My husband wakes me before dawn from pandemic dreams.
In a dream, I am witnessing a hearing in which a government official is being accused of something she didn’t do. Other officials, interns, observers–we are all crammed into a room that is much too small. Most people are not wearing masks. I wonder how many of us have had some version of this dream. Someday, maybe, psychologists will study this, quantify our fears, wrap them into neat packages of numbers. The numbers will indicate the scope but not the seething, searing intensity of our terror.
I wake to consternation. The dog, newly diagnosed with incontinence, has made a mess of the absolute most inconvenient spot in the entire house–the carpeted landing halfway up the stairs. Groggy, I start cleaning up as the guys get ready to head out to school.
The morning walk will redeem the day. The dog and I head out the door. I haven’t yet decided which way we’ll go. The harvest moon hangs in the predawn sky. The moon decides–we will follow her, soak up as much equinoctial moonlight as possible before the sun breaks the horizon.
We set off northward. An ibis skims overhead. I am becoming accustomed to the sweep of ibis wings, the curved beaks. A moment later, something else ibis-like–but larger–soars above us. As we come up on the little canal by the sidewalk, I see it. It looks like something from Jurassic Park–some sort of ibis-pelican hybrid. I make a mental note to look it up in the bird book.
We turn left, heading west to trail the moon. She is still riding high, but below her a bank of clouds waits. A murder of crows spots the sky, their raucous calls softened by distance. We continue along the sidewalk, but there are smells to be smelled, and we stop for each one. If I could experience them the way a dog does, I imagine they would form a web as vast and complex as the mycelial networks that stretch beneath the surface of the soil. I remember a poem I had to read in high school. It was about mushrooms taking over the world. It freaked me out. I am older now, and I understand the necessity, and the beauty, of decay.
There are mushrooms sprouting from perfectly manicured lawns. Some things cannot be stopped. I pull the dog away from the grass when I spot one of the ubiquitous little square white signs announcing that a lawn has been treated with pesticides.
A friend asked me on the phone over the weekend if I was missing the wild places. I miss Virginia, and the Appalachians. As autumn arrives, I strain my senses to catch the shift. Some mornings I think the air is a little cooler, the light a little different–but I have not yet learned to read this place. I miss places that are wholly wild, but there is wildness here, too. It lurks just under an impeccable yet thin veneer. I have never seen such consistently manicured yards in all my life. And yet.
There is a feeling here of nature not quite controlled, of wildness waiting. One day the man on the corner was out dousing part of his lawn with herbicide. By the next morning, the grass looked brown and dead. Later that evening, my husband and I walked the dog past that corner and saw the man out in his yard digging up the roots of the poisoned turf. “Bad to the Bone” blared from a radio. He grunted in frustration. When he saw us, he stopped long enough to call across the street, “There are three things that will survive a nuclear holocaust: cockroaches, Cher, and Florida grass.” Apparently that grass only looked dead.
I think about that man as the dog and I make it past the most recently treated lawn. I wonder what we are really killing with our herbicides and pesticides.
We dodge the sprinklers that come on like clockwork every morning. Little signs around town warn against drinking irrigation water–it is “reclaimed.” We continue past our usual halfway point. I want to see where the rest of this street goes. The dog is up for the adventure, too. We meet another dog walking her human. Both seem friendly, so I ask if our dogs can meet. The human says yes, and the dogs do their doggie ballet–sniffing, wagging, tangling their leashes. We two humans commiserate–this is largely a small dog neighborhood, and most of the small dogs appear to think they are attack dogs whose sole purpose in life is to drive away medium and large dogs. Our two dogs have no such Napoleonic delusions. They are happy to greet each other according to the custom of dogs since the dawn of time.
The dog and I continue. The moon is sailing the edge of the cloud bank. She slips behind a veil. By the time the street curves north, she has disappeared, tipping the balance to heft the sun up over the eastern rim of the world. We discover trees we have not seen before–actual trees (shout out to Anisha for knowing that palm trees are grass). Air plants hang from their branches and sprout from their trunks. A huge tree leans over the sidewalk and I stand tiptoe to place a hand flat against its trunk. This is what a tree feels like, brim-full of sap and slow inexorable drinking from the earth, exhaling oxygen.
We pass street names that sound like beginner-level crossword answers in a puzzle about England, like the brainstorming of an Anglophile who’s never crossed the pond. “Prince Street,” “King Arthur,” “Steeplechase.” I wonder for the millionth time at how we European-extracted folks name places–either for other places across the ocean, or for things in the places where we are that we destroyed in order to make other things to fill those places. I realize suddenly that since we moved here over a month ago, I have been looking for the real Florida and have not yet found it. Then it occurs to me that “Florida” is just another European word and that the outline of this state is just a construct conveniently shaped like a handgun, much to the satisfaction of people who make NRA bumper stickers.
In an empty driveway, two mockingbirds dance, hopping up and down on the pavers. We pass the place where a colony of wild honeybees has made a nest underground, beneath the lid of a water line access point. Doves perch along the tiles of a roof. The wildness is here. There is no keeping it out. It can be tamped down, kept momentarily at bay, but it cannot be eradicated, not with all the herbicides and pesticides we throw at it. People here have to work on their lawns constantly, or hire other people to do it. I wonder what Florida looked like before it was Florida, before it was a state shaped like a handgun. Before there were lawns.
The dog and I circle back home. The sun is fully up now and I am sweating in a way that identifies me instantly as a recent transplant. People assure me that I will love winter here. I find the concept of winter difficult to imagine.
People tell me all kinds of things. One neighbor cautions us to keep our dog away from big toads–they are cane toads, and are poisonous, lethal to dogs who try to eat them. Our next-door neighbor tells me that if I see a big dog off leash, it’s a coyote. He admires the rabbits that are everywhere, but feels the need to indicate that I should not try to pick them up, making me fear that I have already identified myself as a certified benevolent weirdo. He warns me about palm rats. He recommends moth balls as the only surefire way to keep them out of the attic and garage. Then he smiles, in the thoughtful way he has, and says, “But they were here first. This is their home, too.”
I wonder how many people here understand that. There is a quiet rage for order that will never abate because nature will never abate. I think about the word “reclaimed” and wonder if it is accurate. We take water. It’s nature that reclaims it. Then we re-reclaim it. Eventually it is nature that reclaims everything we think we can own.
Midway through writing this post, I get up to make tea. I take a bag from the cabinet by my desk and there is a small bright pop against the tile floor. I’ve knocked out a tiny glass jar full of minuscule watch bits. My writer friend Pam sent it to me years ago with a paper label: Extra time for writing. I flash from dismay to an English major’s deep appreciation of irony. Then I sit down on the floor to pick up all the barely visible pieces. Gravity always wins in the end.
I look out the window. The leaves of a bush just outside are shimmering in a light rain. There is no stopping the rain, no stopping gravity or mockingbirds or the passage of time. Gravity, birds, moon, sun, viruses, grass–they can be held off for a little while, but they are all part of something inexorable.
Now, the rain comes down harder. The dog sleeps on the floor. I will finish this post and get up and put the tiny cogs and gears in a new glass bottle, and think about how even time is just a way of trying to make sense of something we cannot reclaim, because it was never ours.