1. The Sea Turtle. Rapt in the rhythm of pulling my canoe across the brackish bay, I was unprepared for the encounter: a barnacled shell split the surface inches from my outstretched palm. A pair of eyes met mine in shared brilliant shock. I had not known sea turtles could scream, but I swear to you that as I shrieked and fumbled and nearly swamped the canoe, this sea turtle screamed silently too before rushing gape-beaked to the bay’s grassy bottom.
2. The Centipede. As it munched on mites and midges in a sweet recess of rotten log, the centipede could not have known what cataclysm was to visit it next. Even if the creature possessed the cognitive capacity to guess, and even if it had a thousand guesses, it could not have prepared itself. Nor could I have known before I ripped apart the white mycelia and tender flakes of wood pulp that I was a monster, a giant, a disaster.
3. The Dolphins. I shouldn’t have followed the pair of dorsal fins as they passed through the small break in the mangrove. They were hunting, corralling a school of fish into a silted cove. I knocked my paddle against the canoe’s gunnel absentmindedly, and the animals fled, giving up their dinner for the sake of their lives.
4. The Raven. How long had I been gawking leg-loose over the sweep of the canyon? Long enough for the raven to have missed my arrival. It pushed up from below on an eddy of air and nearly raked me across broadside, almost bowling me over the thousand-foot edge—and me without my wings!
5. The Moose. I slammed on the bike’s brakes, rubber skidding on asphalt. The moose swiveled its great muzzle in unison with two flapping sailcloths-for-ears. I careened to a lurching halt near enough to take hold of its whiskers—and near enough for it to stomp me to mush. I cast my eyes about wildly in search of a calf, quite confident that of all the creatures in all the world, a defensive cow moose was just about the worst one to surprise. Or so I thought.
6. The Wolverine. All blood and muscle and bone and tooth, the beating body pitched across the tundra. I counted the seconds. One-one-thousand. Two-one-thousand. Three . . . Then it was over the pass and gone. And I breathed again.
7. The Hunter. On the final Saturday before rifle season, I pulled on my shoes and shorts and made for the aspen. The day gulped me up with its shine, its loam, its bright glint slashing through the skein of trees. I galloped through the forest. Leaves blew about me like lost coins. This was how it felt to be an animal! This was the rush of skin, rock, heart, sky! I winged around a bank and met the boom of a voice: Dammit, son! Facing me with a bow at his side, arrow nocked, stood a hunter, gasping. I’d have shot right through you!
8. The Hairy Ape. It wasn’t a mirror, really, just a burnished piece of stainless steel. Five weeks I’d been out on the river, long enough for my temples to turn thick, my beard to fade to orange, and my eyes to forget how they were supposed to look. I swear to you that when I first caught sight of them they were an animal’s eyes, full of fear and startle and surprise.
A wilderness writer for sure. Doing a little school on a big lake proud. Keep on keeping on, brother.
alex i enjoy reading your little storys, do you have a new book i could buy, ill ask mollie about the magazine orion, great stuff
Loved the Hairy Ape, Alex!
Thanks, John. I am still working on my first book-length work, but please visit my website at http://www.alexcarrjohnson.com for my blog and other essays. Cheers, Alex
I was reminded of hiking in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I had just set down my pack next to to a stream—my husband was already lying down to take a nap—and what looked like a small bear came ambling along, across the stream. I punched my husband. It was a wolverine. No one ever sees a wolverine and here he or she was doing her thing and she never noted us. I was also reminded of paddling around a bend on the Swan or Blondeau in northern Saskatchewan with a mother moose standing in the stream. She walked out in time for us to pass and two baby moose popped up to follow her. I was also reminded of many other stories. Thank you Alex for this wonderful piece.
The Garter Snake.
I’m on my knees pulling weeds when a garter snake raises its head. Although startled, I feel no “zero at the bone.” Instead, we maintain eye contact simply wondering what the other will do. Spellbound, I wait for him to go about his business: a live toad held cross-wise in his mouth.
Quotation from Emily Dickinson’s poem # 1095 (Franklin), whose first line is “A narrow fellow in the grass.”
