Feral

By Cris Mazza

Essay

A hole was needed. It was for a knot of day lily tubers removed from a garden at the other house. The ground was dry but not hard, loamy from decaying vegetation. Still, it was necessary at first to vault both feet off the ground and land, simultaneously, on the spade’s treads, in order to penetrate. The blade went through layers of moldering grass clippings, leaves, and valuable Illinois black soil. The hole was just about deep enough when the last shovelful unloaded 4 or 5 elongated eggs. One had been broken. Held in my palm, the leathery casing pulled aside, the soft nascent turtle shell was recognizable.

I do not own two houses, but I pay property taxes on two — live in the one with no mortgage and pay rent to support the mortgage, still in my name, on the one whose deed no longer includes me. A convoluted separation agreement not completed through an attorney or sanctioned by any court. I have full access to the 1.3 acre property where I no longer live. Full access to tend: to weed, prune, mulch, divide roots, till soil, and fertilize as needed. That bigger property will be put up for sale in a year or two, and its gardens have become overgrown, too bourgeoning (hence daunting) for potential buyers. I’ve been removing plants to pots, reviving and revitalizing them, then transporting to the new, more modest property.

The smaller place I now live in is the one with empty garden beds, a blank lawn stretching from margin to margin begging for variation. Outside the fence, easily an acre of common area extends to a pond. The common area is also purported lawn. No one treats it for weeds, not the bad (invasive) ones — thistles and dandelions — nor the good (native) ones — mostly Queen Anne’s lace. The non-lawn flora seems to have adapted to life in a lawn: growing and sometimes even blooming between scheduled mowings, which have likely seen decreased frequency in this droughty summer. A three-foot width band around the pond is also not mowed. It supports indigenous Midwestern wetland and prairie plants, especially golden rod and various bulrushes and sedges.

There are two more features, or topographies, between the pond and my house. They have to be called community gardens, because they are in the common area. But they have mostly been created by one person, a man I know only as Joe. One is a shade garden and incorporates a copse of established trees. Joe told me he used to plant 10 bareroot trees every arbor day, but many did not survive much past a year. Besides the few maples and an apple in this group, he planted a line of willows along the banks of the pond. (I did not remark that elsewhere, in forest preserves, gangs of volunteers move about with shovels eradicating willows, an example of an evasive tree species.) Living unfettered in the shade of Joe’s thicket are confident prairie plants — daises, purple cone flowers, Queen Anne’s lace, lupine — mixed with likewise unconstrained hostas, day lilies, iris, and other suburban garden flowers donated when the bed was first planted, easily 20 years ago — an estimate based on the sizes of the trees and the establishment of sod between them.

The other patch, the sun garden, is new. Last winter and spring, while I was occupied inside the house — overseeing work by a carpenter, painter, carpet-layers, and a plumber, as well as participating in that labor myself, spackling, removing old carpet and tacks, painting closets and installing shelving — I watched through the windows as a lone man came daily to what appeared to be a 15-yard diameter pile of yard waste illegally dumped in the common area. He arrived with a wheel barrow and brown yard waste bags, and stood methodically picking up one branch after another, one at a time, from the various heaps of discarded tree and bush offcuts, snipping them into smaller pieces to fit into the brown bags. The idea of scofflaws who ditched yard waste on the common area between my property and the pond had already rankled me. It was something the “association” rules would abhor as much as I abhorred having association rules. I realize the contradiction here, but if I was going to live in a place where “an association” kept watch over certain kinds of decisions and behavior, it might as well protect me too. I’d watched the man, with some skeptical scrutiny, until it became clear he was not discarding his yard waste but meticulously removing the overgrown brush mountain. It took him all of the two months I spent repainting, re-flooring, and refreshing the inside of the new house.

Joe’s sun garden was barely a bare patch of ground before it became the relocation home for bee balm, black-eyed susans, sun drops, ornamental grasses, burning bush and lilacs divided from the big property whose gardener I still serve as even though I’d removed my residence from the house. Any audacious flowers that would spread, that were by nature lustful and vigorous and would overwhelm my new smaller yard, that were capable of thriving without additional watering or feeding — those were uprooted and relocated to grow “wild” in the “community” sun garden. Except that this was being asked of them in a summer of record heat and drought, so all summer, tacitly taking turns, Joe and I attended the garden with buckets. We dipped pailfuls from the pond and poured cloudy greenish (perhaps nutrient-rich) water onto the recuperating transplants.

