In our old house with all of its charming characteristics, unseen openings allow entrance for mice. The first time I noticed pieces of oatmeal in a little trail leading to the door of the attic, I thought “How precious.” I imagined the animated mice Jaq and Gus in Cinderella with their cheek pouches bulging and front paws overloaded with snacks, dropping a few bits as they scurried up the stairs to their furnished attic apartment.
It wasn’t a bit charming when I happened upon one. And yes, I screamed and screamed like I was being attacked by the Tasmanian devil.
Much of what I’ve perceived in watching animals in the wild I first saw in cartoons. Like the time I watched from our kitchen window Hunter-Cat toying with a mouse by the lake. It was straight out of Tom and Jerry. The mouse–or was it a rat?–stood high (okay, it was a tall rat and not so sweet now) on its haunches, and it actually batted its paws in defense. Hunter-Cat lounged and nonchalantly batted the rat around until HC got bored.
Hunter-Cat can be a bully. A sleek tiny black panther much like Bagheera in The Jungle Book, Hunter Cat bravely marched out of the woods and right up to me, willing to assume a domesticated plush lifestyle with healthcare as long as he could continue to hunt.
I was rooting for the rat’s escape, thinking more of my favorite rat Ratatouille than Templeton the rat with the Paul Lynde voice in Charlotte’s Web.
The only vultures I’d ever seen were the lurking cartoon figures featured whenever a sense of foreboding was needed. That was until I saw real carrion-loving buddies pecking at a dead beaver across the cove of the lake.
“I just saw some huge birds in the field that look like vultures,” I said to the man making repairs on our house, “except they also look like turkeys.”
“Could they be turkey vultures?” he said, offering a “bless her city heart” look to his son beside him.
And yes, they were, or so my internet search revealed. We had three turkey vultures hunkering close together, guarding their bundle of e-coli. A few yards away, three black vultures hovered, probably conspiring how they’d lure the turkeys away for their share of the putrified scruffy-haired meat, medium rare under the noonday sun. Buzzard cliques they were, letting their crooked beaks scout for odors of decaying flesh that waft their way. And yes, they looked just like the animated ones!
When I spotted what looked like a road runner landing on our dock, I realized road runners not only fly but travel beyond the canyon walls where the road runner I’m familiar with is adept at dropping boulders on one wily coyote.
Okay, I confess I am (was) a city girl, at one time a reb deb—a rebel debutante, who recognized if I had to sit around hosting parties all day I’d simply shrivel up and die. Only now having moved to our seven acres I am a city girl in the wild, guarded by mountainous magnolias, shored-up by a private 30-acre lake, dripping in wild wisteria.
Our first summer in Searcy nineteen years ago, I forged my own paths around our extraordinary land. Here I have more than an outstretched oak outside my bedroom window. I’m now in the midst of an aviary of sorts, a botanical garden untamed. The fenced-off city folk in Bill and me has transformed us into curious children. We awaken each morning to watch through our 42” by 72” flatscreen–our kitchen window–a world of nature that cycles as we humans do. The parallels are uncanny.
It was because of my lifelong love for animals but my disdain for blood (which washes me in shuddering nausea), I gave-up my dream in junior high to become a veterinarian. I had also concluded years ago I could never work for National Geographic, Discovery Channel or any other program that lets nature take its course.
I’ve stood in front of the television sobbing irrepressible tears for a lioness who had adopted a baby gazelle. In her mothering, the lioness could no longer hunt for food since her new baby would also be hunted. Cameras encircled the odd couple, recording their agonizing deaths from starvation.
“Give them some food! Intervene!” I wanted to scream aloud, confused how the filmmakers allowed the circle of life to cease. Or were they letting the circle of life live on unimpeded?
During another program, I mourned for an orphaned polar bear cub, that was suffering mere meters outside the Arctic research center with a camera crew filming it. Throughout the hour I kept praying for a different ending, as if my present plea had power to change the prerecorded denouement.
