Fierce Love

Lauren Stoker

© Copyright 2022 byLauren Stoker

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

The last of the summer is ebbing, but it’s still warm, moist and green. A new storm is coming, they say. Sunshine passes in and out of clouds, now illuminating, now veiling in shadow. The contrasts are glorious.

And here I sit at my desk, looking out instead of being there.

One of our deer was standing just now beneath my apple tree.  I look down upon a calm, brown flank with a flicking white tail, his ears relaxed and neck up-arched, browsing beneath the red fruit.  He’s far more at home than I in this world we share.

We call them “our deer,” my neighbor Elizabeth and I. They’ve grown up this year from fauns, exploring our gardens and astonishing us with their daylight musings in our yards, well before twilight. The “boys,” though still teenagers, now sport proud racks of antlers. Just last March, they were bareheaded. They know they’re handsome, but they’re not cocky about it. The hormone surge has yet to hit them fully. When I call to them softly, they merely turn inquisitive, brown eyes toward me, ears flicking, instead of bolting. They know we mean them well.

How can they not? The two of us provide an irresistible smorgasbord. Liz puts out peanuts for the crows, and glasses of grape jelly and orange halves for the Baltimore orioles. I put out a more democratic mix of seeds and suet, and let the birds decide, perhaps expand their palettes. A strict diet of sunflower seeds or dried corn surely can’t be good for tiny stomachs. The wild turkeys have their own feeder, adjusted to their height. Mama turkeys bring their chicks by and coo and cluck beguilingly, leading the way to feed in the nice lady’s yard. My pork and steak bones and leftover canned food my cat Sam eschews, I leave outside in a designated bowl. I don’t care who comes. Someone will get fed.

We’re a rarity, she and I, as are our homes.

Although the street in front is busy, acres of woods lie behind us, a remnant buffer between us and development, with its arid acres of asphalt. The birds and animals are fast losing their homes, as we are losing our wild places—the places that keep us breathing free and living sanely. Even our small Eden is under attack. I live in fear of the day the bulldozers come. Our Town Fathers live in greed solely for the almighty buck.

In a town that was once mostly woods, the largest in the state in fact, in the blink of an eye it has morphed mostly into developments: malls, shopping centers and car dealerships, housing projects that erupt like toadstools on clear-cut lots. I’ve noted their construction, these overpriced condos parked side-by-side: raw plywood cladding left exposed all winter without protection, sponging in the wet; ersatz Colonial siding slapped on just in time for buyers’ bids; their bathroom windows on the houses’ backsides a scant few yards away from those of their neighbors—eye-to-bathroom-eye; no room to plant a single tree, thanks to miniscule setbacks. Zoning law waivers were eagerly granted. Palms were greased. The beauty we settled here for, the natural life around us, away from the blight that’s settled on suburbia, is dwindling, dwindling. It may soon be gone.

For now, my neighbor and I cherish what we still have. In the wild, the word’s gotten out: our gardens are a safe place.

Unlike my other neighbor. He cuts down trees, cackling at my distress, and throws stones at the wild turkeys. She and I lend our succor and concern; he brawls at night with his wife, fueled by resentment and Budweiser. In July, he stood on his back step, arm extended out straight like a tough guy in a crime series, and shot a snub-nosed AirSoft gun at something in a tree behind his house, not 200 feet from my deck where Sam and I watched in horror. I heard the soft plop of a small, helpless body falling from the tree. When I called out to him, I was ignored.

Liz also puts seeds on her deck’s railing and lures flying squirrels. I didn’t believe her at first, receiving such exotic visitors. One evening at dusk she invited me over. We sat with hushed voices and held breaths as they gathered—tiny, mythic, other-worldly. I was enchanted and envious. It’s unspoken between us, but I’m sure her love for them is like my own: fierce and protective.

The trees, too, understand this fierce love of mine. They grow and discard, leaf out, blossom and fruit just as they like and we never come to harm. The raccoons and deer know their way among them, relying on their steadfast shelter.

A mama raccoon and her babies have ambled several nights through my dogwood, jangling the wind chimes hung in its boughs, raiding the seeds of a small bird feeder hanging next to it. In the middle of the night I heard the tinkling alarm and crept downstairs, knowing what they were up to. My flashlight displayed three sets of dismayed, glowing eyes bobbing, cartoon-like, up and down in the branches as they squeaked their remorse (caught red-handed, making off with the bird feeder). The three little ones scurried over to the shed and climbed on its roof. Uttering reassurances, I managed to pet one as it climbed. The fur on its little back was rough—a serviceable armor. Mama trundled past, guiding them to safety. I gave her my benediction and went back to bed, enthralled.

This past week, our two teen bucks, horny candelabras held aloft, were sampling my hostas mid-day in the front yard.  I’d heard their sounds but never imagined them out in full view from the street. When I finally investigated I felt elated and a little guilty. I’d just sprayed the hostas with pepper spray, so they went away disappointed.  They need to get used to what the forest offers . . . while the forest is still there. I pray it remains.

There’s something calming and magical in our connection to the creatures of the earth, something essential that keeps us human. We share so much: curiosity, the joy of play, love of family, loyalty to place. On my wall is a poster of redwoods with Thoreau’s famous quote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” It’s never been truer. Even between prey and predator, wild creatures live their lives in far greater harmony than do we. It’s a lesson we’re in desperate need of learning and one we’re likely doomed to dismiss. I’m constantly astonished how many people are belligerently blind to the natural world and its gifts, waging war on nature every chance they get.

At night I lie awake, listening for shrieks of distress, cries for help among my forest people. I dash out in my bathrobe if I think I can help. Coyotes live up that way. They too have mouths to feed. I understand and revere them, as well. I only wish there were a better solution. Taking care to bring my Sam in well before dark, I put out his day-old food and my scraps, and whistle into the woods to let the animals know dinner’s served. Unless it’s rained, the bowl is always empty in the morning. For this I feel grateful, like I’m doing my part in seeking a balance, giving back some of their blessings.

I worry about their becoming too complacent and trusting of us humans. If I shouted at them to drive them away, back into their natural, wild homes, would that be tough love or betraying a trust? I can’t bring myself to do it. Fiercely, I imagine them in a cocoon of safety, dodging tragedy sure-footedly, foiling the sneaking intents of drunken, grinning men in camouflage.

In November, I’ll hear again the pops of guns in the early light, out over the bay and up in the woods behind me, probably, too—the sounds of slaughter. Thinking of the upcoming hunting season, my heart constricts and I send out urgent pleas to them: “Flee! Be quick!”

Selfishly, I rejoice still in their company. 

Native Californian Lauren Stoker moved to the east coast for the thrill of skiing on ice and owning a snow blower. She is a writer of short stories, pro-environment Op-Eds and satirical fantasy, and lives in New England with her cat (and Chief Shreditor) Sam.

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