When hiking in the highlands of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia I headed for a shade tree in the middle of a meadow. When I was barely five feet from the tree, a very large cat jumped up out of the shade and bounded right at me. I froze and he kept coming. I had no time to react and was too tired to move. He brushed my leg as he swept past and disappeared in the brush behind me. When my heart stopped racing, I realized that I had just seen a full grown lynx, a short tailed, long legged wildcat that stands two feet tall and weighs up to 35 pounds. Seeing this beautiful, elusive animal at a very close range left an indelible image on my mind. I had touched a lynx, or should I say, a lynx touched me. (From my book: Saving the Places We Love: Paths toward environmental Stewardship.)
About 25 years ago my folks ‘retired’, selling their home near the foothills of Denver, and moved to a little town about an hour north of Cheyenne. They immediately took a job caretaking a reservoir for the town. The reservoir was a lonely drive north from Laramie – out into a place of great and wonderful wildness. We saw wild horses flying across the flat lands, there were often many pairs of different kinds of hawks flying near the reservoirs, hearing elk whistles was a common occurrence, as was finding fossils (which went with stories of the fellows working on the reservoir covering up an exciting dinosaur find – so as not to lose their jobs). One day on the drive out my sister and I stopped the car to watch a large golden eagle perched on a fence post. This glorious creature paid us no mind, just watched the landscape and after about ten minutes began what felt like a slow-motion lift off. It seemed his wings would never quit unfurling. But, the most exciting moment happened when my youngest child – then aged 5 – took a visiting friend for a walk along the dike – to look for fossils. The family dog – a perfectly proportioned little guy named Ace – came with us. His name might properly have been “Streak” or “Lightening” – he was that fast. Anyway as the dike turned into a road and the water ended we looked down to see two fawn drinking there. I turned to Ace to warn him off – but he was already down the hill and ‘in their face’. He had an arrogance that wasn’t just little dog formed. I was yelling and trying to get over the locked cattle-guard gate to get to him, when, over the top of the rise came the doe. She was very angry – snorting and ripping up the sod as she ran. I screamed at Ace and put all my will into it – which always caught his attention as he was arrogant but not stupid. Then he saw the doe. He fled up the hill and under the cross-bar of the gate with that angry mother on his tail. He ran slinking between my legs and I pulled myself in front of my child, while telling my friend to step behind me as well. I kept my eyes on the doe the whole time and when she got to the gate and sprang over it I held my breath. She stopped for a moment, breathing heavily and starting at me. I returned her look and explained about the dog and apologized. There was also an assurance given that he’d find himself chastised for his behavior. She stared for the longest time (or it felt it anyway) and then snorted and returned to her offspring and herded them up the hill and away. My friend is a psychologist and was amazed. She said “You talked with her!”. I replied …. “and she with me”.
Crouching among the small boulders in the middle of a shallow stream, I was transfixed by watching the process of a dragonfly splitting out of the back of it’s own water-born larval self, uncrinkling its wings in preparation for becoming an iridescent creature of the air when a shadow blocked out the sun. It was as though a dark cloud had arrived. I glanced up and saw what looked like the silhouette of a Pterodactyl spanning the creek corridor wing-tip to wing-tip. And it was soaring towards me. I couldn’t make myself any smaller or stiller than I already was, so my mind froze as I awaited for whatever. In the next instant a Great Blue Heron planted itself in the stream bed not more than two-beak’s length from where I squat, or an arm’s length away, although I wasn’t aware I had any arms at that moment. The only thing that seemed to be functioning in me were my eyes, and with them I looked into the eyes of the Heron. I saw its pupils dilate abruptly. And then its beak open slightly in a quiet, nearly breathless ‘awk’ as it was lifted back up into the air as though pulled by a tremendously strong magnet. It was gone, and so was the dragonfly on my fingertip. I was left with the skeleton of a larva quivering in the breeze. And now, a potent memory from decades ago. Funny how we don’t forget these startling encounters. Though we might nearly run into a human stranger rounding the corner of a city street and forget it by the end of the day. Or not!
Oh, and thank you Alex Carr Johnson, and Orion for sharing “Meetings Nobody Scheduled”
Eliciting so many potent and singular experiences.
As I raised a careless foot, ready to advance along the well-travelled path between the kitchen and garage, I saw him. His thin pink-grey body, braced with tender barrel-staves of muscle, was motionless. An earthworm! Immediately, I realized his outstretched form was exposed to the open air only because there were no rotten leaves to eat within reach, and he had courageously headed out over the rough-textured concrete towards the edge, lured by the sweet compost smell.
