I have seen a scarlet tanager only once, four or five years ago at an overgrown lima bean farm in southern New Jersey. A cloudy day, his red stood out even more boldly at the top of a tall tree two hundred yards away. Cardinals are low flyers and nesters. Tanagers are canopy birds. No other bird around here has such a color. When I trained my binoculars on him, I held my breath so that I could keep steady. Few creatures have ever looked so vividly alive.
Something in me was fundamentally awakened in 1977 when I traveled to Montana for the first time and spent summer weeks in the Beartooth Wilderness as part of a grad course in literature. One of our texts was as important to me as the journey — Pilgrim At Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard*. Acting in concert, the book and the mountains showed me vast landscapes and gave me the means to look closely at them. Their lessons have endured. One of them is to walk.
I do so as often as I can, five or six miles on most days, and that translates into hours outside. I love the exercise, the rhythm of the muscles moving smoothly, the animal joy of forward motion, the predator scan for animal movement, the time with Wolfie, and I love the unexpected finds.
In rising heat yesterday morning in an open, sun blazed corn field, I stood over the caracass of a 15 pound hen turkey that something had killed and partially eaten. It had been dragged from its kill spot into a scrubby patch of taller grass where the predator, probably a fox, maybe a coyote, could eat unobserved and safe. The head lolled to the side and was intact — therefore not a red-tail hawk kill. They crack open the skull for the brains and pluck enough feathers out on the breast to stuff pillows. The chest was cracked, the organs gone. Turkey Vultures had been at it.
I find nothing thrilling about the gore of such a sight. I stand above these scenes and try to see what happened. I try to be aware of what lives out here, in the hundreds of acres of woods and pasture and cultivated ground that makes up my acquired habitat. Curiosity motivates me. Maybe that is why I began taking heads.
Skulls, to be precise, although I did have the head of a fox in the freezer until we lost electricity for several days, and we had to throw all the frozen food … and things, out. Many years ago my first dog, Montana, a 90 pound sweet lunatic named to honor my favorite state, found 4 dead pigs someone had dumped next to our tree line. Who carries dead pigs two hundred yards from a road? He had rolled in them (and that November he managed to get himself hit twice by skunks within the same week). I coated them with lime and buried them, and a year later took one of their skulls and boiled it with a mixture of soap and clorox on the stove. You can’t be squeamish about these procedures. Hands are for washing.
When I brought home the possum skull a week ago, it too required cleaning. As I was reaching for a good-sized tupperware container, my wife said no, and so I found an old tin can, filled it with my mixture and set it to work. Thus the title of this Post. Two days later I dried it on the hood of my car. The sun strikes it so hard as to cook off any remaining bacteria in long, intense heat.
It rests on my desk next to my fox skull. By their nature, skulls are revelatory. Anatomical secrets give themselves up to observation. Their architecture is beautiful. Maybe they function as my version of a memento mori: keep moving, stay alert, stay curious, see more, read more, time is slipping away.
Walking back from the corn field, I saw clouds of gnats in shafts of sunlight as filtered by leaves. The individual clouds stretched on for many feet. I stood and watched until dark-coated Wolfie, tired of the hot sun, nudged me. Foolish man. We walked into the shade and back home to water.
*Pilgrim: Buy it at Wellington Square Book Shop. Help keep independent book stores alive.