Zoology in a Pizza Box

Jessa Forte Netting

Writer’s comment: This piece evolved out of a recent experience that I had while struggling with an essay on why I chose zoology as a major. The question seemed so obvious (I had never not been watching animals) that my first few attempts at a paragraph were flat and lifeless. Opening up the pizza box was like revealing the answer. I realized that it was the daily discoveries in corners and backyards that kept me fascinated with zoology.
      My essay came alive after that because I stopped trying to explain my motivations for watching creatures and began describing what I felt while doing it. My first draft had stagnated with a new anxiety about writing and the vague distance from its subject that this created. When I stepped back into my own mind to rewrite the essay I could remember the times that made me love zoology as if I were experiencing them again. This time words clicked into place. "Zoology in a Pizza Box" became my personal exploration of how I found myself immersed in this field.
—Jessa Forte Netting

Instructor’s comment: Jessa's essay doesn't tell of her aspiration to become a science writer; instead, it shows her already practicing her vocation. In every lovingly observed and vividly rendered detail, we can feel her deep affection of "all those that wriggle and strut, bark and buzz, procreate and agitate." Her ability to make even the lowliest of these creatures come alive on the page will win her many admiring readers.
—Jayne Walker, English Department

In one corner of our yard, just to the right of the trash cans and behind an aging fence, there is a stack of several pizza boxes, or at least there was one until last Sunday. These pizza boxes had accumulated almost mysteriously over some weeks in a very neat stack in the dirt beside the garbage cans. They waited patiently to be put out by the curb for the Tuesday morning recycling truck. Somehow though, while the neighboring trash cans moved in and out from the curb, and various loads of glass bottles and aluminum passed through this depot, the pizza boxes remained in the dirt, alone and forgotten. The rains came and softened up the cardboard, the stack sagged in the middle, and was again stiffened by the sun. Something amazing began to happen.
      It was only after trying to throw out these old boxes in a fit of neatness, that I discovered the miracle that had taken place. I found when I pulled back the first layer, not just soggy cardboard, but a miniature ecosystem teeming with life. A herd of slugs meandered over the plain that read “Woodstock’s” in faded brown lettering. Suddenly exposed to light, a giant earthworm the width of my small finger writhed in the damp center. Flocks of isopod-like pill bugs dove for the corners and dodged around gleaming piles of earthworm eggs. Dashing about madly, a beetle and a confused, many-legged creature searched for a hiding place.
      I watched the churning scene in amazement, marveling at the microcosm that these pizza boxes had become. I couldn’t bring myself to simply toss this wealth of life in a garbage can, yet the soggy pile shouldn’t sit in the yard any longer. There were only two individuals around that would appreciate this treasure more than I, and who could actually benefit from it too. A few minutes later I watched in satisfaction as my chickens, like two stately ladies, sampled the smorgasboard I offered. This is why I study zoology, I thought, for the enjoyment of just watching life act out its strange and comedic drama.
      Earlier, while musing about how I came to study the animal world, I had wished I could tell of some cataclysmic event—a revelation or burning bush—that had told me that this should be my path. None surfaced. My study of zoology and, before that, of animal science, was always something of a given. I looked at what beasts did because their doings fascinated me. I found surprises no matter how many times I had seen a dog dream-run or a praying mantis wash its face. My curiosity about the creatures—all those that wriggle and strut, bark and buzz, procreate and agitate—pulled me without resistance into the world of the diverse species. Though I can name no single moment in which I decided to study the animals, the amazement and satisfaction with which I peer into their lives has seemed always present.
      My mother tells me of when she became aware of this interest, after an incident my grandmother interpreted as incipient kleptomania. While shopping with my grandmother, I, the not-yet-two-year-old naturalist, apparently decided that I definitely had to have the card with the duck on it. Unfortunately my much too embarrassed grandmother discovered my acqusition only after we had left the store. She was horrified that this grandchild was already showing criminal tendencies. What my mother noticed, instead, was my deep interest in the duck.
      In similar ways my parents continued to encourage my interest in the natural world by showing me its parts with few restrictions and little censorship. They showed me how this world worked and what strange things moved through it, without labeling them as disgusting or inappropriate for girls to see. Two of my earliest memories, still surrounded by feelings of wonder, flash back as the day I learned what a grub was and, earlier, when I saw for the first time the steamy, pungent interior of an old-fashioned cow barn.
      “Grub,” I learned when I was three, referred to that squirmy, glossy white creature that lived between the roots of the rotting tree stump in our back yard. Its head was black and its body rippled as it moved in my hand. I can still feel the awe with which I stared at the alien creatures within the stump. They were cool to the touch, benign and earthy-smelling, and they were something completely out of my experience. It was as if my father had taken his shovel and knocked out a window into a new world, with these peculiar beings as its inhabitants.
      The cow barn, with its grassy/milky odor, presented the same sort of half-repelling, half-entrancing animalness as the grub. Its floor, deeper than my knees in gooey muck sucked at the boots of the old milking woman as she walked through. I was intrigued by the steamy warmth that poured out of the barn door and by the close furriness hidden in the darkness. Only the feeling that if I walked inside, I would sink in completely, held me back from the pull of the barn. I already knew what cows were, but here I was standing at the edge of their tropical world.
      When we moved to the desert, the animal world I had known suddenly expanded. Secret movements animated the khaki landscape. The Sonoran desert hosts a cast of strange characters, all the more beguiling in their hermitage from the heat. My child’s eyes would find them—beetles buried deep in the petals of a cactus flower, a wren scolding from the dim of a creosote bush. I brought the desert inside and raised wasps and black widows and and crimson pipevine caterpillars. They shared my room with the more domestic lovelies—my guinea pigs, goldfish, finches and budgies. Now when I visit, I most like the warm dusk and the cool black velvet hours of the second shift. The actors emerge when the quail go silent and the crickets begin. In the night our group of javelina shuffle and grunt past my window, and the moon, like the old cliché, stirs the coyotes to howl.
      Many animals have shared their lives with me since then. The puppy that I picked out grew up with me and had eleven puppies of her own. We kept one and, for sixteen years, he and his mother were my playmates, friends and practice patients. The power and gentleness of horses I rode, like Taco and Joy-Run, drew me, as did the graceful way a plump black widow wraps up her prey. My experiences in the animal world only increased my curiosity and enjoyment in it, as has my ‘higher education’ in zoology. My studies offer the keys to a thousand worlds, from a discarded pizza box to an African plain. I watch the occupants of each go about their unpretentious lives dealing with the gifts and the cruelties of nature in their own unique and beautiful ways.