Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Dragons in my Back Yard

When I lived in Colorado, I was always looking out in the distance. I paid attention to big things there--geological formations, clouds deflecting off peaks, mountain ranges visible from eighty miles away.  Even the animals I watched tended to be big and showy, like elk, bighorn sheep, and the occasional black bear.  Now I live in Louisiana, where you don't see wide, craggy vistas or herds of elk.  So I've adjusted my focus downward, paying attention to small things--to tiny little swamp flowers, the geckos on my porch ceiling; the brawling, sex-crazed house sparrows that live under my eaves.  These things may not seem as dramatic as a snow-capped mountain range, but the difference in majesty is really more in our heads than out there in the world.  Compared to the gulf that separates the smallest subatomic particles from clusters of galaxies--each big enough that human history is not long enough for light to cross it--a sparrow and a mountain range are practically the same size.  Besides, while a mountain may have many moods, depending on the angle of light and the season, it doesn't behave.  It doesn't stand up and meet life head-on, the way the most miniscule insect does.  Small things have their own majesty, and we're all surrounded by their tiny, life-and-death dramas.

The other day, for example, I stepped out my back door and saw a green anole lizard (Anolis carolinensis) creeping across a windowsill.  It was hunting, moving its head back and forth to focus on something in a leafy vine about a foot away.  Then it leapt into the leaves, narrowly missing a wasp, which flew away hurriedly.  The anole missed that wasp, but I've seen them munch down others like popcorn.  I'm duly impressed.  A full-grown green anole is only about 7 inches long, tail and all, which means leaping a foot to catch a wasp is equivalent to me leaping ten feet to pounce on a rattlesnake.  Anoles are formidable beasts, I don't care how big they are.

Little Orphan Annie liked to exclaim, "Leaping lizards!" but I didn't actually know lizards leaped until I moved to Louisiana.  Arkansas has plenty of skinks and fence lizards, and while they can scamper away like a rifle shot, I don't ever remember them launching themselves through the air.  I was amazed the first time I saw an anole do it.  I was also amazed, sitting on my porch swing in Baton Rouge, to see a bright green anole climb out of some leaves onto a brown limb, and then fade into the limb by changing color.  Until then, I had assumed the brown ones and the green ones were two different species.

Some people call anoles chameleons, but the two aren't closely related. Both are predators who live in trees and bushes, but they have very different styles of hunting.  True chameleons creep along as motionlessly as they can, moving mainly their eyes--one eye scanning one direction, while the other goes its own way, as if it's connected to a different brain.  Anoles, by contrast, are stalkers. They move like cats, creeping sinuously down limbs and up walls.  True chameleons always have a look of  half-deranged melancholy on their faces, their eyes rolling like they're about to crack under life's pressures.  Anoles, by contrast, look focused, with a gaze that seems intelligent (though they're probably not terribly bright creatures). If you get close and watch them, they'll watch you back, fixing you with a look that seems to say, "I see you, primate--don't try anything."

Sometimes, in the spring, they'll position themselves in a prominent spot and unfurl the dewlap under their chin, trying to impress the opposite sex. The females have white dewlaps, but the males have striking pink ones, specked with little white spots.  Male anoles are tough guys, who guard their territories like prospectors watching for claim jumpers. When two males meet, it's on: they raise an otherwise-invisible crest down their neck and back, puff out their throats, and gape at each other like tiny alligators.  This transforms them into bigger, more formidable creatures; like little dragons, with patches of black warpaint appearing behind each eye.  They circle each other, turning sideways to look as big as possible, pausing to do little pushups of machismo.  As with many other territorial animals, they're better off settling disputes by bluffing and posturing, rather than fighting and risking injury.  So, some of these encounters end when the combatants decide they've established the boundaries of their territory, or when one decides it had better back down. But the scars on their noses shows that real fights do happen, and they can be vicious.  They lock jaws and try to wrench each other's heads around, while their sides heave with the effort.  Eventually, the loser retreats, and the winner expands his territory a across a little more of the yard.

Big or small, it's a rough world.  Back in Colorado, I would go camping in the fall and listen to the elk bugle at each other all night.  At first I was shocked at how primal--how mortal--the sound is.  Here are animals weighing well over a thousand pounds, bellowing at each other across the darkness, just like they did when my ancestors were stalking mammoths across some glacial plain. Those elk have never known anything but wilderness, and they're not playing around. At first I thought of that sound as otherworldly, because it's so foreign and eerie.  But that's wrong. It's very much of this world--the real world out there in the wilderness, a world without police or laws.  Our world is the more artificial one.  While I'm all for that contrived layer of law and safety we've built for ourselves, living in it can make you go a little numb.  It's good to look back into that wilderness.  It's good to feel, at least secondhand, the real weight of that fierce, ancient world.

Now, you may be thinking, "Wait, weren't we talking about lizards here?"  Well, sure, it does seem a little silly to use such language to describe a backyard lizard rumble, but for them the stakes are every bit as high as for those elk in the mountains.  The distinction is a matter of my perspective, not theirs.  To them, my backyard is the wilderness.  Even in the most urban settings, if you shift your focus down to the small things, you realize you're surrounded by wild country.  If you don't see its majesty, that's just human bias--a sort of bigotry of scale. You can find natural grandeur anywhere, if you look close enough.