I live in the middle of Brooklyn. I don’t have much exposure to nature. In my part of Park Slope, the emphasis is more on the Slope aspect. Sometimes, it does a bit Park-y. After all, I did get a new pair of street trees –with first-person nametags –to replace the healthy one The Department of Environmental Protection cut down by mistake instead of pruning. Last week, the Business Improvement District fenced them in for all our safety lest they attract a bad crowd of fauna.
And I see beauty every time I look out the window:
I have what you would call a “romantic” view of nature. It’s nice and all. Y’know, trees! But I prefer it with a nice footpath and maybe a folly or a ruin somewhere in a vista. The rest of it can just stay in the carefully constructed wilderness of its choice. The frontier closed in 1890, and that was a good thing… nature amok wants me dead.
I blame the raccoons.
Raccoons are slouchy little bastards coasting on their cute and mocking us with their opposable thumbs.
This past weekend has involved two raccoons too many. First, there were commercials everywhere for a very loud movie where a raccoon shouts over digitally enhanced gunfire. Yeah, gunfire. Who gives a mammal a gun? And it’s wearing tiny clothes, which I assumed it buttoned itself. Then on Saturday night, while we were waiting for the Twilight Tour and Catacomb Drinks to start at Green-wood Cemetery, a couple friends and I wandered around the koi pond up at the Chinese mausoleum. As soon as we climbed the hill to pond level, there was a raccoon eating trash, at a shrine. I come to Green-wood for the Frederick Law Olmstead designed stillness. The last thing I want to see is something shambling. All I could think about was that sewer raccoon back in Ann Arbor. He was the size of one of those ottomans people put decorative trays on. I had a job one summer that required me to leave the house a 6:30am, and if it was trash day, that bloated creep would not let me pass until he was done. Then he would hiss, flatten out, and pour himself into a storm drain.
My friend Mo wondered aloud, “I wonder if it tries to eat the koi. I heard they can snatch fish out of streams.” I shook my head. Only a bloodthirsty killing machine would eat a koi.
My brain filled with images of a brave, decorative fish being grabbed by those murderous doll hands and dragged into that yellowing buzz-saw of a mouth.
Back in grad school, I designed a just-as-precious-as-you’re-imagining American Studies class called “The Mechanics of American Retro.” Right after the unit where I taught them how to pronounce the name Walter Benjamin correctly at parties, I gave my students Thoreau’s Walden to read. It was my argument that even 170 years ago, “nature” was nothing more than a construct of the past a fellow could hang out at in his spare time and still be home in a enough time to eat his mom’s cookies, like a Renaissance Faire. Yep, cookies. His mom made him cookies. I’m all for Thoreau’s concept of nature. You look at trees, splash some water, listen to a bird, and the only danger you face might be a slight nut reaction because your mom put walnuts in the cookies by mistake. Then you go home, or at least back to the lodge. I’ve been camping once –I didn’t sleep because every twig snap and leaf rustle was a bloody maw coming for my well-marbled flesh.
We keep nature in that past that’s within day-trip distance. I’m thinking of organizing a Circle Line cruise up to Bear Mountain this fall. We did it when I was a kid, and the boat ride was fun. We had just seen Grease on Broadway, and I saw the guy that played Doody on the boat with a “friend.” That was fine, and there’s probably a good chance I’ll run into a character actor with a “friend” on the boat this time, but I’m hoping for a better outcome to the actual Bear Mountain part than back then. My sister Erin and I were hiking –on a designated footpath –high up on the slope. I heard a distant rumble of thunder and started running screaming back to the boat because I thought the bear of Bear Mountain was coming to eat me. That’s a fun one to unpack at the therapist’s.
Joni Mitchell was right when she advocated for trees to be put in a tree museum. We should be proud of our nature. I think this proposed design for The Met (or “An American Museum of Art” that one enters from “The Park” in “New York City”) from 1873 has it exactly right:[from “Unbuilt America: Forgotten Architecture in the United States from Thomas Jefferson to the Space Age.”]
