Hidden Life; or On Living Among the Living a Well Life

From my windows I daily see a neighborhood cat, a mostly-white calico whom I call Whitey Ford, going about his busy life, trotting quickly through the yard next door intent on some task or other, or crouched tail-whippingly on our deck menacing some real or perceived prey under the rhododendron. And watching his trajectories, in secret, as only occasionally does he notice me — if I move in the window, or tap to distract him from being overly attentive to a perched cardinal — makes me think about all the lives lived busily around me. The squirrel brothers chasing each other around the tree, the Loud Family whose conversations blast out from flung-open windows across the street, the ants I noticed rallying around a seemingly random spot on the wall, the lady who lives a few blocks away whom I’ve seen for years walking a series of dogs through the neighborhood with a series of better and worse limps as she’s dealt with what I suspect are hip replacements, the cardinal generations the most recent of whose lives are possibly endangered by Whitey Ford.

I wonder if anyone notices me. Do the squirrels look down on my head as I’m raking the lawn of the catalpa seed pods they strip and leave in shreds and think ha ha? I read recently The Hidden Life of Trees, which at first was fascinating but somehow never held on as an entire book. The author, Peter Wohlleben, whose name means “well life,” a forester turned forest warden in Germany, writes mostly of the beech forest he has come to know intimately and the research that has been done around trees, their ways of communicating to each other through scent and chemicals excreted through leaves and roots systems, their interactions with the old and young among them, and the cozy relationship with a fungus that grows around their roots.

Other tree types don’t seem to act quite so communally, and I wonder, as I look at the maple on the side of the house, whether it’s heard that the maple in front of the house has been executed — taken down by the city after its slow decline turned to a tendency to fling branches on street, sidewalk, my car. It seems unconcerned. But I don’t know. Does it know I’m the one who complained to the city? Is it darkly watching me as I move under its canopy to peruse the incoming bleeding hearts and hostas asserting themselves in the spring warming? Is it quietly loosening a limb to send crashing down?

I want to be comforted knowing I’m another being in a community of beings going about our businesses, that we’re all companionably coexisting. The more we know about biology the more we know we don’t know a lot. Sometimes trees will support the life still churning in the stump of a fallen comrade. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes a cat will kill a bird. I just saw a video of an acquaintance’s cat walking companionably alongside one of the family’s chickens. Sometimes a neighbor will kill a neighbor. Sometimes a neighbor will kill himself. Sometimes a casual interaction with a neighbor will unaccountably cheer me. I’m still laughing over how a squirrel teased Whitey Ford for half an hour one day, finally luring him up onto a tree branch then skipping away. I went out to make sure Whitey could get down again. He didn’t appreciate my concern and glared at me even as he was racing down the tree and away.

Being a being among beings is complicated. Even beech trees can fail each other. Some days I want to help, to be the fungus living rootedly, symbioting with my fellow beings. Some days I just want to be left alone in peace. Most days I’m like Whitey Ford catting through the world, leaving poop in the Garden, eating the bird. There’s something useful about being aware of it, though. Something that feeds my writing somehow, that feeds my living well.

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