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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

#DeathGoals

Tonight, at the saloon across from the bed and breakfast where I'm staying, the bartender, Becky, who is not actually a bartender, told us about time she went outside to mow her lawn dressed in a t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, and whilst in transit, a baby copperhead bit her on the big toe.


It sounds like something that would be sort of cute --being bit by a baby copperhead— depending on how old it is, of course. If it’s a newborn, its head is probably all pointy and bloated and its body is probably covered in a cream cheese-like substance. I can't hold up its own head and it certainly can't strike you. It’s mother probably thinks it’s cute and its relatives all pretend to think it’s cute, but it’s not really that cute, until it’s about six months old. But, I'm thinking not of a newborn copperhead. I’m imagining the snake equivalent of a six-month-old human biting another person. Gummy and slobbery and smiling--naughty but in a very cute way.


However, according to Becky (who is not really a bartender) being bitten by a baby copperhead is way worse than being bitten by its mama because baby copperheads, like baby rattlesnakes, deliver all of their venom when they bite.  A mama copperhead will only inject some venom because she is smarter than her stupid baby and she saves some of her venom for the next bite. She is old enough to have some self control forGod'ssake! Our bartender (who is not really a bartender) said her leg and foot swelled up so much that you couldn’t tell she had toes.


Now, I’m imagining this adorable, petite lady with one regular sized leg and one fleshy elephantine peg leg. I won’t be able to shake that image for a while; nor do I really want to because frankly, it's hilarious (since she didn't die it can be hilarious). I wonder what that would feel like--having a giant leg on a regular sized body. She said the swelling lasted for a month. What would you do? Heave that big old leg around wherever you go? or remain in bed for the month, jingling a little bell for the butler to help you when you needed something? If I get bit by a rattlesnake, will I need to hire a butler?

I've always been a little obsessed with death--my own or otherwise. I think decomposition is fascinating. I think that fossilization is enchanting. If I could figure out a way to fossilize myself, I would. I mean -- not now -- but when the time is right -- when it's my time to die. When I sense the time is nigh, I can find the nearest watering hole, coat myself in mud and wait for the sediments to cover me--for the minerals to deposit themselves in me. In 22 million years, I can be a fine specimen for the robot paleontologists to uncover. Actually, I've always thought that cremation would be my first choice, but I did read somewhere that you can slip a body into a mushroom suit and return it to the earth. I also saw that you can get put into an urn with a tree seed and become a tree. Those options all sound nice. Fossilization would be wicked cool though. The main thing though is the gravestone. Even if I am turned to ash, earth, tree, or fossil, I still want some sort of headstone because I'm concerned about having an epitaph. I used to think I wanted it to say something like Jodie Morgenson: She was really funny. But now the older I get and (presumably) the closer to death I get, the more I realize that I want to be more than just funny. I want to be interesting. Maybe my epitaph should read, Here lies the swollen, bloated body of Jodie Morgenson, dead of venom. THAT would be interesting. I might even forego cremation in order to hold true to that particular epitaph.


“Can you die from a copperhead bite?” I asked her. She shook her head ominously. “They rushed me to the hospital and doped me up on morphine and antihistamines.” She said that one of her nurses pulled the sheet away from her leg to take a look, and when she laid the sheet gently back down, it felt like she was laying a sledgehammer on top of her leg.

Why is this relevant? Because I'm in Western Nebraska: Rattlesnake Country. Now I'm not only concerned about rattlesnakes, but about baby rattlesnakes specifically. At first I thought I had to be concerned about baby copperheads too, but come to find out, Becky was in Oklahoma when she was bit by the copperhead. But, now I have to be on the lookout for nests of writhing toddler rattlesnakes, ready to deliver death blows because they can't control their venom output. I'm imagining that it will be something like the snake pit in Raiders of the Lost Ark, except all of the snakes will be be wearing diapers and demanding to be fed.


Before I came to Harrison, my husband warned me about the rattlesnakes. He was actually mostly concerned about the side trip to Carhenge that I plan to take after my writing workshop. He knows I’ll be alone then. When I’m at the workshop, he figures I can yell, “I’ve been bitten!” and someone will know what to do. At Carhenge, I might --oblivious to my surroundings-- get bit by a rattlesnake, and then lay down at the base of the sculpture and die a slow death, unable to call for help due to solitude and lack of cell phone service. I speculated that a bunch of cars upended in the sandy soil of Western Nebraska would make an ideal rattlesnake  habitat. He laughed and then quite soberly agreed with me. “Seriously,” he said. “It would be perfect.” It's nice that he doesn't want me to die.

