meeting.” The ancient Labrador — her body lumpy with benign
lipomas, stiff with arthritis— would press close and shove her
nose underneath his hand. “Funny,” he mused, “ I never thought
this old dog would outlive me.” He’d drink a milkshake. He’d sit
with us. He’d take his pills.
On October 1, 2015, before dawn, in the hospital bed in his
own living room, he died. It was just after 4 a.m. in Iowa when
my mother called me. “He’s gone,” she said.
The memorial service in my childhood church—
standing-room only— was a stiff-backed, burning-eyed blur: his nurses,
loyally dressed in scrub suits; the shine of the plastic communion cups; my small niece and nephew snuffling into Mama’s
neck. On a table in front of the altar: framed pictures of Daddy
in his hunting clothes. The surprisingly small mahogany box
of his ashes, draped with a white handkerchief. And flowers
from our yard: early-blooming camellias, one mysterious late
gardenia, and three so-called Confederate roses, Hibiscus muta-bilis, the tall scraggly bush you’ll see in every country yard and
abandoned-homestead clearing in Alabama, with thick-petaled,
ruffly flowers that open white and slowly blush pink until
they’re fuchsia by dark. They bloom in October, right at the
dimming of the year. The first one opened, white, on the morning of his death.
Back home, I set the box of my father on his old rolltop desk.
Flinched at the naked white label with its number and name.
Fetched an orange hunting cap and set it on top. Every night I
put my hand on that box. It thrummed with some energy, with
a faint hum I heard below my actual sense. Good night, Daddy, I
prayed. You’re not alone. You’re not here by yourself.
BEING OUTDOORS teaches you to see what’s there in front of you,
but, through imagination and story, it can also turn you toward
the mythic. Monsters and beasts come alive through detail, in The
Odyssey or in a hunting camp: You should have seen that snake that
sprang out of that haybale when they cut it open. I looked up and there
he was, a big ol’ buck with the smoke coming out of his nose and a rack
just like a rocking chair. Finally we saw him — a nine-foot gator, been
in that pond the whole time and we didn’t even know. To walk in the
natural world is to walk in particularity and mystery, both of which
are sharpened by the attention that can keep you alive.
A good way to understand this is to look at rattlesnakes, which
occupy the same place in the rural Alabama imagination that
Scylla and Charybdis must have occupied in the minds of Odys-
seus’s sailors—dreaded and feared, right enough, but what a
thing to see, what a welcome sign that the world’s not yet tame.
Every farm truck had a stash of rattles in the propped-open ash-
tray, with shreds of skin clinging to the pocketknife-chopped roots
of the tail. Once, frozen to the spot, I watched my mama chop
a three-foot rattler to pieces as it streaked for its den under the
porch. Another time, my father uncovered a nest of young snakes
inside the wooden pallet that held up our diesel-fuel tank: “people
think rattlesnakes hiss soft, like steam,” he said, “but it’s not, it’s a
hard sound, like a spit.” He knew different sounds could be impor-
tant; like eighteenth-century surgeons, he’d put his ear to patients’
chests for the evocatively named seagull murmur. Physicians, like
writers, are connoisseurs of the sensory and the specific.
And then there was the rattlesnake ghost: a skin nearly a foot
wide, edge to edge, draped over a rafter in my grandmother’s
attic. I never knew who’d killed it, or where. On Sunday afternoons, if I could cajole an adult to tug the trapdoor cord in the
hallway ceiling, I’d clamber up the wooden ladder that uncurled
at me and sagged beneath my weight, each step a narrow knob
of spine. As my head rose into the dark, I was already turning
to look for the rattlesnake skin in the far back corner, its scales