, when startled, will break out in an ear-splitting call. As a child I often stayed in my grandparent’s hut on their allotment by a riverbank and memories of this special time have remained with me life-long.

At dawn the world around me awoke with tweets and coughs, clucking and chattering, hooting and flapping of wings on water. These sounds symbolise for me a very special time of day as well as an important part of my upbringing. At dawn and dusk the world seems more vulnerable, being reborn and dying at the same time. During the day and at night, when we are alone, we may feel abandoned, forgotten, lonely and scared, but at dawn and dusk, when the world either wakes up with a yawn or rubs its sleepy eyes to got to bed, we feel differently.

The animals gathering by the water’s edge may even be enemies at night or when the sun is high in the clouds, but at this special t’wixt and b’tween time a temporary cease-fire reigns and everyone gets on…

Mermaid Magic and Caribbean Manatee Musings

Perhaps it’s because I grew up at the seaside, maybe it’s because I was born in Lübeck and the Hanseatic League is coursing through my veins or maybe it’s because my maternal grandfather was allegedly a fisherman…my affinity with all things maritime knows apparently no bounds and my fascination with creatures of the deep sea and stories surrounding the sea has been life-long.

My WP friend Michelle Barber of LoonyLiterature is always asking questions about writing – how do we create our stories and how do our approaches to the work in hand differ – so I’ll try to explain a little over the next few posts how I approach my writing.

This group of three West Indian manatees (Tric...

Having established yesterday that I’m a fluttermole – Michelle is a butterfly writer, flitting from subject, genre and age group to the next, while I’m a combination of a mole (digging myself into a WIP) and a fluttering butterfly (being able to start several WIP at once and see all of them through in mole-like fashion) – I approach all new writing projects in the same way.

It starts with an interesting snippet I pick up in a newspaper, a magazine, on telly or overhearing a conversation on a bus or reading something in a history book – hey presto, a kernel of an idea is born. Then I do lots of research, which usually throws up some interesting combinations or juxtapositions.

At school we had to learn a lot about German legends like the Niebelungen – Siegfried, flirty Valkyrie Brünhilde, dwarves, treasures and lusty dragons – and among them were the stories about Loreley, a mermaid type woman who sat on a rock overlooking the Rhine River, luring fishermen and sailors to their doom with her beautiful singing.

English: Sankt Goarshausen with "Katz&quo...

English: Sankt Goarshausen with “Katz” castle, UNESCO World Heritage Site Upper Middle Rhine, Germany. Deutsch: Sankt Goarshausen mit Burg Katz, UNESCO Welterbe Oberes Mittelrheintal, Deutschland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There she sat on a rocky perch in Sankt Goarshausen, combing her long golden hair. Not her fault that love-sick sailors couldn’t get enough of her lovely singing. Men are simply the weaker sex – the latter being the operative word. Innocent Loreley did nothing wrong – it was all in men’s heads and trousers that caused the drownings, the crashed boats, the wailing, the hue and cry.

Incidentally, today’s visitors to Sankt Goarshausen can’t get enough of music either – a famous open air music venue regularly stages rock and pop concerts here. However, as far as I know, there have been no more crashed boats or drownings owing to lovely music getting out of hand.

Close to the little town of Sankt Goarshausen are two castles, Katz and Maus (cat and mouse), which also overlook the Rhine River…no doubt they’ll get their write-up over at Maria Thermann’s blog!  What an amazing setting! You can see it all from the river, when you take the Loreley Ferry, before hopping off and taking to the “hills” on a trekking tour on the Rhein Burgen Wanderweg, which is a romantic trail running through the forested hills alongside the Rhine embankments. The ferries are very touristy, but it’s worth it, the place is gorgeous; sometimes you meet nice people on board, too – or so I’m told; I only met grumpy, smelly pensioners.

English: Rhine valley at Sankt Goarshausen, UN...

