In the spring of 1959 or 1960 the alligator arrived. It came in a nondescript cardboard box a little longer than it was wide, of just a size to contain a tiny umbrella or a couple dozen pencils. But the shipping label said Florida, and when I lifted the box, a scuffling hiss issued from it that sounded promising. My mother stood in the doorway of my room and shook her head. Some friends of hers, hearing that I was interested in animals, had sent the thing along. I had noticed, over the past year or so, that my mother’s interest in animals was waning.
Earlier that spring, I had come home from school to find her sitting at the kitchen table. “Hi, Mom,” I said.
“Hello,” she answered wearily. “Your lizard is on the back of the chair in the living room. Please get it back in its bowl.”
That had been an Eastern fence swift, a handsome animal with steely scales and a deep blue swatch along its back and side, and gifted, as its name indicates, with great speed. It was difficult to catch when it squeezed out of the cheap glass turtle bowl of the kind they used to sell at Woolworth’s and McCrory’s. I’d put a piece of old window screen across the top, but the more tenacious or clever creatures frequently escaped. Now Mom looked winded, and a bit peeved, and I hurried to get the swift back into my room.
And there had been the run-in with Mr. Peterson, the man who hauled our trash. During warm weather, I kept snakes, sometimes as many as half a dozen, in the shed my father built in our back yard. Mr. Peterson found serpents objectionable. He explained that he’d have to stop hauling our trash if they remained; my mother made me drape tarps over the fronts of their cages on collection day, so that Mr. Peterson could at least imagine they were gone.
There had been others too: the rabbit called Penny that lived for a while in a hutch along the shed; several generations of doomed McCrory’s painted turtles; schools of fancy guppies that reverted over unselected generations to their original drab and minute forms; box turtles; dogs; parakeets; various insects in both adult and larval forms, and a lethargy of anoles, skinny displaced creatures that the dime stores sold as ‘‘chameleons.”
But it was the alligator that finally exhausted my mother’s indulgence. Actually, it wasn’t an alligator; it was merely cousin to an alligator, a speckled cayman to be exact, and it was about a foot long, and as mean a beast as I’d ever tried to keep, with the exception, maybe, of a knot of queen snakes that used to give me bad dreams with their nasty attitudes and pink mouths.
I don’t know why, but I expected a certain docility from the animals I kept. Goodness knows I was aware of their instinctive wildness, which I admired, even when it unsettled me. I remember watching a bizarre occurrence once from the back of a friend’s father’s pickup truck. A cicada flew down to the ground and crawled into a small hole in a clay bank by the road. A few seconds later, a great wasp, almost two inches long, with a wingspread of four, and as garish in its markings and color as the dazzle camouflage I’d come to know from building models of British warplanes, landed at the entrance of this tunnel and crawled gingerly in. It was a cicada killer, and its usual living was made by stinging its prey with a paralyzing agent stored in abdominal glands, then lugging the motionless victim by main force high into a tree. From there, the wasp would clutch to its breast the stiff cargo and glide back to its burrow in the ground, all the while losing altitude because of the cicada’s great weight. Having safely cached the still-living insect in its burrow, the wasp would then lay an egg on it. Later the larva would feed at its leisure until at some critical point of devouring, the victim would give up the ghost and the wasp larva promptly pupate and metamorphose into an adult next to the husk of its former roommate and meal.
My friend and I both knew these facts by the age of 9, as we did other startling and bloody histories of the animal and insect world. Thus we watched this suicidal and unnatural drama. We even talked his father into digging into the bank with an old entrenching tool he kept behind the seat, and we found, yes indeed, the expected tableau: wasp and cicada, the one fresh egg already laid on it, jutting from its abdomen like a tiny white knife. Why had it flown to sure destruction, actually seeking out the deadly wasp’s lair? What deal had been struck, up in some buzzing tree, between predator and prey?
Mysteries, prodigies, anomalies: for children only haphazardly self-trained in the rudiments of life science, still mythic and animistic in our understandings of the world and its phenomena, these things piled up around us, making of nature a kind of great squirming, protean riddle, something like one of those misleadingly simple drawings in which are hidden (and you are challenged to find) a penguin, a whale, a zebra, an ostrich, a porcupine, a lemming and a blimp.
