Animal presence

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Yesterday morning, I went to show my friend K. my patch of mugwort – the main flavoring agent in the beer we’d been drinking the night before. It’s out behind the shed, where I once had a perfectly round vegetable garden when I was a kid, but was forced to abandon the site when the mugwort took over. I had planted a few sprigs among the beds because a friend of my mother’s had said it would act as a natural insecticide. The same qualities that drive off insects – you can lay dried sprigs of mugwort among your clothes in lieu of mothballs – are proof against the commoner molds and bacteria that can ruin a batch of beer. It does as good a job as hops, with a similar effect on flavor, but without the latter’s soporific effects.

We found the mugwort patch in the possession of a box turtle, who did not seem at all happy to see us. I thought it was probably a female trying to lay her eggs, but when I came back later in the day, she had moved about four feet away and was still looking pensive and withdrawn. Perhaps she was looking around for the right spot – or doing something else entirely, who knows?

Come into animal presence.
No man is so guileless as
the serpent. The lonely white
rabbit on the roof is a star
twitching its ears at the rain.

A front blew in after lunch, while I was taking a nap. It was cold and drizzly when I lay down, and clear and windy when I got up. After tea, I went out with my camera, but took very few pictures. I was mostly content just to look at things. I dropped down the powerline a hundred feet or so to get out of the scrub oak zone and have an uninterrupted view: widely spaced clouds and cloud shadows all the way to the horizon, plowed fields alternating with patches of green. The big red barn in the middle of the valley had spilled its herd of Holsteins into the pasture.

A pair of red-tailed hawks lifted off from the trees below me; I lost sight of one right away, but the other circled far out over the valley, flapping, searching for an updraft. It rocked and veered wildly in the wind. One moment it was a mile away, the next moment it was coming in low over the trees. Each time it swung around so the wind was at its back, it let rip with that famous banshee cry so often wrongfully imputed to eagles in the movies, because, no less than a wolf’s howl or the midnight laughter of a loon, it’s a literal Call of the Wild. But even as I thrilled to the sound, I couldn’t help thinking that the hawk was simply saying “Wheeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

The llama intricately
folding its hind legs to be seated
not disdains but mildly
disregards human approval.
What joy when the insouciant
armadillo glances at us and doesn’t
quicken his trotting
across the track into the palm brush.

On the way back through the field, I kept thinking that I ought to run across a newborn fawn at any moment – the grass is long enough, it certainly seems like the right time. Instead, I surprised a mother turkey with poults – or rather, they surprised me. The hen must’ve been sitting on her brood to keep them warm, because she burst up out of the grass right at my feet. I had my camera at the ready, but couldn’t decide whether to try and photograph the poults, who were rapidly disappearing in one direction, or the hen, who was doing her broken wing act in the other direction. As I dithered, the poults scattered and froze, making them impossible to find, and the hen ran too far away for a decent shot. I sat down for a while, but was unable to wait them out.

What is this joy? That no animal
falters, but knows what it must do?
That the snake has no blemish,
that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings
in white star-silence? The llama
rests in dignity, the armadillo
has some intention to pursue in the palm-forest.

This morning I woke up around 2:30 and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I snapped on the light and read for an hour. I’m reading Jared Diamond’s new book, Collapse, and I’m still in the first section, the chapter about Montana. If I lost sleep more often, I’d make more progress.

When I do get back to sleep, I dream about animals. In one scene, I’m with a crowd of people watching two fishers run along a rushing stream, much larger than Plummer’s Hollow Run but otherwise similar in its surroundings. The fishers find and corner a raccoon, kill him with a quick bite to the throat, and load his body into a small canoe. They tie the canoe to a rowboat, and each grabs an oar. “It looks like they’re taking him down to the river,” someone observes. Some sort of Viking burial seems to be in order. “Wow! Doesn’t this prove that animals have beliefs about the afterlife?” I say. “Not necessarily,” someone replies. “The fishers are probably just trying to send a message to other raccoons!”

Those who were sacred have remained so,
holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence
of bronze, only the sight that saw it
faltered and turned from it.

The others have continued on up the difficult mountain trail, but I linger at the campsite. I’m tired of backpacking in my bare feet; I must have footwear. I cut short lengths of saplings, and look about for vines. Instead, I find the corpse of a small hawk with an immense white wing locked in its talons.

Meanwhile, people are lining up in front of a small trading post beside the lake, which is about to open for the season. The white woman who staffs the place walks by and sees me trying to tie saplings to my bare feet. “Would you like some string? I might have a loose piece or two I could give you,” she says with a smile. “That’s O.K.,” I mumble. I don’t want to waste much more time. By now, the others will have noticed my absence, and might be thinking of turning back.