Once my husband Bill and I moved into our house in this woods, I determined never to abide by such rules. I’d let my compassionate heart rule. I easily evolved into an activist-intervener. I would gather this untamed world into my domesticated circle of multiple cats and one dog.
My husband and four grown children soon graced me with the title: Mother Nature.
I wore my crown honorably, setting out to prove Utopia existed amidst the purity of nature. We only had to deal wisely with the shadows that lurked, shedding beams of light on predators, offering them more than enough to sustain them. The weak shouldn’t have to compete with the strong; they’d complement them.
The first phase of my kingdom developed in our backyard. Outside our kitchen’s picture window, Bill created a food court with a ring of four birdfeeders. Morning and night we distributed buckets of fresh manna in the form of dry dog food and corn kernels down the slope towards the lake for the water fowl and four-legged critters. Often I filled the bird-feeders to overflowing with pricey black oil sunflower seeds.
Day and night, we watched the animal kingdom assemble, drawn by free food. Some evenings driving home, we had to slow our car for squirrels crossing the highway and scampering down our driveway to eat at our all-you-can-eat buffet. Other species also relinquished their territorial and nocturnal instincts for an easy meal. We counted eighteen raccoons one night. On another, six feet between them, a raccoon and a coyote guardedly munched their meals. The raccoon was clearly calling the shots.
With each dawn I sang my aubade, watching the Great Blue Heron fish off our dock. When it alighted into its day with its six-foot wingspan, so also did I. Mourning doves gathered under the bird feeders, cooing and pecking on fallen seeds, and I breathed in the air of prevailing peace.
It only took a few months before I established my own rules of hierarchy. My biased sentiments expressed zealous devotion to Cardinals, woodpeckers, finches and chickadees. My delight with the clamoring waterfowl, gabbing geese in charge with a neat row of quaking ducks all named followed, had me officially dubbing them my court jesters.
An unremarkable day evolved into a remarkable one whenever I glimpsed an animated groundhog, sitting on its haunches; a plush red fox, stealthily slipping through the underbrush; or a tender-footed rabbit, possessing all that was gentle and kind.
I proclaimed all were welcome to eat freely. Well, almost all. Except how does one inform a skunk it isn’t welcome? When I proposed an edict to “Ban the Bully Blue Jays!” I drew counsel from Bill, my chief advisor.
“You know, Blue Jays have to eat too,” he said moving beside me at our kitchen window. His shoulder pressed into mine proved more persuasive than words, as we viewed through our picture window a world in swift flight. Childishly I rolled my eyes, even though I knew he was right. Guidance was all that was needed. For the Blue Jays, that is.
When hundreds of black birds swooped down and dominated the slope, edging out the other birds, a slight tap on the window pane whooshed them all away. A sharper knock redirected our Sheltie, Sage, from herding the flock of Canada geese. A stronger rap was issued for crows to disperse.
Upside-down squirrels gorging on seeds from squirrel-proof bird feeders required a rowdy spectacle at the sunroom door. Squirrels are obstinate, especially those in our neck of the woods. I assume it’s their flouncy bushy tails that add to their being overly vainglorious. Several years ago when visiting Muir Woods, Bill and I noted the Californian rodent was humbled by its scrawny bristle of a tail. Our region’s fluffed-out version assumes a stuffed animal persona (or vice versa), but not so much I’d want one sitting on our bed.
That was affirmed one quiet winter evening when Bill had to work late, saving a dying man (or at least the man believed he was) from a minuscule kidney stone. I had snuggled into bed, only to have to crawl out to make one more trip to the bathroom. I heard a thud in the bedroom and assumed it must be Bill. Except Bill usually called out my name, so maybe not.
I piddled a while longer until I actually heard Bill coming up the stairs. Once he opened our bedroom door, I sashayed out of the bathroom in my long flowing nightgown, crossing the bedroom and draping my arms around his tired neck for a hug. The scene surely rivaled any soap opera scene, especially since Bill seemed distracted, peering over my shoulder, eyes widening. My hand on his neck felt him tensing, as though we weren’t alone.
