April 5th, 2020
Words by Michele Moses · Collage by Holly Leonardson
As the circumscribed space that I occupy shrinks, I feel nearer to the physical place of my home.
“Not everything is decaying faster than we can love it.” - Lauren Groff
I think, as a general rule, New Yorkers don’t like animals as much as other people do. But these days, I find myself entranced. When I go for walks around my neighborhood, there is one particular kind of bird that captivates and delights me. It’s small and black, with a bright yellow beak and iridescent—almost incandescent—spots. Google tells me that it’s a starling, and, even now, seeing its little picture, I feel a rush of affection: That’s my friend! But why? Since when? Before this, it was birds I cared for least of all.
As soon as the panic began, everyone around me seemed to be planning their departures. If things got really bad, they said, they’d want to be in the place where they feel most comfortable. “At least there, I can walk out the door and be in nature,” they said. Well, not me. This was my place, at least more so than any other place was. The ethical calculus of the situation—Will staying overburden the hospitals? Will going heedlessly spread harm?—got tangled in knots with my feelings about home and belonging and my fears of not having either. However unfairly, I felt abandoned by those who left. But it was an abandonment I had long been prepared to feel—a set of goodbyes I had already said in my mind. I had always anticipated a day when my people would go, their dreams or their loyalties taking them elsewhere, and I would be left alone. Where else could I go? I barely know how to drive.
Then, the other morning, I woke up, looked out the window, and saw a cat. Its fur was the greyish brown of a wolf, and it looked gigantic. Transfixed, I watched it amble through the empty lot next door, trying to figure out if its size was a trick of the eye, or if this animal was something rare and out of place, a lynx or a bobcat maybe. It crept forward in that stealthy way that cats do, undulating slightly, before setting into a stately seated position. When I looked away for just a moment, it was gone. Or, no, it was only drinking stagnant water from a wheeled yellow mop bucket in the far corner of the lot. With an object for scale, I could see that it was a feral cat, nothing more, but, still, in the moment, it felt rare and magical.
Around the same time, I saw those photos—I’m sure you did too—of the canals in Venice running clear and blue, repopulated by schools of tiny fish. Those photos made some long-clenched muscle in me relax. They let me believe, even for a moment, that regeneration could be as powerful as ruin.
Now I look for signs of nature’s reclamations everywhere. Recently, I stood outside of my house reading something on my phone, and I felt a bug land on me. I went to swat it away, instinctively, but then paused, decided to look instead. It was a ladybug, unmistakably, but its colors were the inverse of those I’d seen before: its body was black and glossy with a spot of red on either side. I let it crawl over my hand—which I rotated slowly, to keep the little creature in my line of sight—until it split its shell open, baring the wings underneath, and flew off. Had I ever seen a ladybug in New York City before?
The birds are going crazy at all hours, making noises I didn’t know birds could make. It sounds like the tropics. I sleep with my head sandwiched between two pillows to make it as quiet as night used to be. The other day, at two in the afternoon, a friend told me that she could hear an owl cooing outside her window in Brooklyn. And during a walk in the park, on a damp and cloudy evening, I saw a number of people spread out, widely, around the base of a tree, looking up. There was a bird in its upper branches, and I could tell it was an important one by their rapt attention. “Excuse me,” I called to a man with a dog, several feet away, “Do you know what kind of bird that is?” “It’s a red-tailed hawk,” he said. We watched the formidable predator together in curious silence. Had this city always been so teeming with life, and I’d been too occupied with my own to notice? Or had this wildness rushed in while we sheltered in place?
With metal gates pulled down on the neighborhood bars and restaurants that make up the ecosystem of city life, I was reaching for a sense of belonging that felt essential, elemental—less a home than a habitat. I didn’t want to walk out the door and be in nature; I wanted to be a part of nature itself.
Yesterday, on the street, I looked down and saw a cat—its fur the greyish brown of a wolf. It was crouched under the front of a parked car, and a woman sat on the curb before it. She held open the door to a cat carrier, scattering star-shaped pellets of dry food, trying to lure it in. Could it be that my fantasy of wildness was someone else’s pet? I felt a shock of disappointment, but then it subsided, replaced by a sense of kinship. Maybe we understood each other’s dilemmas. Maybe we don’t have to be feral to be free.
Michele Moses is a writer living in Brooklyn, and a podcast producer at The New Yorker. You can read and listen to more of her work at michelejmoses.com
Holly Leonardson works primarily with vintage books, found objects and craft materials. The natural world features prominently in her collages, as well as handicrafts, jewellery, toys, decorated cakes and young women. She enjoys making jewellery and small objects and never says no to a good doughnut. You can see her work at www.hollyleonardson.net and @hollyleonardson