Law of the Jungle

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom, from Wikipedia

I’ve been thinking it’s time for an excerpt. This is from a chapter called “Law of the Jungle.” It was published last year in The Chattahoochee Review. I suppose it’s not surprising that there is a fair bit of animalia in a book called The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures, but this chapter, in particular, investigates some of my fascination with the four-legged world.

Now this is the Law of the Jungle—
as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper,
but the Wolf that shall break it must die.
                  – Rudyard Kipling


They’d been tucked between the electric hued running shoes and the prim ballet flats: a pair of Coach wedge sandals the color of cognac. They were almost seventy percent off. And they were leather—which is why I shouldn’t have tried them on in the first place and why I’d been carrying them around for a good quarter of an hour trying to make up my mind whether to take them back to the shoe department or up to the register and accept that I was a hypocrite.

I’d been iffy about consuming pork since reading Charlotte’s Web as a kid, but the whole hog vegan thing was relatively new. And even though I hadn’t started for political or ethical reasons, they’d begun to bleed in. I’d search “vegan waffles” and end up reading that dairy cows bellowed for days when their calves were taken away or how chickens’ beaks were cauterized to prevent pecking in cages. I read that going vegan for a year had the same environmental impact as not driving your car for the same length of time. I felt virtuous. People ate animals and animals ate each other (and sometimes people) and maybe that was the natural order of things, but it felt good not to contribute to that particular brand of suffering.

I walked around Marshalls in a daze. I was feeling keenly the fact that in two days I’d be spending the weekend with my family at a cousin’s wedding. Impending family visits always make me want to buy stuff. It’s some kind of armoring. It wasn’t like this one purchase would undo all the good I’d done all year, I said to myself by the men’s tracksuits. What about that not driving a car statistic? I’m a disgusting, horrible person, I thought near the Burberry dog beds. Vain, entitled, colonizer, murderer! I was borderline hyperventilating which was kind of turning Marshalls into a Dali painting. Seriously, I thought, what kind of crazy person loses her shit over a pair of shoes? Just buy them or don’t. Stop having a panic attack. I felt sick. I got in line; I bought the shoes. I wore them to my cousin’s rehearsal dinner where the only vegan food was beer.

Emerson said, “First be a good animal.” Live in your body. Pay attention to what’s present and necessary. But being an animal is messy. It’s violent sometimes, brutal. Maybe, I thought in the Marshalls’ checkout line, I’m too soft. I’m too much rabbit, not enough wolf. Maybe if I were more bloodthirsty, I’d be more successful. Maybe I’d have written twenty books. I mean, what does a fucking rabbit have to show for itself anyway?

Maybe instead of going vegan, I should have adopted the paleo diet whose proponents advocate plenty of meat. One guy’s motto is, “Die biting the throat.” He’d like the video I found online of Polynesian women who kill octopuses by fishing them out of their coral holes and biting them between the eyes. I, on the other hand, had to stop frequenting my favorite cute animal website because the Humane Society started running an ad in the margin with an image of a sad-eyed pig in a crate. I couldn’t tolerate the misery in that pig’s eyes. I wish I were made of sterner stuff.

In my family, it was law of the jungle, eat or be eaten. Heed the rustle of brush, the scent in the air that tells you to run, the low growl that says you were born to have teeth in your throat. Predator and prey, fight, flight—the whole epic panorama unfolded. I’m done with it, now—I’m grown—yet ordinary things can trigger that same old panic: a scene in a movie, worrying I’ve said or done the wrong thing, buying a pair of shoes. Maybe the paleo guy is on to something. I need to get in touch with my inner wolf.

Sunday nights as kids, we watched National Geographic and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, programs that taught us that the world was brutal, and pretty much everyone gets a taste of that brutality. It was so emotionally complicated. I didn’t know whom to root for—the antelope running for its life or the lion—a kitty, after all, with roly-poly cubs, which needed to eat. It was awful, the way things were. But there was no sense in being a baby about it. And there was no sense in rooting for both. You could endorse both lions and antelopes in general, but you couldn’t champion a particular lion and the antelope he wanted for dinner. A lion wasn’t made to eat leaves and berries. It had to eat things with hooves and beating hearts. It had to crush windpipes, break necks, stun and gut and gnaw unrepentantly on the viscera of still breathing victims, no matter how much it clutched at the hearts of children watching in suburban TV rooms. Compunction, regret would make it impossible for the lion to survive.