“Why,” he asked in a low voice, “is there a baby squirrel on our bed?”
I whirled around to find a squirrel, frozen in its stance, staring back at us from the middle of our king-size bed. I shrieked, “Why is there a baby squirrel on our bed!”
Shrieking obviously alarms baby squirrels. More shrieking while running and jumping on top of the toilet seems to trigger a baby squirrel to run and jump too. Thank goodness, since I, Mother Nature, was stuck standing on top of the toilet, that Bill jumped into action, chasing the little rodent around in its circular frenzy. I’m guessing he planned to catch it bare-handed, anything so I’d quit screaming.
Horror upon horrors, the squirrel did the objectionable when it shimmied under our bedroom door into the land of endless hiding places. What next? In this old house being renewed, we had two rooms under deconstruction. One bedroom was filled with stacked boxes of bathroom cabinets, fixtures and a new tub still to be installed in our other second-floor bathroom.
Inside that closed-up bathroom were piles of broken-up tile, concrete and sheetrock. Add that to the other bedroom and a first floor full of couches and bookcases, nooks and crannies, a squirrel could live undiscovered for days.
With no presence of mind, I locked our bedroom door and wedged a blanket into the getaway gap. Bill and I went through the motions of our evening Bible study before I finally faced reality.
“How can we sleep with images of this darling little varmint running loose all over our house?” I asked, obviously rhetorically since Bill’s eyes were slowly closing. Could he actually be falling asleep in this time of crisis?
“Well, I’m hungry!” I announced, hopping up, hoping to stir him a bit. His eyes closed again. This squirrel hunt was now mine alone. With great caution I ventured downstairs to the kitchen for a stress-relieving snack. Nuts, perhaps?
Alert, as only Mother Nature could be, I inspected the downstairs rooms with no signs. Tiptoeing back up the stairs, I rounded the stairwell and spotted the squirrel’s wild bulbous eyes peering out from under the door of the demolished bathroom. It didn’t want to stay in there either.
“Bill,” I whispered loudly, “come and get it!”
Brave Bill entered the bathroom with a three-foot cube of cardboard box. Behind the closed door I heard repetitive “skritch, skritch, clunk” sounds. Ten minutes later Bill emerged with a live box and broad smile. Success.
“Just when I’d scoop it into the box,” Bill said breathlessly, more from the adrenaline rush than exertion, “it’d vault out of the box and up the wall. It couldn’t get traction on the slick tile so it’d fall back into the box. A dozen times finally wore it down.”
Ceremoniously we stepped out into the freezing night. Bill unfolded the top of the box, tilting it away from us. The muscular ball burst out and scampered into the dark to a quieter, sounder world, probably to tell of the woman in the flowing gown who believed squirrels have special powers to nibble an ankle to death.
Another daybreak. I’m sipping coffee at the kitchen window and watching two squirrels on the patio, frolicking as squirrels tend to do. Without warning, a red-tailed hawk swooped down, talons stretched, and clutched the back of one of the squirrels, carrying it off to some unknown feeding ground. I’m paralyzed, helpless and horrified. Its buddy squirrel, frozen on the patio ledge.
“We throw out buckets of corn and dog food,” I ranted later to Bill, “so predators don’t have to kill. But they do anyway!”
A few weeks later, I found the remains of mangled ducks, most likely killed by coyotes or a fox. A twelve-foot alligator found its way from the river into the lake. Beloved waterfowl and turtles disappeared. His Thanksgiving buffet filled him for a winter’s rest.
Late nights I hear the squeals of tender-footed rabbits with the howling coyote pack yelping and barking at their own, vying for their lion’s share. Two of our adolescent cats disappeared during the day, possibly prey for the owl whose hooting once soothed me to sleep.
