It’s spring. The trees are budding. Little flowers are poking up from the earth. In the morning you can hear birds singing as geese fly overhead, returning home from their southern winter. Being outside and soaking up nature feels like the best the world has to offer right now. But before we all go full Tennyson and idealize nature as the ultimate good, can we get one thing out there?
Nature is terrifying.
I’m not just talking about mosquitos and floods and lions eating baby gazelle and, you know, viruses. (Though really.) I’m referring to even the ordinary, everyday reality of nature.
Did you know that sometimes when dogs are mating they can get…stuck? I know this horrifying fact. I know it because more than once I witnessed it happening with the street dogs in my old neighborhood. It involves a lot of loud screamy yapping, and it is very hard to keep your preschooler from noticing and asking questions. Thanks for that, nature.
Did you know that sometimes roosters crow when it’s not actually dawn? I found that out one night when Nate and I stayed with a family in rural Argentina. The setting was idyllic. Quiet, lovely open air, stars lighting up the sky. The rooster crowed at least once an hour all night long. Why? I don’t know. I’m no rooster expert. In fact, after a night that was basically just a handful of half-hour naps, I couldn’t even remember the word rooster.
In spite of these realities, though, we persist in inviting nature into our lives up close and personal. Nate and I have had several pets over the years (including two right now) and we often marvel at our own decision-making skills. We have invited animals to live inside our house with us. We love them. But objectively speaking that was a very…interesting…choice.
When I was pregnant with Scott and Ellie was not even two, we adopted a kitten. Well, the kitten adopted us. I mean that literally. One day I was sitting in the living room of my second floor apartment, talking to our intern, and a tiny orange kitten came walking up the stairs and right into our house. I have no idea how she got inside from the street, but there she was. Ellie was delighted, immediately named her Gigi, and insisted we give her milk, which the kitten drank like the starving animal she was. Obviously, we had to keep her.
Up to that point I had only had male cats, so I took the kitten in early to the vet and asked about having her fixed. He said it couldn’t be done until she was 7-9 months old. I mentally marked the date on my calendar and took my new little Gigi home. She was only six months old when she got pregnant. Street cats, people. We noticed the weird shape way too late, took her in, and sure enough, we were expecting more kittens. Any day now, the vet said. Neat.
Only two months away from my own due date, I made a nest of blankets in one corner of the family room and prayed Gigi would pick that spot to deliver her babies. Luckily she did because the mess, oh my word, the mess. I’d like to think we washed those blankets, but there’s a decent chance we threw them away. I honestly don’t remember. I do remember that Gigi the teenage mother looked emaciated after giving birth, that we had four tiny newborn kittens which were sweet and mewly, and that I had to spend the next several weeks trying to keep Ellie from killing them with her intense love. She picked them up. She carried them around, squeezing their tiny necks. She set them on high shelves and then walked away leaving them there crying and unable to get down. Somehow, they all survived, and somehow I was able to give them all away to new homes before our own baby came. But you’d better believe that Gigi had a surgery after that, and from then on, I was back to only male pets.
When we moved away from there, we left our cats with friends, and we have been a strictly dog family since then. Until a couple of years ago when I let my girls talk me into adopting a cat again. His name is Ollie. He is the rescued offspring of a feral cat who made a nest in one of my in-laws trucks. He purrs more than any cat I have ever owned and he looks adorable curled up on my window seat. We love him.
He is also a ferocious hunter who would make his feral mother proud.
I never meant to let him go outside, but he was determined. He wanted out with a fierce passion, darting at the door every time it opened, so that eventually, with so many people (and a dog) coming and going here, I gave up and allowed him to come and go also. I really didn’t think through the consequences of that decision. I figured he would be safe enough here and didn’t know to ask what he would do out there. I never had a cat while living in a place with woods and no street dogs.
He likes to bring me his hunting trophies, you guys. Mice. Birds. Mostly dead. But yeah, one of the birds was still alive. At first. If you’ve never seen a predator toy with and then kill its prey in your living room, you are a very intelligent person who has made better choices than I. It takes a long time to clean up that many feathers.
And then, a few nights ago, exhausted from the stress of quarantine and bad news and working from home, we were startled awake at 11:30 pm by the sound of a small repetitive scream: eeeee-eeeeee-eeeee-eeeee. Nate’s half-asleep brain pictured Lucy loudly playing a kazoo in the hallway. I thought an injured bird had landed on our window sill.
Lucy opened her bedroom door just a split second before I did. She screamed and slammed it shut again. Eyes adjusting to the dark, I saw what she had seen. Ollie, standing in the hall with something live hanging from his mouth. I slammed my door, too, minus the screaming. Nate took it from there. Through the door, he reported to me that we had something new: a bunny.
We got very lucky, and Ollie took his prey to the bathroom where it darted behind the shower curtain and hunkered down, going silent to avoid detection. Nate was able to grab a plastic bag and carry it outside and set it free, still alive. Ollie prowled around sniffing for his prize. We closed every door and window and left him to his disappointment. We did not immediately return to sleep.
Who can sleep with a murder cat outside their door?
And there it is: this year’s tagline. Because really, is there any other way to sleep? If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that even while we live in oblivious denial, nature is out there, in all its terrible glory, and we’re inextricably involved in the whole hot mess.
So we make creative use of plastic bags and invent songs about murder cats so that we can laugh until we eventually find a way to sleep, and then we get up the next day and go outside and look at the flowers and think about beauty and how it’s all mixed up with terror. And maybe we go ahead and write a Tennyson-like poem.
Or maybe we just laugh and get back to work.