--- 1780
Old woman living at the foot of the Hanger [a nearby cliff]. She curls up in a hedge-hollow. By an ash within sight of the common. Gypsy girl under a blanket. Giving birth in a September deluge. Circumstances too trying for a cow, the curate notes. Boy dozes beside his dog while watching the flocks on the sheep-down. Impoverished wanderer sleeps against a rick of cow-grass. Fleeing his own parish. Barely sleeps, hoping to wake before the farmer does, who rises well before first light.

Even in summer I withdraw by four o'clock in the afternoon. Only a seeming withdrawal. Rouse again and again throughout the night. After forty years in a red-brick box, my waking is not as wary as it once was. This garden, too, is unnaturally safe. I try to keep the old ways that all creatures keep. One eye open. Skin listening. Not in fear but attention.

Curlew clamors in the dark. Night-moth agitates in the air above me. Sly predation of village cats. Dog come to eat gooseberries ripe from the hedge. Piping note of young fern-owls in the distance. Chattering of their elders, like the noise of a razor-grinder's wheel on the street. Chirping of the grasshopper lark. Wood-owls hooting from the walnut tree overhead. Singing of wood-larks. Churring of mole-crickets. Stirring of cattle in the grass. Bat a-flutter low along the fruit-wall. Lonely pace of a traveler's horse making its way down Selborne toward The Compasses in the dark. Sounds of dreaming, as the humans in this village toss in their beds.

I attend to the shadows. To the night-shapes of the trees surrounding this garden. Thatched bulk of houses down the village-back. I cannot hear everything the foxes hear or smell everything the dogs smell or fear everything the humans fear. But I can sense the remote static of the aurora borealis stretching east to west across the welkin. Feel the stars overhead when the wind drops. Resonant in their silence. Smell the dawn when it is still just a premonition. A stirring in the throat of the earliest songbird. The wakeful rooster.

Never has Mr. Gilbert White slept the night out of doors. Even under a tent in the Great Mead. Even on the finest of midsummer eves. He always chooses to sleep within. A plaster ceiling, timbers, and tiles over his dreams. Mean- while the white-thorn near the ash-house glows on moon-shiny nights. Full of blossom.

§     §     §

Author of the great Methodus, Mr. John Ray, asks, "Why should there be implanted in each Sex such a vehement, an inexpugnable Appetite of Copulation?" Mr. John Ray's wife knew full well why. Locked in a despairing embrace. Wishing her husband could wait with such a question. The earth would soon empty without such vehement, inexpugnable promptings. A stirring gratification for thinking ahead. Even when one is not thinking ahead at all. The rub and thump of mating rouses the parish in spring. Restless pairings, quick conjugations. Overspill of seed. Coop, stable, sty, and fold. The fevered opportunity of every encounter. Tups and ewes in neighboring fields. At it. Treading of birds on the nest. In the trees, on the ground, in the garden and sky. Adhesion of frogs. Earthworms laid end to end, hermaphroditic.

Mr. Gilbert White listens with maiden ears. Mrs. John White with the ears of the bride. She from a broken pairing. He, like me, unpaired.

To his nephew Mr. Samuel Barker, the curate writes, "You are not the only person that finds himself under difficulties respecting the sexuality of mosses." Sends along edifying illustrations.

"In the plate respecting the male and female Vallisneria," he observes, "you will see a wonderful instance of the wisdom of providence."

Other creatures have wonderful instances too. No less mysterious than those of the mosses. Consider the eel. Consider the reptiles.

"There is a degree of dubiousness and obscurity," Mr. Gilbert White notes, "attending the propagation of this class of animals."

Though to a reptile, it is plain as day. No more obscure than the propagation of humans. Vastly less dubious, since the question of costume --- getting into or out of in a timely fashion --- never arises. None of the passion for privacy. No pretense of fidelity beyond the enormous fidelity of copulation. Never the ruddiness of shame or guilt that humans display over the nature of the act itself. Virtuosos of despair and justification. No need to credit the wisdom of providence. Wisdom aplenty in the flesh.

Wisdom in its season. Birds set aside what the curate calls the "soft passion" in winter. Worms defer to the frost. Every being reserves a part of the year for propagating. All but humans. Conceiving and whelping in every week of the calendar. In and out of wedlock, in and out of doors. In ash-house, barn, and bedchamber. Wherever the fancy takes them.

Reason, Mr. Gilbert White writes, "would often vary and do that by many methods which instinct effects by one alone."

True in the matter of mating too. A behavior unfettered in humans. The intercourse of reasonable beings. Simplicity of instinct embroidered by lust. Variations, etudes, improvisations. I suspect that humans of breeding age can copulate from almost any direction.

An agility matched only by their haste. Rush to coitus. And to an end to coitus. Curious in creatures so endowed with time. The naturalist mocks the composure of tortoises --- "an animal," Mr. Gilbert White notes, "said to be a whole month in performing one feat of copulation." Proportioning one's industry to one's pleasures. Feat only in human eyes.

Dubious and obscure the propagation of humans. Witness Goody Hammond.

"This is the person that Thomas says he likes as well as a man." Mr. Gilbert White to Molly White. "And indeed excepting that she wears petticoats, and now and then has a child, you would think her a man."

Excepting, indeed. And excepting wings, beak, and a pair of bandy legs, I am a kingfisher. Thomas likes Goody Hammond for her self-absorbing labors. Not for what she does or doesn't resemble. Bare-armed Amazon with a hedge-hook for a bow.

Fashionable women visiting from London. To Lord Stawel at Alice Holt. Strolling the village, arm in arm. Touring this garden. Nothing ambiguous in their markings. Sexual compasses flaunted with clothing. A separate species from Goody Hammond, separate even from Mrs. John White. Flounced and bedizened and most woefully over-hatted. Ostrich plumes ride up and down on their heads as they walk. Curious virility in dress. Ingenious contrivance. How do their males come at them? And at what cost?

Mr. Gilbert White takes the rut for granted in others. Never confesses to the appetite in himself. Pushed copulation to the side of his plate as a young man. Restrained by his college, his calling. Penalties laid upon the Oxford man who weds. Loss of fellowship. Withdrawn from the fray that surrounds him. Decorum of his station in life, though it hardly deters others in his garb. Economy stronger than the sex within him.

--- From Timothy; or, Notes of an
Abject Reptile

Verlyn Klinkenborg
©2006 A. A. Knopf

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