English: Rhine valley at Sankt Goarshausen, UNESCO World Heritage Site Upper Middle Rhine, Germany. Deutsch: Das Rheintal bei Sankt Goarshausen, UNESCO Welterbe Oberes Mittelrheintal, Deutschland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1824 Heinrich Heine, one of my favourite German language poets, wrote a lovely Loreley poem (Die Lore-ley), which became so popular that in 1837 composer Friedrich Silcher put it to music. Today it represents one of the most famous “Rhine” songs that you can hear up and down the river in taverns, cafes, on ferries and wherever there’s a captive audience. Willow‘s dad Dylan would clap his hands over his ears and groan.

A West Indian Manatee, a member of Order Siren...

While Loreley combs her golden tresses and sailors perish, the manatee, an animal resembling most closely a plump mermaid in need of a crash diet, is also fighting for survival. The sea cow, member of the family Trichechidea, genus Trichechus, is an endangered species. As one of the largest surviving members of aquatic mammals, the sea cow has cousins among the Amazonian manatees, the West Indian manatees and the West African manatees.

They can grow up to 4 metres in length and weigh as much as 590 kg (1,300 pounds of proud blubber). Spending most of their day and night sleeping and just being active for 20 minutes at a time, the manatee is not what you might call a creature living in the fast lane.

FLORIDA MANATEE

Willow the Vampire would obviously not come across a manatee in rural Stinkforthshire, but with the usual weird leap of imagination that fluttermoles like myself are capable of, I’m plotting a story, where Willow meets mermaids and manatees for a healthy discussion about endangered species.

Willow may be pre-destined to bite humans and feed on them, but manatee are an entirely different matter – so are other magical beings like mermaids. Both species are off the vampire menu as far as Willow and her family are concerned.

It is thought that manatee or the order of Sirenia evolved from land-dwelling mammals some 60 million years ago – which begs the question, what did mermaids evolve from? What came first, the fish or the girl?

Manatee are vegetarian plant eaters with a stomach similar to that of a horse. Mermaids are presumably not veggies, but live off seafood. Manatee are very intelligent and understand complex tasks – very similar to dolphins; this suggests to me a story line where Willow and manatee discuss with mermaid not just who eats whom but also who destroys habitats and who should rebuild them.

Mermaids on the other hand have never struck me as very brainy – the one in the fairy tale gives up her mermaid existence of freedom for the sake of a faithless princeling – how dumb is that?

English: Location of Katz castle above Sankt G...

English: Location of Katz castle above Sankt Goarshausen and the river Rhine with Loreley rock in background (Germany). Deutsch: Lage der Burg Katz über Sankt Goarshausen und dem Rhein, im Hintergrund der Loreley-Felsen. Français : Le Rhin et le château du Katz, à Saint-Goarshausen en Rhénanie-Palatinat. Le rocher de la Lorelei est en arrière-plan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: manatee Français : lamantin

I mean, giving up magical swimming powers for a MAN? That’s like Buffy the vampire slayer giving up her slayer powers for an earthworm or Morgause and Morgana suddenly deciding that Merlin is just too dishy and they’ll give up black witchy-woo stuff for good. Must be the prolonged effect of salt water on the brain…and they say a fishy diet makes you more brainy!

Willow the Vampire will have to go on a trip – outside her beloved Stinkforthshire she’ll be like a “fish out of water”, perhaps putting her little more in touch with the creatures that dwell in a sphere so utterly different from her own.

I’m thinking of sending Willow to the Caribbean Sea, where the West Indian manatee is at home – along with pirates, who also reported mermaid sightings on many occasions in the past.

Dylan Band (aged 401), Willow’s vampire father, is pursuing a career in music and of late, he and his band The Other’s Blood, are having some considerable success. What could be better than taking a little holiday – with sun for Willow during the day and Caribbean music venues for Dad Dylan at night? As a fully paid-up member of the vampire fraternity, Dylan cannot go out during the sunshine hours, but Willow, being a Child of Light, can do so.

The castle Katz from Patersberg and a part of ...

