“Hmm,” I muse quietly to myself, “great series.”
I’ve just finished an old Alan Moore comic book saga – Swamp Thing: The Curse. I like all sorts of books. Usually, I spend my time reading non-fiction, environmental journals, or the Beat Generation – and a whole lot of Internet, to be honest. A little over a year ago, though, my soon-to-be six-year-old started really getting into comic book characters. To share in his interest, I started revisiting some of my old childhood favorites. Chief among my oldies but goodies is the Swamp Thing – a perfect paranormal character for this time of year, and, too, for the strangeness we’re all living through.
In true form, this character fits snugly within the horror genre – battling vampires, werewolves, ghouls, spirits, and even, rather pertinent during a pandemic, environmental plagues. Further, hailing from the deep south marshes of Louisiana, Swamp Thing is partly a Chloris from Greek mythos and part transmorphic elemental who can harness all the power within the Earth’s plants. Essentially, the green creature is a shape-shifting humanoid associated with spring, flowers, and new growth.
With the book done, I lay the pages on my chest and stretch backwards in my swaying hammock. The early evening has finally arrived after another long, stressful, busy, weird April day full of remote working, physical distancing, and social solidarity. Suddenly, my little boy’s cartoon squeals of joy catch my attention as he and my wife chuckle together inside our South Knoxville, Tennessee home. I gaze through our open windows. Katie is laughing with Elijah while he plays with the newest boy in our family – Coors, the quarantine puppy. After a few moments of quiet observation, I smile, stretch out my hand, and pet our ten-year-old-dog, Sierra.
“No worries old girl,” I whisper to her. “You’ll always be my pup-pup.”
Patting her head, I turn my gaze to the dogwood trees holding me. The sky is an incredible royal blue – free of clouds and plane exhaust. The fresh air is crisp, lucid, and enjoyable. Tinkling wind chimes play peaceful music in an evening breeze. Our sun casts a relaxing glow across our front yard, exciting the virgin green of flora. The gentle wind sways the grass and cools my skin like fresh linen – all while dancing lightly on the flowers and leaves of my favorite spring trees.
We have seven flowering dogwoods across our outdoor space. Every April they bring me incredible joy. The flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is a good, leafy tree. Ours, I reckon, are rather mature. They reach twenty-five feet or so towards the eternal blue beyond. A good number of flowers are still present on the trees, even as their simple, ovate, green leaves develop. These organs of photosynthesis all sprout opposite each other on twisted limbs.
Dogwood reproduction is a wonderful sight to behold. Ours sprout white bracts that hold the small, humble, flowers. The flowers are the plant’s reproductive organs. They cluster together in a dense, round, umbel inflorescence. The flowers are perfect, both aesthetically and non-subjectively, because they hold both a stamen and pistil. As the seasons roll on, the activity of these flowers produce a cluster of stone fruits that ripen to a bright red late in the waning dog days of summer. Throughout the remainder of the season, on into autumn, the fruit will feed numerous species of birds. In return, the birds, with satisfied bellies, will transport and deposit these seeds across the country in their droppings.
Though dogwood flowers are magnificent, their leaves rival their brilliance. Dogwood leaves are a beautiful color in early spring. This time of day, especially, the sun hits the oval blades just right. The dancing leaves seem almost a translucent gold under the bright light of the sun – our star of life. Even more marvelous, however, is the process we cannot see. These leaves are using light that has traveled some ninety-three million miles to fuel a chemical process that combines water from the ground and carbon dioxide from our atmosphere to form sugar. These leaves remind us that cosmic energy fuels all of life on Earth.
I find comfort among the trees. Their fresh green stands as a symbol – a message that life is possible. Photosynthesis allows plants to feed themselves – to build complex molecules, to grow, adapt, and reproduce. We animals get to take advantage of this process to fuel ourselves – all of our energy, all that enables life, is provided by the sun. These tiny leaves I quietly admire are simply organs that resemble the observable, true, inspiring beauty of life.
“Hey Dad! Dad!”
“What’s up, Eli?” I holler as the front door slams behind him.
“Nothing. Just thought I would come out here with you.” The boy grunts as he pulls himself inside the hammock.
“Almost your bedtime, buddy.”
“I know. I have a question.”
“When will we leave Earth forever?”
I cough a little as his question naturally catches me off guard.
“Ha!” Katie cackles through the window. “Good luck with that one, Dad. I’m going to bed!”
“Good night!” The boy and I, in unison, wish mom her fair sleep.
