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Falling on Lobsters

Jul 27, 2005

"All of us are born with a set of instinctive fears--of falling, of the dark, of lobsters, of falling on lobsters in the dark..." - Dave Barry

There is a thorny tree that grows all over South India. If you've ever been here you'll maybe see it in your mind now. Bristly and thick stemmed and decidedly unattractive. They overrun the countryside, like a dismal army in dustygreen fatigues. Overgrown, untidy, unfriendly and- Everywhere. As a child travelling by train I would look out the window at their vast prickly stretches dotting the rocky plains and they would fill me in equal parts with loathing and despair. In the vacant lot by our house they grow with an alarming tenacity. The enemy next door. Horribly difficult to uproot. Raising weaponed arms. Such uncalled for agression. Funny to think now how swiftly they put me on edge sometimes with their miserable menacing.

A few months ago working in rural Andhra Pradesh on a video training project with a few volunteers, I finally learned the botanical name for the Aggressor. It's a variety of Acacia- my informant was a man who has spent much of his adult-life living and working in the Indian countryside, knows it better than the back of his hand (and on a sidenote: how well do we really know it anyway. the back of our hand. and when was the last time you really looked?) a man who years ago just out of college riding a rickety bus saw through his window a village whose beauty moved him so much that he got down at the next stop and walked back to it and the first farmer he saw he said to him, if I work with you in your fields will you let me sleep in your house, eat my meals on your floor? and the farmer said yes. And so he worked and lived there a month. And never Really came back. Which is why now he knows things now about things like acacia. There are over 40 varieties in South India. And some of them are actually beautiful and economically of significant value. But my particular enemy happens to be the most rampant and unfavorable of them all. In Gujarat they have a name for it that he told me and I have forgotten it now but it translates to "The Mad One". Well-chosen name, that, I thought grimly. I am told the acacia is not a native of India- it was an 'exotic' tree brought over from foreign shores because of its nitrogen-fixing properties and its high tolerance of saline soils (or something like that. my facts maybe blurred here. point is they were brought over to do a Good Thing- and then went Bad) very soon they began replicating with a swift, determined hardiness that began to beat out native inhabitants by taking ferocious first dibs on everything from groundwater to soil nutrients. A story the world has played witness to so many times over. The story of Worldly Conquest that so often begins with clear motives that turn murky with the sharpstone struggle for survival and the graveltones of greed.

Acacia abbatiana; Acacia abbreviata; Acacia abrupta; Acacia acanthaster; Acacia acanthoclada acanthoclada; Acacia acanthoclada glaucescens; Acacia accola; Acacia acellerata; Acacia acinacea acinacea; Acacia acinacea brevipedunculata; Acacia aciphylla; Acacia aciphylla aciphylla; Acacia aciphylla leptostachys; Acacia acradenia; Acacia acrionastes; Acacia acuaria; Acacia aculeiformis; Acacia acuminata ciliata; Acacia acuminata glaucescens; Acacia acuminata latifolia...and eventually Acacia horrida...and the list goes on (who knew there were so many species in the genus. Reading their names a curious kind of litany. But I stop when I come to the name I am looking for)

Acacia horrida.

It is odd to feel such animosity towards a growing thing. It is odd to see this animosity reflected in the choice of name granted to it. And I realize with a pang that I had expected Taxonomists (or whoever it was after Adam who went around assigning names to things) to be more equal-minded than me.

Acacia horrida.

The funny thing is I just found that name out this morning. But many weeks ago I was coming home from work and in one of those packedmomentflashes we all have, that take far longer to explain than they take to occur- my eye caught the lifted haphazard beweaponed arms of The Mad One and swift wordless thoughts in my mind that saw how strangely sad to be that full of hunger and hate, that said- don't you see that wildness is really the desperation of weakness and that some kinds of fury mask some kinds of fear? and suddenly the Agressor seemed less like a soldier-on-the-other-side and as I studied the way it heaped itself upon itself in small thorny mountains of hopelessness, it's tangled arms raised like a troubled teenagers- not attacking- but flailing- a drowning on land. A surge of compassion rising in my throat so strong that it made me feel slightly silly.

I am not going to pretend to you that I am in a place where compassion comes that easily all the time with humans. So I wondered whether it was some sort of self-conscious sentimentality striving to be spiritual that made me feel this way now about a plant I never really liked anyway. But I don't think it was. I don't think self-consciousness can summon itself to the surface that quickly.

And I let the moment pass. Ever since then I have noticed without really trying to notice it- my lack of aversion to The Mad One. Almost a sense of emptiness where I am so accustomed to feeling the rising coils of annoyance and inexplicable dread.

And for a long time a thought has been slowly dressing itself in words, a thought that stretches as it runs a comb through its hair and says with a lazy, challenging smile- You're The Mad One you know. And since I think I know this I don't deny it but nod dumbly waiting to hear more and the thought takes its time finding its chappals and when it finds one, looks up to say- all your cravings and fears, all your faults and your failings- you plant them in red soil and they take root and then if you are not careful, they take over and they cover themselves with thorns so no one can touch them. Still I say nothing and the thought bends over rummaging in the shoe rack, silent for awhile, until it finds the other chappal, slips it on, straightens up. You know your thorns are your lack of awareness- yes? And since I hadn't quite figured it out that way I took awhile to answer. Because if you had asked me straight out I would have said I didn't have any thorns. But I know I have a lack of awareness. So I thought about how thorns might translate into defensiveness. And I thought about when I get defensive and why. And I thought of words like I. And ego. And phrases like lack-of-trust. And selfishness. And I realized that it was true. About my thorns being my lack of awareness- in an abstract manner of speaking. And when you stretch abstraction this far it starts to sound really silly.

So you stand up and change the subject. Abruptly. Like this:

So tell me- when was the last time you fell on a lobster in the dark?

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