Neighbor to Nature

Essay by Ron Currie | Photos by Lauryn Hottinger

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The sound came from deep in the woods, maybe a hundred yards off the path, and was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. Primeval. Otherworldly. It was so strange, in fact, that even now there’s no comparison I could draw to give you the faintest sense of what it was like. I can tell you my dog, Lyle, didn’t care for it one bit. If he had thumbs, he would have given this racket two thumbs-down. One ear cocked in the direction of the noise, eyes on me, his gaze broadcast a sudden clear skepticism of our continued presence in the woods. I reassured him all was well, though I wasn’t entirely convinced myself. I listened and wondered what could be making such a din, and perhaps more pressingly, why.

Here’s what I knew for certain: First, the noise was in fact not a single sound, but many sounds overlapping and melding, a clamorous call-and-response. And second, whatever these animals were, they seemed somehow aggrieved.

Lyle likes to be on point, but in sketchy circumstances he’s happy to cede the leadership role to me. I stepped off the trail and started making my way through the underbrush, the dog close at my heel.

It didn’t take long to locate the source of the noise: a hundred or more crows, wheeling frantically about in the sky just above the treetops. And yet, the sounds they made were not crow-like. They seemed crazed, even possessed. It felt like the beginning of a Stephen King novel. Like maybe there was a gateway to hell nearby that was about to yawn open and swallow me whole. The dog looked at me like, Do you think it’s maybe time to get the hell out of here?

And then, completely by happenstance, my eyes fell on the target of the crows’ ire: a great horned owl. He sat perched on a branch 10 feet or so below the crows, ignoring them entirely. He was majestic, still as a statue, wild in a way the crows, those avian janitors, could never be. And he had made his home a mile or so from the house I’d just bought, well within Portland’s city limits.

Although I appreciate the natural world, I’m not one to necessarily seek it out. Growing up, mine was a hunting family, but I had very little interest in wasting a perfectly good morning shivering in the woods, and even less interest in killing things. I’m amenable to camping, but if not for my wife, I would probably go several trips around the sun without breaking the gear out of the basement. Two decades ago, I made an expletive-laden oath to never go ice fishing again, after a subzero day in the Belgrade Lakes that put me in mind of what things must have been like toward the end for the Donner Party. By temperament, I prefer paved roads and street lamps to the wilderness. As such, if not for the dog, I would probably never have discovered how wild Portland really is. 

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For years, I’ve told anyone unfamiliar with Portland that it’s a medium-sized town that lives like a big city, and this is true: the food, of course, but also the arts scene, literary community, frequency and quality of live shows, and so on. More recently, though, I’ve started adding that Portland’s green spaces—the trail system behind Evergreen Cemetery, the Fore River Sanctuary, and others—when coupled with the “big city” aspects of life here, present what seems to me a wholly unique melding of urban and natural.

Some might be tempted to point out that cities much larger than Portland boast wildlife—witness, for example, reports in recent years of coyotes living in New York City. But they’re estimated to number no more than 40 or 50, and a person could live her whole life in the city and never see anything wilder than a rat. On the exceedingly rare occasion when a coyote is spotted in New York, helicopters are deployed and the event makes the evening news. In Portland, by contrast, interactions with animals can and do happen daily, in our neighborhoods as well as our green spaces. There are animals living among us. Lots of them.

In June, the snapping turtles trek far from the water to lay their eggs, and one can find them plodding along paths and gravel roads all over Evergreen Woods. The first time we saw one, at a distance, Lyle became convinced he’d somehow lucked into the world’s slowest squirrel, and a short sprint later he came face-to-face with the prehistoric beast. Lyle’s eager, but he’s no dummy, and when the squirrel turned out to have a mouth like an eagle’s beak, he gave it a wide berth. Détente was quickly reached.

Then there are the foxes. One in particular, first spotted in spring, is quite brazen—he’ll cross the cemetery proper in full daylight, headed for a natural spring that surfaced some time ago along the side of the road and from which Lyle himself likes to drink after a long walk. We see the fox in the woods, too, spectral and silent, offering little more than a glimpse of orange, a pouf of fluffy tail, before disappearing again. Lyle will pick up his scent and spend long moments interrogating the air, but it is true, and will remain so, that a dumb dog is no match for the wit and cunning of a fox.  

