The Place of Places

Small Bodies

An Essay.

I suspect that the majority of humanity hankers after large bodies of water—the great lakes, the oceans. The wide expansive horizons of the great bodies of water invite abstraction, often with a cinematic wind in our faces; the small bodies invite the concrete, often with our shoes getting muddy. I don’t mind getting muddy. I like the smaller bodies: rivers and streams and ponds. One pays attention around them. One finds things to admire and ponder. Small bodies help us contemplate small bodies.

My house is on a ridge and below it there’s a large creek, Rice Creek. I rarely see this creek, though it’s on my own property, because in the summer it’s banked by poison ivy so old the vines are as thick as thighs. In winter—harsh enough on the shore of Lake Ontario that we regularly make national news because of it—I would be unable to find the creek beneath the several feet of snow burying the top of it. But I do see creek creatures all throughout the spring and summer and fall.

There are many many frogs in this domain. For instance, all spring thousands of small peepers join together in a deluge of barbershop quartets and without suspension make a hullabaloo somewhere between the sounds bell ringers make and the sounds cars make when a belt goes bad. Surprisingly, the hullabaloo grows on one, the way novels do. Listen long enough and you cannot sleep without it.

Once I saw a toad hop madly across my back yard toward the creek, chased by a snake that was half in the grass propelling itself and half raised ten inches off the ground the better to see the toad. The uneasy feeling this inspired is one of the reasons I bought a taller car.

Great blue herons, immense birds with serene expressions, have a rookery on the west side of the ridge. Dozens of nests, hundreds of birds. I have never seen a blue heron hurry, nor have I seen one dally. Of all of the creatures I see on the ridge this is the one with whom I most desire a conversation, though if we sat down for coffee together I would insist on a third party, perhaps a monk.

My creek meanders for miles toward the college where I work. About four miles from the house there’s a beautiful park called Fallbrook where I used to take my dogs for walks. On a long ago July day I had my black lab with me on a hike in that park. At some point I realized she wasn’t behind me, so I went back on the trail looking for her. I found her. She’d happened into a bog created by the creek and was up to all four of her armpits in mud, still sinking. I wallowed in there with her, struggling against the ghastly pull of the bog, and together we wrestled ourselves back out and from there walked, as filthy as oil riggers, straight into Rice Creek where a dozen white butterflies floated over our heads while we got clean together in our home creek. Miraculous white butterflies. These are the kinds of things one grows accustomed to near the small bodies: mud and miracles.

I’ve spoken elsewhere about the snapping turtles who, during egg-laying season, hoist themselves at great cost to and from the creek near me, often getting hit by cars because of these journeys. I have helped many a turtle to cross the road, and it’s crucial to know where Rice Creek is located in terms of any given stretch of the tarmac; if you place the turtle on the wrong side, it’ll cross the road again. Too often they seem to depend on the dubious safety of their thick shells. These turtles are among the slowest creatures on the planet who can also be called reckless. Perhaps this summons of theirs must be defined more expansively.

Not so long ago a baby snake, no doubt born in Rice Creek, took up residence in the front bedroom of my house, where my ex-girlfriend had a study. The snake drove her crazy. Although I sympathized, I was curious about this snake. I tried a dozen times to catch it, to pick it up and take it outside. Small, fast and canny, the snake had some game in spite of its infancy. I spent many sessions over several weeks trying to catch it, always when my ex was away from home. Ultimately I never caught it. My ex bought a mail order snake trap that was essentially glue on some cardboard for throwing the snake away. That trap was one of the items left in the house when she took off, the glue having slowed neither the snake nor her. I think now the trap became an objective correlative for whatever long-term unhappiness was about to impel her away. At any rate, she left and the snake remained. For all I know it is still somewhere in the baseboards, grown now into the intelligent, private personality it seemed destined to become. It’s welcome here.

One recent night I dreamt I met up with someone—features were vague, the details sketchy—and at the end of the dream I heard this person say: “You must leave here.” I woke up immediately and sat up in the bed, my body feeling mired by the vivid weight of the dream. The sun rose through my bedroom windows. The indescribable beauty of this ridge lay washed in light and I got up to marvel over it. I felt small. Must I? And why must I leave? I wondered about it.

It seems sometimes that I am moving closer to something important in this place, perhaps toward the personality I was destined to become. I’m about to spend $12,000 to get my driveway re-graded and re-paved so that I can stay in my house on the ridge near Rice Creek throughout the brutal winters to come—a pickup with a plow will then be able to remove the snow in my driveway which it cannot now do. It will be easier. Make no mistake, I would find it very difficult to leave here, this place that I adore.

For all of that, in spite of everything I have told you so far, I know that I would nevertheless leave here. It may not seem so at times, but the world is a large place with many different small bodies in it, and there are many houses, and ridges, and creeks in it, and there are many creatures, and there are many more possible lovers than there are exes, and there are many more miraculous occurrences than there are heartbreaking ones. Destiny is fluid, and love is one of the miracles between small bodies.

For love, yes, yes indeed, I would leave this place to go to another. And that, I think, is possibly why the turtle, though slow, seems reckless.

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