Wilderness is essential in the lives of children. I mean essential,
like edible food, drinkable water, breathable air. I cannot imagine
a decent, sane and healthy life without it.
When our grandson Saul was born we bought a framed poster for his nursery: mother and child giraffe, very similar to the photos we’re seeing from the NC Zoo of Juma (born July 6). We actually thought it might be a little scary for a small child, the huge animal bending to lick the head of the youngster, and we were actually a little surprised that Allison and Josh hung it directly over Saul’s crib. It’s still there.
Last week I was playing with Saul, now four, in the living room while Linda prepared to go to the grocery store. She had her hand on the front door when she looked back over her shoulder and called to us to come QUICK! A four-foot long black rat snake was undulating across the dining room (Pantherophis obsoletus, I think – I didn’t really handle it to examine the finer details). It froze when it sensed her. Until Saul and I came running in, that is, when it tried to escape back down the basement stairs.
I should have come to the Zoo two weeks ago, because there’s a poster at the Streamside installation that diagrams how to get a snake out of your house. I cornered it with a broom while Linda brought me a plastic bucket. The snake actually seemed quite relieved to be in a dark, enclosed space with a bucket over it. I scooped bucket and all into the end of a cardboard box, and then we made a little expedition down the block to the edge of the woods.
Saul stood right beside me while I slowly lifted the bucket. The snake climbed the side of the box easily, its body extending a full foot or more before it cascaded down into the grass. Saul remarked at how the tall grass moved from side to side as Mr. Snake slithered out of sight into the woods. A four-year old naturalist.
When Allison came to pick Saul up that evening we weren’t really intending to inform her about the adventure (would she ever accept an invitation to dinner again?), but Saul is Mr. Story-teller. Once the truth was out his Mom asked him, “Were you afraid?”
“No! My favorite animals are giraffes, kitties, and snakes!”
. . . . .
Tonight my father cupped his hands and blew
into their hollow sphere and brought to life
the long wild resonant cry
of country boyhood, owl-haunted evenings
and the dark modulations of distant hounds,
fluttered his fingers throbbing into memory
those sobbing whistles hunting down the rails
my childhood dreaming in the restless city.
And as my children wondered cupping their hands
to capture that primeval mimicry
of all that haunts and heightens our precarious sense
of living rooted in immemorial time,
I saw my father new, and shared his knowing
the secret of our give and take of breath:
live long enough to know that we are dying,
hand on with tenderness and dignity
our resonant art
the long learned call
of trumpeter man.
. . . . .
In a few minutes I’m heading down to the soon to be completely renovated KidZone in the Zoo. I’m presenting a lunch time poetry workshop for the staff – we’re going to each write a “persona poem,” in first person in the voice of an animal we love or identify with. An imagination stretcher. It’s the same workshop I’ll be doing with children tomorrow. Who will be most convincing at assuming the persona of an animal? On the other hand, who hasn’t taken the voice of the Three Bears or the Big Bad Wolf or other Wild Things when reading to son, daughter, niece, nephew? What’s the opposite of “anthropomorphize?” Here’s an opportunity not only to be a spectator to wildness but to express the wildness within ourselves. I cannot imagine a decent, sane, and healthy life without it.
. . . . .
In her bio in the anthology Word and Witness, Ann Deagon remarked that she didn’t begin writing until she was forty, “when that three-headed dog love death and poetry took me in its teeth and shook me.” She subsequently published six collections of poetry and has written fiction and plays. She taught Classics at Guilford College and has been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literary Fellowship.
. . . .