Badger in the Window Well

There is a badger in the window well. He appears to be stuck. What do you do?

Look here. There’s a badger.

They’re nocturnal.

No, in the window well.

Is that an omen?

No, that’s the wolverine, but some of the details of the old stories got mixed up in translation. 

What’s the badger, then?

He’s in the window well. Can you call––? I think he needs help.

Sure, but I mean, what does it mean?

That he followed something and got trapped, I guess.

No, I mean in the stories.

Hardworking, protective. They’re generous providers. The Lakota have a story.

Hello? Yeah, we have a badger in the window. He’s stuck. Can you–– okay. Hello?

Are they coming?

I think so. I think that guy was in the middle of something involving a large snake.

Well, hopefully not in the middle. Anyway, in the Lakota story, Badger hunts with arrows and he’s so successful that his lady is in the kitchen all day making the next feast for the den of chubby babies. Then one day a mangy, hungry bear shows up, eyeing the racks of meat drying in the yard.

And then what?

What do you think? Badger says he doesn’t look so hot, offers bear a meal. Bear eats his fill, goes away happy, comes back the next day. The badgers welcome him. Lady of the house even sets a rug out each night for the bear, so he has his own place.

Awwww.

Yeah, but the bear is greedy. The whole time he’s eating at the badger family table, he’s eyeing the bags of arrows, the stores of dried meat, the home.  One day he says to badger: You have what I want, and throws the whole family out, tossing them like feathers with his fat paw. 

Then what?

They howl, they cry. Badger begs for mercy. For the children, he says, but Bear won’t hear it. The Badgers build a new shelter, but they have no arrows, no stores of dried meat. The babies are starving. Badger goes back to bear, begging. He gets tossed away. Bear laughs and mocks.

But on the way out, Badger finds a bit of buffalo blood in the grass. He takes it back to the shelter, offers a sacrifice, begging divine intercession. And who do you think shows up?

I can’t imagine.

A human brother with arrows and means. They head back to the old home, which the bear family has been ransacking and getting fat on, and the bear doesn’t even need an explanation for their arrival. He knows what this is. He had it coming. He sees the magic arrow. He shouts to his family, Let’s go! and they flee. 

Did the human stay with them?

The avenger left the badger family then, to do other work. The badgers resumed their lives, and the bear never bothered them again. 

So, what’s this then, the badger in the window?

Is help coming?

I think so.

Well. Just a reminder, then. I hope.

Of what?

To help who you can whenever you can. To resist the impulse, I guess.

The impulse to what?

To focus on whatever you think you need.

Okay, well they should be here soon, to help. I’m gonna make a sandwich.

What did you say?

I said–––

?

I’m going to wait right here, until they come. 

This morning I came across the headline, “Wildlife Officials Rescue Badger Trapped in Colorado Window Well,”  which inspired this post.  And, in case anyone finds themselves wondering, as I was, about the exact nature of a window well, here is an explanation: “A window well is a U-shaped, ribbed metal or plastic product available in most home hardware stores. It’s designed to fit around basement windows, providing a space between the window and the surrounding earth to allow light into sub-grade structures” (squarone.ca).

Lightning

A flash, a bolt, a vision before the thunder: lightning conjures images of celestial warfare, but that isn’t all.

A bolt can be an inch wide and ninety miles long.

More people are hit while fishing than any other outdoor activity.

The heat can cause a sudden expansion of sap­­––or blood––exploding a tree, or blood vessels. 

New York’s Empire State Building is struck twenty-five to one-hundred times per year.

There was an orthopedic surgeon in Albany, who was struck in a phone booth in the mid-nineties. He had just finished a call to his mother. His heart stopped. He was revived but changed. He no longer had interest in medicine. What he did have was a sudden urge to play the piano, along with visions of musical notations. Although he had no prior musical experience, he became a classical musician, began touring. 

How? Some of the remaining doctors speculated that the neurons were rewired, providing access to areas of the brain that were previously inaccessible. 

Many cultures saw it as the choice weapon of divinities, but the Navajo had a different take. They considered it a healing power, a wink in Thunderbird’s eye. 

House of Bones

Considering the first known examples of human architecture: dwellings made of mammoth bones.

