I awoke to sounds that sent chills up my spine. The clock read 2:44 am. Out of bed, at the open window, I held my breath, as if to magically amplify and clarify the sound that came from the woods.
As suddenly as it had ripped me from a peaceful sleep, the air was still again, frozen into emptiness. I had only a vague guess as to what had punctuated the air only minutes before.
I willed the sounds to repeat, but they were swallowed up by the blackness and mystery of the night.
Back in bed, I pulled the covers up tightly, a shield from the life and death drama I’d been partially privy to. My stomach in knots, I whispered a prayer for the animal who had cried out in agony. Sleep fought me as hard as I imagine that creature fought for its life.
Morning found me with a cup of Earl Grey looking out at the area behind my home. Thoughts, like magnets, flew to the pitiful cries of the nighttime. The green expanse of lawn, the pond and the dense acreage of oaks and pines all seemed so serene. It was a stark contrast to an animal ferociously fighting for its life, while another fought to stave off hunger.
Who was the predator and who the prey?
I’ll never have the answer, though I could venture a guess. I have seen foxes, coyotes, bobcats and bears in our yard. None vegetarians! Also present, from time to time, are turkeys, skunks, porcupines, raccoons, squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks. Meals on legs. This sends me into a philosophical spiral. Why do animals kill? Primarily for food, I think, but also out of fear, to protect young and territory. Some male bears kill cubs, to send the female back into estrus.
What does this have to do with me? I will gladly kill fat, black, juicy ants when they invade my kitchen each spring. I set mouse traps in the garage and attic. I become a beast at the sound of a mosquito buzzing around my head, reaching for the DEET like an old time gunslinger! I have chopped limbs off trees, never listening for the sounds of their cries. Yet, the sight of a human amputee stirs my heart with emotion. My wife stalks our gardens with spray to kill poison ivy; then checks and rechecks to make sure it is dead.
Who is the predator and who the prey?
A second cup of tea brings me round to thoughts of the predator that has stalked and killed 642,000Americans over the past nineteen months. Similar to the predator in my woods, this virus sneaks up silently and unseen. That’s the scariest part for me. How do I protect myself from what I can’t hear or see coming? Last March, as Covid 19 steamrolled across every media outlet, into my awareness, my response was to go into heightened anxiety. “PTSD” a therapist said. 18 years ago a mosquito selected me as its prey, and through its tiny proboscis injected me with the West Nile virus. It almost took my life. I was left with a partial paralysis, no job and an uncertain future.
Through the summer of ‘20, I distracted myself with outdoor projects that left me sweaty and exhausted. So exhausted, I couldn’t think about the virus lurking around every peopled corner.
Winter was another story. No big labor projects. No social distractions. Too cold to sit outside with family and friends. That’s when I got into therapy. It couldn’t make the virus go away, but it gave me strategies for the churning and internal buzzing of high alert I felt much of the time. The car and the open road became my homeopathic remedy. Small doses of medicine, taken in one hour sips, driving the back roads of my area. Life slowed down to a new and saner pace. I still missed people, but being in a small bubble of family, made it bearable.
Through the winter and spring, I found small ponds and streams. Took photos of the sky and frogs and flowers. Racking up mileage in my grey Toyota, I rolled down my car window to have short conversations with cows. Walking trails, at less frequented parks, was restorative. Let the virus be damned! In my car, I was invincible. My camera documented all the things, my pre-Covid self used to whiz past. Spring led to summer.
I had a decision to make. Could I, would I, be willing to travel longer and farther from home?
I said “Yes’ to the summer of ’21. “Yes” to 62 days. “Yes” to 9000 miles. My wife and I drove all the way to the Olympic peninsula and back. Glacier National Park. Yellowstone National Park. Teddy Roosevelt National Park. We experienced it all with a hybrid Rav 4 and a tent.
What I’ve come to understand, as an analogy::
*In nature, a wise porcupine takes a calculated risk when it comes out of its perch in a tree, in search of food. We took a calculated risk by traveling this summer.
*Maybe a bobcat is hidden in the brush. In some parts of the country, people were seemingly indifferent to the pandemic, ignored signs and were indoors unmasked.
We avoided them. Stayed outdoors, then masked in campground restrooms and grocery stores.
We ate take out food or cooked our meals. No indoor restaurants.
*The wise porcupine sniffs and scans the area before descending. We avoided the most popular attractions in the national parks. We spent time where there was less chance of crowds and still saw amazing sights. We have over 1000 photos to prove it.
*The wise porcupine stops and checks again before touching down. We were pro-active in every way possible. Came home, got Covid tests as a precaution and were negative for the virus.
In this second year of the Covid pandemic, I find myself more resilient. More willing to say “Yes”. Our summer experience taught me to control what I can, and let the rest go. I am responsible for me. I learned to stop worrying about what others do and just focus on what is reasonable for me. It was a very good summer. Rather than worrying about who is the predator and who the prey, I’m going to be more like the wise porcupine.