Lizards in Love

Many creatures mate for life. People, who often bungle this commitment, are shamed by such devotion in the wild. Watching a pair of swans glide across the surface of a still pond, we are stirred to admiration, even reverence, knowing how far they surpass us in manner and form.

Swans are inarguably beautiful, as are various other animals that lead devoted lives: turtle doves, wolves, French angelfish, golden eagles. For these glorious beasts, the discipline of monogamy seems a fitting attribute, a sort of noblesse oblige.

But what of the shingleback skink?  Tiliqua rugose: a bob-tailed, slow moving, blue-tongued  lizard. Found only in Australia, this lowly beast is one of earth’s most faithful inhabitants. Every autumn, for up to twenty years, it will seek out the same mate, the male inevitably finding the female by her scent trail. During their initial courtship and upon their annual reunion, the male will lick and softly prod the female. For two months they stay together, the male closely following the female as she makes her way across the outback. If one is killed, the other will stay with the body for several days, giving it a gentle nudge now and then as if to encourage animation.

Tiliqua rugose goes by several common names: stump-tailed lizard, shingleback skink, sleepy lizard, pinecone lizard, two-headed lizard (because the fat truncated tail mimics the head, minus the eyes and mouth). The skin of this reptile is dark brown, sometimes with yellow spots, and the protruding scales resemble armor. The eye are small and reddish-brown; the tongue is a brilliant blue. Reaching eighteen inches in length, the shingleback skink weighs in at a whopping two pounds. During the day it travels across open country foraging for flowers, berries and succulent leaves, as well as the occasional snail and beetle, which it handily crushes with its powerful jaws.  At night it sleeps in leaf litter or under logs or rocks.

Six months after the male locates his mate, the female gives birth to two or three young. This process takes much out of her as the progeny can exceed eight inches in length and weigh nearly half a pound—compare a woman giving birth to a three-year-old child. As soon as they emerge, the young skinks dispatch the placenta, then promptly head out, en route to their own chosen life mates.

So how does unstinting loyalty benefit the shingleback skink? Certainly any healthy female could produce viable young; variation might even strengthen the gene pool. But somehow this lowly lizard was bequeathed with devotion, the urge to seek its private treasure again and again, at any cost. Equally impressive are the researchers who brought us these facts, who braved the harsh Australian outback to study this odd creature day and night, year after year.

Love. Who can account for it?

Fearless

Watering the dahlias, I noticed the evidence of snail damage: ragged leaves, silver tracks. It didn’t take long to find the culprit, an impressively large specimen, lodged on the backside of a stem. “Sorry, buddy,” I murmured. “You have to go.”

Ever since reading Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s wonderful book, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, I have a sweeping respect for snails and cannot kill them. So instead of ending its life under my shoe, I gently pried the snail off the stem and carried it across the yard and into the woods. This is not the first snail I have relocated, nor will it be the last.

Most snails in transit will suck themselves into their shell and surrender to whatever fate they’re headed for. This snail was different. Instead of hunkering down, he poured himself well out of his spiral house and stretched this way and that, his four tentacles fully extended. I smiled at his bravura. The trip to the woods must have been dizzying, the world zipping by at a speed not designed for snails. Why wasn’t he afraid?

Snails have rudimentary brains called ganglia, groups of neurons situated around the digestive system that coordinate various functions. Aside from the shell, they have three main body parts: the head, the foot and the mantle. The retractable tentacles on the head provide optic and olfactory information, the foot secretes mucus to ease the creature along, and the mantle seals off the body for protection and produces the minerals needed for shell growth. If the shell is injured, even crushed, the snail can readily build a new one.

Hermaphroditic, snails have both male and female sex organs. They can reproduce at one year and live another four to six. Baby snails are born with tiny soft shells that harden with age. Their first meal is the egg case they came from, which gives them a starter dose of calcium.

Even without a prefrontal cortex, snails are capable of associative learning, pursuing what is good for them—food and damp—and avoiding what is (presumably) painful. It’s a life based not on thought but feeling.

What must it be like to navigate the world only through response? To live without the snarls and loops and dead-ends that characterize thought?

Snails have eyes at the ends of their upper tentacles; though these eyes have lenses, there are no muscles to focus the images. They can discern light and dark, that’s about it. The snail I moved could not see his journey, nor could he ponder what was happening to him. All he knew was velocity.

Most creatures hide from danger, in whatever form they perceive it; this behavior is instinctive, no thinking required. Primitive man feared saber tooth tigers, a useful fear designed to save his life. If he hunted anyway, kept the fear in check, he would improve his skills, put meat on the table and enjoy the respect of his clan. If his thoughts got in the way, rendered him tiger phobic, he would find himself in the back of the cave, dejected and scorned, possibly starving. This snail could sense my fingers on his shell, could feel his world careening, but instead of hiding behind his mantle, he leaned into the trip, felt the sun and wind on the length of his soft, gray body. 

I like to think, because I can, that it was fun for him, a thrill ride, that today I found an exceptional snail, one who felt a dangerous change and met it head on.

And I like to imagine that when I placed him on the mound of blue violets, he knew, he just knew, my intentions were good.

The Cost

You came to me in a dream,
as the dead sometimes do,
and my joy rushed out to meet you.
I remember how your brown eyes held me
while, finally have the chance,
I said what I needed to say.

I must have looked away,
given you just enough time
to leave me.
I knew that you had died again
and that the cost was fair.

New Essay in bioStories

Many thanks to editor Mark Leichliter for publishing my personal essay “Letter to a Phantom” in the latest issue of bioStories. Mark has been kind enough to accept several of my essays and he is indispensable in suggesting edits that make them stronger. It is always a privilege to be featured in such a fine journal. If you enjoy this piece, I encourage you to “like” and “share” it on the links provided and follow the magazine.