I know where this curiosity stems from. We’ve been watching a number of space documentaries because the boy thinks black-holes are really cool. The question of how, and, ultimately when, to leave Earth to colonize other worlds popped up on an episode of One Strange Rock just the other night.
“Well, buddy, I don’t really know for sure. I have faith we’ll figure it out when we need to though.”
“When do you think we’ll need to, Dad?”
“Well, not in our lifetimes.” I catch myself chuckling a little bit. “I hope we never need to. We can be great stewards of this place to ensure we never need to. I like our planet. We are Earthlings! Instead, let’s set a goal – may our curiosity as a species fuel enough science to bring us to other worlds within six-hundred years. Not because we must, but because we want to leave.”
The sun is setting now as twilight gives to dusk. Our April night is cold and clear. We sit in silence for a couple of minutes. This is really nice, but I know the boy must get his rest. Just as I start to tell him, he looks to me and smiles.
“You know Dad, sometimes I kind of like this virus. I get to spend a lot more time with you.”
“I know buddy, that has been nice. We’ve slowed our lives down a little bit haven’t we?”
“Yes. I mean, I do hate the virus. But I like this.”
“I know what you mean, buddy.” I motion him over with my arms. “Give me a hug and get some sleep, kiddo.”
I could lay here long past dusk with the kiddo, and have plenty of times recently, but not tonight. I’ve gear to organize and we’ve both sleep to catch – unknown to our little one, we’re going to have a very early, adventurous morning.
“It’s time, my love,” Katie says softly and places her hand on my shoulder to nudge me awake.
“I know,” I say groggy but awake. “I’ve been up for a little bit.”
“Good! Then I am going to turn on the light. I have breakfast burritos warming in the oven. Do you mind loading the car?”
“Not at all,” I respond as the lights come on. I squint, allow my eyes to adjust, and notice Katie is wrapped up in a towel. “Did you take a shower?”
“Yeah. I woke up a little while ago and couldn’t get back to sleep. Once we get the car loaded, I’ll carry Eli to his car-seat. Hopefully, he’ll just fall back asleep. Then we can get the dogs.”
“Sounds good.” I pull my trusty baja over my head and eyeball the time – 3:30 AM, we’re right on schedule.
Once dressed, I open the door to Coors’s crate and motion both the pup and Sierra out of the bedroom. I try my best to usher the dogs as quietly as possible. Futile attempt. Instead we rather loudly make our way past our small dining area with wagging tails, clicking claws, and excited yips. Our table is organized with blankets, headlamps, jackets, toboggans, water canisters, and the boy’s traveling telescope. I gathered it all after Eli went to sleep the night before. I then escort the excited dogs into our small den where I can finally open the front door. The mutts will play outside until we leave. As I gather our gear, the scent of breakfast eggs, potatoes, cheese, and chiles fills the air as our Irish Breakfast Tea steeps. Smells like a good morning. A gratified smile spreads slightly on my face. My wife has put in a lot of care organizing this adventure.
The world feels different now. We’re all stuck in the middle of a Covid-19 pandemic, and our lives have changed. Though we’ve been making the best of our time, all three of us have had our moments of despair. Eli misses his friends, family, school, and sports. Katie and I do the best we can to homeschool, but both of us swear we are far busier now, working from home, than we were when the semester was still trucking along on campus. Recently, Eli felt all the world’s burdens. Just a few days ago the five-year-old had a prolonged emotional breakdown. He was scared – not for himself; instead he feared he may get us, his grandparents, cousins, or friends sick. Without going through all the details, this really bothered Katie and me. All we could do in the moment was hold our quivering son and whisper reassuring words as he sobbed into our shoulders. To throw salt on the wound, he was stung by a wasp in our basement later that very day.
Though these times are hard, something special can be found in trying moments. That day, the humility I felt while holding my scared child helped me realize how lucky our family unit really is. We are in this life together for the long haul, that’s for sure. And moments like this one will ring in time. He’ll be six soon, and I don’t know where all the time has gone. In a time so fragile we’ll just keep offering our hands. A good man needs nothing more, really, than to feel the grasp of his child’s hand in his own, and what else is there? Much like D. H. Lawrence’s “Piano,” back down the vista of years, I’ll see my child thrown into the boom of life’s tingling strings. Perhaps he’ll remember us, with a smile, as we sing.
