My thanks to Pat for swapping days with me. I was scheduled for Monday, but over the weekend I spoke at a writers’ conference in Columbus, Ohio, then went down to Cincinnati to stay with a friend. Our plans were upended by a huge windstorm that knocked out electricity to 90% of the metropolitan area. The damage is still far from repaired, and the situation inspired reflections on how life was lived in the days before electricity. Perhaps I’ll ruminate on that another day. (But I had a great time, even if it wasn’t exactly what my friend and I had planned on doing. <g>)
Today’s official topic is how we react to wildlife. When people visit Kruger National Park in South Africa, one of the world’s great wildlife preserves, it’s natural for cars to cluster on the road to watch when something really cool is visible, like rhinos in a mud wallow or a band of elegant, improbable zebras drift by. On the plains of Africa, wildlife is majestic and heart stopping (and the humans are caged in their vehicles. <G>)
The same thing happens on Assateague Island when any of the famous wild ponies amble into view. Less obvious is how suburbanites stop their cars to watch the woodchucks that hang out in a culvert by a street. The woodchucks (aka, groundhogs or even whistlepigs, a great name!) like to come out and graze the grass early and late in the day. (http://www.groundhoglearningzone.com/ )
I’ve been to KNP (I shot the pictures above) and I also know that culvert and those woodchucks. (Originally a possum lived there, but he’s gone and the woodchucks moved in. I think the possum was a developer who fixed up the culvert, added gas heat and a fireplace, then flipped it to the woodchucks so Mr. Possum could move to Miami beach, but that’s just a theory.) Every time I drive by, I look to see if Mr. Woodchuck or any of his family are out.
So even though people flock to the diversity and excitement of cities, we love seeing wildlife. The key is that it’s wild. Unpredictable. Unexpected. Few creatures are more lovely than deer gliding out of the woods at dusk, even if you hope they don’t eat the shrubs. One can argue how wild these deer are—some people try to chase them off with banging pots and pans and just get a bored stare in return—but they certainly aren’t domestic.
Sophisticated city folk will stop their cars to watch a mama goose and her goslings waddle across the road. And bird watching is one of the most widespread pastimes in the country. Not serious, life-list bird watching, but the hang-a-feeder-from-the-pine-tree-and let’s-look-at-the-goldfinches kind of watching. And what can be more magical than a hummingbird whirring in to feed at a hanging basket of red petunias?
Even squirrels, wicked little critters though they are, are delightful to watch. (A shop near me that is devoted to wild bird feeding has a sign that if your check bounces, there will be a $25 fee, and ‘we’ll release two gray squirrels in your yard.’ Now that’s a threat!
We are creatures of nature, after all, and there are few among us who don’t enjoy the beauty of unexpected wildlife. (Mosquitoes are also unexpected wildlife, but not so much fun.)
Historically, in a more agrarian world, there was a lot more nature around. Foxes snacked on chickens, cats were kept to keep the rodent population under control, badgers went about their business. Certainly our ancestors were more matter of fact and much less sentimental about wild animals. The bunnies I see in my neighborhood are cute, but to predators, bunnies are the Big Macs of the food chain. It’s all in your perspective.
When I moved to England some years back, I was startled to go to the Oxford city market and see game hanging besides stalls. Pheasants, rabbits, hares, and even full sized deer. (Call me a hypocrite, but I prefer my animal protein to look safely neutral.)
To our ancestors, wild animals could be the difference between eating well and barely subsisting. My father said that once on a hunting trip, one of his pals killed a porcupine and they cooked it. His verdict: “It’s good for starving men.” <g> But in a hungry January, porcupine stew might look pretty good. A cook had to know how to clean, dress, and cook game, no wimpiness allowed.
Perhaps it’s because modern urbanites tend to be pretty divorced from nature that we take such pleasure in animals. Whole blogs can be written just about pets, and have been (let me tell you about my new cat!!!), but all animals can attract our attention. In Pamplona, Spain, the annual Running of the Bulls is a test of courage (and stupidity, frankly), while Brattlesboro, Vermont has an annual festival called The Strolling of the Heifers. (http://www.strollingoftheheifers.org/event/index.php )
When I was a kid in the wilds of Western New York, in the fall we’d drive across the county to watch the migration of vast waves of wild geese. Endangered peregrine falcons became celebrities when they nested on the 33rd floor of an insurance company skyscraper in downtown Baltimore. And movies about heavily anthropomorphized animals are reliable hits, especially with family audiences. (Babe, anyone?)
What about the animals in your life—not the pets, beloved though they are, but the wild animals? The unexpected animals? The working critters. Do you have some magical memories you’d like to share? Please do!