Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Skink teachings

After four years living at this place in the woods, I am enjoying the variety of critters that visit and their habits. One such friend is a Five-lined Skink.

When I first met her in 2007, she was hiding out in early June behind a flower box under my kitchen window. At first I was weirded out because they are pretty long with a length easily stretched out to 8 inches or so. But what really struck me was the shock of a snake-like face and little legs that stick out from the striped black and brown body with a tail that shimmers in a vivid beautiful blue.

Each year this little lizard visits in late May, early June, always by the flower box under the kitchen window.

This year, I was concerned that something happened. It was getting later and later in the month and still no skink. Then at the end of June, she showed up. At first I saw her run across the patio to hide out in the perennials. Later I saw her head stick out from behind the attached flower box.

My first thoughts usually are: is this a snake? I get an instinctual shiver. But then I remember how in my late teens, I worked at the National Institutes for Mental Health in a lab studying various animal brains. One job I had was to care for lizards being hatched while the paleontologists were on a research trip for a month.

I was "mother" to a few dozen baby lizards for a month. I hated it when one would get out of the cage as I opened the lid to feed and water them and how I would have to chase this fast little guy around the lab until I got him. I couldn't bear the thought of leaving him run in the lab without access to food or water, or worse, hanging around and scaring the daylights out of me when unexpectedly running into him.

As a student of Buddhism, these thoughts are something to investigate. I am learning to appreciate "sentient beings" in all their forms. I am coping with my own insensitivity and patterned ways of being.

There is guilt from growing up on a farm for the purpose of raising animals for meat. We raised mostly hogs and sheep. My first bedroom suite was purchased as a 9 year old who showed Yorkshire hogs and won prize and auction money. The pair of "market-weight" show hogs were sold to Esskay for meat.

The Dalai Lama isn't making my reflections any easier when he responded to someone about leading an ethical life. He basically said make sure you don't work in a slaughter house. I was part of that business as a child, teenager, and then later as an adult consuming meat.

My work on the farm was what got me into this fortunate position as a lab assistant. A post-doctoral student "interviewed" me and had me go through the work of the lab. When she invited me to watch her do research-surgery on a rat, a man walked in, asked me if that bothered me. I said no. He said good and walked out. He was the lead research doc. I later learned is that another student lab tech had issues with the research on the animals, and he didn't want any of those problems with a new student.

As I worked with those lizards, and rats, and hamsters, and mice, and turkeys, and monkeys, and alligators, and....

All sorts of animals were used at this facility to study the brain, I believed that they were necessarily sacrificed in order to map the brain and its biochemical circuitry for the health and wellbeing of humans suffering from neurological and mental illnesses. A lot of the modern mindfulness research that many people point to as a reason for practicing Buddhist meditation has its basic understanding built on the work using the brains of these critters, living beings. Researchers still do this for all kinds of studies.

As I attempt to make peace with this, I think of my "beingness" as a human. Is-ness or the nature of things as they are is a big Buddhist concept. I used to tell my kids not to think that humans were particularly special. We are mammals, too. I grew up in that animal family, watching animals do amazing things. Pigs are really pretty smart.

I wish I could say that I am reformed, that I don't eat meat or that I don't kill other beings. But I have squashed stink bugs, tried to get rid of groundhogs (no friends to my garden), and eat meat. Some of these actions have been accidental, some intentional.

Planting the wax begonias in the flower box after the pansies croaked from the heat a few weeks ago, I dug out the old flowers and started planting the new. As I dug, I noticed what looked like a piece of blue-coated electrical wire. I moved the dirt a little more to make room for the flower plug, and noticed that the wire didn't feel so stiff. I flicked it a little more and noticed that the tip was tapered. My gut instinct was to want to crawl out of my own skin. Ohmygod, a skink!

I carefully placed the plant and covered the roots and finished planting the rest of the flowers. I left to get the hose so that I could water these newly planted blossoms. As soon as I got to the place where the tail was, a skink ran down the wall and across the patio to the shade of the perennials.

Whatever the nature of the skink is, this little feeling being is teaching me in small doses how to be with life that I don't understand. But I like knowing that it let me play with its tail. I feel privileged to experience a child-like moment of curiousity where I got to touch this beautiful blue thing in the dirt, to realize with a thrill that it was a skink, and, then respectfully, to leave it alone to do its skink-thing.

If there is such a thing as karma, I thank this little teacher and hope this is a turning of the wheel, a new beginning with life.