A Menagerie of Self, Part A

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It’s been a good week of brushes with wildlife, flushing out the teachings and the tensions in that blind between species. 

Some days back I noticed a bird-nest in an old crone of a cholla cactus, who had seen more glorious, succulent days, as her tangle of arms seemed to sprawl a bit dry, tawny and horizontal–the sag of middle age– compared to her more youthful, green and sky-reaching neighbors. Yet she was the grandmotherly choice for some pair of pinioned parents.

I had peered into the nest to look for inhabitants and was half-surprised to perceive a gentle pulsing amid the shades of gray, the validation of a faint intuition, a tell-tale sign of breath, of life. Emboldened, I willed my head to change shape so that I might turn corners with my vision and duck through the shadows of prickly fingers without ending up with a crown of thorns.  There were two ample, bored-looking chicks in there. Their passivity was an unnerving advertisement for their vulnerability. They eyed me, but any fear they might have been broadcasting was drowned out by my curiosity. Save for the motion of respiration, they did not move, the camouflage of stillness their best defense.

I wondered where the parents were. I resolved to come back in different light with a camera. And the next morning, I did. The parents were again absent, at first. Soon, though, I’d lingered long enough, with my menacing paparazzi gun, for them to return and object to my presence–alas dropping the cargo of nutriments in their hooked beaks– with their caustic cries of “Hey!” “Hey, step away from there,” and “ Honey, I’m going over to this tree to regroup.” and “Okay, I’ll perch here and try repelling this intruder by piercing her arrogance with my mind-melting stare.”   

Projecting? Who me?   

If you’ve gazed (guiltily) back into the glare of an agitated yellow-eyed thrasher you might not question my suggestion.

Yes. I felt a little guilty. I was intruding. Intruding on the safe invisibility of the chicks, intruding on the parents’ ability to care for them.  The parents eventually retreated, and I decided to leave, sending out a little prayer for peace and forgiveness, to appease the parents and my own twinge of conscience and concern that they might not come back.  

I do that again and again. I dare the millennia of self-preservation instinct to exempt me, to validate my harmlessness, my goodness, to allow other creatures to trust me as one of them. But it is my own belief in “us-and-themness,” my own suspicion that I am not trustworthy, simply by virtue of my membership in my own ignorant and predatory animal species, that shores up the barrier that I then wish to insist myself through and beyond. 

A couple of days later, after some hours busy puttering, I was nudged by the Mystery out to the back deck to be still for a while. I did, meditating. Eventually, something told me to open my eyes. I did. And I soon noticed the coyote drinking cautiously but thirstily from our waterfall’s (artificial) spring. S/he paused to look up often; I don’t think she was aware of me, specifically, just aware of the need to be aware.  In admiration, I slowly extracted my IPod and began to take pictures. Eventually my motion could not help but betray my location. She raised herself to look at me, then she paused and took an odd stance, motionless and purposeful, and I thought that perhaps she was relieving herself in some way out of my view. (No sign of that when I checked the ground there later). As she came out of that stance, I began to video her, knowing she would leave soon. And as she did, I spoke to her in sweet, praising tones. She would take a few steps and then pause when my voice resumed, gazing into my face, weighing curiosity and instinct, it seemed. Then she’d continue, pausing each time I spoke again, until she’d cantered far enough up the slope that my voice could no longer override her momentum.

Today, I was on the homeward leg of my trail walk, chanting the Daimoku mantra, when a hearty, benevolent dog-walking couple approached from the other direction. I modulated my chanting; and I greeted the dog first, as I often do– perhaps to put the owners at ease more than the dog. But there was instant trust and good-will here, noticed only because there doesn’t always seem to be. There was nothing of lizard brain suspicion in our meeting. Perhaps my chanting and her predisposition to friendliness acted as a sort of password with the woman.  She said, as if continuing a conversation already started, “So there is a rattle snake up ahead.”  “Oh, great!” I said, conveying my pleasure and lack of fear about it.” They described its location, which I recognized when they mentioned it was right by the bush with the bird’s nest.” Oh, the Cholla?!” “Yes!”  They recognized my pleasure, and we enjoyed an exchange in which we all confessed that, before their sighting, we’d all had thoughts of seeing a rattler on the trails today. I thanked them, and, for now, our conversation concluded; though we all carried a new buoyancy from the encounter.  I sauntered down the trail with anticipation, hoping the snake would still be there. (Oh, Boy! Namu myoho renge kyo; Here snakey-snakey; Nam-myoho-renge- kyo….)

