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Bones

Deep in the woods lately hidden under snow there are secrets that spring gives up, brings to light. Still half-covered in the buff and fawn of old leaves, ringed by the green and purple teeth of new skunk cabbage, I find the bones of a deer, long leg bones long lain here, the gentle curve of ribs beside them, soft, bright ivory against brown.

I knew they would be here, somewhere. I found the skull several years ago, a dozen yards away, just the other side of the foot bridge across a stream so small it will be mostly dry by August. It was only a matter of taking the moment’s opportunity to leave the path and look, study the ground for the telltale flash of white that’s more than just a bare branch lying on the ground.

Today I looked, and so I found them. I’ve become quite good at finding bones in the spring, but I think it’s mostly just that: I look for them. I look for them because I like to see, because the sight of them seems a clue the seasons heave up to me, about the nature of life and death, the circle that can seem cruel or sad and always remains a mystery.

That mystery was with me yesterday too, I realize now, as a woman stood before me, the poet at the writers’ conference, and said she’d had to take a nap in her car in between giving lectures because ever since she started chemo, she gets so tired. And then she turned on the overhead projector and began to talk to us about memoir. I kept thinking how vital and alive and strong she was.

Here in the woods I contemplate death as in a still life, easy, poetic; at a distance created by time and circumstance and species. I have lived and seen enough to know death does not look so picturesque, visited upon us in hospitals, on death beds, construction sites, in cars, lying on the floor.

And yet… These bones lying so long, so many seasons covered over in snow and then in green (the skull, I noted today, is now growing moss) have something powerful to tell me. Revealed in this brief time of bare earth after frost heaves and just receded snow, they show me the cycle itself is beautiful. I can see it, here where the deer left its body; the bones have now become another pattern barely distinguishable from the rest, the leaves and twigs and nut shells, the seed cases and bark peelings and old shreds of grasses, walked upon by beetles, turned over under their feet.

Somehow it comforts me to know we’re all going back here. Dust to dust—words, but here I find the picture: the bright, sharp green of the skunk cabbage blade dipped in purple, beside a scattering of rib. Literally entwined.

I wonder if I will hear the poet speak again. I think she must wonder too, how many more times it will be given her to speak, how many more poems it will be given her to write. We don’t know. The mystery is how life and death complete and make each other. Somehow the bones lying beside the creek in the first burst of spring help me accept that it’s not given to me, to understand.

A Poem

April is National Poetry month, and coincidentally I wrote:

A Poem

I know a couple of old women
They have such sharp edges
Perhaps it is harder than I think, getting old.

My grandmothers weren’t like that
Stern, sometimes; but gentle
How I miss them.

Especially Leah
I remember how she held me in her lap
Carefully
Like we were both a little fragile.

She read to me from children’s books
About gardens, and God
I didn’t care what the books were about
I heard God
And a garden flowering
In my grandmother’s voice.

The three-legged cat.

I feel a bit sheepish now, writing about how I went to see her. In the back of my mind I hear people saying: she’s just a cat. And it’s true, she is indeed, just a cat…

Jo, the woman from the rescue league who helped us adopt our kittens, calls and leaves a message on our machine. “I’m bringing that cat, the one who lost her leg, to the adoption event tomorrow,” she says. “Just wanted to let you know.”

She first told me about the kitten months ago. She’d just had her leg amputated and was being fostered by a woman who specialized in the tough cases. Jo told me she’d let me know when the cat went up for adoption, so I could come and see her.

I’m impressed she remembered to call. It seems one more reason I should go, so I head out on this busy Saturday. Gray and blustery, it’s a stereotypical pre-spring day, the wind chilly, the not-quite-thawed ground looking raw and naked after being under snow. Inside the mega-pet mart, though, it’s warm and kind of dark, in a warehouse-y way.

I make my way to the center of the store where there are two tiers of cages set up on tables, each holding one or two cats. I don’t see Jo right away so I chat with another of the volunteers while I look into the cages: two longhaired kittens snoozing in a pile—brothers, the woman tells me; a petite tuxedo cat that reminds me of Josephine—except this cat has the tiniest of white mustaches on her upper lip. In the end cage, on top, is a big gray and white bicolor, looking bored. The volunteer tells me he’s been here more than once before.

And Peggy. Jo told me her name in the message she left on our machine, and I see it typed on the info sheet attached to the cage. All I can see is Peggy’s small face, peeking out from the fleece coverlet in which she’s wrapped. She’s a calico, pastel; lots of white with pale caramel and gray patches. Her eyes are very green—not so amber as our cats’ eyes, and I think: how pretty, the green color, how serene.

