See beauty in the beast

Thursday, June 12, 2008

June 12, 2008

Dear Julie,

I missed spring. When the world became mud-luscious again and the goat-footed balloon man whistled far and wee, I was traveling elsewhere.

Most of the places I'd been weren't green at all, so Missouri looked like a lush garden when I arrived home. Much more rain than normal is partly responsible. We know a couple who live on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River who've been flooded out of their house for two months.

I missed the wonder of spring, the perfect days when the temperature is precisely neither warm nor cool, like life in Hawaii. The heat now is already extreme and has been steaming the moisture out of the vegetation. It's Sweatytown.

The lushness has overtaken our backyard. Our barbecue grill must be somewhere in the jungle out there. DC and I have taken to mowing only a wide path between the front and back gates. Actually it's more swath than path, a clearing so DC can pursue her newest project: Hanging clothes out to dry. We grew up when many families still had clotheslines and yearned for the day when a dryer wasn't an extravagance. Now DC has decided to go back to using the baking sun rather than fossil fuel and thinks our clothes smell fresher.

Aside from the new clothesline, our backyard belongs to wild things. Rabbits, squirrels, birds and who knows what inhabit the undergrowth. DC loves to sit in a lawn chair in the swath and just watch and listen.

Of course, wild means wild. There will be snakes, especially if you live near the river like we do. A few days ago our next-door neighbor Robyn knocked on our front door with a question about snakes. One was on her front porch. Robyn has a woodpile out back, a construction crew is working at the house north of hers, and DC and I are helping Mother Earth recycle carbon dioxide in our own backyard, so it's no wonder snakes are our neighbors.

The snake was black with brown blotches and was about 5 feet long. I called my encyclopedic-minded father-in-law and checked online to make sure it wasn't one of Missouri's few venomous varieties. It looked like the picture of a harmless black rat snake.

Of course, thinking of a snake as harmless is not as easy when it is making itself at home on your front porch. Robyn decided the best response was to give the snake some room, and when she checked the front porch a little while later the snake had disappeared. Somewhere.

DC likes snakes but still screams when one takes her by surprise, as they always do. She suggests we install a snake cam to keep track of their whereabouts. Robyn's only fear is bad dreams.

Driving to the West Coast while spring was blooming here I listened to Herbie Hancock's CD "River: The Joni Letters," his homage to Joni Mitchell's music. Hancock's piano drums a primal mood as Leonard Cohen's smoke-cured voice intones the words to her song "The Jungle Line." The song summons the ghost of the 19th-century French painter Henri Rousseau, known for the jungle scenes he imagined without ever seeing a real jungle. Rousseau's genius was seeing the beauty in the beast, God in the snake.

"The Jungle Line" surreally imagines a jazz club where a "poppy snake" in the dressing room "slithers away on brass like mouthpiece spit." In our backyard, the musicians squawk and screech and the underbrush dances.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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