Monday, July 19, 2010

Vantage Point

It was about eight o’clock when I sat down on the front steps, binoculars perched on my nose to study the herd of deer that had crept from the green at the far edge of the field to eat supper. There were about ten of them, including a yearling who, like all toddlers, couldn’t slow down enough to eat.

A large male had heard the front door open and close and had his gaze, steady like that of a sniper, trained in my direction, alert to the slightest movement that might portend danger for his family. In the magnification of the binoculars I could see his broad white chest shaped like a shield. His caramel-colored coat was tight and smooth, stretched over muscles that bulged and curved like waves frozen mid-crest.

Deer are lovely creatures. Delicate lips that part just enough for the tender peanut leaves to be grasped by hidden teeth. Limbs that stretch into a horizontal parenthesis as they spring into the heavy summer air. Eyes that stare with curiosity and suspicion and something akin to humanness.

I sat there for a long time, elbows on my knees, watching the deer, smelling the grass, listening to the insect buzz swelling from the branch.

A few days before I’d bought a couple of gardenia bushes. Grandmama Anderson had gardenias in her yard. Mama has a huge one out back near the grapevines. The scent of gardenias is the essence of deep summer and I wanted that scent within smelling distant of my own back door.

Every afternoon I poured a little water into the black plastic pots, following the very clear instructions to keep them moist "before and after planting." I kept waiting for rain, any rain at all, to soften the dirt enough for a shovel. After a couple of weeks of my daily baptisms, we got an afternoon shower and the gardenias went into the ground.

Drenched in sweat even at dusk, I stood back from the gardenias, gauged how they would look mature and covered in cream-colored flowers and how they would make my bedroom smell when I opened the windows. I was pleased. Hot and dirty, but pleased.

The next day we got another shower so I didn’t have to pull the hose from the other side of the house to water the gardenias and the coreopsis and the Russian sage. On the third day, we didn’t and I did. I rounded the corner of the deck. "Oh, no!" I heard myself gasp.

One of the gardenia plants had been dug out and thrown over on its side, several of its branches eaten down to nubs. The other was still standing, but had been clearly nibbled. Suddenly the loveliness of the deer with whom I share these woods evaporated. They became trespassers, interlopers, unwelcome visitors who’d audaciously come within 15 feet of where I was unsuspectingly sleeping the night away to graze on a buffet to which they’d not been invited. They had broken our usually easy detente and I felt betrayed.

I went to get the shovel and, as I went, I remembered the afternoon on the front steps when I’d been happy to watch the deer munching on Daddy’s peanuts. They didn’t seem so voracious or brazen then. Funny how a change in perspective results in, well, a change in perspective.

I thrust the end of the shovel into the same dirt I’d excavated just a couple of days earlier, tossed it to the side, repeated the motion again and then again. I grasped the gardenia at the base of its thin trunk and dropped it into back into the hole. I replaced the dirt and patted it down with my foot. I backed away to make sure that the plant was standing straight and realized that I’d not removed the tag, the one that instructed me to keep the plant moist before and after planting. The tag, I now noticed, that also proclaimed in big white letters "Deer Resistant."

How could you not laugh at that?

Copyright 2010

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Eyesight and Vision

I leaned into the last loop of the S-curve on the road that leads me home. On the edge of the road about 25 yards ahead I saw a black squirrel, sitting on his haunches, tiny little rodent hands up to his mouth.

Except that it wasn’t a squirrel.

The eyes and the brain, co-perpetrators of fraud, tend to create objects that aren’t really there. The rods and cones and that magical lens that turns images upside down toss neurological impulses onto the brain which chooses to interpret the impulses as something familiar, something it knows. So a dark object on the side of a dirt road, about 10 inches high and 4 inches wide, exhibiting just the slightest amount of movement would be, in the less-than-a-second processing time of the brain, a squirrel.

Except that, as previously pointed out, it wasn’t.It was a corner of a dark plastic trash bag, one thrown or having flown out of the bed of a pick-up truck and having been buried under the dirt by the tires of a couple of weeks’ worth of cars and trucks and tractors. And since the throwing/flying of such bags has become, unfortunately, an increasingly more frequent event on my road, it took only another half-second for my brain to adjust and send the slightly less familiar, but more accurate message.

It is amazing to me the speed with which we see, interpret and react. In the unmeasurable length of time between seeing the squirrel and seeing the trash bag, I thought, "Gee, a squirrel. He’s black. I haven’t seen a black squirrel in a long time. Aren’t they usually around in winter? How cool is that, a black squirrel in summer! I hope he doesn’t run out in front of me. But it’s really not a squirrel. No, it’s a trash bag. That makes me so mad. Why do people throw trash on the road?" All within the time it took me to blink my eyes once.

One of our Juvenile Court judges is fond of explaining to young speeders that it takes an average of 1.5 seconds for a driver to respond to a visual stimulus by braking. "If you’re driving 70 miles an hour," he tells them, "you will have already traveled 160 feet before you can get your foot on the brake."

I was driving considerably less than 70 miles an hour that afternoon, so I’d probably gone only 50 feet or so when I lifted my foot toward the brake, another 25 when I realized the squirrel was not a squirrel.And – This is where I got really confused. – another 25 when my brain recalibrated again to determine that the squirrel that was a trash bag was, in fact, a squirrel.

A black squirrel sitting on his haunches, tiny little rodent hands up to his mouth.

Expectancy trumped by cynicism surprised by reality.

A few months ago I cut a cartoon out of the Sunday paper. A brother is looking for his little sister and finally finds her sitting at the base of a tree in which there is a tiny red door. "What are you doing?" he asks.

"Waiting to see the elf."

"There’s no elf," the exasperated brother explains. "The crazy old cartoonist who used to live here put that fake door on the tree to fool his kids."

Totally nonplused, the little sister insists that she has seen the elf herself. Big brother, obviously worldly wise and impatient, says, "I’ll believe it when I see it," and walks away.

Little sister retakes her seat at the base of the tree, props her elbows on her knees and says, "Sometimes things have to be believed to be seen."

I drove slowly past the black squirrel who, at the last moment, darted into the ditch. It bothered me that my brain had been so quick to adjust its perception, so eager to change delight to disgust, so ready to see what wasn’t really there. When did I start seeing a trash bag in every squirrel? When did it become not just easy, but automatic to choose the ordinary over the magical? When, I want to know, did I become the big brother instead of the little sister?

Copyright 2010