Jo comes over then and as we talk she takes Peggy, still wrapped up, out of the cage and hands her to me. I speak to her in my highest-pitched, softest tones, but even so she tunnels into the fleece, squirming in my arms as if she would burrow her way out, dig an escape route. Jo takes her from me, lets Peggy settle a bit, then pulls the fleece away to show me. “They took most of her leg,” Jo says, and I can see that where Peggy’s back leg used to be there is nothing but fur.

I think of the person who set the trap Peggy got caught in. Leg hold traps are legal for catching game in Michigan, but I can’t imagine they’re allowed in the suburban community where Peggy was found. Probably illegal. The person who set the trap may not have meant to catch the likes of little Peggy—or perhaps they did, she was a feral cat. I don’t know, but I feel anger and impatience. What were they thinking?

I stroke Peggy’s cheeks with a fingertip as she snuggles against Jo, the second of her foster moms. “For the first two weeks she wouldn’t come out at all,” Jo says. I shake my head and say awwwww…

Jo puts Peggy back in her cage, wraps her up again. As we’re talking I see the little cat has turned herself around and is looking out the back of her cage, watching some dogs, also up for adoption, who are playing with prospective families. “She’s watching the dogs,” I say to Jo, with a chuckle. I imagine she’s finding them far more interesting than she does us.

Soon after I take my leave, ready to get to my other errands. Even as I’m walking out I wonder what, exactly, I am doing, making a trip up to the pet mart just to see a three-legged cat. I hear those voices, naysaying: what’s the big deal? She’s just a cat.

And of course it’s true, Peggy is just a cat. But in her story I see so much of human failing: cruelty, selfishness, carelessness, callous indifference to other living beings, to the world around us. The worst of human nature. And then the best—Jo and her friends at the rescue league, stepping in to care for a badly wounded cat.

Sometimes the problems of the world can seem so overwhelming. This cat’s story, maybe not so much. I don’t like thinking about what happened to Peggy. But I do like seeing what is happening to her now, as Jo and the other volunteers at the rescue league slowly get her to trust again, and to heal.

When I think about it, no story of healing and compassion is too small to be worth my notice. I guess that’s the real reason I made a trip to the pet mart to see Peggy, the three-legged cat.

 

Like most everyone I know, there are aspects of this winter that I won’t miss. The bitter cold that stung my face nearly every time, it seems, I walked outside. The ice patches on driveways and parking lots, lying in wait, requiring such vigilance that I had to watch every step. Events canceled, flights delayed, traffic snarls. Energy bills—it’s been a cold, cold winter. Even today, in early March, the temperature started out in the teens.

Yesterday was even colder. But I bundled up and went out anyway. And as I walked about (and yes, when the wind hit me, it stung my face), I realized as I usually do that I will miss winter, in some ways.

On snowshoes I crested a small hill and looked over the nine-hole golf course next to our development. Standing in the quiet, I realized I had it all to myself. Striding along a row of trees I followed in the footprints of deer, cleft hooves showing at the bottom of the wells their legs make in the drifts. The stream that drains the pond was running, and at my approach a cloud of ducks rose and honked away. I hoped they would return soon, descending again like a curtain pulled behind me.

Still there were no people. And I thought of spring: golfers, and golf carts; I will be banished from the cart paths. There is a narrow strip of woods abutting the golf course, and I left the path, winding between trees and deadfalls, walking in my snowshoes atop the drifts. I thought: Only in winter is this possible, to wander in the woods with such ease, the snowflakes lifting me above the forest floor, the undergrowth sparse, the insects gone.

There were more tracks, and mysterious tunnelings in the snow; places where squirrels had been eating something (pine cones? bark?) and left flakes of it behind. We’ve not had fresh snow for a few days now, and the wind had sprinkled the pure white with flecks of brown, fallen from the trees. As I came to the edge of the woods I saw that the gusts had shaken the rest of last year’s leaves from the old oak that stands there. They were spread around it on the snow, brown and withered, as if the last of winter, spent, can now let go.

Let go, and spring will come, and spring will be welcome. Still, as I stood in the open park and looked back, I was struck by the beauty of the sky in winter overcast, a wash of yellowish, pearly gray along the horizon, easing to darker clouds above.

Spring will be welcome. But winter too has had its moments.

