It was truly a Discovery Channel moment. Well, except for the fact that I was in the middle of taking a leak. After some twenty minutes of fruitless stalking, I had given up on getting a good picture of the sharp-shinned hawks screaming at me from various hidden vantage-points around the spruce grove at the top of the field. This is the third year in a row that they’ve raised a family there, and while extremely secretive as long as the young are in the nest, as soon as they fledge, the parents become quite vocal, even aggressive. Just about every morning for the past week, my mother had reported getting close views of them, but by the time I got up there in mid-afternoon, there was no sign of them. “They probably come back each night to the spruce grove, and hang out there in the morning before going off somewhere else to hunt,” she suggested.
Thus it was that around 9:30 on a beautiful, cool, Sunday morning I found myself in the narrow strip of field between the back of the spruce grove and the edge of the oak-cherry woods, engaged in contemplation of the wonders of nature. My bladder was only about half-empty I realized two things: a sharpie had landed in the black locust sapling right above me, and a large stick had just snapped at the edge of the woods about 50 feet away. It had to be either a human or a bear. I zipped up hastily, and a moment later caught a glimpse of a large, black form moving between the trees.
To tell the truth, I’ve never been quite sure that the kind of nature shows featured on the Discovery Channel or in National Geographic specials are entirely a good thing. I mean, if the goal is simply to entertain and to inspire, they’re great. But I worry that such shows raise false expectations about the sort of experiences people are likely to have when they go outside, where, let’s face it, your chances of seeing charismatic megafauna doing exciting things are pretty remote on a day-to-day basis — not least because most larger animals spend the majority of their time doing essentially nothing. Worse yet, the average person’s failure to see nature-show-worthy spectacles in his or her own neck of the woods might lead him or her to conclude, subconsciously at least, that preserving local wildlife habitat isn’t as important as, for example, Saving the Rainforest. How else to explain public silence in the face of runaway exurban envelopment, despite polls that consistently show widespread public support for Protecting the Environment?*
Those of us who have come to crave regular contact with wild nature have done so despite, or perhaps even because of, nature’s consistent failure to provide highly entertaining spectacles. There are lots of cheap thrills, if discovering a new wildflower or a fresh pile of coyote scat is your idea of a thrill. But really, wouldn’t you rather go geo-caching, or roar around on a mountain bike or an ATV? As one of my more urban visitors said one time when I tried to get him to go for a walk after several days of sitting around talking and listening to music, “I’ve seen trees before!”
Nevertheless, sometimes nature does — heeding the call of Oscar Wilde — imitate art, and this was one of those times. I snapped two quick photos of the sharpie before it flew over my head and landed on a taller locust tree a stone’s throw behind me. Then the bear reappeared at the edge of a milkweed patch an equal distance in the other direction. Jesus! Where to look?
Another thing about those nature shows: they’re culled from thousands of hours of film, taken by very talented photographers using very expensive equipment. My thrilling encounter with the black bear was fairly long by real-world standards — maybe a minute — and yielded one pretty good view, but the only picture I got was, as you can see, pretty darn lousy.
It was a medium-sided bear, possibly the same one my mom saw looking in her kitchen window last week. Mother black bears chase off their year-and-a-half-old cubs around midsummer, and these “teenaged” bears, like the one I was watching, haven’t yet developed the wariness of the adults. They’re still learning the ropes. As a result, this is always the busiest time of year for so-called nuisance bear incidents. You’ve just finished moving into your dream house in Ferne Hollow or Oak Pointe, and the next thing you know there’s a goddamn black bear going through your recycling bin like it owns the place. There goes the neighborhood!
This bear, however, seemed more interested in smelling the milkweed blossoms, which have a very sweet, almost cloying odor. It turned its head this way and that, as if breathing deep from a cornucopia of scent. Either that, or it had caught a whiff of Human, and was struggling to separate it from the powerful background soup.
I turned around to look at the sharpie, and realized it was sitting in full view for the first time all morning. I turned back toward the bear. It must’ve caught sight of the motion, because a moment later it was gone, crashing through the bottom corner of the spruce grove. In an agony of indecision, I snapped ten quick photos of the sharpie, then headed off after the bear, which I could still hear crashing around in the woods. I walked back along Laurel Ridge Trail hoping to cross paths with it again, but no luck.
An hour later, I had uploaded my photos to the computer and had just begun to go through them and realize how truly bad they were when my mom came back from her own walk down the hollow. She carried a large, orange and yellow moth on the end of twig, figuring I might want to photograph it. This turned out to be a royal walnut moth, the adult form of the famed hickory horned devil.
O.K., I take it all back: nature really is like the Discovery Channel — at least at the micro-level. Get a camera with a macro lens and you, too, can take eye-popping photos of wildlife in your own backyard: just ask Bev, or Cindy, or Rebecca. My mom was envious of my sightings up at the spruce grove, but her own find was the more interesting one, I thought. The royal walnut moth, like the hummingbird clearwing sphinx moth that came in to the bergamot in my front garden the previous afternoon, is not only easier to observe but also a great deal stranger than anything the furred or feathered tribes have to offer. And best of all, it’s not likely to flee if you stop to take a leak.
*Logically, an environment can never be destroyed. That’s the beauty of abstractions: they make horrors seem manageable by removing all traces of the real world: no land, no air, no water, no endangered species or ecosystems; no messy places or individual creatures. This is why I call myself a conservationist and not an environmentalist.