Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Contradiction of Nature

The infant spring was two days old, the back stoop was littered with the transparent pink wings of pine tree seeds and the cars looked as though they’d been dusted with saffron. I had absolutely no business going outside and coating my lungs with what amounts to south Georgia snow, but I could stand it no longer.

Bare-legged and bare-armed I slipped out the back door and headed across the field toward the woods. Be quiet, I reprimanded myself in anticipation of the thoughts – unchangeable facts, unnecessary reminders, unimportant questions – that would, without the intervention of my mental customs agents, assail me within moments. Be quiet and listen. Listen.

Along the edge of the field road hundreds of four-petaled white flowers hugging the ground promised blackberries in the days to come. A closer look gave me a peek at the nascent berries themselves, tight pink buds no bigger than the top of a dressmaker’s pin.

Just beyond them were three dead oak trees, trunks grown together, bark fallen off in sheets, 10 or 12 holes of various depths bored out by some destructive insect. How long, I wondered, did that take? And all I heard in response was that other voice reminding me to hush, to listen.

Across the pond dam I saw more blackberry blossoms, stepped over Daddy’s john boat, heard birds fluttering in the underbrush like the pages of a book under a thumb. Under the arc of pine trees and scrub oaks I felt goosebumps spring up on my arms and shook my shoulders with the chill.

I’d just come down the dam and made the turn toward the low place where the creek runs along the property line when I heard a scurry that was too heavy for a bird or a field mouse. I looked off to the side and there, not more than 20 feet away, was a raccoon. He was standing up on his hind legs and holding his graceful little front paws together almost as though folded in prayer.

We exchanged a glance of intimate familiarity, like two old acquaintances, and then that voice – the one I’d done a fairly good job of silencing for the last few minutes – shrilly reminded me that if the raccoon, who shouldn’t even be awake in the middle of the afternoon, had not run away immediately at the sight of me he might be rabid. So I moved on, made it in just a few more minutes to the fallen barbed wire fence I have to climb over to get into the woods proper.

I wandered around back there, crunching last winter’s acorns beneath my feet and trying to keep the still-bare branches of the smaller trees from hooking themselves into my hair, for a long time. I climbed over another fence to get to a rise where I could see an adjoining piece of land planted in CRP pines and watched a loud obnoxious crow dive and loop as though believing he could convince someone he was a really a red-tailed hawk.

And I kept thinking about the raccoon. Kept seeing the eyes within the bandit’s mask that reflected just enough light into their blackness for me to know he was looking at me. Kept wondering if maybe, just maybe, he had contradicted his nature and come out in the daylight because, like me, he’d been simply unable to resist the almost-gravitational pull of the change of seasons.

I walked home another way, cut through the field and came up behind the house from the other side of the pond where frogs or turtles or fish kept making shallow splashes around the submerged trunks of fallen trees. There was no need to return to the hollowed out place in the bushes where my friend – for he was certainly by now my friend – the raccoon had taken a moment to acknowledge me. With some things, once is enough.

Copyright 2009

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Morning Moons and Early Tomatoes

Like the first page of a toddler’s sticker book – "This is a circle. This is yellow." – the moon is pasted dead center on a purple-black sky. Just the faintest trace of blue cheese veins creep across its face and the lemon light that spreads past its clean edge is pale and luminous, the only thing that suggests the circle might be three-dimensional.

A morning moon. Infinitesimally close to full. Teasing me into wishing the day away so that I can sit on the deck, the work day satisfactorily over, and breath in the scent of almost-spring, marvel that the earth’s personal satellite has made it all the way around one more time.

Morning moons, early tomatoes, three-year-olds who read. Not aberrations exactly, but phenomena just different enough to be phenomena, to elicit surprise and, then, wonder.

Rachel Carson, the marine biologist and writer who is credited with drawing the first serious attention to the environmental movement in the 1960's, said, "If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life."

