Cubs and pups and all the forlorn and pitiable little animals of the world know that there is one creature who will never laugh at them no matter what foolish mistake they commit on their first day out in the daylight: their mother. Most young creatures are sent sprawling by life either because of bad luck or when they disobediently go out adventuring. But there is always a wolf mother standing by or a bear mother or a coyote mother who will scold and comfort her cubs when they are frightened and helpless. And Nature has seen to it that when the full terror of life comes spitting and bristling and snarling upon us, as it will always come, all yelping and whimpering beginners on our planet have a mother to turn to, often with savage sharp teeth, terrible claws, and a soft soothing tongue.
At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Of course there is always catastrophe. Five small squirrels who live in our woods are always chasing each other, swinging through the oak trees, scampering along the heavy old walnut log. Happy-go-lucky in their large family, they are still conspicuously without a mother. I suspect the sad little mound of gray and silver hair I found near the stones where I feed the squirrels was her, probably grabbed and devoured by a redtail hawk cruising over the neighborhood.
Without a doting parent, these five innocents have to go about the hit and miss task of educating themselves. In the midst of their play this fall, for example, an unfamiliar Cooper’s hawk, the size of a large crow, landed on the log. Furtively observing the young squirrels eating from the block of seeds and nuts I had put out that morning, the hawk turned to stone, a sure sign of hostile intent. There was no warning kuk-kuk from mother squirrel, no rapidly flicking tail. Instead, one of her progeny looked up, saw the intruder and galloped right under its flesh-tearing beak, chattering boldly and ignorantly. A mother makes up for her baby’s lack of experience and teaches prudence above all things and prudence makes us less vulnerable to disaster. Fortunately for the imprudent squirrel, the hawk was so dismayed by this unnaturally careless behavior it flew off and a very lucky orphan ran back to its breakfast.
Some weeks later, after a storm disrupted our mild autumn and covered the ground with three inches of sticky white snow, another one of these baby squirrels cried for hours clinging to the side of the tree growing up in the middle of our deck. At first I thought its feet were tangled in the Christmas lights, but no. After observing the terrified little creature for ten minutes, I realised that it was just afraid to put its feet into the wet cold substance lying on all its favorite highway branches.
Sleeping against his fearless mother’s side, a small being is momentarily safe from the prowling meat-hunters of the world. Being nuzzled and caressed and licked becomes an essential passing of the time for a creature who has not yet developed confidence, who is still tottering on little legs and has no idea how to be ferocious and defiant. No animal is born a little demon of fury. Innocence comes first. And one of the first laws of the universe seems to be that innocence should have its own protector and guardian for as long as it exists.
Life will never become too soft and babyish. There will always come a time when innocence is harmed or destroyed. A puppy or cub will go its own way, no longer desperate for comfort, no longer ignorant of the motives of others.
No one really knows the story of a wild cub except the one creature who is constantly bounding through the brush to rescue it. But one thing is clear. All mothers must anxiously watch their babies venturing forth, full of incomprehension of the world. And nobody is more sympathetic and gravely attentive to its tiny rages and first killings, valiant snarls and unexpected hurts. For there is no reality more irresistible than a little cub who after all its adventures wants his mother more than anything in the whole world.
On the other hand, the rugged meat-prowling philosopher Nietzsche reminds us that just as there are those who show pity for the suffering young of the world, so there are those who have contempt for the healing and consoling impulse. He describes the “heroes” of every generation who disdain the tantrums of the small and have never bothered to even attempt the almost impossible task of keeping others happy, alive, and well. These so-called heroes find the vulnerable and needy and weak alarmingly deficient in cunning and determination, endurance and courage. So there seem to be two laws in the universe: someone will be there to provide care and encouragement and confirm the best in the newly born; and someone else will be around who could care less about all these babies and toddlers and cubs and puppies, someone overwhelmingly vain and self-important who only appreciates conquest, cruelty and domination.
More often than not, life is made up of the collision of these two laws and those who embody them. There is so much that is outside a mother’s scrutiny and control. The baby deer who has just lost its spots and is learning how to cross Route 32, frantically running after its mother, collides with a distracted Christmas shopper. We see the small body the next day by the side of the road. The shopper no doubt only briefly stopped to check out the dent to the right fender oblivious to the disoriented mother who hours later still mournfully stands guard behind a tree, weary and beaten. And there was an encounter that strange blue day in September between the two year old on United flight 175 going to Disneyland for the first time, her brokenhearted mother whispering encouraging words and hiding her wondering child’s face close to her heart, and their bizarre pilot flying straight toward the tall building.
It is time that we all take our stand with the ferocious mothers of the world, the bears and wolverines and eagles who rebuke, humble and crush cub-killers and nest-robbers and terrorists of babies. It is time we take our stand with their inexhaustible longing to protect. There is something gone wrong when a mother’s work is looked upon as a feeble sort of existence.
Our own species makes this mistake. The meat-prowlers of humanity mock the softness of mothers and look upon them as incomplete because they are largely unarmed and focused on the mundane. The world ends up being led by a defective, brawling irresponsible pessimistic view of human nature which tolerates putting the tender pure bodies of our own innocents to work unprotected, unnurtured, and untrained in locked factories or prostitution rings or making them slaves in somebody’s ragtag army. Surely, the wolf mother and bear mother and mountain lion mother would be horrified at our lack of grief for such an unnatural thing.
Observing other creatures around us makes us realise how badly we have broken our contract with nature. In a photograph I saw recently, an enormous polar bear is drowsing on the ice, her huge arms completely encircling a little cub whose stand-up ears and bright black eyes are just visible gazing out at the frozen world. Here lies all the miraculous goodness of life. To think that in this universe of fiery explosions and violent disappearances, some impulse for giving and protecting and developing trust still thrives, like a teardrop in the black empty detachment of space.
©2002 Linda Clarke Volume 4 Issue 1
I love this so much! Thank you for this wonderful piece Linda!