At one time transplanted from California to the Midwest, now this region, this society, this landscape is where I live. Because the basement stores my past — in archive boxes, in photo albums, in a 90-year-old steamer trunk (originally used to move my 24-year-old mother from Boston to California) — a cliché would claim I’ve put down roots. An extension of the tired metaphor might replace what “root” represents: exchange physical baggage with experience. New tendrils of rhizome have been feeding me information. I’ve had the black-ice car crash, the well-water rust ring in the toilet, the mold in a basement cupboard, the dogs who can’t put their feet down on the snow in sub-zero mornings, the ticks, the face swollen from poison ivy, the lightning strike popping light switches off walls and cremating every electronic gadget in the house. Essentially, I have adjusted to new terrain. So, now, moving here, to this house — moving my plants here, moving my dog here — we’ll all adjust even quicker, right? It’s only twelve miles away. Nature will take over. That’s supposed to mean: growing, blooming, and going to seed will all resume, as normal.

The turtle eggs were returned to the earth, reburied, but moved closer to the pond — the treacherous trek to the water will be shorter for the soft hours-old offspring. A piece of sod replaced over the fresh hole to disguise it from suburban fishermen, teenagers out of the house for a stealthy smoke, and kids with butterfly nets. There’s no disguising it from coyote, nor from my dog’s nose. Tommy may be finicky about eating carrots and apples, and a bit prissy about burrs in his tail, but he prefers brush or deep woods to a mowed lawn for shitting, relishes gorging on goose and deer dung and carrion (or if completely inedible he wears it on his ears), so a juicy turtle egg could prove irresistible. Part of him goes wild in indigenous topography. Even in a replica.

 

Essays with dictionary definitions: how pedestrian, the true domestication — the training, the taming of the essay. I wanted this one to go feral. But I’m having to cultivate, to water, to housetrain, or, like a vine, shepherd its offshoots onto a trellis. And what can I do about that last tag of the definition? Does leaving domestication cause death? Or even melancholy? I’m coming to that.

 

Feral fe·ral (ˈfɪərəl, ˈfɛr-) — adj

Origin:
1615—25; < Latin fērālis of the dead, funerary, fatal

Existing in a wild or untamed state, either naturally or having returned to such a state from domestication.

1. (of animals and plants) existing in a natural state, as animals or plants; not domesticated or cultivated; wild.

2. having reverted to the wild state, as from domestication.

3. of or characteristic of wild animals; savage, ferocious; brutal.

4. derogatory , slang ( Australia ) (of a person) tending to be interested in environmental issues and having a rugged, unkempt appearance

Also:

1. causing death; fatal.

2. funereal; gloomy.

 

A magazine appeared unsolicited in my mailbox, as though here was where it should naturally arrive: American Lifestyle: Celebrating Life in America. It claims a big subject, and covers it in less than 50 pages, including the advertisements, every other month. Sample featured articles: “The Festive Vegan,” “The Art of Temari” (an ancient Japanese craft of intricately embroidered balls), “Doggie Daycare” (this one in NYC), plus the featured recipe, “Arugula Scrambled Tofu.”

Is this really the American way of life? Or maybe the “lifestyle” intended for the address (now my address) printed on the heavy slick covers of this free magazine. One I should be aspiring to or comparing mine against? Arugula? Romaine, still sandy from a field in California, was available at the Mexican grocery for 79 cents. Embroidering balls of fine thread? Last night dark blue thread hemmed the jeans I bought for $3 at the Goodwill. So far this is nothing more than frugality, and debatable whether or not it’s excessive or necessary. Gloating about a less pretentiously bourgeois “lifestyle” (can the word be typed without quotes?) would likely make me just as affected. Tofu and festive vegans notwithstanding, it’s actually the doggy daycare that hits a soft target. A prototype that usually earns my disdain: people who insist on keeping a dog when they work 60-plus hours a week and/or perhaps live in a highrise apartment, people who pay someone else to feed and play with their dog. But, living here, am I to join them? Even if it’s not due to my urban or pressured “lifestyle,” but because the move itself, the rearrangement, has cultivated human-style anxiety in an animal, which actually translates to borderline feral behavior in a tame, trained dog.

