When we moved from downtown Chicago to the foothills of the Colorado Rockies in 1992, we left behind many things: superb restaurants, Starbucks every few blocks, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, jogging along Lake Michigan, the electric buzz of living in a great city. One definite improvement, though, was wildlife. If you discount the times I jogged through the Lincoln Park Zoo, most days I saw only pigeons and ugly city squirrels (rats with tails, as a friend calls them). Yes, coyotes, deer, and even a mountain lion have been sighted in downtown Chicago, but these occurrences are so rare as to merit news coverage.
Now I see exotic wildlife almost every day. A three-compartment birdfeeder full of sunflower seeds hangs just outside my office window, attracting finches, chickadees, nuthatches, grosbeaks, crossbills, pine siskins, woodpeckers, and the like. If I turn a sprinkler on they line up on branches to get a shower from the spray. Often I see hawks circling in the sky overhead, and twice I’ve watched as they dived down and plucked one of these unsuspecting guests from the feeder. They swooped over to a nearby branch where they perched, eyes set in a fierce I-dare-you glare, as their talons squeezed the life out of the little bird.
The bird feeder hangs suspended between two trees on an elaborate wire-cable pulley system, my triumphant solution after years of trying to deter squirrels, raccoons, and bears. It used to hang off a long iron bar attached to our deck, but a bear bent that one like a toothpick. Last week a huge black bear climbed an adjacent tree, mentally calculated the geometry, and decided my Rube Goldberg contraption had indeed made the feeder inaccessible. He settled for a civilized drink from the birdbath.
The bird feeder supports an entire ecosystem. Almost every evening two different red foxes, one of which has a pronounced limp, stop by to sort through the shells for uncracked sunflower seeds. A bit later a gray fox, smaller and shyer, warily cleans up the leftovers. Sometimes a skunk shambles by. When the bear pays a visit, he doesn’t bother to sort and greedily scoops shells, seeds, and dirt into his large mouth.
One year a marmot took up residence in the culvert at the end of our dirt driveway, apparently unaware he’s supposed to be living at an altitude of 10,000 feet, not 7500. Several times we’ve found fresh deer kill in our back yard, evidence of a resident mountain lion, but only twice have we actually seen the magnificent creature. About the time we moved to Colorado a mountain lion attacked and killed a local high school athlete who was jogging near the school, and a bicycle bridge was later erected in his honor. I used to jog nervously, my head swiveling back and forth like an owl’s, until I learned a foolproof method for preventing lion attacks. Farmers and forestry workers in India discovered long ago that wearing a mask on the back of the head will confuse lions and tigers, who normally attack from the rear, grabbing a person’s neck in their jaws and breaking it with a powerful paw-blow to the head. For anyone who wants to jog on mountain trails at dusk, I recommend strapping on a Richard Nixon mask—no credible reports have ever surfaced of a lion attack on someone wearing a Richard Nixon mask on the back of his or her head.
We’ve also seen ferrets and badgers. Deer and elk treat our yard as a salad bar, destroying anything we plant, and in the fall bull elk bugle and spar nearby. Once a bobcat stopped by, a lovely creature the size of a large, lanky dog with a small, cat-like face. Nothing can prepare you for the sight of a creature wearing a coat of such exquisite design wandering through your front yard.
Foxes are my favorite visitors, though. Sometimes a bold red fox will climb the steps to our deck and sit quietly as we eat outdoors, no doubt hoping for a handout. One year after a spring snow I followed a fox’s prints to its den and a few weeks later moved my workplace to a tree nearby. I leaned cushions against the tree and typed on my laptop. Sure enough, three frisky young foxes soon emerged from the den and started playing with their pile of treasures collected from the neighborhood: a pine cone, a discarded work glove, a tennis ball. After watching a while, I introduced myself by saying, “Hi.” You cannot imagine how high a fox kit can jump. All three dove headfirst into the den and wouldn’t come out for days. Eventually, though, they got used to my presence and would follow me on walks through the woods. I felt like the Pied Piper, but when I stopped to catch my breath they quickly hid behind the nearest bush.