The castle Katz from Patersberg and a part of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley. In the background the Loreley rock. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, it’s off for a little calypso, mento, reggae and salsa for Dad Dylan and mermaids and manatees for daughter Willow – can’t wait to let my fluttermole spirit loose on this latest story!

There you have it, dear readers: manatees, vampires, priates, Loreley, mermaids, Caribbean music and Sankt Goarshausen all in the same post. Michelle, is this a fluttermole writer’s brain or what?

(source of pictures Wikipedia, source of animation; heathersanimations.com)

Bear-ing up under the Strain of Battle

The association between bears and humans goes back millennia and while bears were hunted for their meat and fur, they were also hunted as a test of “manhood”, “strength” and “bravery” among men with clearly nothing better to do and not a lot happening between their ears.

In Germanic culture bears were honoured for being a symbol of the warrior class and this filtered through in language. In Old English for example the word “beorn” has twin meanings, standing for both warrior and bear in equal measure.

Steiff Display!

Steiff Display! (Photo credit: crafterm)

In Nordic cultures men were and are to this day often called Bjørn or Björn, which also means bear. It’s quite a common name and, coming from Northern Germany, I knew a quite few Björns when I was growing up. There are various rune stone inscriptions mentioning the name, so it was already popular, when the Vikings were around.

Clifford Berryman's (April 2, 1869 – December ...

Clifford Berryman’s (April 2, 1869 – December 11, 1949) political cartoon of President Theodore Roosevelt’s bear hunting trip to Mississippi that gave the Teddy Bear its name. Was published in 1902 in The Washington Post (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Legend has it that some people even have the ability to transform into bears – which makes this an interesting animal to feature in Willow the Vampire’s next adventures. According to legend, warriors dressed in bear-skins could take on some of the bear’s most important characteristics, namely power, stamina and strength, all useful things in battle and when dealing with new, devious headmasters.

The bear-skins were treated with herbs and oils, presumably in a magic ceremony. The English word “berserk” is allegedly referring to this ability of transformation. When going into battle, such bear-skin wearers would feel “invincible” and therefore fight to the death without wasting a thought on injury or harm to themselves. People believed such warriors could even walk through fire, which just goes to show how silly human beings really are – no self-respecting bear would believe such utter nonsense.

Early Greeks also believed that people could take on bear characteristics and that the gods could sometimes transform people into bears.

Perhaps it was inevitable that humans should adopt the bear as their favourite toy. Steiff teddy bears are without doubt the most famous representative of this sub-species. The company was founded in 1880 by a little old lady called Margarete Steiff, who took in her brother Fritz as a business partner a few years later.

Toymaker Margarete Steiff was paralysed as an ...

Toymaker Margarete Steiff was paralysed as an infant. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She originally made elephants, not bears, and they were not designed as children’s toys but to be pin cushions which Madge sold to her mates. When you purchase something from their shops in Germany, you’ll receive your toy in a lovely paper carrier bag that shows a drawing of the elephant on wheels, which Madge initially designed.

When she realised how much these elephants appealed to children, she started making all sorts of different animals for kids. The prototypes for Steiff elephants, cats, dogs, goats, pigs and hedgehogs were all designed and mostly made by Madge herself in a back parlour and later a small manufacturing place.

Eventually her nephew Richard joined the company in 1897 and created the typical Steiff teddy bear in 1902. The bear design was so successful that by 1907 the Steiff company was already selling just under one million teddies. Margarete created the company’s motto and it is still holding on to it to this day: “only the best is good enough for children” and I sincerely wished every single person on the planet would follow this motto!

There are few manufacturers in the world who strive to make products that come with a lifetime guarantee – we think of Swiss luxury watches or cars like a Rolls Royce when we hear of such high production values.

Steiff Display!

Steiff Display! (Photo credit: crafterm)

Making of a teddy bear 2 sewing and turning

Making of a teddy bear 2 sewing and turning (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yet, this is exactly what happens at Steiff, where each toy is tested to its absolute limits to ensure no child is harmed, no matter how much love the teddy bear or other toy is being subjected to over the years. Eyes and the characteristic metal “button” in the teddy’s ears must not come off through wear and tear; all materials used must undergo rigorous testing for their ability to withstand fire, water and far too many cuddles to reproduce by a machine.

