A story of death, a story of life
We pulled the car window down to witness an animal confrontation as funny as it was desperate. Two crows were doing their best to beat a squirrel out of an ear of corn. The squirrel was not to be intimidated.
It had salvaged the corn from beneath snow crushed hard in the course of an overnight deep freeze. The crows, lacking digging tools for this, were hungry. All puffed up and formidable, they made quick sallies and short rushes at the squirrel, never coming too close as to get locked in hand-to-hand combat. The squirrel saw their bluff, hauled his bag 50 yards to the nearest tree and disappeared in its branches. Defeated, the crows flew off.
There is no bad news in the animal world. Its economy functions on a day-to-day basis, without discouraging numbers. Unemployment doesn’t exist.
Wild creatures are either fully occupied or they’re asleep. Animals move mostly in response to empty stomachs and procreative urgings. When the emptiness is filled, and the urgings satisfied, they barely pause in their daily rounds and their ordered cycle continues.
This is the grinding end of the animal year. If poverty and depression were measurable in the wild kingdom, graphs would now all be bottomed out. Little food, short days and cold, all combine to test the strong and kill the weak.
A calf was born across the way not long ago. There was snow on the ground and frost gave hoary lace-work to the earthy bed the calf tumbled into.
Normally the farm’s calves born in the field get a wagon ride to the barn, followed by a triumphant party of mooing mother and jostling aunts and sisters. For this January baby, there was to be no triumphant hay ride. The cow stood in the cold with her shoulders haunched and her head down. Her calf was dead.
A backhoe came and dug a shallow grave in the sand. The calf was covered over and buried without benefit of eulogy, no one to mourn the life that never got to make a sound.
We passed that way once. Lo and behold, the grave was empty and all that was left of the calf was a dried-out ball of skin and a skull. Tracks radiated from the spot like spokes from a wheel hub. Big tracks and small tracks, cat tracks and mouse tracks — conglomerate tracks unreadable in their massed convergence on that food supply.
It is certain that we felt the loss of this life far more keenly than the cow that bore the calf. We walked on with a small ache in our heart. The cow walked into a stall where awaited a fresh hay handout.
From that place with its bit of tragic history we tramped to the height of a ridge that looks back east toward the river. Here is a fox den that we have been keeping an eye on. It used to belong to a woodchuck we knew. The creature could get out to a field of clover only by crossing a 100 feet of swamp. We never saw it jumping from hummock to hummock to make this crossing, but we knew it had to be either jump or swim.
We say we knew this woodchuck and it is true. We could have shot it at any time one late summer, but it seemed so a part of that clover field and its swampy margin that our hand was stayed. It maintained its residence there till the farmer pushed the field right into the swamp and planted corn in place of the clover. Our acquaintance with that woodchuck was abruptly broken off.
Now a fox has taken over the hole. We saw where it had been sitting warming its little buns in the face of an earlier-rising, late-winter sun. A few red hairs were frozen in the ice around the mouth of the den and the place smelled marvelously of fox refuse and urine. Our dog had a great time at this spot.
A hundred yards more of this slow perambulating and the two of us come out of the woods onto the road. We carry home a story of death and a story of life.
Now we sit and consider the margins, so slim, that encompass these juxtaposed incidents of life and death in the animal world so close at hand.
In semiretirement after 58 years of writing for The Recorder, Paul Seamans of Gill will continue Said & Done on a regular monthly basis. Some of his columns will have been previously published.