I have my doubts as to whether the good fairy was present to bestow that particular gift on me, but I do know that sense of wonder – the one that makes me pull over to the side of the road to watch a hawk try over and over to lift a rabbit from the apron of the highway, the one that lures me to lie on my back on one of the mounds at Ocmulgee and feel the rhythm of a passing train in my bones, the one that calls me out in the middle of the night to bath my feet in the salt water of the sea – is mine and it has lasted. Lasted longer than childhood, longer than the years of trying too hard at everything, longer than my fruitless efforts at finding a cause for every effect.

That sense of wonder has had me dancing barefoot in the front yard under a chuppah of stars, burying my face in a slice of watermelon too big to hold, staring down a sunset that sets a lake on fire. It has made me braver and stronger and more content than anyone has a right to be.

I’ve been asked quite often of late from whence come the images that end up as words for other people to read and each time I am embarrassed that I cannot explain. I want to explain, but there is no explanation. Who would believe me if I told the truth, if I said, "It’s magic."?

The best I can offer is to say that it’s something like alchemy, the transformation of common metals into precious ones. That one must watch carefully, constantly and indiscriminately and, in the watching, become a part of what is being watched. That one must see not just with sight, but taste and smell and hearing and touch. And that in the watching and becoming, words will appear and take on a life of their own.

I could offer that as an explanation, but, then, who really believes that copper can be turned into gold?

Not long ago someone who knows me well laughed at some silliness that erupted quite unbidden from my mouth and said, "You really are still twelve years old."

Why, thank you. Thank you very much. It is, in fact, my goal in life to remain twelve (or younger) until I’m at least 80. It would appear that I’ve done a pretty good job so far. And for that I credit morning moons, early tomatoes and the good fairy.

Copyright 2009

Monday, March 02, 2009

What's Good For The Goose

The honking startled me as I started out the back door. Over the field just east of the house, two Canada geese were gliding just a few feet above the ground. They were so close I could see the white chinstraps that made them look as though they were recovering from cosmetic surgery.

It was about 7:30, bright and chilly, and the geese were the only noise in the early morning landscape. They had risen from the pond and, in just a few moments, would head back that way, would settle down in the water side by side. For the moment, though, they were dancing – swooping and diving and curving in identical patterns, the kind I used to make in grade school by holding two pencils in one hand.

And they were singing to each other. Loud and nasal, the male's deep notes were instantly repeated by the female's slightly higher ones. Their voices were the only sound in the early morning landscape and the carport created an echo chamber that turned their song into a repeating refrain. I stood there for a long time, unconcerned about the cold that was making my fingers stiff and mesmerized by their nearness, their naturalness, their nonchalance. All of it – the flying, the honking, the staying together – seemed so easy.

The next week I read that Geoffrey Chaucer, master of Middle English storytelling, but not one generally known for his knowledge of ornithology, wrote that birds choose their mates on February 14. My geese had been frolicking just a couple days before Valentine's Day and I decided they must have been engaging in an early anniversary celebration.

I am accustomed to seeing flocks of geese slicing through the sky over Sandhill during the winter. At least once every year I find myself standing in the front yard with my neck bent back, hoping to see one of them break formation, leave a gap in the vee and veer off to find a life of nonconformity.

That, of course, is not going to happen. Canada geese, like most animals, are predictable, their habits certain, their conduct sure. They fly south in winter, back north in spring. They travel in groups. They mate for life.

Our culture doesn't value predictability and conformity very much. Entertainers, politicians, artists, all those in the public forum proclaim the value of being a maverick. Even athletes, whose very notoriety arises from an activity that requires a concerted effort by a number of people (something called a team), get more attention for individual behavior that is outrageous and shocking.

Having watched my geese for those few moments that morning, though, I figured out that it is the predictability, the certainty, the unvarying nature of their lives that draws our attention, that creates the beauty for those of us who watch. I realized that I don't really want one of them to break the symmetry of the vee.

It is comforting, when the stock market falls 600 points in one day, to know that the cardinals will still be hopping around the edges of the fields picking up seeds with their yellow beaks. It is reassuring, when the unemployment statistics are at their highest level in 20 years, to know that the daffodils will soon be breaking the skin of the earth and waving in the breeze. It is soothing, when the newspaper prints six pages of foreclosure notices, to watch two geese, sweethearts through and through, dance like nobody's watching.

Copyright 2009