April 08, 2005

What I think about when we talk about rats

The other night I was talking to David about the homing instincts of baby rats. And how, if baby rats are raised in bedding that smells of citrus, they will after the tenth day be drawn to things that smell of citrus. At least, I think that is what he said. I liked the idea of a homing instinct as a learned adaptation. It made me think about the four mammals I've raised and wonder whether or not the same window of learning -- the first ten days after birth -- would apply to them.

Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter was born in the summer, right before a big camping vacation with my extended family. Since we had no crib in the tent, she spent those early days being passed from person to person, held in the shade of big oak trees at the edge of a marsh that stretches to meet the river. I can remember changing her diaper at the end of the dock, splashing river water to clean her wrinkled newborn skin, and noticing that her umbilical cord stump had dried up and fallen off. Without a thought, I tossed it casually into the marsh. Only later did I wonder: did that moment bond her forever to the marsh that I love? And perhaps spending her earliest days being held by aunts, uncles, and grandparents imprinted on her forever the value of community. Most certainly, it seems to have made her affectionate, compassionate, and able to manipulate family members at will.

Boy-in-Black was born in springtime, just as the lilacs were blooming. His earliest days were filled with the heavy scent of purple blossoms, and he too made a trip to camp before his umbilical cord had fallen off. Perhaps the early imprint of spring flowers has made him the gentle, good-natured kid that he is. Certainly the intensity of that lilac smell is mirrored in the intensity with which he approaches life. I wonder if he will always return in spring to a place where lilacs bloom.

Shaggy Hair Boy was born in winter during a snowstorm. Perhaps early exposure to raging winds gave him his temper. I wondered if his homing instinct will keep him here in the north, tie him to a landscape that boasts sparkling drifts of snow. Maybe it's why he has already chosen to grow his hair long, a thick curly mane of hair that certainly does keep his ears warm. No wonder he has taken so quickly to snowboarding.

With-a-Why was born in the fall at peak foliage. He spent his first week under maple trees that glowed red-orange, birch trees all yellow, even the ground covered with crackling brilliant color. Perhaps this explains his silence, his awe of the world, his own shining brilliance. Perhaps this is why he is so drawn to beauty: why he will stay up late to practice the piano, why he begged for saxophone lessons.

I like the baby rat theory because I understand that teenagers must separate from their mother, make their own way, figure out who they are. I guess I am hoping that this landscape -- with its oak leaves, lilacs, snowdrifts, and flaming color -- will hold them here, give them the stability and grounding they need, no matter what the season.

15 comments:

Phantom Scribbler said...

I love this idea, jo(e). Except that I think it means that Baby Blue must have been imprinted on Shrek.

Beautiful post.

Phantom Scribbler said...

P.S. Nice technorati profile ;-)

PPB said...

What's a technorati?
This is gorgeous as always. I feel like so repetitive saying that over and over on your page, but it always is. I was born in early winter, on a college campus ............maybe why I'm so disinclined to leave them? And come to think of it, I can't fathom the thought of living someplace without a winter---a fact that causes many to question my sanity.

Scrivener said...

This is so much more interesting than anything I was trying to say about baby rats and homing instincts! I was just talking about some dumb science project--didn't know you were gonna go and get all deep and philosophical and parental n shit.

jo(e) said...

PPB: Technorati is this weird internet linking thing that works for everyone except me. Because computers don't like me.

And it's not the liking winter thing that makes me question your sanity ....

dr. m(mmm) aka The Notorious P.H.D. said...

I was born between the assassinations of MLK and RFK, so I hope that didn't imprint anything on me.

I'm a little uncomfortable with the rat analogy, but I fully endorse the idea that the structure of our experiencing is influenced by the structure of the places we inhabit. Our relationship to the world and to others is part of an experiential horizon of the (sensory) landscape we are a part of, and it partially constitutes us as us.

Friday Mom said...

A beautiful reflection. I like the idea a lot.

Technorati doesn't work for me either, at least not yet.

And, what DOES make you question PPB's sanity, if it isn't the liking winter thing?

Lisa V said...

My mom was pregnant with me when JFK was shot and my sister when RFK was shot. She always said that she cutting Teddy a break by having her tubes tied.

I think my first two children may have been imprinted with the brink of financial chaos. Bert was working on commission at the time, and with both births, we had lowest paychecks ever. No wonder they crave Top Ramen.

jo(e) said...

Friday Mom: I insult people as a sign of affection. So that they feel like part of my family. So I was just trying to make PPB feel all warm and special and shit. Because that's how she makes me feel.

Nels said...

Jo(e), you NEED to expand this into an essay and get it out there. It's just brilliant and the kind of the kind of thing I could see teaching. Seriously. I could see teaching it and then asking students to think about their homing instinct. Is this why I love water, because I was born when Richmond, VA, faced one of its worst floods in history? Why I love rain?

PPB said...

And you did make me feel all warm and special and shit (can we really say that on the internet)

jo(e) said...

Thanks, Nels. I have been using my blog to practice writing non-ficton after years of writing poetry, so it's nice to get some feedback. Maybe after the semester ends, I'll actually have time to do more writing. Reading student essays kind of sucks the creative energy right out of me.

PPB: Of course, we are allowed to say it. It's a game that Dr. H started over at her blog. And mostly, I'm mocking David because he talked like that even before Dr. H started the game.

Mel said...

beautiful piece . . .I'm really your complete opposite in terms of family relations (I have no children, I grew up without extended family, & I am not close to my one surviving family member) but your essays about your family really help me understand how other people can indeed love their parents and their kids. . .

~profgrrrrl~ said...

This post is great, so full of warm memories.

I like this imprinting idea. I don't have my own kids ... but I'm the oldest in my family and recall the others' births. Makes me think ... I came home from the hospital in the serenity that follows a massive blizzard, cared for by a mother who was very young and uncertain about the new town she had just moved to months earlier, far away from her family, but surrounded by invading inlaws. Sissy1, girl of conflict, arrived to post-Halloween chaos, with days that were growing darker, parents with tensions, and a sister who wasn't sure about it all. Sissy 2, sunny and happy, came along in August during carefree sunny days. Hmmm. I may have to discuss this with my mother ...

New Kid on the Hallway said...

And I was born in the heat of summer, and when my dad tried to open the window of my mom's hospital room the nurse was horribly offended and scolded him that there was a NEWBORN in the room, what was he THINKING!

Maybe that's why I hate summer/heat. ;-)

More seriously, I was born in the suburbs and moved to another suburb, which I think explains a lot - always in between places, not quite one thing or another; but mostly I imprinted on what LDH calls the deep, dark woods of where I grew up. I need to figure out a way to live surrounded by trees, b/c it soothes my soul (and I currently am not surrounded by trees).

Which is all about me, but I guess what I really mean is, beautiful post, jo(e)!