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In the Muck Beneath

Updated: Jul 9, 2023

It's been a few intense weeks. The kind where, on any given Sunday, you sit down on the couch and wake up four hours later and your spouse tells you, "you look worse."

It seems like everything lately has been some sort of test. Extreme planning and execution with super important projects at work, lots of driving for both that work and my guiding work, some strange occurrences with my family, Shannon's grandmother passing, and then a frantic scramble to prepare for our son's birthday party has left us walking in some sort of bizarro time. The haze and near asthma-inducing air from the Canadian wildfires has also made the past couple of days feel like the set from Total Recall.

Where's my Johnny Cab? I want out of this place!

We also had lost some chickens due to "wildlife strikes" in the past few weeks and we wanted to keep the flock strong. Upon introducing some new hens to the survivors, the established hens brutalized the new ones by plucking nearly all of their neck feathers. Needless to say, we've been playing chicken "referee" for the past week, sectioning off parts of the run, and quite honestly, letting the older hens out to fend for themselves in the yard during the day. There is a secret part of us that doesn't care if a fox or hawk picks one of them off. But in the past few days, that notion has made me dig deeper.

Why is nature so tender and so brutal at the same time?

The hidden and innate treachery of life has, for a lack of a better term, shocked me lately. The world seems to be taking, and not giving in return. I feel like I've been taking a lot too. How much have I given back? Will I trip and hit my head tomorrow and that will be it? With no grand contribution to my family or humanity? Have I saved enough money? Did I say the right thing at the exact right time? And the rhetorical torture of driving in to work everyday is enough to gag me to death: "Did I lay out my plans correctly? Did I communicate enough? Am I being a good professional? How would others rate my leadership skills? Am I respected? Have I failed anyone?"

Ugh. This life. Surviving.

I've been telling an adapted version of the story of Iron John on my walks lately, and I came to realize that I hadn't cared for my pond in a year or two. Iron John comes out of a neglected pond to help the main character reclaim their power. It's fitting for the journey I've been on the past three years. Recent and past wind storms had blown all sizes of branches into the water and I hadn't introduced any treatment in a while to break down the muck on the bottom. Who knows what the heck was now lurking in there aside from massive snaping turtles. Things deeply sunk and uncovered, just waiting to come back from nowhere and pounce. Like Iron John. My childhood stopping me on the path. Forcing me to reckon.

So, I went to the feed store and bought some beneficial bacteria. Beneficial bacteria. Just saying that alone makes you question things, no? And so, yesterday, on what would otherwise be a beautifully clear and pleasant sunny day Northeast Ohio, I tucked my jeans into my muck boots and waded, waist deep around the edges of my pond under a yellowed-orange sky that seemed more of the second coming than a wonderful summer day.

Muck. Muck. Pull. Suck. With each labored step, the ice cold spring water swirled once trapped and muddy sludge around me like ghosts calling from the past. And the smell. Two showers later and the smell of pond sludge permeates from my skin as if I'd taken a bath in the pit of a camp bathroom. I got to all the logs and limbs by hand sawing them into pieces and then loading them onto our little row boat. I felt like Charon ferrying dead souls across the River Styx and laying them to rot on the shore, twisted and frozen. Stuck in their last writhing prayer.

But the real story here was beforehand, when I lifted the row boat up from the ground in my attempt to launch it onto the water. Two massive water snakes lay coiled up beneath. Their sudden uncovering startled one and it came for me. Many people have seen these types of snakes here and mistaken them for copperheads. I can see why, as their scales have circular patterns with light and dark centers. But these snakes are harmless in terms of having poisonous bites. However, they can still hurt quite a bit and make the area swell terribly, making the victim believe they're soon to be on the way out.

I'm a pretty chill guy. And I'm not one to hunt, and hate having to kill anything. But when something wild comes at me like that, it's game on. Luckily I had a rake and hatchet that I'd been using to whittle down and collect limbs from the lake. I made quick work of the first one, while the second fled into the water. This one was feisty, and the head still was trying to bite, even as it's body was now separated. If you've never held a snake, it's something hard to describe. It's amazing how smooth and detailed their skin is. And after dispatching them, they'll writhe until it there's just no charge in the batteries so to speak. Until they sag like bloody ropes.

I held it without gloves until the body ceased searching the air around my body. The place where its head used to be, divining yet still. The adrenaline of my fear now shifted to curiosity. Then awe. I came to respect how strong the muscles were within this creature, despite being in its death throws. This "creature..." Something not made by my hand. Something I'd just uncreated. With its body in one hand and the now glassy-eyed head in the other, I felt the least I could do was thank it for this battle. I gave it to the woods and returned to my work, where I found the other snake had come back to the scene.

I realized just then I had broken up a family. She must of realized it was well and slithered towards me with what seemed like pure vengeance. It may not have been like that, but I have a sense about these things. She went out the same way her mate did, but one of my hatchet strikes hit her midsection. She didn't wriggle as much as the first, and as I carried her to the woods, I felt her body was quite full. Curiosity got the better of me and I squeezed. Out came a string of yellow pearls, each delicately attached to the next by a network of sinews, veins and capillaries. I pulled the rest out and laid them in my hand, a necklace of eggs in my palm. They almost smelled like fresh air after rain. They were translucent and mesmerizing. I felt as if I'd returned from the mine with riches. It was a beautifully devastating moment. I had taken much.

We all must face this I guess. This notion of life taking life, even by natural causes. We all end up, being taken. Everything. All of it. And replaced by the next living thing. To feel this small is an oddly comforting feeling despite its terror on the psyche, lurking around every corner. It's a real feeling though. Far enriching and grounding beyond any success at work or dollar I tuck away. Anyone or thing could bring that hatchet and leave me to the woods. For something else.

All of this said, I certainly still can't have snakes frightening by family and guests. As I finished my work, thoughts of Shannon's grandmother came to me. Her frail body lying on the table before cremation. Gentle bird. She was a good woman. Not a bad bone in her. All of us looking upon her, wondering what journey was laid before her. If God would dare put her to any sort of test. She must have weighed merely eighty pounds. Surely, his taking would have been effortless.

Life, coming and going at the hands of time. Our chickens' eyes, fading into murky mysteries of what lies above, or beneath as their predators feed their young. All things, meeting their end at some point in time. Breaking down and layering stories upon stories upon the bottom of our collective memories. Until someone, or something, comes along. Sogging and sucking and blundering around. Whirling up dreams of running through the trees in the cold deep water.

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