We’re nearing the end of January in the marsh and the warm, full days followed by the long, cool nights remind me of a Northern Spring. Flocks of migrating waterfowl, including hooded mergansers, wood ducks, and grebes are collecting in the tidal canals. The deciduous trees have dropped the last of their green and have further dramatized the elegant, spanish moss and stark, upright pines. It is a beautiful, quieted version of the marsh, though not quite as quiet as the snow covered birches and quaking aspens I can just barely remember.
The farm is probably the most alive looking place on the entire island. Our vegetable beds shimmer and twist in the wind as the winter rye triumphantly heads for the heavens. Patches of clover slither through the undergrowth and fill out from left to right like a delicate carpet of lace. Rows of young onions and garlic, just as green, have ventured higher still with their long stalks thickening ever so slowly during these short, January days. A few small rows of collards and scallions hang on for our own uses and a beautiful germination of baby spinach has popped up its first true leaves. There are still a few lemons left to harvest and our strawberry plants are taunting us with their slow trot towards maturity. We’ve cut the last of the sugar cane, put away about 250 lbs of storage roots, and the dead ferns of asparagus have been chopped and mulched to provide the young spears of 2012 with some added nutrients and protection. The warm weather has ignited our ambitions and the greenhouse is already packed with the first favorites of Sping time crops.
I know this beautiful, mild weather should be enough to satisfy me in the present moment. However, my racing human brain already has me fixating and fantasizing about the first squash harvest and first tomato sandwich. I certainly remember the torture of the exotic heat and humidity of the deep South but I almost find myself longing for that as well. I never considered myself one to desire pain and discomfort, but nostalgia has me remembering what it felt like to step out of the sun in the shade of the pines and catch a subtle, sea breeze. The pleasures of working in the sun when it seemed so unbearable and taking the moonlit, sultry nights to enjoy the beauty lost to the heat of the day. The wood storks, white ibis, spoonbills, many of the egrets and herons have left for their winter stomping grounds and the quieted version of the marsh has me feeling lonely. The king fishers, bald eagles, and pileated woodpeckers should be enough to keep me full, but still I hunger for more. I suppose cabin fever has a way of stretching its fingertips into more than just my cabin. I suppose that maybe this year I will be even more Southern than last.
We awoke last night, several times, to the abrupt leaping of our canine companions to the windows and doors towards some outside disturbance. Generally this involves a lethargic armadillo making its slow path around our cabin or a raccoon quickly ascending a tree. Mostly we ignore them but do not always discourage their protective nature in the strange and random event that it could prevent us from harm. Last night, it was a little bit different. They jumped and snarled and ran about the house on the usual mission and then suddenly became nervous and quiet. They came to our bedside and laid down, anxious. Being only one tenth awake and nine tenths asleep, I rolled over and uttered something like, “Good Dog,” or maybe “Finally.”
My eyes were wide open seemingly before my brain had time to process the sound. A pack of coyotes descended on the cabin with their haunting yips and yowls. They were so close to the back of the cabin that we could hear the low, rumblings of their snarls and growls as they meandered through the forest floor. A few would sound and silence and the loudest of the carols would quickly be replaced by heavy breathing and deep, throaty notes. Elliot awoke in just about as much panic as I and we, all four, laid still, barely breathing, listening to the eerie sounds of the nocturnal predator. I had no real cause for alarm, but the sound, the unpredictability of the noises, the thought that they could be stalking something with their excellent moonlit vision, it all wrapped me up in a tight bundle of nerves. Their presence disappeared several moments after their last high pitch notes melted into the music of the night.
This certainly wasn’t the first encounter we have had with coyotes. I can remember on several occasions throughout our journey being stirred from rest by the shrill call of a pack of dogs tearing through the night. One night when we were living in a Yurt in Northern Vermont we experienced a similar rude awakening by a fisher cat moaning in the moonlight. All of these experiences, though we are completely out of harms way, leave us unsettled and shaken. Our brain power has removed us from the circle of life by eliminating predation upon our species. We’ve been cunning enough to eradicate the wolf, tame the bear, and make minute the threat of the wild cat and for that reason we have made more available to our own species all the resources our lands have to offer. It is so earth shattering to us when someone is attacked by a wild animal or falls into the lion pit at the zoo. The idea that an animal would take our lives, passionately, rocks us to the core.
But the species to species fight for survival is not an uncommon theme in the natural history of this watery paradise we inhabit. Most creatures on this planet spend their days working towards furthering their species while narrowly evading their untimely demise at the jaws of a hungry creature. There was even a time during our own evolutionary journey when this was a very big part of our own reality. I recently watched the film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary based on the Chauvet caves of Southern France where the oldest pictorial creations of human kind have been preserved in an air tight cavern cracked open by the modern human world. Within this cave are the most intense and soul-stirring images of predators and prey extinct long ago. During this time in the human form it appears that our spiritual connection to these creatures and the land were much stronger than that of today. The everyday encounters with these incredible beasts exploded within the human species an artistic representation of their affect on the lives and minds of the early humans. After seeing this film, I spent several days completely consumed by the images and implications of the film. It is only until recently that I have been able to digest the images, the abyss of time, and the journey we have made as humans to what our realities reflect today.
It has always bothered me when humans have boasted their intelligence and ingenuity over that of other species. While our expansive use of tools and problem solving has served us better than many wild adaptations found in other forms in nature, there has always been something so very respectful about the way animals interact with one another in an ecosystem. Something about that connectedness, that reliability plants and animals have with one another, sometimes in very exclusive ways. This always seems to me to be a much richer form of interaction over that of humans to say chickens in chicken houses or cows in the dairy houses of today. There is also something so seemingly enlightened about the way an animal caught by a predator seems to accept death once its fate seems sealed. All of these beautiful displays of symbiosis can easily be chalked up to being animal, nonthinking, and obviously not as strong as humans as we enter a bottleneck of species extinction unlike many before, but this one cave in the South of France gives me hope.
Why? Because it shows that there was a time when human beings were more associated with this united energy. There was a time when human beings had to fight for food or become food and what did they do? They began to paint the animals around them. They were in spiritual awe of the world they shared with the other great predators of their time. They showed a complex understanding of the movement, physical traits, and emotional displays of the creatures they interacted with. Maybe they didn’t understand modern day economics, or how to start an assembly line, but their understanding of their surroundings seemed absolutely profound. This brings me hope because I know that this unbelievable connection to the plants and animals around us could not be completely severed. We carry many similar qualities to these early humans and we have the same opportunity to reconnect to the wilds of the Earth.
I’m not saying it is time to put on the loin cloth and set up shop in your neighborhood park. I’m just saying that if these creatures, these predators and these prey species, were so important to the early humans that it was the first images they felt spiritually compelled to recreate; that maybe they are important. Maybe the way that animals think and behave does not come simply from their inability to be like us, their inferiority. Maybe if we payed more attention to the wild spaces of our planet we could learn a thing or two about being present, being patient, and treating each other with respect. Maybe at night when we hear the coyotes yipping and dancing, that bone chilling feeling we have is the soul of the forest beating on our spiritual drum. I say we dance to that drum beat and rethink our desire to excavate all open spaces for the singularly forward movement of our own species. It starts with curiosity. First we have to take an interest in these places, these creatures great and small. We can only build compassion for them if we choose to understand them. If we fail to find them important, their spirits will be forever caught in photographs and images like those painted on a wall in a cave in a forgotten dream.