Julie Zickefoose: Nature Artist & Writer
Committed to the Country
We live out of town, 18 miles to be exact, and we have to climb our 50-foot bird-watching tower to see any other houses. We like it that way, mostly. It cuts down on door-to-door solicitors (no Thin Mints or raffle tickets, thanks) and feuds with neighbors (so far, none). It lets us be as loud or as quiet as we want, lets us wander around wearing strange, mismatched outfits, do odd things at odd hours. I dump my compost in a pit for the raccoons and crows to pick over, and nobody complains. I was returning from this task, drippy compost container in hand, practicing a new song for our band's gig the next evening -- "Chain of Fools," made popular by Aretha Franklin, among others, in the tough but not impossible key of C. My bandleader husband thought it was necessary for an authentic Motown sound. I wasn't quite getting it to my satisfaction. If Aretha is the Queen of Soul, I am her humble Handmaiden. Wailing, squealing, cracking, I moseyed across the lawn. And from the adjoining woodland came an answer, ringing out through the midafternoon sunshine. Yip, yip, yip, aroooooooo! Three coyotes raised the hair on the back of my neck with their vocal stylings. I decided to bring it down to B flat. Whipple, Ohio, is not the Motor City.
These are the kind of neighbors I most want. I like being able to run into town and see the two-legged kind, then come back out to my wild fortress. It's only occasionally inconvenient or dangerous to be sequestered like this. Losing a car key, for example. Well, you just don't go anywhere until you find that key. Ditto for jumping a dead battery. If you can't scare up any neighbors within a mile or two, you're out of luck. You make sure your battery and tires are up to scratch. You become unusually devoted to your four-wheel-drive vehicle; whether or not you look stylish driving it matters not when you've got 10 miles of icy hills and hairpin curves to negotiate on a February morning.
You're your own ambulance when you live this far out. Weeding the ancient lavender shrubs that line my garage one July morning, I felt two suspicious pinpricks on my left index finger. They were quick, and hot, and I instinctively stuck my finger in my mouth and started sucking on it for all I was worth. When I took it out to look, the whole finger was swollen, already purple. The copperhead I had disturbed from a summer morning's reverie looked blankly back at me from its lair beneath the twisted lavender stems. Of course, I was alone; Bill had taken a rare golf outing. The nearest neighbors did not answer their phone. No time to lose. I pulled my reptile guide from the shelf and looked up First Aid for Snakebites. Sucking and spitting, good. I had done that. Tourniquet, O.K. I tied some webbing around my left arm. Elevate the affected member. I could do that. Get to a hospital. All right. I climbed in the car and started the 25-minute drive to town, my still-swelling finger sticking merrily up above the wheel. Living as we do in the land of the Rural One-Finger Wave, everyone I passed on the way in returned my inadvertent greeting. Hi. Hi there. How ya doin'? After what seemed like hours, I arrived at the "rapid-care" facility in town we irreverently refer to as Doc in a Box, to be greeted by a shocked look from the receptionist, who turned me away, saying, "We don't deal with snakebites. You'll have to go to the emergency room." Oh, fine. I'll just drive on. It's a nice day, and this is kind of fun. Don't mind my big, purple, sausage-sized finger.…
In the end, the emergency room doctors (who all crowded around for a respectful look at me) elected to do nothing, since antivenin is not something to be dispensed lightly, or, apparently, more than once in a patient's lifetime. Since I was judged at risk for another snakebite, which, if it connected with a fleshy bit, would likely be worse than this one on my bony knuckle, they just watched me for a couple of hours as I relaxed on a gurney with my finger in the air. In retrospect, I'm glad I've been bitten, and gotten off so lightly. Now I weed the lavender before the snakes stir in the spring, and I never stick my hands where I can't see.
This summer I captured and relocated three adult copperheads from the warm cement surface of our driveway, where the children play every day. I pinned them with a stick, picked them up by their tails, put them in a deep bucket, and drove them to an abandoned country church that's seething with mice and chipmunks, their favorite prey. The last one was a real scrapper, stuff for the Crocodile Hunter, from whose televised antics I learned my snake-catching technique. She reared back up her four-foot length to try to nail me as I carried her by the tail, and very nearly succeeded. A bit aggro, as Steve Irwin would say, but crikey, what a little beauty!
Coyotes, snakes, even roadkills; they keep life interesting for a nature watcher; give me something to look for on the long drives into town. I'm always hurrying but forever late, picking Phoebe up from preschool in town. Yesterday morning was no exception. As I whizzed along a straightaway on the state route, I saw two roadkills, side by side, on a gravel pulloff. They were large, the size of bathmats, and an even, warm, chestnut brown overall, with long shiny fur and no obvious limbs. I was past them before I realized they had to be beavers! Now what would two beavers be doing there? The nearest stream was tiny, drying to a trickle most summers. I mulled it over on the way into town and made a mental note to stop off and show them to Phoebe on the way home.
Eagerly anticipating the postmortem on these rarely seen giant rodents, Phoebe, baby Liam, and I approached the site, only to see a white pickup with a flashing light and a "Frequent Stops" bumper sticker peel out of the pull-off. "Oh, no, we're too late! He's picked up the beavers!" I exclaimed to Phoebe, and gave chase. We followed the truck for five miles, and were glad to see the driver pull over on our county road. I jumped out and approached the truck, thinking it would be rude of me to glance in the bed before speaking to the driver. I leaned in the window, to see a young, very clean-cut and handsome man studying a county road map. "So, did you get those beavers?" I asked, breathless. He gave me a long, quizzical look. "What are you talking about?" he asked.
How to explain? My stomach sank as I scanned the spotless, empty truck bed, the utility company papers scattered about the cab. This is not a roadkill hearse, and this guy is pretty sure I'm a few beans short of a full enchilada. I can't just beat it for the car, so I stammer what might pass for an explanation, and leave it to him to wonder why a mother of two would want to chase down a truck with two dead beavers in back. As a final, feeble try, I add, "I'm a biologist.." and trail off, thoroughly humbled. Once safely back in the car, I start to laugh, and I laugh, off and on, for the next five and a half miles, until we're home. Home in the country, where people like us belong, and really ought to stay.