I’m going to bet your family is a lot like mine. Sometimes my parents come to stay a few days over a holiday, with Margaret and her Josh in from Raleigh, Mary Ellen down from Sylva (and all with dogs-squared), and finally Josh, Allison, and Saul all squeezed in. Then it starts. First hugs, then catching up and gossip, meanwhile eating, momentary pause in eating, start eating again. Finally, if we’re all under the same roof for long enough, the stories begin.
Haven’t you heard them? Stories that start out with, “Oh, I remember when you were six and you . . . .” “Right, and remember that time we thought no one was looking and we . . . .” “Sure, and can you remember what Nana would say when we . . . ?” We’ve heard them all a thousand time, but we can’t help ourselves. We have to re-tell them. It’s the stories that bind us together and remind us we’re a family. Those stories make us a family.
I was at the Zoo about a year ago when Batir was smaller (though not by any means small). She still kept pretty close to her mother, Tonga, and they would frequently caress each other with their trunks or even interlace, touching . . . touching. Today they still spend much of the day near each other; is Batir leaning against her mother’s side? They’re that close.
Yesterday at the aviary, besides watching the Yellow-rumped Cacique add fronds to a large unruly nest in the very top of a sapodilla, I saw a pair of White-headed Mousebirds that evidently also had nesting on their minds. They nibbled at each other’s beaks, and then one would preen the neck feathers of the other . . . and they were perched pretty darn close together on that branch.
One morning this week I entered the Park early while the alligators were still bellowing at each other (there are two separate ‘gator enclosures so the males can’t get physical with each other). As I passed one pool, a larger ‘gator was rubbing his jaw up and down the neck of the smaller, and then she (?) would return the gesture. I’d have a hard time calling it “nuzzling” when your skin is smooth as an old shagbark hickory, but I can only assume they were making friends.
With such a large extended family of baboons, you can’t pass them by without noticing that there is always some grooming going on. Sometimes it’s a female picking through the thick mane of a large male; sometimes two females; frequently a mother and child, and then they reciprocate. The younger members of the troop sometimes stop chasing and wrestling to comb each other out with their claws.
Somehow each species communicates that they are a family. It may be the complex subsonic telegraphy of elephants or the ritual stereotypic breeding displays of birds, but the message is received. The bond is forged. The family prevails.
We humans prevail through the stories we tell. When that gets old, we tell stories about telling stories. As Zoo ambassador, here’s my challenge to you: tell me a new story.
I am leaving the Zoo after this week-long residency with a headful of stories. You’ve got some, too. Discover them. Tell them. You don’t have to visit a zoo, or an aquarium, or a botanical garden, or a national park. You have a backyard, a neighborhood, a schoolyard. There is something about any one of those places that can remind you what family you belong to. Do I have to come right out and say it? It’s the Family of All Life on Earth.
Maybe you’ll encounter a creature you’ve never paid much attention to before. You might learn to recognize a bird’s call or look up the name of that big butterfly hanging around your bushes. Perhaps you’ll gain some new understanding about how creature A depends on creature B, and vice versa. Could be you’ll discover that something you’re used to doing every day actually harms creature C. You know you’re going to feel invigorated after you get a big dose of Vitamin N (“Nature”).
And you’re going to have some stories. I can hear you now, each time you get together with your Family and spend some quality time under nature’s vast open roof – “Hey, do you remember when we . . . ?!”
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A Prayer for the Mountains
Let these peaks have happened
The hawk-haunted knobs and hollers,
The blind coves dense as meditation,
The white rock-face, the laurel hells,
The terraced pasture ridge
With its broom sedge combed back by wind:
Let these have taken place, let them be place.
And where Harmon Fork piles unrushing
Against its tabled stones, let the gray trout
Idle below, its dim plectrum a shadow
That marks the stone’s clear shadow.
In the slow glade where sunlight comes through
In circlets and moves from leaf to fallen leaf
Like a tribe of shining bees,
Let the milk-flecked fawn lie unseen, unseeing.
Let me lie there too
And share the sleep
Of the cool ground’s mildest children.
from Spring Garden, 8 1995 by Fred Chappell, Lousiana State University Press.
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You don’t have to visit the Zoo, but it couldn’t hurt. It’s done me a world of good. Next time you’re there, see if they’ve started displaying poetry around the Park. (It won’t happen until after all three of us Poets-in-Residence have submitted our suggestions, but if you don’t see any yet it’ll just be the perfect reason to make another trip before too long.)
Meanwhile, I thank profoundly Ellen Greer, Sue Farlow, and Dr. David Jones as well as all those on the steering committee that developed the vision for this Poetry of Conservation project. And to all the rest of you folks – design staff, animal handlers, Zoo Com, volunteers, interpreters, Sodexo, Schindler House folks – you welcomed me into your NC Zoological Park family, and I am humbled and grateful. In sheer awesomeness you are equal to any of the other animals in the Park!
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