By Adrian Dunn
Two years ago, on a winter walk near my home, I saw what I thought was a suspiciously large, sandy-colored housecat, sitting with its back to me on a frozen pond several hundred yards below my path. I stared, trying to judge its actual size. Pulling my binoculars out of my knapsack, I immediately recognized the black-tipped ears of a bobcat. As it turned its head to look at me, I saw its long, furry sideburns. After a good long look, the bobcat got up and walked away across the ice on oversized paws, revealing a stubby, black-tipped tail.
A year later, on a similar cold gray day, my husband and I were again walking near the pond. I teasingly said, “OK, see if you can spot the bobcat!” “There’s something down there on the ice,” he replied. “Something is flailing around.” “Get the binoculars out,” I replied. I grabbed them out of his hand and looked down at the pond. Sure enough, there was my bobcat, wrestling a small deer onto the ice, its stiff legs flailing. While we watched, the bobcat kept his mouth on the deer’s throat, straddled its body, and dragged it up the bank into the bushes. “Oh, the poor deer,” I said, but my next thought was that the bobcat would have plenty to feed her young.
The wildest thing where I grew up in a southern California suburb was a puddle full of pollywogs in an empty lot. Living in the Berkshires for the last thirty years feels incredibly rich in comparison. Not only are the woods and fields full of wild animals, we can usually protect them without their posing a threat to us. We are touched by their beauty and nobility, or by their comic silliness. Qualities we project on them, perhaps, yet nonetheless inspired by their curious otherness. Sometimes encounters with them evoke deeper feelings of connection to the natural world.
Recently, I saw a coyote a few yards off a country road, and pulled over. The coyote was loping away from the road on the edge of a farmer’s corn field. He continued to walk away from me until I got out of the car, when he stopped, turned, and stared me down. I stared back, noting his gray and tawny facial markings and alert gaze. I felt slightly unnerved, but held my ground. He was maybe fifty or sixty feet away from me, close enough to get a good look. Was I too close? I felt he was assessing me: was I prey? Was I a threat? Once he had sized me up as being neither, he turned and walked deliberately away. No domestic dog has ever looked at me like that.
Seeing a wild animal up close always makes me feel blessed, as if I am granted a momentary glimpse into another world. We can choose to live in our imaginal and virtual worlds, allowing our emotions to be manipulated by the prevailing media, by words and manufactured images, interacting only with other humans, machines, or with our fawning pets. But when you stand in the gaze of a wild animal, it brings you completely out of that contrived and domesticated human landscape into the immediacy of your own animal nature. The color and feel of the surroundings, the need for shelter, the impulse to hide or the urge to give chase: these are all yours in an instant. The importance of physical strength, of strong maternal and group ties, the need for endurance in lean times, the necessary sacrifice for life to go on, the inevitability of death: these are the gifts from wildness.
In wildness there is no free lunch and no illusion of it. Just humility, struggle, and time. In thirty years, I have seen changes in our local animal populations. Orange salamanders have dwindled, monarch butterflies are scarce, and I see many fewer songbirds. Our area is affected by habitat loss thousands of miles away, as wilderness is transformed by human encroachment. I fear the loss of the wild. The wild animals staring from our cell phones could outlast the real ones as their habitats are destroyed. In a completely domesticated world, how will we fully know ourselves?