Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dialogues with the unknown

Evening came with the dawning comprehension that a thousand years had passed since Lori left for work. Music alone couldn’t alleviate the suffocating stillness of rooms hollowed and gutted of life so I put the computer to sleep and moved outside to look for rabbits. This has become a nightly event and I can usually find several, but one in particular likes to hang out under the Austrian pine by the driveway. Sometimes it sits there alert with its ears rotating like miniature antennae, and other times it collapses onto its side in a pose of undivided tranquility. Sheba and Mr. Bun of course did the same and usually at my side, curled against my thigh much as a cat would. Sure enough, the bun was at its post, and studied me as I launched into our one-sided conversation. 

Talking to mammals isn’t any different from talking to crab spiders, brown recluses or even tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes and rhubarb in the garden, though in some circles such behavior is tantamount to admissible psychotic imbalances. After being raised in an Independent Baptist Church I’m well versed in thought processes straying far beyond the outer fringe of normality, or what passes for normal these days. I try not to get too worked up over it but I also try not to do it when people are around. No reason to push my luck. And anyway, it’s only when things start talking back that we have a problem.

The rabbit seems to take as much delight in our conversation as I do. It comes to me that dialog with a mammal has much more going for it than dialog with a spider. The spider might stop what it’s doing while you yammer on and on, but probably out of politeness more than interest in anything you have to say. The tiny crab spider I almost swept up at work last Friday seemed willing to accept my apology though it wandered off with an aggrieved air about it that left me feeling wretched. I’m really sorry, I kept pleading, keeping an ear cocked toward the front door in case the guard walked in. Apologizing to an arachnid isn’t something I’d want to have to explain to a stranger in the early predawn hours of a work week.

I sometimes wonder how human this trait is, or even how universal. Some scientists have concluded that speaking to plants forms a healthy bond, kind of an aural Miracle-Grow, also the writer-poet Jim Harrison claims to understand dog and look where it got him. Pets often show an uncanny knack at understanding humans even though humans are the most incomprehensible mammal of all, and the most untrustworthy. Perhaps it’s nothing more than a soothing tone, a particular vibration on the inner ear or some other natural phenomenon that we will never understand. And maybe we’ll never understand because we’re afraid of looking like fools and so budget little cash for such studies, preferring research into bigger, better and more murderous weapons of mass destruction. More bang for the buck.

My not-so-captive audience stood with its front paws primly held together as if at attention, its eyes clear and intelligent and directed into mine. Animals live in a world without calendars or clocks, excess, self-doubt or religion (though each species might indeed have its own hierarchy of gods, both greater and lesser), but their transitory lives are forever poised on the brink of disaster, however uncircumscribed by fruitless misgivings of mortality, their cholesterol levels or the collapse of Wall Street. Fully attuned to the present moment, responsive and alert to their immediate geography, their eyes reflect a supreme vigilance that we can only envy, though I have seen brown bears so blissfully satiated by overfilled and overturned trash cans that one could easily sneak up behind them and tap them on a furry shoulder, however inadvisable it might be. I also surprised a striped skunk once by barging out the side door without providing advance notice but the fault was more mine than his, or hers, as it might be. It’s difficult to distinguish between the sexes of most vertebrates but somehow I feel they don’t have that difficulty with us.

The problem with one-sided dialogues is that they invariably betray the speaker. When created without form, plot or thematic cohesion words like rivers carve their own self-serving course, sometimes the path of least resistance which unfailingly circles back to the source. In this instance I was prattling on about how Sheba loved having her ears rubbed when I reached out one opened hand and held it there between the rabbit and myself as if to bridge that unbridgeable gap. The rabbit responded by taking one tentative step closer, but the damage inflicted by the combination of words and splayed fingers was swift and irreversible. I realized I was lonely.

Funny how it took so long to admit it, or to consciously summon the description and give it its rightful place. And funny, too, how the realization engulfed me even deeper into a midnight sea of emptiness, so that I stood there shaking from an unnameable emotion, my head a kaleidoscope of thoughts and questions most of which revolved around the possibility and feasibility of asking a new rabbit to join our lives and what changes it would bring, what would need be done to arrange for such an act, both physical and emotional, and all the while the wild rabbit sat there watching me as if enjoying this talk, as if it were the most natural thing to do. I’m lonely, I said, and bidding the rabbit goodnight went inside and closed the door on that other world.

Hours later when I shut the windows to prepare for bed, the rabbit was still there, still watching the house, a gray lump in the congealing darkness, and I was still alone.


Laurel Johnson said...

We have a rabbit family taking up residence at our place. They frolic around in the "south 40" and papa rests in the shade under our giant old lilac bush watching us come and go. The last time Ron mowed, Papa Rabbit grudgingly moved from beneath the lilac bush to the north side of the yard until the mower left, then he flounced his way back under the lilac bush. We haven't spied the babies yet but expect to any day now.

Tom Parker said...

Laurel -- Be prepared to get no work done while you watch the babies. Spring-loaded legs, boing!boing!

Carol said...

Great blog and great rabbit photo. We had a rabbit visit inside our patio last summer. We'd just finished supper and I was still sitting alone at the dining room table near the patio door. The rabbit had come to eat, and was patiently noshing greens. He/she let me dig out my camera and photograph through the glass patio door. I enjoy revisiting these photos periodically and invite your readers to look:
(Thumbnails link to the larger versions.)
Just yesterday I added a dead bird and an Italian Wall Lizard (interestingly, a LONG WAY from home) to the page.

shoreacres said...

I may have said this, but when I read your work I can't help but think of Loren Eiseley. There's the same sense of intimacy with the natural world, and the same sort of embarassed self-effacement about having the capacity to enter into that world.

On quite another level, your photo of the rabbit reminded me of The Velveteen Rabbit, which I haven't read for years. I found a full text online which has the illustrations as well as the story:

It was great to read it in conjunction with your post and wonder again: what is real, after all?