All Creatures Great and Small
Today I saw a fox pattering along the edge of the forest, nose down, intent on its journey to catch mice in the horse pasture a quarter mile up the road. The birds are twittering, a single crow cawing, and, high above, a vulture sways on the wind looking for voles and other small dead carrion in the fresh mown hayfield. As the pandemic slows and shutters human activity, the hidden animals are coming boldly out.
This spring I found a huge hole in my flower bed, so deep I could put my entire arm in up to the shoulder. “Groundhog,” I thought, though I’d never stuck my arm in a groundhog hole in my life. I rocked back on my heels wondering to do about these stubborn creatures who were surely eating the roots of my peonies.
I couldn’t imagine killing it even if I owned a gun. I would have to trap it. I bought a Have-a-Hart trap, a cage big enough to hold a smallish dog. I baited it with cantaloupe, which I’m told is groundhog ambrosia, and some carrots and lettuce leaves, and I set it carefully that night.
The next day to my dismay I discovered something crouched in terror in the cage, surrounded by dirt that it had scraped and thrown into the cage in its frenzied efforts to escape. It was a skunk. A small and beautiful black-and-white skunk, no bigger than a cat. Her little paws must have been bleeding from the heavy wire bottom of the cage, where she’d tried to dig her way out. Now, exhausted, defeated, she lay there, unable to move for the dirt that held her in place on all sides. The hole she’d dug was so steep that the cage had settled half into it weight.
Carefully I lifted the cage to level ground, heart twisting and opened the door. I would never have hurt her, given pain. She stared up at me with huge sad eyes. I backed away to give her space to run, and after a few moments in which I could see her gauging the situation, wondering that escape had miraculously opened before her or if it was another trap; she put one tentative foot before another, then shot out of the cage and down the hillside away from the house to disappear into the woods
She was never seen again. I could imagine her later describing what had happened to the other animals: “Don’t go up the hill to that garden.” I imagined the groundhog taking it seriously.
I put the trap in the garage.
So, all summer we fought, the stubborn groundhog and I, about who owned the petunia blossoms on my deck. Once, when I was reading there, the groundhog came right up onto the deck to eat petunias before seeing me. I screamed at him, which made him twitch his whiskers and waddle clumsily (and quickly – they are FAST!) away. In the end, you see, I surrendered. I don’t have petunias or even bitter marigolds in my pots anymore. Just little green stubs, gnawed down. But it pleases me to know that down there, somewhere in the woods, a wild groundhog snuffles and lurches in its search for food — as do the bear that came into my yard last winter, the deer, the rabbits; and I rejoice at how fecund is nature, how rich, how inexorable, how bursting with reproduction, all the things that crawl, walk, skip, skulk, fly, hop, skitter, all of them stubbornly alive.
Bears, groundhogs, squirrels, chipmunks, foxes, owls, bats, mice, birds, butterflies, hummingbirds, coyotes, deer: my woods, even here in the middle of a town, are overflowing with life, not to mention the ticks, spiders, ants, beetles, worms, maggots, flies, wasps and god knows how many billions of insects that dwell in the hidden darkness underground, feeding, chewing, laying eggs, spawning young. Why? Because of plants. All this vegetation. Because of the abundance of plant-life for some to feed upon and of flesh for the others, and of decaying, rotting matter for the hidden creatures in the dark earth. It’s because the pandemic skies shine clear and clean; and because the moonlit nights seem silent now, except for the scurrying of the whispered hunt.
Now, the animals trudge up the wooded hillside to partake of my flower garden, and I think – Yes, Come. Eat. This is Eden, where God walks in the evening to view his garden. This beauty is what our great, great, great, great grandparents knew, and what we moderns have hardly known since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Come into the garden of Eden.
I find myself singing praise. Praise to the beauty. Praise to the groundhog and the skunk and the beetles chewing in the dark; praise to life, to death, to the eternal cycles of seasons, and to the trees and plants of this Eden that sustain us. Praise to the sorrows that draw us together, and the longing that shows we, too, are still alive.