Eagle TV

Note: this is a repost from April 2011

My partner Sally’s been keeping a close eye on the eagle cam. This is the camera trained 24/7 (it has infra-red capabilities, in the dark) on a bald eagles’ nest, high up in a cottonwood tree in Iowa. You can go online and see the pair of eagles and their young in real time, any time.

As we watch, the three chicks in the nest are growing at an almost alarming pace. The parent eagles fly off one at a time to gather food, which consists of a variety of dead animals and parts of dead animals. In my first viewing, I could clearly see what looked like the tail feathers of a crow, sticking up from the straw that lines the nest. (Those leftovers were soon tamped down in the nesting material and reduced to a little dark splotch on the video picture.) Next to the crow remains I saw a long, thin carcass that looked gray and furry – probably a rabbit.

Later the food pile was augmented with a whole fish – a pretty big one, maybe fourteen inches or so, and another furry, mink-colored carcass. The adults rip off bits of the carcasses and stick them into the open beaks of the downy, bobble-headed young. Despite the babies’ healthy appetites, the food does seem to be piling up.

Thinking about all that dead meat sitting there unrefrigerated, I asked Sally: “Can you imagine how it smells in that nest?” Soon after my comment, she reported seeing flies buzzing around; and when it got really warm recently, we saw Mama Eagle (or Daddy? we’re not entirely sure) snapping away at them with her iconic beak. By that time the food pile included what looked like a couple of legs (they were long, roughly cylindrical, and covered with matted fur.) All of which I think confirms my suspicion: it stinks to high heaven up there in the eyrie.

Then I got to thinking: eagles probably don’t mind the smell (even if the flies vex them). In fact, maybe they like it, that pungent aroma of dead fish and animal carcass decomposing. I pictured the baby eagles when they’re all grown up, flying low over a landfill some day, or maybe a packing house, and saying: “Aw gee, that smells just like the nest used to smell… Good times, good times…”

Ok, it’s pretty fanciful – bald eagles probably aren’t sentimental, and my friend Filis, a bird lover, tells me they haven’t much of a sense of smell. But they do seem a bit like humans at times – at least, we’ve had no trouble finding similarities. As I said, we’re not absolutely sure – but from the FAQs on the website, I think I can tell which parent is the male, and which the female. Mama Eagle is bigger, her white head feathers look a little scruffier, and she’s more often the one sitting on the nest. Anyway, we don’t let our uncertainty keep us from anthropomorphizing. We watched one evening as the bird we think is the male landed in the nest carrying a big stick in his beak, which he positioned along the edge in a way that made us think he was installing a child gate. His mate didn’t seem appreciative – she got kind of agitated, and we wondered if she was doing the eagle equivalent of saying, “What are you doing with that thing?” or maybe “You’ve been gone four hours and you brought home a stick? Where’s that trout you promised me?” Because basically, it did seem a little like he’d been hanging out at the pool hall all afternoon, and finding himself late and empty-handed (or empty-taloned), grabbed the first stick he found in the parking lot before heading home.

Sometimes we see the parent eagle nodding off and think how difficult and boring it must be, to sit hour after hour huddled over the babies, covering them with your body so that they stay warm and protected. And yes, the entire family survived the recent tornadoes in Iowa.

If you haven’t given it a look, tune into the eagle cam. It’s one of the few reality shows around whose authenticity cannot be questioned.

To view go to: http://www.ustream.tv/decoraheagles

Kitten Logic

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around kitten logic. Although I’ve been down this road before, of living with young cats, it’s been a very long time. Here’s the progress I’ve made lately in understanding the world according to kittens.

1.  Everything is a toy, and

2. Toys are meant to be everywhere.

Following these principles, it makes perfect sense that we found the bottle for Lucy’s eyedrops in the middle of the bed one evening and my fuzzy winter hat under the dining-room table, and that while I’m in the shower my eyeglasses migrate from the counter to the bathroom floor.

3. Everything people do is play.

Outside of eating, pooping, and sleeping, all the kittens do is play. Therefore they consider most things I do to be play. Moving a pen across a page is play. Moving a dust rag across the furniture is play. Moving a cursor on a computer screen is play. Moving a vacuum around the room is play, but they can’t stand the noise so I have to “play” with the vacuum all by myself.

4. Objects are at least as interesting as people.

I was confronted by this principle as I bent over Callie to pet her one day, and her eyes fixed on what I thought was my face. Then I realized she was eyeing the zipper pull on my sweater. In the next second she jumped up and grabbed it in her teeth.