This morning we’re breaking the routine – adding a little excitement to our lives. The Lyrid meteor shower is in full swing. The Lyrid is an annual event, but, with the new moon this year and a good reduction in air pollution, we should have a rather good show this time around. We in the Northern Hemisphere can expect some twenty “shooting stars” per hour. When I imagine how excited my son will be, even my eyes smile. Eli has such an obsession with the cosmos that he’s determined to be an astronaut when he grows up. So, this venture is perfect for him. We are traveling to the Foothills Parkway to find a pull-off that overlooks the rolling valleys of Townsend, Tennessee and the rising ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With our gear loaded and telescope safely tucked away, I close the trunk of our family wagon on a cold, perfectly clear, early April morning.
The house door behind me swings open. Katie has the boy tucked across her body. Side stepping the family wagon, I move out of her way as she rounds the vehicle to load him in the car seat. I head past a dogwood, so relaxed and cool in the dark morning, to the side of our front yard and clink open an old gate. Sierra, still very spry and full of energy for a ten-year-old dog, zooms and zags like lightning into the driveway. She snorts, wags, leaps, and moans with excitement. She’s damn excited about a car ride somewhere fun. Coors, on the other hand, very new to life and completely confused, tries to imitate his older wolf counterpart. He takes a puppy leap, only does not fully leave the ground. He somehow stumbles onto his side. Forgetting to fully stand, he tries to take off after Sierra, but forgets that running requires both front and hind legs. His back legs thrust, while the front stay still, so he rolls and lands with a squeal on his back.
“Jeez pup,” I whisper as I bend down and pick up his four pounds. “You’re a total mess.”
The pup quivers and trembles in my arms. I set him next to Eli in the car and wrap a blanket around them both. When I move Sierra hops in the back to ride with her pack. I shut the door as Katie settles in to drive.
“I can drive, I’m good,” I offer.
She hands me my thermos with hot tea and says,
“I’d rather drive. I’ve been getting carsick. Plus, this way I can control the radio.” And, with that, Dolly Parton’s older country tunes play the soundtrack of our early morning. Very well, the diatonic dulcimer fits the groove of our starlit morning.
The plan was for Eli and Coors, oddly awake just before 4:00 AM, to cuddle together and fall swiftly back to sleep as we traveled an hour or so to the Appalachian foothills. Pretty flawless idea, except Katie and I now realize very early in our adventure that this plan is not going to happen. Eli bursts with joy and it sounds like the bright cracks of thunder underneath flickering spring clouds. His pup, still far too young to have an audible voice, surely tries to laugh with a wide-open smile and a merrily wagging hind end.
Dogs and humans share a special relationship with one another that goes back tens of thousands of years. Dogs are really domesticated wolves. If we think back, some thirty-thousand years ago to the Upper Paleolithic period, our ancestors were hunter-gatherers roaming the Earth during an ice age. They slept beneath the stars. Our ancestors used the cosmos to understand when fruits would ripen, when grains could be harvested, and when herds of game animals would migrate. These populations lived in competition with other predators for resources. They lived with the danger of mountain lions, bears, and wolves that threatened the young, elderly, and ill among them.
Wolves would stalk humans, circle and scout their camps in the dark of night. When our ancestors cooked, they sometimes left calorie-rich bones and leftover organ scraps behind. Wolves would not enter our ancestral camps under starlight because this proved too deadly. Instead, they waited for human populations to leave an area before feeding on the leftovers. Some wolves, though, due to natural variations in their genetic code, carried lower levels of stress hormones than the rest of the pack. These wolves cautiously approached humans and acted as a sort of sanitation squad. They let our ancestors do the hunting and profited biologically from human labor. These dog ancestors manipulated the food web by domesticating humans. As time went on, our relationship with the wolves deepened. The would-be predators gave up finding a mate for a steady meal. Humans bred the wolves that pleased them, while they consistently killed off those that posed a threat. Humans took the power of selection into their own hands, and the result? Dogs.
Dogs, still wolves after all these years, share interesting behaviors with humans. Dogs are rather territorial, hunt cooperatively, hold a range of emotions, and hold to a pack mentality. These social characteristics afford dogs and humans a comfortable relationship – one that allows dogs to help protect the family, play and behave in a cooperative manner, feel excited to see us, miss us when we’re gone, and follow the home’s social order. What’s most interesting about the human-dog relationship is the emotional attachment shared across species. Dogs learn our behaviors, as we learn their behaviors. Further, our species are attuned with one another. We sense each other. Just as we read our dogs’ mood, they, too, know when we humans are happy, sad, angry, feeling ill, and more. Our ability to show unconditional affection for one another has formed a truly unique cross species relationship.
Check out Grant’s “Rhapsody – Part 2” this Thursday, June 11!
**Image source: provided by Grant Mincy, photographer