Unfortunately, they hadn’t thought of children like me back in the 1960s, when they tested their bears – I put my Steiff bear into a cement mixer (hey, it looks a bit like a washing machine!).

The poor creature lost most of its fur, but he was still my favourite toy and once helped me to run away from home…I was about three and folded him up, climbed on his broad back and legged it across a fence that was meant to keep me safely in a garden.

Replica of the teddy 55PB of Steiff

There’s a Steiff Museum, http://www.steiff.de, in Giengen/Brenz, just off the A7 motorway.

I think Nuremberg is probably the nearest airport. Bookings must be made beforehand online; the site is available in several languages, including English.

Castle Katzenstein is nearby, which is also worth a visit (http://www.burgkatzenstein.de/allgemein_geschichte.php?language=en).

Burg Katzenstein dates back to the 12th century and is a fun day out for all ages, certainly the type of place Willow and her friends would enjoy – not to mention Willow’s four-hundred-year-old dad Dylan, who’d be familiar with the type of costumes the staff wear at Castle Katzenstein!

Bears, it seems, have their own way of dealing with humans and below you’ll find a few links to videos that show the bear vs. human situation doesn’t always end in nasty humans winning the upper hand; sometimes bears have the last laugh, and quite right, too!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2pzHh732Y0&NR=1&feature=fvwp

(featuring a silly German woman jumping into Berlin Zoo’s polar bear enclosure = no, it’s not me!)

http://www.bear.org/website/ for more information on bears

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Wild-for-Wildlife-and-Nature/279792438707552 (how to help wild life in general and bears in particular)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XpF04nximI

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HS4CymP-aZg&feature=fvwp&NR=1

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ubZimS4E3F0&NR=1&feature=endscreen

(the latter video is featuring a fatal panda attack, not for the faint hearted!)

(all photographs sourced from Wikipedia, animation sourced via heathersanimations.com)

Willow the Vampire discovers the Bear Necessities of Life

This will have to be another two part post, I’m afraid. There’s just so much to the human-bear relationship, never mind the vampire-bear relationship that needs to be discussed.

Bears are not exactly nocturnal, but can be active during the night, so may well bump into Willow the Vampire, who needs more powerful allies like the wild boar to help her to save Earth. She’s met and become friends with a Red Panda but, let’s face it, what’s a Red Panda going to do in a battle, cuddle a villain to death or lick him into submission?

bear

At barely more than domestic cat-size, the Red Panda might be scratchy and bity in a squabble, but hardly of sufficient weight in a fight against a ten-year-old let alone a fully grown human. Fully grown brown or grizzly bears on the other hand…even in their eight-month-old cub-version…are opponents any vampire child would be proud to call her friend.

Actually, bears are rather shy and avoid fighting. It’s just stupid humans who get in the way and upset the bear’s equilibrium to an extent where it’s tempted to raise a paw in self-defence or growl in a threatening way. I do very much the same thing myself with flatmates.

Teddy bear, born in Germany about 1954

Teddy bear, born in Germany about 1954 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The human relationship with bears is an ambivalent affair. As children we are given teddy bears and told they’re soft and cuddly, a human child’s best friend during sleepless nights and mummy’s absence; however, as years go by, we are told bears could wipe us out with just one swipe of their paw. If we came across them unawares in the wild, they’d be more likely to turn us into their dinner than snuggle up to us for mutual comfort.

Historically, bears have been hunted – in many places to extinction – ridiculed and revered in equal measure. Their strength and intelligence make them formidable, which naturally means human males are in awe of them. History teaches us human males admire anything that can theoretically take them out with just one punch until…

…they get clouted over the head by this very theory…at which point human males turn ugly and cry “threat to society” and “exterminate” along with “get your hands off this pelt, that’s my hearth rug your naked infant’s posing on”.

