Thursday, June 5, 2008

“ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL”

Creatures feed on my yard here at Sewanee –that’s right, ON my yard, not IN my yard. They include deer, rabbit, and Moles I Have Not Seen firsthand but know they are there from the undulating surface of my sloping lawn. One night the mole(s?) dug up a crop of Impatiens and threw them aside disdainfully. They were looking for a meal of wriggling earthworms, which also abound in my yard. A friend says to spread cat litter around to keep them away. Had I Beatrix Potter’s love for night-creatures I might write the Tale of Miss Marauding Mole, but after seeing pictures of the ugly, cylindrical bodies of this critter, I desire no firsthand looks and am not inspired to compose such a tale. Rabbits hide behind the hemlock and mow the grass, and deer prefer any Big Boy Tomatoes we’re bold enough to plant. Last summer, they watched us pack our bags and leave for the Outer Banks, North Carolina, and while we were gone, they topped off the leaves of luscious tomato plants, ate the fruit, then nibbled the Mexican heather and daylilies down to “ground zero.” They left the zinnias intact. Not long after these unabashed creatures destroyed my plants, Sewanee announced a deer culling, but I’d rather lose the flowers than see those soft-faced creatures killed. My oldest daughter, Stephanie, who loves animals and houses eight cats in New Iberia, says I should feed the deer and tame them. However, the neighbors would be more likely to shoot me than the deer if they saw me trying to tame them because most people up here regard deer as major annoyances.

Critters and birds abound at Sewanee. They remind me of my favorite passage from Whitman’s LEAVES OF GRASS: “I think I could turn and live with the animals/they are so placid and self-contained. /I stand and look at them long and long,/they do not sweat and whine about their condition…” One of my Louisiana poems focuses on the activity of another creature who makes holy indentions in the New Iberia yard and one who, again, enchanted Stephanie when she was three years old – the armadillo. We had taken Stephanie riding in a grove of mesquites on an old oil lease in west Texas when we spied what she called “a big Appley Dappley” (Beatrix Potter’s mouse) and wanted to bring it home with us. She thought the armadillo was a larger version of one of her treasured toys, a rubber rat she inherited from my Godmother Dora in Virginia. During a visit to Blacksburg, Virginia, we missed Stephanie one evening following supper, and after searching the large Georgian house (one that had hiding nooks everywhere), we found her upstairs bathing the cats’ favorite rubber mouse. Stephanie named him “Appley Dappley.” So after two weeks of nightly scrubbings, Appley Dappley went home with us.

The following poem is not about a precious Appley Dappley but is a snippet about a creature so little respected, he was used in leprosy experiments by scientists encamped at the old Gulf Research Institute in New Iberia during the 70’s. The poem appears in my chapbook, AFTERNOONS IN OAXACA, and can be ordered from Border Press, P. O. Box 3124, Sewanee, TN 37375.

THE ARMADILLO
Morning finally comes,
as blind as he and half awake,
I sway to the back door,
look out to the edge
of the new blooming coulee,
surprised by the gray-striped shell,
a snout moving blindly in ground cover,
tiny head swiveling back and forth,
unearthing a grub,
the yellow substance of day
he could not find by night.
My grubs wait in the prayer of night,
four times, awakening me to walk
with pain in an unwelcome darkness.
He is an armored knight
passing my way, saying
you will find something,
something fat and rich
in the soil of morning –
even blinded.
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