Stop. Breath. Look. Listen.
This is my daily mantra on the patio behind my house, in the mornings mostly, but sometimes in the early evenings as well. I am out here more often than usual this summer. ”COVID.” This is what we all say now (with a little shrug or eyeroll thrown in) to explain anything that is unusual, unexpected, disappointing, or frustrating, as if to suggest that everything has been altered or derailed by this damn virus.
But being out here also reminds me that this is not true.
The circles of time have certainly widened since March, grown sluggish and less defined, but my range of motion—the miles I used to cover driving and walking each day—has shrunken considerably. I see this when I look out the front window occasionally to see my car parked in the driveway and wonder how many days it’s been since I actually drove anywhere. I see it on my iWatch, which dutifully records my steps. I used to get between 8,000 to 10,000 steps a day. On most days since March, I have been lucky to top 2,000. House, patio, front stoop, out the mailbox to collect the junk mail and bills and back inside again. Once or twice a week week, I climb into that car and drive out to the grocery store with my masks and latex gloves gloves at the ready—an adventure. Maybe this is the kind of shrinkage of geographical footprint that prisoners feel during the first three months of a prison sentence. You go from a full-bodied life, out there in the world, to less than 2,000 steps a day. Cell, cafeteria, prison yard, and an occasional trip to the prison library.
I have seen her before, the little blue-tailed skink who spends most of her time on my patio (I do not know for certain the sex of this creature. Before they mature and their coloring makes their sex more obvious, males and females look alike from a distance. For some reason, I like the idea that Blue Tail is a female). Blue Tail’s most common move is to slink along that shadowed space where the patio meets the house, and then, when the coast is clear, she darts across the stretch of flagstone to the patio chair. She waits for a few seconds in the shade beneath the chair to make certain she is not detected and then shoots across another expanse of flat stone to a big crack between two stones at the edge of the corner garden. The lizard is about three inches long and probably newly hatched this year. I have watched this creature make this precise journey, following exactly the same path, at least three times before, often just a few feet away from where I am sitting (who knows how many times a day she makes this trip out of my view). This beautiful lizard is hard to miss. Yellow and brown stripes run down the length of her body from nose to hind legs, but her tail is a brilliant neon blue color. I have sometimes spotted Blue Tail out of the corner of my eye less for her movement than for the brightness of her tail.
Today, as I watch Blue Tail make her ritual two-sprint passage across the patio, I see the shadow of a red-tail hawk passing over the other side of the yard. This is a common occurrence in my yard, because the handful of hawks that nest in the park behind my house are always circling for prey over my neighborhood. Blue Tail, who was at the foot of the patio chair when I looked away, distracted by the hawk, was gone when I looked back. She had already scurried into the crack, probably because she too spotted the hawk’s shadow. She is wise to hide. I once saw a hawk rocket down from the sky and snatch up a small rabbit from my backyard, not ten feet from where I sitting. Hawks are fast, deadly hunters. After witnessing this spectacle, I understood why chipmunks and squirrels—and skinks apparently—always stick close to solid objects---bushes, trees, and rocks---as they move hesitantly around my yard. This proximity to solid objects makes them harder to snatch up in those sharp, dive-bombing talons.
After a few seconds, Blue Tail pokes her head out of the crack and looks around. Then she is gone, down the side of the patio and into the corner garden, probably to hunt for insects.
I am always happy to see Blue Tail. She brightens my day. That impossibly colored tail, like something air brushed onto the side of a racing car, makes me smile. I know she lives in a very dangerous neighborhood so I am always relieved to see her. There are the hawks, of course, but also snakes, possums, owls, and the local domesticated cats who often hunt in my yard. They all eat lizards. Somehow, even with that practically glowing tale, this little lizard manages to stay alive from one day to the next.
Blue Tale apparently does not fear me, though she probably should. I am not a predator, but I am from a race of blind giants who stumble around the countryside, building enormous habitats that swallow up the land. Predators evolve with their prey. Their instincts are trained to one another. I do not hunt animals; I browse refrigerated cases looking for the prettiest slabs of flesh cut from animals I have never seen in a factory whose location is unknown to me.
After I started reading Elizabeth Kolbert‘s great book The Sixth Extinction last summer, I began to catalog every amphibian I see on my property and in the park. The first chapter of Kolbert’s book chronicles the mass extinction of amphibians around the world in chilling vignettes that leave no doubt that these creatures were recently imperiled by mass death. I had read about the die-off of amphibians before I read her book, and they were on my mind when I first moved into this house in 2010. The first year I lived here, I could hear bullfrogs croaking from the pond in the park, but then they ceased. Disappeared basically. I wondered what happened to them and I have long suspected that the notorious Bd (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) disease was to blame.
But then I read that American bullfrogs are mostly immune to the pathogen but are often the spreaders of it, so the cause of the disappearing bullfrogs remains a mystery.
My catalogue of amphibians so far: Copes Gray Tree frog, Fowler’s Toad, American Toad, Squirrel Tree Frog (I think). And then there are the tree frogs I haven’t seen but hear on summer nights singing out from the trees in the park—the peepers, in several species I think. I have not yet learned to identify their calls.
Blue Tail is a lizard not an amphibian, but I have also taken to cataloging lizards. In addition to her kind, there is at least one Green Anole living in the shrubs around the front porch. This beautiful creature is bright green, almost wintergreen. Also, there is the ground skink, grayish brown and smooth skinned. I saw this particular reptile climbing up the downspout of my gutter a few weeks ago. And there are the turtles of course—the big, purposefully sluggish painter females that walk up from the pond to lay their eggs in covert holes dug in my yard, and the even bigger and fiercer snappers, who thankfully seldom leave the water.
The hawk shadow crosses the yard again. Predator and prey evolved together. I think about this symbiosis often now, as I have much more opportunity to watch it in action. Where does a humble member of the race of the flesh slab-devouring giants fit in to this seemingly perfect dance of life? Most of the animals that I see from my patio have adapted to our habitats. They do not consider me a threat. If I possess instincts trained to them during the long phase of hunter-gathering ancestery, I am not aware of them. Or perhaps they have always been there but I have yet to uncover them in myself.
Stop. Breath. Look. Listen.
This is how I will find my place again.