Saturday, October 31, 2009

No Mask

Awake on Halloween morning at 4 a.m. Head downstairs in the dark to feed the cat, barefoot, half-clad, then pause on the landing on the way back to bed. The moon is setting in a hazy sky behind the western trees. Normally it wouldn’t be visible at this point in its circuit, but on the last day of October most of the trees are shorn. Rather than impenetrable woods, I see what looks like a loosely milling crowd – a crowd of trees. There are breaks between the cherry and maple and pine and locust, and in one of those gaps the moon shivers in its last silvery moments.

I, too, shiver, although the night air holds no real chill and the date itself carries no superstitious weight. The traditions of Halloween mean nothing to me, but October 31st feels important because it signifies, locally and unofficially, the beginning of winter. We’ve been fortunate to see no snow flurries yet, but it’s just a matter of time, and that awareness feels more foreboding than any collection of ghosts or goblins. The house seems to shudder, too -- a function of the wind, which hits in waves. I feel a draft whistle through the big picture window, which seems as good an indicator as any that I should go back to sleep.

Three hours later it’s a more reasonable version of morning. That is, we have some light. The sun is rising beyond the eastern trees and, because they’re at a greater distance than those in the west, there’s no observable glow behind what appears to be a dense, black ridge, an arboreal wall. I know the sun will rise soon only because it has risen in the morning for the last 50 years of my life. It’s the kind of quotidian faith I take comfort in, a reliability not always offered by the natural world or, for that matter, our human world.

The wind is still loud, still rattling trees and shaking the house in intervals. It’s a southern wind, and the air is mild, but the mildness is misleading. The wind packs a wallop and has ripped most of the leaves from the trees. They lay in heaps, almost neatly, as though some neighborhood handyman tried to impose order on chaos. The tenacious few that remain look like umbrellas inverted in a gale, or squash blossoms oddly placed on high rather than trailing on garden vines.

As though to support the mildness of the air and contradict the persistent bullying of the wind, we have what I like to call a Rothko sky. Distinct bands of red and russet and gold swipe long swaths across my field of vision. Fall colors on the ground, fall colors in the sky. In the distance, the composition appears calm and dignified. Close up, in the yard, a gust hits the cherry trees with such force their branches extend in a horizontal choreography. The yellow and green and orange-tinged leaves whip sideways, making them look like a school of fluorescent fish shimmying in place.

I have many hours of work ahead of me, and no reason to think of costumes and masks, no reason, really, to be concerned with weather or seasons or the swiftly ticking clock. Around me I see the naked world, an undisguised world, and that world offers, today, both the elegance and embellishment of an abandoned cathedral. If I thought someone might hear, I might say amen.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Lip of the V

Yesterday at dusk a deer walked through the yard. For two seconds, we made eye contact. The deer posed, body facing away, head turned toward me. “Be careful, baby,” I said, quietly. She had just crossed the road, and I was referring to cars, and hunters.

This morning I went outside and scanned the vicinity, visually tracing her path. We live on a ridge, which means she’d climbed uphill. She may have begun at the base of the ridge, where a small stream has carved a trajectory through stands of maple and cherry trees and knots of underbrush. I’ve seen other deer there, sipping clean water or, having heard the retort of a hunter’s gun, standing stock-still. Hunters aren’t allowed in the area, but posted bans are rarely enforced. One day I watched a deer stand unmoving for over 30 minutes. I needed binoculars to see to the base of the ridge, where she stood, and I got tired of holding them to my eyes. Every ten minutes or so I’d go back and check – the deer did not relent. Her life depended on her stillness – she’d heard or smelled a human being, a hunter – and, in a way, I suppose mine depended on my ability to look away. Had I continued to observe, had the deer been spotted by the hunter and taken down, I think I’d have had to move, to permanently leave this place I love so much.

I’ve lived in several locales that have been appealing to hunters, and there have been a few times I’ve worried that I would accidentally become a target. Even now, when I wander into the yard, I try to remember to wear something bright, colorful. More often than not, however, I realize upon returning indoors that I’ve been clad in earth tones, moving slowly, potentially mistakable for a creature not human. Generally, when I hear gunshots, I stay inside.

