I sit completely still in the humid air focusing the entirety of my attention on the swath of green in front of me. I breathe slowly, letting my muscles relax, calming the natural impulses of a young healthy person to move, fidget or jump. I stay, as beads of sweat make their slow descent, leaving shiny tracks down my bare arms.
The object of my stare is somewhere in the tall grass and it’s my job to observe its behavior, its actions. My eyes wait for movement, the inevitable sign of life. A blade twitches and I hold my breath. The slightest move on my part will give me away. The next blade of grass sways slightly. It’s on the move. A trail is making itself known, the trajectory pointing towards a patch of bare soil directly in my line of sight. I allow myself to breathe again but as slowly as possible. Seconds drip by and the edges of my being start to blend into the air around me, the soil below me. At this point in time, I am one with Everything.
Then…a tiny chartreuse head peers from its shelter – it crawls further into view on its short, spindly legs. A bright, peach-pink pouch billows from its throat, then quickly collapses. Attracting a mate or staking its territory? The Green Anole comes fully into view and I settle down even further at my spot, ready to observe what it will do next —
The silence is shattered by the bellow of my younger brother. The lizard scurries back into the wilds of our unmowed backyard lawn and he bursts through the door. “Mami says dinner time!”
I groan and unfold myself to standing. One more zoological experiment thwarted by the mundane call of “normal life.” I head towards the back door but give one last glance at the yard – a Northern Florida wonderland of fauna. I’ll be back.
I was 12 and when I grew up, I was going to be a zoologist. I would travel to the savannahs of Africa or the outback of Australia to sit and document a breathtaking array of animals: the ferocious, regal lioness or the weird dance of the Blue-footed Booby. Growing up in Florida, a land that a couple hundred years of civilization still hasn’t tamed, wildlife was part of the everyday. Raccoons, armadillos, squirrels, blue jays, cardinals, ospreys, pelicans, possums, frogs, lizards. Intimate encounters with strange creepy crawlies were a given – including the famed Palmetto bug – a giant flying roach. The one blind spot I truly had though was snakes (shudder).
Still and all, there were many, many other members of the wildlife kingdom that fascinated me. I had my Wildlife Treasure trading cards subscription, watched documentaries tirelessly, and consulted that ancient relic of wisdom, the encyclopedia, to learn more about our wild neighbors. The fact that I never camped much – was in fact squeamish about “roughing it” – didn’t phase me. I would be Jane Goodall, communing with her gorillas, I’d be Thor Heyerdahl sailing on Kon Tiki. I was a psychic Dr. Doolittle – communing and communicating with animals – conversations that seemed much preferable to human ones.
As I grew older, I started to have an inkling that I wasn’t truly cut out to be a zoologist. I was lazy with science projects and turns out there are snakes in most areas of the world. In college, the theater bug bit hard – and I had already been infected by the music virus. So I hung up my toy binoculars for good.
Looking back, I realize my fascination was more spiritual than scientific. Those backyard sessions were an instinctive form of meditation. These days I’ve become a backyard zoologist in still-wild Tucson. The Sonoran desert is another land that humans have never completely tamed and Mother Nature still exerts her tough love. I’m not even in the foothills, where the really wild things are – bobcats, javalina and Gila monsters. We live in the suburbs across the street from a golf course, in a modest walled yard. And still there’s life all around me: quail, rabbits, desert spiny lizards, hawks…even the shy, scruffy coyote. From my window, I witness the never-ending territorial bird dramas around the water dish, the escapades of the refugee squirrel from the golf course who sneaks over the wall to nip at the bird food.
Most mornings, I’m treated to the sweet sight of a small rabbit relaxing underneath the Texas ranger shrubs. When I sit still in front of the picture window in the living room and slow down my breathing as in those long-ago days – I can witness a meeting between the papa quail and the desert spiny lizard, still Dr Doolittle eavesdropping on the quail’s commentary on the weather and how hard it is to keep those chicks together.
Texas ranger shrubs – the neighborhood hangout for local wildlife.
Unless you can still your physical self and just witness, you’ll miss the delightful goofiness of a large lizard scratching the back of his head with his back leg, a quail hopping up and down to try to eat some insect from the low branches of a lantana shrub, or the wee cottontail rabbit grooming herself like a cat. My strange training has stood me well – I have the power to step out of the slipstream of ‘modern life’ and see the real Life around me.
You do, too. There’s life everywhere – even in a New York tenement (especially in a New York tenement, but that’s a whole ‘nuther story). Take a moment and look out your window. Quiet your breathe and take it slow. Strip away those jarring human elements – the plane flying overhead, the car honks in the distance – and look for a patch, even just a blade, of Nature and wait for movement. If you’re patient, you’ll have your own wildlife wonderland to observe and commune with. All you need is your attention.