Monday, November 16, 2009

Bombay Hook (3): The Mouse That Died

A few weeks ago, I dropped in at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Smyrna, Delaware, because I had a hankering to see the snow geese.

Things with the geese wouldn’t turn out as I’d hoped, but I did take a short hike that led me to an exciting encounter with a crab. Afterward, I scuttled along the refuge trails in an elevated state.

The breeze seemed fresher, the sky bluer, the tall and blowing marsh grasses especially lovely. Oh, I just loved the warmth of that sun!

Gazing over the edge of the boardwalk, I found wonder yet again—in the form of a dead mouse.

It rested delicately on the soft mud, half in light, half in shadow.

The death must have been very recent. The mouse was lying on its side, its fur wet and slightly matted but otherwise undisturbed. Its eyes were open, black and surprisingly bright.

I was startled to realize how exquisite a corpse could be. Death had left a still life—a pristine, almost painterly likeness of a wild creature I’d have been lucky to notice for even a few seconds had it been alive.

It was an excellent specimen—perhaps, I think now, a white-footed mouse. Or maybe a rice rat. I didn’t even think of trying to identify it until weeks later. At the time, I was preoccupied by its demise.

Immobile as the corpse was, it was full of movement. There was a curving back, extended legs, and a long swooping tail. It was possible to imagine that the mouse had died at some routine moment in an ordinary day.

I also began to imagine that a spirit, or some hint of the mouse’s nature or qualities, was emanating from—or at least evoked in me by—its remains. Two words floated into my heart: grace and hopefulness.

So there it was: I was growing quivery with emotion at the sight of a dead mouse (or rat). Was I really such a sucker for a good-looking corpse?

On subsequent reflection, I knew there was more to it than that. After all, I’ve been flooded with similarly incongruous sentiments while staring at animals that have been flattened by cars.

Roadkill is often horrifyingly gruesome, but for me it holds a strange power to conjure adjectives that point to the ineffable essence of the deceased.

Confronting the final screaming agony of a massacred cat, I think: how expressive you were, how valiant, how fierce. (I might also imagine the tears of the driver.)

Contemplating the jumble of fur and bone that was once an opossum: how humble, how plain, how easily erased.

Photographing the mosaic of a shattered turtle: how strong, but how fragile.

(Even looking at the corpse of my own mother, the specifics faded away. All I could see was her vulnerability, her sweetness.)

It doesn’t really matter what the words are. It was the feelings that mattered.

I’ve been trying to sort out why actual corpses leave me with a sense of life’s preciousness while the prospect of death fills me with a blinding fear.

The explanation may be that by the time there is a body the worst has already happened. There’s no longer any need to worry, no need to turn away. I can let go of my vigilance and finally begin to notice what has been.

And often that is lovely.

It’s not that there isn’t grief. The sorrow may be very deep, but it’s not the kind that blots out the colors of life. The world seems to grow more intense in these moments, not less.

This is a rich place to get to, in some ways. But I worry that I will always need the finality of death to see the beauty in life. There’s a paradox there, and it’s not the one I want to live by. I want to appreciate the beauty of life in life.

That dead mouse has given me an idea.

Perhaps there’s a device I can use to awaken myself to the fullness of the moment. What if I just freeze the frame, imagining that everything and everyone in front of me has just died?

As Joni Mitchell might say: You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

But you should try.

1 comment:

Joan said...

It may be that when you look at a dead body, you're only looking at the vessel -- the marvelous physical creation -- from which the soul, whatever it is, is long gone, and so with it any worries, uncertainties, anxieties etc., human or other animal, that could bring it (& empathetically, you) you sorrow. I agree that ultimately it's better to take pleasure in the physicality and consciousness of a living creature. But you were doin' that with the crab, too!