From the bioStories website: bioStories offers word portraits of the people surrounding us in our daily lives, of the strangers we pass on the street unnoticed and of those who have been the most influential and most familiar to us but who remain strangers to others. We feature essays from an eclectic variety of viewpoints and seek out writers of literary excellence. We particularly look for work that offers slices of a life that help the reader imagine the whole of that life, work that demonstrates that ordinary people’s experiences often contain extraordinary moments, visionary ideas, inspirational acts, and examples of success and failure that prove instructive. In short, we believe every life displays moments of grace. bioStories wishes to share pieces of these lives and celebrate them.

View the pieces of the lives presented here as portraits, sketches, tributes, memories, remembrances … pieces of lives that enrich our experience for having shared them. We ask writers to, as Toni Morrison has said,”Imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar.” Share a life. Introduce us to someone we don’t yet know.

New Paintings

It’s been awhile since I posted any artwork, so here are a few photos of some recent work, most of it in collaboration with my woodworker/scroll saw maestro wife. I am doing more and more commissioned pet portraits–canines are much in demand.

New Poem in Star 82 Review

Many thanks to editor Alisa Golden for publishing “A Christmas Poem” in the new issue of Star 82 Review. 

“Star 82 Review is an independent art and literature, online and print magazine that highlights words and images in gemlike forms. Each issue features flash fiction, creative nonfiction, erasure texts, narrative art, postcard lit and poetic storytelling featuring subtle humor, humility and humanity, the strange and the familiar, and hope.”

Write A Letter

Write a letter to your younger self,
they urge: It’s cathartic.
Be kind, be supportive,
guide her gently toward better choices.
Fat chance she’d listen.
Pearls of wisdom, cautionary tales–she heard them all.
And what, precisely, to offer?
Don’t settle? Don’t worry? Stay out of the sun?
I wouldn’t listen to me either.
If I took another tack,
told her she was strong
and worthy, capable of anything,
she’d only shrug and look away.
Not for a minute would she have imagined
a soft landing in her sixties,
four-bed/two bath, a steadfast spouse.
In any case, who am I to interfere–
she got me this far, didn’t she?
Better to leave her hurtling
into plight and fervor and folly
so that she can show up here
and astonish me.
“See?” she would have said.

Now Where Did I Put My Sex Drive

“Hot flashes?” my friend said. “They don’t bother me. They’re mostly gone now anyway. And the other stuff—dry skin, weight gain. What can you do? No one stays pretty forever.” She paused, frowned at the drink in her hand. “But the thing that does bother me? Loss of libido. I gotta say, I have a grudge against that one.” She looked at me. “It’s excessive, don’t you think?”

I blinked at her. I knew what she meant. Of all the subtractions that come with menopause, loss of desire has to be the saddest. “Makes you realize what biological beings we really are.”

She nodded. “It does, doesn’t it?” She was a silent a moment. “You know, I don’t think I miss the sex so much as I miss the need for it, the appetite. Why should that get taken away, too?”

“Maybe it’s a kindness,” I offered. “Maybe we lose our desire because we’re no longer desirable.”

“Well, that’s brutal,” she said. “But you’re probably right. Nature thinks of everything.” She looked up into the tree that shaded our table. “Damn men. All they lose is their hair. Bill still wants sex—not as often, but it’s there. It’s retrievable. For women it’s like a door slamming shut.”

No, I thought, not slamming. More like closing, quietly, so quietly you don’t notice. One day it occurs to you that sex has not occurred to you.

You might chide yourself, resolve to put mundane matters aside and focus on love. The problem, you think, is fixable, laughable, temporary. There is the destination, clear as day—all you need to do is show up. Only you can’t. You’ve lost the map. Occasionally you forge ahead, determined to prevail, and occasionally you do, arriving at a finish line barely worth the effort.

I do know of one woman, 84 years old, who claims she is still interested in sex, who would jump in the sack “in a hot minute” if she found an appropriate suitor. When she told me this, I laughed.  “I’m not kidding,” she said flatly.

“Lucky you,” I replied, wondering if having a sex drive in your eighties is a lucky thing. Finding a willing and able partner would certainly be lucky.

This woman is exceptional—most of my female peers have shed their amatory lives and moved on. Yoked to the plow of destiny, we have found other ways to entertain ourselves: birding, gardening, charity work.

“The Change,” people used to call it, ominously. It was an event discussed in whispers, a bane that befell our mothers and aunts. I wasn’t sure what it meant, only that I didn’t want it to happen to me. Odd that the transformation still came as a surprise.

Focusing on the compensations can be helpful, like my newly-sprung ability to notice the ways I’ve been blessed or spared. I can tell you that most everything I see now has significance, that I ache for this beleaguered planet every day, that I can no longer regard a caterpillar on my cabbage without considering its right to be there. Each day I can feel the thrilling edge of something I have yet to learn.

Still, I mourn my libido. The loss of it, after all, is a sort of death, an ash-filled urn in the top of my closet, alongside those size 6 jeans I will never wear again. I am, as nature would have it, changed. What is there to do but shove on my sunhat and go out to the garden, tend to other lives as assailable as my own.

Lichen

Bonded to a boulder,
living on air and random rain,
a forty-year-old lichen
claims a thumbprint of space.
Centuries from now it will be
the size of a dinner plate,
will still be young
when the millennium turns–
not that age applies
to a thing designed to override death.

Maybe this doesn’t sound
like much of a life:
stuck on stone, nothing to do
but make more crust.
Or maybe it’s a thrill a minute,
living up to all that potential.

I would like to find out,
to lie on a sun-warmed rock
and give myself up,
to become with steady assurance
all I was ever meant to be.