There’s a tidal creek 200 yards from our house called Burnt Mill Creek. It used to be called Mill Creek, but the mill burnt (a century ago), so it’s Burnt Mill Creek. We walk along it two or three times a week. Cypress groves grow beside its banks. The trees put up strange knobby above-ground roots, called knees, the purpose of which scientists don’t understand. All sorts of toxic effluent runs into this water, biologists at the local college say, but the stream is full of life anyway. Frogs, herons, dragonflies, fiddler crabs. And human beings.
In the early mornings, people sit on overturned white buckets in the mist and fish with spinning rods for crap fish, “German carp,” things like that, species you have to salt and fry forever before you can eat them. There’s a snapping turtle, the size of a manhole, legendary in the neighbourhood, but real – I saw it once, with my daughter, when she was smaller. It lay on the muddy bank, already slithering backward toward the water when we came upon it. She saw its enormous prehistoric beak and called it Owl Turtle. Owl Turtle starred in her crayon drawings for a year. Mainly the life in the creek is benign, to us at least, but lately we have experienced a disturbing rise in sightings of dangerous creatures.
Last week a medium-sized black bear appeared. Keep in mind this is the middle of town. The animal frightened off a bunch of fishermen. One man had been too scared to return for his pole, and it lay there until the next day, when it disappeared. Later that same afternoon I met one of my neighbours from a block over, walking his dog through the cypresses. He looked shaken. He said that he and the dog had just narrowly avoided stepping on a cottonmouth (or “water moccasin,” highly venomous), moving through the grass. Most conspicuous of all, this very afternoon, a six-foot alligator showed up, floating right there in the shade of one of the concrete bridges that span the creek. A group of people had gathered to stare at it. Gators rarely come up so far from the marshes.
“Got a camera?” one woman asked. I had my phone. I took a pic, and then everyone gave me their email addresses, and I sent them the pic while we stood there, the gator possibly watching us with its cold and yellow-green saurian eyes. “There you go,” I said to the folks. “I sent it.” And walked home wondering if we should move.
Last night at a Country Suites in Tennessee. We were visiting friends but stayed in a hotel (didn’t want our youngest, still a baby, waking them in the night). Their six-year-old son, who gets along with our older daughter, stayed with us. The two kids camped in the coffee-table room. But an hour after lights out, we could still hear them talking, keeping each other awake with nonsensical jokes. About 11:30 my wife sends me in: “You have to get them to sleep. This is insane.” I’m lying horizontally across the foot of their bed. They have their heads on their respective pillows. I don’t have any real books, but I have my phone, so I get on Google Books, and bring up my favourite story from the six-year-old period, The Swiss Family Robinson (top bunk, flashlight, heaven). I start reading in the dark. The shipwreck. The frightened praying on deck. The cowardly crew that rows off, taking the lifeboats. I remember it all. The boy falls asleep instantly, in a mummy posture, and for a few minutes I think mine’s out, too – I keep going just to make sure she’s down-down – but then she starts asking questions, mostly about unfamiliar words, and I realise she’s into it. They’re sawing casks in half to make their tub-boat, preparing to flee the doomed ship.
Suddenly she sits bolt upright. Her face is a ghostly blue-white in the glow of the phone. It’s as if she’s briefly fallen asleep and had a bad dream. She holds up two fingers.
“I have two questions,” she says.
“First question: who’s speaking?”
“What do you mean?”
“In the story, who is it who’s telling the story?”
“Oh, it’s the father. He never says who he is, you’re just supposed to assume …”
She nodded, absorbing that.
“Is this a family of robins?”
Nasa’s Curiosity Rover landed intact on the surface of Mars at about 1.30 this morning – I tried to stay up but passed out just after midnight – and now, less than a day later, I’m sitting here looking at a picture, taken with a camera on a satellite already orbiting the planet, of the actual craft parachuting down toward its carefully selected landing site. Two little white circles connected by strings flying above an abyss. So tiny it reminds me of Gus Grissom’s little toy spaceship in The Right Stuff, the one that falls on the bolt and causes the Liberty Bell 7 to sink. And all of a sudden I’m remembering that I once was actually in the presence of Curiosity. Working on a never-published story about the Spirit rover, an older sister of Curiosity, who became stuck in a sand trap on Mars. I was under assignment to write about the extraordinary efforts being made to free Spirit, by researchers and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Labs at Caltech. They’d completely reproduced her immediate physical environment in a laboratory room, to scale, and down to the level of mixing a kind of sand that matched the texture of the extraterrestrial soil Spirit’s wheels were spinning in.
Down below in another, sterilised lab, men in white suits and boots and face masks were moving around Curiosity, examining various things. I could see their mouths moving. There she was – I thought it at the time, with unexpected awe, that I was meters from an object that would within a couple of years be moving around on the surface of Mars. (I’d been reading about space for weeks leading up to the visit, to prep, and my thoughts were drunk on the vasty emptiness of the rest of the solar system.) My guides told me that a young Asian girl had named her. Curiosity – good name. Not an imperialist name.
Now, studying the picture of Curiosity’s descent, realising it was the same rover I’d seen in California, the very thing, out there now, came way too close to being out there yourself, and produced a feeling beyond the uncanny, into terror. I can only compare it with looking at the first-ever photographs, those dream-like pictures made by Niécephore Niépce. Same beautiful creepiness.
Working at the dining room table I hear my daughter going off down the hallway, and she’s singing to herself a song she knows from her Quaker grade school, a song about an early Quaker named George Fox. Part of it goes, “‘In my old leather breeches and my shaggy shaggy locks, I am walking in the glory of the Light,’ said Fox.” Recalling the business about the robins, I took a chance, and said, “Maria, when you sing that song, do you imagine an actual fox, with shaggy locks?”
“Well,” she said, in her precise way, “I have always wondered.”
‘Pulphead’ (Vintage), a collection of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan, has just been published
John Jeremiah Sullivan will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Green Man Festival