I pull several of the longest pinions from the white wing, which might be from an owl, I think. An old woman with skin the color of mahogany stops to watch as I try to sew up my strange wooden moccasins with the midribs, threads like flexible knitting needles. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing, gachó?” Her tone is grandmotherly, but I get the feeling she might be enjoying a private joke at my expense. I look more closely, and realize she is no ordinary human being. I wake up still mulling over my response.

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An old joy returns in holy presence.
Denise Levertov, “Come into Animal Presence” (The Jacob’s Ladder, 1958)

11 Replies to “Animal presence”

  1. Reading your words brought me back to the time I was still living in the States. Animals were a part of my daily existence even in the heart of Boston. I remember pipistrelle bats flying up and down my Boston apartment, the musk of skunks along the side of the Charles River as I bicycled home from work, the furious bumble bee banging its head against my bedroom window screen, night hawks croaking as they soared over the setting sun, and humpback whales, fin whales, and a thousand common dolphins breaking the copper water out in the Stellwagon Banks one utterly magical afternoon.

    Can you imagine what it is like living in Tokyo where animals are more or less incidental? All my life animals have been an essential extension of myself, a language of movement and expression of place-integrated other-self (is there a word for that? well, I guess “animal” is it, in’it?) that have all but disappeared since moving here. I didn’t know it was possible to feel so poverty-stricken with money all around. A world almost exclusively human (albeit with genetically altered, deformed creatures called “pets” that live out their lives as possessions).

    The thunderclouds are rumbling though, for me. Big changes have already begun. And I don’t intend to ignore the call this time.

  2. MB and Butuki – That eye: yes. I mean, of course anthropomorphism is at work here, but individual box turtles do vary quite a bit in their responses to humans (and presumably to other potential predators); this one seemed unusually steamed to me.

    Butuki – Thanks for that thoughtful, sad, and beautifully written comment (and sorry it got held in moderation overnight). It really deserves a post of its own.

    I’m glad to see you surfacing here. I’ve been anxiously checking your blog every few days for signs of life. Since I don’t have Japanese characters enabled in my browser, your latest post appears as lines of unevenly spaced question marks – not a good omen!

    I gather from what my mother told me that Jared Diamond features Japan as an example of an environmental success story in Collapse, but I haven’t gotten to that part yet. I guess he’s talking solely about forestry, though. And I will probably disagree with his conclusion, since it is Japanese demand and Japanese companies, by and large, that are trashing the rainforests of Southeast Asia.

    I know what you mean about the oppressiveness of an exclusively human world. I think Philip K. Dick captured that as well or better than anyone in his futurist dystopia, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (inspiration for the movie Bladerunner). It’s no accident, I guess, that Dick and the cyberpunk novelists that came after him were so influenced by Japanese popular culture, that strange, metallic womb-world of Speed Racer, hentai and kawaii.

  3. I really enjoyed this entry, I have a great yard where bunnies, birds, butterflies and even a fox was spied a couple times play. My cats sit by the windows or in the yard pretending to be lions as they stalk their prey. However, they are house cats and they only are allowed out when we are so they have not managed to catch anything yet, thankfully. These sights can always put me in a good mood. Anyway thanks for sharing.

  4. Hi Trena, welcome to Via Negativa! I’m glad to hear you’re keeping a close eye on the cats when they’re outside. In addition to the havoc they can wreak with ground-nesting birds, there are all too many things that can eat them (fox, coyote, owl, fisher, etc.). Anyway, I’m glad this post struck a chord with you. That Levertov poem is one of my favorites, and I think it deserves to be better known. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. I love the turtle photo! And, except for shots through the window, I’ve never been able to catch a wild turkey on film. According to my WV Department of Natural Resources calendar this month, box turtles can be sexed by eye color–the males having red eyes, the females yellow. Your glowering fellow must have more obscure motives than you suspected.

    What mugwort species are you “hopping” with? Also, if you have any recommendations on where to find beer-making supplies, I’d be delighted to know. My favorite supplier in DC went out of business, and I haven’t made a good batch of beer since.

  6. Thanks, Rebecca. Eye color is not a fail-safe determinor of sex with eastern box turtles, though males do tend to have redder eyes than females. You also have to pick them up and see whether the plastron is concave (male), though that doesn’t always work, either. The back claws and tails are also said to differ. I agree that the box turtle in my picture could have been male. I didn’t want to disturb it enough to check out all the secondary sex characteristics.

    I’m using Artemisia vulgaris – see link.

    My recipe is online, BTW (with a few typos) here.

    I have been mail-ordering organic brewing supplies from Seven Bridges, but am thinking of saving money (and having a wider variety of malts to choose from) by ordering from this place instead.

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