bumpy passages

A look at culture & compassion through the eyes of a lizard.

portrait of bumpy by catherine kidd

excerpted from the print magazine…

Crossing the floor like a little tiny dinosaur
my iguana looks happy, but how do I know
If I should plant her a tree so she can live here with me
or buy a motorbike and drive her back to Mexico...

The last time I saw her she was black in colour. I had never seen her black; she had always been a shifting prism of early autumn: pale green and emerald, copper orange and gold. Her eyes awake were topaz creased with dark – asleep were folded leaves.

But now, cold in a cardboard box on the fire escape, her diamond skin is black. She could be merely sleeping. We make phone calls to find a friend with a deep freezer wide enough to keep a four-foot iguana until spring, when she could be buried in softer ground, and eventually return to it.

She returns to me daily, in the periphery of vision. I miss her very much. I keep expecting to see her, crossing the floor in prehistoric motion, or basking in window beams of sunlight. She’d lift her face to the warmth, and I would defy any human being to say the lizard was not smiling. I would challenge any research to prove that sunlight, to her, is not identical in some way to my own experience of love.

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human form or personality to something (animal, the inanimate, or god). In realms of science, such attribution is frowned upon as obscuring objective fact. Just because the male silverback gorilla in the Bristol Zoo appears depressed and bored does not mean we should assume that he is depressed and bored. His face just looks that way, according to a sign posted above his enclosure.

But whether or not the gorilla is depressed, my human ability to recognize similarities between us compels compassion for him. The encounter brings valuable information about mammals in general and primates specifically, about captivity, about strength and vulnerability, about seer and seen. Perhaps on the plane of collective experience I remember being a gorilla – or at least can imagine this.

In yoga practice, too, there are deep wisdoms to be found in the impersonation of animals: dog, snake, heron, cow, fish, bird of paradise. Ancient sages read essential truths in the curve of a reptilian spine, the crease of a canine hip, the bowed steadiness of bovine breathing. Embodying the stances of animals, learning from their shapes and modes of being, invites them to speak through us – and in time, teaches a broader empathy for all living things. It creates a sense of continuity – prelinguistic, instinctive – recalling our kinship to other species. With this sense of continuity comes deeper peace.

Crossing the floor like a prehistoric herbivore
I love my iguana, but I don’t have a clue
How to tell if the iguana loves me too.

I brought my own sensibilities to observing Bumpy’s behaviour with respect, attentiveness and love – and found that the iguana had plenty to teach. This perspective was more useful than simply assuming I am smarter than she because I am human, and have a larger brain. Her species is several millions of years older than mine, and infinitely more patient.

I was enchanted by her every movement, as graceful as Indian dance, and tried to copy her. I learned about being low to the ground, holding myself up bent-elbowed and bent-kneed to scale across the hardwood floor. I admired Bumpy’s biceps and quadriceps – so cool and strong, yet completely loose and relaxed when not in use. She could climb a rattan curtain, and did not mind when she fell. She would sit a moment, eyes closed, then try again.

She liked to be held, across my chest with her head and front legs on my shoulder. She closed her eyes and became very calm, the same expression as when she raised her beautiful iguana face to the sunlight in her window. Iguanas are not, apparently, capable of emotion - yet my own simple needs seemed identical to hers. I also move toward warmth, do not like to be left in the cold. Like every living thing, Bumpy and I move toward that which feels vital, and shrink from its absence. For the iguana, was warmth the same as love? Perhaps they were of the same radiant source.

When I was a child, any encounter with another creature – a young goat, a group of ants, a pigeon or a cat or a river trout or a toad or a garter snake – was nothing less than an interaction between two beings of equal weight in the grand scheme of things. My only job was to figure out why I had met this particular toad or goat at this particular time. There was always something to learn from them. Something about toes or the direction fur grows, how eyes move, and something about curiosity or humour or stubbornness or grace.

There is a way of experiencing the world in childhood that is often lost, and frequently longed for. It’s hard to describe precisely, since much of it is prelinguistic – having to do with emotional realizations, imagistic or energetic connections made at a particular time and place. Things remembered years later as having special meaning, unknown at the time but later recalled, like a significant dream.

The first emerging moth you see teaches you about some very deep subjects, when you are three or six. A strong sense of self and other is experienced in childhood: the moth, myself. The first trout you see caught and pan-fried over a fire inspires mixed emotions – questions about life and death. There is an intense degree of engagement with the natural world, which is instinctive, not based on previous experience, therefore highly creative.

Yoga practice can help to reawaken these sensibilities later in life, which were never really lost in the first place. More often they are simply mislaid or forgotten about, like a pair of eyeglasses on top of one’s head. Clarity of vision nestled safely in the precise place we are not looking. Yoga helps open up channels of communication between parts of the self, linking past to present. As though every organ and nerve, every muscle and bone had its own set of eyes and ears, its own mouth and its own wordless story to tell.

Catherine Kidd is the writer/performer of Sea Peach, a CD/book publication from Conundrum Press that won the Montréal English Critics Circle Award (MECCA) for Best New Text 2003. Catherine looks forward to hiding out in the woods in Nova Scotia this fall, studying moss and writing something.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life