They found them in the Ukraine in one of the Vietnam war years, in the year of Selma and the teenage sniper on the 101 and the launch of the world’s first in-space nuclear reactor. There were troops in the D.R. and the burning of draft cards and Muhammed Ali knocked out Sonny Liston in a rematch.

Phantom punch?

Right. It was Beatlemania and Watts and the Stones and Vatican II that year.

How did they find them?

It was just a jawbone at first. A farmer was expanding his cellar when he uncovered it. Then there were more bones.

How many? 

Hundreds, then thousands. They thought at first it was the site of a mass slaughter.

All mammoth? 

Yes. Then they noticed the patterns, the arrangement. Then they found more, and they figured that what they were looking at was one of the earliest known relics of human architecture.

People lived in the bones?

The tusks made an arched entryway. They created domes with the rest, covered them with skins. There were sometimes multiple domes in one area. Each could hold ten to one-hundred people. It is likely that there were ritual gatherings inside.

Day-to-day living, also?

Definitely. They would have to. Consider the cold. 

So, they were sheltered in the bones of the mammoth they had eaten?

And the bones they would gather.  

I am trying to imagine the quiet of that space, the uncompromised elegance.

Of living in the remains of the dead.

Of no one pretending otherwise.

Where everywhere you looked, there they were.

The remains, and you inside them.

Except it would be us, always us.

Always a group, breathing for a short time.

In the shelters assembled by living hands, from the remains.

As if to say, come in. Stay for a while.

As if to say, we are all going soon. 

As if to remind, this is shelter. Foxes have holes, birds their nests.

But the sons and daughters of men?

Only this.

For more about the 1965 discovery of the oldest surviving architecture, Jeremy Norman’s History of Information provides more information and a short video.

Guide to Underwater Living

To survive in the deep with no hiding place, make yourself invisible. Where there is no refuge, develop a form that light will pass through.

Today, I am considering living underwater. Ninety percent of earth’s livable space is in the oceans. Recently, I read that many of the creatures living in it have survived by evolving talents for invisibility.

Consider this: land-dwelling creatures may camouflage themselves to blend in with surroundings. They may retreat to underground dens, high-altitude nests, or fly. 

To illustrate, one doctor cites a familiar scenario: Say a gunman enters a room. What do you do? A kindergartener can tell you: take cover. Hide. Do not come out.

But what about the deep, where there is nowhere to hide?

To survive, you adapt by making yourself invisible. Where there is no refuge from what will eat you, develop a form that light will pass through. 

The deep is full of transparent animals. You can read a book through some of them. Such forms are not without complications, of course. Risk of sunburning organs is among them. Stay low to avoid this. 

If not see-through, you can make yourself a mirror, reflecting light back. 

If not invisible, you can create your own light and shine it below you so that anyone looking up, sees nothing but light. If you do this, be careful not to let your light leak out or above you, so that you don’t become an easy target.

These transparent swimmers are everywhere, and now I can’t stop thinking about all of this invisible life, teeming beyond our ability to see what it is.

This post was inspired by this New York Times article, “A World of Creatures that Hide in the Open” from 2014. 

Whale Songs

Some arctic baleens can live for over two-hundred years. What do they remember from their centuries of knowing?

My first memory of the largest creature known to ever exist on the planet, is of the ninety-four-foot blue whale model suspended from the ceiling in New York’s Museum of Natural history. It was amazing to me that something could grow so large from eating such tiny creatures.  I was relieved to know that it wanted nothing larger. 

Their songs are complex and can be heard for miles.

Some arctic baleens can live for over two-hundred years. And what do they remember, I wonder, from their centuries of knowing?

Killer whales, more porpoise than whale, live in family groups centered around the mother. The beluga earned the name canary of the sea, for its complex repertoire of chirps, whistles, and clicks.

The round trip of a grey whale is ten thousand miles. 

Some beaked species have been known to dive nearly two miles beneath the surface, have been known not to surface for two hours.

The round trip of a grey whale is ten thousand miles. You can tell their age by the accumulation patterns of ear wax. Alternating rings of light and dark record the number of migrations. This because the color of the wax changes with water temperature.

The humpback may live off fat reserves for over half a year.

