“The Northern Mockingbird is the State Bird of Texas. Very territorial, the mockingbird will even attack its own reflection, sometimes injuring or killing itself.”
--Critters of Texas Pocket Guide, p.83
First, the artiodactyl ungulates were a welcome cameo in Hollywood Park. Naturally. They gave residents the same momentary thrill as spotting a cardinal in the backyard or a patch of bluebonnets on the highway. A pulse-quickening reminder or intimation that we live in some kind of harmony with all those creatures great and small. Yet always appropriately brief—always distant—like a roadrunner flitting across the road, the cicadas making their chitter-chatter call-and-response somewhere far away.
“Look! There’s a deer! Right there! Do you see it? Don’t scare it!”
Soon they saw it was not good. The deer became both numerous and bold. They crowded the intersections, they walked in the daytime, they evidently had no shame. They shit on everyone’s lawn, constantly. Once, a doe twisted herself beyond repair among the bars of a wrought iron fence, died pathetically across several days and had to be sawed into pieces to get loose. Actually, that happened twice. Et in Arcadia ego, then.
Inevitably, the community was obliged to acknowledge the uncomfortable implication of its “deer problem”: this town aint big enough for the two of us. The Two of Us, of course, meaning Us and Them, or more accurately Me and You.
Even in the most generous effort of the imagination, supposing that the luxurious home and sturdy auto in a pretty neighborhood had nothing to do with the crushed torso of a squirrel still limping toward the curb—supposing that violence is inevitable within any fabrication, which of course it is—there’s still something ghastly about the dead bird in Icarian posture against the sidewalk, his vulture making lazy confident circles overhead. Nearly as disquieting as the occasional rains that come a bit too heavy and stay a bit too long, occasioning Flash Flood Warnings to Bexar County for the next four hours. That’s more than anyone needs to keep the grass green but just enough to suggest that we are very small creatures as well. Not only are we in coexistence with all that sniffs, burrows, and blooms; we’re riding on the same damned boat.
Not that this was an easy conclusion for everyone. To be master of the earthly domain became a nearly pathological point of interest for many individuals; they guarded their trophic prominence closely and tolerated no unthinking effrontery. Local leadership in Hollywood Park created a Deer Committee to monitor populations and maintain the approved deer-feeding list. Certain ecologists encouraged hunters to focus less on bucks since they had so little to do with the succeeding generations.
(Elsewhere, a man in South Texas all doped-up on eighty thousand dollars in antivenom finally captured, killed, skinned, and framed the western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) that bit him a few weeks earlier. He went home, hung up his trophy and locked the door.)
There are clearly some issues of projection and paranoia at play here. Recently the nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) was confirmed as the only known non-human vector for Hansen’s disease. Subsequently, The State Small Mammal of Texas went from a goofy, oversized pillbug to a terrifying vehicle for ancient illness. Admittedly, there may not be a better visualization of Coleridge’s phrase, “white as leprosy” than the chthonic specter of a diller in the moonlight. Of course nothing had changed about the animal itself—one can safely say, in fact, that armadillos had been completely oblivious to any changes in language, politics, or epidemiology in the million-plus years they’ve inhabited the American South.
What had changed for the public in this case was only the frame of reference. A similar process has occurred in reverse with the fabled “chupacabra,” a vicious monster rumored to suck the blood of livestock in Puerto Rico, Mexico, and East Texas. Between the mid-nineties and today the myth has developed from reviled scourge of farmers in the Western Hemisphere, to a minor local phenomenon, to a fun menu item at Latin American-style restaurants in San Antonio (“the chalupacabra”). That the feared beast was very likely nothing more than some kind of coyote with sarcoptic mange only serves to clarify the lesson of this legend: dog eat dog; sickly dog eat sheep; man eat Tex-Mex.
Depicted in these circumstances, Man is yet another kind of sickly animal, selfish yet unaccountable, inverted, perverted. As the old curse goes: who loves not others shall love only himself. He shall turn upon himself, like an armadillo curled into a protective ball, like a house with a tall wood fence admitting no visitors, like the model in Seinfeld’s “Puffy Shirt” episode who loves himself so much and so often that his hand deforms into a useless claw.
Wouldn’t it be dreamy to exist like one of those geckos climbing the back porch window at night: floating, transparent, otherworldly. Straightforward and unselfconsciously perfect, like some reverential blend of fragility and assurance. An unsuperfluous predator; an unapologetic survivor. It resembles the object of Byron’s poem: “She walks in beauty, like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies; / And all that’s best of dark and bright”. Nameless grace.
This seems to be one more face to Narcissus’ curse: to become lost in reflection, to be paralytically twisted by the absorbed rumination on one’s place in the world. Those times when we dwell too long at contemplation and see it refract into a despairing contempt. A curse, a blessing, a responsibility: Paradise exchanged at a loss. This is the unenviable privilege of a lingering consciousness: that eventually the television turns off, the laptop goes to sleep, or the gecko deserts the nighttime windowpane and all that remains for us is a reflection, in a glass, darkly.
David R. Grieder '15 is a literature concentrator in Eliot House. His column will appear every two weeks this summer.
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