I learned other things from animals, too. They demonstrated useful practices: surveillance, containment, quiet. I thought it might be possible, if I really applied myself, to crack the code of their secret languages. People in books had done it—Dr. Doolittle, Merlin, Pippi. I crouched on sidewalks and chirped to vagabond cats. I squinted at twilit telephone wires to make out which bird was warbling which song and if they were talking to each other. I rested my head on the barreled rib cage of my uncle’s enormous, semi-feral dog when he took a break from terrorizing the neighborhood. I listened to the seagulls that wheeled and shrieked above the ferry when we crossed the Vineyard Sound. I watched wolves and big cats in the zoo pad Morse codes of boredom and distress in loop after loop of their enclosures; I left handprints on the thick glass of the gorillas’ habitat. I thought, I’m sorry, as hard as I could. We see what we need to in animals. They show us ourselves. Our suffering, our fear, our wildness. I imagined all of them saying the same thing to me, the same word in clicks and shrieks and snuffling breath: Escape.

Every summer my mom, my sisters, Molly and Sam, and I drove to the Atlantic coast, stopping, en route, in the New England town where my grandfather and cousins lived next door to each other on a leafy street. The long highway that led there shimmered like charcoal in a grill. Sealed in the air-conditioned station wagon, we slid by green and white signs, picked salty M&Ms out of a Ziploc of trail mix and every few hours pulled off for gas, a pee and a Coke. I watched people at rest stops—eating, drinking, using the bathroom, taking care of the animal things they needed to do. The world was full of animals on two legs and four, on wings in the sky. The world was full of secret languages and pursuit and flight. Sometimes I’d dawdle, shift out of my mother’s view for an instant behind some large bottomed lady in Bermuda shorts or a man with a camera or milkshake and wait for the moment when my mother realized I was missing. I relished the panic that flitted across her face when she couldn’t see me in the crowd. She’d call my name, then, in a voice laced with fear, and I resented her—even more if people turned to look. My escape was small, surreptitious, unreal. It was easy to slip away, but I couldn’t stay gone. I had to get back in the car and back on the road with my mother and sisters, all of us swigging Cokes from icy, sweating cans.


8 thoughts on “Law of the Jungle

  1. Love reading your posts, Maia. I always go into it with time for just a “quick” read and then can’t help but get drawn into it for much longer than I had anticipated.