It is suspected that they grieve. This because mothers and related kin have been known to carry the body of a dead calf for some time after death, even when doing so threatens their safety. 

The thing about whales is that no matter how hard you try to track them they tend to disappear for stretches of time only to reappear where the researchers don’t expect. The calves whisper to the mothers while migrating, and during these travels the mother will not eat. Instead, she will wait as her baby feeds, conserving her energy for the trip. 

They don’t know why the calves whisper, but it must be learned.

Their ancestors had four legs, and whenever I learn this about a sea creature, I can’t help but wonder about what was happening on land, to drive whole species away from it. And I think about certain things, and wonder: at what point do you –––?

Notes:

Here’s a photo and information about the blue whale model in the American Museum of Natural History.

The last passage about migration is excerpted from my story “Twilight at Blue Plate” which appeared in Oyster River Pages in August 2019.

Daughters of the Sun

What is the sound of millions of Monarchs, moving? Like a waterfall.

The weather kills them, and the poisoning of milkweed, and the decimation of the forests they went home to. They keep looking: where are the flowers still wild, the trees still undisturbed? Sometimes, they find nothing.

But look what happens when they come. Here is a forest, even now. Have you ever seen a swarm of bees, gathered around the knob of a tree limb? Like that, the closed wings brown as bark, but wait. When they open, listen. What is that sound now, here at the edge of this expanding desert?

One makes no sound. But here are millions, and when they move, if your eyes were closed, you would think: waterfall. 

The ancients, seeing them, recognized the spirits of fallen warriors, the souls of mothers lost in childbirth, the souls of children lost when the families had to flee the sites of massacre. The ancients, seeing them in the tree, saw the forests as waiting mothers and fathers, arms open to receive their lost children again.

Notes:

A recent article in My Modern Met features a recording by nature host Phil Torres, of the waterfall sound made when millions of Monarchs are moving. 

There are numerous resources devoted to planting milkweed  to mitigate the devastation of Monarch populations.

Holding Here

Remember the living.

There are plenty of good ways to lose yourself, many of which are to be welcomed as venerable guests. But not this. Don’t let me be dulled by the endless impact of the gears, the noise, the flood of what passes for knowing.

Remember sleep. Remember a meal.

Remember waiting, and to listen–– and look! What is that? Stay in the question.

There is sky. Here is earth. Remember water, and all that is invisible and necessary in the air. 

Then, remember breathing.

These are basic things. You knew them as a child, even if you resisted: bedtime, mealtime, any unwelcome pause in your momentum. 

But the world will pull you from it all, and away from matters of your substance. 

Not the world, exactly––but the machine colonizing it: including our breath, our dreams, the simple act of looking.

Remember what you are. Remember touch. Remember, body. 

Here is the place where you are. Remember, it is a powerful stranger.

After David Wagoner: 

“Wherever you are is called Here,/ And you must treat it as a powerful stranger” (“Lost”).

Wayfaring Stranger

If survival depended on passing, I could hold my tongue and hold on.

I didn’t hear the phrase The world is not my home until Tom Waits sang it to me, and I was well into my twenties by then. The track was “Come on Up to the House” on Mule Variations and I repeated it endlessly. It felt like having my deepest fears and most urgent longings sung back to me in a dream. Since the age of consciousness, I had approached the prospect of living here like I imagined an alien would do. The word had seared like a branding iron the first time I felt it, but later, I could not say with confidence that it was misapplied.

If survival depended on passing, I could hold my tongue and hold on. So, this is what I did. Most days I was preoccupied with fantasies of release.

Is it time? How about now?

Meanwhile, I followed directions, set alarms, ran miles, earned credits, aimed at pleasing men, but there must have been some innate alien nature shining through. Too bad, I thought then, when I was still hoping to accumulate enough proof of being of this world that I would be absolved, somehow, of the obligation to hang on. I kept at it constantly because it seemed like a very short slide from stagnation to oblivion.

I dreamed of blinding interruptions, of being stopped by someone who knew how to look, who would stop me and say, There. You are already there. And so I would be, Here.

Manatee: a Retrospective

What moved you, manatee?

This morning, when I wake tense against the noise of the coming day, knowing I’ll need to retreat from it so I can hear, I am thinking of the manatee. Of the fingernails on its flippers from when they walked on land. 