Bears are blessed with a great sense of smell and can detect marmalade sandwiches from miles away, something a certain British family discovered to their cost, when they let a small South American bear into their home, after finding him stranded at Paddington Station. Around human habitats bears change their behaviour from diurnal (daylight) activity to twilight (crepuscular) and even nocturnal (night-time) foraging and playtime routines.

Mr Bear

Although they are not blessed with slim-line bodies, they are much faster runners than their awkward gait would lead us to believe, and are also excellent swimmers, particularly polar bears, which often have to cover huge distances between ice floats to get to another meal.

Their lopsided gait and ponderous facial expression has often made them the target of human ridicule. However, as soon as these agile creatures climb up a tree or demonstrate how good they are at fishing that irrepressible pest, the human male, gets jealous again and wants to humiliate bears by forcing them to dance in a circus or fight with dogs in a pit for money instead of showing off how multi-skilled it really is compared to the average human male, who typically struggles to put on his own trousers and shirt without falling over.

Teddy bears may belong to the family of Pooh, Steiff or Paddington, but all other bears belong to the family Ursidae. Although officially classed as carnivores, most bears are really omnivores, something many Canadian or Alaskan citizens discover when their rubbish bins are being investigated by local bears with a sweet tooth.

English: Paddington Bear, Paddington Station W2

English: Paddington Bear, Paddington Station W2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In total there are just eight surviving species of bear, occupying a widespread habitat, which ranges from countries in the Northern Hemisphere to selected parts of the Southern Hemisphere, presumably because at one point in history bears quite liked to travel (think Paddington Bear, a Peruvian visitor to the UK). From Asia to South America, from Europe to North America, bears are part of human existence, whether human males like it or not.

In the wild bears might eat honey – just like Pooh Bear – or nibble berries to augment their protein diet. The Giant panda on the other hand is specialised and eschews all but the finest bamboo. The Polar bear has little choice but to stick to a diet of fish and seal with the occasional penguin thrown in as a mid-morning snack, since bamboo is as rare in arctic regions as a sober human male is on a Saturday night in Cardiff.

With increasing threat to their natural habitats, wild bears are coming more and more into conflict with urban dwellers. The lure of fast food and bright city lights is clearly too much for even the most determined of forest grumps. Many bears are discovering – like Paddington Bear – that marmalade sandwiches are irresistible human creations that do agree with bear taste and Ursidae etiquette, meaning they taste good when eaten with a chum, while chatting across a raided bin.

English: Two black bears mating

During courtship male and female bears become marginally more sociable and females turn later into the most devoted mothers, but the rest of the time bears are solitary and do not seek the friendship of others. This poses a problem for me, since Willow’s supposed to make friends with one.

I’m forced to devise a heart-breaking flashback, where Willow comes across a bereaved mother bear in Stinkforthshire forest, after her cub was murdered by some worthless louts who broke into the local zoo. Naturally, the human murderers will be dealt with in classic “Willow”-style; as a result my vampy girl and Mama Bear will be friends for life.

There’ll be more bear necessities in the next post; meanwhile, if you can spare a few coins for a good cause, here are some Pooh, Paddington and other members of the Ursidae family who could do with a little help:

http://www.bearwithus.org

(a charity helping bears of all descriptions to find a better life and stay safe)

A brand new Friend for Willow the Vampire?

If Willow’s blog has been a little quiet of late it’s

a) thanks to the latest wave of my flatmates leaving and new ones being recruited, which takes up a huge amount of my time;

b) thanks to such a wealth of nocturnal animals! I simply couldn’t decide which one should follow the wild boar, such an impressive contender for the nocturnal star of the month.

Caracal

By complete chance I came across the wonderful caracal, the fastest of all small cats. It can leap 3 metres (10 feet) to snatch birds in mid-flight or sail through the air to pounce on small antelopes or large rodents.

