Two butterflies sit on white flowers supported by a dark, shiny branch.
California Tortoiseshell and Mourning Cloak butterflies nectar together on an ornamental cherry tree. 2020

We all know things about ourselves that we keep inside. Those are things we hope don’t appear on the surface, don’t break the facade. We are trained to spend our lifetime keeping the mask in place, avoiding a slip. The lucky ones can’t wear a mask because it feels too suffocating or uncomfortable. They move through life as themselves, sometimes suffering, but always authentic.

And then the rest of the us stare in horror from behind our masks and call them odd or defective.


Behind my facade is an old pickup that has never worked quite right. It was supposed to be new, but it had a few flaws at the factory that get more out of kilter with time. The brakes have always been soft, the clutch pedal has to be pushed to the floor to change gears, and the steering is a bit sloppy. Now, as it gets older, stains, chips, noises, and rust are accummulating.

I feel this. Photo from Cindy M on Trip Advisor.

But the oddest thing about this old pickup is that it is driven by animals. I say animals broadly, referring to pretty much anything that is non-human and not a microorganism. I have a distinct fascination with microorganisms, too, like the slime molds that may make more cohesive communities in times of stress than humans can pull off lately.

Slime molds are ā€œno more than a bag of amoebae encased in a thin slime sheath… Yet they manage to have various behaviors that are equal to those of animals who possess muscles and nerves with ganglia — that is, simple brains.ā€ John Bonner

https://www.princeton.edu/news/2010/01/21/sultan-slime-biologist-continues-be-fascinated-organisms-after-nearly-70-years
Ceratiomyxa fruticolosa, by Shirokikh125 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

It’s not about favoring something that provides me with unconditional devotion. Animals simply make more sense to me than people, and I get them. They fit into natural history and geologic time, surviving and evolving to adapt to the world around them.

Evolution of life on Earth, LadyofHats, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Humans, on the other hand, don’t make sense: we barreled into modern times as a a seemingly self-destructive species that somehow overtook and destroyed nature, and perhaps ourselves in the long run. We spend more energy resenting, oppressing, and killing each other than actually surviving and thriving. We’ve deliberately driven the car over the cliff this time, believing with incredible hubris that we can transform it into a flying vehicle as we plummet into the canyon.

Jess Dixon in his flying automobile, public domain, Kobel Feature Photos (Frankfort, Indiana) / State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Wikimedia Commons

I finally had to admit that there is no room for another person in this car. I knew at a young age I would be a terrible parent, but I’ve learned I’m a terrible partner and friend as well. The few people who know me well get confused because I’m good with kids and I will rush into any wreckage or burning building to help people in need.

But that’s different from putting all the talons, paws, tentacles, and hooves in the back seat and letting a human being sit in the passenger seat- or heaven forbid, the driver’s seat.

Yeah, I drove 2000 miles with a chatty toy dinosaur as my only companion.

I’m sure there is a name for this- we created clinical names for every shade of human, in a mix of catholic guilt and corporate control that views us all as vaguely defective and in need of a tidy box and a fix.

Figure this one out, if you will. I’ll give you a few hints: I was this way before my parents divorced or some of my siblings went wayward, before my mother died. I was this way from toddler-hood, hiding guinea pigs in the closet, breeding parakeets, bringing live and dead animals home from the park, drawing animals as a latch-key apartment kid in a city of over 3 million people.

The best people in my life probably know I’m a funky old jalopy. No one should care. The stuff society cares about- getting an education, holding down a job, paying bills and taxes, obeying the law: I’ve got that covered. Checked the boxes. I’ve kept the old pickup between the lines on the road, under the speed limit, although there have been many detours and interesting stops along the way.

Chevy 3100 by IFCAR, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Stranded

The emergence of an epidemic in my area has forced me to park at home for an indeterminate amount of time. A submicroscopic particle is bringing the world to its knees. Humans are being forced to accept that nature still exists, and we are subject to ancient laws. The current chaos and breakdown arose because we’re frantically trying to keep the mask in place, pretend we’re in control, and stave off the inevitable.

Women wearing surgical masks during influenza epidemic, Brisbane 1919. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland 108241

Stranded at home, I am being forced to take off my mask where no one is looking, and face reality: the passenger seat is empty of life, and I am not coping well.

Since Larkey left, suddenly and brutally, I have been trying to rebuild home and habits. My commute is too long and I travel too much to bring on any horse or dog or cat. I didn’t want to burden a pet with the requirement to be anchor for me but sit home alone all day and then get boarded when I hit the road.

I didn’t really figure it out, though I tried. I get distracted, volunteer whenever anyone asks, occupy myself with big projects,and travel. I have never sat still without a reason. It’s much easier to pack the old pickup and head to the hinterlands to see wild animals and greet the occasional pet or livestock I meet along the way.

The dun horse, Saskatchewan, 2018. Van der Vieren.

My idea was that I would fill the pickup again, only with wildlife. Wild creatures are my roomies: I’ve been building habitat forever. I travel to see wildlife. It makes sense. But you have to switch gears into neutral, park the truck, and take the time to open the door and let things crawl, swim, fly, and climb in. Since Lark left broken in the back of a rendering truck, I’ve never even tried to push the tricky clutch pedal down far enough to let that happen.

I needed to sit alone in the truck and think about all of this for awhile. Once and for all, take the mask off and not care if everyone found me defective. But I never stopped thinking, never put the pickup in park to make a change.

Maybe stranded is a good thing. An opportunity.

As I sit here working, I’m fascinated by my own magical kingdom, even the little I can see and hear from my office window as I work. Big dark wings swoop by, a different bird call comes, the frogs sing, a tail slaps indignantly on the river, a moth-like creature hovers by the tree outside.

Maybe there is hope to reconnect with this place once again, to stop and open the door to let in the wild things that make more sense than we do.