I am wondering, what moved you, manatee?

Legend has it you were a young woman, bathing at the river’s edge. Then came a hunter and you knew: better to throw your body into the water than to risk staying where you were. Since then, they watched after you, puzzled after your retreating form–– comparing it, I imagine, to their memories of other women, gone.

They call you sea cow, but watch your fluent dance: now alone, now a pair, now an aggregation, all after the same dying grasses. It’s the algae, they say, fed by runoff, blocking the light.

The mothers when the calves are born, lift them to the surface, to breathe. You will wait to breathe when needed. You will wait to breathe, when sleeping. You will not wait forever.

Your curiosity draws you to the nets. Your hunger draws you to the grasses, entanglement in fishing line. Your calves would feed beneath your flipper, except when the line chokes your milk, and they say your name comes from the word for breast.

When you can’t get warm, there are lesions on your flippers like frostbite. On the surface of the water, you sigh rather than breathe. Do you whisper, too? You must have known the hunter once. How else could you know when to leave the land? 

What did you know, daughter of the river, before you entered, and where are we supposed to go now?

Landings

One small step, one giant leap. Magnificent desolation . . . Lunar dust like powder. It was no trouble to walk around, one said. Now the flag, now the rod. The surface resisted.

On this day in 1969, Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, followed shortly after by Buzz Aldrin, while Michael Collins maintained a solitary lunar orbit. The world watched. Meanwhile, the mother of Vivian Strong, shot dead by police at fourteen, was grieving. It’s the age of the Cold War space race, also Stonewall. Demonstrators in the U.S. and worldwide call for civil rights, an end to war, racial justice, housing and labor reforms. The U.S. has been at war with Vietnam for fourteen years at this point, and it will not end for another six. Millions dead, scorched earth.  It’s the age of the Biafran war in West Africa, The Troubles in Ireland, a Lybian coup underway, the Weathermen gathering in Chicago, the Rozariazo in Argentina, the first U.S. draft lottery since WWII about to begin. John marries Yoko and Chicago Police officers shoot Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, among others. Medgar, Malcolm, King: all have been assassinated, now. Blind Faith rocks Hyde Park, Franco closes the border, The Stones release Let it Bleed. In a talk to teachers delivered that year, James Baldwin opens with an acknowledgement of the moment at hand. Let’s begin, he says, by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.  The following is a morning meditation on this moment and its lasting relevance to ours, culled from readily-accessible details about the Apollo 11 mission.

One small step, one giant leap. Magnificent desolation, one remarked.
Lunar dust like powder. It was no trouble to walk around, one said.
Now the flag, now the rod. The surface resisted. It got only two inches in.
There was fear the flag would topple on camera or fly off. It did neither 
in the moment. I am not sure where it is now.  Salute, phone call, prayer.
Then a sixty-meter walk, photographs. Core samples collected: here’s soil,
plus rocks. Three new minerals discovered, later found also on earth. Now
a plaque. We come in peace, if not in peacetime.  There was a speech prepared
in the event of disaster; the ritual would mimic a burial at sea. Each, of course,
had their own, If I should die–

Meanwhile, one orbited the moon alone. Not since Adam, he said, regarding
the extremes of his solitude.  Although, it’s worth noting that accounts of Adam
suggest he was surrounded by a kingdom of earthlings preceding his arrival, not
to mention sunlight. 

The return was fraught, there was a long list of disaster scenarios. It landed
upside-down, for example, but there was a plan for this. Then came quarantine, 
then the parade, prayers of thanksgiving, cheers. 

It is possible to be awed, as Abernathy was, by a magnificent achievement,
while simultaneously enraged that it was pursued while other relatively simple 
requests were denied. Care for the sick, shelter: for children, fathers, veterans, 
grandmothers. Food, some relief for the caged. Some end to the caging of bodies. 
Some recognition of the unnamed dead. To ask, voice hoarse with rage and grief,
who commands this mission, who makes this leap? Just as it is possible 
to frame a gorgeous picture of a newborn and place it on a distant desk, 
in a corner office, to profess love and mean it, but never change a diaper,
never walk a wailing body back to peace.