  2. tremendous writing Maia! I published a letter to the editor in our community newspaper just last week – see below…speaks to how we animals try so desperately to co-exist in this crazy, caged-in world…FYA (for your amusement) …To Turf or Not to Turf
    By Larry Evans,
    (FYI: Democratic Committeeman, Mount Lebanon)
    We Leboites should thank our lucky stars that the biggest concerns currently confronting our sleepy little suburb are 1. To coldly cull or just politely neuter our dancing and prancing (into traffic) deer population and 2. To artificially turf a couple perpetually soggy sports fields or stay grassy “green” but rather lean on our kids’ playing time. To keep things in perspective, we should appreciate that we are spared the more acute contentions raging elsewhere around the globe like civil wars, suicide bombings, kidnappings, “honor” stonings and the suing of the leader of the free world for being uppity about trying to actually accomplish something.
    Presented to our municipality’s recent Commission meeting was the bringing of birth control to our deary deer breathren plus installing sensor-controlled street crossing technology. This wiz-bang of a caring idea only stops short of extending Obamacare to all of our domestic and wild furry friends…now that’s a move which would, overnight, make this healthcare breakthrough the most popular public policy since the New Deal. Humanely solving the deer problem beats the heck out of letting loose a posse of trigger happy “Pittsburgh Hunters” to lurk behind our backyard fences with bows and arrows, AK 47s and hand grenades. There occurred hardly any argument against this state of the art proposal despite its potentially pricy price tag and possible psychosexual disorientation inflicted on our horny Bambis looking to get duly laid in the wood. But we do what we can because that’s what we do constantly in America, unintended consequences taken care of later. We will not winnie the pooh this proactive action just because it is not 100% safe for neither our deer nor our ever more dear, speeding Beamer populations. It’s called progress, people since it will make our community a happier, more prosperous place for man and beast. Improvements always come with a cost but also a benefit to property values, doncha know. Just check out the spike whence that shiny spaceship of a renovated Mt. Lebo High School is finally unveiled!
    To turf or endlessly mow was the larger issue at the meeting – cost and contention wise. The pro-turf people (grateful jocks mostly) were very nice while the anti-turf critics got rather testy. But, at the end of a very long day, turfing was supported by all the youth sports organizations with thousands of member families who put their money ($250 grand) where their mouths were and the project was passed on a 4-1 vote by the Mount Lebanon Commission. Work to install 110,000 square feet of synthetic grass on Cedar Blvd will begin in August, and be done by late fall. Will it be 100% safe since it is made of plastic compounds and has an infill of rubber pellets mimicking soil? – of course not. Nothing is, including grass which requires pesticides and much more maintenance since it is known to inspire mud.
    But the vote wasn’t embraced as a great hop, skip and jump forward. A nest of begrudging Republicans led the charge protesting the turfing as too expensive and get this – not green enough for their sensibilities. This out of the mouths of folks who would probably – in a Range Resources minute – sell the fracking rights to Bird Park. Heck, Deer Lakes, you got nothin’ on us!
    Confounding my Democratic sensibilities mightily was the fact that our usual GOP obstuctionalists (are there any other kind?) were fortified by an unlikely ally – our neighborly and well meaning environmentalists who while sipping their artificially flavored H2O from plastic water bottles, got all worked up over our Johnnys and Suzies ODing on plastic grass, what with rubber pellets clogging their nostrils and MRSA bacteria attacking their skinned knees. It was a fascinating marriage of convenience of the conservative “don’t spend a cent” right and liberal “why don’t we just have a referendum” left. And there I stood – in the middle of this debate – a space I am not known to inhabit. Before retiring, I have worked both as a labor environmentalist organizer in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley (the notorious Big Chem industrial area between Baton Rouge and New Orleans) and I have also been a salesman of Field Turf synthetic grass all over the East Coast. For the purpose of gaining some more perspective – that La. chemical alley literally reeks of some of the planet’s most dangerous pollution. While on that assignment, I was mentored by both the late irrepressible Studs Terkel and the late great union leader Tony Mazzochi of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Worker’s Union who was the guy Karen Silkwood was on the way to meet when her car got run off the road. While on the job in the bayou, I was repeatedly threatened to be fed to the alligators by some fun folks who really do feed people to alligators.
    When I returned to Pittsburgh and started coaching my kids from our new Mount Lebanon digs, I managed a few indoor soccer complexes and became a synthetic grass salesman. I fashioned myself on a Johnny Appleseed crusade covering 22 states with the good news of a safer sports alternative to Astroturf’s nylon rugs. I sincerely believed that I was on the good side of a highly regulated industry and syn turf fields have proliferated to the point that today they are the rule rather than the exception. My biggest sale, btw, was to W & J College, – a 235,000 square foot multi-sport complex off of Interstate 70 next to the Washington Wildthings Stadium. At the time it was the largest continuous synthetic field in the world. That field is now over 10 years old and is still in pristine shape and I talked with their Athletic Department folks who would highly recommend it to our Lebo community. At the Commission meeting I suggested to all to venture on down to that field if they wanted to check out their Cedar Blvd field’s future. I even offered to drive but got no takers.
    Nonetheless I gotta say that democracy in Leboland is alive and well and downright interesting – much like the challenging advanced courses taught in our blue ribbon school district where there are 100% PTA participation and 99% college admission rates.
    And luckily for me there are no alligators…yet.


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