Lurking behind bushes, rocks or in tall grass, the caracal sometimes even tackles larger animals like goats, making it rather unpopular with African farmers.

With long black tufts of hair on slender, elongated ears, the caracal looks at first glance very much like a lynx but is in fact far more closely related to the African Golden Cat. I think it looks more like a mini-puma than a lynx (except for its tufty ears).

It has a tail nearly a third of its body length; it can grow up to 92 cm (36 inches) in length and weigh up to 19 kg or 42 lbs., so as “small” cats go, it’s actually quite a whopper. The caracal’s geographical spread covers the Middle East and Africa, India and North West Pakistan.

Caracal

The caracal loves steppes and semi deserts but can also be found in scrub- and woodland. As long as there’s cover like rocks and bushes for it to hide, it can stay in most terrains – although probably not here in Wales, where it’s continuously raining!

Apparently, the caracal can easily be tamed and was therefore used as a hunting cat in India and Iran. With is golden to russet fur and pale rings under its eyes it is very beautiful to look at. I could imagine Willow the Vampire making friends with a child from India, whose parents have smuggled a caracal into rural Stinkforthshire. Surely some fun could be had with that…the Beast of Stinkforth Moor, the Kitty of the Cattervilles, the Cat from the Black Saloon?

I feel a new playmate for Bartholomeaow coming on…but then again, probably not…caracals are loners and rarely play with others once they’ve reached adulthood. This could be an opening for a love-hate relationship between Kitty Caracal and Bartholomeaow Band. Two cats hunt as one?

Caracal or desert lynx (Caracal caracal).

Unlike other small cats, the caracal’s pupils contract to form circles rather than slits, making it probably look friendlier than it actually is! Beware Willow, this little kitty packs quite a punch and goes straight for the throat…erm…sorry, I forgot…so do you, my bloodsucking little friend.

Its name comes from the Turkish for “black ear”, namely karakulak. A young caracal has black on the outside of its ears, but these markings vanish when the animal reaches adulthood. Its ears are incredibly agile and versatile, because it uses them to locate prey. Fancy having ears that are controlled by nearly 30 different muscles! You’d never know what your ears might be up to whilst you’re talking to a friend.

In the wild a litter of caracal kittens rarely exceeds three individuals. Caracal kittens are weaned at approximately ten weeks, but may stay with their mum for up to one year to learn how to hunt and find water. They are fiercely territorial and very good at hiding, which is why they are very rarely seen in the wild.

Strangely, their qualities mark them out as an ideal friend for vampires, somebody who’d truly understand the vampire nature.

English: Caracal kitten Français : Jeune Carac...

Yes, I think I shall add the caracal to Willow’s list of new friends!

More boar-ing Facts from the Wild Wood

Fig. 16 - Wild boar.

I’ve already touched on how wild boars were hunted to extinction in Britain during the Middle Ages. Before heading for the subject of boar worships, perhaps we should look a little closer at why boars are regarded as such worship-worthy beasties.

Famous for their resilience, strength and courage, wild charging boars make formidable opponents. Hunters, who merely graze wild boars with their bullets, lance or spear, might find they’re being chased up a tree, mauled, trampled, squashed and even killed. The general rule is to kill the boar or be killed by it. The wild pig is blessed with very thick fur and hide, dense bones and enormous tusks (worn by males only to impress the girls), which makes it so resilient.

The Wild Boar (Sus scrofa) is the wild ancesto...

Naturally, boars were mainly hunted for their delicious meat, but they were also pursued with such relentless vigour because pigs, wild, domesticated or just ill-behaved, can cause tremendous damage to crops, kitchen gardens, fields and forests. They take being an omnivore very seriously and “hoover” up everything that comes before their snout, lizards, acorns, snails, mushrooms, carrots in a kitchen garden.

There were various methods to kill wild pigs, among them pick-sticking and hunting at bay with hounds like mastiffs or trapping with nets and deep holes. While pick-sticking had at least something of the single combat, heroic element to it, hunting with dogs, shooting with guns or trapping wild boar is unmanly and a hunting method used only by cowards.

