Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Ratel

I had an interesting animal dream the other night. It started with a familiar motif: A distant, incredibly tall treetop around which several magnificent hawks and eagles are wheeling and alighting. It occurs so often in my dreams it could be the logo at the start of a film, like the stars arcing over Paramount's mountain.

The focus shifts to a nearby bush, snow-covered and sprinkled with red bits of fruit that resemble strips of red pepper or pimentos. And a flock of small gray birds is making short work of them, plucking them clean. One small bird remains near the top: a pygmy owl, gray and soft-feathered. Thinking it needs rescuing, I lift the little owl off the bush and bring it inside my house. Then the dream pulls a fast one. As I'm stroking the owl's soft feathers, I realize that they're not feathers; they're fur. The bird I have saved is a mammal, and it is growing rapidly. I put it down on the ground, and now it's the size and has the black and white colors of a skunk. Except the tail is stubby. I hastily put it outside. It looks around a bit and then attempts to come back in through the sliding glass door, but I won't let it. In fact, I kick it as far as the neighbor's side yard. I feel guilty, and the maybe-skunk's non-reaction confuses me. You'd think it would have immediately sprayed me with a jet of skunk juice, but it didn't. Maybe it's not a skunk. At one point it blunders into something that detonates in a straw-colored starburst. Poor dumb moke. But it's still dangerous.

The following night's dream brings a rare continuation: the critter is back! I'm watching it from a third or fourth floor window, looking down upon a small park. There it is, roaming around, the size of a tapir now, and with a more even pattern of black and white. I think I know what it is. I think it's a ratel.  Also known as a honey badger, found in Africa. Those facts don't enter into the dream. Just that this must be a ratel, big as a small horse, a wild animal of unpredictable behavior. People should be warned.  Later in the dream I'm staying with friends in their rustic hilltop house in the woods. I know that my friend Henk is a hunter, and I suggest that he get his shotgun and shoot the ratel dead. The dream ends without this happening. But I wake up reflecting thatI have gone from petting a cute little owl to booting a phlegmatic skunk into the neighbor's yard, to recommending a kill shot on a ratel. Quite an evolution.

Not long after it occurs to me that ratel is an anagram for alert. And later. And alter.


It's about me and nature. About what's become of our relationship. Even in this blog, between 2009, trying to notice every seasonal nuance, and now, nothing to observe between January 19 and April 18. It snowed. We went to northern California one week in February and sawSpring (someone else's), saw daffodils and tulips, and now Spring has made its way to New England. So the ratel is nature,  or maybe it's me—Honey to my wife, Carol, but badgering myself. Okay, fine, it's both; roll the film, someone get the light...

It was an early connection, going back to the woods that bordered the house I grew up in (age 5 to 12) in suburban Stamford, Connecticut. There in my Cub Scout years I discovered sassafras mitten leaves, wood thrushes, flickers, skunk cabbage, the fantastic scarlet tanager, moseying black-shelled turtles in the grass, and the rumor of water moccasins lurking around giant boulders.

After my dad died we moved to El Paso, Texas (age 13 to 18), where family was, and nature turned foreign: chaparral, lizards, roadrunners, and walking stick insects or large pale moths clinging to the kitchen screen door. 

College in upstate NewYork: nature and I kind of drifting apart, save for shockingly cold winters, trumpeter swans one time on Lake Moraine, and scallop-shell fossils everywhere.

Dropped out of grad school, saw America, dropped back into UBC in Vancouver  (age 24 to 37) began to romance nature in writing: wrote a kids'  book about an old character from the 1880s named Lunch Counter Jones who shows up in the 1980s and befriends animals and shares folksy stories with them.

And finally, back east to Boston, where I took to roaming meadows and woods and wetlands and writing about it for fun, and became more of a birder, stalking brown thrashers, Blackburnian warblers, indigo buntings, and the fantastic scarlet tanager. 

And then in 2009, three things happened in fairly quick succession: 1. I was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, 2. I got laid off from my 20-year job as a textbook editor, and 3. I started this blog called Old Hatch's Almanac, writing about time and nature: The Ary boys, Janu and Febru, and March forth! and the birds and bards of April and May Questel (Betty Boop) and June fireflies and rounding Cape August and Laurel and Hardy singing Shine On Harvest Moon in the French Foreign Legion and front-porch pumpkins and my namesake October and memorious November and the revels and  revelations of December. But you can only make those rounds so many times before you start repeating yourself or worse, taking it for granted, or even worse, stop noticing.

Which is why I'm now going to rise from the chair, reach for my hat, tuck my laptop into my backpack, and take some time to reflect on the ratel, and the nature inside—aging, Parkinson's—as well as outside. My goal is a new edition of this blog, perhaps with a book in mind, and probably under a new name. And with that I will saunter out the gate toward the depot like Laurel and Hardy, one more time...

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