This morning, however, there were no shots. It’s a perfect October day, and the trees that bank the ridge have mostly lost their leaves. A few retain some color, so amid the vertical scribbles of brown and gray branches are a few swaths of yellow and red and orange. It’s an austere landscape: a radical slope, thousands of trees leading down to the creek, thousands of trees leading up the other side of the ridge. I feel like I live on one lip of a giant V, the house built into the ridge, trees our nearest enduring neighbors. Among those trees, deer slip. Occasionally one makes the climb up through our yard, and it is always uncanny and memorable. Unlike the wild turkeys, who are skittish, or the sleek foxes, who seem single-mindedly intent on reaching a distant destination, a deer will stop for a moment if it’s not in pursuit or being pursued. Standing among trees, in silence, nobody around but the deer – it’s a sublime and nearly inexplicable experience, though not uncommon. I’ve been within an arm’s length of a deer in the woods; during the few seconds in which both parties are startled into motionless observance, something occurs. It might be no more complex an occurrence than seeing – we see each other. It feels like authentic recognition. And then the deer disappears.

Despite their majesty, I’m aware that plenty of neighbors view deer as pests. The animals will happily munch on carefully tended gardens, and they’ve been known to smash right through sliding glass doors or windows and destroy a room or two in the ensuing panic. In places where deer are particularly abundant, they create a driving hazard. Hitting a deer means, often, totaling one’s car. It also usually means killing the deer. We’ll see them lying alongside roadways, as ordinary and ubiquitous as sheds or hay bales. Sometimes they look like they’re sleeping; other times their heads are angled crazily, dark eyes open wide like entryways to some other world. There might be skid marks where a driver tried to veer. Usually, however, there’s no sign of what happened beyond the relic of the animal. Whatever the human cost, it has been tended. The deer is left behind, exposed, vulnerable to scavenger birds, awaiting an official removal vehicle which may or may not arrive in a timely manner. Deer are left to rot, I’m saying. We overlook them.

Sometimes I wonder what happens to these creatures we brush up against. The turkey egg we found in the spring – kept it for a day, then replaced it in the garden where it had been discovered – just disappeared. I’ve read that turkeys will retrieve temporarily abandoned eggs – is that what happened? If so, did the poult survive? Is it among the rafter I see just about every morning, their giant bodies shining in the rain? And what became of the tiny snapping turtle I found on the front steps? I named it Bucket, after Charlie Bucket in Roald Dahl’s novel of poverty and discovery. As with the turkey egg, I’d previously found a turtle egg on the lawn. It looked like a punctured ping pong ball. We’d found a mature snapper in the yard as well – it was wider than a dinner plate, and Leigh had picked it up and held it away from her body, half jogging and half praying that she could relocate it down on the ridge before it amputated one of her fingers. Was Bucket an offspring of that turtle, had my tiny snapper been borne of that ping pong ball egg? Did it survive even an hour beyond the time I saw it, or did something bigger and hungrier make a snack of the turtle?

And what will become of yesterday’s deer? Will a rogue hunter take her down? Will I spy her through my binoculars this winter, standing like a statue near the frozen stream, picking her way through brambles and fallen limbs? We live in a dangerous, marvelous world, and one of its frustrations may be that we must live with questions like these. I find it difficult, at times, to not know the answers, to have no way of finding out the answers. Not everything can be researched, not everything can be discovered. Maybe that’s why we have dreams – I dream of animals as much as I dream of people, or planets, or structures. And maybe that explains the sightings. I don’t encounter ghosts of old companions or ancestors; I’ve never seen nor would care to see a human ghost. I am skeptical, deeply so, of those who claim to have had visions of the dead, conversations with the dead, interactions of any kind with the dead. I’m not much inclined toward the supernatural or even the merely spooky. But frequently, very frequently, I see deer ghosts darting across the road. I’ve seen the ghosts of bears, too, lumbering into the density of the woods. And for every creature I’ve actually seen – seen the flesh of them, the beak and hoof and feather and scale and fur of them – I’ve also heard phantom calls in the night. They’re out there, I’m certain, I sense them. Maybe they’re real sounds, legitimate sounds, maybe they’re explainable and tangible sights… Maybe it’s just one part of my brain trying to comfort another part…

Among us creatures there are many languages. And I hear them, and I see the shadows and the sources. And I take note.