How was it I had overindulged these creatures, proven those times I’d left a trash bag for the compost pile outside our basement door. The next day I’d find it ripped open. Remains of lettuce, apple cores, carrot peelings and tomatoes dotted the ground. The fine fingers of raccoons had filtered through the bag, rejecting the vegetable scraps in their search for a soggy peppermint or fatty piece of meat. How could I worry about them starving, for when given healthy choices, they snubbed the nutritious for the quick and easy and tasty?
How like us they are!
I finally acknowledged my naïveté. And, worse, I’d become a reckless nature enthusiast. In Bill’s and my childlike zeal, wanting to draw out the wild for our enjoyment, we’d even left pizza slices—pepperoni and Hawaiian—at the base of the bird feeders. At 2:00 A.M. the next morning Bill awakened the boys and me to watch the raccoon family arguing over who ate first. The fiercest won—Papa, then Mama, only for the children to grab the remaining triangular pieces.
The floodlight let us watch a coyote scoop up a twice-baked potato. (And yes, I’d love to know its thoughts about a baked potato whipped with sour cream, butter and cheese.)
In my earnest hope to create a kinder, safer world, I allowed my ignorance to ultimately be no one’s bliss—nature’s miss. Those attempts proved only a temporary salve with no real power to excise nature’s ways in the wild.
God knew what he was doing when he set up the circle of life, predator and prey. Who was I to devise new rules?
When we finally stopped throwing out food for the wild, several townships of raccoons didn’t get the email or twitter post. During the middle of the night I was awakened to scratching outside a second floor window.
“So where’s my dinner?” a bold bandit seemed to ask, its black button nose and masked face pressed up to the window, balancing its bulky body on the the ledge. When its appeals didn’t prove effective, it and its band of buddies searched for vulnerable spots into our house, finally tearing out a hole through rotting wood under the first floor eave. They soon worked their way into our walls. Judging from the skittering sounds, a squirrel or two must have also joined them in this trek. (Yes, repair contractors love us.)
With the onslaught of social media and reality programs, we have to fight to keep our voice which means unplugging with a different beep, beep. I realize not everyone is called to live in the woods with herds and flocks of domesticated and undomesticated critters. So I’m sharing my biophilia to ease your days when the evening news weighs heavy.
I don’t mind the task of teasing out unwanted weeds in my garden, writings and life. It comes with growth and recognizing what weeds look like, I suppose, so I can live larger writing and painting in this verdant land. I hear the sweet brrrhum outside on days my surgeon husband exchanges his scalpel for a chainsaw. (On weekends, he thinks he’s an arborist.)
I breathe in life’s goodness and the nature of it all.
Follow-up note: This Utopia I had attempted to create was meant to construct a safer world, a microcosm of how I wanted the real world to be. I hoped for a place where I had some control spreading the good to eliminate the bad. Except now I realize in the midst of my forest, I can see the trees and how powerless I am in the huge scheme of things.
Or am I?
One person at a time, we can work to expose predators and protect children and adults who are abused. We can feed the hungry and help set them on a path to work in a world where they can be respected. We learn to deal with the bullies in others’ lives until they figure out how to stand taller and stronger.
Maybe we’ll never have a Utopia here on this earth, but we can create a land dripping with love and compassion, kindness, patience and strength to live with ever-enlargening awareness, a reality so worth living.
Follow-up: We continue to fill our bird feeders to overflowing. Thus, squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks and opossums congregate.
We just no longer throw out buckets of corn and dog food, feeding the wild animals. Our dollars are better invested helping others through our Child Safety Center of White County, the White County Domestic Violence Prevention–Hope Cottage, homeless shelters like Jacob’s Place, and foster home programs, places where innocent children find safety. They deserve safe places.
All photographs are originals I took around our yard. The butterfly and azaleas are next to our mailbox. Both are show-offs every spring because of their great beauty.
I photographed the roses outside Dublin at Powerscourt Castle. The cover page lake and mountain scene is from a trip to Bellagio, Italy, on Lake Como. Yes, it is surely a heaven on earth.