Sunday, September 11, 2011

Animal spirits

Look at the chipmunk sitting on the retaining wall by the alder. Funny guy. Curved into a tawny question-mark, as still as the stone he sits upon, he contemplates the size and scope of the world, the scented pathways across the mown lawn over the septic field, from the woodpile under the maple to the slate patio, all the way down to the brook. He hears the bees in the sedum, is aware of the wet soil underneath the pine-bark mulch, filled with edible bugs. Robins and jays fly in and out of view. I have no idea what his world looks like, so I imagine mine in his little head. It's the best I can do, lacking his beady black eyes, his elfin ears.

He clears his throat and scratches his shoulder, falls into stillness again. He appears content. In this place, he scampers and plays, he prowls (or seems to, inching forward like he's sneaking up on somebody) and mates, he digs and he eats, and at day's end he dives into a tailor-made crevice in the stone wall with a flourish. Like his cousins the squirrel, the groundhog, and the field mouse, he fills the yard with life. He is what he does, the little acrobat.

Ascribing human feelings to these creatures is dopey, I know. A child's fancy. But I can't help myself. Their antics give me pleasure and remind me of people I know. The hoarder, the rake, the athlete, the stoic. The epicurean, the poet, the paranoiac, the solid citizen. Even one person can be all these things. Therein lies the awful comedy of being human, trying to figure out which persona fits. This is not a problem for my little friend. He is a chipmunk at all times, his brief life a fullness unto itself, complete and indivisible.

With each passing year, I grow less confident that the difference between animals and humans amounts to much in the end. Whether the chipmunk is caught in the talons of a hawk or the jaws of a cat, whether he dies in a flood or in drought, whether he misjudges the distance to his burrow or loses a step due to age, he will leave behind the same sensual world as mine. The little heart will stop and in an instant he will cease to be a chipmunk. He'll be a corpse, nutritious, finite, gone. Nothing will remain of him, not even a memory, though the yard will still be full of life -- the other plants and animals, green and noisy, will attest to it.

That's all to come, for him and for me. People I have known and loved are gone, leaving the world to be remade. The chipmunk is well-suited to this place. He sits there in the middle of things, surrounded by nourishment and peril. Today I am willing to read his animal quietude as contemplative joy.

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