Today I saw a hawk fly out of a tree right over my head in the back of the field. I'm not good enough to identify it, but there is no mistaking that it was a large, soaring, light brown bird of prey.
In spite of all of the slightly traumatizing encounters with dogs, my brushes with nature in our back yard are a gift. I can still feel the warm, wet fur of the fawn that I lifted onto its feet yesterday before it bounded off to the woods. It feels like a privilege, somehow, to witness and even hold in my hands those creatures that still live according to their natural design. They have not shut out their connections with the Earth behind walls of steel, prefabricated wood and plastic.
I try to sort out exactly what it is that gives us such fascination with wild creatures. Some connection with an Earth that we are forgetting? A reminder of our own most basic animal nature? The simplicity of life unencumbered by cerebral meanderings? An encounter with what we share with other living animals - beating hearts, hunger, fear, curiosity, parental protectiveness, the search for warmth and shelter?
I think it is this and more. If I broaden my boundaries of credulity, sometimes I feel that there is something more profound going on -- like what happened when our family spent one lovely month with Michael the raccoon.
Four years ago my father-in-law was in the final days of a 10 year duel with cancer. He had been winning for a long, long time, which was no surprise to anyone who knew him. WMW was the kind of man that one imagines might live forever, if anyone could. He was charismatic, intelligent, full of compassion for all comers (which made him a beloved town doctor to generations), physically indestructible, and unflaggingly, joyfully enthusiastic about life.
When he lay dying in his own bed in that final week, it felt like the sun was going out for the last time.
The day before J left for New Hampshire to be with his father, the kids and I discovered two baby raccoons in the driveway. We left them for a while, hoping they would find their way home, or their mother would retrieve them. When we heard from a neighbor that a dead adult raccoon was nearby on main street, we feared the little critters were on their own, so we went to find them.
Only one was still around. He hissed at us a bit. We were properly intimidated by his tiny teeth. We coaxed him into a plastic trash can, put in some grass and leaves for shelter, and waited for Dad to get home from work.
Growing up in New Hampshire, J had had two extensive relationships with raccoons - babies found lost or near a dead parent. His family took in the baby raccoons and cared for them. One lived with them for almost half a year and is still the stuff of many a warm family story.
About five minutes after he pulled into the driveway, J had coaxed the little fur ball out of the can and was holding him in his arms. J named him Michael.
I am quite sure he never even realized it, but I believe it was no coincidence that he gave the raccoon the same name as his childhood teddy bear.
Michael travelled with J to New Hampshire and provided one small ray of sunlight into the sorrowing, waiting, watching household. By the time the rest of us arrived the next day, Papa was gone and the grief was terrible. Still - Michael's presence was a tiny thread of connection to another world where life went on.
Back at home in Maine in the ensuing weeks, Michael became a source of warmth, distraction, and laughter in our wounded home. For J in particular, he was an uncomplicated, inspiring little friend.
Raccoons are charmingly curious beasts. Michael stayed upstairs in our house most of the time, since dogs and raccoons do not mix well. He slept in a box in our bedroom. At least, that was the plan. The other thing about raccoons is that they climb and explore and nose around pretty much wherever they want. Michael ended up in the warmest spot - in our bed and under the covers - more than once. One morning J found him inside his pillow case.
We knew this couldn't go on. Once we got him off bottle feedings and on to solid food, we decided to move him outdoors, to at least begin acclimating Michael to life in nature. J re-routed the dogs electric boundary so that they couldn't enter the barn, and created a cozy spot for Michael out there. J spent hours working and puttering around the barn, keeping Michael company.
Sometimes we took him for walks around the pond. Michael would waddle through the tall grass, poking his nose into the ground or the water's edge.
Nights were difficult at first. We tried to make him as comfortable as possible in the barn, but nothing was as nice as under the covers on a temperpedic mattress with two other warm bodies. He kept showing up back at the house, up on the stair railing outside the back door, crying to come in.
Of course the dog situation was not improving, and I had one horrifying night walk with three dogs who went into full attack on poor Michael, who was en route back to the house, and tried to hide under a lawn hammock. Yesterday's fawn encounter brought it all back to me. Somehow, Michael and I both survived (as did the dogs, though I was tempted in the moment to knock them over their heads).
A month passed by, and we had to go away for a weekend. We left a friend in charge of feeding (chicken pieces, dog food, a dish of water) and walking Michael once or twice while we were gone. All went well, except -- when we got home Michael was gone.
We were so sad, and worried that he was likely to have perished in one way or another, out in the tough world on his own. A week or two later, our daughter N was up early one morning and saw an enchanting sight out the window. A mother raccoon was waddling across the yard, trailed by three baby raccoons just about Michael's size. She was sure one of them was Michael, and we all agreed. Why not? It was as likely an ending to his story as any.
We missed Michael a lot - especially J. But truly, he had come into our lives at a time when we needed him most. Who knows about the workings of fate, or the balance of the universe, or karmic destiny? All I know is that Michael was like a magical gift, and I will be forever grateful. People might say we rescued Michael, but we all know that Michael rescued us.