5. The Theory of High Places: Attaining high places is well worth the risk of slipping and falling or pulling all kinds of things down on one’s self.

Obviously, there is for kittens a tremendous social and tactical advantage to being in a high place. In this sense kittens are a bit like mountaineers…

6. Dark and inaccessible spaces are appealing to the point of being mystical, especially if I have not been in them yet.

Dark places, the inaccessible and/or the unknown seem to lure kittens as unexplored shores did Columbus. When I think about it, kittens are the ultimate adventurers. (See principle five re: high places.)

7. Last but not least, wrestling is fundamental.

They wrestle so often, there must be a huge chunk of the kitten brain devoted to it. They answer the call to wrestle at the slightest provocation: the other kitten, entering their visual field; the sight of the big white mousie (the one with the evil-looking pink eyes) lying in the middle of the floor; the sheer exuberance of running across the room—all cause the kittens to spontaneously pounce and begin wrestling. Furiously.

I have to admit, kitten behavior is highly entertaining, whether I understand it or not. My need to find some logic in what they do is undoubtedly one of my hardwired traits. And who’s to say that as I’m drumming my fingers on the computer keyboard this minute I’m not simply playing? I’d better go do something totally joyless and uninteresting, right now—I’m starting to think like a kitten.

006

Last Thursday Lucy was still a kitten.

The vet tech said “Awwwwwwww!” when she plodded out of her crate on her short little legs, and the vet called her “this little cutie” while holding her up to examine her. She’d shown signs of a cold, off and on, for days, and it turned out she had an infection. When she got nervous in the exam room as we waited for the doctor, she tried to climb up my leg so I would hold her. Back home as she got ready to nap she crawled onto my chest while I sat on the couch, purring and curling up to doze under my chin.

But three days and many doses of antibiotics later, Sally and I looked at her and then at each other and said, “She’s not a little kitten anymore.” She seems to have grown overnight, like Jack’s beanstalk. She’s still compact, but her legs are longer and her torso has stretched out under her too-big head. She’s suddenly gotten feisty about her medicine, trying to fight us off where before she just squirmed and squeaked while we squirted drugs into her mouth or eyes. Yesterday, she didn’t climb up on me even once to cuddle.

Sigh.

We’ve had our two rescue kittens about a month, and already their childhood is nearly over. Of course, they’re still wildly entertaining, even if they are nearly “teenagers.” Yesterday I had figure skating on TV when Callie suddenly became entranced by the action. She jumped up on the TV stand and plastered her nose to the screen as the skater twirled and twirled, a blur of hot pink. I couldn’t help but grin at the sight of Callie’s huge ears and slender body in silhouette against the bright TV screen. Our cat, watching Olympic figure skating trials.

A few minutes later Lucy was trying, as usual, to draw her older sister into rough and tumble. Callie, seeking a reprieve or at least a tactical advantage, crouched under the magazine stand. As I watched, Lucy approached her, but after a few steps went into what I call her sideways war dance: back arched, tail held like a pony’s, bouncing obliquely towards her target.

I laughed out loud.

I know there are plenty of fun times ahead. Neither of the cats is six months old yet. Callie, the oldest, is coming up on five, and when she gallops around the house on her long legs she looks like a colt. (I did think, for a brief moment, that we should name her Flicka.) The two of them will be running around, getting into stuff, tearing up the house and making us laugh with their antics for some time to come.

Still, I already feel a little nostalgic and misty-eyed for Lucy the baby. How adorable she was when her legs were even shorter, as we watched her trying to do a pull-up to reach the top of a table or the edge of the drawer under the bathroom counter. I feel happy that the fur behind her ears is still fluffy; Callie’s is all smooth as silk. “Take a lot of pictures!” my sister-in-law, also a cat lover, said on the phone yesterday. I wish already that I’d taken more.

It’s hard to try to compute cat age on a human scale, but lots of us try, anyway. At six months cats can already reproduce; so among the various numbers I found on veterinary websites, 12.5 human years seems a reasonable comparison to a six-month-old cat. That would mean that in one month, the kittens have covered a portion of their lifespan equivalent to two years for a human. No wonder I feel like they’re moving at warp speed—kind of like that old Star Trek episode, where the aliens are moving so fast through time that they’re an undetectable blur to the crew of the Enterprise.

Anyway, I’m trying to learn from this experience: one, to live in the now, and two, to be ready with my camera. I still hope to catch a shot of Lucy’s sideways war dance. I’ll have to set my shutter speed very, very fast.

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