Tommy can’t be left at home alone. He tore up a window blind while trying to keep my car in view as it backed down the driveway. Confined for safety, he bent the steel rod that fastened a dog run (housing his blankets, beds, and water bowl) to the concrete basement wall. Given the entire basement, he ripped a coat rack from the door at the top of the basement stairs, tugging on an umbrella hanging there until the steel hook straightened and eventually snapped the plastic anchors that fixed the rack to the door. He weighs only 55 pounds, but can’t stand easily on just one stair. To rip down the coat rack ­— as well as put tooth marks in the doorknob — was he braced awkwardly on the top two wooden steps, perhaps with his front feet against the door?  Did the sudden release when the rack came free send him backwards down the stairs?  He can’t tell me. His joy when I returned had forgotten any trauma. But he needs to be protected from the extremes his angst can cause. To what lengths will a trapped animal go?  Leaving a chewed-off leg in the trap. Does he feel that level of fear, just to be alone in his own bed, in his own house?

Tommy has been taught to perform complex exercises at judged trials for which he has earned many titles, including the highest: Obedience Trial Champion. PETA would claim he is enslaved. But he is the epitome of domesticated canine: he has an instinctive mindset causing him to need to be a working member of a pack or partnership. I don’t hunt, don’t keep sheep, so his “work” has been invented for him. He is not enslaved to his part in this partnership, but perhaps he is a prisoner to his devotion.

Inside the house, he settles (or flings) himself to rest on any floor space I’ve recently or am about to occupy. He doesn’t flinch if I have to step over him going from the sink to the refrigerator to the stove (each trip approximately two short strides, including the step that goes over Tommy’s body). But if I go upstairs, even if just to fetch a book or pair of socks, he is compelled to rouse himself, follow (and sometimes pass me on the stairs) then recline again before I’ve located the book or pulled on the socks; but — dammit, he must think — he has to get up again and follow me back down. He is locked into his indicators: Keyboard being tapped, he curls on the floor behind the wheeled desk chair (and how frequently his ribs have been jabbed when I roll back suddenly). TV goes on, he lounges beside the recliner. Food on the table, he lays to one side. Fork stops clinking or my body leans back in the chair, he rises, perhaps sits up on his haunches begging — a trick I taught him in puppyhood — until he’s given the plate to lick. Bath faucet starts running, he trudges into the bathroom, thumps his body onto the tile, sighs and sleeps — even before I’ve stepped into the tub — sleeps until I am finished. Body language might read: resigned, long-suffering, wearily dutiful. But for a dog it’s the comfort of domesticity, the security of being a member, of routine, knowing what to do and where to be in every situation. Being alone when I am not at home should be part of that routine, but for him, so far in his life, it has not been the norm. A new routine rouses something feral: fear.

I let him come with me when I went to the community garden to plant the last batch of immigrants from the other house. As usual, out at the pond, a different portion of his canine mind went to work: sniffing and marking, and soon he was a hundred yards away from me, completely undaunted by how separated we had become. Apparently, space and distance are not disconnection. His fear is specifically named: abandonment.

Geese sit on the water and honk at Tommy, and he sometimes pauses in his foraging to pose and watch them. But he won’t break the surface and pursue them unless I tell him that’s what I want him to do.

The pond. Its natural perimeter. Continuing lifecycles of fauna are contained either completely underwater or in the margins between subaquatic and terra firma. None of them need my help: The bluegill and bass spawn. They eat each other’s spawn, as well as the tadpoles, mosquito larva and minnows. Sufficient spawn survive to reach adulthood. Frogs sit in the muck and gutturalize. Turtles come ashore to spend an hour or two laboring over a tear-dropped shape hole where their dozen to two-dozen eggs will be deposited then methodically covered to gestate anywhere from 5 months to a year. Unless someone planting a daylily comes along with a spade.

But the wildness here seems … tempered. A frog sat atop the algae at the water’s edge in the location where I repeatedly dipped the bucket, going back and forth from the garden to the pond, bringing some of his water to the uprooted and resettled flowers. Each trip for another bucketful, the frog remained. I settled the bucket into the water at most two feet from where the frog crouched. Unperturbed by a 100-pound biped repeatedly sinking a large object into the water beside him — the only sound, admittedly, a smooth slurp, a few falling droplets — the frog did not push himself beneath the muck’s surface until a finger reached (to see if he was alive) to touch him.