I continued my mission, smiling, proud that, for once, I had not simply stepped on my intrepid neighbor.
When I was a young child I was riding horseback behind my father in Rocky Mountain National Park. I had a “kid’s” gentle mare; my father on a more spirited gelding named Lucky. We were poking along on a hot day at the end of August; my horse kept trying to nibble long grass. My father advised me to keep her head up. We turned a dusty corner toward a big boulder and all the horses, even my mare, started jittering around sort of on tip toe. Then a cougar leaped off the high boulder, sailed across the trail, and bounded off through the grasses. I will never forget the incredible stretch of that cougar.
We were on a canoe trip on the Oswegatchie River in the northern Adirondacks many years ago. My husband, toddler son and I had canoed since early morning, only stopping briefly for lunch on a steep riverbank. Arriving just before dusk at our destination, High Falls, a couple guys at a campsite warned us about marauding bears at the sites. We continued in to a leanto and, since it was getting close to dark, we began to prepare dinner. The Svea stove wasn’t igniting, so he’d pulled all of our provisions out of our packs, spreading it out to decide on an alternative. Cheese sandwiches…that’s when I heard the noise. I was sitting next to the side of the leanto and something was nosing the waste can on the other side of the log wall. I remembered that someone had unfortunately discarded some rice dinner, and just as my husband was noting that it was perhaps a raccoon, I saw the large snout of a massive black bear. Right next to me! I immediately shot across to the firepit as he grabbed our son and raced next to me. The bear’s eyes glowed and I was convinced we should attempt to escape by making the journey out by night, which was impossible. Instead, we watched the bear proceed to devour everything edible we had brought. It was a veritable bear smorgasbord….He even grabbed the cooler off a shelf and dragged it up the hill. and put a big toothy dent in our thermos. It took a while for the bear to finish feasting and retreat. We set up camp across a bridge, away from the leanto. I remember having a sleepless night, waiting all night to hear the tearing of our ripstop nylon tent. I still also have the cooler with imbedded claw marks as a reminder of our bear encounter.
Every day at Monkey Mia, on the west coast of Australia, wild dolphins swim to the shore to greet humans. If you stand there quietly, in the shallows, and wait patiently, they will come. I shall never forget the first time I watched a dolphin approach. She swam slowly in front of the row of people, like a general inspecting a parade. Turned on her side, one eye out of the water, she stared up at them, fixing them with her gaze. Excited, I watched her swim towards me, along the row, imagining how our eyes would meet and some magical, New Age-type communion of souls would take place.
Wrong. It was not at all like I had imagined. I can see it now, that dark, intense, penetrating eye meeting mine. But instead of a feeling of connection, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the recognition of our utter and complete difference. And what grew and swelled in me in that moment was a feeling I have never lost. It was the feeling of profound respect. She was forever a dolphin, from the sea world. I was forever a woman, from the land world. Our worlds could never merge, they could only meet at this amazing, respectful edge. I don’t know if the same was true for her, but for me, the existence of that edge – that very otherness of hers – has made my whole world ten times more beautiful. It was one of the most precious gifts I have ever been given.
I was eleven or so, sleeping in a cabin with my parents somewhere in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. The beds were inside, the kitchen was outside. We were awakened in the night by a large, deep, snuffly explosive sound. Then another and another, gradually getting less loud. We leaped out of bed, somebody grabbed a flashlight and shone it out the window. We saw the south end of a brown bear galloping north, down the hillside at top speed. In the morning we inspected the kitchen and found a cardboard-sided cocoa can, crushed by big teeth. That sound was a bear sneezing.
