I have been having an ongoing conversation with the next door neighbour’s cats.
Since our dog passed over last year, the five half-feral cats have been making more than an appearance in our garden; they have become a permanent feature. I love cats – they are wise and have such a profound energy about them but these particular cats are very wild, very proud of their skills, very good hunters and exceptionally good at catching and killing everything that moves.
I am a bit of a wildlife gardener and I have spent many years encouraging all kinds of creatures into my garden; birds, hedgehogs, shrews, foxes, even pine martens, butterflies, honey bees, beetles, etc. and whilst Juno was alive, I had no problem with the cats and the creatures in the garden flourished.
A year later, things had taken a turn for the worst with my pride and joy, the lizard colony on my patio. It had taken a while to build up a wonderful lounge of lizards (yes, this is what a group of lizards os called), building woodpiles, stone walls and secluded areas for them all around my garden but within a month of Juno’s death, the cats had come in and decimated them all.
Again and again, I would see a cat running back next door holding a lizard in his mouth – often with the poor thing still wriggling. I was very upset seeing this occurrence again and again, especially as the cats are well-fed yet still seem to spend all day, every day hunting.
I asked the cats why they were doing this. They told me to talk to their ‘leader’, whom I named Sylvia. She is the head cat and she seems very haughty when I approach her.
I am the queen in this patch and I have a job to do ~ I must control the numbers of mice and birds in this garden. I have to bring back a quota everyday to my guardian and I instruct the other cats on what they must do too. If you think that we will stop doing our job then you are mistaken, you have to live with it.
“But what about the lizards?” I ask.
We practice on them, hone our skills, they taste delicate and they run very fast. They are wary and they always watch out for us. Nothing is harder than catching a young lizard unawares. They often give us a second chance to catch them, so we have to try twice or even three times and the taste of their tails makes us want them even more.
Sylvia then shows me what happens when she hunts. I am in her body, seeing through her eyes, feeling through her senses, experiencing every twist and muscle twitch; stalking under the hedge, pouncing, catching and killing a mouse. The rush of adrenaline goes through the whole of my body ~ it’s incredible. I have experienced nothing like it ever before, it is pure energy, a pure collision of atoms, pure speed, agility and everything suddenly crashes together; falling into its rightful place in the world, even enduring through the squeals of the victim, which are also part of this great dance of nature.
I understood now why Sylvia and her cat family are driven to hunt but I still did not like it.
I mourned my lizards for the rest of the year. Come Spring, I waited to see if any of them were indeed still alive and had made it through the snow of the Winter. One old lizard, (whom I called Achilles) appeared. He had half a tail, no doubt lost in a previous scrape with a cat. He had hibernated at the back of the house underneath the wall. He was my hero for a while. He made the long journey through the grass to the warm patio and made his Summer home under the wood pile. I waited to see whether he would be the next casualty.
Every morning, I would sit outside and watch for Achilles to surface and take his morning ablutions, I would usually be waiting for him as he warmed up to a good enough temperature to appear. One day, he came right up to where I was sitting and moved up the wood pile until he was at eye level with me. We started to chat.
I asked him what he thought about the cats and this is what he said:
We will endure when others fade.
I see everything; I see the dance of the cats and the birds, the river flowing through the valley, I see the world turning on its axis. I see the postman come to deliver letters, I see all of you come and go and I am here watching silently, in stillness. Every Winter I sleep and every Spring I awake as the same lizard but not necessarily in the same body.
We will survive; we have survived for aeons ~ longer than cats have been on this earth, it doesn’t matter if we disappear from this little patch, things will be altogether different in ten, twenty years; we will endure when others fade.
Consider the stretch and span of time. Do not concern yourself with small battles, look at the larger picture. Everything happens for a reason and now is not the time to get caught up in the details. Cats rebalance the landscape that have become unbalanced because of humans; lizards are only following the trend.
I saw Achilles three more times that Spring before he was carried off by Sylvia. I tried to remember his words but it was hard not to mourn him and the other lizards all over again.
Later on in the Summer, I saw the most fantastic sight; two of the tiniest baby lizards appearing from the woodpile to sun themselves, just as Achilles had done a few months before. He had obviously been having liaisons with another lizard and perhaps it was even Achilles who had given birth to the babies herself. They were fresh and young and quick, zipping all over the place and I desperately hoped that the cats would not find them before they had a chance to grow.
Today, I am at peace with the cats. I took down all the wire I had put over the gates and opened up all the holes I had blocked up in the fence. I found that hedgehogs were trying to use those places to get into the garden and I wanted to give them access too, it seemed crazy no to let them in, even if it meant giving the cats a free-rein to do their worst. I still see the occasional lizard in the mouth of triumphant Sylvia as she runs back next door to show off her prize to her guardian but on the whole, the patio remains completely empty. I now know however, that against all odds, perhaps in ten or even twenty years time, when the cats have gone and the world has moved around its axis many, many more times, that there will be a healthy population of baby lizards darting all over the wood pile and stone wall I had made for them all those years before.
I continue to spend time in the presence of those master teachers. We have had many more lizards on our patio since Achilles and I make sure that I spend time with them all. I know that individual lizards forever moving onto the next life but that does not matter ~ it is the essence of lizard that I learn from, the collective. I started off fighting for them but now I am their humble disciple and I am learning ways of being present with them.
Every day I go and sit and watch them as they occupy themselves with their hunting and sun basking and being still, watching. I asked them if I could become a student of theirs and it was then that the training began.
Romulus, my teacher at the moment, is the most beautiful being, full size and at the height of his powers with mottled green and yellow speckles down his sides turning into a flash of turquoise on the lower part of his flanks. He hunts only the largest succulent insects, flying ants and beetles and has no problem in subduing them, shaking his head from side to side and bending them over in order to fit them into his mouth before sitting to digest them, licking his lips, eyes and whole face afterwards. He is always breathing heavily, his papery sides sucking in and out. He is extraordinary. I forsake the hustle and bustle of the place to sit quietly and watch him often.
He is willing to teach me, he watches me from a pile of timber which had been dropped there during work we have been doing on the house this summer. I enter into his world of fast-moving insects, of stones radiating heat and cool long yarrow lawns.
The first lesson was not difficult to grasp. Stay still and watch. Stay within the heart’s ease and only let the eyes move. Breathe in and out of papery lungs. Watch and wait. Learn not to flinch when insects fly close, move the eyes only when necessary and feeeeeel.
Romulus moves closer to me to observe. Out of the corner of my eye I see him staring deeply at me like a master would study his apprentice. No moving. It is a challenge; something we have ‘all the time’ in the world to practise. No moving. Stillness, like stone, let the world move around us. Ants riddle across our feet, I watch them taking a piece of scrambled egg dropped on the patio that lunchtime, back to their nest. I see the wind moving in the thyme and catch the faintest of scents. Time stands still – a cliché I thought but maybe it is more that I stand still and time carries on around me. Still he sits and watches me watch the world go by. Each of his feet are lifting up from the hot stone underneath him one by one. Ants continue to move and clouds are starting to gather. I felt the pain in my muscles but still I do not move. This is the first lesson. There will be many more.