Driving wine country roads, I sometimes see birds play chicken with my car. They wait on a branch or fence post, then fly in front of me when I get close enough. If they ever miscalculate, I have not seen the evidence.
I don’t know why this phenomenon brings me joy, perhaps because birds appear so serious: hunting for food, attracting mates, building nests, feeding chicks. Who knew they had a gene for recreation? Or that their tiny feathered breasts were filled with such bravery? You might expect this sort of whimsy from well-fed mammals—not small brown birds with tight schedules.
There are large birds in this area, too. Turkey vultures. On winter mornings they sit in the tops of my cedar trees and open their wings to the sun. The effect is dramatic, especially when there are six or seven of them holding this pose. It must feel wonderful, that golden warmth sinking into their dark chilled feathers. In the evenings they roost in the oaks along the creek. I watch from the middle of my street as they cruise downward, into the treetops, where one by one they are absorbed and hidden. When I am in bed, I picture them out there, hunched among the leaves, holding their place night after night. They never lie down, I remind myself, not once in their twenty years on earth.
We have wild peacocks here, too—another large bird that settles in the treetops at night. Every now and then we spot one, striding improbably across a front yard. Get too close and they’ll lift off, land on a roof top or chimney. The fact that they are here in suburbia is stunning enough, but what stills me is their cry, at twilight, echoing down the creek. Not soft and melodic like doves or loons, but raucous and urgent, a sound that hurtles me back to a world long past. There could be a dinosaur moving in those woods, calling out for a mate.
There are plenty of owls here. They hoot into the night, a comforting noise that makes me think of my childhood. Odd that these secretive creatures make an altogether different sound, a single victorious shriek, just before they dispatch a rodent in one flawless swoop.
Far more disturbing are the cries of foxes. Oh yes, we have foxes, though we never see them. All we know is their terrible noise, somewhere between a scream and a bark. We hear snarls and crashing, too—the sounds of a killing that takes too long. I’m glad we can’t see the foxes.
Last night I was awakened by something new, a commotion in my plum tree, followed by sucking noises. I flew out of bed to see a raccoon drop from the tree and lope across the street. Under the street light he looked quite large, and I wasn’t surprised to see some broken branches the next morning. Evidently it was the ripe plums he was after—we had tremendous fruit set this year, which is not supposed to happen with ornamental trees, but I guess nature finds a way. Next spring there’ll be plum seedlings along the creek, thanks to that hungry coon.
Most surprising are the deer. We see them in broad daylight, making their delicate way down the street, bold and frightened at once. There are usually two or three of them, often a doe with her fawn. I have a row of agapanthus along my front porch, and because deer love agapanthus flowers, each year, just as the buds start to form, I spray the plants with Liquid Fence, a putrid concoction designed to drive off any four-legged ravagers. This time the deer couldn’t afford to wait. This year they came early, long before the flowers. They munched nearly all the foliage halfway down. I study the scalloped edges of the leaves, and, picturing those velvety muzzles working quietly in the dark, I smile. That these animals are here is miraculous. With all the harm we have done, all that we have taken from them, they somehow continue. They find places—who knows where—to give birth and suckle their young, and then they appear as if my magic on the sidewalk in front of my house.
I have thrown out the rest of the Liquid Fence. I’ve decided that I don’t mind being a homeowner with an imperfect yard. Those ragged agapanthus reflect well on me.
I’ve also thrown out my other pesticides, the ones intended to kill bugs, because one day when I was watering my lilac bush I saw, by the slimmest of chances, a lime green katydid moving across a leaf. It was a larva, barely longer than a staple, and for several moments I watched its slow and complicated movements. I marveled at the care taken in its construction: the long striped antennae, the tidy set of wings, the precisely angled legs, the bands of crimson across its tiny body. What a lavish creator we have to spill such colors on a baby bug.
In the past few months I’ve had the sense that time is quickening and that there are things, important lessons, I need to learn. At first, all these sightings made me think that nature was trying tell me something. That’s not likely, though. Nature is doing what she always does; I’m just taking heed, looking for clues to guide me.
This is what I know so far: I am not as playful as a small brown bird, nor as brave. I do not have the patience of a turkey vulture. I am not nearly as impressive, in fact, as any of the creatures I’ve been watching. Maybe I’ve learned my first lesson.