The shuffling footsteps outside the tent shattered the black isolation of the broad Colorado wilderness valley, jarring me awake and firing my fight/flight muscles instantaneously. I held my breath and pleaded for my heartbeat to quieten lest it burst through my ears. There it was again – the unmistakable shuffle, snort, deep guttural noises of a bear inches from my head. My voice cracked as I hissed to my husband “Where’s the bear spray?” His flat reply so soon retrieved from REM sleep revealed he not only understood the urgency, but had kicked into ‘keep calm, I’ll save you’ mode. “It’s right here,” he hissed back. Actually I’m not sure if he spoke or just telepathically screamed to me. Time stopped, but we waited anyway. The wind tried to avert our attention, but I knew better. We listened stubbornly…nothing, no more scuffling. I informed my husband that I had not been dreaming, but the bear must have fled under cover of the distracting breeze. Neither of us slept much while silently chuckling over spoiling the violent deaths the bear surely had planned for us. But our sunrise exit of the tent quickly brightened my cheeks with embarrassment as I nearly stepped in the pile of the perpetrator’s punchline requital. Apparently we’d been sniffed by a MOOSE. And what’s worse is I guess he had the last laugh!
It was early morning outside Denali Park and I was seated in the most beautiful outhouse in the world. This one was three-sided with the fourth side overlooking a view which on clear days included Denali Peak. I was enjoying the view and the warmth of the early morning sun when two small, very young moose scrambled by maybe six feet in front of me. Realizing that A), the mama moose had to be close and B) I was not exactly prepared to stand up just yet, I did the only thing I could and that was freeze. The mama moose was indeed close and when she passed where I sat, the little outhouse became dark with her shadow. Her head turned toward me for a moment but she paid me no mind and continued on, ambling after her young ones.
Wanted to share my nature blog entry. Sorry too long to paste the whole things as a comment.
noise in another part of the lake house takes me from my reverie
of watching the sun rise with a cardinal
she was on the tree branch outside my window
she lost her mate I knew them
they returned to my yard every year to feed
they sang at my window on occasion
now he lays there beside the driveway
up near the cottage his feet to the sky
I know she knew he was there
her body language and her eyes told me
she mourned the sunrise was brilliant but began grey
as the sun rose the colors turned deep pink
then red her head shifted lifted
perhaps she recognized in the sky
the color of her partner her mate
he helped her raise the young ones every year
she stilled herself faced the scarlet light and the warmth
and bathed in them until the last of the crimson colors turned into blue
I cried remembering her mate the loss of my own: my husband my child
the cardinal will face difficulties that no one can…I can’t…articulate
I wished her well from my heart she flew off
I lingered at the window a little too long
touching the glass wishing I could change everything
on the other side of it
–e. smith sleigh
The comments are just so beautiful! Thank you all for sharing….
My dad was camping out in Minnesota’s Northeastern wilderness, about 30 miles north of Lake Superior. Deciding to walk up the river on the side that had a very steep bank it wasn’t long before he noticed a Badger walking up the same side. It was about a block behind him. Up ahead he saw a beaver dam, a safe place to sit out in the middle to try some fly fishing. The Badger could continue on it’s way up the river. Before he knew it the Bader was crossing the dam, what now? As hard as it is to believe it sat down next to my dad, leaving him dumbfounded. Badgers not being the most amiable of creatures. Several minutes passed and it dawned on dad that it was just waiting it’s turn to cross the dam. So moving ever so slowly dad decided to see how much the critter would tolerate of actions by him. He picked up a long twig and ever so slowly started caressing it’s nose up to it’s ears, sort of like you do with a house cat. Dad was completely taken by surprise when it’s eye’s started to close—for a nap………
True story from North of Two Harbors, Mn. dad had camped out in Minnesota’s Northeastern wilderness above Lake Superior.
A poem about another avian-human encounter:
Scolding a Goldfinch
Where were you going, dandelion with wings,
when you tried to pierce the window that
divides earthbound and airborne?
Bravado brought you here—
imprisoned in my nested hands—
your golden body light as milkweed,
wings shuttered like fans,
claws tight as a baby’s fist,
heart fluttering against my palm.
Inside, my cat watches, tail twitching.
Outside, I watch, dead-still with awe
until your black eyes snap open with a focus so fierce
they force my fingers to open like petals,
releasing an explosion of sunshine,
leaving behind the cat and me to wonder:
who is captive and who is free?
Early Morning Game
Many years ago we were camped near a meadow, high in the mountains. Wildflowers bloomed along the edge of the little gurgling stream. My husband and three young children were still asleep when I eased from my sleeping bag, dressed quickly, slipped on my boots and made my way through the dew-soaked grass to a large boulder and climbed to the top. For a few minutes I just absorbed my surroundings: the jagged mountains rimming the valley, the sun beginning to slide down over the forest and into the meadow, the time without demands of family. Then I noticed a doe and her spotted fawn below me. The fawn approached his mother and touched noses. Then he pranced off, looking back. He leaped through the grass, bouncing away. She remained still. He repeated his overture several times. Finally his mother joined in and began to run after him. Around and around they went before she finally led her fawn safely into the forest.
