Lizard-Watching

One of the books I never wrote was called The Book of Nature. I think I conceived of the project when I was in grad school, getting ready to spend my life teaching The Canterbury Tales and steeped in all of those medieval texts that claimed that the natural world could be “read” like a text that reveals God’s will. There was the Physiologus, and Isidore of Seville, and Bartholomew of England—all of them describing the way animals look and behave in ways that confirmed the tenets of Christian faith. Since the pelican, for example, fed its young by piercing its own breast and bleeding out for their supper, this was living (dying?) proof of the transformative power of the Crucifixion. It’s easy for you and me to stand back and quip that, say, Isidore’s commitment to empirical, field-tested data took a back seat to his Scriptural mind-set, but that’s the way it was. The trick for catching a unicorn was to find a maiden who would sit quietly under a tree until a random specimen happened by and jumped into her lap. Why? Because the unicorn is a known symbol of Jesus and Jesus was able to save humanity only through the patient offices of the Virgin Mary.

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As charming as these bestiary models always were, I didn’t contemplate going for any kind of religious impact in my Book of Nature. I imagined nothing much more than a bunch of detail-heavy poems about something or other in the natural world out of which I could tease something witty, or amusing, or maybe even useful. I remember working on a dozen lines inspired one summer when, morning after morning in my country cabin, I woke to find multiple sets of white moth wings laid out on the rug with no bodies left between left and right. The leavings of late-night-snacking mice, I was certain, but also . . . what? Here, surely, was a metaphor for something. For a life’s ambitions foiled by failing health? For a polarized nation, desperate to identify shared values? For a Red Sox team with great pitching but no defense? More likely, for a flighty idea about a book of poetry with insufficient guts. I swept the powdery little leavings into a dustpan and moved on to other projects. That was thirty years ago.

Lately, though, I’ve been vexed by this thing that the lizards do down here in Florida. My wife and I walk a lot, five-plus miles a day. When we’re not strolling along the Gulfcoast beaches, dodging the resurgent waves and the sandpipers working their margins, we generally walk through the leafy neighborhoods south of Sarasota city center. The streets there all sport strips of lawn between the curbs and sidewalks, prime sunbathing/feeding grounds for lizards. Once the sun is up and the temperature tops 70, the rows of grass teem with the little critters, dozens of them across the width of a single lot. I imagine them stalking tiny but tasty insects, unpaid mini-exterminators keeping the lesser local vermin under control. But, beyond their vigilance for prey, they also have a very attentive eye for walkers and, as soon as they spy us strolling along, they zip back across the sidewalks to what they must conceive to be the greater safety of the main lawn, or the picket fence, or the sidewalk-abutting hedge. The only thing is that their bolting to what they must suppose is greater safety often carries them almost under our feet as we amble by. I don’t know that I’ve actually stepped on many. I always break my stride to miss them, reminding myself of the awkward suspensions of gait that kept me from breaking my mother’s back (by stepping on a crack) when I was a kid. But if I haven’t actually trodden on any of them, other people clearly have. At least every half mile or so, you come across a flattened specimen that looks far more like dried reptile jerky than the supple gummy creature it started out as. If they only knew they were safer staying put, I always say to my wife as she hokey-pokeys humanely down the street beside me, it would be better for all of us.

And this is where my simply noticing things going on in my immediate vicinity begins to backslide into that old, rankling quest for some kind of revelation from of the natural world. I’m not at all planning on resurrecting The Book of Nature, but at times like this, I can still feel tempted. And why wouldn’t I do it? Probably because, given the way the unnatural world has gotten lately, it would all likely turn political, and I’m here to sell books not ideology. So I’ll content myself with making the obvious—and clearly non-political—point that, when the lizards bolt from the safety of a strip of grass in which, honestly, my wife and I never even see them, they’re putting themselves into completely unnecessary jeopardy. Stay put! Stay still (I say to any lizards following this blog) and you’ll be absolutely fine. Run for what you think is better cover and you’ll be the next to suffer the flat disease. The only moral we need to draw is that, sometimes, fear really is the only thing we have to fear. If, instead of just walking, my wife and I were rumbling down the curb lawns on a zero-turn Kubota or a John Deere turf aerator, then the lizards would have every reason to panic. As it happens, though, we never have been, nor do we have any such plans.

I think I’ll leave it at that. Fear’s obviously not a bad thing, in and of itself. It’s kept lots of us from doing really stupid things. The question to ask, though, is what’s making us afraid? Is it instinct, something bred into us by millennia of evolutionary accidents? And, if so, does the current situation warrant reactions that were vetted under entirely different historical and social circumstances? Or is it someone else who is making us afraid—the slightly bigger, pot-bellied lizard, maybe, just off to our right? Is he freaking us out because we were just about to nosh on a tiny grasshopper he’d kind of like to gobble himself? Of does he just relish saying “Boo!” and watching the hoi poloi scatter? Fear is a potent lever. Just be sure it’s really justified. Otherwise, you may find yourself abandoning some really prime real estate for no good reason. Otherwise, you may find yourself flattened mid-scramble—pressed into the concrete like a viscous decal. (If you see what I’m getting at.)