I was walking along the Rio Hondo when I saw something lying on the side of the road, a dead skunk. My moral compass twitched, then flat-lined. Too bad, I thought, but there are plenty of skunks around here, both dead and alive. I intended to pass by, but as I approached I saw that the animal’s mouth and belly were spastic with small movements and I stared with a curiosity bordering on revulsion.
I once encountered a dead squirrel so avidly devoured from within by insects and their wriggling larvae that the carcass appeared alive. I recalled that image as I looked at the skunk, which surely looked dead, but as I stared a bit longer I saw that the skunk had faint spasms all over its body - teeth gnashing, upper lip curling, all four legs moving erratically, belly convulsing. Its eyes were closed, but there might have been something moving underneath, like in a dream. It was hard to tell. I came to think that the animal, though surely dying, was in something like an epileptic state, its nervous system fighting desperately to keep itself alive.
I was hale and hearty, a man about a midday walk simply for the pleasure of it. Cars passed by on the road as if no one, or nothing, was dying. The river gushed with fresh rain water. Marsh grasses, just inches beyond the skunk’s reach, were green and abundant, teeming with sunflowers and pale blue chicory. Raptors soared overhead. So did scavengers. Everything, all of us, underneath a hot sun. It was a small, glorious day, and here this little skunk was fighting for its life. I felt a connection through the heart, then moved as if to touch it. But then I stopped. I didn’t want to get too close.
It must have been hit by a car, I thought. Seems like I find a dead skunk on the road every week or so, second only to snakes, but usually they’re flat dead, not in the throes of dying. Skunks are slow and, having few natural enemies, aren’t eager to evade anything. It’s amazing what two tons of steel will do to shield one from this brutal reality, but now, as I stood flesh for flesh next to this skunk, I felt vulnerable. Then I noticed that the skunk, and the pavement around the skunk, appeared wet. I had a fleeting sense that maybe it had drowned, maybe only moments ago having pulled itself out of the ditch several feet away, or perhaps the river on the opposite side of the street. It would have been moving much too fast for its little feet. Can a skunk swim? But my mind was just grasping. I wasn’t sure. Maybe it was blood after all.
Then, as its limbs and belly continued to heave spastically, I watched as its tiny throat swallowed then gasped for air. It was breathing irregularly, rapidly through the mouth. The rest of its body appeared to move as if without any coherence at all, its former coordination and dignity long gone. Nothing matched up. Everything was flailing and erratic. And yet, dying but not yet dead, it had still needed to clear its throat to breathe. How often had I done the same? How often had I swallowed a bit of saliva and mucous simply to have a clearer draw on the breath of life? So thoughtless, so simple, yet, as I stood there watching the skunk’s convulsions it occurred to me how graceful and complicated that one movement was. I too swallowed, as if sympathetically, feeling the cascade of muscles along my jawbone, the slight change in pressure in my nasal cavity, the undulation of my tongue. Everything fired in precise order.
I’ve watched infants learning to eat. Swallowing is not a ready-made skill. It takes months, years really, to hone a coordinated palate that can manipulate food, both solid and liquid, within the mouth. Infants aren’t even able to breathe through their mouths till about three or four months old. Yet, all of us learn these complicated movements well before we learn to walk or pinch. And here, amidst all the chaos of dying, this skunk, as yet still living and therefore needing to breath, somehow fired its nervous system, so evidently in disarray, in that cascade of elegant, synchronous movement. It swallowed. That one movement was darling to me.
Some months ago I came upon an old juniper tree on the mesa. Twisted and gnarly, it was not much taller than me. Its trunk was gray and brittle and most of its limbs were ashen and lifeless, as was the desert floor. But two of the tree’s limbs, rising like arms above my head, were filled with scaly green leaves and small purple berries, under which formed a brief shade. I had spent most of the morning and afternoon roaming the mesa and was fairly tired by that point, it being not quite evening. I rifled in my pack for my water bottle, looking, as I did, out beyond the gorge to the Hondo valley several miles away. I had about an hour’s walk to get home, which I would take slowly, savoring my fatigue.
Leaning against the trunk, I casually dolled a sip of water out to the tree, a gesture I’ve become accustomed to, but which I take lightly. After all, what’s a half-cup of water to a tree? The bark sopped up the water instantly, leaving a dark stain. I turned the bottle to my own lips and drank. Though it looked half dead, like many such trees on the mesa, I knew that this one was quite vigorously alive, probably several hundred years old. True survivors, these plants. As I reached further into my pack for a bite of some leftover watermelon, I appreciated the old, if rather stoic, company. Then I saw something move out of the corner of my eye.
Three darkling beetles were congregated on the spot where I had just poured water onto the tree. Where had they come from so suddenly? I smiled and glanced over the dry earth. There were a few sage plants at a distance, but mostly it was just a pile of sand and gravel. Then I saw another beetle walk out from behind the cluster of roots at my side. I poured a little more water. They were a welcome addition to my solitude.
I pried open the lid from my container of watermelon, watching the beetles, their tiny butts sticking in the air as their mouths burrowed into the wet wood. I couldn’t for the life of me tell what they were doing, but it sure seemed as if they were drinking. All four of them were attached, as though fixed by the jaw, on the wet wood.
I placed a piece of watermelon nearby, curious to see if they would go for it. The bright red flesh and watery texture of the fruit was a sharp contrast to the sand and gravel. I ate a few pieces and watched. The beetles are long and black, about the size of a walnut, with hard, sleek shells that, coupled with their slow, clumsy movements, give them the appearance of a tiny desert tank. Two were still drinking when the others began circling around, seemingly blind, till one finally stumbled into the red fruit and latched on. The second was close to follow and within a minute all four were permanently affixed. It was a small cube of melon, hardly a bite for me, but it seemed like a tower of food next to these small creatures. I took another bite and imagined the sweet liquor draining down their throats, just as it did my own.
