I rent a room from a friend here in Houston and her cat has adopted me, a magnanimous gesture. Cookie permits me to brush and feed her and clean the litter box. Her ancient sister, Lucy, died in November after ailing for a long time. I came home one evening to find her stretched out and stiff in the bath tub, a lump of bones and fur. I wrapped her in burlap and dug a hole in the backyard. After filling it in I covered the otherwise anonymous grave with a paving stone.
Most of us treat only pets as individuals with histories and personalities, selves with their own discrete autonomy, the way we sometimes treat other humans. Farm people do this too with livestock, I imagine, and perhaps biologists, zookeepers and circus folk. Otherwise, an animal, especially in the wild, is a type, a representative of its species, interchangeable with all its fellows. And yet, memory preserves a few individuals – a pileated woodpecker methodically stripping an elm stump of bark, a Cooper’s hawk scouting a cemetery in Schenectady when the temperature was minus-sixteen degrees, a snapping turtle I moved with the help of a high school kid from the middle of a road next to the Erie Canal.
You might object that I’m not remembering individuals so much as what they did, some memorable action they took. Perhaps. I’m not above anthropomorphizing. But each encounter was protracted, and each animal was aware of my presence and endured it. We reached a rare trans-species rapprochement, with some measure of trust on both sides. I spent much of an afternoon watching the woodpecker from a log where I sat, twenty yards away. I didn’t go so far as to name him, but I came to know his style, enough to speculate about his temperament. That was more than twenty years ago and he’s more vivid in memory than most of my teachers in college.
I remembered the woodpecker when I encountered a yellow warbler – surely among the most piercingly beautiful of birds -- in a poem by Leslie Monsour, “Indelibility” (The Alarming Beauty of the Sky, 2005):
“A whistle in the palm outside my window
Announced a yellow warbler perched there like
A feathered spark, a sun-flake with a pinto
Wing. I saw it flicker, burn, then spike
The air in take-off. Gone. And yet the bird
Remains. The world outside is not the same,
With shifting shadows, air and time disturbed;
But in my heart is locked the singing flame.”