Sunday, August 24, 2008

Butterfly, Squirrel, Beagle, Moose

The Washington Post Magazine today contains a lovely article by Dan Southerland detailing his relationship with a red admiral butterfly who alighted on his collar one July afternoon in the District last year.

The butterfly proceeded to hang out there for hours as Southerland stepped into a photo-shop to capture the moment, went to lunch at Smith & Wollensky, and finally took a cab home. Upon arriving chez Southerland, instead of departing, the butterfly stayed in the area, coming back to the garden and visiting Southerland and his family many times over the next month.

Southerland does a wonderful job conveying the joy of the whole experience, which gradually drew in family and neighbors and colleagues. He talks to a Smithsonian entomologist about butterfly behavior and what the little fellow might have been up to. The expert’s theory: The animal was likely attracted to Southerland’s sweat and may have been using him as a perch to scope out sexy female butterflies.

But much of what Southerland experienced with this little bug, the lepidopterist concluded, was highly unusual behavior for a butterfly. A mystery, in other words, and thank God for that.

The strange dance that developed between Southerland and his butterfly is one of my longstanding obsessions—not butterflies, particularly, but animals in general; how we relate to them, and they to us; what we share and do not share with the creatures who co-inhabit this world.

As a kid, I obsessively read the National Wildlife Federation's magazine “Ranger Rick,” spent many hours overturning rocks in the backyard to watch the ants do their marching thing, and used to wander miles down the tiny creek that flowed under our backyard trying to catch minnows and salamanders. I fantasized about wild birds coming down to land on my outstretched finger. I hatched many a Rube Goldberg-esque plan for catching one of the neighborhood squirrels, imagining that once we spent a few hours together, the squirrel and I would develop a friendship that would be fulfilling, passionate, and deliciously misunderstood by the philistines and grown-ups who could not comprehend the depth of our bond. I was a lonely kid, and wanted an intimacy most wild animals are well-served by avoiding; a relationship with a wild creature who “chose” me might mark me as special in a way that few people seemed to recognize.

I’d like to think that the ego-needs have gone out of my interest in animals at this point. I certainly no longer set up makeshift traps involving a box, a stick, and a bowl of peanut butter (which, by the way, no squirrel was ever dumb enough to fall for), and my work at The HSUS has taught me plenty of less sociopathic approaches to wildlife.

But the obsession with animals—what they do, what they might be thinking and feeling—has stayed with me. Even now, I can watch Coltrane, our beagle, for hours. My husband and I have invented a voice for him, and he “speaks” to us on a regular basis. His personality as we’ve constructed it is alternately sweet, smug, petulant, and greedy. There are grains of truth in this invented persona, but really, Coltrane is a mystery: a small, warm, breathing being who shares our home and our bed. We know so little about his inner mental life (we sometimes joke that it looks like a flat line on a heart monitor, jagging upward at moments when food is mentioned), yet we love him devotedly. And my belief in scientific principles and knowledge of the often-parasitic nature of the dog/human relationship are not quite enough to convince me that when he gazes up at us or licks our faces, that behavior is entirely driven by a desire to be fed. On some incomprehensible level, I believe, this animal loves us.

Maybe we’re romanticizing him; our belief in his affections may be a parasitism of our own, and some of what we love may be in the same vein as my childhood wish to be selected and loved by a wild creature that should know better. But I’m OK with that. There are fewer and fewer mysteries in the world, it seems, and the minds and hearts of animals are one.

I know few poets who write about animals with as much perception and stripped-down honesty as Robert Wrigley. His acutely observed poems about the wild are often brutal and completely without romanticism, and he gets into the heart of the way we look at animals and the ways we often fail to see them accurately. It’s hard for me to pick a single favorite, but here’s one; the poem below is from Wrigley’s Lives of the Animals.

The Afterlife of Moose
for Stephen Dunn

As the moose is obsessed, relentlessly
and with little or no variation, with food,
safety, and procreation, I am myself
obsessed of late with God, though by God
even I am uncertain What or Who I mean:
the word or the Word in the mouths
of those who use the word as a bludgeon;
the fabulous order of all disorderly things
or the perfect chaos that lives in straight lines;
all the succulent preliminary wines and kisses
or the thrust and plunge and plosive release.

I’ve been watching this particular bull
for a good while now, as he feeds
on the rich new shoots and shrub
by shrub moves slowly through the forest.
He knows I’m here. He eyes me
now and then. This morning I am in his mind
as God never is, and what I wish I knew
is whether or not I envy him that constant absence,
or whether doubt might not be
the source of all love,
all the shimmer of truth, the flavors of beauty.
Only a fool would see the moose’s life
as easier or less than his own.
As for the afterlife, I’ll take his chances.


IcePony Goddess said...

What a cute beagle!

Please visit our Happy Tails Beagle list, we would love to have you join.

We have beagle owners from all over the world.

Here's a link

Molly (Beagle)
Lucy (Aussie Kelpie)

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