And from a poem I wrote, the title of which was Bear Basin
Before sunrise, scratching sounds wake me.
Pushing my face against the screen,
I see only shapes of trunks and branches
against a silvering sky.
Then a small, dark form moves downward,
leaping back and forth
between two trees, searching,
not a squirrel pattern.
A few feet from the tent’s door it stops
and for a moment the pine marten and I stare.
Then it’s gone.
Last Winter. I walked to the nearby cove on upper Narraganesett Bay in Rhode Island. As my terrier romped around, happy to be free of a leash, I admired the afternoon light reflecting on the water. Then, my gaze met the piercingly beautiful yellow eyes of a Snowy Owl standing perfectly still in the sand. I could have walked right into it – instead, I found myself staring into the face of the Creator.
On a relatively mild January night, still chilly enough for snow to remain on the ground, I was walking up City Creek Canyon in Salt Lake City with a woman I recently had met online. It was our second or third date, and we ambled along the asphalt road engrossed in conversation and laughter. That is, until we heard a snap in the woods creekside and stopped. I saw it as my chance to impress; the canyon was my stomping ground, and I fancied myself attuned to its wildness. Assuming the noise was a mule deer betraying its presence, I scanned the trees for its silhouette against the faintly visible snow. I saw a silhouette, all right, only it hugged the ground and moved stealthily. That’s when four things happened in an eye blink: I surmised it was a mountain lion, it sounded a cross between a whine and a purr that left no room for doubt, the silhouette disappeared from view, and I assumed that was because the lion was now crossing the dark creek along a rock wall or a log, I couldn’t remember which, I knew to be there. In the next eye blink, I assumed the lion was headed straight for us. Too exhilarated to be scared just yet, but a twitch nervous nonetheless, I said in the calmest voice I could muster that we needed to retreat – slowly yet immediately – toward the mouth of the canyon. As we reversed direction, I walked backward, prepared to keep the lion at bay by yelling and making myself appear larger than I was. But the big cat’s shadow never did reappear, and the night was once again silent but for the sound of running water and our beating hearts.
I was hiking a couple miles up along Rattlesnake Creek near Missoula last September when I stepped to the bank at a favorite spot to photograph the evening light on the water. A splash at my feet turned my gaze downward, and there was a snake wrestling with a small brook trout. Up out of the water, the fish’s gills were still flexing steadily, but not quickly. My immediate reaction was to want to rescue the fish, but why should its life be more important than that of the hungry snake? So I left them alone, and sat back to watch the struggle unfold. I was transfixed, and found it oddly emotional.
At one point a couple other hikers approached, with dogs, and I stood from my perch on a rock to try and keep the dogs away. The two hikers — young women — eyed me with looks of mild concern before ascending the hill I had intended to climb. I didn’t want the dogs to mess up what the snake was trying to accomplish.
The snake worked the fish around and positioned its jaw at the fish’s tail, clearly with the intention to swallow the entire thing. How it hoped to accomplish that I don’t know, but I trust it knew what it was doing. I watched until approaching darkness forced my return to the trailhead.
The next night I returned to the spot, curious to see if there were any signs of what had happened. No dead fish, no bloated and belching snake, nothing. No one ever would have known what had happened there. Who knows what DID happen there. Maybe the snake pulled off its feast, maybe a dog — or bear, for that matter — came along and swallowed them both. I’ll never know.
Thursday evening I got buzzed while carrying the last bucket of water to the garden. At the Dipper Ranch, it is risky to wander outside on a hot summer night. I’d been rushing to finish projects in the yard when the warning sound at my feet made me realize it was nearly dark. I halted, pinpointed the vibrating blur, and slowly backed away with the bucket between me and the rattlesnake. In the dark, it appeared to be the largest rattler I’d ever seen in my yard, maybe two and one-half feet long with a girth the size of my wrist. I know rattlesnakes get much larger, but for the Dipper Ranch this was a biggie. At first I was relieved to see the rattler quickly slipping away but when I realized it was heading towards the gap under the porch, I thought, “No, I don’t want a rattlesnake living under my house!”
