The rhythms of life among the Vermont coyotes, wild turkeys, birds, cats and cairns inspire quiet reflection and a lot of heart-in-my-throat deep breathing.
BY MAGAZINE COLUMNIST RUTH FARMER
I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the
morning when nobody calls.
Awake, lying in my bed, the buzz of traffic is an occasional imposition above the air filter’s hum. Birds scratch along the eaves, set feeders creaking, create musical rustles, cheeps, and caws. Tires scrape tarmac and very faintly comes the pat-pat-pat of joggers’ feet as they puff past. It is time to get up.
I shuffle downstairs to the fridge, take out the coffee, grind it, and I feel them before I see them in the backyard. Turkeys – babies, adolescents, adults – at least forty. They are not clicking or gobbling, yet something moved the air, pulled my sleep-fogged attention to their plump brown, heavy-moving bodies.
I smile. I am awake.
Today I glanced from my introverted obsession with my computer and spied a flock of crows roosting in the hemlocks and maples in the front yard. Snow falls, refreshing the frozen gray that lingered along with the below zero temperatures. The birds are fat in silhouetted repose, darkly brilliant against the bright white sky, blanket of snow, and falling flakes.
I am impatient to continue some pressing task, but know that this is a scene to pause over. I don’t remember what I was doing, but I remember the crows. While I did not count them, I am convinced there were thirty of them. It is important to me that this is so for some reason.
The spell of their presence doesn’t last long, and I move into the kitchen. Out back a lone turkey pecks at the ground. A phone call distracts me, and when I return the turkey is gone. Some crows are scattered in the shorn cornfields out back; others wade through our exposed compost pile.
At a signal, they all sail off north, a black net in the wind.
One bird is left in the field alone. Its awkward movements make it look injured compared to the grace of the crows. For a moment, I cannot accept what it is: a duck. A duck? Binoculars verify this. A duck; what kind I’m not sure, but it is a duck.
As I stare at it, it flaps away, followed by another, and another, and another, their wings seeming to struggle with the cold winter air. There are birds everywhere now, most are familiar: blue jays, cardinals, chickadees, and nuthatches that appear as if on cue from a whispering stage manager or the stage directions of a script
[Exit stage left: crows, turkey, and ducks. Enter stage right and center: miscellaneous birds.]
Going back to my chores of breakfast and dishes, filing and phone calls, and waiting for the electrician, I hold onto the ducks’ surprisingly incongruous presence and their belabored flight. I am thinking of them still as night brings on its own set of chores.
For some reason, people find it hard to believe that coyotes are in Vermont. They are considered “western.” If the only time you’ve seen one is in a Hollywood shoot ‘em up, that is a reasonable assumption. Coyotes and chickens are always in those movies.
When you think of Vermont, the first animal that comes to mind is likely a cow; coyotes, not so much. According to a Vermont Fish and Wildlife fact sheet, the population of coyotes fluctuates between 4,500 and 8,000. This state is home to the “eastern” coyote. Its ancestors are western, but they are genetically distinct. Research has found that nearly a quarter of coyotes sampled had the DNA of the eastern wolf. Apparently, they mated with Canadian wolves while traveling across the continent.
One winter day, I saw a coyote in the fields south of our house; hunting and, occasionally, finding rodents. I didn’t believe my eyes at first because it was so close. I’d seen a lone coyote before, in the early morning, moving along quickly (Coyotes always seem to be running late for some very special appointment.)
The fact that the coyote was hunting in an open field during a bright morning was a bit disconcerting.
One morning, Denver, our Cairn terrier, went tearing across the lawn barking her brave terrier bark. A coyote – perhaps the same one – was batting around something. Denver ran full speed toward it. I in my bathrobe and slippers dashed out of the house across the snowy lawn. “Denver! Denver” My robe flew open, my slippers flapped. Denver barked.
Thank goodness for fences. I can’t imagine tussling with a coyote in my bathrobe and slippers.
For his part, the coyote looked confused. He was way too close to the fence for my comfort. “Get away from here. Go on!” I yelled. We locked eyes and it ran off. I don’t know what Denver’s dog speak meant. Between the two of us we chased the intruder away and it never returned in daylight again.
There is some company I can do without because I don’t know what to do when they arrive.
My partner and I are sitting at the dining room table eating a ribeye steak stirfry that I cooked (it’s my day). I am staring out the window: The mounds of snow we had this year melted days ago. Outside is cold dusk. There are three robins hopping around. I wonder what they are eating on this hard spring frosted ground. There are cardinals and red-winged blackbirds hanging out as well.
It’s funny that I only think of birds as daytime creatures when I have learned otherwise after years of witnessing their habits. During the summer, they start chirping at 4:30 in the morning … every morning. It’s not even light out yet. On those mornings, I wonder what my chickens are doing. Are they up pecking around in the dark pen, looking for grain and water? Trouble is, you can’t sneak up on chickens to see what they are doing. They usually hear you trying to sneak up on them. By the time I reach their pen, they are milling around waiting for me to feed them and let them out.
The cardinals, red-winged blackbirds, and robins seem to get along. I notice that there are no blue jays right now. Usually the other birds find something else to do when the jays and pigeons come around. Robins move for no bird.
I witnessed a robin berate my cat one day. My cat was actually minding her own business; I swear. Apparently, the robin thought otherwise. It flew down from the hemlock tree, squawking, and advanced on my cat, hopping and chattering. Because of its red plump breast, the bird looked aggressive, even without the verbal challenge. Step by step it came, closer and closer, squawk, squawk, squawk. It was too much for my cat. She dashed around the corner of the house. The robin looked in the direction of her flight, satisfied, then flew back into the tree.
