I'm an equal opportunity nature lover. I can share an endless supply of exquisite landscape scenes, intimate studies of flora, or rustic architecture cut from the stone of its surroundings. That would be a kind of lie, one that can be filed under 'living the dream' in an Instagram curated paradise. The truth is I love to get up close and look at gross things too. I always have. As a child, I studied things closer to the ground. When you get down there, close, you can see little life cycles at work. Growing from the soil. Rotting and returning to the soil.
Geosmin. I learned this word a few months ago. I probably read it on a diagram in Earth Science class when I was thirteen, but I didn't savor it until recently. It's good to have a word for things that are hard to describe. Geosmin is an organic chemical compound with the alias C12H22O. When the bacteria in the earth die, this chemical is released.
If you are not familiar with the scientific description, it is the smell of geosmin you know. It is the fragrant, earthy cocktail of chemical compounds made more musty and rich by rain or dew.
Now, let me tell you about the furry poop. Early on Christmas Eve morning 2020, I spotted three tubular tufts of fur as I marched up my mountain. It was the wrong season to see the puff of seeds bundled in a cluster atop a dandelion stalk, ready for take-off. Nor the bright floss bursting from an inverted milkweed pod. The remnants of a dog fight? As I imagined the options, I lowered myself to a squat and saw happily that it was dog poop that had somehow grown fur in the early morning hours. The frosted white muffs glistened against the dark soil and battered roadside grass. I got closer. Each follicle that extended from the feces was appointed with tiny Swarovsky dew droplets. Did the growth emerge from inside the excrement? Or did an invisible colony of bacteria settle on its outer surface in the night like the miniature townsfolk who climbed all over the sleeping Gulliver?
I didn't care to know the cause or source in detail. I was just happy to see frosted shit.
On my way back down, I was stopped again by an unusual form: a lacquered brown phallus. The head of it looked like a whale's long stretch of a mouth, especially with the little black circle of an eye set above the place where the jaw would hinge. But there was another hole. The two were perfectly round as though made by BB gun pellets. Lowering myself I saw it was a banana that had been dropped by a hiker or driver-by, the peel made brown in the cold night. I caught a caterpillar in action as he worked on boring another hole into the fruit. Red spots peeked out from under his armor that overlapped in a graduated cascade from end to end. It sported ten of these black plates that rose to a crest in the middle. The red body shown on the edges where the plates met and blanched pink to white towards the belly. This would be a moth or a butterfly one day, stuffed on banana, on a sweet potassium overload. I imagined the caterpillar blindly munching its way through the gooey tunnel.
What a night! It's hard to imagine such debauchery could yield something so innocent as a butterfly.
A brief internet search could not cough up the name of this caterpillar, nor the moth it might become. The poisonous processionary caterpillars get all the limelight around here. Those are the menace of the Mediterranean that can close a school down in late springtime. The processionaries are kind of like the gypsy-moth caterpillars I scooped out of the up-ground pool as a kid in New England. Who would put a pool under a pine tree laden with triangular webs like lacrosse sticks, spilling over with the spiny pests that migrated down the bark in a slow convoy, only to drown in the chlorine anyway?
All of this is just to say I am not afraid of death. My brother Ross used to say I had a propensity for the macabre, a predilection for the gross. He was right. He is right.
Can you believe sharing this post was almost as hard for me as sharing my experiences with sexual assaults? What is this shame over being ... gross? No - over being fascinated with sticky, dying things and the stench of composting life. Why should I be ashamed? I know by now that this is the visual junkie's version of Shadow Work. This refers to the introspection process we can forge through to understand the darker parts of our psyche that are hidden from easy view. For a decade, between the ages twenty-eight and thirty-eight exactly, when I was first fully entrenched in the marvels of yoga and meditation, and in meeting the other optimists who were in on the secret of illumination, I tucked this dank stuff away. It felt safer to wear all white and look up. Then, death just kept showing up. Death of another relationship, death of idealistic visions of sugar-plum motherhood, death of beloved friends. Year upon year, I got pulled further down, packed into the compost heap, unable to see light through the mulch. So I got comfortable in the geosmin. Like I could in my girlhood, in the tomato patch, charged with the job of flinging thick green worms from off the tomato stalks into an air-bound arc, right over the fence into the chicken yard. I took pleasure in my chore as I got to watch the hens bolt over to compete for a chance to snap the worm up in their beaks. Invariably, two would tear it in half and simultaneously chug their portion down while scrawnier birds encircled to watch the carnage. It was a medieval sort of entertainment for little me that made chore-time a pleasure.
I'm not sure how to conclude this but to say that I am thankful to still have the use of all of my senses. To be on this side of the dirt and to marvel in the churning of life and death, close up.