I grabbed a flashlight and cautiously peered around the corner of the porch. It was hard to make out anything because my shaking hand was bouncing the light beam around. I was about to quickly give up when I noticed a loose pile of rope on a concrete footer. Who left that there? My heavy boots kept me pinned in place as the rope dissolved into a rattlesnake in the uneven light. Yes, the rattler was still and positioned well for capturing. If I was careful and quick, I could do this even in the dark and it was the right thing to do. I just needed to be calm and then move precisely, always having a way to back out. No panicking in the dark.
With snake tongs, I set the empty bucket on its side in front of the post, nudged the rattler into the bucket, flipped the bucket upright and slammed on its lid. I yelled and inside the bucket the snake thumped and buzzed, but still, the deed was done. I sat on the kitchen steps and watched the stars until I was ready to fetch the bucket and put the captured snake away for the night. The next day, I moved the heavy and possibly pregnant rattler far away from the house and marked its rattle with purple ink to track whether it came back to the farmyard. [an excerpt from The Last Purple Rattlesnake, http://dipperanch.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-last-purple-rattlesnake.html ]
I was minding my own business, soaring above the Boulder, CO area in 1980 at about 3000 feet, trying to eke out a few hundred more feet of altitude in diminishing lift. Then I saw a hawk off my right wing which proceeded to circle with me in the same thermal.
He/she had no real business this high. I don’t know their hunting habits, but it seemed far too high to be able to do anything but enjoy the thrill of soaring, powered by the heat of the sun on the ground.
It was a magical moment of probably less than a minute as we continued in the same rising air currents. As I watched to see what he might do next, in a flash he disappeared and I never saw him again. I was disappointed to lose sight of him, but enthralled with the moment we shared.
While vacationing with the intent of introducing my two teenage children to the Western states, we wandered from one national park to the next admiring moose, elk, squirrels, trout fox and several types of birds. We would drag ourselves exhausted into our hotel rooms at night after our daily nature pursuits. After arriving at a room in Utah, we were unpacking when my daughter pulled down the bed sheet to reveal a spider the size of a dinner plate alive in the middle of the mattress. The three of us began screaming in unison for several seconds before bursting into laughter and panicking ourselves into an action plan. We inspected the creature in quick fascination before my daughter gathered up the tools she needed for capture and release. She ran for an ice bucket and a flat item , trapped it harmlessly between and threw spider and all fervently out the door before slamming it. With us safely inside, I asked her what she had used for the flat item. When she responded, “Your writing journal” I pushed her body out of the way and opened the door, ready to do battle. The spider was long gone, and my notebook was there, a bit twisted into the gravel about fifty feet out in the parking lot. We inspected every other corner of that room for more nature. And then I curled up with my mangled journal and wrote about our new beasty friend who had an adventurous nature encounter with people and rode into the sunset in an ice bucket.
As I kayaked on Oyster Bay on Florida’s Gulf Coast, a little dolphin left its pod to check me out. Its dorsal fin was a third of the size of an adult’s. Within a few minutes, an adult – his mother maybe, or an aunt – swam over to herd it back, scolding all the way.
How does a half-grown raccoon work its way into one of those tall suburban garbage cans with the flipping lid? A handsome little guy – not yet fattened on the surplus of domestic life – popped up like a jack-in-the-box one evening, unrepentant but quick to hurry along.
Freshly arrived at Denali National Park, we boarded an aged bus and the guide told us they were watching for a moose they thought had recently given birth. And didn’t she just then stagger up to my window– dazed, tipsy, damp, with eyes unfocused–and lean against the glass, asking to be personified as a new mother, needing a rest.
Nibbles, the baby rabbit un-nested by our lawnmower, snuggled on my son’s lap and drank diluted milk from an eye dropper until we learned it was illegal to harbor wildlife in our state. For several years every rabbit in the neighborhood became Nibbles, all grown up and doing well.
A baby bird fell onto the sidewalk, barely feathered and mouth agape. It clearly wouldn’t last the hour. First words to my son: “Please, let’s not give it a name.”
