When my grandparents were still alive they lived in the remote Pennsylvania woodlands in a small stucco and stone home that my grandfather built himself. I spent a summer there just before my teens. I remember wandering through my grandmother’s garden of dahlias and snapdragons, mesmerized by all the color. I remember afternoons spent curled up in a window seat with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (entrancing) and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (horrifying) for the first time. (My mother couldn’t decide which one dismayed her more. At three thousand miles remove she ordered my grandmother to keep a closer eye on what I was reading. My grandmother shrugged and ignored her.) I remember the thunder (so rare in California) rumbling through the canyon having afternoon conversations with itself, and the patter of rain on the sycamore leaves.
But what I remember most of all are the wild things. My grandmother kept half a dozen trash cans in her cellar filled with food for the woodland creatures, and every morning she and I descended a steep stairway past shelves of canned soup and vegetables and into the dark and damp. A bare overhead light bulb illuminated her elfin face and shock of white hair as she scooped birdseed, peanuts and cracked corn into small pails. We’d climb back into the gathering daylight and trace a path through the woods near the house, scattering treats as squawking jays trailed after us. After we finished she’d put on a pot of coffee and make breakfast for me, and we’d sit at the kitchen bar watching as the animals came out to feed.
As a little girl I was forever trying to tame things – creatures that were wild and shy, I was convinced, only because they didn’t know me well enough. And so with energetic enthusiasm and over my grandmother’s tepid objections – she kept telling me watching should be enough – I set out on Project Trust Me. The birds and the deer resisted all of my obvious charms (and food), but I did enjoy some success with a couple of chipmunks and a squirrel. The chipmunks were adorably shy, reaching out tentatively for a peanut or three, stuffing them into their cheeks and then dashing away to bury them, returning several minutes later for more. Typically this would repeat for about fifteen or twenty minutes, then they’d go about whatever occupied them in the rest of their chipmunk lives.
The squirrel was another matter. It didn’t take him long to figure out that I was the unwelcome gatekeeper hoarding an overflowing cornucopia behind that rectangular portal from which I emerged. Soon he’d follow on my heels if I opened the door, so determined to infiltrate the Wellspring of All Good Things that my sighing grandmother took to wielding a broom when I wanted to come back inside.
And once his clever little brain grasped the transparency of windows I was well and truly doomed. After that he spent entire afternoons dashing from sill to sill, peering through the glass, shading his eyes against reflections with his small black paws. When he found me he’d pound tiny fists on the panes with relentless determination until I finally looked up, got up, gave in and gave him more food.
So I learned my first hard lesson in the difference between relationship and entrapment. Because while I thought we were enjoying one another’s company (right up to the point where he started annoying the living daylights out of me with his constant demands), he thought he was storing up food for the winter, and I was providing an especially efficient means of obtaining it. I hadn’t nurtured a fulfilling connection between us. I had created something unnatural, an artificial bond rooted in my amusement and his need, one that my grandmother was going to have to break him of after I went back home.
After that my interactions with wild creatures became more complicated. Living in suburban L.A. I didn’t have to think about it as anything more than an intellectual exercise, but when I moved onto my own little acre of oak woodland filled with squirrels and deer and all manner of birds, it acquired a certain urgency again. At first I followed in my grandmother’s footsteps, putting out seed and sugar water for the birds. (I didn’t feed the squirrels though. The trees were loaded with acorns, and I’d already learned my lesson). And it was delightful, watching the crimson flash of hummingbirds, the black heads and red eyes of the rufous-sided towhees, the migratory glimpses of sun bright warblers and black masked cedar waxwings, gathered around the feeders.
But other things gathered as well: keen-eyed hawks in the treetops, the neighbor’s cats skulking in the bushes. Easy pickings made their way up the food chain in a manner I certainly hadn’t intended. Typically we arrived too late to the scenes of carnage, although we did rescue a woodpecker once. My husband chucked a brick in the direction of an escaping cat, who was so startled at such a large projectile headed her direction that she dropped the bird and picked up speed. The woodpecker seemed largely unharmed, though despite our best efforts to shoo him off the ground he remained huddled in a mass of disconsolate feathers. I finally scooped him into my hands, where he promptly snapped at my fingers with a ferocity that made me glad I’d put heavy gloves on first. But by then I didn’t expect him to be my friend, or to be anything frankly but terrified of me. I just wanted him to be safe. So I tucked him on a high wall under the cover of a redwood tree, and a few hours later he was gone.
I love having hawks and owls comfortable in my yard. I know that they have to eat. (I have more mixed feelings about the cats.) But I didn’t need to turn the yard into a steam table buffet. So the feeders came down. The birdbath and fountain are still a hit – the latter especially with the hummingbirds, who hover in front of the sheet of water and dip their beaks in and out. And in the spring and fall competition for the nest box is fierce. But there are fewer piles of feathers in the yard.
There are also fewer visible birds, but I can hear them, safe in the trees. And if I sit quietly with the telephoto lens, sometimes I can capture them. Going about their wild lives.