And why shouldn’t the world of plants and animals be prodigious and mysterious, packed with turbulent wonders? The world of the mills in which many of our fathers worked was just such a place, though cast not of flesh and breath but of metal and fire. There, the blast furnaces roared like the most terrible of dinosaurs, and above them the skies glowed with a ruddy vitality. To enter the mill (the gates were always there, standing open but guarded, always guarded) was like entering an underworld, and the stories that issued from the slab yard and the open hearth and the railroad sidings were as awe-inspiring to us boys as the sagas of Boone and Crockett, Scott and Amundsen, Stanley and Livingstone.
Another time, down from our neighborhood, we were digging in the hillside at the source of a tiny spring that fed the creek. A great wet log sat directly over where the water seeped from the ground, and as we tried to clear the way, it crumbled in our hands. There, amidst the red decay, glowed a brilliant salamander, bright yellow with dark crimson spots. We took it home and put it in an aquarium and then looked it up in our “Golden Book of Reptiles and Amphibians,” by, I think, Frank S. Zim. And there it was: a Western spotted newt. It was always exciting to find an animal or insect in our books, but this was doubly so. Consulting the map that accompanied its description, we saw that the range of the creature we had in the basement aquarium extended no further east than the Mississippi River. We had lucked onto a newt that should not have been found within 400 miles of Steubenville, Ohio.
Had we been scientists, we might have taken it to a zoo in Pittsburgh, or to the little Nature Center at Oglebay Park in Wheeling, and had it all explicated and made clear. But we were pagan, innocent of orthodoxy. We were boys, and dreamers, and we squared ourselves to this anomaly as to any other. Nature was unpredictable and mysterious, and often it was our secret. The Western newt was for our eyes and ears only, not for grown-ups, not even for other boys: just for us. Nature singled us out for instruction now and then, and if the lesson was unlikely, we were not surprised. Unschooled in laws and probabilities, we expected to be left wondering. “‘Tis strange,” Horatio says of the ghost on the midnight battlements of Elsinore. In our expectant ignorance, we were as accepting as Hamlet: “Therefore as strangers let us give it welcome.” We had no other choice.
It was that very strangeness of the world, I think, that attracted us to it. Its otherness, its unwillingess to speak our human language, and yet its apparent attempts nevertheless to communicate itself to us, as in the case of the newt, kept us close and attentive.
For several years of my boyhood I crawled through the woods at the top of the hill, inspecting the big coffee cans I’d buried to their rims below the underbrush. I’d read that these pit-traps were particularly effective in collecting beetles. For me, the most beautiful and varied tongue nature spoke was Beetle. Had I known it then, I would certainly have affirmed J. S. Haldane’s claim that “nature has an inordinate fondness for beetles.”
I especially liked the grammar of beetle life. It encompassed practically every ecological niche from parasite to predator, water to mountain-top to air; in size the beetle was fluent from the microscopic to the monstrous: the Goliath beetle, one of my favorites, six to seven inches long, was relatively easy for collectors to find because in flight, I’d read somewhere, “it sounded like a small plane.” Beetle was also the most geographically dispersed of nature’s languages; the family was a kind of zoological Esperanto, spoken on alp and in rain forest, on ocean beach and desert dune, and studying it seemed to link my local study with the world. It was a way of being global, this beetling, even when I worked in a closet lab at home.
From those cans buried in the woods I plucked out dozens of obsidian-black scarabs of several species, cordovan-colored staghorns, and the teardrop-shaped bombardier beetles that emitted a puff of gas that exploded with a tiny pop as they fled. Their varieties and shapes, their secret existences literally under our noses, meant something as I pondered their forms and habits, as I recited their names over and over, as I learned the intricate Latin and Greek. Coleoptera, the scientific name of their family, means “sheath-winged” and to me it was of huge interest the way beetles had to spread those chitinous sheaths first, before they could unfurl their wings and fly: as if a convertible had to lower its top before it could start its engine. Plastron, dorsal and ventral, papillae, carapace, thorax—even the vocabulary of beetle study was itself a part of the secret we shared.