Another time, similarly engaged in the routine of fetching water from the pond for the garden, a bluegill remained near the spot where the bucket was being immersed. Each time, the bluegill made a simulation of the fleeting dart that ordinarily causes fish to vanish from sight as a fisherman approaches water’s edge. But this one never completely disappeared. Once, just before the bucket touched the water, instead of darting a few feet away, the fish approached the surface and plucked a spider floating there. For all the bluegill knew, the spider could’ve been a lure with hidden fishhook. Is trust feral or domestic?  There might be a shadowy space between feral instinct and complete autonomy, between ability to survive and true wildness.

Mark has not yet relocated to the new house near the pond. All the tending of sensitive new shoots,  protecting from weeds and bugs and drought, adding mulch for warmth and nutrition — all his adjustment lessons and trials are still to come. Two years ago, before all this even seemed possible, he tried to explain himself to me using a convoluted simile of a guy with a weekday job that kept people who depended on him sheltered and fed but not only didn’t stimulate any vitality, it required time beyond 9 to 5 — evenings and weekends — so he hadn’t found a way to seek out new, fulfilling occupations, even hobbies, that might provide him the motive to do more than eat and sleep, “like” — stuck for an example at the end of his long allegory — “maybe buy an SUV and go to the mountains.”

“But am I the new job or the SUV?” I asked, at the time wretchedly, feeling relinquished.

He still sees a metaphor for himself, his life, in everything. When I told Mark about the turtle eggs, he said that was him, his true self, encased in a shell, waiting for me to disinter him so he could emerge into the real world.

“But turtle eggs will hatch whether I came along or not. The ones that hopefully will still hatch had to be reburied. The one I broke will never live.”

“Oh, okay, so I’ll now finally be able to hatch myself, but only because you’ve come back to me and changed where my shell is buried.”

“But am I the dangerous pond you’ll crawl into as soon as you hatch, or the cold, sharp shovel that roused you from the safety of warm dirt too soon?”

Recently, after Tommy had followed me to yet another location in the house and dropped himself to the floor with a loud and seemingly aggravated sigh, I said, “You’re a slave to your love, aren’t you?”  I said it aloud to Tommy, but Mark was with me on the phone, on the bluetooth in my ear.

Mark said, “Yes.”

Now he’s taken up the joke, saying he completely understands Tommy’s separation anxiety. His own servile allegiance is to an emotion he is positive he’s felt and sustained since we first encountered each other at 16. Carried it in his arms, then on his back through our college friendship; tucked within his chest during my first marriage when he played the role of drop-in friend. Finally put deeper into his gut when he attempted to find something else he could call his own, where it continued to impede his everyday realm but also became an alternate, private life he tried to live in his head, lasting over 25 years, through his decades of symbolically-servile support of the “substitute life” he sought to allow to overpower his longings. Yes, he has had beyond-the-timeclock employment  as a middle-school band teacher — a career which many in the profession do not find trivial or unfulfilling, and neither did he, on many levels, as he’s said “it was the thing I poured myself into” — plus a second job, normally performed by skilled technicians but for which he self-trained, repairing band instruments at the county’s only music store. And yes, he had the parasitic family of slackers and reprobates he’d voluntarily picked up and agreed to carry, and then endured degrees of additional humiliation in the forms of flashing police cruisers marking his house as the site of domestic cat-fights, soda cans crushed on his head, and concealed credit card bills amassed in his name. And yes, despite the wrenching guilt (and escalated verbal and physical punishments), he gave away half of everything he still had managed to secure and save — a humble house, two cars, a pension, annuity and health insurance ­— so he could finally openly feel and express it, this thing, like Tommy’s devotion, that made him believe his real life could only happen with me.

When other fenced dogs bark in boredom, Tommy doesn’t respond. But if their tone carries alarm or aggression, he does: stops what he’s doing — sleeping or sniffing or rolling on a toy — and stands at attention, eyes trained, ears alert, even nostrils working, flexing to bring in potential essential information.

My turn: at first it was only voices, raised, the strident timbre that one instinctively can tell is not exuberance or joy, not pain or calamity, but anger. Stopped my work in the fenced yard bordering the common area — that undulant weed-strewn lawn with a few landscaped patches of bushes, plus the sun and shade gardens. And interrupted my conversation with Mark — as usual on the bluetooth in my ear. I looked for the source.

