Many years ago, while home on the couch recovering from minor surgery, I heard an actress on television reciting a poem by Elizabeth Bishop called “The Moose.” I felt strange while hearing it, which I blamed on the painkillers I was taking until I could heal.
A few weeks later, long after I was back on my feet and my head had cleared, I revisited Bishop’s poem and felt the same kind of dreaminess. It’s really the point of “The Moose,” which is about how surreal it can be to look up from our tame little life and discover that we’re staring at something wild.
Drawn from Bishop’s childhood in Nova Scotia, the poem tells the story of a transit bus weaving down a country road in coastal Canada. It’s evening, and the passengers are killing time by dozing in their seats or trading small talk across the aisles.
Then suddenly, a moose crossing the road forces the bus to stop. This should be the part where Bishop unveils some grand message about humans communing with nature. Instead, she reflects on the gulf of mystery separating one species from another, a divide we can never fully bridge.
The moose sniffs at the hood of the bus, seemingly puzzled by the bizarre metallic creature that’s wheeled up beside her. The passengers are just as mystified by the moose, who appears, as Bishop puts it, “grand, otherworldly.”
Then the standoff ends. The bus goes on its way, and the moose and moose-watchers presumably return, just slightly altered by the experience, to their familiar patterns of existence.
I like Bishop’s poem because it lowers our expectations of how far we can connect with the inner lives of wild things. So much of the culture conditions us, through fairy tales, cartoons and nature shows, to think of wildlife as simply some furrier version of ourselves. It’s why, at the extreme end of this illusion, you have mishaps like the recent one in Arizona, when a woman crossed into an exhibit at the zoo, apparently to snap a selfie with a jaguar. Her prospective new friend insisted on remaining a wild cat, biting the woman’s arm. The zoo visitor survived, learning the hard way that the differences between people and critters can’t be reconciled with a pat on the shoulder.
Most of us have had moments like the people of “The Moose” when we stumble into a wild thing — a deer spotted in the headlights, a snake sunning on the patio, a rabbit glimpsed on a golf course.
I had my own such sighting this month when I fetched the morning paper and saw a fox trotting past my driveway — an event more memorable than anything I could find in the newspaper.
Bishop mentions the way such encounters inexplicably yield “this sweet sensation of joy.” She was, as in so many things, right about that, too.