Analysis & Comment

Opinion | The Nature of Joy

NASHVILLE — Thanks to a Covid infection early in the pandemic, my blood pressure goes haywire when the temperature and dew point are both very high, and I have trouble breathing when the air quality is poor, too, so I stay indoors much of the summer now. But last Sunday I woke early to the most beautiful day in the history of the world, as my brother calls every day of his life. All around my yard, the world was renewing itself.

I’d turned the sprinkler on my pollinator garden the day before, and sometime during the night our newly resident armadillo had taken advantage of the damp soil nearby to dig a number of small holes in the mowed part of our front yard. I don’t mind the holes. As with the loose soil turned up by moles, the pocked ground that armadillos leave behind makes a perfect landing place for wildflower seeds carried on the wind.

During dry times, worms move deep below the surface, but they move up again when the soil is damp. Waking up to moist, newly turned soil is a gift to ground-feeding birds, and all around the yard robins were monitoring the armadillo holes. One bird would cock an invisible ear toward the ground, and then another would do the same at a hole a few feet away — a concatenation of robins listening and then plunging their yellow bills into the loose dirt, pulling out something juicy to feed their babies.

While I was watching the robins from our living-room window, a tiny cottontail emerged from the depths of the pollinator garden. The wee rabbit would take a bite of clover and then leap straight up. It would take a bite of violet and then dash madly around the circumference of the pollinator bed, leaping and twisting in midair.

I can’t tell you how much delight I take in watching a young animal’s deep pleasure in existence, enjoying the power of its beautiful young body in a beautiful old world.

When I opened the door to let the dog out to pee in the small part of our yard that is fenced, a Carolina wren shot out of the mesh bag where we store our clothespins. Carolina wrens are famous for building nests in peculiar places, often in proximity to human beings, so I hurried Rascal back inside and stood at the door to watch the wren couple bringing leaves and pine straw to the mesh bag. Sometimes they took turns. Sometimes they climbed in together, so busy the whole clothesline bounced up and down.

Once the day warmed up, our resident broadhead skink returned from wherever she had been guarding her eggs and reclaimed her spot on the front stoop. Years ago, for his father’s sake, my husband built a ramp up to our front door and covered it with old roofing shingles. We could safely remove the ramp now — my father-in-law died two years ago — but those shingles absorb heat in a way that is greatly appealing to lizards, and I love watching the lizards.

Our longtime broadhead is often joined now by a juvenile five-lined skink. Both skinks have a scar that marks the place where they once lost a tail in escaping from a predator. The five-lined skink looks to have regrown more than one tail. Its scars are overlapping.

If you could watch skinks taking the afternoon sun, you would have no trouble understanding that wild creatures take great pleasure in the world.

I stand at my storm door as they stretch out on the dark shingles, their eyes closed, their miniature arms and legs spread out behind them the way a toddler does in sleep. When the skinks see me peering at them through the storm door, they merely watch me watching them. If I open the door, or if the dog joins me to look at them through the door, they’ll both scoot under the ramp. They appear to trust me in a provisional way. They do not trust Rascal, even through the glass.

Joy is not a given in the natural world. The baby rabbit I watched cavorting in the pollinator garden was almost certainly born in the nest next to our backyard brush pile. I have seen no other survivor from that litter, and their mother is still the lone adult rabbit in the yard. By now she has surely hidden another litter somewhere nearby, though I haven’t stumbled upon it. I may never see those kits at all, just as I may never see any baby Carolina wrens. Most of the young in this yard do not live to see adulthood, for this yard, like the great world, is full of predators and other dangers.

The Virginia opossum who has taken to sleeping beneath our family room may likewise have only one surviving baby, but the one we have seen seems to be having a grand time figuring things out. On our trail camera, we see it climbing onto our back deck from time to time. My husband, who likes to sit out in the dark backyard and look at the moon, once heard something stirring at his feet. When he opened the flashlight app on his phone, the young opossum was sniffing a box of crackers that my husband had set on the ground.

I’m not anthropomorphizing here. To understand that we all exist in a magnificent, fragile body, beautiful and vulnerable at once, is not to ascribe human feelings to nonhuman animals. It is only to recognize kinship. We belong here, possum and person alike, robin and wren and rabbit, lizard and mole and armadillo. We all belong here, and what we share as mortal beings is often more than we want to let ourselves understand. We all have overlapping scars.

I think the ever-present threat my wild neighbors live with must tell us something about the nature of joy. The fallen world — peopled by predators and disease and the relentlessness of time, shot through with every kind of suffering — is not the only world. We also dwell in Eden, and every morning the world is trying to renew itself again. Why should we not glory in it, too?

Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last” and “Late Migrations.” Her next book, “The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year,” will be published in October.

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