Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The wilds

Our dog is 15 years old but you’d never know it when we let her out to get some exercise. The way she goes bounding off after rabbits, howling with excitement when she picks up their scent, you’d think she was a puppy again—or something even further back in time: a wolf. Luckily she’s too old and slow to catch anything, so we don’t have to deal with any unpleasant scenes of carnage, but unluckily she’s also quite deaf and thus impossible to call in when the day is done. The other night she stayed out well after sunset, willfully ignoring our attempts to get her attention in favor of cavorting through the field. When one of those crazy summer storms materialized out of nowhere, the winds kicked up and the rain poured down, she remained unfazed. Maybe she’d decided to enact that scene where King Lear rages at the storm on the heath, or maybe she was just too dimwitted to realize she probably shouldn’t emulate a fictional madman particularly in a situation involving lightning.

Eventually she came inside looking like she’d been through the rinse cycle a couple of times. She shook herself off on the rug (hey, you’re welcome) and curled up contentedly to snooze. She’s a domesticated pet, after all, and not truly wild, though living out here, it’s becoming easier to see the streaks of wildness in her.

Farmland is not truly wild either, of course. Rural areas are just as worked over by the human hand as urban ones. But it’s less easy to be in denial about the forces of wildness out here than it is in a city, where critters going through the trash and weeds poking up through cracks in the sidewalk are merely occasional annoyances that can be dealt with by purchasing appropriate products. The fewer buildings, cars, and people per square foot, the harder it becomes to ignore these kinds of unexpected encroachments.

Even the aspects of nature that are within our control—the crops we plant, the animals we raise—are a reminder of the very fact of the natural world. We have six chickens, which eat and drink and poop and cluck, and whenever I appear at their gate they come racing toward me doing that funny chicken run they do. K says they are more like dinosaurs than any other birds he’s seen; I don’t know enough about dinosaurs or birds to make that judgment, but I do know that these creatures are the same as the ones who gave us the Styrofoam-and-plastic-wrapped parts thawing in the fridge. No, I’m not going to go on an anti-meat diatribe right now; I merely point out that it’s a new experience for me, as it is for many people, to be see exactly what the things I eat looked like before they were deemed as food.

Elsewhere on our property, a month or so back we found some slender fingers of asparagus growing—not wild asparagus, a cultivated variety no doubt a remnant from the previous owner’s vegetable garden, but weird and surprising nonetheless. Even more surprising was what happened when we decided to let some of it keep growing, just to see what would happen. Seasoned gardeners will no doubt laugh at us, but I had no idea what asparagus looks like coming out of the earth—and how quickly a patch of it can turn into a grove of small trees.

Sometimes these unexpected moments can be stunningly beautiful. Before the storm came, but after the sun had set, I went out in the yard to see if I could entice the dog in with a handful of treats. I stopped a few feet from the house and looked slowly around me. The fields were glittering with fireflies. I’ve seen fireflies before, of course, but it’s one thing to see them in your backyard in the burbs and quite another to see them when your backyard is the size of a couple of football fields which blend seamlessly with all the other backyards in the area and cumulatively stretch clear to the horizon. It was as if half the Milky Way had fallen to earth and decided to stick around a bit to see whether this place was any good. If I see them again tomorrow night, I’ll know they decided in our favor.

So fireflies are stars, chickens are dinosaurs, the dog is a wolf, and the asparagus has become a forest. I guess it can make a person wonder what wildness might still be inside her, whether it will be beautiful or frightening, and how being here might reveal it in unexpected ways.

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