As I get older, I know more people who have died. It's just how it works. The longer I stay alive, the older I get and the older everyone else gets and the more time passes increasing the likelihood of death for everyone I know. I have decided that dying is nothing to be afraid of--no matter what. The suffering that precedes death is what worries me. A snakebite seems like it would be painful and then the symptoms of the snakebite seems even more awful. But I have to say I don't know anyone who has been bitten by a snake before (except for Becky, but I will probably never see her again), and I certainly don't know anyone who has DIED from a snakebite. It's not a common death. People would always remember me, if I died from a rattlesnake bite.

Here lies the body of Jodie Morgenson, who died of a rattlesnake bite. Methinks that's an epitaph even strangers would be interested in reading.


As I left the hotel this morning, three local women, in matching sun visors and culottes stopped to talk to my colleague and me. My colleague explained that we were there for a writer’s workshop at Agate Fossil Beds and they seemed to think that was pretty swell. The last thing that one of them said before going into the hotel for coffee was “Watch out for rattlesnakes.” She smiled as she said it, but then her face became stern and she said, “Really.” Then, she looked into my eyes, and tipped her chin to her neck to further underscore her eye contact with me.


Now we are engaging in our day 1 writing activity. We are supposed to be observing the environment through description, interpretation, and speculation (in the way of essayist John Tallmadge).  We can go anywhere in the general vicinity of the visitor’s center—inside or outside. I intended to find a spot to sit along one of the walking trails. My first thought as I opened the door to go outside was, “I bet the snakes like the pavement on that trail.” The snakes near my home (bull snakes mostly) love to sun themselves on concrete. As I approached the trailhead, I saw this sign:


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My friend Tess pointed out that this looks like an advertisement for a rattlesnake app (which would be very helpful in this sort of situation--an app that warns you of your impending doom). I carried on and came to yet another sign:


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Message received. There might as well have been a third sign that said,


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It sort of reminded me of the time my boyfriend (now-husband) took me to Montana to hang out with his uber-athletic park ranger friends and we were on our way to hike when we happened upon a sign warning hikers of two aggressive juvenile grizzly bears in the vicinity. I thought that sign would exempt me from the hike, but we trudged on yelling, “Hey bear!” as we travelled. This seemed like the wrong thing to do. I mean, why would you call out to the bear? They said it was because the bears didn't want to be around you, so if they heard you call, "Hey bear!" they would run away. I was thinking to myself, "YES, but these are special bears. They are both juvenile AND aggressive. Their brains aren't fully developed. They have poor decision-making skills and this means they might make a bad decision and hear us calling and seek us out," but I didn't because apparently my brain wasn't fully developed at that point either. I just wept inwardly on the way up, and wept outwardly when we arrived safely, but in so much pain from blistered feet and general out-of-shapeness that I was wishing for an aggressive juvenile Grizzly to maul me to death.

Frankly, sometimes death is a better option--for the person who's dying anyway. It can be hard on the people left living, but there are exceptions to that rule too.


I parked myself not too far from the second rattlesnake warning sign. I sat on the pavement, but not before checking around for anything that resembled a snake.


“Today may be the day I die,” I thought as a settled on a spot away from a large ant carrying the carcass of another large ant across the sidewalk. Death is everywhere, I thought. I noted how matter-of-fact that ant was being about his dead friend. He just picked him up and hauled him to some ant graveyard somewhere.

I opened my journal and looked around. The landscape of Agate Springs is breathtakingly beautiful and so different than the landscape of where I live. I soaked in the beauty for a moment, noting the fluctuating horizon, the stout buttes, the dreamy sky, the ragged grasses interspersed with pops of colorful wildflowers. Words. Words. I needed words. I needed the poetry to flow out of me, like blood from a gaping snakebite wound. I decided to personify one of the buttes. I made an attempt to wax poetic, but aside from what I wrote being awful, and cheesy, I was interrupted because my power of observation was too good. In addition to seeing everything, I was hearing everything as well, and I shit you not, I heard a rattling noise behind me. It sounded like the rattlesnake sound effect they use on TV, which meant it was probably NOT a rattlesnake, but today might be the day I die.


Really, any day could be that day.


Like I said before though, dying of a rattlesnake bite would be an interesting—maybe even honorable (?) way to die. It would prove that I approached nature, unafraid, head-on; I lived a life of adventure and intrigue. Signs be damned! 

Or maybe ignoring signs both spoken and literal and winding up dead as a result is a stupid thing. Either way—honorable or stupid---it’d still make a helluva death story.

