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Imagination and the wild

Crane your neck. Worm your way. Wolf it down. Monkey with things. Outfox your foe. Quit badgering your tax attorney.
By Ellen Meloy
Winter 2008 11.1.08

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Wherever you are, wherever you go, there are untamed creatures nearby that need your attention. Unplug your modem. Slam shut your self-help books. Quit standing around like a wall trout. Get to work.

Invite warblers to your neighborhood with shaggy plots of greenery. Learn everything you can about the bandit-eyed raccoon that stares at you through your sliding glass door, demanding enchiladas.

Mark the direction of jet black darkling beetles marching up a red dune like a troop of miniature helmets. East? South?

Let black widows live in your soffits.

Lie on your back on a breezy sweep of beach and stare at the undersides of magnificent frigate birds. Master a hyena’s laugh and use it when in the presence of politicians.

Admire the male midwife toad, who carries fertilized eggs on his back for a month. Understand that certain species of mollusk can change their gender. Know that from a ball afloat on tiny filaments inside its fanned shell, a sea scallop can tell which way is up.

Crane your neck. Worm your way. Wolf it down. Monkey with things. Outfox your foe. Quit badgering your tax attorney.

Take notes on the deafness of coral, the pea-size heart of a bat. Be meticulous. We will need these things so that we may speak.

The human mind is the child of primate evolution and our complex fluid interactions with environment and one another. Animals have enriched this social intelligence. They give concrete expression to thoughts and images. They carry the outside world to our inner one and back again. They helped language flower into metaphor, symbol, and ritual. We once sang and danced them, made music from their skin, sinew, and bone. Their stories came off our tongues. We ate them. They ate us.

Close attention to mollusks and frigate birds and wolves makes us aware not only of our own human identity but also of how much more there is, an assertion of our imperfect hunger for mystery. “Without mystery life shrinks,” wrote biologist Edward O. Wilson. “The completely known is a numbing void to all active minds.”

From Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild by Ellen Meloy, copyright © 2005 by Mark Meloy. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

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