Driving back from town this morning, I'd turned down Waterfall Road from Air Bellows Gap Road, approaching the first slight curve to the left, a coyote ran across the road in front of me. It was far enough ahead there was no danger of hitting it. It felt like something magical happened. It seemed to have a glow of clarity about it, which was my own inner response to seeing a coyote by surprise. I examined it visually as it darted across the road, from woods on the right to woods on the left. Big ears, long bushy, straight tail like a fox. A burnt brown color accented in black at the tip of the tail, around the neck, the ears. It ran into the woods a ways. I slowed down to watch it run through the trees. It stopped and stood broadside watching me go by from deep enough in the trees it felt it had an advantage if I set out in pursuit. It all happened in about 3 seconds. My visual sense was on full alert, looking with as much focus as I could, to see as much of the beautiful dog as the moment allowed. I chose not to stop, because I didn't want to alarm the coyote.
It is along that stretch of the road I've had some of my best feral animal moments. A hawk has flown above where a hood ornament would be, keeping its pace the same as mine, flying two or three feet above the hood, turning its head to left and right looking behind at me with one eye, using the other eye to fly with. I kept a pace comfortable for the hawk and it flew with me a hundred feet or more. A crow had done the same thing in the same place. This is over a period of a quarter century. I value those moments the highest. Whenever I have such an encounter, which is relatively frequent, it stamps itself in my memory. Like the time I was standing on a big flat rock in the creek down in the woods. I heard coming from a certain direction in the trees, yip-yip-yip-yip..., a pileated woodpecker. I saw this flying red hammer-headed woodpecker flying straight at me in its particular woodpecker flight, black wings flapping something like a duck's, a blur to either side of the advancing red. It was flying straight toward me, yip-yipping all the way, and it flew straight over the top of my head about 3 feet. Behind it was a second one, flying in the same line, yip-yipping, and flew over the top of my head the same as the first one. It was one of the great moments of my life.
In the time of my first dog here, Sadie, we were out for a stroll in about 4 inches of snow, walking down the back part of Waterfall Road, the old wagon road up the mountain. The road went along the ridge such that the ground went downward rather steeply on both sides, trees all around on both sides. To the right when the leaves are off the trees the waterfalls can be heard and seen a little bit, going toward Whitehead from here on the mountain. The muffled silence in a world of snow is a silence as profound as the blackness inside a cave. A crow flew upward over the ridge from my left to right, flying just a couple feet over the top of my head. I heard the sound of wings. To mind came the hymn, Angel Band, I hear the sound of wings. It was a sacred moment. Come angel band, come and around me stand. Powerful song. There's nothing in this world like singing this song in an old-time Regular Baptist meeting, the slow, old-timey way, no piano.
There was the time of driving down the mountain, leaving the pavement at Air Bellows, down the road to a place where it leveled off for a ways, on my left, sitting on a fence post, the classic barn owl with the round head and the spike pattern in its head feathers. We made eye contact as I drove by. I was surprised it didn't fly away. The night of the day Jr's soul left the body, when I drove home and parked, opened the car door, a very short distance away, in a tree just the other side of the road, a hoot owl sent me a beautiful hoot. I hooted back to it and said, Hello, Jr. To let him know I got it. In the time I wrote the column in the Alleghany News www.alleghanynews.com/backwoodsbeat/ sometimes I'd go someplace outside and sit in one place to write. This particular time I was in the woods across the road, the sun was setting, it was starting to get dark, I had a train of thought going and couldn't stop. I was writing fast as I could go to get it done before returning to the house. There was time. There is still plenty of time in the gloaming between sunset and darkness. I heard a screech owl over my left shoulder. Very near. I felt what mice must feel when they hear that trill so nearby.
Another time writing in the woods, I'd found a good flat rock by the side of Waterfalls Creek. One side of it sloped gently into the water. I sat cross-legged on the part that was level and dry. I'd started whatever it was, when a water snake swam to the rock I was sitting on and put its chin on the rock just a few inches from my crossed legs. It looked up at me. I looked at the snake. I know them to be harmless, flight instead of fight. They have teeth, but not fangs. They also look like diamondback rattlesnakes, which scared hell out of me the first several I saw. The snake stayed there looking at me a long time. I changed the subject I was writing about and wrote of the encounter with the snake as it was unfolding. The snake came around to where the rock sloped into the water and crawled out of the water beside me to my right. It crawled over to me and curled up, not coiled, beside me. I told the snake, don't get on me. If you get on me, I'll jump, that will scare you, you'll jump, we'll have an unsuccessful association. Stay off me and you're welcome to do what you like. This is your home. I'm just passing through.
Cement-headed me didn't get it that the snake was trying to tell me something. It would look at me with eyes that said, I am a serpent. You're supposed to be afraid and get up and leave. After a period of apprehensive time, the snake went back to the water and swam in the pool part of the creek in front of where I sat. It gave me an Esther Williams watersnake swim routine, and it was up there among the very most beautiful things I've seen. The snake was watching me watch it swimming around and around. It took off over a shallow section over rocks to the next still pool, head held high, riding the water like a surfer. It turned around and swam back up against the current to the pool in front of me. It looked at me with frustration. It swam over to a place where it swam up beside another snake twice its size in the shade of a rock standing on its side. I assumed then the snake I'd been watching was a she. The big snake was eye-balling me like it was wanting to cast a spell on me. I remembered snakes charming birds with their eyes. This bull watersnake was drilling his focus on my eyes. It became unsettling. I finally realized I was sitting on their afternoon sunning rock. It was that time of day. She needed her sunning rock. The two of them lay there side by side, glaring at me. I decided it was time to hurry up my writing and go. It was feeling creepy. I thanked the snakes for allowing me to enjoy their sunning rock, and apologized for taking so long to catch on to what she was trying to tell me.
Feeding the small birds is my stay-at-home encounters with the the feral world. I don't want to tame them or make them unafraid of humans. I keep a distance they're comfortable with. This morning I went out to feed them about an hour earlier than usual, went to the mailbox first. All the way to the mailbox and back I saw and heard the birds, the snowbirds, titmice, chickadees flying through the trees toward the feeders, calling to me. One of the red squirrels ran the length of a white pine branch. The birds living in the cluster of trees around and near the house gathered in the upper branches of the trees around the bird feeders watching the giant that feeds them walking back from the mailbox. I put seeds in the birdfeeders and around on the ground. They watched. A brave chickadee flew down to the feeder to be first.