It’s the time of year when the phrase “doe-eyed” takes on all new meaning. Does get the crazy look, like zombies or psychopaths. They stand stock still in the middle of the dirt road when I go running and stare at me as though I’ve just landed from Mars, as though they haven’t seen me every morning for months, maybe years. I’m not freaked out, or mostly not, since I know what’s up: they’ve either just had their fawns or they’re about to have them, and they’re being protective. You hear a lot in the woods – or really, anywhere, when speaking metaphorically – about mama bears. But it’s not just bears. And it’s not just the deer.
There are, at Seven Mile, four Canadian geese that line the road four abreast like a color guard and hold their ground, squawking mightily as I approach. I’m guessing the nest (or nests?) is to my left, in the cut bank along the river, and I’m guessing it’s been there for five years or more because each year four geese block the road the same way. Are they the same four geese? I don’t know, but I like to pretend they are. Sometimes I give in and turn around. What’s a shorter run, after all, compared to disrupting family life? When I do, they turn half sideways in unison to keep an eye on me as I retreat.
Last week, I charged past them, and a little ways further ran into a bright yellow puff ball with the biggest orange webbed feet I’ve ever seen. Not a gosling this time, but a duck. I stopped running, it kept running. I pretended to turn around, but it did no good. In full panic mode, the puff ball continued its willy nilly charge mid-gravel road – imagine the scars on those big orange feet! – like running in clown shoes or swim fins. Finally, with no other choice, I charged past at a sprint, risking duckling cardio-damage, and turned to jog backwards long enough to see it panting alone, and safe, beside an eddy.
The animals have reason to be worried, of course. There’s a family of coyotes that lives somewhere close to our house: a bitch and two pups. Or so other people told us last year. We’d hear them yipping, and one night the mother stood howling atop a huge boulder in the yard, as though posing for a souvenir t-shirt (all she needed was the red kerchief, we said). But we hadn’t seen the pups at all until one afternoon while I worked rock-facing our foundation (a project that’s taken me a decade, which is about five years past Zen-like precision and well into get-it-the-fuck-done). I was slapping up the last few rocks, with a half-wheelbarrow of mixed mortar beside me, when here comes a tiny coyote pup, the size of a large pack rat, not twenty feet away, stumbling over puppy feet from one log to the next, sniffing all the way. My turn to stand stock still. I watched until he was almost past, until I couldn’t stand it anymore, and then I peeled off my gloppy gloves and tiptoed into the house for the camera. Something spooked him, and he was gone.
This spring I’ve seen them—the mother and the two pups—many a morning on the road. They don’t mind sharing; usually they just saunter off the road to let me pass. If they go downhill toward the river, that’s cool, but once all three of them climbed the steep cut bank and stood just over my head. The pups are big now, leggy like teenagers and – who knows? – maybe similarly unpredictable. Their coloring up close is stunning: mottled rust and beige and grey. If they were a breed with papers, they’d sell in four figures. Maybe five. But when they’re on the cut bank, three of them, above your head, even if you’ve known them, more or less, since birth, well it’s a little disconcerting. I talked nice as I jogged by fast.
So, yeah, there are coyotes, and cougars that we never see, and omnipresent vultures and birds of prey. Everyone’s got a story about an eagle with a fill-in-the-blank puppy-kitten-gosling in its talons. Last week in the bigger town, on the paved trail, we passed geese with goslings, then followed a bobcat – healthy and tabby colored – at a healthy distance for a half a mile as he searched a chainlink fence for a break. At last he slipped between steel gate posts into the tall grass.
The tall grass would almost certainly be a boon for that cat, for any predator, since it seems to be the favored hiding place. Laurie is racing these days to mow the orchard before too many does drop their fawns. Hardly a year has passed when she hasn’t come upon one new and wet and curled in on itself, unmolested by the diesel roar or the flies that congregate close. She’s not yet mowed over one, but if she’s not vigilant, it could be tragic. So she’s keeping watch.
We all are.