It was well past midnight on a Saturday night, and I opened up my favorite essay in the book, Fruit Bats and Golden Pigeons by Gerald Durrell. Titled, The Enchanted World, the essay is a lyrical and moving piece of work, and begs multiple readings. I wish I had the sort of eidetic memory that could allow me to tuck the whole essay into a recess of my brain, to be retrieved and nurtured whenever I want to.
Any naturalist who is lucky enough to travel, at certain moments has experienced a feeling of overwhelming exultation at the beauty and complexity of life <….> You get it when, for the first time, you see the beauty, variety and exuberance of a tropical rain forest, with its cathedral maze of a thousand different trees <…> You get it when you see for the first time a great concourse of mammals living together or a vast, restless conglomeration of birds. You get it when you see a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis <…> You get it when you see a gigantic school of dolphins stretching as far as the eye can see, rocking and leaping exuberantly though their blue world <…. >
But there is one experience, perhaps above all others, that a naturalist should try to have before he dies and that is the astonishing and humbling experience of exploring a tropical reef. You become a fish, hear and see and feel as much like one as a human being can; yet at the same time you are like a bird, hovering, swooping and gliding across the marine pastures and forests.
He starts the essay with a starfish that turned bellyside up. With startling detail, he describes how the starfish righted itself gracefully and calmly. Gerald Durrell compared the whole thing to a ballerina’s movements, and I smiled. How marvelous nature is? It never fails to astound me or humble me.
I marked the book and left the cosy confines of my bed to visit the restroom before going to bed. I may not be a naturalist per se, but when moved thus by a powerful piece of writing, the urge to become one is almost overwhelming. Oh how marvelous it must be to float and fly over the marine wonderlands and see a flourishing coral reef? How marvelous to see fishes and octopuses in abundance?
Maybe I do retain a certain amount of Shoshin after all I said to myself. (The ability of being able to see things with Wonder) I hummed a little tune and pirouetted like a ballerina would in her worst nightmares and was very happy with myself.
As I approached the restroom, I smoothly kicked open the door with one swiveling turn of movement that drove my pinkie toe to hysteria, and hopped inelegantly into the bathroom.
I then let out a huge yelp and came charging out again. Gerald Durrell could have compared my move to a rampaging rhino yelping like a pup that soiled itself in bed. “AAAhh!!! There … there …. there is a …. “
For an aspiring naturalist, I really should show more forbearance towards finding crocodiles in my bath-tub.
I do not live in the swamps of Florida. I do not live in the rain forests of the Amazon. I do not live near a river delta with those crocodile-nourishing swamps. I live in a vastly populated suburban area replete with parking signs, unlocked trash cans and wide boulevards bearing more traffic than they’d like to. The wildest wildlife we have encountered is a possum and the little fellow who had the presence of mind to drop a wicket basket over it was hailed a hero for 3 days
I hadn’t finished sputtering yet, the pinkie-toe let out an alarming signal at having the attention taken off it so quickly and I winced tongue-tied and pinkie-toe-tied together.”A…oh dear! There is this…this ..gulp…”
The husband, always my hero, put personal peril aside and dashed into the restroom with a paper and brush in hand. He is my shining knight; his battles with centipedes, spiders and silverfish are the kind of legends I like to read. The kind of battle where no one is killed, everyone is happy at the end, and hearts start beating normally with an excess of love afterward.
He went in and laughed heartily: “Could you take that out of there? “ he hollered to the daughter, who then gave the sort of laugh that made my smarting pinkie toe want to do a number again. “This is a sponge crocodile. The gift from that party, remember?” he said.
I did remember. The children had been babbling excitedly about the gift they received at a birthday party: something about sponges, but I had not expected this monstrosity. The thing was over 2 feet long and looked very much like a crocodile. The children had put it into the water to let it grow and we had gone about our week-end business. In a few hours, it had ‘grown’ and was still growing. Its orange feet were a giveaway when one stopped to see the crocodile, but sleepy folks, even sleepy naturalists, would not do that.
“Naturalist as a profession not looking so good is it?” said the daughter’s voice richly timbered with laughter. With the dignity of a cat caught on a prowl, I turned and headed to bed.