Observing all these animals, I’ve learned a few lessons about nature:
• Animals have no concept of grace. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and a fox-eat-squirrel and coyote-eat-fox and cougar-eat-coyote world as well. With two exceptions, small animals live in a constant state of anxiety, twitching their ears at the slightest sound and whirling around to look for enemies. (The two exceptions: porcupines and skunks, who have a built-in deterrence system.) Once I tossed an apple core to the ground and my three fox friends surrounded it, tails in the air, legs tensed for a final assault. It occurred to me that they had never eaten a meal that did not involve hunting and killing. They worked hard to survive, and knew nothing of gratuitous gifts.
• It’s a tough world out there. In March of 2003 it snowed for three days straight, accumulating to a depth of seven feet. I strapped on snowshoes and set off to climb a hill behind my home; even with snowshoes I sank thigh-deep in the soft powder and had to lunge forward to make progress. We had no electricity and roads were impassible so there was no ambient noise, yet every few minutes I heard a loud crack like the report of a rifle: branches laden with snow were breaking free and falling to the ground. I saw a family of deer trapped in snow. Panting heavily, they would make a sudden leap and plunge a few feet forward, falling back into snow that covered their backs. It took enormous energy for them to proceed a few feet. Any food was buried well beyond reach. I thought of the animals killed by sudden blizzards, cold snaps, lightning storms, droughts—not to mention by hungry predators.
• Sometimes animals put human beings to shame. We label deviant behavior animalistic or bestial, even though creatures governed by instinct live within boundaries often scorned by the “higher” animals. “Man alone has the power and freedom to center life inordinately in one impulse,” said Reinhold Niebuhr. I think of my friends who struggle with addictions. “You and me, baby, ain’t nothin’ but mammals, so let’s do it like they do it on the Discovery Channel,” belts out the rock group Bloodhound Gang. Funnily enough, I see mammals “do it” all the time in my backyard, and sex for them has little in common with sex for humans. Take elk as an example: in late September the bull elk suddenly starts fighting pretenders with smaller antlers, then greedily mates 50-70 cows in an exhausting orgy, and doesn’t give sex another thought until another September rolls around. Yes, sex has power, but most of life centers in eating grass—except for those two weeks each September. Similarly, with few exceptions animals kill for food, and know nothing of mass murder or genocide.
• Beauty takes place whether anyone notices it or not. Rick Bass writes of … “one of those secrets of nature that you glimpse only every so often—a north-flowing river, an anomaly of gravity, an albino elk—little things She shows you only so often, just to keep you in awe, or maybe just to reward you.” Living in the midst of nature, I’ve been blessed to glimpse those secrets. Mountain biking, I stirred a herd of elk and came across a baby elk still glistening from birth, eyes large with fear, motionless as a rock. I sat for thirty minutes and watched a father woodpecker teaching its young how to drill a hole in a branch. I’ve seen a jet-black Abert squirrel doing somersaults in grass I had just wet down with a sprinkler. I’ve watched adolescent elk splash and play in a mountain stream, then gallop across a golf course green to grab the flag on the ninth hole. Hiking in the splendidly named Oh Be Joyful Valley I have lain down in a field of wildflowers with hummingbirds whistling around in a scene fresh and beautiful as the Garden of Eden.
• Nature goes on, beauty goes on, whether or not anyone is there to observe it. I thank God that during two decades in Colorado, I’ve had that chance. I echo the sentiments of George MacDonald, who wrote, “One of my greatest difficulties in consenting to think of religion was that I thought I should have to give up my beautiful thoughts and my love for the things God has made. But I find that the happiness springing from all things not in themselves sinful is much increased by religion. God is the God of the Beautiful—Religion is the love of the Beautiful, and Heaven is the Home of the Beautiful—Nature is tenfold brighter in the Sun of Righteousness, and my love of Nature is more intense since I became a Christian—if indeed I am one. God has not given me such thoughts and forbidden me to enjoy them.”