There was a girl, a young woman, in the shade on the common-lawn near a mulch-island of shrubs. She was seated, halfway supine, her shoulders propped up by straight arms, palms flat on the grass behind her butt, legs in front, feet on the ground, knees bent. The same profile outline as those metallic silhouettes of girls on the mud flaps of semi trucks — the message unambiguous:  a voluptuous woman tendered, ready-for and inviting a man between her knees. And sure enough, a young man was standing there, a body’s length from her feet, such that if he’d stepped toward her, kneeled, then fell forward, they would’ve been coupling out on the common area. Her position so apparently voluntarily vulnerable, I thought perhaps I’d been mistaken, that they were just yakking loudly.

But they were battling.

The drama was too far away for Mark to hear it over the phone. I narrated for him as it happened (with subjective editorial).

It sounded like she just said ‘did you have to play the cowbell?’ and now she just kind of screamed, ‘I told you not to get that candle?’ Wow. I can’t hear his answers. His voice is just a buzz. Wait a second, I’ve only been listening, not standing here watching — they’ve moved. He’s pacing down near the water. I don’t know where she is but I can still hear her. Oh — she’s coming back from somewhere, coming back toward him. Every time I look they’ve changed positions. The boy is sitting on the pond shore, the girl is marching away again; wait for it … now striding back. The boy stood up, I think he just shouted ‘So you had to hide my coat?’ A coat? In August? Taking his turn to pretend to leave — they’re leaving in opposite directions, but of course they’ve both turned around, coming back. Damn, their break-up is a ballet, the Sand Hills cranes’ mating-dance. Coming to its climax: the guy just yelled ‘it’s just a squirt gun,’ — is that really what he said?­ — and he’s back to sitting there, as though he’s fishing with Huck Finn, and she’s going to go through with it this time, leaving, she’s around the bend of the pond, going toward those Monopoly-hotel houses on the other side. Maybe she’s still having the last word, but he’s just sitting there.

Mark said, “No, don’t let her leave, go after her, don’t regret it for 30 years!”  We laughed — with grief, with shame, with sorrow, with remorse, with elation, with relief.

 

How, I asked Mark, does anyone ever form a relationship with someone who they haven’t known since they were 16?  The context for this inane, yet self-incriminating question has not been memory-preserved. Perhaps after one of our gut-funny (only to us) re-discoveries of decades-old shared observations and attitudes. But every time I (do frequently) reconsider the question, examples contrary to my assertion pop up in response: in fact almost every couple in a stable, profound, enviable committed relationship I’ve ever known. Most obviously my parents, who met post-college but have been together over 60 years, so by now how could that not seem as though they’ve known each other their entire lives?  And if I had seen my way, longer ago than three or four years, to understand how Mark belonged in my life, he and I wouldn’t have the rousing yet poignant three-way blend of freshness, renewal and deeply engrained companionship.

Maybe how you grow a meaningful relationship with someone you don’t meet until your 30s or 40s might be: by taking who you are now and going forward with only that, instead of dragging a latent adolescent self along with you; or the younger self is able to set the older self free. But this kind of being set free seems to have little resemblance to the crux “return-to-the-wild” meaning of feral. Unless it’s returning to the wild state of having no emotional past: those regrets, disappointments, hurts or mistakes, the kinds of memories that disturb natural maturation or behavior. Which would be the domesticated (even if not trained): the person who is solely his or her adult-self, or the physically-adult but on-going consolidation of childhood, adolescence and “mature” middle-age?  Look how the latter seems parallel to the common simplification of domestic dog — a canine wolf-relative that retains puppy characteristics its entire life (i.e. whining, barking, playing). Mark and I are not feral. We’re trying to return.

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CRIS MAZZA’s latest book is Charlatan: New and Selected Stories. Mazza has seventeen other titles of fiction and literary nonfiction including her last book, Something Wrong With Her, a real-time memoir; she then became co-producer, writer, and lead actress for a feature film, Anorgasmia, a fictional sequel to that memoir. She is a native of Southern California and now splits time between the exurbs of Chicago and the Ottawa National Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She can be found digitally at www.cris-mazza.com

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