Home sweet home. Home on the range. Home in a cabin. Home in a burrow. Home in a nest. Home on a fence?
“Damn if he isn't still there,” I said to myself. It was a month after my friend had first pointed out the lizard on the fence next to the entry gate. About the 5th or 6th time I saw the lizard sitting there, as I came and went in my car, I realized he lived there. The fence was his home. As surely as one might look for me at home, up the drive in the small wood cabin, one might look for and find the fence lizard at home in the sun on the fence by the entry gate.
After we had first seen the lizard, I looked him up. I found out that he, or she (I do not know which) was an Eastern fence lizard. The name was both appropriate and amusing to me.
I guess at some point, someone had named this species after their propensity for sitting on fences. I am betting they are territorial creatures that defend their homes from other fence lizards. I think this because, I have only ever seen the one at the gate.
I am not absolutely sure it is the same one every time, but he does appear to be the same individual as far as a consistency in size, shape, color, demeanor and especially location. If I could quickly mark him with a fast moving Sharpie pen, I could know for sure. But, I know right now with a pretty good chance, where I can find you a fence lizard of a certain size, color and personality. The one I've been observing is mellow, not skittish, like he's been habituated to the routine bang and hustle of the gate being opened and closed.
The fence lizard makes me think of the shed penguin. They get me thinking about the idea of home and what a sense of place means to non-human animals.
The more I think about it, the more I see it. Right now, I know where you can predictably find a pair of indigo buntings, several king birds, some goldfinches and a black snake.
The black snake lives under my studio where I write and paint. Sometimes he is out in front or on the side, in the garden. Recently, he was entering my studio through the back door while I was coming in the front. We stared at one another and both quickly decided he should leave, which he did, slithering off the deck and back underneath it.
Two weeks ago I noticed a new arrival in one of the pastures along the road. A neighbor had acquired a white burro. Half a month later, the burro still looks like he wishes to leave and go back to his old home. He stands in front of the fence on the side closest to the road. He doesn't do much else but stand at the fence. His stance has a purposeful look. I am not the only one who has interpreted his behavior as a wish to go home.
It is the season in which many eastern box turtles are on the move. I am constantly trying to save them by carrying them off the roads before they get crushed. I have read up on them and know to always take them in the direction they are going or they will just turn right around and march back into the road. The experts on these turtles say never to relocate one. The tortoise will spend all its energy trying to get back home, even if home is miles away. Eastern box turtles live their whole lives in one place that, on average, is only two acres in size. They can live 100 years. They must really get to know their homes well.
Much has been written about the homing instinct. Animals have been observed using true navigation of physical land and water features, like we do. They have also been known to use the sun as a compass. Some birds and mammals have been determined to be navigating magnetically. To some animals, smell is an important navigation tool. The stars are not only used by humans to navigate. Other animals use them too. The marbled newt uses the stars to navigate. It's something to think of such a small creature looking up at a night sky to figure out how to get home to its breeding pond.
But what of the powerful urge driving these creatures to use whatever means to get to a certain location, a place, a breeding ground, a feeding ground, a familiar habitat, a home? What's there? What's that sense, that feeling, that need to undertake, such incredible journeys to get there?
I've read of failed attempts to reintroduce Canadian lynx from Canada to the Western United States. The lynx got run over crossing roads or starved to death beelining it back to their own home ranges in the Canadian Rockies. I've heard about Pyrenean brown bears from Slovenia, being taken to France in an effort to reintroduce them into the French Pyrenees. They all headed back to their old home ranges in Slovenia.
It seems that a lot of other animals mind being forced to move, just like we do. It makes me feel shameful for the US zoos that recently took the elephants from their homes in the wilds of Swaziland. An elephant is an emotional, long-lived animal with an even bigger brain, proportionally than our own. They are known to have a sense of not only place but family and connections. They pass on knowledge from one generation to the next and among each other, about where things can be found in their homelands, where to go during, droughts or storms.
The idea of home boils down to an investment in place. A certain knowledge that has been gained over time, about where things can be found readily. It is all about shelter, food and space for brooding and rearing. Sometimes friends and allies are an important aspect of home as well. Knowing where you can find these things and also understanding where and what the dangers around you are is what makes one feel at home. This is true whether you are a snake, a lizard, a tortoise, a penguin, a burro, an elephant or a human. Home is what feels familiar, a fence, or a cabin, or a range. Home....wherever. It's worth every effort to return to.