Sunday, March 12, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 296: Biomythography - Note 46, Forced to Notice

Biomythography 46

Forced to Notice

At six in the morning, a mile into my run, a monster passed over me.

The shadow's wingspan looked twice my size in the weak morning light. It was an unmistakable shape. Anyone who has seen a great horned owl in flight knows. Owl wings are built differently than those of other raptors. The beast crossed a dozen feet above my head. It dove across the road and came to rest in a tree. 

Then it was gone. As large as it was, the owl became invisible to my glance when it folded its wings. Logically, I knew it had perched on the high bough of an oak tree. 

It was one of the things you see when you're alone at an unusual hour. Most of the uncommon sights are wild animals. They are going about their usual business at their customary time. There are no humans in their landscape. Then you blunder in. You catch a glimpse of their life.

At three in the morning, on a similar run, a herd of deer ran alongside me. You can forget how large they are until they're an arms-length away. I was sprinting down the middle of a dark, lonely, country road. The herd of twenty deer ran by on either side. A barrier of brambles kept most of them away. A few large males danced through and back over the underbrush as if to make their point: I was slow; I was outnumbered by powerful beasts in the dark; they were many and they stayed together. They thundered by for half a minute. A dozen crossed in front of me as the herd veered away from its parallel path with the road on their way to elsewhere. In twenty seconds, the sound of them had faded.

Not every strange event is an animal. Once, while hiking across a wide-open field, I spotted a flicker in the sky. I marched toward it. The object in the air turned over and over. It half floated and half fell until it hit the ground a yard in front of me.

It was a piece of white bread.

The bread was perfect, not a bite taken out of it. There wasn't a condiment in sight. Nor was there a crow in the sky, nor an eagle. There was a plane above in the distance, a jumbo jet. It had taken off from Dulles to my west. White contrails streaked out behind it. Otherwise, there was nothing above besides the sun and a few clouds. I saw no indication of the origin of the bread. It simply arrived.

These are the facts you don't expect. When I was a father, I cut down a tree in my yard. Months later, I returned to chop and pry out the stump. When I started removing pieces, I discovered a wonderland of small tunnels. Beneath the roots of the willow-oak I unearthed a labyrinthine colony of bright, golden ants. I'd never seen golden ants before. They are rare, apparently. I don't dig up the ground very often, either. Maybe I'll never see them again. Right in the middle of my life, they made their home where I discovered it.

But I'd exposed the colony. I covered the divots over, trying to make their situation good, but nonetheless, by the next afternoon they were gone. Naturally, I checked.

Some of these opportunities may not be available to everyone. I have often been happy to wander far from other humans. Even when you think there's no one else, though, sometimes you meet other stragglers. That can be uncomfortable. I've run into drunk marines. I've talked at length with homeless men at their campsites. Once as a young teen I ran into a tall, middle-aged woman early in the day. We were each hiking a few miles inside the borders of the Seneca Creek State Park in a section without rangers or visitors.

She put her hand to her chest when she saw me. It was clear she was more surprised than I was. At least I lived close enough to feel the park was mine. My proprietary sense had drawbacks because it didn't match what anyone else thought but, still, I was aware that the forest, from time to time, bore trespassers upon my solitude. She was one, another in an unfortunate list of them.

For her, it had to seem strange to walk alone in an abandoned state park, deliberately as far as you could get from anything, and discover nonetheless there was someone else.

"Do I know you?" she said.

"No." I stopped and frowned at her. She persisted.

"I'm sure I do." She wore sensible hiking clothes and a hat to keep off the sun even though we were in a forest. "Do you go to Sidwell Friends?"

We were thirty-five miles from my school, a private school.

"Shit," I said.

"Excuse you," she replied. "I think I've seen you with my son."

We talked for a few minutes. As it turned out, I did in fact go to school with her son. He was a year older than I was but a nice guy. We didn't hang out much because he wasn't in my year. Her impression of her son, I came to understand, was that he felt insecure, which might have been true. But I felt violent and insecure myself, so he was the target of my reserved sense of friendship. Because he was nice. And fairly smart. She was, too.

"I'm here to look at the orchids," she announced.

"Are those flowers?"

Her mouth pressed tight into a line. In retrospect, she had to feel I was being deliberately dense and trying to get rid of her. She was right. But my desire for solitude battled with my sense of politeness.

"Do you live near this park?" she asked.

"In it."

"How wonderful for you." She gave me a hearty smile.

"No." When I caught the stern look on her face I backpedaled my emotional response. But only slightly. I was still a teenager in the midst of a teen life. "Not really, ma'am."

"There are orchids in this park that exist nowhere else in the world." A breathless tone crept into her voice with the revelation. She clasped her hands together with an emotionally-collected sort of pleasure.

"Flowers." At thirteen, I couldn't fathom why anyone would find such things interesting.

"Yes." In an instant, she made up her mind that I was both harmless and in dire need of an education. "Come with me."

Now it was worse than running into a stranger. I had spoken with a friend's mother. If she grew comfortable, she would try to take me back to my house for a friendly chat with my parents, who weren't actually at all friendly this morning, or she would dragoon me into a chore she thought was fascinating. As we walked together with me a half-step behind, I mulled over my excuses to leave. 

She led me a tenth of a mile to an unimpressive purple flower growing out of a bed of moss. I'd seen spiders with more color. She made hushed gasping sounds as she stared at it from afar.

"Do you ever pick up plants here?" she asked with an appropriate sense of suspicion.

"All the time." I destroyed them out of a sense of boredom, mostly. I didn't want to say so at the moment.

"Please don't hurt this one."

"Okay." It was important to her, I could tell. I crouched next to it. "If it's the only one in the world, why not save it? Transplant it. Take it home."

"It's not that type of flower, I'm afraid." For the first time, her expression turned grim. Most of the time, she was so determined and cheerful I thought no one could stand it. Yet I found myself liking her fortitude. "No one knows what makes it live and bloom, not precisely. It seems to need other plants. Or perhaps certain animals in the soil. Or something. If I dared to transplant it, I'd likely kill it. Others have tried. They've killed the only specimens they could find."

"Take a yard of dirt around it." I'd done it while transplanting bushes for my mother during my chores. It almost always worked, even when I tried in my lazy way to ruin the bush so I'd never be ordered to transplant it again.

"That fellow who killed the last one? That's what he tried."

She remained standing, staring at the plant and its partners for a while. I stayed crouched not far from it, a couple yards closer than she was.

"I'm glad I showed this to you," she announced.
"Thank you, Mrs. Wirth."

She regarded my sullen politeness with her hands on her hips. I'm fairly sure she thought something encouraging about me, like perhaps I would come to appreciate plants eventually. Or I would remember some part of what she said.

No comments:

Post a Comment