Thursday, January 21, 2010

THE CLAIM OF CRITTERS




I must have called up some critters yesterday.  I was reminiscing about the abundant wildlife in the yard of House #2 at Sewanee, Tennessee and lamenting the absence of animal life and my favorite bird, the loud-mouthed crow.  I began sweeping the patio and pushing back the ubiquitous oak leaves that fall in the backyard year-round, feeling  as though I should clean up the place so that the yard would be inviting for critters, preferably the crows.

Well, the preparation worked. When I went outdoors to check the temperature and the direction of the wind this morning, I heard crows squawking as they flew above the coulee bordering the backyard. About midmorning, a fat armadillo appeared, foraging near the patio, blindly swaying back and forth across the yard within a few feet of the house. 

Every time I see an armadillo, I think about my eldest daughter Stephanie.  At three years old, she had begun to love animals, particularly Beatrix Potter’s illustrations of critters. We took her for a drive to a Texaco lease site near Graham, Texas where my former spouse worked, and she spotted this huge armadillo running to and fro near a cluster of mesquite trees.  The critter halted in front of our Valiant, and Stephanie got out to “pet it,” she said.  Her favorite illustration by Beatrix Potter was that of Appley Dapply, the mouse, and she took one look at the armadillo, exclaiming, “Mama look at the big rat.”

Big rats they are, and fascinating to observe after they’ve been foraging all night, reeling across the yard as if they’ve been in the bars dancing to chanky-chank music and drinking beer until daylight.  As for this big rat, I admit that there are very few of them at Sewanee, and I’ll endure a few armadillos in lieu of Suzy Skunk who visited our garage on The Mountain this past Fall, leaving her aroma behind.  We drove around in a pungently-scented car for a week or so.

Crows?  Before this morning when the crows finally showed up, I had begun to wonder if my observation about them in my book of poetry, RISING WATER, wasn’t a bit inaccurate in that I had described them as “being everywhere.”  The poem:

THERE ARE NO PLACES TO HIDE FROM CROWS,

every place I’ve lived
they’ve taunted me,

“my territory,” they caw,
zooming back and forth

from front yard to back,
landing in the hemlock,

screaming like jealous women
finding their lovers in new nests.

Hunching their shoulders, spreading wing
to inflate their size,

they dare me to take over
the landlocked woods of oak and poplar,

indignant trees I really don’t wish to claim,
my deepest longing for river, lake, ocean,

any rushing stream.

Every time I step outdoors
they start up,

thinking they’ve frightened me,
caused me to depart The Mountain,

not knowing how much
they comfort me with their raucous cries,

their sheen of confidence,
bringing messages

about life in the other world,
death in this world,

consoling or terrifying news,
take your pick: they’re only messengers.

How many poems I’ve written for crows
and yet they never stop to read them,

so careless of my admiration
for the way they speak back to the world,

all of which is their base territory,
their global claim.

Sometimes I see them attacking raptors
like that one, the black marauder diving now

into outstretched branches of the hemlock,
such a suspect creature, ruthlessly gurgling

to its prey, an owl lost in daylight.

And yet I love their dissonance,
remorseless sounds echoing through treetops,

know they aren’t wholly unkind or dishonorable,
bring food to their feeble, aged parents,

their blood-soaked beaks
speaking loudly of filial piety.
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