The good news was that his grandfather was coming to school to pick him up. As he climbed into his grampa's car, the boy started to feel better. He really loved his grandfather. Grampa was a quiet man who knew an awful lot. He was always ready to share what he knew.
For instance, Grampa had taught the boy how to tie a number of really good knots, the kind with names and special tricks for getting a job done, not the usual tangles most people used. With surprise, the boy looked out the car window and saw that they were at the park. Now what was Grampa up to?
"The snow is just right for tracking," said Grampa. "I thought maybe we could head out into the woods here and find us some smartening pills." Grampa always seemed to know just how plants were feeling, what animals were doing, and what people were thinking. If he was going to share any secrets of how he did this, any magic pills that he knew of, this was going to be good.
The man and the boy crunched down the snowy path toward a small pond where a flock of Canada geese and a pair of swans were paddling in the open water. It was a lovely sight. The swans put down their heads and upended.
The boy laughed, "Oh, look, Grampa. The swans are mooning the geese!"
"Do you think so?" asked Grampa. "Would that be a good idea?"
Uh oh. Grampa knew. The boy and his friends were in trouble because the teacher caught them mooning on the playground. Just like they saw on TV they'd pulled their pants down and wiggled their butts. They'd only pulled their pants down a very little bit because it was so cold, but everyone knew what it meant. Oh, it was so funny - until the teacher got mad.
The boy looked to see if Grampa was going to scold him, but Grampa seemed more interested in the network of tiny tracks and tunnels in the snow.
"Look here. You can see that these tracks were made by meadow mice, voles. See how the tracks go in and out of tunnels the mice have made? In summer their runways and tunnels are harder to see in the grass than they are under the snow. Especially where the tunnel roof has fallen in, you can easily see the runways now.
They followed the tunnels and found in one place a grassy nest as big around as a softball. There were piles of cut and stacked lengths of grass in another tunnel, and a small hollow with a stained yellow floor and pile of what looked like dark grains of rice.
"Grampa, do mice make a bathroom?" asked the boy. "These look like poops."
"Animals are very smart," said Gramp. "Somehow the mice know not to mess their nest. You know that cats dig a hole to bury their waste and dogs can be most particular about preferring some place outside their own yard. Foxes and coyotes seem to like to mark their way by leaving their piles right in the middle of a path.
"Right where you can step on it!" chuckled the boy.
"You are much too sharp-eyed for that," said Gramps. "We call it scat when wild animals make it, dung when farm animals make the manure, turd when a dog leaves it on the sidewalk, and stool when the doctor wants a sample. Young people seem to like to say shit. Your grannie would prefer to say excrement or feces, I suppose. See the yellow stain? That's the mouse's urine, or pee or piss."
The boy looked at his dignified grandfather and wondered what Grampa might say next. Grampa said, "My own grannie would have called it tinkle and B.M. for bowel movement. We referred to doing #1 or #2, and in some languages they use words that mean small business and big business.
We animals all have to eat. What we can't use - maybe because it's too woody or too bony we pass out at the other end. Our intestine, the bowel, is where we do the work of taking the nutrients into our own bodies. That warm dark tube is a great place for growing germs which could make us very sick, could even kill us. The bacteria are what make the smell that humans don't like. Isn't that a lucky warning?
Germs are too small for us to see so we have the protection of customs, taboos, things we do not do. Different societies around the world have developed words and even gestures which are thought to be rude, what we may call bad or dirty. In some cultures people assign one hand, usually the right one, to be "clean", not the one you use to wipe yourself with. That "clean" one is the one you shake hands with or eat your food with, or serve your god with.
We may use slang, a rude, crude way of saying things and think it's funny."
"Like shit," said the boy.
"Yep," said Grampa. "Instead of saying excrement."
"Instead of urinate."
"Like snot.""Instead of mucous."
"Instead of regurgitate, or throw up. Birds of prey, by the way, send their food wastes right back out the front end. Owls cough up pellets full of small crunched-up bones. Hawks, however, have such strong digestive juices that their pellets have only a few big bones.
Would you like to learn a new word?" asked Grampa.
The boy nodded yes enthusiastically. He was gathering quite a list.
"Euphemism," Grampa said carefully. "That means a good-sounding way to say something. It's a round-about way of talking, like saying "passing gas" or "breaking wind," rather than saying "flatulence".
"Instead of fart." said the boy with a grin. Grampa didn't say anything. "We say bathroom where we do more than wash," added the boy as they walked along.
"Wash room is exactly what lavatory means," Grampa said. "It's Latin, and latrine comes from that. Raccoons choose special places as latrines. They like to go on top of flat stones, even stone walls, or beside big trees. Raccoon droppings are interesting because they eat so many different things, but their scat can be dangerous, full of the microscopic eggs of a roundworm parasite."
Grampa squatted down and began to poke at a dark pile of perfectly oblong pellets in the path. "These are deer droppings. Use your mittens or a stick, remember," said Grampa as he cut one pellet in half.
"You can sometimes tell who an animal is by what it eats. You can see what an animal has been eating by the bits of grass, twigs, bugs, berries, even shells, feathers, or bones in the scat. In winter the deer eat dry twigs and make hard pellets. In summer deer scat are soft and more like squishy-shaped clumps of raisins because then they are eating fresh moist grass.
You can tell how long ago the animal was here by how dried the droppings are. Shiny black scat is probably quite fresh. It might be quite useful to notice, if you are in Africa for instance, if the elephant's droppings are still steaming."
They were quite close to the pond now. Grampa showed the boy the goose droppings on the bank. "You can see that the fresh ones still show the white of uric acid so you know these were made by birds. Mammals squirt out yellow urine separately, but birds send out an all-in-one black-and-white package." The geese slowly slid away over the silvery water, moving farther from the humans with soft goose-mutterings as the boy laughed.
The two swans gave the man and boy a good look and then ignored them. Again and again the swans plunged their long necks down like spears into the water. By paddling with their webbed feet they were able to keep themselves upended on the water's surface.
The boy could see that swans were feeding on the muddy floor of the pond. "I can see now what the swans are doing." he said.
"Sometimes it feels better to be smart than to be smarty-pants, doesn't it?" said Grampa. "You know why I think your mother and the teachers and other grown-ups sound so unhappy when kids use rude words? They are ashamed of your manners. They think it's their fault. They have failed. They have not managed to teach you how to say what you mean without insulting anyone. And they know someday that will matter.
Ah, here's what we've been looking for," said the old man as he peered under a tangle of briers. "See this line of rabbit tracks hoppity-hopping along here? Sure enough they're going to lead us to a good supply of smartening pills."
The boy knelt down and looked under the bush. He held his breath listening and trying to guess which word his grandfather would use now. Poop? Shit, fancy words like feces, or some euphemism that the boy would have to work to figure out?
Grampa scooped up a handful of the droppings he found and poured them onto the boy's mittened palm. Solemnly Grampa said "There you are, my boy. Smartening pills."
"Grampa, you can't fool me," the boy exclaimed. He could not help admiring how neat and perfectly round the globes on his outstretched hand were. "Those are rabbit scat!"
"There now, you see?" said Grampa with a gentle smile. "The smartening pills are working already."
Large feathery flakes of snow began to fall as the boy slipped his hand into his grandfather's. Together the two walked back up the hill.