During a pick-sticking hunt the hunter or spearman used a special boar spear to kill the animal, either on horseback or on “foot”, sometimes in groups of hunters but also in a single man-to-boar situation.

Worshipping boar for their strength and bravery reminds me of humanity’s first foray into this misguided belief. Can we truly imbibe our enemies’ physical strength and positive traits of character? I rather doubt it. If true, we’d all be biting Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Sarah Michelle Geller or Marilyn Monroe. It’s a fairy-tale made up by cannibals, when they clubbed each other over the head and consumed their uncles, aunts and nephews in the privacy of their own caves. A slice of Uncle Herbert, anyone?

Skeleton of wild boar

Skeleton of wild boar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just as there are still thousands of idiots out there who believe that bits of tiger flesh stewed with a selection of Asian herbs and spices or ground up rhino horn sprinkled over their oysters or snow leopard steaks with chips and mayo will give them greater prowess in the bedroom department, thousands of years ago Celts worshipped the boar and munched their way through thousands of these wonderful animals for rather different reasons.

Even the great King Arthur himself didn’t escape the boar-magic. A story found in the Welsh/Celtic Culhwch and Olwen mentions Arthur chasing after the mythological boar Twrch Tryth and that the boar and chase had something to do with Arthur entering the otherworld or realm of the dead in order to steal a magical object.

Culhwch entering Arthur's Court in the Welsh t...

Culhwch entering Arthur’s Court in the Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen, 1881 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unlike the aforementioned men with too much money on their hands and too little brain between their ears, the Celts created tiny metal boar statues to wear on their helmets and nearly life-size ones as offerings during special burials of important personages as their tribute to the boar. Romans were less fanatical in their boar hunting efforts, but also prized the animal for its courage and strength.

Although during the 13th and 14th century noblemen mainly hunted boar for sport and food, they also practiced their martial skills on them and eventually paid tribute to their wild opponents by including them in their heraldic emblems. Because wild boars were so ferocious and often killed hounds, horse and hunter, the boar was considered a malicious animal and was even accused of having links with Satan. However, this didn’t stop the rich aristocracy to covet their cunning, strength and intelligence.

My particular favourite is the noble house of Schweinichen, who used pictures of a wild boar in their heraldic emblems and colours (Schweinchen = piglet). Undoubtedly, the wild boars would have preferred to be left in peace to forage in the forest rather than being hunted and then used as a cute namesake.

Heubach wild boar

Wild boars, like all pigs, are highly intelligent animals. Hunted to extinction in large parts of Europe, wild boars are gradually making a comeback, thanks to their astute understanding of human habits and human habitats. In Greater Berlin in Germany, populations of some 10,000 animals have been recorded, around 4,000 of which sneak into suburbs to raid bins or forage for food in gardens or to play in the municipal parks with their piglets.

Knowing they are unlikely to be hunted or even chased by suburban humans, they have become so brazen that the normally nocturnal animals have been sighted during the day – when in May 2003 two wild boars went for a stroll on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, the municipal powers ran out of patience and sent out storm troopers to deal with the trotting menace. Both intrepid piggy-tourists were shot, proving once and for all that only Stasi-swine are allowed to live happily ever after in Berlin.

English: Mosaic of a wild boar on the Northern...

English: Mosaic of a wild boar on the Northern Aisle floor of the Byzantine Church of Petra, Jordan Français : Mosaïque représentant un sanglier sur le bas côté nord de l’église byzantine de Pétra en Jordanie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As per my earlier blog, wild boars have also discovered the delights of Hamburg, where earlier this year several of them invaded private gardens. These links are to German newspaper reports, showing pictures of the “humane” hunt with stun guns that merely sedated the animals. Only two of the Hamburg tourists were caught; the rest of the piggy gang escaped by jumping into the river.

http://www.ndr.de/regional/hamburg/wildschwein183.html

http://www.ndr.de/regional/hamburg/wildschwein197.html