The Miraculous Green Lizard

We call it a lizard, except it’s not. It’s an anole, and it can re-grow its tail, “regenerate” in the words of scientists. Think about that. Something else to consider, the connection between a napkin holder I gave my parents and the miraculous green lizard.

“Show me your money,” we’d say back in childhood, and the male might extend his bright red “penny,” as we called its throat fan or dewlap. As a boy, how many times did I mess with those little green critters? Then the years flew by as in an old Hollywood film where a fan blows calendar pages into a blur. 

After college and a year teaching public school, I returned to the University of Georgia for graduate studies, and then by happenstance found myself in Columbia, South Carolina, teaching at an all-girls college. After four years of that I worked at South Carolina Wildlife in the film unit and later the magazine where I developed a way of writing about birds, deer, most anything natural. All these years later I still do, and so I turn my pen to the miraculous green lizard whose expendable tail keeps it free of the jaws of cats and other predators such as skinks and birds. 

It was in Columbia one Christmas when I spied a handsome napkin holder of red oak. I bought one and took it home to my folks back in the red-clay state, which provides habitat for the bright green Anolis carolinensis, a tree-dwelling species native to the southeastern United States. Besides re-growing its tail, it can change color to shades ranging from brown to green, a miracle on top of a miracle.

The napkin holder actually was a napkin press and it had a slab of oak resting in supports. The slab could be pressed onto napkins by means of an enamel knob, hardware from earlier times. All in all it was quite handsome. Brown it was, a shade my boyhood green lizards could have mimicked, if they so desired. 

Back then, in the 1980s, Mom and Dad were in their prime, and they stayed busy gardening, traveling, dining out, and working. Dad loved that napkin press and he decided to make some in his shop. And so it was that one spring day he found himself at a saw. I don’t know how it happened but Dad’s penchant for being accident prone caught up with him. The saw snatched a piece of oak he was guiding into the blade and he lost the tips of two fingers on his left hand. 

They couldn’t be saved. If only I hadn’t given them that press.

For the rest of my life I trained myself not to look at Dad’s missing fingertips, just as I have trained myself not to look at the old homeplace, which was sold, just as I have disciplined myself never to return to the family farm. That old adage sure runs true. You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family.

Whenever I see a napkin press and whenever I see a green lizard, as we like to call Anolis carolinensis, I think of Dad and others who have seen a vital part of their body vanish to calamity. There but for the grace of God go you and I.

Maybe there’s hope for future victims of saws and cables. I read that researchers have studied stem cells known as muscle satellite cells in the anole that lets it regenerate its tail. Lizards and humans share the same genes that form these cells but humans face regeneration barriers … so far. 

How I wish some miracle could have enabled Dad to re-grow his fingers. It never seemed to bother him, but it bothered me, as do other hurts. There’s no stem cell that can regenerate good feelings when it comes to injuries of the heart. Wish there was. The world sure could use it. More so than napkin presses.

Author: Stephan Drew

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