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My life as an animal, 2007
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On my second trip to Arizona, Richard and I visit the Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson. We’re trying to figure out what kind of animal the other one is in the wilderness of understanding that is the beginning of a relationship.
Richard wants to show me the landscape he’s come to, and I want to see it. Really, in those days I would have been happy looking at rocks baking in sun beside a collapsed saguaro. I would have stood there, wondering if we had a chance when I didn’t know the meaning of chance or we.
I don’t know what to expect of an outdoor museum. Richard says it’s part zoo, part botanical garden, and part marked trail. On the drive south from Phoenix, he points to soaring mountains. All I care is he reaching for my hand. We enter a park that is vast when you look past the exhibits toward a dusty emptiness that blurs ground and sky. The desert seems still, although Richard says it’s always moving. I like the emptiness, almost. It makes you think you’re in a place that is old and has been stripped of things you don’t need. Most of my personality I don’t need. Too bad I can’t leave it on the side of a road.
The plants are arranged in dense groups and are well tended. On wilderness trails, vegetation is scraggly and spread out. At this point, I haven’t walked on any trails. I’m excited by the different types of things that can grow. A dozen prairie dogs sniff each other with the glazed eyes of sex zombies. Their area is penned in, but it’s large, and in zoo life you don’t need to look for food. A family of javalinas troop along a path. Javalinas look like pigs, but they are not pigs, signs explain. There are more signs in Arizona telling you javalinas aren’t pigs than signs warning you a giant boulder might fall on your head. The javalinas are fenced in, too, but they appear uncontained, the same as three hawks that circle and dive at rodents that have been released for them by rangers. The birds pause in midair and hang there, like an intake of breath, before they flatten their wings and go for their prey.
I bounce along beside Richard. Optimism, like depression, is a brain state. I’m a woman past 60 about to leave New York for love.
Under an awning of rock, a boy and a man look through a window at a puma. We stand behind them and look, too. The man bangs on the glass. The boy winces and says, “Don’t disturb him.” The puma’s fur is tan, and it’s stretched out on a smooth stone with its back to the window and its face turned toward a simulated canyon. Its tail hangs down like a plumb line. It doesn’t so much as twitch as the puma wonders how it boarded the wrong train to wind up here.
The father is tall. His hair is thinning. And he wears a camera slung around his neck. He bangs on the glass again, and the boy says, “Stop,” and the man says, “I want to wake him up,” and the boy says, “How would you feel if you were asleep and someone banged on glass so they could take your picture?” The man doesn’t answer. The boy points to another cat, farther away. He says, “That one’s waking up. Take his picture.” But the man wants the creature that ignores him, the same as everybody does.
Next Richard and I watch an otter swim in the pattern of a star, criss crossing his watery world, his webbed feet launching his body across the pool with one mighty push. In another part of the park, three wolves wander their cliff domain, their dog faces puzzled about the narrowing of their world. Around and around they loop: up an incline, along a ledge, then down to a stream, as if surely on one journey a door will open to a dream forest and to the kind of path I walked on that accidentally led me to Richard.
I say to him, “I feel bad for the animals.” I want to fight for them or I just want to fight and get it over with, so Richard will see who he’s dealing with. He says most of the larger animals have been rescued from injury or abuse. “They aren’t able to live in the wild, anymore. They’re stuck in a kind of limbo, you could say.” I say, “Well, should we be looking at them, then?” He says, “That’s a good question. That’s the critical question.” This is his field. He teaches museum studies at the university. He thinks about the kinds of institutions museums are. Where do they gain their authority to say a thing is real or true when they aren’t institutions of formal learning? He looks beautiful in the sharp light. His silvery hair is glistening. Every time I look at him it’s like realizing for the first time how attractive he is, and I don’t know if this is because I keep forgetting who he is or because romance is the same discovery made over and over.
We’re on a bench. Butterflies flit around us, and visitors pass by with backpacks and maps. They point and look out. Richard says the animals here are sacrificial representatives on display for human beings, who have the power to save or destroy them. Humans will continue to dominate nature. That isn’t going to change, he doesn’t think, although it would be a good thing if it did. The question is what kind of control will humans exert? He talks about display as a process of increasing identification, including the history of human display, from gladiatorial contests, to public executions, to slave auctions, to operating theaters, to the Paris morgue where bodies were laid out for public inspection. He describes the plight of Ota Benga, a Pygmy man who, in 1906, was displayed in the gorilla cage at the Bronx Zoo. Ten years after his release, Benga, unable to return to his home in Rwanda, killed himself. I see these spectacles, each a location of melancholy and also of fascination, depending on whether you identify with the one who is caught or the one who is the catcher.
Richard isn’t making a case for zoos, or maybe he is for zoos as shelters. He has the temperament of a naturalist or an explorer, interested in things as they are without wanting immediately to bend them. Like someone I could mention. This temperament helped him leave England and move to the US, to end relationships and start new ones. I ask how we should understand a zoo, then, and he says as a place where animals are in between their ideal states, and I think this is true of us, too, and I realize I don’t know what my ideal state is.
At the time, I was standing at the end of a pier. I had come to the end of something, but you don’t know that when it’s happening. I retain a happy memory of our visit to the zoo, according to a definition I found in a story by Lydia Davis. According to the story, for a memory to remain a happy one, both people have to have been happy at the time and also still to like each other when they look back. Often when we walk on Warren Street, Richard will say, “Stand up straight.” My posture has gone to shit since I stopped doing yoga. I stopped doing yoga because I’m a lazy javalina. I say, “Shoot me, now.” He says, “I won’t have to shoot you, if you look out. Look, up the hill at that cherry tree.” And we continue walking, and I’m on a road, and I can see myself and I cannot see myself, and I feel free and I feel held by our connection, and I cannot give a name to the sensation that is going through me except wildness.