Who knew turkeys could fly? Certainly not I, and probably not Lyle, both of us craning our necks to watch a dozen of the ungainly, unlovely things take treeward after we startled them coming around a corner of the trail. They settled fussily into the branches 30 feet up, grousing about their lunch having been interrupted. We watched them watching us for a few minutes, then moved on, wondering what was next.

And what was next, it turned out, were a very large doe and her two fawns, who one unremarkable afternoon came bursting out of the brush to the right of the trail, maybe 10 feet in front of us, and then crashed just as quickly back into the trees on the left. For a moment, we were both too stunned to move. But then Lyle’s primitive wiring lit up, and off he went, deaf to my calls. I continued to yell to him, louder and more insistent, and he continued to ignore me. A minute passed, two. I waited to hear the thump and yelp when the doe tired of running and kicked him in the skull. But thankfully, just as when he’s chasing squirrels, Lyle is all enthusiasm and no finesse, and before too long he returned, tongue dangling from the side of his mouth, neither injured nor having drawn blood, the expression on his face one of exhausted rapture.

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I point out, sometimes, when instinct gets the better of him, that he can legally be shot if someone sees him chasing game animals. I’m not sure if this is true or not, but I heard it once, and Lyle has no means of disproving it. For his part, during these talks he’s somehow both chagrined and unrepentant—under the right circumstances he will give chase again, and no regrets. It is, after all, a dog’s life.

Of course, by the standards of the rest of Maine, Portland is the Big City, emblematic of all things tame and genteel. And yet, long before Portland became the hottest culinary destination in America, before it became the preferred haven for refugees from the East Coast’s urban centers, when it was still just a scrappy, scrubby fishing town, there were those with the foresight to set aside and protect these natural spaces. Which, all these years later, has made it possible for me and the dog to enjoy them.  

We’ve encountered snakes and hawks, stately herons and big dumb porcupines, groundhogs and coyotes, and fowl of both the water and terrestrial variety. Here in the state’s largest city, it turns out there is no avoiding wild animals. And sometimes, they even spare us the trouble of going to their neighborhoods by making the trip to ours.

One night this past summer, I was walking Lyle up our street, and he suddenly stopped dead and began growling in the direction of one of our neighbors’ yards. Hackles up. Genuinely alarmed and angry. This was, bear in mind, very late at night, and we were the only things astir in the neighborhood—or so I thought. Until whatever Lyle was growling at started to growl back.

I saw eyes flash, or thought I did. I heard rustling, and caught a glimpse of a silhouette more or less Lyle’s size (around 75 pounds, which is much larger than my preferred size for mystery animals encountered during the witching hour). Whatever the thing was, Lyle mirrored its path behind the neighbor’s house, pulling at his leash to block its way as it emerged on the other side of the yard. He growled some more. The thing returned fire, angry itself now at having been hemmed in. It felt like an inflection point—the animal, whatever it was, had wanted to disengage, but we hadn’t allowed for that. And now it seemed ready for a reckoning.

And then something truly weird happened. Maybe it was the late hour, maybe the fact that I’d had a couple of drinks, maybe just that I was a little scared and didn’t know what else to do—but suddenly my own primitive wiring lit up, and I joined Lyle in growling at the thing. Not talking to it. Not yelling at it. Growling. Grunting. Making clear, in its own language, that it was outnumbered and, if it wished to get on with the night unmolested, the smart move was to back off.

It got the message. Eventually I realized that we were the only ones making any noise; whatever the thing was, it had disintegrated into the night. Lyle and I went home, and the next morning, in the plain light of day, I started to question my recollection of the incident. What could it possibly have been? Had I really behaved so strangely? Did any of it happen at all?

Sure, it’d been dark and very late and I’d had some wine. But yes, it really had happened. I had behaved that strangely. Smack-dab in the middle of Maine’s largest city, around the corner from the airport, a stone’s throw from all that world-class dining and hypermodern architecture, the craft breweries and yoga studios, I’d become something wild myself, however briefly. And I doubt I could have had such an odd, exhilarating experience anywhere else.

Ron Currie