Walking my corgi, Pedro, in our neighborhood near the Arcata Bottom (northern California, Humboldt Bay), we venture onto the small wooden bridge that crosses the creek between the street and a small suburban subdivision. Suddenly I find myself face to face with a most amazing bird, perched on a branch close to the bridge. It’s a big bodied creature with a shock of green hair and brightly colored eyes and feet. (Since this happened almost 10 years ago, I cannot clearly remember all the details of that moment’s sighting; only the wonder of it.) Pedro barks and the bird is gone. I don’t know what I’ve just seen, but later, through conversations with friends and research in my husband’s bird guide, I finally determine it was a green heron. My certainty is cemented upon reading that due to its solitary and secretive nature, sightings often involve both human and bird being startled. I start looking for it, and once or twice catch a glimpse of a green heron in flight along the creek, bright orange legs its most telling feature. But I come to understand that that first sighting at close range was a true gift and likely never to be repeated.
So rich! Thanks for sharing your encounters, everyone! Keep them coming. Who are we but animals endlessly startled to find ourselves in each other’s presence?
While hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park in August 2013, my girlfriend was following me as we topped a two-mile climb and began a gradual descent. Suddenly I noticed movement just off the trail ahead to my left and skidded to a halt, blocking my girlfriend from proceeding past me. Within 20 feet a bull elk was grazing – and this was rut season. My sudden stop caused him to look up at me – we were both surprised. As we backed up the trail I looked around and was relieved to see he had no harem, so he wouldn’t be so defensive. Still, I continuee guiding us backwards, keeping stout trees between us and that massive rack. He turned away and continued grazing down the trail, seemingly ignoring us. We kept a good distance and took pictures as we followed him down the trail. I heard voices ahead as other hikers came upon him from the opposite direction. Good for we humans that day but disappointing in the bigger picture, the elk was all too familiar with humans and proceeded to lick the salt off the handles of the other party’s abandoned walking sticks and sniff their hastily-abandoned lunches before moving off into the brush unmolested. The feeling of vulnerability mixed with awe is one I hope to never forget.
I had about 6 or 7 more feet of snow to shovel to clear my drive way when I was assaulted without warning by a large black and white monster. After the usual bunches of hugs and kisses she dragged her mother back across the street to resume their usual walk. Kiri is a seven year old Siberian Husky who lives several streets over. Kiri and I have been lovers for many years.
When I was a child in England, my Canadian mother had a small figurine that I loved, of a spotted fawn lying down. It inspired in me a life-long longing to actually see one, but although I moved to Canada as a young adult, and did a great deal of hiking, I never saw one. Still, I carried that longing; it was like part of my identity: white, female, longs to see tiny fawn. Last winter was a hard one with personal loss. But this spring, I discovered new hiking paths and began to heal. One afternoon, I was ambling along with my camera in hand, turned on to photograph wild iris. There was a blur of something in the periphery of one eye; a leaping, bounding flash. I ambled on with my camera. And there it was, lying two feet in front of me in the vegetation beside the trail: almost newborn, perfect in every tiny detail, shining in its thin skin, its glowing spots; staring at me with the deep dark pool of its enormous eyes. My breath stopped! I felt such a sense of awe. But I did not wish to intrude on its wild life. I snapped just one picture, fast as a reflex, and moved away fast so the doe could return. But what a gift when I needed it most; how grateful I have been ever since; how just looking at my photo still makes my soul sing! It was more than worth the long wait.
The rain had been strong and steady since I left the hut early that morning. I was only three hours into a long day of walking that would include swollen rivers, quicksand, treacherous descents and hardship. The track was neglected with thick overgrown grasses and mutton scrub obscuring the edges of the coastal bluffs; my frustration at the adverse, dangerous conditions grew with each step until–out of a cloud of rain and malcontent–I stumbled upon a solitary kiwi digging for dessert in the late morning. I was frozen not from fear but curiosity of this elusive flightless bird that inspires an entire country to seek wildness. She looked at me, and I looked at her. It took only a moment to determine my harmlessness and she returned to the earth, her long beak sliding effortlessly into the saturated earth searching for a bedtime snack. We existed together for a few breaths, both of us in our primitive habits. I looked away for only a moment when she disappeared into the bush. I continued down the track appreciating that once again the way of nature brought me back from the edge of myself and reminded me of why I venture to the landscapes and truths of wild places.
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