In the country, close encounters of the wild kind
Out here, you get a front-row seat as animals' lives unfold all around.
One of the most enjoyable benefits of country living is the never-ending parade of wildlife that saunters, lopes, hops, flits, buzzes, and slithers through our backyard. From dawn to dusk, in any season, our guests and permanent residents pursue their various goals. They're undeterred by our presence on the swing that hangs from an ancient apple tree, or on the enclosed porch in less clement weather.
Among our permanent residents are a stately old woodchuck who lives in the front wall by the mailbox and another who has claimed a den somewhere beneath a beautifully built wall that's been there since long before my birth – or my father's. It runs along what some local historians say was once Proprietor's Way, a wagon trail now mostly vanished.
They're good neighbors, these roly-poly animals, content to saunter out and sit stolidly munching on plantain weed, rearing up on their hind legs occasionally to sniff out possible danger. Never once have they overstepped the bounds by trespassing among the cabbages of our vegetable garden. They share with innumerable rabbits, who don't even pretend to be afraid of us, as they dine nonchalantly on the lawn's clover blossoms.
A chipmunk has made himself quarters under our back porch. Despite our efforts to dissuade him (or her) through fruitlessly filling in the holes, he remains.
If we push in rocks, he pushes them out again. If we use dirt as fill, he simply digs another passageway. All day, the tiny brown bundle of energy, marked with a bright black and white stripe, streaks back and forth across the yard, tail erect. Should we disturb his passage, he scolds us in a high chipping tone.
Deer bed down in the wild rose thickets beyond the apple orchard. They seem like family now. Every year, the doe produces twin fawns. We watch them grow up as the summer progresses.
At first, awkwardly following their mother across the lawn with small white flags of tail quivering nervously, they soon learn the knack of crossing the street to slip into the trees beyond.
We know we should cut back the wild roses, which have run rampant everywhere, yet their bright red hips provide winter sustenance for the deer.
Raccoons aren't shy either. One evening, we watched, muffling our laughter, as one solved the problem of a covered barrel.
It contained dog biscuits in four colors – red, green, brown, and black. He lifted out one biscuit at a time with delicate paws. Deciding the black ones were not to his liking, he'd drop each on the ground and reach for another.
Our rapping on the window had no effect on his equanimity. Keeping a haughty eye on us, he ate his fill before ambling away into the dusk, having thoroughly put us in our places.
Countless generations of garter snakes have lived around one of our old wells, slithering down into the stonework at any approach. They've probably been there since the well was dug a century and a half ago. They have as much right as we, I think, to live out their lives in this place. Recently, I found a transparent snakeskin, complete from mouth to tail tip, that one of them had left behind as he slipped away fresh and shining.
Now I must come to the dinosaurs with whom we share this place. Yes, dinosaurs! Or at any rate, so says Helen Fields, writing in the May 2006 issue of Smithsonian magazine: "Most paleontologists now agree that birds are the dinosaurs' closest living relatives. In fact, they say that birds are dinosaurs – colorful, incredibly diverse, cute little feathered dinosaurs. The theropod of the Jurassic forests lives on in the goldfinch visiting the backyard feeder...."
Who knew? This fact has given me a whole new perspective from which to regard the goldfinches, robins, nuthatches, blue jays, mockingbirds, flickers, and all the others who fill the yard with wing-flutter and song. Summer and winter, we are never without company.
Of course, it isn't often that we become acquainted with a bird personally. But one summer, I became foster mother to a tiny robin, found by the cats and brought home unharmed, his eyes not yet opened.
When they did open, he had no difficulty accepting this rather large, odd-looking bird as his mother. I won't recount the ups and downs of raising a bird. Suffice it to say, I was a happy mom on the day that he could finally make it on his own into the world. Periodically, he flew back to me. Then, no more.
The following spring, a robin lit above my head, loudly chirping and fluttering wings, about to land on my shoulder, just as the foster-bird used to do. I dared not let him, with the cats so near, but I do like to think that it was my foundling come to say hi.
For several years, we shared our yard with a particular crow. He was easy to recognize as he had only one leg. Pegleg, as we unimaginatively dubbed him, got about with surprising agility and, in the air, was any crow's equal.
Some folks maintain that wild things don't feel responsibility or loyalty or love. Maybe so. Yet whenever we saw Pegleg eating our offerings or on his perch of choice, he was always accompanied by two other crows. Friends, guardians, helpers? It seemed so to me.
We continue to enjoy our front-row seat as the lives of wild things unfold before us. We look for the jaunty gray foxes passing by, the turkey hens followed by their broods, the flight of evening grosbeaks bright in their yellow and black plumage, even the honey-bees that sometimes alight on my arms while I search for berries deep among the raspberry canes.
It's comforting to feel that we're all part of an ordered creation and, perhaps, closer than we know.