Tonight during our picnic, Callen, one of the seasonal employees told us she had finally caught a glimpse of a rattlesnake. I felt like I was sitting next to a celebrity. She said she had a picture of it and asked if I'd like to see it. I resisted the urge to hug her protectively, and demurely said yes. The photo was glorious. It was just like a picture from National Geographic, the snake curled seductively on the sandy road--its rattle erect--its forked tongue protruding from its mouth. Then it came to light that she not only had this gorgeous still photo of a rattlesnake, but she also had a video of her supervisor agitating it with a snake pole. He did this not to annoy the poor creature, who was clearly just minding her own business, but so that Callen would be able to recognize the sound. The video was a delight. The sound was both mesmerizing and sounded nothing like the rattling sound I heard my first day at Agate. The snake was not bothered by the pole; she was more intent on keeping her eye on Callen. As Callen moved (from a safe distance) the creature's eyes never sight of her, and she warned Callen stay away girl with a rattle.

One of my goals in life is to be an interesting adult. I believe it helps my own children and my students look forward to growing up. Children who see adults succumb to the drudgery of everyday life give adulthood a bad rap. So, if I have to die today, save for the numbness of face and limbs, horrific pain and swelling, difficulty breathing, vomiting and nausea, blurred vision, and excessive salivation, dying from a rattlesnake bite would be an all right way to go. My death can become a story for my children and my students to tell.


If, while I am here in Western Nebraska, I happen to get bit by a rattlesnake and die, please make sure my gravestone is inscribed with the following: Here lies the ashes of Jodie Morgenson—who was interesting, both in life and in death.

The Politics of Flowers


Yellow Flag Irises crowd the bank of the Niobrara River at Agate Fossil Beds. It's the same river I canoed in a blizzard when I was nine-years-old, during which my uncle gave my brother and me shots of peppermint schnapps because he said it would keep us warm and a family friend handed us baked potatoes to take into our sleeping bags, for the same reason. But this part of the river looks different. I doubt many people dip a canoe in at this point in the river. But for as narrow as this river is, it is still the river who helped the wind sculpt the rocks, revealed the bones of ancient history, and gave us a history lesson we didn't know we needed.

But did we need it?  Maybe the rock bones are bad medicine.

Erwin Barbour came to Agate Springs Ranch to discover ancient plant roots that were not ancient plant roots. They were the burrows of the paleocaster--a land beaver that is nothing like the modern water beaver. These daemonelices or Devil's Corkscrews were where they lived. But Barbour was convinced they were the roots of massive prehistoric plants and sometimes when you are convinced of something, you forget to keep looking for further possibility.

During one visit, Barbour brought with him some Iris pseudacorus bulbs, as a wedding gift for his daughter, Eleanor newly married to son-in-law, Harold Cook. When gifted flowers, it is normal for the giftees to plant said flowers near a water source--like a river. And, that's what the Cooks did. What a lovely way to add a pop of yellow to the muted hues of the expanse that is Western Nebraska, they must've thought. People are animals after all and animals impact their environment.

Over time, the flowers grew in power, developing a massive rhizome, whilst self-seeding into the water. The flowers produce a seed pod that explodes --scattering fertile confetti into the gentle waters heading downstream. They invade the banks forming a legion, inserting themselves into the fecund soil.

The soil just takes it; it doesn't have a choice. The invader is too strong--too large in number.

The Park Service is doing what they can to stop them. The removal of this mighty flower has come up before, but tourists sometimes come just to see them, and tourists bring money.

These are the politics of the flowers.

The Park Service could just let these soldiers grow invasively, but the irises are poisoning the water. They are drowning the river. Fish, oh-so-observant, have been avoiding this stretch of river for a long time. This is a sign. This is one language the fish speak that we should be able to read: avoidance.

The Park Service has tried spraying the irises with herbicide. Get that? They have tried spraying the poison with poison. The poison is still standing.

These dazzling flowers are as strong as they are lovely.

The Park Service has discovered stomping on the flowers seems to be the most effective course of action because it mimics what cattle would do to it, if cattle were allowed on the land. Cattle would have a negative impact on the land, but the flowers would also have a negative impact on the cattle because the flowers are toxic to cattle as well. They have even invited local high school students out for a flower stomping party.

But these beauties are as strong as they are lovely.

As we walked across the boardwalk today, two of my classmates saw a fish swimming under the bridge in the gentle flowing water of the Niobrara, right there among the irises. Our teacher was surprised, and in turn, we were surprised by his surprise because we didn't know the story of the irises just yet. He explained his response by telling us the origin of the Yellow Flag Iris that grows so fearlessly along the banks of the river. This lonely fish tells a story: The tamping of the flowers is working.

I hope the fish wins.

I hope the river wins.

The Natives deserve a win against this invasion.