Paths (part 36-Close Encounters of the Mammalian Kind)

Of the many benefits to living outdoors, free from the confines of a stuffy bedroom, under a canopy of trees and stars, laying amidst a panoply of earthy smells which stimulate the mind, soothe the soul, and relax the body, one of my very favorite is the closeness it affords for interacting with other members of the animal kingdom.

Laying hidden in the grasses of a meadow, gazing up at the night sky, while a cool and then warm gentle breeze blows across my face and through my hair, it is inescapable the observation of how interwoven my life is with that of my surroundings. I exhale and the trees inhale, in the shelter of my tarp little creatures find warmth and comfort and perhaps even a little companionship.

This particular night I nested down at the edge of a meadow, under a tree, in a private setting and drifted off to sleep. Sometime in the night a doe found her way to my campsite and also nestled under the tree and drifted off to sleep. The next morning she awoke before me, so that when I opened my eyes and looked her way I saw her dark black eyes watching over me. “Good morning, my friend,” I said to her. “I hope you had a good sleep.” She shifted her weight and looked to her side. I yawned, and grabbed a sip from my water-bottle while she continued watching me. The sun was rising in the sky but neither of us were in much hurry to get started with our plans for the day. I had a job to get to and work to do, and she had food to forage, but we just continued lazily to enjoy the gathering warmth of the morning and the sounds of the birds singing from the neighboring trees.

As I began to gather my things together she pulled herself up and shook off the night sleep. I thanked her for joining me, and for giving me the honor of sharing my campsite with her, and then she slowly walked off into the brush and out of sight.

Another evening I settled into my sleeping bag at the edge of a small stream, under the dripline of a group of large, old, oak trees. I set my ground-tarp on the dry, dusty dirt beneath the trees and soon fell asleep. Towards midnight, as the full moon lit the sky and my surroundings, I began to dream a strange dream in which something was burrowing into my head. In my dream, I heard a continual scratching or a pattering, like water dripping on plastic, and I felt an incessant tugging at the hair on the back of my head. I slowly awoke and discovered this was not a dream at all. Something alive was in fact digging and scratching the dirt beneath my head, pattering at my plastic tarp, and yanking on my hair.

I didn’t move so as not to frighten whatever it was that was behind me trying to get into my skull. But it was difficult to stay still in this position, and with my concern growing, especially as I began to consider the possibilities of what creature might be behind me, practically and essentially on top of my head. I decided that it must be a squirrel trying to get at an acorn or something, so I slowly, ever so slowly, lifted my head slightly, and slowly turned to face my nocturnal hair stylist, to get a better look. All the while he continued to scratch and dig at the dirt, paying little attention to me.

I wished then that it had been a squirrel but unfortunately it was a skunk. My alarm increased dramatically but I held my position. He looked up from his labors and stared into my eyes. We were as close as lovers, eye-to-eye, and could easily have kissed, had we wanted to, and were he not a skunk. But I had no interest in being this close, yet I didn’t want to startle him by moving away too quickly, as he went back to his business of digging and scraping at the earth. I realized he had no interest in my at all, I had merely been in his way; so I slowly sat up, and then slowly slid out of my sleeping bag, and then scooted across the dry ground to a reasonable and safe distance, and waited.

In time, my smelly visitor either found what he had lost, or gave up searching, and turned and waddled away.

Not every close encounter with animals ends well. Sometimes people get eaten. As I sat on the beach in Santa Barbara watching a small pod of dolphins playing in the water about a hundred yards off shore, I reflected on a story I had heard about a poor tourist in Honolulu who had mistaken a group of sharks for a pod of dolphins, and had excitedly swam out to see them but ended up being attacked and killed by the sharks instead. I was certain the pod I was watching were not sharks however, because of the way they jumped out of the water playfully, and by their dolphin-like shapes silhouetted against the hazy summer sky.

I decided to swim out and see them closer and maybe get a chance to spend some time with them. I had never seen a dolphin up close in the wild before and these dolphins were clearly in a good mood and likely would enjoy my company. I knew for a fact that I would enjoy theirs.

As I approached the pod through the ocean surf, and as the water grew calmer further out from shore, I decided on my strategy so as not to alarm them. I would approach them not as a human, with arms extending and legs kicking, but as a piece of humble, innocent and non-threatening seaweed. My method of approach would be quiet and peaceful, as one treading water very slowly, with a smooth, long, flowing motion. I pictured myself as seaweed being carried along by the ocean currents as I drew near to them. I figured that this way I would be just another part of the environment, as far as they were concerned, and as innocuous to them as a jellyfish. In this manner, I inserted myself into the middle of their pod, as they swam in wide circles around me.

Without a doubt this became one of the truly memorable and most wonderful experiences of my life. In their midst I could hear them clicking and squeaking to one another. Two small calves stayed close to their mother as they made their rounds, lunging above the ocean’s surface, while occasionally she would stop and peer at me with a cautious eye, and then say something to one of her cohorts. These three, along with several others swam slow, tight circles around me as they spoke with one another, while another group of two or three swam at a greater distance breaching and leaping, sometimes very high into the air. I stayed with them for about twenty minutes as they continued about their business, until finally the pod moved off to the north and swam away.

(to be continued)


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