On this evening, the three robins hop out of the brush, and spread out, seeming to pay no attention to anything except pecking at the ground. They bring a warm red presence to the encroaching evening.
What do birds do at night? And why do they chatter so busily and loudly at 4:30 in the morning?
To say I’m an insomniac is an exaggeration. There are some nights I just don’t want to go to sleep. I have a very active dream life and sleep is not always welcome. Some days I wonder which is more real, the dream life or the waking life. So on those nights when I don’t feel like sleeping, I wonder things. Tonight I wonder what birds do at night. I don’t mean owls and other nocturnals, but chickadees, robins, jays, blackbirds, cardinals, finches, and those little brown birds whose names I can never recall.
Do birds ever decide they’d rather not go to sleep at night? Do they have active dream lives?
Clearly they do not greet the day in the ways that humans do. For most humans, the day proper begins with the rising of the sun. Judging from their chatter, birds’ days begin with some pre-dawn signal I cannot fathom.
I envy their energy sometimes. I would love to wake up before daybreak, refreshed enough to talk – about anything. For that matter, I’d love to nap when my body needs rest. Tuck my head down during a meeting, snooze for fifteen minutes, and wake up newly energized. Like a bird.
I am not a bird. My life does not flow with the natural rhythms of the day. The closest I come to establishing my own rhythms is being present during morning rituals, such as:
Stretching while lying in bed My wheaten Cairn terrier flops from one side to the other to accommodate my right leg reaching foot flexed toward the end of the bed. When I stretch my left leg, she’s had enough. In a huff, she jumps down and goes into her crate. She makes a big deal of adjusting her blanket; then curls up to continue sleeping.
Yoga Up now, yoga mat down, I move from mountain to half moon to forward bend. I do sun salutations. My brindle Cairn terrier is sitting on the couch, head on her paws, eyes following my movements. As usual, downward facing dog and plank are signals that it is play time.
She dashes onto the mat, licks my feet, my face. She is under my chest, and I am determined to continue my routine. I hold the positions while trying to discourage her energetic coaching: “Down.” “Stop.”
She reaches up with front paws, sniffing my hair. Not only is her tail flicking back and forth, her entire backside wags happily. She is present in her practice of play.
In these moments, for me being present means playing with my dog.
It is night and I am washing dishes, looking forward to winding down for the evening. I imagine that the cat is curled up on her comforter next to the water heater. She will sleep for hours waiting until humans and terriers are asleep, then she will wander the rooms, stare out the windows, and drink water from the dogs’ water dish. They are not friends so they take shifts exploring the house; the dogs have the day shift.
The terriers are outside. As usual, they are barking. They are vigilant sentinels. Every movement must be acknowledged as the potential threat that it is. Their duo is joined by a third growling voice. I drop the scrubby I am using on a pan, grab up a piece of metal that is leaning against the door, and dash into the yard.
Standing inside the yard separated by a thin wire fence, wheaten and brindle are nose to nose with a coyote. The three of them are barking into each other’s faces. The terriers aren’t even as tall as the coyote’s legs.
The coyote is looking down on them snarling and barking. The terriers are looking up with a barrage of yelps, yips, and growls; their little bodies are eager to just get over the fence and take care of this intruder. For the coyote’s part, he seems almost angry.
It’s as though they are having an argument and it is clear the dogs don’t know what’s what and need to be schooled.
“Get out of here!” I yell, banging the metal against the pan. The three canines continue to bark and growl, challenging each other with their eyes. They ignore me. “Come over here!” I yell to my dogs, calling their names.
Neither one leaves the fray.
They are not wearing their harnesses, so when I try to grab them they slip easily away into different directions and back to growl and bark at the intruder. I bang and yell.
The coyote finally acknowledges my presence and walks a few feet away. I continue to bang and yell. The dogs join the chorus and for several seconds the noise is pitched and frantic. The coyote lopes onto the septic field.
Its moonlit body seems large from this vantage point. I have shivers but I will not look away until it leaves.
“Go on! Get out of here!” It looks at me and at the dogs and stands for several seconds, staring. I stand and stare as well. It trots away to the west.
If I thought my dogs could understand, I would berate them for their foolhardiness.
The proximity of wilderness
Terriers believe they are much bigger than they are.
A few weeks ago, the wheaten growled at an unleashed German shepherd while my partner and I were walking our dogs (leashed) in the local park. The German shepherd picked her up and would have surely mauled her to death if the owner hadn’t – finally – gotten the dog out of control. I had the brindle in my arms, to keep her from getting involved. There we were, my partner, the shepherd’s owner, and I – three women screaming trying to get this huge beast to drop my tiny dog.
Those were the longest moments of my life. Occasionally I vividly see the German shepherd’s mouth around my terrier’s back. This coyote encounter brings back the memory of that attack. However, I guess dogs don’t have such recall or neither of them would not have been wolfing at the coyote.
My partner’s father had three dead coyotes hanging from his shed. They were the size of German shepherds. My dogs and I stumbled across their carcasses when I took them walking on his property during a family gathering.
The brindle whined and wanted to leave. The wheaten was unmoved. I was fascinated and afraid. They are so big; they are feral looking and cunning as they need to be. What would I do if I faced one without a metal fence between us?
The dogs and I are back inside the house. I am shivering and breathing, breathing, breathing, trying to calm down. I am remembering the three dead coyotes, so vivid even in death; the attack of the German shepherd; and this fresh confrontation between canines, with the coyote clearly thinking maybe it would not go away.
I am scared about what could have happened. I am glad that I heard the struggle and went outside. I am so grateful for strong fencing. I breathe and am grateful that what could have happened didn’t.
There is a constant flow of car traffic past my home, yet on this evening I feel the proximity of the wilderness. I hold this thought. I accept it.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.