This week, I was out back digging a hole for the next compost dump. I love dirt and on this day I didn’t even mind the time and effort it took to dig out and separate the stones. A variety of sprouting things were coming up around the hole—marigolds, asparagus, oregano so I had to be careful where I stepped. I made a tidy arc-shaped mound of loose soil around the hole. When I started this task I stood up, using my very inadequate flip flops to push the long-handled shovel into the ground. Eventually, as usually happens, I ended up squatting down and using a hand shovel to loosen and clear the dirt out of the hole bit by bit. I like to be close to the ground so I can smell it and see the little special things that I might miss from up high.
I got about six inches into my hole and I scooped the next spade-full of dirt onto the dirt mound. Turns out, it wasn’t just dirt I had scooped out of the hole, but an emaciated lizard with no eyeballs along with it. The lizard was encrusted with dirt so I didn’t notice it at first but then the tail twitched back and forth for a surprisingly long while. There didn’t appear to be any breathing going on and no other movement, but there was that tail. I thought about how a lizard’s tail can break off and keep moving to distract any would-be predator. Maybe this lizard was dead but the tail didn’t know it yet. That, or I had a zombie lizard on my hands. Eventually, it stopped moving.
I continued to dig in the hole, but I felt curious and unsettled about this lizard on the dirt mound. With my next scoop, a clod of dirt rolled toward the lizard and must have bumped it because there went the tail again. Okay. Now I was convinced that this thing was as close to a zombie as I was going to get, which might have been funny on a different day, but on this day, it wasn’t. I carefully picked up the lizard to look for any fatal wounds, evidence that a bird had caught it or something, and there in my hand, it took a huge breath. Amazing. I’m already fascinated with breathing, being a yoga teacher…I do a lot of thinking about it and then, on this normal day, I witnessed this miraculous breath. The skin on this this lizard was saggy and there were no eyeballs left in the sockets but I got to see the lizard’s ribcage expand to take it in. The breath gave some power to the two front legs and they started to move, almost like they were creaky or rusty. That lizard still had some prana in those limbs. I put the lizard down on the soft dirt and wondered what to do. I wondered how it ended up in this situation, in my scoop of dirt and barely alive. Maybe that’s where all old lizards go to die.
The experience upset me because there was no clear “right thing to do” in this situation. I could do nothing, do something kind of horrible but arguably humane, or do something that seemed falsely-compassionate and try to nurse the little thing back to health by feeding it from the new colony of fruit flies in my kitchen and fresh water with that medicine dropper in my bathroom drawer. It crossed my mind.
Between the small shovels of dirt, I touched the lizard again to see if it would still respond. It did. And then I reached the point where my ankles and back ached from being in a squatting position so much longer than expected, so I had to make my choice. I had to do something, knowing that even doing nothing is an action… I moved the lizard out of the sun and into a more sheltered place in the hole I just dug. I left it there. And then I thought about it all day trying to uncover some meaning.
Finding this lizard at its end of life seems so significant but I didn’t come up with anything to hold onto. I didn’t decide that I had behaved correctly or not. I didn’t have any resolution or lesson to rest my mind on and feel better about. I just remembered, again and again, the feeling of that dying lizard in my dirty hands. I continued to wonder about how it got under the dirt without eyes and how old it was and a whole host of other questions that won’t ever be answered. And I guess that’s it. That’s as good as it’s going to get. There’s a lot of stuff that comes, that we might see and notice, and it’s not clear why or what to do with it and a lot of the stuff that comes our way is uncomfortable. There’s not much to do except to feel it and accept it. No big revelation. No big life lesson. No heroics. Just a dying lizard in a hole that I dug. I went out with the compost the next morning, even though there were only a few egg shells and carrot shavings in my bucket. I went straight to the hole. The lizard wasn’t there and I continue to wonder what happened.