Friday, April 21, 2006

A stretch of river XII: Wildness

As I bet you can tell from this image, a picture on an old postcard, our stretch of the Little Arkansas river usually doesn't have a smell. This morning, though, it has that (to me) wonderful smell the rivers and creeks of my Texas childhood had that reminds me a bit of tarragon with the sharp edge of something like basil or perhaps rosemary--I can't decide which. It's the smell of spring, so strong that even we olfactorially-challenged humans can smell it, the smell of pollen and new leaves and already-fallen early blooms.

It is also the smell of somthing I keep wanting to call "wildness."

Nature is at its wildest in the spring, even along this ostensibly urbanized stretch of river. Spring is all about procreation, of course, and that is the single most crucial act of perpetuation. So--there is wildness, a kind of fierceness, in the spring, even in the passive yet open invitations the flowers extend to the bees. The plants, the animals, are driven by impulses and urges whose ends don't benefit them as individuals but help to ensure a future for the species of which they are a part. The mallards have been paired off, males with females, for over a month now, and just a couple of days ago I saw the first brood of ducklings. But not all the males have found mates; for the past month, those males have tried to mate with the females, only to be driven off by the females' mates. So now, the "single" males congregate off by themselves in a little indentation of the riverbank like the awkward kids at the high school dance who show up because that's what they're supposed to do but whom no one will dance with. I initially see some humor in their situation, knowing that there's always next year, but with a little thinking I have to recognize that they probably can't know that. They see only this one season, and their failure. There is a poignancy in that, no?

But precisely because of this stretch of river's now-sharp, human-managed edges, we've lost much of our ancient ability to see all this on Nature's terms. We're too busy thawing out from the winter and wondering how it could have passed so quickly (especially this past, very mild winter). Even the used condom I saw in the park a few weeks ago, the morning after our first cool-but-not-cold night of the season, was, for me at least then, more the potential subject for a joke-y blog post ("What were you expecting--Walden?") than, as I think about it now, a human expression of this wildness.

Oddly enough, it's been Scruffy who has been calling my attention to all this.

Now, mind you, my dog isn't exactly the brightest star in the canine firmament, especially when it comes to learning lessons about wildness that should need teaching only once. But he DOES have a much better nose than I do, and for these past few weeks of mornings now all those scents--not just the ducks, but the recent increased activity of the robins, pigeons, mourning doves, squirrels, rabbits, skunks and possums that we have seen--have caused his behavior to be even more ADHD-like than usual. Not content merely to snuffle along the path we take, he'll suddenly lunge underneath a bush to sniff at its base where some animal had taken refuge for part of the night. Perhaps they are just stronger now, what with the air being warmer and more humid these days; perhaps they are just more numerous. But, adolescent that he is, he responds giddily, straining against his collar so hard it begins to cause him to wheeze and yet he doesn't seem to notice it, deep in the throes of his own kind of puppy love.

And yet he's neutered.

While I'd be the last to argue that humans should be slaves to hormones and pheromones in the ways that plants and animals are, there are times when I see Scruffy's behavior and feel shut off from the very world whose air I breathe. The signals in the air, the breaths, the odors of other living things: The air actually tells him things; I can only know that I cannot know them, and that that is a now-irrecoverable loss that "the perfume from a dress," though pretty enough, can only gloss over.

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Raminagrobis said...

The plants, the animals, are driven by impulses and urges whose ends don't benefit them as individuals but help to ensure a future for the species of which they are a part.

Hnuh? Naw. Wha...?

Ariel said...

John, these River XII posts are consistently top-shelf material. Your comment about "feeling shut off" from the world we live in is something I've felt before. This impulse, or a prolonged attempt to overcome it, is what drives much a the excellent Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.

jmb said...

I so wish you would post a current pic of "the Scruffster."

I too, have noticed the wonderful burgeoning smells of spring. In my area, though, I smell the sea air. This week I was delighted to observe a pod of dolphins cavorting inside the breakwater when I took my walk to my usual spot. Spring is definitely here.

R. Sherman said...

I've waited a few days to comment. I'm still trying to get my thoughts together. There are times when I feel closer to nature than any other thing or person ever.

This post struck a chord. Well said.