There are things in the woods.

One of a Pair of Coyotes That Call Our Woods Home

Paying atten­tion is one of the fun­da­men­tal tasks of being human being. Paying atten­tion to what’s around us is a sur­vival skill.  Paying atten­tion keeps us from being eat­en by lions, helps us to find nuts and berries, and keeps track of our mates. But it is more, it is also one of the ways in which we indi­cate what things are impor­tant to us. It sig­nals what we val­ue and what we feel respon­si­ble for, even as pay­ing atten­tion changes our rela­tion­ship with those things.
Lately I’ve been think­ing about a par­tic­u­lar­ly local sort of pay­ing atten­tion. The atten­tion that I focus on the bit of the Earth that I feel par­tic­u­lar­ly respon­si­ble for, the small ground of 20 acres of for­est and pas­ture, the house and the busi­ness that make up Black Dog Farm. On any day there are sheep to feed and water, eggs to col­lect from under broody hens, dogs to be exer­cised and trained. Meals must be pre­pared, jobs attend­ed to, and the build­ings main­tained. All of these things and more must be care­ful­ly and mind­ful­ly attend­ed to lest a sick sheep or a clien­t’s dead­line escape our notice.
We share the farm yards with a num­ber of wild ani­mals in addi­tion to the domes­ti­cat­ed ones that we care for. In spring and sum­mer there are swal­lows nest­ing in the barn and the equip­ment shed. Their day­time aer­o­bat­ics are replaced by the swoop­ing of bats at twi­light. In the win­ter there are birds at the edges of the woods and at feed­ers and baths, as well as the squir­rels and chip­munks that try to rob them. Year round the bun­nies run across the dri­ve­way in front of the cars and into hur­dle them­selves into the under­brush at the edges of the woods. All of these come to our atten­tion as we go about our dai­ly business.
The for­est that makes up the major­i­ty of our place requires and receives far less dai­ly atten­tion. Sometimes there are downed trees in win­ter and the trails need to be cut and cleared in the spring, but on the whole the woods and its denizens get along, as they did for in the decades before they became our woods, with­out our attention.
For many years, five days of the week I put on boots and heavy socks and run­ning tights, took my dog, and went out to pound through an hour of trail run­ning. I did­n’t look up. I did­n’t look ahead. I just watched where I was putting my feet and con­cen­trat­ed on an audio book. It was a lot like being on a tread mill except that there was weath­er and the dog got some exer­cise too. I hat­ed it.  I thought lit­tle about the place I was run­ning in and what I might or might not be shar­ing the woods with.
These days the dog and I take a dif­fer­ent kind of walk. Sometimes my hus­band goes along. We amble more than stride. We look around a lot, stop­ping to peer at a flower or to show one anoth­er a new sleep­ing spot for the deer. The dog crash­es through the under­brush, smells all the smells, marks his ter­ri­to­ry, and waits dubi­ous­ly for his mon­keys to catch up. We’re all pay­ing atten­tion. Yet, there are a lot of things that we don’t see when we’re walk­ing — fast or slow. The deer make them­selves scarce. The lit­tle ani­mals sit ner­vous­ly in their lairs. The birds qui­et down when we are under­neath their nests. We know that there are coy­otes, cougars, bob­cats, and bears in the woods but we rarely have hard evi­dence to prove it. We’ve heard the coy­ote songs and at one point lost a lot of chick­ens to them. A cougar made its pres­ence felt in the ass end of one of our sheep sev­er­al years ago. This sum­mer we caught a bear that came around to eat up our bird feed­ers.  But we aren’t aware of their pres­ence in the way that we are aware of the small­er ani­mals that we see and hear every day.
About a year ago we put game cam­eras on our land to see what’s mov­ing about when we’re not there. The thing about the cam­eras, with their unmov­ing plas­tic indif­fer­ence, is that they are patient. They sit and wait. They don’t shift around. They don’t fall sleep. They don’t mum­ble or stink of humans. They just sit and take pictures.
On one hand it seems like a loss that I can’t see every­thing in the woods while I am out walk­ing. That I don’t have the time or patience to sit still in one spot for the hours nec­es­sary to see the deer wan­der by or the rab­bit poke it’s nose out of its bur­row.  On the oth­er hand, some ani­mals and their behav­iors would sim­ply not be vis­i­ble with­out the cam­eras. Animals that active­ly avoid human con­tact or the stink of big male dog or elec­tric fences. Animals that only pass by at night — I don’t have IR vision, but the cam­eras do. So much would be unknown to me with­out the cameras.
Our cam­eras see a lot. At first it was most­ly the deer wan­der­ing around at dawn and dusk look­ing for a last bit of browse or a place to bed down for the night.  Ollie, the dog who lives next door, appears reg­u­lar­ly as do a few of the neigh­bors who walk in our woods. Admittedly, I feel a lit­tle weird about that — tak­ing pic­tures of the neigh­bors. Sadly, our cur­rent cam­eras miss any­thing that weighs less than 25 or 30 pounds or that flies. Those we have to actu­al­ly catch by eye. We do see the lit­tle mam­mals cross­ing the dri­ve­ways or scur­ry­ing in the gar­den area and the great horned owl will swoop across the for­est path if you hap­pen to dis­turb him dur­ing his morn­ing snooze.
We reg­u­lar­ly move the cam­eras from place to place look­ing for more infor­ma­tion about what hap­pens in dif­fer­ent parts of the woods. For the last cou­ple of months there has been one is on the low­er pas­ture road, next to a path that leads from our neigh­bor’s prop­er­ty onto ours in a spot where we have heard the coy­otes call­ing. I hope to learn whether they are den­ning near­by and per­haps to catch a look at this year’s pups. Something that I’ve nev­er seen before. Something I would be unlike­ly to see with­out the cameras.
Before the cam­eras we knew the preda­tors are out there and we would see hints of them occa­sion­al­ly but we did­n’t think about them much. But now — we have pho­to­graph­ic evi­dence of their pres­ence. The sense that these are their woods much more than mine is increas­ing. Given the time stamps on these pho­tographs I now must face up to the fact that those ani­mals are out in my woods not only at the times when I’m not there to see them but at hours of the day when I could quite eas­i­ly be out there. A coy­ote pair in the mid­dle of the pas­ture road at 10:00 in the morn­ing is a pair of ani­mals that I might star­tle. A bear wan­der­ing down the dri­ve­way with all the bold­ness of a neigh­bor­hood dog at 4:00 in the after­noon is bear that I could eas­i­ly meet while tak­ing a short break from the key­board toward the end of a long day. A cougar (the col­lared female — num­ber F17, a know live­stock killer) only 100 yards from my sheep is not some preda­tor cross­ing the far end of the woods in the dead of the night, it’s a cat close enough to my sheep to cause them alarm.  My own atavis­tic fear of the things that creep about in the woods grows with each picture.
In the end I have come to terms with the cam­eras. They are alien pres­ences in the woods, but so are we. The things that they show me are there — facts on the ground — whether or not I like them. And now those facts belong to me. I care about know­ing them because I care about my woods.  Besides, the bear has the most amaz­ing expres­sion on his face as he wan­ders down the dri­ve­way on his way to his impor­tant bear appointment.

The Bear

Here’s a small col­lec­tion of the things that we’ve seen. Many more pic­tures can be found at the farm web­site.