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Monday, March 30, 2020

Companions in Our Isolation

We are not “birders,” the Artist and I, but here in Arizona on our annual seasonal retirement (scheduled to end in May, but who knows right now, given the current world situation?) we pay a lot of attention to birds. The hawk that swoops in front of our car and settles with beating wings on a mesquite tree by the side of the road, the droll little roadrunner, the “confiding” canyon towhee, and all the rest. But I told the Artist the other day, as we sat out watching birds, that every time I see the bright red male cardinal, I am carried back to my graduate student apartment in Cincinnati years ago. 

It was one more evening alone, studying in a one-bedroom apartment much roomer than necessary for someone with almost no furniture. My few clothes hung in a luxurious walk-in closet that could have housed, I often thought, an entire refugee family. Few clothes, little furniture — and yet I felt unbelievably fortunate, for in my first year of graduate study I received a monthly fellowship check which, thanks to frugal living and cheap beans and cheap beer the last week of every month, covered my living expenses. And all I had to do to earn that check was read and write: my obligation coincided with my chosen work. Heaven!

But the scholar’s heaven could be lonely, too. 

I think I must have been holding my awareness of loneliness at mental arm’s length for quite a while, because when a tiny red mite appeared on a page of my book, I was struck with inordinate delight: another living creature! Charming! Fascinating! A companion in my evening solitude!

If you search online for information about bright red clover mites, tiny creatures each smaller than the head of a pin, you’ll turn up all manner of pest control results, although everyone admits that the clover mite is harmless. It isn’t poisonous. It doesn’t bite, anyway. And even if it invades en masse, the invaders won’t live long indoors. 

Well, easy for me to say, maybe, because for me there was only the one. One tiny, tiny creature the brilliant color of a cardinal. What happened to it? I don’t remember. How long does a clover mite live, anyway, in the best of circumstances? That minuscule receptacle of life achieved a kind of immortality, though, because even now, years later, every time I see a bright red cardinal I remember with fondness that other, much smaller, long-ago, anonymous visitor.

The following day, when I shared the story and my response to the mite with another graduate student, expecting him to laugh, I was surprised and gratified when he shared a similar story. For him, a spider had provided companionship during a long evening of solitary study. A memoir called The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, tells of how much a small creature’s presence meant to one woman confined to her bed by a mysterious illness, and Barbara Kingsolver, in High Tide in Tucson, tells of a hermit crab she inadvertently brought back from a Caribbean vacation and the efforts she and her daughter made to keep it alive.

Other living things! They mean so much to us, these our fellow passengers on spaceship earth, perhaps especially when our socializing with human family and friends is necessarily limited. 

While those of us who share our homes with dogs and/or cats — or birds, fish, or reptile pets — know better than to take their companionship for granted, ever, I’ve been thinking of how much comfort and companionship we gets from plants, as well as from animals, during these days of staying home and “sheltering in place.” When I first shopped, as advised, for a possible two-week quarantine — how long ago was that? — one of the impulse items I added to my cart was a little $4.99 plastic pot containing a clump of three small succulent plants. The souls as well as the bodies of our household require feeding, I felt. And I don’t even know the name of this succulent plant. Maybe it’s some kind of hybrid. It doesn’t matter. I had bought the beautiful round clay planter at an estate sale, and the planter begged to be filled. A rusty piece of found industrial iron added height and variety. 

I can’t tell you how much I love looking at my little pot (it is right here beside me now) and inspecting the largest of the three small plants to see if it’s any closer to flowering than it was the previous day. On warm days it lives outside, but with the threat of freezing overnight temperatures (and we did have a hard frost that night) it came indoors, taking priority over stacks of books and magazines (can you believe it?) on the little table between our reading chairs. And actually, carrying the planter outside and back indoors increases my feeling of relationship with the plants in the pot. 

When the Little Prince in St.-Exupery’s story of the same name discovers that the rose he tended with such dedication was not, as she claimed to be, the only rose in existence, at first he felt hoodwinked, as if he had wasted his time caring for her. He is set straight (was it by the fox? I don’t have the book at hand) thusly: “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” 

The other day my hiking partner neighbor, after we had been out in the foothills with our dogs for a couple of hours, asked me if I would like a planter of mint. Sarah and I continued home, and Therese left the mint outside her gate for me to pick up with the car later. So now, when the Artist and I sit behind the cabin watching the birds, I also gaze fondly at a planter filled with healthy, vibrant, bright-green mint. My friend had advised me that I should water the mint when I got it home. Oh, good! The mint needs me! Responsibilities of caring for animals and plants that share our lives, like the responsibilities we have to each other, create bonds. 

Is it time to put another suet cake out for the birds? I’d better check....

…I thought I had finished a draft of this post, and then I looked online for other quotes from The Little Prince. When I got to this one, my skin broke out in goosebumps: 
“What makes the desert beautiful,” said the little prince, “is that somewhere it hides a well….”
He loved his desert, I love mine. 

I ask you, what does it matter if the imaginary cat in the box is alive or dead? What matters to me is whether or not the sheep has eaten the beloved flower…. Books are also our companions, and The Little Prince gives us, in fantasy form, another example of an everyday hero, along with an ethics of care. Be well, stay safe and healthy, my friends!


Julia Brabenec said...

Oh Pamela, what a beautiful piece from your beautiful mind! Thank you!! It brightens my day.

Also, thought you might like to know that the succulent you bought is called, Hens and Chicks. It will grow here in your Michigan garden, multiply, and supposedly “live forever.” What more could we ask of a companion?

P. J. Grath said...

Thank you so much, dear Julie! I have been trying to brighten the days of people who read this blog, despite and across the distances that separate us physically. And thank you for identifying my new little botanical companions, too! I will love them all the more, thinking of you every time I glance in their direction. xxxooo

BB-Idaho said...

Was that a European Ringneck Dove I spotted at the end? I am being pestered by a dozen of them at my feeder, an invasive species which is thriving. In the small world department, I heard from a former college chem major who winters at a retirement community south of Phoenix-sent me a couple of different flowering cacti. She spent all her time in the lab, while my buddy and I worked our slide rules in a student nook that featured 'Bullwinkle' on a small TV. Some sixty years later, she is a retired research professor, having specialized in immunology, biochemistry and the epidemiology of cut throat trout
at WA State U, just a few miles from me. We lab types are natural loners, so we have a commonality, she having raised a daughter after
her husband died very young and me just a few miles away, tinkering
with initiating explosive, raising a couple of PhDs and an MA...and neither were aware of the other! But, for an immunologist, she is
braving a drive up to her daughter's place in Seattle during what they believe is the pandemic upcurve. Long story short-we quarantine, but we connect.

P. J. Grath said...

I think it is a Eurasian ring-necked dove, but luckily they are not pestering us in droves. Actually, my photo at the end of this post is from another year, not even this year, and I have never seen them come to the feeder. At the feeder we have sparrows, house finches, curved-bill thrasher, ladderback woodpecker, canyon towhee, cactus wren, cardinals and pyrrhuloxias (and I cannot distinguish between the call of the red and the call of the silver).

Interesting, your "distance" friendship with another former science graduate student. I am only a short drive from an old friend in Tucson, but we will not be able to see each other this year. Due to the virus, we meet on Facebook and through e-mail, occasionally a text or call.

Connection is important. "O, who would inhabit this bleak world alone?" I don't really find it bleak, but that is a line from "The Last Rose of Summer," a song I find particularly poignant.