'Don't bother them, and they won't bother you." My grandmother's philosophy for getting along with animals was straightforward. But my brother and I, unwilling to settle for such an isolationist view, developed numerous variations to this rule.
We lived on the edge of town, surrounded by animals. In one direction were houses, paved streets, and eventually the short row of stores that made up the main street of our small town. But sheep grazed in the field behind our backyard fence. Beyond them were fields, some with grazing horses or cows, then the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, filled with wildlife.
The sheep would glance at us as we crossed their field, but if we didn't appear to be carrying anything edible, they ignored us. We never entered a field with a bull. They will bother you even if you don't bother them. We could sometimes bribe an occasional horse to take a piece of apple from our hands. Dogs that were tied up or fenced were left alone. Dogs on the loose could be allowed to approach.
After sufficient sniffing on their part and reassurance on ours, lasting friendships were formed. We played with garden snakes but never brought them in the house (this was our mother's rule), and we always let them go eventually.
In the mountains, the animals made the rules. Rattlesnakes received a lot of distance and respect. Squirrels and chipmunks could be enticed with pieces of cookie, but never came within reach. We once discovered a small cave and crawled in, only to encounter a pair of glowing eyes in the darkness. We left without waiting for an introduction.
We never tried to bring wild animals home as pets. Our house was already filled with an assortment of cats, dogs, birds, rabbits, hamsters, fish, gerbils, and guinea pigs.
Our most vivid lesson is living with nature's creatures came after we found the submarine.
We never knew what its real function was, but we discovered it in a field one winter: a metal cylinder about six feet long and three feet high. It had two round holes in the top, just big enough for a child to slip through, and it made a perfect submarine.
We climbed in and headed for the ocean, and when an occasional curious horse approached to give us a sniff, he was promptly torpedoed.
We spent a lot of time that winter protecting the fields from enemy battleships and wrestling with giant squid. Then spring brought other interests, and the submarine was forgotten for a while. In the late summer we recalled our submarine adventures and headed for the field to resume sea duty. The submarine gleamed silently in the tall grass. My brother climbed inside and I quickly followed. I soon found myself surrounded by thousands of wasps.
I remember that, for a brief instant, I was tempted to study their activities. What a chance to gain personal insight into life in a wasps' nest! But within a couple of seconds the shock wore off and panic took over. Although my brother had headed for the exit first, I nearly beat him out the hole. It was a tight fit with two of us squeezing through together, but all the screaming probably helped.
We scrambled out the hole and took off, practically leaping the fences in our path. And we didn't stop running until we slammed the door securely from inside our house.
After a while I calmed down enough to realize I hadn't been stung at all. We don't know if they even followed us. We never turned around to look.
While the experience didn't leave me with a desire to form closer friendships with wasps, it did give me something to think about. How could I have dropped into a wasps' nest uninvited and escaped unscathed? Maybe they just thought we were two of the biggest, funniest-looking wasps they'd ever seen. After all, why else would we be dropping in uninvited?
Or maybe they were just too busy playing submarine.