Do we really want the past coming back and “interacting” with us? Why not just invite Vikings back here, too. You might be amused by the horns and the extreme attitude, but I’m sure the monks on Lindisfarne thought the same thing at first. Then the raping started. I would have loved to have had seen a passenger pigeon. However, did you know that their flocks were over 300 miles long and took 14 hours to pass? That’s fucking terrifying. I don’t even want know what the hell the great auk got up to. It probably kicked babies to death.
I cemented my relationship with nature in elementary school. My third grade teacher, Miss Volpe was rather pessimistic about nature and its prospects. She supplemented every science module with a few pages out of a workbook she chose to add to our curriculum. It was printed on recycled paper at a time when recycled paper looked like it had pubic hair in it. I honestly don’t know how she got this material by the powers that be because for the most part it’s lessons were an apocalyptic Mad Libs:
By the time you ______________, you’ll have to ___________________ because all the ________________ is/are gone!
She also liked to pick up her guitar and lead us in sing-alongs. One of Miss Volpe’s go-to’s was a rousing rendition of the theme song from M*A*S*H* with the complete “suicide is painless” lyrics. She dittoed them for us. They smelled great.
It just didn’t make too much sense to get all that close with nature, seeing that we were both spiraling towards oblivion. At least, according to the song, I was going out on my own terms. Bastard raccoons had other ideas.
Then one day while Miss Volpe was teaching math, which, unfortunately, wasn’t and won’t be going anywhere, there was a knock at the door. Through the glass slit Mr. DeLeon smiled and waved in his green custodial uniform. We kids wondered why he was here; Mr. DeLeon normally only showed up during class time when there was urgent sawdust sprinkling to do. “I wonder why Mr. DeLeon is here,” Miss Volpe said in a way indicating she knew perfectly well why. She held open the door for him, and we could see that there was an A/V cart behind him.
“Hello,” said Mr. DeLeon in his thick accent, “I brought a friend.” He stepped aside and revealed a dog crate atop the cart. In the cage was one very, very pissed-off raccoon. As he wheeled it into the room, the cart rocked from side to side in time with the quaking beast. “I caught him on my property last night. He looks like a thief,” he said. We rocked in our seats in anticipation.
“Is it okay if the children say hi?” asked Miss Volpe, knowing the answer.
“Sure, as long as they don’t try to pet him. He’s not like a dog. Or a cartoon. Heh heh.” We crowded around the cart.
“Is there anything special the kids need to learn about raccoons?” This woman could not act.
“Why yes, Miss Volpe, there is.” He reached over to blackboard tray and picked up the pointing stick. “You kids think Mister Raccoon is your friend like on TV with his little hands and his funny mask. Well he’s not!” A few of us glanced and shrugged at each other as we couldn’t figure out what show this misleading cartoon raccoon was on. Mr. DeLeon continued, “He doesn’t like you. He will give you rabies…” He paused for effect before leaning into one girl, “…and leprosy. Like in the Bible!” With that he lunged and jabbed the raccoon in the ass with the pointer.
It hissed and spun around spitting, almost knocking the cage off the cart. We took it as our cue to run screaming around the room for a few seconds. I got some spittle on me that I assumed came from the raccoon. I made a mental note to wash my arm. The beast settled back down, panting. It gave me some vicious side-eye which I assumed to be a curse. “Someday… someday,” it most definitely said to me.
And as I grew up, it became more and more apparent that the captive raccoon had actually cursed me. The natural world began to turn on me and mine:
- That spring I developed allergies so bad I couldn’t go out for recess on days they mowed the grass. Or the next day.
- A turkey buzzard swooped down on my Yorkshire terrier, Clancy. It was a feint, a shot fired across the bow.
- In the space of three years, I was attacked by woodchucks twice. The last time it happened, I had to empty a clip of paintballs into it to get it off my chest.
- On a wildlife tour in Jackson Hole, a moose hid in a stream until such a time as I was standing on the bank near it. Then it leapt for my throat.
- My mom was threatened by a box turtle.
I’m going back to staring out my window at beauty.