Suddenly, a tremor shook my breast and I glanced about furiously for a second before spotting a ruby-throated hummingbird above, which then settled quietly onto a branch. Amazing how those things can throw up such feverish energy. Then, my gaze having shifted to the branches above, I noticed for the first time a small brown lizard, a skink, clinging to a branch overhead. It didn’t move a muscle, but its little white throat pulsed with air. There was a flurry of insects nearby, like tiny electrons circling an invisible nucleus. I stared, smitten at my naivete. A raven, evidently circling nearby, clicked its throaty “gwaugh-gwaugh.” Here, I had thought I was alone, but that whole tree was alive, an ecosystem unto itself.
I once spent a morning with a little boy I’ll call Justin. I was watching several children actually and we had the run of the backyard while their parents met inside. Most of the kids were Pema’s age, so they took easily enough to playing together and didn’t require a lot from me. And thank god, because Justin needed special attention. He was still in diapers, not quite two, barely verbal, and it was evident that I, a complete stranger, terrified him.
I was shocked when his mother had first left him with me. “This is Joe,” his mother had said to him, leaning over her knees while Justin’s older brother, Shay, ran off to meet the other kids. “Hi Justin,” I said, plying him uncertainly. Squatting down to eye level, I picked a small white daisy, an early spring flower no bigger than my finger, and held it out to him. He looked at it tentatively, his eyes wet and fearful. When I had first made the offer to watch the kids, a favor to a friend, I had thought I would just be overseeing a small group of familiar kids, so as his mother handed Justin over to my care I became a little tongue-tied and uncertain. He didn’t seem ready, or willing, but his mother didn’t seem to mind.
No bond had been created, but neither did Justin cling to his mother. As she walked inside, Justin kept his distance, preferring to stand alone. The older kids were gathering containers and mud, barely aware of the two of us. Justin was too young to engage in real play with the other kids, though he eyed them, and his big brother, curiously. I was determined to make good with him. I made myself small, sitting on the ground, approaching him with another flower, an intricate leaf, a stick. The texture of the earth can be so healing. But every time I tried to get close he moved away. It was still early spring and the chill of winter was in the air. Justin was shielded by a thick layer of clothing, which gave him the padded appearance and gait of a duck. Tied to his jacket was a pacifier, which was, like the steady stream of snot coagulating above it, permanently affixed to his face. Behind all this, Justin’s eyes stared at me nervously. He seemed alone, so painfully alone, and I gathered that he had felt so quite often.
My heart was aching for this poor child, whose mother evidently didn’t find it troubling. She was glad to be relieved of the kids for a few hours, and surely she needed it. But Justin was a mess and I sensed none of the warmth and playfulness that comes from most kids. In fact, he seemed to know that his mother would not come for him, and he didn’t even attempt, as most kids might, to scream and find her. He just stood there, surrounded by thick layers of clothing, eyeing the other children, but making no move to join them. And he cried.
Justin was evidently scared of me. Yet, in that foreign backyard he had no one else to appeal to. His older brother, Shay, who had his own challenges connecting with the kids, would occasionally run off in anger or frustration, then come up head to head with Justin and pull on his arms while thrusting a sneering grin in his face. It wasn’t a particularly loving encounter. I searched my soul for what to do.
As Shay ran off again, I picked up a small plastic cup and walked over to Justin. He kept his distance but was close enough to observe me. I sat down and kept my eyes to myself, making as if I just happened to be there. I scooped some gravel and dirt from the earth in front me, shook the cup and listened to the sound of the rocks scraping against the hollow surface. Then I made a show of pouring it all back on the earth, which made a different sort of sound. I repeated this over and over, calmly, giving Justin space, but trying to leave a window for him to observe.
I could see that Justin was interested, but he was also tentative. So far he had only managed to stand and stare. I wanted to give him a chance to get out of his mind. I placed the cup at my side, near him, stood up and walked away as if I had something to do. To my joy, he walked over and picked up the cup, then squat down and began scratching it on the earth. His pacifier hung limply in his mouth, then tumbled to the ground, forgotten at least briefly. Pleased, I picked up a metal measure cup and did much the same thing nearby, then offered that within his reach.
We managed to scrape together a few satisfying minutes like this till Shay, eyeing the measuring cup, came up and snatched it out of Justin’s hands without so much as a warning. Standing back up, Justin immediately fell to tears. Much of his face was smeared with snot and dirt, and his cries were throaty and wet. I knew he was still tentative with me, but I walked over and picked him up anyway, doing what I always do with children in pain, making soft shushing sounds and rocking back and forth. It didn’t help. He was too scared of me. What was so sad was that he didn’t squirm or resist. I could simply sense in his eyes a deep fear or discomfort. I had the feeling that I was only making it worse. I set him back down, wiping off the pacifier, which had grown dirty, and offered it to his hand. I knelt close by, in case he wanted attention, but also giving him space. How do you console a child who is terrified of you? How do you answer a cry with patience?
There is a brief moment before a sneeze when my entire face fills with excitement. It is an incredible feeling full of simple pleasure, like pooping when you have to poop, like breathing when you have to breathe, or drinking when you’re truly thirsty. These simple things literally feel good, at least to me, and our bodies appear to be designed to encourage these obviously healthful activities.
Have you ever felt your face when you cried? I mean the literal physical sensation, the crinkling of the eyes, the pull of the cheeks and lips, the collapse of the sternum and chest?