A year ago I could not see across the thicket of the late spring garden, so dense was the tangle. Arched canes of heavily perfumed Ispahan roses looped over mounded beds of lime butter lettuce. The lettuce coiled in soft circles around plump cranberry beans just beginning to twine their way up stalks of Tarahumara sunflowers. In the heart of this May jungle I remembered a line from the poet and meditation practitioner Gretel Ehrlich: “Leaves are the verbs that conjugate the seasons,” she observed. Yet after more than thirty years of gardening in the din of this green babble I was mute in paradise, searching for a new way to parse and track the tangle all around me.
Surprisingly, this fresh track opened up just a few days later when I happened upon a still-warm pile of mountain lion shit. I was walking the coastal headlands far above the Redwood Creek watershed and had just pushed through a thick surge of chaparral brush to stand on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Green Gulch garden. I smelled the cat shit—or scat, as it is properly known in the tracker’s world—before I saw it. Scat and lion piss—acrid, wild, and fearsome; barely concealed by the large creature who had marked her terrain with this offering. Nearby was old scat as well, bleached white by time. This new pile was fresh, however, segmented cylindrical turds stuffed with rough deer fur and what appeared to be snapped rabbit bones. Clearly the garden below and its richness of game was not my domain alone.
With wild scat as my witness, a layer of biped vanity and self-importance was sloughed off that day. The garden grew both larger and less known to me. All entitlement dropped away, and I came in anew, a visiting stranger. Instead of tracking what was familiar, I began to notice what was not. Leaves continued to conjugate, but I stopped translating. Scat and wild dung, older than language, were my new guides.
Instead of noticing hummingbirds as pollinators while they worked the long-throated red blossoms, I saw them as efficient aerial manure squadrons, fertilizing the summer garden. For the first time I knew that the coastal blackberries were ripe not by their appointed calendar time but by the telltale bright purple stool of the wild birds who monitor the garden from their perch high in the cypress windbreak and leave their liquid violet droppings on the wooden crates stored beneath the trees. I even became a halfway decent amateur tracker this year, one who pontificated less about deer damaging the heritage roses, and discovered instead where they were getting in by following the fence line until piles of shiny deer spoor, deposited in neat mounds, indicated a torn gap in the deer fence.
I am neither romantic nor distracted by scat, although shit has helped me see the garden with fresh eyes. Scat is my newest mindfulness teacher. I know a few things now when I find raccoon feces in the orchard, like the fact that apples are a fine laxative and that raccoons favor the soft, snow-white cider apple to the hard-skinned Cox’s Orange Pippin dessert apple. The volume of raccoon scat tells me so, and I still show up at night to chase the masked “washing bears” out of the orchard. Next spring I’ll be sure to net the cider apples first.
My husband gave me a new T-shirt this season. It is covered with twenty-six different drawings of scale-sized animal turds. I wear it with pride, marveling at all the words for scat inscribed under the pictures: dung, feces, waste, shit, excrement, dirt, dukey, stool, turds, ordure, droppings, manure, spoor, calling cards. And that’s just in English! I like to remember that in the jazz world scat is a type of free song made of up meaningless syllables sung to an untamed melody, a kind of wild, fecal conjugation of the seasons.