“There are two possibilities. Either we are alone in the universe or not. Both are equally terrifying.” Arthur C. Clarke
An armadillo has been digging holes in our back yard, leaving piles of gray sand and cyprus mulch behind the bougainvillea. I was indifferent to the creature until I happened on another hole a bit closer to the pool. Unlike most pools in Florida, ours is vinyl rather than cement, so the thought of strong claws ripping into the wall of dirt behind the fragile pool liner inspired me to call animal control.
It would cost four hundred dollars for someone to come out and set traps so I decided to talk the matter over with a few locals first. They advised me to pour spice containers of Mexican hot pepper down these holes, cover everything over with steel wool and then place heavy bricks or flower pots over it all. Armadillos depend on their nose for just about everything since their eyesight is poor; they spend much of their time burrowing underground for ants and grubs, encased in a rigid carapace over much of their body and they cannot easily afford sneezing fits.
So a day after I emptied the can of Mexican hot pepper down the animal’s main entrance way, my pale agitated neighbor, normally so unflappable, was suddenly in the front yard running aimlessly up and down the driveway, indignant and frightened, all confidence lost. He knew very well that he had never harmed me or gotten in my way or really done anything bothersome. In fact, he had gone out of his way to avoid me and leave me be. This was the first time I had even seen him in seven years, although small distinctive mounds of gray sand had always been discretely in evidence. Though three containers of red pepper, one Mexican chili pepper, and one regular chili pepper were still on the spice rack, I knew I could never use them again.
He had looked me straight in the eye with his ears upright and his funny pointy face that zapped me with such righteous force I instantly realized the creature must have his tunnels. They were his reason for being. It was an earth thing, an evolutionary inclination. I had to get over myself. So I complied and things were back to normal soon enough. The armadillo took no time at all to dig several new entrances to his spacious underground den, and, keeping my anxieties in check, I left him alone.
Once more on sunny hot afternoons, he lies blissfully asleep amid the deep cool roots of the bougainvillea bush as I try to finish the Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar, yet again. Occasionally, a distant lawnmower or a neighbor’s voice breaks the spell of tropical silence. Neither of us hears the swishing rumbling turning of the planet as it revolves around our star; the fiery crackling explosion of sunspots leaping out of the sun’s corona, the burning hissing fingers of flame reaching for our fragile atmosphere. Deaf to it all, we both have carefully created homes on a peninsula on a water planet: one above ground with glass sliding doors, purple passion flowers covering an old fence and a screened in porch, the other below ground in marvelous soft sandy soil with endless tunnels, escape routes and bugs.
The armadillo and I are only transitory phenomena in the evolution of this earth. We were born to be homebodies, so to speak, not fit or durable enough for long-term deep space exploration. We share the same molecules and amino acids in the carbon- friendly goldilocks zone where we are happy to reside. Millions of evolutionary refinements are behind us.
The nine-banded armadillo, for example, is as fine a digging mammal as can be found anywhere, whereas I seem to embody a mostly benevolent intelligence that can read and write and feel sympathy, with no real status to speak of since it knows very little about anything. It is doubtful that anyone in the far future would want to clone either an armadillo, or myself, as there is nothing as yet historically spectacular about either of us.
Anyway, it is certain that we will never get out of this place. All the talk about going to the stars at the speed of light is just nonsense, like the idea of being transported instantly from a spaceship down to the surface of a planet by disassembling one’s molecules and then reassembling them to “beam up”. We, at least, will be stuck within the confines of our solar system the rest of our lives because our present ships would take a thousand years to reach the nearest star and another thousand to return home. Inter- stellar culture is still a fantasy, warp drive a dream. We will simply have to endure as best we can ever hotter afternoons, more oil-soaked beaches around the Gulf of Mexico, millions of crazy ants imported from South America, the extinction of orange trees, and of course, the beginnings of the Atlantic Ocean flooding our entire state.
While currently only the heat affects the armadillo and me, it is evident that many creatures presently alive here, from alligators to panthers, are in a state of troubling change, anticipating a decline in their usual good fortune. It seems there is nothing to be done. Besides, we have just learned that there are over forty billion planets similar to our own in the universe and astrobiologists are confident that many have remains of technological civilizations. Well, we all must draw our own conclusions.
None of us on earth are meant to last forever. But while waiting around, we all still have our soulful little routines, our comforting habits, our songs, our beautiful lives. Up north, the surviving big male polar bears, for example, still dance blissfully together on their hind legs in a blizzard. Closer to home, every spring, red breasted robins on their way to New England still spend a few days drinking and bathing in the puddles left by our sprinkler.
And nocturnal nine-banded armadillos, all five pounds of them, being the creatures of starlight that they are, occasionally jump four feet straight up into the air to better glimpse the constellations. My own routines are more mundane. I wander outside on clear nights to stroll around the swimming pool a few times, witness the moonrise, refill the bird bath, and look for a few shooting stars.
Ninety-nine percent of the people currently living on this water planet have never seen a night sky with more than twenty-five stars in it. Completely absent from our imagination are the one hundred million stars making up the Milky Way Galaxy. We still believe ourselves to be the epicenter of the universe and in carefree innocence take silly pictures of ourselves and our friends and our pets for Facebook and Instagram.
There is nothing wrong with such fantasies of self-importance. Not really. So what if the cosmos above us is filled to the brim with intelligent citizens of other planets who have to deal with their own troubles and joys, ancestors and gods. Ensconced as we are on the far outside rim of our swirling galaxy, we have more pressing concerns. I am trying to increase my stamina by walking 10,000 steps a day to prepare for a hiking trip around, and perhaps into, the Grand Canyon with Joanie. The armadillo is trying to persuade a family of mole rats to vacate one of his favorite tunnels, perhaps in preparation for a new family.
Truthfully, I have come to enjoy his secretive presence in the back yard. His herculean excavations and endless remodeling of what now must be an armadillo McMansion impress me as signifying wonderful ambition and faith in the future. This humble little creature at least, remains optimistic and confident, embodying the very spirit of terrestrial life energy. It seems that warmth and sweetness still emanate from the ruined earth and our interests and preoccupations still belong here even as we all slowly grow frail and tentative.
©2013 Linda Clarke Volume 12 Issue 1
I could read this piece over and over again and never get tired of your writing, Linda, or your message. Bravo, Girl.
I have only recently discovered you, Linda. On a Planet Sailing West is for me, a native Floridian, truly to be savored. My friends, who loaned me your book, have been thanked profusely. I will enjoy this web site so very much, now and in the future.