(with a nod to Maurice Sendak)
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden: or Life in the Woods
It was a mild evening in February as I made my way down the lane towards the front field. Wind still, the only sounds those of my footsteps and my own breath. Coming out of the wooded lane and into the clearing, I watched the final rays of sunshine dip to the West. It was then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him/her – a beautiful barred owl atop a tall spruce. I stood silently and watched as the owl moved into shadow, and I hoped my canine companion, Rio, would be distracted by the scent of deer on the paths leading to the woods so as not to break the spell.
This communion with the creatures that inhabit the land, waters, and skies where I live, fills me with awe and joy and I stood transfixed enjoying my good fortune. Suddenly, the owl took flight having spotted some prey in the field. The whoosh of wings caught Rio’s attention and he made chase below, thwarting the owl’s attempt to secure supper. The owl landed in another tree close to the road, but Rio was on a mission and so sadly, the owl had enough of this intruder and disappeared across the trees and my moment of transcendence was over.
Perhaps this year more than ever, as I have been teleworking in isolation during the pandemic, and connection with living beings is mostly through social media, Zoom and various other computer interfaces, I long for these escapes into the natural world and its mystical connections.
“Still, what I want in my life is to be willing to be dazzled – to cast aside the weight of facts and maybe even to float a little above this difficult world.” The Ponds by Mary Oliver
Happy am I that I can throw on my parka and snowshoes, and meander through fields and forests on a daily voyage of discovery where I “float a little above this difficult world.”
Sometimes I look back upon the fateful decision that brought us here leaving behind the suburban neighbourhood of Alta Vista to build a log home near the hamlet of Lascelles. Many friends and family members thought we were mad moving to live, “in the middle of a field,” as my daughter, Saskia, expressed with sadness twenty years ago. Not an easy transition for two teenagers to leave the familiar and childhood friends behind for the country life.
However, I think now as I did then, that this was the best decision my husband and I ever made. Living in the middle of a field has afforded us with both the opportunity to grow food and to live where the wild things are. And to live with the wild things at your door, is to use the colloquial and often ridiculously over-used word, epic.
On this epic odyssey that I have been on for the past 20 years, I have since day one enjoyed extraordinary encounters with the creatures who inhabit this territory, but there are three which really stand out as unique.
In the process of building our house in 2000, we were assisted by two local tradespeople, Tim and Marcel, who for a couple of months were a daily fixture at the house adding interior walls, stairs and floors in preparation for us to move in. We lived in a ramshackle cottage on Lac Bernard in the course of this work and would make regular visits down the road to see what progress was being made. One day as my husband Steve, Tim and Marcel were working away, I set off for a walk down the lane, which is about half a mile in length. As I rounded the corner near the rock I had dubbed the Philosopher’s stone, I saw an animal walking down the road towards me. I stopped and looked, looked again, and turned tail and ran like hell back to the house exclaiming to the three men at work that I had just seen a cougar!
Let’s just say there was a lot of skepticism and rolling of eyes indicating that this urban import was sorely mistaken and probably either saw a very big, domesticated cat or perhaps a dog. I knew what I saw was neither. I have seen wild cats in Africa and there was no mistaking this was a big cat.
A couple of years later, not only did I have witnesses at another sighting when family was visiting and we all stood in the loft windows to watch a cougar stroll through the lower field and into the woods, but if memory serves me well, there was also an incident reported in the local newspaper, The Low Down, that a cougar had killed a dog in Lascelles and I believe someone had even caught a picture of the cougar jumping over a car.
Perhaps sadly, we experienced no further sightings of cougars here for the past 15 years. While cougars used to roam the vast forests from Ontario to the Maritimes, they are now largely extinct, their demise due to deforestation, human incursion and the cash bounty placed on their heads.
Early one bitter cold and blustery morning in February 2013, our old German Shepherd, Wolf, was let out the front door to do his morning business. I was upstairs getting ready for work when I heard Wolf barking, something he rarely did. My husband looked out the window of the front entrance and saw the cause of Wolf’s ire. He called up to me to look out the loft windows. In the distance I saw what was either a wolf or a coyote beating a retreat. I ran downstairs and grabbed the binoculars on the windowsill and noticed the animal was limping, had blood on its leg and appeared wounded.
Barely 100 feet from our front door near the woods stood a big coyote howling as if shouting at the wounded animal, “and don’t come back!” The coyote turned to look at Wolf who was still barking, but not moving from the deck- protective but not stupid. And as we stood transfixed, from out of the woods there appeared a smaller coyote, the female, who stood by her man and watched as the vanquished suitor disappeared off into the distance. She too looked our way and then in an instant, they both were gone.
The Eagle and the Raven
This is really not my story to tell, rather my husband Steve’s, but it is wondrous story that should be shared, and in some ways, there is some symbolism in these dark times that is inspiring.
Wild turkeys, hawks and ravens are a regular part of our landscape. Rarer is the presence of bald eagles, though I know there is a pair living in Farrelton and recently there have been many sightings along the river. We have been privileged to see several bald eagles over the years flying above the house and fields. The majesty of the bird is compelling, and we marvel when we see any and every fly past; the very best airshow, as they dive down, swoop past and then with strength and grace soar high into the upper atmosphere like Prometheus racing to steal fire from the sun, defying the gods.
One summer’s day, Steve was out working in the garden when he caught sight of an eagle. The eagle was not alone but flying in tandem with another bird. Curiously, this bird was not its mate, not its offspring, but rather a potential rival, the raven.
Now in many Indigenous legends, it is the raven who is known as a transformer, trickster, even creator; the one who released the sun and the moon and the stars. Perhaps this raven had tricked the eagle into thinking he was one of its kind. Together they performed a magnificent pas de deux and seemed to delight in the currents of air, the warm sunshine and the audience of one, who had taken out his camera and was filming the spectacle below. They flew in circular formation side by side floating on the prevailing wind and moving eastward eventually vanishing in the distant azure sky.
Perhaps their display was a message, a message that we all love the dance, we all love the song, and we all love companionship. We can soar together in what unites us and should put aside our differences to celebrate the beauty of our short days on this earth.
Here in the field, sitting on ancient rock, bordering a temperate forest, I am grateful for this vantage point to where the wild things are. I think what a blessed land, how rich in biodiversity and beauty. The majestic oaks, the trembling poplars, the bears, the beavers and the wolves; the blue jays, and the bees, the bulrushes and the bullfrogs. Each plays a magnificent part in the sacred web of life.
In her poem, Upstream, Mary Oliver said, “For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.” In every season, I echo her words.
Here in the still of winter, I relish walking through cedar groves to the top of hills with their stands of mighty oaks and maples. I enjoy a beautiful symbiosis with the woodland creatures, particularly the deer, as I follow their tracks to make trails with my snowshoes, and they in turn have an easier go of it with the packed snow I leave behind. With the sun on my face, the wind at my back, I will sometimes wrap my arms around a tree I have dubbed grandfather due to his tremendous girth and age. I take a deep breath and sigh with thanksgiving.
Recently, heading back down the hill near my home, I turned to hear my dog in the distance making chase, when suddenly a white rabbit darted in front of me. It stopped as if surprised to see me and our eyes met, and then it was off, thinking I, like my dog, was perhaps an enemy. In my wonderland, the rabbit did not carry a watch nor did I follow it down the rabbit hole. As the sun filtered through the trees and light turned to shadow, I thought that here where the wild things are, there may lurk many foes, but for me there is no enemy but time. And somewhere in the distance, a crow called and I swear he said, carpe diem.