Even approaching with heightened vigilance, I started when his motion drew my eyes to him, slithering across the trail, dutifully yielding to bigger, faster traffic.  The trouble for him was I slowed down. I paused to watch him, leaned in to admire him, peered closer to count the segments in his rattle (nine)! I didn’t have a camera with me, and I’d definitely call him fiercely protective of his privacy, as he tried to disappear into the camouflage of shade and gravel under our fond Cholla Villa de Thrasher.  

I watched my forwardness translate his long slithering body into folds, as he spring-loaded himself into standby position for striking. He wasn’t coiled. He wasn’t rattling, but the tight slalom of his form was was like compressed spring. And he held that position, motionless, save for the occasional “blink” of the tongue, just like the fledglings in the nest three feet above him, motionless but for breath. 

Realizing that he was a hidden menace for other hikers, I paused only briefly in our stand-off before I began looking for measures I could take to remedy the situation.  I gave him a wide berth, surgically tiptoe-ing among the dense prickly pears, to a point on the trail beyond, where I might be out of his threat-perception zone, and I used a rock to draw arrows in the dirt of the path and write “Rattle Snake.”  But the narrow trail did not lend itself well to legibility.  As he was still poised defensively when I finished, I reluctantly fell to Plan B. I lobbed a number of stones into the inches of space between him and the trail, hoping he might just move. Of course, he did not; this is a reptile.  (The one time this option had worked in my experience, there were two of us throwing rocks; we had had no choice; it took a long time, and we were actually pelting the snake rather than politely pummeling no-man’s-land.)

So, then I felt obliged to surrender all outward doing. But I decided to try one more thing: an old animal communication trick—show him pictures; I relaxed my heart and allowed my mind to fill with images of him moseyin’ on, easy-like, all by his leisurely lonesome. It works with mammals! But when that didn’t reach him, I knew I could only now let go all agenda, of the do-gooder, of the one who caused and needed to fix this problem, etc.  

About that time, an old gentlemen with two fine hunting dogs came down the trail. I halted him with a few economical words and gestures, and tiptoed back to his side of The Cholla of the Knowledge of Good Day and Bad Day, gleaning that he was hard of hearing.

Apprehending that I might be protecting the snake as much as him, he asked how long I’d been out here, warning people. I watched his line of questioning betray his assumptions and world view.  Are you a vegetarian? Do you eat beef? Is there any animal you don’t like? When is it okay to kill something?  I answered in good-humored honesty. It was a friendly conversation. Since he would interject with stories about how much it cost him to treat his dog’s last snake bite, and how many days in hospital it cost his friend to get bitten, he knew I’d saved him, if not a life, a tidy chunk of change.  

During our conversation we became aware of another voice. Mama and Papa Thrasher were again incommoded by the activity near their tree. It wasn’t clear, however, if they were scolding me or the snake or just venting about the disturbed safety of Grandma’s neighborhood.  

Eventually, my human acquaintance was satisfied with our conversation, and as he turned to go, he asked how long I planned to stay out here.  I told him I was going home, too.  And as I turned to do so, I could see that the snake had used this time to retreat.  I felt both relief and disappointment, and also vexation, because I hadn’t seen where he’d gone.  I treaded very mindfully down the trail through the danger zone. And I mused about the common thread in the week’s encounters, not only with bird, beast and reptile, but with other humans.

To be continued…

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