But more than all this language and knowledge and sense of connectedness came from my working among nature and the beetles: I got a sense that there were alternatives, other ways of life and living, and though I do not think I articulated this sense of diversity to myself as a child, I still think it helped shape my view of life.
Within earshot of the mills (you could hear the hiss of the blast furnace being tapped regularly, every day and every night, everywhere in Steubenville) you might be hunkered over a handful of beetles in the woods, far down Beatty Hollow, rapt in the unlikely gingerbread of a foreleg’s architecture, and then abruptly become conscious of the mill. There was, you remembered, a whole human furnace of activity and transformation going on in another world, a world you realized that though within hearing physically was really farther from the beetle’s world than the most distant galaxy was from your bedroom.
And so one of the things nature spoke to us was this: In the very moment that you become aware of your distance from the beetle, and the mill from yourself, the very moment your consciousness wraps around those large facts, you realize how alone you are, how utterly alone, how strange and alien. It is as if the sandstone bedrock of your neighborhood suddenly splits and shifts and, forever after, you are never able to stand in the same place you were in just a second before.
With all of the animals I kept, I was trying to gather unto me, hospitably (how sinister the connotations of hospital in that word), fellow neighbors, and to learn something of their world. But theirs was inhuman and distant, unfathomably distant. I worked hard, trying diligently to create a habitat exactly like the one the animal had come from, whether it was the Western spotted newt, or the common Allegheny salamanders that we collected from under rocks in the creek, or the beautiful black snakes we’d find in the brush along the strip mine. I’d dig up the soil from where a mouse had been, and all the moss and lichens, and I’d feed it whatever I thought it had eaten in the wild, and I’d watch it, closely, for whatever it had to tell me.
What went through my head as I spied on those things? Was I expecting them to behave naturally, as if they did not sense that they were out of their element and on display? How little I knew of the relationship of the observer and the observed in those days. Perhaps I thought I could vanish; perhaps I thought that through some effort of spirit and will I could stand so still, so silently, that I would become mere background, just another part of the landscape, and so see the behavior of the snake or turtle or shrew just as the mountain saw it, or the moon, or the bobolink flying overhead.
No chance: The hum of human consciousness is the original sin; its background noise on the planet is now as ubiquitous and as audible as the background hiss of the Big Bang throughout the universe. I am never so loud to myself as when I am trying to be quiet; I can only suppose this is equally true about me to the fox or deer or wild turkey nearby.
Whitman’s escape to the non-human is no answer, either. “I think I could turn and live with animals, /they are so placid and self-contained….”
No, I don’t think I could. I have already tried that, living almost ferally in the woods for months at a time, and I have seen that it doesn’t work. I can no more survive in the snake’s lair than it can survive in my scrubbed and vacuumed bedroom. So almost always, like single bees in jars, things died on me. I discovered, in grief and frustration, the inseparable connection of Hving creatures and their place. My desire to have them where I wanted them, where they were convenient to my whim and idle curiosity, but isolated from their own environment, was fatal to them in every single case.
The root of “menagerie” is in menage— “of the household or family.” What I learned was that the human family and the human household did not include or provide comfort and shelter to the wilderness, be it in the form of a woodland plot of ground or the snake that glided over it. “Menagerie” can only make sense in exactly the opposite of its root meaning: a menagerie cannot be a household of pets torn from their actual habitat, but must always be a part of the wilderness, the Earth Household, as Gary Snyder puts it.
The alligator died, under my bed, among the lint and dust and lost pennies of the human household. its body had grown light as balsa wood, its belly shrunken, its formerly large moist eyes desiccated, blank and dull as split peas. It had been instinctively hunting for Florida, and shallow warm water, and live food, and instead it came up against plastic baseboard. The household had been too small, too isolated from the intricacy that life requires; the arrangement failed.
I buried it outside, behind the shed, in the compost pile where it joined grapefruit rinds, egg shells and coffee grounds and went back to a sweet obliviousness in the mix and slow smolder of decay. There was, finally, a kind of chemical joy in its last identifiable days as alligator remains, but I believe I was the only one conscious of it. The principals involved, those elementary butlers and maids, those builders and enablers and dismantlers of life, didn’t even know there was a party.